The Attempt Episode 6: “The trail is kinda glowing”
From the Washington/Oregon border to Crater Lake, Benjamin calibrates his hiking machine.
The Attempt is sponsored by Gossamer Gear, manufacturers of functional ultralight backpacking gear, designed by hikers.
Previously on The Attempt
“Hey it’s Ben. First night of PCT Trip”… “It is Day 3” … “Day 5” … “It is Day 16 I believe” … “Day 17”…“Day 18” … “Day 20” … “No idea what day it is” … “Yeah, it’s a good day” … “I have been averaging about 20 miles over the last few days and wow holy goddamn that really is not fucking easy” … “I am walking with this guy Odie. Odie is short for outside dog. He is just a fascinating dude.” … “I am about 100 yards away from Bridge of the Gods. Let’s fucking go!”
Julia: You’re listening to
Benjamin: A podcast my sister makes
Julia: It’s called the attempt
Benjamin: I see what you’re trying to do!
Julia: (Laughing) Alright…
Benjamin: Hello from Oregon. It’s Sunday. 17th or 18th of August I think. And I am now south of Cascade Locks. I was actually was just gonna zip on out of there but I started to do the smart thing and listen to my body and instead of leaving at noon yesterday, I took a nap. And I guess I hadn’t realized how much I needed the rest. I think I’m getting better at identifying when I need the rest. And also getting better at accepting the fact that that’s not weak. Which is a hard thing for me to grasp. But yeah, so I stuck around and also got to enjoy Trail Days. Which was kind of this like this cross between a cross-country meet and what I would imagine a freshman year orientation would be at a very liberal, liberal arts college. Did a little bit of shopping, got a new shirt. New state, new shirt. Yeah so now what’s ahead of me is Oregon, about 400 miles. People say it’s very flat once you get out of the Gorge, which is where I am now. Next stop for me is the Timberline Lodge—I hope to be there by tomorrow afternoon. More thoughts later, but that’s what’s on my mind right now.
Julia: One thing we haven’t spent much time on in this podcast is talking about mileage. But it’s something Benjamin is always thinking about. In the beginning, 20-mile days were exhausting for him. Now, he’s doing 25, easy. And with every week, he keeps raising the bar. He just wants to go farther and faster. And the whole thing is one big equation with lots of variables. For example, packing up camp in the morning. Because the less time he spends getting ready, the more time he can spend walking.
Benjamin: Good morning. It’s about 6:40, started walking 15 minutes ago. I’ve gotten my time down from alarm off to hiking to an hour and a half. That’s still pretty slow. I think bandaging my feet, putting my contacts in, taking a morning poop – are all things that really slow me down. Some people get up and leave in 30 minutes. That’s insane to me! But whatever. Today, I started out 22 miles from Timberline lodge. I need to catch a bus from Timberline into a little town to buy some more bars because I didn’t bring enough of those. Depending on the bus schedule, I could get in and out and keep hiking and we’ll see how quickly I get to Timberline.
Julia: So, yeah, that’s another part of the equation. You have to get your logistics right so that you’re not leaving any miles on the table by missing a bus and having to wait until the next day to keep hiking. But the thing is, if he wants to make it that bus in time, he has to do this constant mental math.
Benjamin: I have 22 miles to do today from when I woke up. And I have a deadline cuz I want to be at the timberline lodge when my shuttle leaves at 5:45… so that means breaking it up to a couple subsections, but then after exactly 2.5 hours I had done 7.3 so that is exactly a third of my day… assuming ups and downs cancel each other out… that’s assuming minimal rest… 8 hours of hiking… Then I go crazy over the details… Even though the math suggests I should be fine, let’s say something comes up and I need an hour to deal with it… Problem is I don’t stop there, I keep checking in to see if I’m on pace. That’s kind of an example of the kind of crap I do all the time with miles.
Julia: This is exactly what I would do too and it sounds exhausting. But at least in this case, the math seemed to work out for him and he made it to the shuttle with 2 hours to spare.
