Walking with fear

Hiking in half-light somewhere in Northern California

I never thought I would thruhike the PCT. I never thought we would finish. Even in our best moments, I was brought down by fear.

Four years ago, after completing the John Muir Trail, I said I would never thruhike a long trail. I was sick for most of that trail and re-injured an old sprain. That hike was an endurance test. I signed up for the PCT terrified that I would have to endure 2,653.1 miles of the same.

Finishing the John Muir Trail in 2015

Thruhikers have a saying: “You pack your fears.” Different people have different interpretations of the adage. I understand it to mean that you carry things in your backpack that you think will protect you from the things that you are afraid of.

I was afraid of everything.

I was afraid of the dark. I was afraid of bears and mountain lions. I was afraid of sprained ankles. I was afraid of mosquitoes and bees and beetles and every creepy crawly thing. I was afraid of carrying too many things in my pack. I was afraid of carrying too little. I could go on…

A funny thing happened on the way to Mexico. I got used to my own fear.

When we night-hiked, I was so nervous that a ferocious cougar would attack us from the shadows. And then one night I heard something rustle in the bushes. I flashed my headlamp toward the animal. I saw it dash away. I don’t know what it was, but it was BIG. I called Jake with a quivering voice. And Jake arrived. The “thing” stayed in the bushes. We didn’t die.

Castle Crags in Northern California

When my feet ached during zero days, I was so sure that our trip would be cut short by injury. Then we met a triple crowner in Packwood, Washington. He told us about his hikes on the PCT, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Turns out he had a stress fracture and completed the PCT all the same. “You can hike with a stress fracture?” I asked him. “You can hike through anything,” he said. Somehow that conversation changed my attitude. Pain was part of the trail. Pain continues to be part of my life. It is something I’m managing. It isn’t killing me.

When bees buzzed us during the long hike, I always shooed them away. I was worried they would sting me. But one day in the desert, I came across a spring. There were bees everywhere, and I was alarmed. Then I looked a little closer. I saw the bees were drinking water! They were more focused on the water than on me. From then on, whenever bees came around, I let them buzz. I never got stung—not even once.

Glacier Peak Wilderness

What once was aversion became a general fascination with creepy crawly things. I loved seeing the giant Pinacate beetles that stick their butts into the air when they feel threatened. I loved finding red velvet ants with their fuzzy rust-colored bodies. Around a hundred miles from Mexico, we started to see tarantulas. They moved so gracefully. And they followed the trail just like we did.

California tarantula in the desert near Julian

I told one of the last trail angels we stayed with about my fascination with tarantulas.

“Why don’t you pick one up?” he asked.

“Maybe I will,” I said.

Even as I said it, I knew that it might be a step too far.

After all, I still have all of the same fears. I still don’t like hiking in the dark. I am still unnerved by aches and pains. I still worry about animals—big and small. But somewhere along the way, I decided that fear was part of life. I decided that my fear was just another thing I carry. That decision made my fear a little less of a burden. That perspective allowed me to finish the trail.

Fire in canyon country

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The trail north of Green Valley

Green Valley is just as advertised. In late October, most valleys in California turn a sort of brownish yellow. But Green Valley remains.

We arrived in Green Valley around 1 pm and picked up some snacks at the convenience store. Just as we got there, a minivan pulled up.

“Hey hikers!”

It was Terrie Anderson, a woman well known in the PCT community for hosting hikers with her husband Joe.

Green Valley is a perennial favorite because of Anderson’s home known as Casa de Luna.

“There are two kinds of hikers,” Anderson said. “Those who stop at Casa de Luna. And those who wish they did.”

In 21 years, Casa de Luna has become the kind of place anyone on trail can call home. We were among those who stopped there, and we were lucky we did.

The day we visited Casa de Luna the Santa Ana winds kicked up with fiery force. Around mid-afternoon, a news alert caught our attention. A fire was burning out of control near Agua Dulce.

That was our very next stop. It was only 24 miles away — a day’s hike.

