Day/Night Zero: The Journey to the Journey
Nervous For the Wrong Reasons
I keep thinking of the line from Back to the Future, when Doc says to Marty: “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads!” One of the thrills of embarking on a multi-month, foot-powered adventure is the disconnect you have from car/road life. You walk from place to place, you have everything you need in a smallish vessel on your back, the times you find yourself in a vehicle are novel and hilarious. The simplification of life and resulting mental freedom are a main reason people return to long-distance hiking again and again.
Getting to this roadless realm, though, unless you have a direct ride from a trusted human being, is a goddamn pain in the ass. Planes, trains, and automobiles don’t even begin to cover it.
In the week before departing, I’d driven 850 miles to my parents’ house, 146 of it with a horrible hangover and 714 of it in one wretched blitz that included getting stuck in traffic in New Jersey after midnight, figures. Once home, I’d slept no more than five hours a night as I unpacked, repacked, attempted (and failed) to assemble resupply boxes, did a final shakedown hike through Manhattan with the full five liters of water (sobering), and tried to cram two years worth of friend hangouts into an afternoon and a half before departing for another chunk of time. Whew! I yearned to collapse into Seat 32B on my Delta flight and pass the hell out.
My flight was at JFK at 8 am so I woke up at 4 to get there by 5 to get through security by hopefully 6 to sit there stressing out about COVID and crashing for the full two hours. Indeed, after over two years of being ground-bound, getting in a plane before an epic trip seemed like a recipe for a tragic headline: “Intrepid Youngish Woman Heading Out on Adventure of a Lifetime Among the Deceased in Super Unlikely Plane Crash; SARS-COV-2 Found in Blood; Heavy Pack Weight Caused Plane to Dive over Arizona Mountains.”
The Airport: A Necessary Evil
I jumped out of my father’s car and a curbside agent called me over. He hesitantly tended to my bag – a flimsy dollar store plaid plastic bag with a zipper that contained my knife, tent poles, stakes, and trekking poles. He told me I should put everything in my backpack and take it on the plane because it was only a couple of pounds and would cost $30. I told him Delta said I couldn’t. He shrugged, then got really close to me and said, “If you’re happy with the service I’ve provided, we accept gratuities.” I peered inside at the Delta counter with a serpentine line 50 people deep. Le sigh. I slid him five bucks.
Security at JFK is always a joy and by always I mean absol-fucking-lutely never. My gripe of the day, besides the fact that I’m sure the 25 percent of people who were maskless were surely the ones who’d postponed their trips to Times Square until the mandates and vax checks were all lifted, was that my pack – specifically my meticulously packed food bag – got flagged and checked by security. The poor agent pulled out bar after bar, powder after powder, ramen after ramen, and had to swipe every single item with a security wand. She did not find anything.
Pre-Hike Jitters at 35000 Feet
The flight itself was fine, though for the hundreds of dollars one pays to fly across the country you’d think they could give you a double digit number of pretzels. I slept on and off. I watched the airplane icon cross the country. I wanted to stay in the air a little longer. I wanted to run to the beach and put my feet in the Pacific. I wanted to stay a night in San Diego; I wanted to beam to the start.
As I sat on the plane, sucking on each tiny pretzel to make them last an hour each, craning my neck over my seatmate to try to look at the vast country unfolding underneath our metal chariot, I found myself incapable of visualizing the trail, the hike, the bioregions, the towns. Had I prepared enough? Had I even prepared? Six weeks with a permit didn’t seem like enough – but I’d read about this hike for years and that should be good, right?
To San Diego!
We touched down at the airport; the worst part of the trip had come to an end! There was a slight snafu with my checked bag – it was not on the carousel, instant heart drop – but with the help of the pleasant people at Information, I was able to find it somewhat near the odd-sized baggage area, essentially in the middle of the floor of the airport. I strapped my pack on, sweating in the thick heat, struggling with the weight even sans water. Fuck. Perhaps two books were overkill?
