Finding Dan: Loss and Acceptance on the PCT
This post, written a month into my 2021 PCT thru-hike, spans a few particular days of the trip —Days 1, 3, 23, 24, 27, and 28 — and covers a transformative experience involving the life of our friend, Dan.
Arriving at the Mount Laguna Campground, I followed the scent of campfire and found myself at a spontaneous gathering of Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikers. It was the fourth afternoon of my trip and everyone was celebrating the completion of the first 40 miles. After a year of relentless disappointments, isolation, and cancellations, we felt like we had finally made it. We watched giant pine cones turn to flames, drank beer, and for the first time in what felt like forever, were making new friendships face to face.
Dan, a 40-something man from Southern California, was the type of person who couldn’t help but make you laugh. I barely had time to respond because he kept rolling the jokes out. “THIS is good times!” he said standing next to me, scanning the scene together, and damn he was right. We had met on the first day at the southern entrance, and the most memorable conversation was when he described his dream woman: long blonde pigtails, slightly on the heavier side, with a pack llama carrying her gear along the trail. We all would keep an eye out for her in the Sierras.
He and John, my hiking partner, particularly hit it off. Dan was a drummer and the two of them immediately clicked on some obscure jazz-funk artists, like Medeski Martin & Wood, whom John and I saw in concert. I’ll never forget when Dan told me that night, “isn’t it great to meet so many people in your lane?”
Dan and some others left camp early the next morning and John quickly realized how bummed he was to have not gotten his phone number. He was hoping to hike with another musician and Dan was the man. While walking around the campground before our departure, John found Dan’s tent stake. It was lighter than a twig and as total stereotypical gear nerds, we were wowed. It became a symbol of destiny that we would have to see Dan again to reunite and return the stake.
John and I talked about this guy for the next 18 days. We always checked for his name trail registers and joked about needing to hike more miles each so we could “catch Dan.”
On Day 23, we re-entered the unforgiving desert.
After descending over 6,000 feet from the snowy San Jacinto mountains above Palm Springs, California, the terrain was hot and exposed, and there wasn’t any shade besides the occasional large shrub. A day hiker headed in my direction stopped me and said, “Hey, do you know that guy up ahead? I think he might be dehydrated.” I took a quick look, and while I was too far away to make out his face clearly, he had the tell-tale sign of a PCT hiker with the classic silver sun umbrella laying out by the trail. The nearest campsite with water was only four miles ahead, so I told the day hiker we would ensure that he arrived at camp safely. He said the hiker’s name was Dan, so needless to say, I hoped that he would be “the” Dan.
And he was! “Dan!” I shrieked in excitement. He looked at me confused. I took off my hat and sunglasses and responded “It’s Amelia, from Mt. Laguna!” He said, “Are you sure you know me?” I replied, “Yes! I’m with John! Remember we talked about Medeski?” He responded hazily, “John Medeski is here?” confusing John Medeski, the musician, and John, my hiking partner. I recounted an obscure detail about his life: “You and your ex-girlfriend adopted a cat during Covid, and you miss the cat more than her!” I could see the gears turning in his head, puzzled how I could possibly know this, but he couldn’t put two and two together. John caught up a minute later and was just as excited to finally see Dan; but similarly, he did not recognize John either.
At first, we thought he was dehydrated and a bit out of it, and felt we were right on time to help (not so coincidentally, John recently accepted the trail name “Right On Time.”) Less than a mile before we saw Dan, John and I took a break with some other hikers in the only shade we had encountered all day. John was saying how he was carrying way too much water, easily the heaviest item we carry, and contemplated dumping it on his head. He decided not to in case another hiker might need it. Serendipitously, we also met someone who had just received a massive shipment of liquid IV in the mail, a super electrolyte drink mix, and gave us each some extra.
After propping Dan up with some shade from both his and John’s sun umbrellas and filling his empty water bottles with water and liquid IV, we thought Dan was getting better. He sat up on his own and said things like “You’re starting to look familiar!” and “You’re really saving my ass right now.” It was nearing four p.m. when the heat of the desert day finally starts to dwindle, and we figured soon he’d start to cool off and we’d all walk together to the next water source.