We checked in with friends on trail who were just ahead of us. They had made it to a spot about 10 miles ahead and saw smoke. Rather than risk hiking into the flames, they had to bailout at a road crossing and head to another town for a night in a hotel.

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A rule adorning the wall at Casa de Luna

We asked Joe and Terrie if we could stay at Casa de Luna and assess the fire danger in the morning. They welcomed us without hesitation and told us about the “magical manzanita forest” in the backyard where we could set up the tent. Behind their house, we wove our way through a grove with tentsites carved out among the trees. All through the forest, we found rocks painted by hikers over the years. Some have apropos sayings: “Home is where you hang your food bag.” Some are eye-rollers. “Caution: This Rock is Hard,” wrote someone named 6-Pack in 2018. Some have hikers’ names such as Hiccupz, Xena or Mr. Peanut Butter. Others are oddly beautiful renderings of trees, waves, a starry sky, a hummingbird or a raccoon. It was hard to walk through the magical manzanita forest without getting distracted by a rock at least once.

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One of the many rocks at Casa de Luna

I’ve read advice about getting to Casa de Luna early during the height of the PCT rush: “The good spots go quickly.” We found the perfect spot next to a plastic lawn flamingo perched on a manzanita branch. We were the only hikers that night.

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Casa de Luna

We went back to Joe and Terrie’s front porch. We watched the evening news for updates on the fire. Joe and Terrie shared a taco dinner with us.

 

This was Casa de Luna’s last season in operation. The Andersons are moving to Washington to be nearer to grandkids. Terrie was already packing when we got there and posing questions like “how many socks does a person need?”

 

We joined Terrie for a couple of episodes of Family Feud before we retired to the manzanita grove for bed. The last thing I remember hearing was the yip of a coyote in the hills outside of town.

 

In the morning, Terrie invited us for coffee at the house. We took our seats on the porch and checked the news. Firefighters had made headway to contain the blaze, but it was still at a dangerous stage. It was not on the trail, but it was near it.

 

Jake and I know what it’s like to walk through smoke. We had already been through it near Mount Lassen in Northern California. One day we reveled in a glorious red and pink sunset, and the next we were shrouded in smoke from a fire miles away. Smoke is not like fog. Fog cleans out your lungs. Smoke sweeps into your lungs like a virus. At first it feels like nothing — just a tickle in your nose hairs. Then it pricks the back of your throat. Slowly, it builds to a hacking cough that chokes away your energy. At that stage, the smell is overwhelming — as if you had smothered your face in embers. Then a wind comes through in the night and sweeps it all away. In the morning, it’s clear without even a whiff of a campfire. Or at least that’s what happened near Lassen.

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Smoke makes an eerie sunset near Mount Lassen, California.

In Agua Dulce, there was danger. It was not worth wandering into a forest fire. We asked Terrie if we could take a zero day in Green Valley. She agreed even before the words were out of our mouths.

In the afternoon, more hikers showed up — some walked up to the house. We ran into some people at the corner store and told them about the Andersons. Not that they needed to be told. Everyone knew about Casa de Luna. Joe and Terrie’s place felt like home. All were welcome. It didn’t matter how long they stayed. The Andersons told stories about hikers who had partied too much, made big messes, had too much fun — but never of anyone overstaying their welcome. When Joe and Terrie shared stories, they tumbled out all in a heap. Many trail angels say they host hikers to hear trail stories. But Joe and Terrie had trail stories and then some.

“I hear you used to mud wrestle hikers,” someone said.

“It was actually in oil,” Terrie responded.

And then we were off on another great adventure about trail pastimes and the old days.

“What’s it like in the summer?” someone inevitably asked.

“Oh, you wouldn’t recognize it,” Joe said.

“We have five porta-potties out front,” Terrie said. “People are everywhere. When it comes time for dinner, the line goes down the block.”

It was hard to imagine. Over the course of the evening, eight or nine hikers arrived. It felt nice to be in a group of so many people doing the same crazy thing as we were. It also felt a little overwhelming. Joe and Terrie told us they had nearly 90 at one time this year. It boggled the mind.

