Episode 10: Tiny Enemies and Tall Friends
The summer solstice came and went, and with it rose the dawn of the mosquitos. After dwelling on the macroscopic for so long, glissading down massive ice ledges with our axes, watching the sun rise on the daunting profile of 13,000 foot mountains – our problems have taken an extremely microscopic turn. We’re observing pristine wilderness now from behind a protective cloud of mesh and deet, and beyond that a menacing wall of tiny bloodsuckers, each one carrying even tinier diseases on their dirty proboscis. Every night we mount the mosquito offensive, trapping stragglers in our tent and killing them off one by one until we lay alone, under siege from the hundreds tapping at our bug netting.
Actually, it’s been pretty great motivation. I’ve discovered that my hiking speed increases dramatically when we go through a swamp or bog, despite the muck that oozes into our trail runners while we slosh through. But the mosquitoes, as unwelcome as they are, are the harbingers of the most welcome visitor of all: summer. The snow melt is picking up speed now as we lower in elevation, and we’ve found that rather than using our GPS to locate the trail beneath snow, we are using it instead to determine where the trail lies in a mud puddle or a rock field that has been ravaged by Spring. The water has softened, and with it taken half of the trail, but in Spring’s messy fingerprints we can see a future where the mud will settle into firm earth and the rocks will be dry again and the hard ridges of Summer’s thumbprint won’t be erased again until Fall.
The first night out of Mammoth, we only made it about seven miles in with Toe Touch before camping. The guys had taken the JMT alternate, which I confess to envying now. It’s more scenic and runs by more of the high lakes, although the PCT was higher up had some good views. In the morning we saw Bivvy pass us by and Toe Touch, who was already packed up, ran to catch him. Spoon and I hiked on a little later and expected to run into him, but we didn’t see him all day. Bivvy was feeling pretty down in Mammoth and we worried he might have gotten off the trail. As it turns out, he did get off the trail to go to a doctor at Agnew Meadow. The high mountains of the Sierra got into everyone’s blood in one way or another, but for Bivvy they entered as a coagulant. Bivvy was admitted at Mammoth hospital for the surgical removal of a blood clot caused by altitude.
For the record, I had no idea this could happen or I probably would have been more focused on our internal well being than external. As it was, I saw only the obvious danger of the Sierra. I often get annoyed that people are so concerned about bear attacks when hiking; these are extremely rare and an overreaction to visceral danger, which, despite its infrequency obscures the more real yet banal dangers of Lyme disease, food or water poisoning, heat exhaustion – or simply gravity, which always looks for an opportunity to use the ground against a hiker.
And yet, I wasn’t thinking about blood clots as we climbed up the headwall of Forrester Pass, or slid down Glen’s North side with a storm mounting behind us. These tiny dangers which shirk introduction are something we can’t fight or flee, that we can’t even anticipate. But maybe these are our largest enemies because they are so small, they elude detection.
But this wasn’t what I was thinking about as we entered the Yosemite wilderness, either. I was thinking about something larger than a blood clot: New Hampshire. We were feeling pretty homesick after Mammoth, but it’s probably just that time of the trail. We’ve been on trail for ten weeks now; the excitement of beginning is behind us and the excitement of nearing the end seems so far ahead. Also, now that we’re ‘in season’ for the resorts being open, we see day hikers and section hikers every day. They make fires at night, swim during the day, and always seem to have coffee in the morning. A group of them actually warned us on Donohue that it was too dangerous to go over the pass because of the snow levels, which were the best we’ve seen since we started the Sierra. I caught myself envying the section hiker pace and worried that I was starting to think of the trail as work. It seems like this happens in the middle of things, no matter how exciting they might be. There’s a dullness that settles in, a resolute commitment that makes the trail seem like something we have to do, instead of something we want to do.
Fortunately, that night, we happened upon a fire and two JMT hikers who invited us to sit with them. We had only gone 19 that day, and were feeling a little embarrassed by it. The terrain wasn’t too tough and we knew we needed to do at least 20 a day to make it to Washington in mid-September, but the fire was so inviting. When we told them how far we’d gone, they said, “Wow! That’s amazing – you guys are our personal heroes.” It’s funny how much of life is relative.
The next day, we hiked downhill and through gorgeous meadows with a 360 degree view. The mud was still more welcome than annoying, since it indicated melt, and in no time we reached Tuolomne Meadow and found our group – Centerfold rapidly packing up and unpacking boxes from the post office, Camel surrounded by food, and Toe Touch already making fast friends with some day hikers whose expressions said they wanted to adopt her. We got an incredible package from back home, full of words of encouragement, amazing food, 3-D glasses (of course), and way more alcohol than we could possibly hope to consume even if we were hiking at sea level. Our friends are great. We enjoyed brief popularity at Tuolumne when we gave away a bottle of vodka and spent a couple hours waiting for the Post office to reopen, attempting to eat our way through the menu at the grill in the meantime.