In retrospect, I should’ve gone straight to Santa Fe Depot instead of following my coastal dreams because what followed my arrival in California was a two-hour aimless promenade around the airport as I searched for a bus that would take me to the beach with minimal hassle. I just wanted salty sea on my freshly manicured toes before shoving them into the triple wrap of Injinjis, Darn Toughs, and Trail runners for the next five months. Unfortunately, I could not figure out the damn bus system. In my defense, neither could the four airport and bus employees I asked for assistance. Someone told me one bus; someone else told me another. I debated taking an Uber but I didn’t want to spend the money. Finally, a wise employee informed me there was no longer a bus stop where the bus stop used to be and that I should take a bus downtown and then take another bus out to the beach. I did not go to the beach in San Diego.
I jumped on a bus that went downtown and decided that a burger and a beer would do as good a job as anything at righting both my jet lag and my pretzel-induced calorie deficit. I then went to 7-11 to buy a couple of famous Smart Water bottles and a few last minute snacks. This turned out to be shocking for a couple of reasons: One, the weight, and two, the California prices. They wanted four bucks for a Fast Break! I settled on shareable Starburst for a reasonable $2.79.
The trolley was pulling in so I was able to get on and ride through the city to the El Cajon Transit Center, a place I simply couldn’t envision. Large? Small? Confusing? Official? I got off the platform and it was none of those things; rather, it looked like any small town bus station in any rural town in the world: The men smoking and lingering, the convenience store with lotto and drinks, dust, noise, motion. I remembered getting off a train in the outskirts of Florence and wandering through empty streets at siesta time looking for a local.bus to a hotel that turned out to not exist. I remembered shuffling off a bus in the middle of the night in Panama on the way to Boquete and eating lo mein and skim milk because that’s what the rest stop offered and there wasn’t going to be food for hours. I finally felt like I was going somewhere, is my point. The stressful bullshit of air travel and cities was behind me; all I had was one more leg before going fully leg-powered.
I wandered over to the bus stop assuming I’d have to wait an hour but there was a guy frantically waving me to the open doors: “Hiking? Hiking? Come on!” I scurried over with my million pound pack and boarded the bus. There were a couple of other hikers, two of whom were talking about gear, and I braced myself for a hellish haul hearing about ounces and grams. It’s 2022: Are we still really talking about gear? I get that we westerners default to consumerism as a conversation topic but it’s really been grating on me for the last year or so. I didn’t want to be marveling at desert scrub with the sounds of dudes trying to justify the price of the Duplex in my ears. Luckily, I found myself seated next to a lovely woman en route to her mom’s house in Tecate who was into hiking and eager to chat. We spent the hour and a half ride talking about everything from the PCT to hiking as a woman to house prices in San Diego to her divorce decades ago to the Botanical Gardens. As the bus driver took the sharp curves of the road at a pace that made my stomach turn, I was happy to have something else to concentrate on.
Mile Minus One
The majority of riders got off at the border crossing in Tecate, leaving four hikers. We got dropped off at the store in Campo and I got fuel! That was exciting. I was headed to stay at the CLEEF campsite half a mile from the southern terminus monument; everyone else was just camping on trail. I walked behind the other hikers towards the campground, talking on the phone, not yet wanting to enter into the realm of “where’re you from” and “what do you do?” I know these are the simple, socially accepted questions we have to answer in order to get to the good stuff but after a week of sorting through my thoughts and gear, jumping on a transcontinental flight, and public transiting my way to the border in an unfamiliar city, I simply wanted to talk to people I already knew before heading into the unknown.
After I’d spent a while lingering at the road where I had service, I spotted a sea of tents and headed over to pitch mine. Oddly, I wasn’t hungry, so I feasted on a sunset and the low hills of the desert. Tomorrow I’d hike. I wish I could say I had deep thoughts and grand proclamations before the start of this months-long endeavor but in reality I passed out before dark. The epiphany would have to wait.
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