Hikertrash: Shower Laundry, Tent Cities and Being Caught Pantsless on Trail
HIKER OR HOMELESS?
Burney is the first trail town I hike in and out of in just a few hours. I manage 18 miles in the morning and make it to town around 2.30 pm. I head straight to the grocery store and buy my resupply, ice cream, soda, and a bag of salad.
The Word of Life church in Burney has opened up to host hikers for the season. Part of their church compound is an enormous combined gym/theatre, and it boasts a kitchen and large bathrooms. It’s all available to us. I throw my pack down in a corner and grab a loaner towel to shower. There’s a hiker curled up on the carpet near the entrance to the bathroom. He stays there, asleep, the entire time I am at the church.
My nose is pretty resistant to hiker stench at this point, but this guy smells AWFUL. I can’t help but think about what his feet and body are doing to the carpet. There is a free shower – complete with free toiletries and towels – just feet away.
If you relish your filth on the trail, that’s fine, but if you want to share a closed space with other people and lie down on the carpet, then I think you’re obliged to shower.
The trail angel who later takes me to Ashland tells me a story about two hikers he met recently. He’d offered to pick up and host these hikers in his home when he discovered they were doing a ‘shower challenge.’ These two men hadn’t showered since TEHACHAPI and wanted to keep it up. Not only did they think it was okay to get in this guy’s car, they wanted to sleep in his beds. The trail angel gave them a ride but said they couldn’t stay with him unless they showered. They declined.
A the church I take my clothes into the shower and stamp on them a bit, rinsing out the worst of the salt and dust. It’s 100F (37C) outside, so I hang my clothes out on a chain link fence by the gym. It feels a bit… rude. But I figure it’ll only take an hour for them to dry, so they won’t be there long.
While my clothes dry, I eat my bag of salad and ice cream sitting inside at a table in the wonderful shade of the gym after my free shower. I think about the services the church offers to hikers. I’m very grateful – it’s amazing for us – but I cannot believe this is the best use of these resources for this community.
In every trail town, hikers are almost indistinguishable from people living rough, except for the way we are treated.
We smell terrible because we can’t access showers regularly. Our bags, which also smell bad, are often piled in public places, unsightly and sometimes in the way. We wash our socks in public bathrooms and hang our clothes to dry on trees and fences. Messy piles of cords and battery packs cover every available outlet in coffee shops and at info centers or grocery stores. We hitchhike everywhere, and when we get sick or the shelters we carry break, we need help getting to clinics, pharmacies and gear stores.
I feel certain that if was a local living rough and I’d hung my poorly-washed, torn and stained clothes on a fence to dry, I’d be moved on.
A TOUGH STRETCH
Full of ice cream and slightly cleaner, I hitch out of Burney around 6 pm.
If I had known how hard it would be to continue on the trail after almost a month off, I wouldn’t have.
The start of the trail is like the first day of school: everyone is so open to new relationships; they’re eager to find their people. Now they have their groups and routines, and I’m an outsider, sitting alone in the cafeteria, part of the school but with no one to sit with. It feels like not getting picked for a sports team. It sucks.
I’d skipped to Old Station from Quincy partly to try and catch a couple I met in the desert. Having finally caught them, we get a ride to Burney Falls together.
The section between Burney and Mt Shasta is a blur. I get a wasp caught in my pants, and it covers my butt in stings. I hike 23-26 miles (37-42km) each day. It’s hot. I see my first bear on trail, which bolts away from me as fast as it can. I finish listening to A Promised Land, and Obama’s soothing tones desert me. Perched on a ridgeline with a single bar of reception, I order new shoes. My upset stomach for days and can’t figure out why.
Things turn sour with a trail romance and I develop a blister on my heel that adds an edge of pain to everything. Some of the burnt trees are bleeding and this matches my mood.
When I get to Mt Shasta, I’m hot, tired, and miserable. I’ve barely seen Rabbit and Comatose – the couple I’d skipped ahead to hike with. I meet them for breakfast before heading out to the Crossroads hostel. I rent a tiny micro trailer with an AC unit called The Aquarium and spend most of the next two days lying face down in it crying.
A friend at the hostel takes me out to the water hole twice a day to distract me. The same woman is there each time. She lives there, on the edge of a graffitied tunnel where water washes over the concrete slipway into a deep pool. Her dog, an enormous hound with the over-jowled head of a bulldog, lies on a cushion in the shade nearby.
She is bent over, knee-deep in the water, slowly moving rocks one by one from pile to pile, building something only she can see.
At some point, lying in The Aquarium, I decide I’m going home.
I haven’t been enjoying myself since I got back on trail and this latest episode of my comically bad dating life has scoured away the last of my ability to cope with the minor challenges of the trail. I realize that my stomach problems are the result of deep fatigue and anxiety.
Despondently, I try to face the logistics of getting home from Mt Shasta. My stuff is in two different places in Washington state. I’d need to change my flight. Someone is subletting my room at home for another month.
I’m so drained that I can’t make decisions. And so, in the end, it feels easier to just get a ride back to the trail and keep hiking.
When I get back on trail, I listen to a podcast about the overturning of Roe V. Wade, focusing on the only abortion clinic in Mississippi. There are ten days between the decision and when it takes effect. The staff reschedule every appointment already made for the next month, opening extra hours, recruiting extra staff, and working without rest to make sure they can get everyone’s procedures done before they have to close. This makes me cry too.
THE HEAT (AND PITTED KERATOLYSIS)
The heat has become intolerable, and it’s hard to think about anything else. When I take a break one morning, lying on the black dust of a recent burn area, I am visited by the world’s boldest chipmunk. It inspects my tent and shoes and eventually leaves again.
Desperate to pee on a ridgeline, I squat down just off trail and am immediately caught pantsless by another hiker. I study some carnivorous plants and wet my whole body down at every single water source in an effort to stay cool. Rabbit has some foot trouble and I lose them again in this section, spending most of it alone with my thoughts (and the bold chipmunk) once more.
When I drag myself into camp the night before I reach Etna, I am dizzy and clumsy with mild heat exhaustion.
I drank seven liters of water that day and still only peed once. I’ve been having trouble eating, and I try to force some food down without much success. When I finally lie down to sleep, my feet are burning and itching. I think it’s just because my shoes are worn out. But when I eventually look at them, they are spongey and full of holes. It looks like pitted keratolysis and I add going to a clinic for topical antibiotics to my list of things that I feel too tired to face. The next morning I get up in the dark after very little sleep to hike into Etna.
The city park in Etna has a camping area set up for hikers. They provide showers and public bathrooms as well as charging stations.
There are covered picnic tables and a tiny kiosk where you can rent towels. I get into town early and set up my tent at the park in the shade. It’s a beautiful area and I’m struck by the image of a little tent city. I could be standing in a homeless tent city and the only difference would be how much our tents cost. The park could be set up like this all year.
The city could provide these services to anyone. But instead of those without a place to go, it’s just for people who’ve chosen to live in tents for fun.
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