After about 30 minutes had passed, we realized things were not heading that way.
Dan couldn’t digest any water and kept asking the same questions, like how we found him. He had no idea where he came from that day. In fact, the last thing he could remember was that he was hallucinating.
We knew there was a ranger station at the Whitewater Reserve campground four miles ahead. I searched for cell service and tried to call, but had no luck. I managed to send a text to my family with the information about the situation, hoping that one of them could call the ranger station and send help.
We made a plan that I would run down to find the ranger, who could hopefully call for assistance, hike back with me, and carry Dan’s bag to camp. We were hesitant to use my emergency GPS button right then because a helicopter rescue can take many hours and be tens of thousands of dollars without health insurance, which Dan lacked. We also considered that the ranger would have a satellite phone and could more accurately describe the situation to emergency services compared to what my GPS equipment offers. We decided that John would hit the button if the situation worsened dramatically, and he would start looking for me if I wasn’t back by 8 pm. I packed a snack, a water bottle, my headlamp, and my backup battery charger, and then started running.
I didn’t take the elevation into account on this eight-mile round-trip trail run. It was on a steep cliff edge with a precipitous drop in elevation, at least a thousand feet. About halfway through I got a text from my sister Tina, a Physicians Assistant, who said she left a message at the ranger station and based on Dan’s symptoms, we should “hit the button” and call in for a helicopter rescue. But knowing the ranger station would have a satellite phone, I kept running. My nerves, adrenaline, and dehydration were all growing. About half a mile from the station, I tripped on some protruding boulders and slammed into the ground, knees first.
Out of breath, with tears in my eyes and blood running down my shins, I got to the ranger station. I asked everyone I saw if they knew where a ranger was and started cursing myself when I realized it was 5 pm and the ranger had left. Thankfully I was alerted that there was a night ranger. A fellow thru-hiker friend was there. She, Dan, John, and I all had met on Day one, mile four of the PCT when we stopped to filter water. With eerie irony, Dan actually taught her how to use her Sawyer Squeeze water filter that first day. She helped me find the ranger’s cabin, where we had to force our way through a locked outer gate in order to knock on the front door.
Frantically, I described the situation. The fellow thru-hiker said she had seen him in a similar condition around one p.m., almost two hours before John and I found him. While the ranger couldn’t hike back up with me because he was recovering from knee surgery, he could call for help. The ranger and fellow hiker silently stared at me, anticipating my decision. I didn’t know what to do. Time was short. It was getting dark. I had no idea if Dan was improving, or if John already had called for help, which could confuse heli-rescue teams and delay help even further. It was nearly seven p.m. and I needed to be back to John in an hour. At that moment, after realizing Dan had been blacked-out, delusional, and unable to get water down for over five hours, I knew his life was in my hands. I was the only one who could give the “okay” and make the call.
The ranger contacted the local rescue team and described the symptoms over the phone, Dan’s location, and shared my contact info. I took a few swigs of water, scarfed down a granola bar and some electrolyte gummies, and then headed back alone up the mountain.
I did everything I could to stay calm.
I spoke out loud to myself. I counted my steps. I repeatedly recited conditions of happiness: “One. I am physically strong. Two. I am mentally strong. Three. There is still daylight. Four. John is smart and can handle this well.”
It was nearing dusk when I saw a helicopter fly close by. It circled around for about five minutes and then flew off. It was around 7:50 p.m. when the helicopter disappeared into the distance. I thought to myself, “There goes Dan.” It was almost completely dark and I could tell I was nearing John by the blinking of his red headlamp. To my surprise, as I neared closer, I heard not one, but two voices.
It turned out that the helicopter circled them, then someone yelled something at John that he couldn’t hear, and then flew off. We were floored. John was absolutely wiped. For the entire time I was gone, John couldn’t walk away from Dan for a minute. At one point during John’s frustration, he accidentally snapped one of his own trekking poles. John had to patiently fill Dan’s bottle up with tiny amounts of water to force him to sip the liquid rather than chug it, which Dan continuously dismissed and then repeatedly threw up. Dan didn’t know his own age. He couldn’t remember John’s name. He didn’t even know he was sick.
