Are you afraid?
Let’s get something out of the way. I’ve been asked many times, most recently by some tourists at Crater Lake and the man who gave me a ride back to the trail, whether I’m afraid, as a woman, to be hiking this trail alone. The answer to this is simple and rings clear as a bell:
No, I am not afraid, as a woman, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone.
I feel safer here in my tent with my fluffy sleeping quilt and gorgeous fairytale lake view than I do out of the wilderness. Why? Because this is what it’s like to be a twenty-something woman in today’s society:
There are the moderate innocents, like the guy in Seattle whose bed I kept warm for months until discovering that he’d been writhing in bitterness over an ex who’d left him for someone else, convinced in his inexperience that she was his one and only. Or my Physical Therapist in Seattle who asked me out after having me do a set of clamshell exercises (use your imagination) on his exam table. Then there was the guy at Vanderbilt who was placed on disciplinary leave for sexually harassing me during a PhD rotation. The guy who asked me for nude photos to masturbate to while his wife was out of town. The one who sent me a nude photo with a La Croix can tastefully hiding his junk, and the other guy who sent me a similar art piece, simply replacing the La Croix with a Monster energy drink. There have been the guys who pose as friends but make unsolicited sexual comments, as if the mere presence of a woman constitutes a lubricious invitation. And then the time I was sexually assaulted in Rancho Santa Fe, one of the most affluent zip codes in the United States.
On the trail, the most raucous attention I’ve received from a man has been from a French hiker I met who calls me ‘beautiful Kate, very pretty Kate’ and insists that my bug headnet is “fashion” because he knows it makes me laugh. And, in what must be the French way, every time we arrive at a body of water, he strips down and swims around naked. But there’s nothing threatening or off-putting about it, it’s just simple and pure and wilderness. I’ll take that over the rude, crude, self-absorbed front-country dudes any day.
So if ever you’d like to ask a woman if she’s afraid to hike alone, do me a favor and find a man who’s hiking with a partner. Ask him if he feels weak because he’s hiking with somebody else.
I’ve stopped wearing sunscreen because it’s too sticky. Hahahaha just kidding. Everything is sticky. Everything is dirty and sticky and grimy and it’s amazing. I have a swipe of blood across my knee (whose blood I don’t know) from where I killed a mosquito. I have a bruise lining my other knee from where the adze of my ice axe scraped me on a glissade. My fingernails have a permanent quarter inch of dirt taking residence underneath them. Pretty sure my face is smeared in mosquito parts and sunscreen that I was too lazy to rub in. At one point I tried to shave my legs but there was so much grime that it clogged the razor and I only finished the bottom half of my right leg before running out of quarters for the shower. I think it looks great.
I have scrapes all over my legs from fallen trees I’ve had to climb over, and I really do smell like I’m about to engage in biological warfare. I have this theory that we actually all really like the way we smell, or are at least really, really curious about it. Like when you pick a booger and can’t help but check it out. I call it the self love aphrodisiac and it’s in abundance out here.
I decided to take the Oregon Skyline Trail, a PCT alternate, in order to bypass some snow in the Mt. Thielsen Wilderness. I took my time because I was waiting for some shoes to arrive at my next stop, so I stopped at a lake and asked the campground host about camping for PCT hikers. She said there’d been enough of us coming that way that we were allowed to disperse camp on the beach. Sold!
The thing was, when she said ‘beach,’ there were very few places where there was actually beach wide enough for a tent, so I walked down the narrow rocky shoreline where nobody was venturing and spotted a space right above the beach that was just big enough for my tent. Just me! It was awesome and it was all mine, so I swam and read and made dinner, and the next day I stayed past noon because it was just that nice.
I headed into the resort that was supposed to be getting my shoes the next day. In hiker land, we sometimes take what we call zeros, which are days when you hike zero miles. We also have neros, when you only hike a few miles. So I took a zero day while I waited for my shoes to arrive with the UPS delivery at 5pm. I stood there in my yellow crocs watching the driver unload the truck, definitely freaking him out. Then I went inside to wait for them to log the packages so I could get mine.
“You can’t touch the packages,” said the woman working the store.
I rocked back on my heels a couple times before heading next door to get a hotdog.
Turns out my package wasn’t there, and the tracking hadn’t updated to tell me where it was. No shoes for me. I set up my tent feeling defeated, may have called Mikhail in tears, and strapped myself in for another day in RV land. When I woke up at 6, I checked the tracking and my shoes were not only nowhere near the resort, they wouldn’t be arriving for another two days! I stomped over to the store and got on the phone with UPS, then with Zappos, and within 15 minutes Zappos had overnighted a pair of shoes to a stop I could make in 50 miles (and waived the shipping fee!). Thanks Zappos! Screw you UPS!
