Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On the PCT from Walker Pass to Canebrake Rd.

I drove to the meeting place in the middle of the desert, a place outside of Pearsonville where I was to meet Tom. I had never met him in person. I was an hour early but he showed up a minute after I arrived. We drove up to Chimney Creek campground to leave a car for our shuttle. Then we drove back together in my truck to Walker Pass. We would camp there and begin the hike in the morning with Sue, another hiker who would meet us later in the evening.

The drive up to Chimney Creek was spectacular. A winding mountain road barely clinging to the edge of the hill. A sign indicated rock fall would be removed daily from 9-4. The drive up Walker Pass was gorgeous as well. Thick Joshua tree forests lined the way and California broomshrub was in blazing yellow full bloom. We drove from desert to Joshua tree forest to Pinyon pine forest at 5000 feet.

Walker Pass campground had many people staying there. There were hunters playing conjunto music all night. They turned it on full blast at 4AM. There were boyscouts yelling and swinging on creaky gates. There was one hunter on horseback returning without a deer.

We set up our tents in the wind and cold in the same site I had stayed in when I was a thru-hiker. It was too cold to sit at the picnic table and we did not want to make a fire, so we huddled in Tom's tent shivering. I tried to drink some hot apple cider to warm up, but the shivering started up soon after and I had to go to my tent and go to bed to warm up. The wind roared all night but I slept well and warm.

Sue arrived very late in the evening, sometime around 10:30. I just happened to see her when I was out using the outhouse. I think I was the only one in the whole campground that ever used the outhouse. Toilet paper was everywhere. People are so disgusting nowadays. Nobody learns about littering or leave no trace ethics anymore. I remember learning that in school as a kid.

We got up early in the morning, looking forward to getting away from this nasty place and into the wilderness where it would be quiet and beautiful. We organized and packed our things. I walked down to the water trough to fill up my water. I wanted to see how it looked in October now. I had come through this place in June before. The trough was just as full now as it had been then and the cattails looked good. As I walked back to the campground with my cold water it began to freeze in the Camelback hose.

After scraping frost off my windshield with a credit card, the three of us drove up the hill to the trailhead and parked. I left a cooler of fruit behind the trail sign in case any Southbound thru-hikers would come by. None did.

We put on our packs and off we went into the hills. I was back on the PCT. Home again. It felt good to be on the trail.

The landscape in Fall had changed. Flowers bloomed on bushes everywhere. The cool air made it less arduous to climb. I felt strong once again, no longer worn out by daily marathons. There was time now to look around and enjoy the views. We would be hiking only 12 miles today.

I stopped at the Mt. Jenkins plaque where cellphone reception is good and called Tony to say hi. He did not answer so I left a message. Making that call was the only reason I brought the phone. I wanted to relive my earlier trip a little.

As we hiked onward in the cold air, I worried it would be too cold to enjoy the trip. It was only 35 degrees at 10AM and at the warmest part of the day, it was only in the mid-40s. Lots of thoughts went through my head about how lost I had felt over the past few months being home from the trail. I should apologize to Tony for being so lost, I thought. I needed to get my act together. I was not a thru-hiker anymore. I needed to get a job and be responsible and stop pissing my savings away.

But then my thoughts would switch again to something I remembered a counselor had said to me years ago. She had said some people live life differently. They don't go work 9-5 jobs and move up the ladder. They instead take art classes and volunteer and live the life of artists and writers. Some people are fulfilled this way and if that was my calling, I should live my life that way and any man who loved me would be supportive. I have always fought against what she said. I have felt I should fully support myself, that being financially dependent on someone else is wrong. Still, what she said has haunted me ever since.

Lately I had been reading Writing Down the Bones, a book on being a writer. There was a small chapter in there about how writers are artists and as artists they have to be careful how much of their precious time they sell to others. Sell too much and they cannot have time for their art. My art seemed to be hiking. How could hiking add value to the world instead of seeming like an escape from it? It didn't seem right to make art that doesn't add value. Still, the chapter in the book resonated and haunted me. I wished I had someone to talk to who understood and could help me. I wondered who would understand a 43 year old, childless, long-distance hiking woman?

We reached Joshua Tree spring at around 2PM and sat in the sun at the junction before going down to the shaded spring. The spring was down in a small canyon shaded by oaks and sheltered from the wind. We made our camp there. I set my tent up on a thick bed of oak leaves. The three of us sat in the sun and ate dinner and talked and played my strumstick, adding layers of clothing to keep warm until I, at least, was sitting in the sun under my sleeping bag with my fleece leggings wrapped around my head.

I wrote in my journal as the sun waned. I thought about hiking alone during the day, observing the soft folds of the desert hills below the peaks. I watched shifts of tiny birds go to the spring for water and big noisy Jays would yell at us intruders every now and then. I felt so happy. It felt so perfect to live on the trail. But my happiness at my perfect life was tainted by feelings of selfishness. Tony should be here. I should not have come. It felt wrong to enjoy myself with strangers while Tony toiled at home.

Eventually it was too cold to stay outside. My pen was freezing and the ink no longer ran. We all decided to go to bed. The night was still and silent and the oak leaves cradled me. I slept well, better than my bed at home. Out here was my home as much as anywhere and feeling the Earth underneath me felt safe and secure.