It must be hard for the Anderson to get to know the hikers in a herd like that. People come for dinner, they paint a rock, they take a photo and then they leave. But somehow, Terrie seemed to remember everyone’s trail name.

As the day dragged into evening, more news came in. Firefighters were making progress in Agua Dulce. The blaze wasn’t fully contained, but it was more controlled. The wind could still change directions, but we would have a day or so of protection to make it through Agua Dulce. Terrie called a trail angel who lived there. “They lost power,” that angel said. “But the fire is not a threat, and it was not near the trail.”

We decided to go to sleep and make an early start. The next day Terrie drove us back to the trail around 8 in the morning. She gave us big hugs and words of encouragement and sent us on our way. It made me smile as we labored up the hill out of Green Valley. We stayed to avoid the fire. I left feeling like my soul had been refreshed.

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One of the rocks at Casa de Luna

Terrie and Joe Anderson are selling painted rocks at their place as they prepare to move. You can find out more at: https://www.facebook.com/casadelunarockspct/?rf=226318344047448

Tracks in the snow

7605F389-67EB-4D67-B734-99621B6C4469_1_105_c.jpegIt was pouring the morning we were supposed to leave Mammoth Lakes and hike into the section with the highest passes on the Pacific Crest Trail.

We looked out the window — dark clouds hung in the sky. Rain cascaded off the eaves of the hotel.

I felt a mix of anticipation and anxiety. The forecast called for snow and freezing temperatures.

Why hike? I wondered. We could just stay in town and wait out the storm in a warm hotel room.

I put the thought out of my head. We got a ride out of Mammoth Lakes from an employee of the ski resort. He had worked at the resort for years and graciously agreed to drive us up to the trailhead. We stocked up in Mammoth Lakes on gear to help us get through.

We were leaving town with wind blowing in our faces. Clouds passed overhead. Rain or snow — something was coming our way. I felt as if we were racing it.

We hiked through a burn area that we remembered going on “forever” while hiking the John Muir Trail in 2015.

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We hiked past a place I remember camping in 2015. On that trip we often made camp before nightfall. On the PCT, we’re lucky to make camp before dusk.

Just as night fell, we set up the tent near a creek. We looked for a sheltered spot, protected from the storm brewing overhead.

As we climbed into our sleeping bags, the first wispy snowflakes were just beginning to fall. Another couple of hikers had made a campfire. The flames cast an amber glow against the boulders. It looked warm, but my quilt seemed even more inviting.

In Mammoth Lakes, we bought Nalgene bottles for just such an occasion. We boiled water and poured it into the hard plastic bottles. Then we put the bottles in our sleeping quilt. They warmed up the quilts and the quilts kept the heat in.

Initially the snow was light. It wasn’t even sticking, but around 10 pm it began to collect. I woke up with a start to the sound of Jake hitting the sides of the tent with his hand. Snow was weighing the tent down. I helped, smacking the walls until sleepiness overtook me again.

We’ve been through so many storms, I thought to myself. No reason to worry yet.

With that, I cinched up my sleeping quilt and fell asleep.

In the morning, I was aware of the cold first: the wet, but not saturated, feeling of a snowy morning. My Nalgene was only lukewarm. I looked at the sides of the tent. There was only a little more snow than the night before. Outside only an inch or two had accumulated.

We heated the water from the Nalgenes for coffee and oatmeal. The lukewarm water warmed up faster than frozen water would have. But it still took time. We were in no rush. Fresh snow covered the trail, making it harder to find. It would be easier if other hikers went first. Then we could follow their footprints.

We had other chores to do anyway. I bundled up in my down jacket to walk down to the creek to collect water. Little snow drifts had collected around boulders at the tentsite. My shoes left distinctive prints in the fluff outside.

Thick ice lined the creek. I plunged the water bladders into the water and carried them back to the tent. Then I climbed into my sleeping quilt to filter. After squeezing the nearly freezing water bladder in order to filter the water into a bottle, I buried my hands in my quilt to warm them up again.

We shook the moisture from the outside of the tent as we packed up. As we folded and rolled, a brown square of dirt and pine needles was revealed where the tent had been — the only visible dirt in all directions.