The hike into the high Sierra camp that night was epic. The rock work was incredible and must have taken decades to complete, cobblestone walkways everywhere and huge stairways built right into the trail. And next to the trail, a massive waterfall that extended down hundreds of feet. We spent the night at a real campsite (there were even pit toilets) and started the trail together the next morning – at about 9AM (we’re beginning to suspect that our companions are slowly bending to our schedule to stay with us). That day we agreed we should go at least a standard twenty, and soon we lost the others as we plodded along at our slower pace.
The terrain in Yosemite is hard, but a welcome difference. It feels a lot more like wilderness than the other sections of trail, which seem to be almost steam-rolled through the landscape. You can be standing three feet from the trail in Yosemite and have no clue where it is. But the challenge of navigation took our mind off of home and the 1700 miles in front of us. That night, when we got to camp weary and homesick, we couldn’t have been happier to see Camel making a campfire.
That night we did what we always talk about doing and we camped. We didn’t fall into our more recent routine of throwing the tents up, making a quick dinner, and flopping into our sleeping bags to read. We sat around a real fire laughing, cooking, and passing around the bottle of whiskey our friends fortuitously sent us. We even had an old-fashioned Mile 55 morning where Spoon, Toe Touch, and I took our time drinking coffee and eating elaborate breakfasts by our still-pitched tents while we watched Centerfold and Camel pack their belongings. There’s nothing better for homesickness than friends who feel like family.
The last campsite marked before a long stretch was at about 19 miles for the day, which we agreed was too short, especially since there was probably plenty of camping after it. We talked about meeting up there possibly, but Spoon and I knew our relative difference in speed and said our usual, “Go ahead and camp, we’ll catch you!” which comes true in the short term maybe only half of the time, but has a pretty good track record in the long term (usually because Toe Touch waits for us). Toe Touch rolled her eyes and took off, and we packed up.
The day’s terrain was tougher than we bargained for, starting out with more of those steep ups and downs. We knew we had a lot of climbing today, and that it would probably be a steeper grade than we’d gotten used to on the PCT, but the prospect seemed pretty exciting. All the rock scrambles and snow pockets were exhausting but they reminded us of hiking back in the White Mountains, a much needed dose of nostalgia after the homesickness we’ve been feeling recently. The day was long and tiring but it felt like an obstacle course – every time we reached a new section of trail, there was a new challenge. We navigated meandering switchbacks washed out or covered by snow using our GPS, forded a couple waterfalls and many streams, ran down mountainsides that were little more than scree, mud, and slush, and rock hopped through marshlands.
At one point, we came to a snowbound section of trail next to Falls Canyon River. At the section where the trail runs directly alongside it, the river is all white water and a tall rock wall hems in the trail, but the trail in this case was a ten-foot-high ridge of snow. You could either choose to walk between the wall and the snow – which was a tight fit at best – rock hop across the Rapids, or walk along the narrow, slushy ridge and hope you wouldn’t fall into the wall or the water.
Even though it was a hard day, we felt a lot more connected to the trail afterwards. Our energy was up and the constant changes in terrain made the sensation of hiking into the unknown more exciting. Still, by the time we reached Wilbur Lake and our 19th mile for the day, it was 8PM. We didn’t feel too bad about our time though, given the obstacle course. We were even thinking that the others might have broken their 20-plus rule and camped there anyways. But at the campsite there was no sign of Mile 55. It was still light enough to hike without headlamps and we were talking about going further when a couple called to us from their campfire. I went over to talk to them: “Have you seen three tall people?” They looked at me blankly and I tried again, “One of them’s a girl; she has a long blonde braid and a trucker hat.” At that, the couple, who was south bounding, told us they’d seen her while they were still hiking, two hours ago and moving fast. “She’s miles ahead,” they told us, “but we have s’mores!” On that note, I could hear the tent unfurl behind me and I turned around to see Spoon driving in stakes. Better luck tomorrow, I thought, imagining Toe Touch’s face when she saw us next.
We ate s’mores with Peter and Anna, who were from Belgium and Germany/California and hiking an extended version of the JMT, and fell fast asleep when our heads hit the pillow (or dirty stuff sacks, whatever).
In the morning, I woke up confused. My throat was sore, my head was foggy, and I felt completely stuffed up. I had a head cold with a fever that seemed to come out of nowhere. That day I felt like I could barely lift my pack, much less hike, and although Spoon suggested zeroing right there, I knew I’d go crazy if we didn’t get some miles in. The most ridiculous part of the whole thing was that I had overlooked another tiny danger: common germs. After weeks of sliding down snow-covered passes and navigating rough trail, my mileage was most greatly impacted by a head cold. Pretty anti-climactic.