After the helicopter came and left, a part in Dan’s brain lit up that he needed to get out of there. He presumably had no insurance and a helicopter ride can put you in debt for life. He repeatedly insisted on wanting to hike forward, even though he didn’t know which way the trail went nor the number of miles until water. Several times I pointed out the piles of vomit surrounding him in hopes that he would register his state of illness.
We did have a really sweet conversation at one point, though. John had walked away needing a well-deserved minute to himself. I gently started asking Dan about his music. He said he started playing drums as a kid and teaches now. He told me in a serenely sweet way that he plays jazz-funk. He said he loved the musical trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and I told him how John and I saw them live. We talked about the sousaphone. I think we both were able to take a deep breath together in that tiny, tranquil moment of escape.
At this point, John and I were exhausted, dehydrated, and hopeless. It was dark. Dan insisted on walking and wasn’t taking no for an answer. The helicopter came and left. What the fuck. Was it coming back? Was someone going to walk here instead? What do we do now?
In our deprived and desperate state for something to happen, a guardian angel appeared.
Her name was Ellie and she had a therapy golden retriever with her named Rowdy. She was calm and kind and without hesitation joined our team. John and I were so thankful to have a third party fresh on the scene to help make decisions with. She had extra water and talked to Dan as John and I were able to take a minute together and breathe (and snuggle an affectionate golden retriever). She helped us come up with a game plan that we would all cowboy camp without tents on the side of the trail, and hit our personal GPS rescue button if help didn’t arrive in the next hour.
While the rocky hillside was a less than ideal spot to sleep, we were relieved that Dan finally got the message that we were not hiking on. He laid out his pad and started to close his eyes. I set an interval timer for ten minutes. All night, every ten minutes, I would check to make sure he was breathing. This was perhaps the most frightening moment of my life.
But before the first alarm went off, we noticed a helicopter coming back! We all made our headlamps visible and the chopper came closer. The helicopter created winds so intense, bushes were being ripped out of the ground by their roots. A man came down from a cable as the helicopter hovered. He strapped Dan and his pack in a one-piece heli-rescue suit. I guess Dan finally accepted the reality of the situation, despite him still not truly recognizing that he was sick. The moment after his feet left the ground, he asked us “Where are my trekking poles?” This guy didn’t know his age or where he was. How did this accurate detail come into his consciousness?
We watched a cable connected to the helicopter raise Dan up into the sky. Next, the cable was sent down again and the rescue worker strapped himself in. He tossed us a bottle of water, saluted us, and then rose to the helicopter and faded into sky.
John, Ellie, and I were speechless. We were shocked, relieved, and numb to the point where we couldn’t speak words. We quietly laugh just to feel something and recognize the absurdity of everything that had just happened. We were no longer worried.
John picked up Dan’s poles and decided to hike a very short distance to get to some flatter ground ahead, though we practically set up camp on the trail. We were all in disbelief about what had happened, but Ellie, our voice of reason, had the fantastic idea of making some hot chocolate. We drank and ate and felt the strange cocktail of adrenaline and exhaustion mix through us. It was probably close to 10 p.m. at this point (I’m usually in my tent by eight p.m.). Expecting not to sleep at all from the aftershock, I lay on my back and knocked out almost instantly.
John and I slept in. By the time we awoke Ellie and Rowdy had hiked on. With dry throats, headaches, and dark yellow pee, John and I were eerily dehydrated. While I was still in shock and intermittently cried, John made jokes to help ease his inner tension.
After hiking the four miles to the campground I had run to and from the night before, we were both complete wrecks. We had to recount the events to the day ranger and saw some friends that we were able to vent to. We decided to get off the trail for a day to recover and process what had just happened. Luckily we got a quick ride and an affordable hotel in Palm Springs, and let our bodies and minds fully relax. I ate an enormous amount of Mexican food, swam in a pool, lounged in a hot tub, and slept as much as possible. I was originally hesitant to get off trail, but it was necessary. We were able to take a deep breath and reflect on the experience, assess what went right and wrong, and be fully hydrated and re-energized to keep hiking.