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Finally we loaded up our packs and got moving. As our footsteps met the trail, we saw the footprints of other hikers who had hit the trail earlier that morning.

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Among them we saw another set of tracks. At first it seemed like someone was hiking barefoot. Then it dawned on us. They were bear prints. They looked fairly fresh. We looked around.

The snow made everything seem very quiet. There was no rustling in the bushes. There was no furry snout through the trees. There wasn’t even the cracking sound of a twig. There were only bear prints going the same direction we were. So we followed the trail. Every time I thought the bear prints had disappeared, they would reappear again. We never saw that bear. I know we are supposed to be afraid of them — those stronger beings with sharper teeth. But I took comfort in the thought that we were sharing the trail for at least a mile or two.

 

The 1200 mile carry

“I’m going to buy my girlfriend an engagement ring”, I told the Lyft driver as we headed into Portland. She was psyched about my plans and was asking if Jen would be suspicious and if I was nervous.

I’d told Jen that I was going to get a surprise for her as she hung out with her sister’s family. I tried to cover my tracks with small gifts and a series of cards for our second anniversary.

That didn’t justify a mystery trip into town though, so I just played dumb and figured she’d eventually forget.Time went by and the ring’s box sat in bubble wrap, wrapped in duct tape, in the bottom of my important things dry sack. As this bag has my ID and cards etc, it sat on every restaurant table and next to my sleeping bag every night. Jen thankfully never asked about that cuboid shape in the bag right it front of her.

A full 1200 miles and about seven weeks later, the Sierra mountains were at our feet. Now I had to decide where to pop the question.I had quickly given up on the idea of having a spot planned much prior as something could easily get in the way. Then logistical issues came to mind: what time of day would we be there? What about other hikers?! I didn’t want this to be a public show. What about the weather? What to do to celebrate, or otherwise?!

I decided then go for a place I had spent a day at four years before on my John Muir Trail hike. It was only another 6 miles further.

Thousand Island Lake should’ve been number one all along. The pristine lake sits below Banner Peak and is dotted with dozens of small islands. We approached the lake at sunset and found the perfect spot on the lake’s edge.We set up tent quickly by the water just in time to see the last whisps of orange clouds fade and as Jen heated up the Punjabi Potatoes by the tent, it turned out I was really nervous and Jen not at all suspicious.I just about managed to get the box in my hand the right way round and I plopped my knee down into the wet ground and popped the question.

A trail of cards

One of Jake’s cards

From time to time on trail, I have found a little green envelope on my backpack.

Inside there is a card with a message from Jake.

“Let’s go hiking!” says one.

Jake has been giving me these cards since we celebrated our two-year anniversary on trail.

As our mileage has increased, the cards’ messages reflect that intensity.

“Let’s do 34.2!” says another card.

They always make me smile. I have saved them in a ziplock bag.

As we hiked into Tuolumne Meadows in late September, that bag was buried deep in my backpack, safe from the rain and freezing temperatures of the high Sierra Nevada mountains.

Walking into Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne was a significant milestone for us. We both hiked the John Muir Trail in the summer of 2015. That was before we met. We bonded over tales from that hike. It has always felt like an important part of our story.

As we hiked out of Tuolumne Meadows, Jake teased me that another card was coming by showing me the corner of a green envelope in his pocket. Throughout the morning and midday, we hiked the miles up to Donohue Pass.

After the pass, the trail turned from switchbacks through vertical, almost hanging gardens to a winding path through a lush convergence of creeks and streams. I remember that meadow from the JMT. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. But like all the best places it’s not easy to get to.

The last of flowers of the season

We still had another pass to climb before camp.

As we came over its rise, we saw an expansive lake dotted with islands. The still water reflected the pink light of sunset behind Banner Peak, which was still dotted with snow from the winter. I had stopped at Thousand Island Lake on the JMT in 2015. Jake had camped there that year. He was looking forward to camping there this time.