Benjamin: Good morning. I did make that shuttle, so that felt like an accomplishment. I did 22 miles by 4 pm. It felt hard but really satisfying. So I took that shuttle into government camp. Got my resupply there. Bought some bars, got some good fruit – delicious! Then I was still hungry so I went into a restaurant and ordered a turkey burger, fries, coca cola. I’m sitting near the TV at the bar, this guy comes up to me – oooh. Wow. What are those animals? Elk? Oh shit! That was really fucking cool. Two big elk just crossed the trail in front of me. Wow. That was awesome. Ok so… Anyway, Vietnam vet comes up and asks the score of the little league world series and we start talking. I tell him to pull up a chair. We’re in this tiny little touristy town and he tells me he’s homeless and he’s been evicted, and we kinda just go through his life story. What just fucking killed me was how similar backpacking is to being homeless, you know? The weight on your back, the uncertainty of where you’re gonna sleep, the meals, the exposure. And I just felt like such a jackass for choosing to do this. He was such a nice guy too. I just felt bad for this guy. He was trying to get to Bend. So I bought him a meal and gave him some money to get to the – hopefully transportation. It was sorta bittersweet for me. I was catching the shuttle back in – up to Timebrline – and it’s like this little resort-y thing. I was chatting with some tourists who were curious about the trail, waiting for the shuttle. And then I get on and after about two minutes I hear, “BRASS!?” And Odie – the guy I’d been hiking with – the hiker yearbook guy – was in the back on the bus. He had been into Portland to see a doctor and then caught a series of buses and wound up going on the same little bus back up to the timberline lodge, which was so damn funny. Felt pretty serendipitous. So then we linked up again and hiked 5 more miles, night hiking through this incredible sunset. Then, I was talking about using my headlamp up, cuz it was getting dark, and he goes, “yeah I don’t really hike with a headlamp. For me, the trial glows.” And what he meant was that, because it’s been trampled down, so the dull starlight, it does illuminate it a bit and stands out from the plants and stuff. But I thought that was, like, maybe unintentionally kind of revealing about his character. He is somebody who honestly doesn’t really have a home. I think he would probably say the trail is his home. I liked that. For him the trail glows. I think that’s probably what I’ll remember about him. That and his shingles. And his nicotine withdrawal.
Julia: This is something that continues to surprise me about the PCT. These guys are covering hundreds of miles a week, moving at different paces, taking detours. And they still manage to cross paths over and over. And I think it makes the trail feel smaller – like home. And for the people who choose to hike it, I think the trail does glow – it’s like this beacon. A singular line that draws people to it, to simply travel in one of two directions on their own two feet. And the simplicity of that line is also what allows for magic to happen. Literally, it’s called trail magic. And it sounds something like this:
Benjamin: Alright, go ahead. Say your name and say what’s going on.
Mary Kay: I am Mary Kay Taylor and I’m here with my friends and we are trail angel-ing today, offering PCT hikers some refreshment and it’s great to hear their stories.
Linda: We’re kinda wannabes, we wanna do some stretches of this ourselves. We’re all in our early 60s or just getting out of our 50s and so this is a thrill to talk to them and why they are going on the PCT.
Benjamin: Wow that trail magic was just fricking incredible. It was so nice. They did not need to do that. What a nice thing. Odie and I were the first south bounders to hit it and so now as we walk south, everyone who we meet walking north for the next hour, we tell. Because no one told us, so we just showed up and that was awesome. But when you pass another hiker and they’re like, “hey man, trail magic, 2 miles, across the highway.” People go, “Aww yeah! No fucking way! That’s awesome.” Oh wait, is that someone coming? (Long pause) I don’t this so. I don’t like to look like I’m talking to myself. But yeah, while I was there I had 2 chicken jalapeno bratwursts, one bag of chips, several handfuls of tortilla chips, 1 apricot pastry, 1 blueberry scone, 1 string cheese, 1 half bagel with cream cheese, coca cola, sparkling water, a bunch of gummies… (Fade down)
Julia: Life on the trail seems to be full of repetition. You walk step after step, you put up your tent, you take it down again, over and over and over. And so these unplanned moments must be all the more incredible because they catch you by surprise. But a lot of the time on the trail is just about that repetition. Walking by yourself, day after day.