John texted Dan the next morning. We weren’t sure if amid Dan’s illness he was able to give John a correct phone number, but it turns out he did because he texted us back! He said he was home with his parents and didn’t feel great, but was hoping to get back on the trail in a few days. He had no memory of the incident, but thanked us and asked what had happened. John responded with a brief account of the event and a photo the three of us had taken back on day four, but by the time we got back on the trail that evening, we hadn’t heard back from him.
John and I were proud of the way we had handled it and so relieved that he was okay. The next few days of hiking reinforced that this trip was about experiencing each day for what it offers, and not about pushing miles and fixating on egotistical goals. We shared the lessons we learned with other hikers and continued to hike on while looking forward to hearing from Dan again and maybe meeting up one day soon.
We didn’t have cell service for the next three days. It was the evening before we planned to enter the next town, Big Bear Lake, and we were in the middle of telling another hiker about the incident when John got cell service. He silently paused, wide-eyed staring at his phone, and I asked “What did Dan say?” two or three times.
“Dan is dead,” he said blankly. Dan’s father had texted John and thanked us. Apparently, Dan had a brain bleed and mild stroke the day we saw him, and then a second stroke the next day where he died at his parents’ house, probably shortly after he had texted us back. Dan got to die at home. His dad said we were heroes.
I spent more time staring at the stars than the back of my eyelids that night. I kept dreaming of finding water. We had a 13-mile hike to town, where my generous sister booked a hotel for us for two nights. We were stunned and so deeply sad. The whole hike there I honed in on his spirit. It was the most present I felt mentally and spiritually on trail. The wind and the barren rolling hills and the distant trees were all him. We even sighted rare cougar. I don’t believe in traditional reincarnation, but I’d like to believe that since Dan was a cat lover, it wasn’t a total coincidence.
John and I needed another break from the trail. We were, and still are, in mourning. I was anxious about returning to the PCT, but my dad advised me that all I can do to move on is to literally move forward. And that’s what we’ve been doing.
It’s been just over a week since we found out and are learning how to grieve this trauma without sinking, but floating across the trail miles. We met a new group of supportive hiker friends, but I feel disappointed when hikers hear our story and don’t acknowledge how this tragedy could have happened to anyone. Some hikers stepped up with us that day, while others let us down. I’m still having a difficult time accepting that a friend who saw Dan earlier in the day and knew that he was exhibiting signs of dehydration didn’t seek help. However, I do not exaggerate when I say that nearly every moment, I am grateful for this experience, my and John’s health, and the restorative power of nature.
Ultimately, I learned that the safety of one is the safety of all on this trail.
You are never carrying too much water — not just in the case for someone else’s health, but for yours, too. In an emergency, make sure you prioritize your own health first. John and I were both dehydrated and hungry by the end, and luckily when I tripped and fell, I only scraped my knees. If I had seriously hurt myself, the situation would have been catastrophically worse. Check someone’s vitals if they are overheated, and poor water on their skin if they can’t digest it. Finally, it’s worth taking the time to stop and say hello. Make sure a person is really doing okay before hiking on.
Dan died doing what he loved and with people in his own lane. John has Dan’s trekking poles in his hands every day, and in honor of him and the last words he ever spoke to us, they’ll be coming to Canada, along with his tent stake.
I know he is with his llama lady now. Thank you, Dan, for reminding me that it is not about getting there; it’s about being here.
I want to thank everyone who helped me handle and heal through this trauma. Birdperson, Sage, and Pinecone, our Day 1 Tramily, who understood Dan’s beautiful spirit and supported me emotionally after his death. Giddy, Ellie, and Rowdy, the hikers who stepped up the day we needed help. Cheese Slice, Cuddi, Magnet, Bluegrass, and BBQ Day, who welcomed us into their tramily when we needed trusting love and support. Poppins and Syn who always understood and helped me find new freedom on the trail. My parents and sister for supporting remotely. And most deeply, Right on Time, my dearest friend and hiking partner, for your devotion, friendship, and wisdom.
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