Thousand Island Lake

We hiked a few hundred feet off the PCT to find a tentsite. Jake found an amazing spot on a spit of land by the water. The sun was just setting as he staked out the tent. I fired up our stove and started boiling water to heat up a packet of Punjabi potatoes — one of a few dinner items left at Tuolumne Meadows Store.

The sunset

The water hadn’t yet boiled when Jake walked a couple of steps toward the lake and said, “Come over here. Look at the sunset.”

“It’s OK,” I said, focused on dinner. “I can see it from here.”

“No really,” he said. “It’s better over here.”

I figured I should probably check out whatever was over there.

I got to my aching feet and walked the few steps over to him. He had the green envelope in hand.

“The card!” I said.

I opened it.

And then he got down on one knee.

I was stunned: The sunset, the lake, the ring.

I looked at Jake and our whole relationship flashed before my eyes — meeting in Mexico City, our first hike, that time my apartment flooded and Jake came over to help, and so many other memories.

The feeling overwhelmed me and I started crying and hugged Jake.

“You have a drip on the end of your nose,” he said, laughing.

And there we were laughing and crying, snot-covered and engaged.

Between bubbles

The time that you get back on trail from town positions you just ahead of some hikers and just behind others. Some folks have taken a day off, some just a few hours, and some don’t stop; town gives us hikers a good shuffle.

This is amplified around large towns and when there’s bad weather. Town is like a bottleneck or a vortex in these circumstances and then little newly formed bubbles of hikers are spit out into the wilderness the next day. All with newly stuffed food bags, some are even clean.

The shuffle reveals some old faces and some new and occasionally, somone cool you haven’t seen in a long time. We stop to chat and share stories and plans at spots on trail or simply walk and talk. We leapfrog with hikers for a couple of hours or maybe even days, until the next resupply point.

Previously we used to leapfrog around hikers for a couple of hours and then not see them again as we were the tortoises (who liked days off). We would see their names disappear into the future in the trail registers where hikers sign and date along the trail.

“Oh look, it’s Carjack, she’s 11 days ahead now!”

We had met Carjack by the Canadian border almost 3 months ago and as she had done 800 miles in the desert previously, she promptly disappeared over the horizon and her name got further and further ahead in the registers.

The pattern of seeing names we knew ahead of us became a little too common and we found ourselves needing to up the pace to be in the Sierra by mid-September. This the advised arrival date to avoid bad weather.

A typical trail register found along the trail

The last time I posted, we were a few days into our big 15 day push to gain back some miles we dropped in the lazy days of northern Oregon. Since then we’ve done several 30+ mile days.

During the push we found ourselves scanning registers we came across for names we knew to check our progress against others’.

“Scarecrow, this morning. Jukebox and HanSobo, two days ahead. Dozer he’s three days now, he was four. Carjack, just seven days ahead now.”

This new pattern now continued. We were somehow gaining ground on oher hikers! We walked from dawn to dusk, literally, every day with short breaks to beat the weather. As we got closer, it felt achievable but we were also getting burnt out. The day we left Sierra City was particularly hard on me, then we saw the snow forecast and we needed to do 75 miles in 48 hours to avoid being exposed on a ridgeline in a huge storm.

We hiked long into the night twice and got caught out, just, by the snow storm. We promptly got a ride into town and were very relieved we had been on the southern side of Dick’s Pass.

As I returned to our motel room in South Lake Tahoe later that day, my phone buzzed as we took a well deserved rest day after having hiked 625 miles in 25 days.

“Did I just see you walk across a parking lot in a towel?!!”, the text said. It was Carjack and she was in town. We had caught her up!

I had indeed been in a towel outside (laundry chores) and we agreed to meet for pizza. We toasted our success and shared stories of the trail and then promptly passed out long before normal peoples’ bedtimes.

Hikers in the storm

Jake captured this moment in the winter wonderland heading down from the trailhead to South Lake Tahoe

“There’s a red flag warning,” Jake was checking the weather and speaking in the measured tone of a person who is definitely not freaking out.

We were already 23 miles into the day. And 68 miles from the trailhead closest to South Lake Tahoe.

“What?” I said. I had checked the weather earlier in the week and saw that it might rain, but a red flag means a storm.