Benjamin: Alright it’s just after 7 pm, Tuesday Agusut 20th. Just about every day if I’m still walking at this time I kinda feel a lot of different things. One is, I kinda feel lonely, even if I’m walking with someone, I don’t know why that is. My feet are always hurting. Those last two miles always seem to really crawl by. I feel tired, antsy, sometimes I feel a little… what’s the word I’m looking for? Kinda pessimistic with the number of miles in front of me. One thing that doesn’t help is – some of the Northbounders are really really nice and supportive, and some are not. But the ones that bother me the most are the ones who are really patronizing. Cause obviously they’ve gone a lot futher. There was a guy today at Trail Magic who just – not telling me I was slow – but saying psh, 30 is nothing. That shit bothers me. And then other people who just kind of you know think they’re leading a TED talk about how great their trip has been and how much they’ve accomplished, and yeah maybe they have and maybe I’ll be like that obnoxious in a little bit but it just rubs me the wrong way. There are a lot of different kind of people out here, most of them are awesome. I just think I shouldn’t get too worked up about the other folks. OK I need to focus now cause we’re going downhill.
Julia: This makes so much sense to me. The Northbounders he’s meeting through Oregon are pretty darn close to the end. They’re feeling good, they’re doing long, fast days. And Benjamin is a competitive guy. So he sees that and he pushes harder. 27 mile days. 28 mile days. Walking faster. Getting up earlier. Hiking later. And pushing like that can be painful.
Benjamin: Ugh. It is Wednesday the 21st of August. Started walking about 10 minutes ago. God it is one of those mornings when fucking absolutely everything hurts. Let’s start with my right foot… The heel has a blister inside of a callus. It hurts when I take steps…. And the big toe has an ingrown toenail that I tried to clean up, but stings…Left foot has a blister between the toes and the pad of the foot…stings… also blisters on the heel…My legs are ok. Ankles are ok. Um… my hips are all chaffed from the bag. Upper back is really tired from the bag… I also have a cold so mucinex and alcaseltzer, in addition to a double dose of Alleve… Ok my feet are warming up a little. Ok still figuring things out. It’s only day… 30… thirty…seven? Is that possible? 15th of July? 31 days, yeah, I think it’s the 37th day. So yeah, I’m figuring it out.
Benjamin: Um… holy shit. I’m just so fucking cold and everything is wet. I don’t want to leave my tent. Sun’s not coming out. I’m just gonna eat in here until I warm up. Goddamn it. Oh my god, I’m fucking cold. I’m going to eat all my food. That’ll warm me. Mmm.
Benjamin: Ok… wow. Last night was a low. I was so fucking cold and so fucking wet. I was not dressed warm enough. Man! Definitely a low. But this morning, popped out of my tent, packed it up, bag feels light, skies are clear. Still cold as shit, but Mt. Jefferson is out and about. Clear sky, lighter pack, really bringing my mood up.
Benjamin: Ok so today is Sunday, August 25th and last Friday I did make it to sisters. And I was going through this thing at that point where I just kept on reminding myself to smile. And that was really helpful because I’m out here to have fun and when I reminded myself to smile, I had a lot more fun. And I got there at 12:30, so like, right on schedule, which was great. I was proud of that. Josh and I split a room at the Sisters Inn. There were some other cool folks in town – the Machine was in town, and Swiss Miss was in town. The next night we all got together for drinks and dinner, then Swiss Miss, the Machine and I headed out early. And uh, man, I liked Sisters. I liked the bakery, liked the vibe there. Didn’t like that Josh turned on Fox News until like 1 in the morning. But uh, you know, that’s how it goes I guess. He’s a funny dude, he’s just like always high, always confused, always walking the wrong direction. Trying for my first 30-mile day, but also being conscientious that miles don’t equal success or happiness… I met this guy Kermit today at a trail magic station who was saying how happy he is to be hiking. He said something like… the sorest muscles in his body are his face muscles cause he’s been smiling so much. I thought that was lovely. Ok, heading up a hill now, I’m gonna stop recording.