At that point, I’d spent 3 days at this resort, so I shot out of there like a loaded spring and hiked the 50 miles in 2 days.
I was feeling low, low, low that first day hiking out of the resort. I was sure that these shoes would start killing my feet again, that the mosquitos would be fierce, but I also knew that it’d help just to be out walking again. And it sure did. I climbed up above the mosquito zone to some gorgeous lake views and met Nica, my Persian angel from NYC who was out hiking alone for 5 days and was afraid to camp alone (?!). So we made a plan to camp together and she, having forgotten to bring bug spray, rocketed off towards camp.
I found a nice cabin in the woods at lunchtime and stopped to eat right as a thunderstorm rolled in. A fellow thru-hiker stopped in and launched into a diatribe about how the Appalachian Trail is so much better because there’s more of a culture and they have shelters and blah blah blah, so I snuck out of there while she was laughing at some of the entries in the register about how bad the cabin wifi was (there was no wifi). Out into the storm!
Though it wasn’t raining when I left the cabin, the lightning and thunder were clearly nearby. I had a brief thought about whether my ice axe would be a draw for lightning. Then the rain started. Just a little at first, so I put my poles on my pack and took my ice axe off to keep it from tearing a hole in my rain cover (she’s learning guys). Then it stopped, so I switched out again and took off my rain jacket. The temperature dropped and the mosquitos went back to their hidey holes and the air felt amazing. Big droplets of water fell from the trees onto my skin, my clothes. The air was cool and damp and refreshing, everything around me so green. I felt like I was walking through a terrarium in someone’s kitchen window on Orcas Island. I wanted to live that moment a thousand times over.
Then it started up again. At first I hid beneath the trees, convinced it’d be over in a second. Nope. The rain started coming in sideways and misting all around me. I duct taped the ends of my ice axe and put the rain cover back on, then got into my rain jacket and rain skirt (these things are awesome!). I hiked on, peeking up at the sky to see if I could tell the path of the storm. I heard thunder to my left, then a few minutes later, thunder to my right. Alright, I thought, it’s passing over me, and pretty soon it was gone. When I arrived at a lake to camp, there were fire planes being sent out to check whether the lightning strikes had started any fires.
Next I crossed into the Three Sisters Wilderness, where it was rumored there were less mosquitos. They were (mostly) right! I lounged at a lake for a couple hours in the afternoon and continued on into a forest area that had dense shrubs growing underneath and all of these orange things floating around. Butterflies! Seriously, my Snow White moment. I walked through fields of butterflies all afternoon, it was a little ridiculous. Excellent special effects in the Three Sisters, don’t need to tone that down one bit.
In other news, I’ve become a backpacking ninja. I can knock down camp, eat breakfast and be ready to go in less than 15 minutes. I can eat and walk, drink water and walk. I know exactly where everything goes in my pack and organize it so that I can easily get at what I need in the order I’m going to need it. Need bug spray? Reach up behind me to unzip the brain of my pack and pull it out, apply, stick it back in. Thirsty? Grab the water bottle from the side harness, drink and replace, all without missing a step. Time for the bug head net? Unclip it from beneath the water bottle and throw that sucker on. I did have the brief thought of trying to pee while still having my backpack on, but decided that was just a tad beyond the call of duty.
20 mile days
When you start hiking 20+ mile days, it’s unbelievable how many things happen over the course of a single day. You traverse entire biosystems. You hike over lava and rocks and sand and dirt and water. I try so hard to capture it all in my journal at the end of each day, but there’s no way I could ever share it all here. There’s just too much. More happens in one day out here than ever happened in a month of cubicle life.
You get into town and commiserate with the other hikers about the number of blowdowns and how you had to run to escape the mosquitos. You run into people like Nica, who camps with a couple of us thru hikers, gaping as we roll golf balls over our feet, slather on Bengay, rehydrate body wipes and consult water reports on our phones. Then she hands around an entire stick of salami from a gourmet deli in NYC and I’m telling you, if Salami is a place, this is the salami it was named after. She just didn’t really want it!
And there’s the guy you run into in town who’s having trouble with his feet. He’d wanted to walk the PCT barefoot because he walks barefoot most of the time…but the snow. So he’d been walking in some cheap mock military boots that destroyed his feet and asked his family to send him a pair of actual shoes. His Merrells arrived the next day and off he went. Here I am walking down the trail about 20 miles from town and what do I see but bare footprints! It made me laugh out loud, and I’ve been following them ever since. I guess the Merrells didn’t work out.
And then you pass by Brahma Lake and spot a huge rock in the sun along the shore. So you lay down to take a nap while butterflies and bright blue dragonflies dance around you. Yeah that just happened to me like an hour ago, it’s unreal.
Life is so full out here! Vaya bien!
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