In the morning as I packed up my things, my water slowly froze in my two-gallon bottle. The temperature was in the 20s. We filled up our containers with the uranium-tainted spring water and headed up into the sun and back to the trail.

I walked along in the dry valley below the tree-covered peaks coming around bends to see views that were suddenly so familiar. I had so many forgotten images from before that were still so vivid. The hiking seemed easier than it had been in June, probably because I was not suffering in the hot sun. The air was still calm and I was able to walk comfortably wearing a light jacket. Eventually I could even take it off, until the trail dropped into the shade and descended to Spanish Needle Creek.

At the first Spanish Needle Creek crossing I looked for the stream orchids. The blooms were all dried up now and there was no water except for two puddles someone had carved into the mud. The puddles had a layer of ice. I filtered a little water from them to top off my containers. Spanish Needle Creek would be our last water for the rest of the trip.

The second instance of the creek was a rushing waterfall. It looked fuller than it had been in June. The third instance of the creek was just a trickle surrounded by wild rose hips and cockerel. The last instance, the source for the first, was a lightly dripping grotto with columbine still in bloom.

Past the creeks, I climbed the switchbacks that I remembered had nearly killed me back in June. They seemed so easy now. I walked for a few hours, seeing myself rise to meet the distant peaks, watching the desert view in the distance, the mountains of Tehachapi and hearing the quail the guide book eerily knew would be there. I wondered if they were the same tiny babies I had seen last June.

Suddenly I was at the top of the crest were we planned to make camp for the night. It was still early in the afternoon but I did not mind. I was not a thru-hiker anymore. Just being out here was enough. I was happy to be home here on the trail and not compelled to make more miles. I had a feeling of calm and centeredness with the trail that now I could savor in large doses rather than in the fleeting moments before pressing on like it had been earlier this year.

Soon the others arrived and we set up our tents on the saddle next to Lamont Peak. We sat in the sun trying to soak up its meager warmth. We talked about hiking and life. Tom liked to help other PCT hikers and this summer he had helped a young woman named Truant. Truant had attended the PCT kick-off, a party held at Lake Morena Campground that often became the default start date for many thru-hikers. At the kick-off she had done an over-the-phone job interview and gotten the job. During the hike, which she had started before finishing college finals, she carried a heavy law book. She took her final exams for law school in Agua Dulce. She had to finish the trail before her job with the Alaska Supreme Court was to start after Labor Day. So she went as fast as she could and finished before Labor Day. We were in awe of this woman. So focused, so successful. Gets a job at kick-off before even finishing school then finishes school on the trail. And then look at us mired in confusion unable to commit to either life or the trail.

Tom said that after this hike he needed to get back home and get his act together. I laughed. Listen to us, I said. We sound like junkies. Just one more hike and I swear I'll get my act together. After this hike. Just one more.

Soon it was too cold to stay out of our tents, the warmth of my hot mashed potato dinner had worn off. So we went to bed. The wind started and grew in strength throughout the night. Miraculously my tent stayed up with only tent stakes and no rocks to anchor it, but my hiking stick, which held up one end of the tent, slowly collapsed under the strength of the wind until the tent bowed inward so much I had only half the space inside I usually do. The noise of the wind was so ferocious I could not sleep. My tent snapped and popped violently. It was like trying to sleep on the runway at LAX. Still, I was warm.

In the morning I took off quickly rather than linger in the horrible wind. I ran off down the trail seeking shelter and found it in the cold shady places of the trail. The scenery was beautiful as always and I felt happy and truly at peace on the trail. I watched my progress across the ridge, took a short rest in the warm sun, then descended into the boulder-strewn valley and meadow to Chimney Creek. The hike was over.

We completed our car shuttle back to Walker Pass. I retrieved my cooler. Nobody had eaten any of my fruit. We had been the only people out there this weekend. I loaded up my truck and drove home.

As I drove, I looked at the sprawl of the cities and the ugly businesses along the way. So many chain stores, corporations, banks and mortgage lenders that have been in the news lately. Why do we allow any place with a board of directors and profit as the only motive decide what is good for us? I observed the plastic bags and trash lining the freeway and thought about how tenuous our way of life is. Why don't we as a people do or make anything anymore? How could we have thought money-making schemes and consumption and waste was a base of strength to build a nation? I, who made and did nothing except for hiking and music these days, had no answers.

I saw a crow trying to negotiate the wind and 6 lanes of traffic. I know what it feels like to be so naked, I thought to myself. It was a strange thought. It was not nakedness as in being revealed that I understood. It was the sense of being an outsider with all that I have on my back, making my way to my destination, sometimes passing through the world of excess and fullness as I go. I am invisible to that world of full, overstuffed, overburdened people in their steel and glass cages, hauling crates of bulk food or RV trailers. It is the simplicity of having very little and feeling completely at home with the flowers and birds, puddle water and still, dark nights that I share in kinship with that crow.

I had said one night last July that I felt like a bird in a cage with the door open, that I had stepped outside but had not left the cage. Seeing the crow I realized that, if only fleetingly, I had flown free.

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