Julia: With every week on the trail, I think Benjamin is getting better and better at reminding himself to smile. And it makes such a difference. Like, remember how earlier Benjamin mentioned that hiking during sunset made him feel lonely and pessimistic? Well, check out this recording – same state, same time of day, he’s hiking alone, but this time, he doesn’t sound lonely at all…
Benjamin: Ok this is really fucking incredible. So, it’s about 8:45, it’s getting dark, there’s this incredible sunset. I’m in the Obsidian Falls Limited Entry Area – I think is what it’s called – in Central Oregon, basically no one is allowed to camp in this 2 mile stretch so I gotta walk through it, even though it’s getting dark. I’m just gonna camp on the other edge of it, on the other side. My man, The Machine, the Belgian doctor, is waiting for me, hopefully at the campsite. I haven’t seen him, which is fine, he walks really fucking fast. Which is I guess why he’s called The Machine. But looking up, I can see I don’t know what planet that is, but it’s either Mars, Mercury or Venus. I see the International Space Station, an incredible sunset. But holy shit is it so fucking cool to be here! Oh my god. Today was great. Spent time with cool people today. I felt connected to other humans. And right now it’s just so darn beautiful. I’m trying to do what Odie taught me, and not use my headlamp. Ooh – you might be able to hear, we’re coming up to a stream. And the trail is kinda glowing. And the red sunset in the back is kind of illuminating it. Today someone asked me: are you doing this to feed your ego or feed your soul. By “this” he meant the PCT. That’s a good question. At points I think about my ego, like, you know, it’ll be cool to have said I did the PCT, but that’s not when I’m enjoying it. When I’m enjoying it, like, this shit feeds my soul. It’s just so pretty. And so fucking cool. Oh my god. I get to do a stream crossing in the dark! Woohoo! This will be fun! Oh wait, do I? Yeah I do. Putting the phone down. (Stream crossing.) OK that was really fun. (Laughs) Man this is a good fucking moment. Ok it’s getting actually dark here. I’m gonna put on my headlamp and turn the recording off.
Julia: So, remember how earlier I said that Benjamin was trying to go farther and faster? Well, I think this is the point on the trail where Benjamin changes the equation. It isn’t just: how many hours per day do I have to hike to cover this many miles. Now there’s this other axis to measure along: is he hiking for his ego? Or for his soul? And if the mileage part is about ego, then the gratitude part – the feeling peaceful in the woods part – the noticing the beauty around him – those are all for the soul. Of course, his speed is still important – and he’s still competitive – so mileage doesn’t stop showing up… but it sounds to me like it takes a bit of a back seat to the other stuff.
Benjamin: So yesterday was a pretty cool… got to camp, had a nice dinner, mashed potato, ramen, and tuna all mixed together… (Fade)… Woke up this morning and the other person in the tent turned out to be Odie. And so our paths intertwined once more. So this morning the three of us kinda headed out together. Odie put a rock in my bag, secretly, which was a great prank. I found it at lunch when he, before he got there, I put it in his bag when he arrived… (Fade)… Yeah, step by step. Trying to remember the wise words of a funny dude I met named Schwing, who said just feel peaceful in the woods. I like that… (Fade)… Feeling a little tired, I’ve done the longest stretch of miles in two days yet. Didn’t hit 30 yesterday, but I think it’s wearing on me so I’m gonna listen to my body more and if I get tired today around 7 I’m gonna stop walking… (Fade)… Uh… stupid high desert has me getting nosebleeds all the time because of the dryness and the altitude. Woke up last night like choking on my own blood in my nose, which was icky. Um, slept pretty well beside that though… (Fade)… Uh it’s Wednesday again exactly 8:00 at night. I am in bed, ready to go to sleep. I actually took my own advice and I decided that after what felt like a short day, my body was tired. Hiking, as this guy I met the other day said, is supposed to be a leisure activity. (Yawn) Belly full of food, pooped, brushed my teeth, not in that order. Did it the opposite way…(Fade)…Last night, going to sleep early was incredible. I feel so much better. I think I’m gonna learn from that…Ok, that’s all.
Benjamin: (Grunt) Good evening. It is after 10 pm so I’m gonna go to sleep pretty soon but I had a pretty solid day. Made it to Shelter Cover where I got my box and my new shoes and the really nice cookies that Evan and Zina sent, made a huge difference in my happiness. Um, I was a little kind of 50/50 on the other folks at Shelter Cove. Like, for example, two of them were like kinda whining about how their moms are concerned about them, like “it’s so annoying.” And I was like, “dude. Your fucking mom like, cares about you. Just let her check in with you.” And they were saying, “yeah, I’m not gonna call her all the time.” And I was like, “Call your mom. Jesus.” These folks have clearly lost touch with reality because what we’re doing is a stupid hike. Family strikes me as much more important. Anyway, um… yeah, I’m going to go to sleep cause I’m really exhausted.
Julia: The effect of social pressure on the trail is so fascinating to me. These hikers are all trying to get away from society, but then, of course, they’re basically making their own out there. Benjamin talks a lot about reminding himself to “hike his own hike” because, if you’re not careful, you can get swept up into other hikers’ baggage. There is one force on the trail that I think informs a lot of Benjamin’s more ambitious choices, and that is: FOMO. Fear of missing out. FOMO can be social, like wanting to catch up with friends at a certain town. But sometimes, it’s just about seeing a certain sunrise from a specific ridge.