We packed up and headed out – only to find a note from Toe Touch less than a mile later! We had been hoping to all pass mile 1000 together, but I knew there wasn’t a chance of that today. It was the best possible day to get sick; the terrain was super flat and, aside from some very wet sections of trail, it was pretty easy going. When we finally got to mile 1000, we found another note waiting for us from the Mile 55 crew. I wished we could reach back a few hours and hit that milestone together, but the notes kept me going that day. (Spoon might have also played a fairly major role in keeping me going, for the record).
Throughout the day, I kept asking people if they’d seen the crew. I also kept describing them as “three tall people,” which I knew was about as ridiculous as when I describe Bivvy to people as “an Irish guy” (“How are they supposed to know he’s Irish?” Spoon teases me). It was just the first thing that came out of my mouth – which is funny, but not only because it’s a terrible descriptor. It became funny to me in my congested brain because, at any other height, I would still think of them as tall. They’re just tall people – Giants among people who say they’ll do one thing but do another, who fall prey to the conveniences and comforts of normal life, who don’t push themselves as hard as they could.
I remember being at a yoga class with Centerfold (yes, the Detroit-born, baseball-hat-wearing Centerfold did yoga with us) before we left for the trail. The teacher asked us, “Who thinks they aren’t living up to their potential?” Of course I was critical of the question, wondering what that even means and trying to decide what defines anyone’s potential and, while I was mulling it over way too much, I realized that Centerfold had automatically raised his hand. I remember that I scoffed at him and gave him a look (I’m a really sympathetic friend). I couldn’t get over that moment, though. Here was someone who has unequivocally, obstinately even, succeeded at everything he’s set out to do. Before the trail he worked 80 hours a week at a job normally held by someone twice his age, he raced bikes, he came back from a broken leg to hike 2,700 miles with us. He planned parties for his friends and packed his roommate lunch to cheer her up. People automatically love him, and his friends would do anything for him. How could he not be living up to his potential?
But this feeling unites our three friends. It’s a restlessness that pushes them to be better people, every day. Whether it’s Toe Touch standing by to cheer on her friends that make it to the top of the mountain hours after her or Camel, hiking backwards to give away his only ace bandage, these friends of ours will always need room to grow. Camel and Centerfold and Toe Touch, these tall people, are each day casting larger shadows, striving towards a higher potential. We’re so proud to know them, and even more so to hike with them more than a third of the way to Canada.
Mile 55 parting ways is an inevitable thing, we’ve known for a long time. Before we even started the trail, I hoped we might make it 500 miles together but never would have anticipated us making it 1000. Toe Touch, Camel, and Centerfold are real athletes; for them, a lot of the journey and the adventure of a thru-hike is in the challenges they overcome. They’re naturally faster (which isn’t to say that they don’t work hard for it) and they keep a stronger pace. The fact that they’ve slowed down and compromised to hike with us for 1000 miles means a lot, but we want them to go their own speed now. If we catch them, we don’t want it to be because they let us but because, as Toe Touch put it in her final note to us, “This trail is super weird and I will always have hope you will show up out of nowhere.”
This weird trail connected us to some unexpected faces in Bridgeport: trail crew leaders from our time in the Northwest Service Academy, Kyra and Liz! We were pretty shocked to find them walking through Bridgeport, but not totally caught off guard. Last time we had talked to Toe Touch and Camel, they seemed to think we’d catch them in South Lake Tahoe or Truckee, but Liz actually is living in an old ranger office right in Bridgeport. They took us out for beers and icecream (a combination I cannot in good conscience recommend if you don’t have the steel stomach of a thru-hiker) and fed us an amazing breakfast. A forest fire that broke out on the highway delayed our packages, so we were even more grateful for the company while we waited in Bridgeport, knowing we’d be even later to trying to catch the group.
Hopefully, we’ll make it to Reno by July 4th and be able to show up out of nowhere after all.
Sponsors of Chuckles and Little Spoon that you should check out:
Mary Jane’s Farm organic dehydrated meals https://www.maryjanesfarm.org/
Honey Stinger bars, waffles, and energy chews https://www.honeystinger.com/
Big Sur Bars https://bigsurbar.com/
Katabatic Gear https://katabaticgear.com/
Mom’s Stuff salve https://www.momsstuffsalve.com
Little Spoon’s Instagram (Mark Santoski) https://www.instagram.com/marksantoski/
Centerfold’s Instagram (Jon Graca) https://www.instagram.com/jograca/
Toe Touch’s Instagram (Julie McCloskey) https://www.instagram.com/jtmcc272/
Toe Touch’s Blog https://seeyajules.com/
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