“Wind gusts of 75 miles per hour… damaging winds,” Jake went on reading. “Snow showers… accumulation of three to five inches.”

It seemed impossible. The late summer sun had warmed us all day. The sky was a delicious blueberry.

Sun before the storm

We checked other sources. We checked other locations. They looked worse.

We exchanged glances. We expected storms. Jake and I hiked through the Sierra Nevada on the John Muir Trail in 2015 before we knew each other. We expected storms but not for another week or two. Plus we had been booking it for three weeks just to get to that spot. We had been keeping up with hikers far faster and far stronger. We were tired and ready for a day off.

We quickly agreed we would hike as far as we could that day and the next day.

A few hours later, we sat at picnic tables at Donner Pass, named for another set of ill fated travelers. We made dinner there and discussed our options. We searched online for what high wind feels like. Somewhere around 45 mph walking becomes difficult; around 60-70 mph trees can be uprooted. We found a bailout point “if things get really bad” about 28 miles ahead. Then we hiked on, hoping for the best. It was midnight when we laid out our sleeping quilts to cowboy camp under a nearly full moon and howling wind. We had hiked our longest day at nearly 37 miles.

Jake woke me at 6 in the morning as pink crept into the horizon. It was time to get up. The wind was already picking up over Tinker Knob. Another ridge beyond found us bracing against our trekking poles.

Windy but sunny

By the time we reached the “bailout point” that afternoon, the wind had died down a bit. Some friends caught up to us. They were discussing the possibility of hiking all night to avoid the storm. At this time we were in blazing sunshine. A sign declared 32 miles to the trailhead. We could do that mileage in a day easily but not after already hiking 20 miles.

Jake and I decided to press on for a few more hours. We would hike until 9 pm, set up our tent, sleep until 4 am, and hope that the storm hit an hour or two later than forecast.

We cooked dinner with the last of our fuel that night and set up in the most protected section of forest we could find. At one point, in the middle of the night I opened my eyes and saw that outside the tent, the trees were swaying in all directions. I closed up the tent and awoke before my alarm at 3:50. I began stretching my legs for the trail ahead.

We were up and out quickly. Hiking in the dark, we made our way toward Dicks Pass at 9,376 feet. The wind picked up. It threatened to knock us over at points.

Storm clouds gather

Off in the distance, I saw a bank of clouds galloping toward us. For the rest of the day, “Riders on the Storm” cycled through my head like a dirge. At the top of the pass, we ran into the first couple of hikers we saw that day and there was enough cell signal to check our fantasy premier league teams and text family.

On the way down, we stopped for peanut butter and jelly tortillas. I don’t even like PB&J. At this point on the trail, I eat anything. The break spot was sheltered from the wind and even sunny. We ran into a couple of hikers we hadn’t seen since Oregon. It was a strange reunion in the midst of impending doom. The sun gave us a false sense of security.

Hiking on, we ran into more people on long weekend excursions. We hiked past glorious lakes lined by fireweed and paintbrush. The wind whipped our cheeks and clouds gathered. Just after Lake Aloha, hail began to fall. Then it became rain, then sleet, then snow. We were still two hours from the trailhead… two hours ahead in wet snow. Faster than I’ve ever experienced, the snow began to stick. The temperature was dropping. It coated granite and turned dirt trail into a river. I began to panic. I couldn’t get warm. My beanie and down jacket were in my pack. I wasn’t thinking straight.

Jake stopped me to put on more layers and we resumed the climb. We slipped over rocks and hoped we could make it to the trailhead before our resolve dissolved. We skidded past other hikers. We slid in ever accumulating snow, seeking out the trail as it disappeared before our eyes.

Finally we made it to the trailhead. Looking for a hitch, we saw a section hiker getting into a Jeep. Jake dashed over to ask for a ride. The driver warned us that his Jeep was a convertible but we were just happy to be on the move. Less than an hour later we were washing the dirt off our feet and planning our town meals.

In the end we hiked 90 miles in two and a half days. We got to town tired, soaked and hungry but glad to be dry.