Benjamin: Today is… I don’t know, screw it, I’m not even gonna try anymore. I had this dilemma yesterday where I didn’t know whether or not I wanted to push up to this ridge, right below the highest point in Oregon. And I kinda had this debate about if I wanted to go because I wanted to see the sunrise the next day and I didn’t want to miss that and I would be kicking myself if I did—Hey good morning!
Benjamin: How’s it going?
Hiker: Good. How are you?
Benjamin: Doing well thanks.
Hiker: Bye, Have a good day.
Benjamin: You too! (Laughing) Oops, ok, so she definitely thinks I’m talking to myself. That’s alright. Anyway, there was rain and thunder and I was like screw it, I’ll just camp here at the junction, 4 miles away. I put a lot of stock in those things cause I feel like if I make the wrong decision, I’m really gonna regret it and I have only myself to blame and I was kinda angry that there was no one else involved in the decision-making process. Like if I had a hiking partner at that point, they could have weighed in, but it was just me. Anyway, I went to sleep, woke up at 3:30, 3:45, tossing and turning ’til 4. Then I was like oh shit, if I pack up now, I can hustle and make the sunrise up top. Well, I kinda missed the first half but then, just before the campsite I got to this big pile of rocks half a mile away and I was like screw it, and I sat and watched a beautiful sunrise, second half of one, at 5:45/6:00 am. And I was happy that I made that. So I felt a little bit better about that decision then, I was like ok, I did this. I saw the sunrise – most of it – I got a good night sleep, didn’t miss the sunset, didn’t push it, and I got a lot of miles in early this morning. And I was gonna leave the campsite when The Machine, my buddy I’ve been hiking with for a few days, poked his head out of his tent and I thought he would be further, so I was happy to see him. And now we are heading off together toward Crater Lake. Feeling pretty good. Feet are bruised and just kinda sore and in a lot of pain but uh, other stuff feels pretty good. That’s all for now.
Julia: So, speaking of sunrises, Benjamin really wanted to catch the sunrise over Crater Lake. But since you can’t camp at the rim, the plan was: make it to Crater Lake the night before, camp nearby, and then wake up crazy early so he could hike a couple hours up to the rim for sunrise.
Benjamin: Ok, camera’s recording. You can just say where we are, who you are, what we’re doing.
Sauce Boy: What’s up camera? I’m Sauce Boy. We got up about 3:30 this morning, we walked up to the top of Crater Lake, right now we’re looking at a cool view, waiting for the sun to come up and make some pretty colors. We’re both excited and proud of doing this.
Julia: I was so excited to hear Benjamin looking out over the sunrise on Crater Lake, describing the beauty and the majesty and the colors and having this moment. And instead, this is what the recording sounded like…
Julia: So, that’s what we get of Crater Lake. Wind sounds and the distant chatting of two guys sitting in front of a sunrise at 5:30 in the morning.
But I can tell you this. I saw a photo Benjamin took from the rim of the lake, looking out over the sunrise, and it’s incredible. This glassy water that looks almost like molten silver. Surrounded by a dark backlit crater’s edge. And then off in the distance, the fire-y sun peaking over the horizon. It’s exactly that moment when night turns to day.
And a part of me is glad that he had that moment to himself. We don’t get to hear what he’s saying – he won’t be able to listen back to it either. Instead it gets to crystallize in his memory – a moment he couldn’t capture with his voice memo app. Just a wash of colors, set to the soundtrack of wind in a microphone.
Julia: You’ve been listening to The Attempt, produced by me, Julia Drachman, with editing help from Doug Beyers. We are a production of Bad Cat Media, created in partnership with The Trek – a media company dedicated to thru-hiking and long distance backpacking enthusiasts. Find all of the episodes of The Attempt at thetrek.co/the-attempt. You can find more information about Bad Cat Media – learn about our board game – at badcat.media. You can follow us @badcat_media on instagram and twitter where I like to post behind the scene content and photos from The Attempt. The music you heard in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions. Thank you so much for listening – next episode will be out in a week.
Benjamin: I’m like, “dude, your fucking mom cares about you. Just let her check in with you.” And they were saying, “I’m not gonna call her all the time,” and I was like, “Call your mom! Jesus.”
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