Finding Purpose in the Sierra Nevada
Miles walked: 1,153, but I’m not currently on trail. Read on to find out why.
I guess this is a more personal post about my Sierra experience than my previous post. During the past month, I’ve experienced my highest highs and lowest lows. I’ve cried, wished I could have quit, been angry and tired and proud, and fallen more in love with this trail than I could’ve ever thought possible. So here’s what happened.
I left Kennedy Meadows (mile 700) feeling on top of the world. I had just hiked through the entire freaking desert! One of my friends snapped a pic of me at the Kennedy Meadows sign as we headed back to the trail, and I thought nothing of it. The next day, after a full seven hours of sleep, we were off again, this time in full climbing mode.
As I stopped to filter water, I looked through the pictures from the previous night and was stunned to see how fat I was. I mean, I think I must’ve lost weight in the desert, but I didn’t think I would still look as gross as I had before I left. I wondered with horror why people were hanging around me. I looked at that picture and saw a blubbery mass of self-doubt and fear, not a badass hiker who had just completed the first 700 miles of the PCT.
I guess I’ve learned a lot about myself out here. In the desert, it was mostly my body that was getting stronger. I barely had to think as I cranked out miles on sand-worthy legs, and fell asleep, completely sore and tired. Out here in the Sierra, my body doesn’t get tired anymore. My feet don’t feel that familiar heat at the end of the day. My legs don’t complain anymore. My heart pounds, and my lungs do struggle to get oxygen from this new high-altitude climate, but my body overall is fine. The Sierra (for me) were a mental challenge, and boy have they won a majority of the daily battles. I struggled almost every day at the beginning of the Sierra with my body and my confidence, but as I bagged more and more mountains, I stopped thinking about what my body looked like, and started thinking about what it felt like. And for me, that’s a victory.
PS. In the course of the Sierra, I lost around 20 pounds of fat.
I went over Forester Pass at night and went over Glen Pass the next afternoon with Sam. We camped at the bottom of Glen Pass at an absolutely stunning set of lakes, and woke up and swam and did laundry and ate a leisurely breakfast. Sam left to hike for the day, and I took a four-hour nap, after which I walked for about 1.2 miles. I sat for an hour, after napping the entire day, scratching mosquito bites and killing the little bastards when they landed on me. I killed two dozen, but they just kept coming. With a cry of frustration, I pooped as fast as I could and set up my camp, feeling very smug that the mosquitoes couldn’t get me when I was in my tent. I had walked a total of 1.2 miles, and I felt as miserable and discouraged as I ever had.
I woke up the next morning and noticed that I had set up my tent facing the most breathtaking view of mountains. And I realized that my problem was that I needed to get out of my head. I couldn’t let such tiny things as mosquitoes and single days ruin such a monumental experience as the PCT. Instead of focusing small, I needed to expand my field of view. I needed to look at the mountains, not my feet. I needed to think about the sky, how I was changing physically and mentally, and all the animals I was seeing, and not worry about my mosquito bites and how lonely I was. The PCT is a massive trail, an incredible culture, and a once in a lifetime experience, and I needed to focus on that, and not the days that brought me down.
And with that mind-set, I finished the Sierra in a state of wonder and excitement. My experience is bigger than me.
John Muir Was Right
OK, I don’t know how many of you know about John Muir, who the John Muir Wilderness is named for and a prolific advocate of preserving natural places, but the more I hike the more I realize he was right. Yes, wild places should stay wild, especially now, and the John Muir Wilderness is incredible. But what is absolutely true: “Into the mountains I will go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” Ha. I walked into the Sierra Nevada (100 percent straight mountains), and walked until I lost my mind, and boy did I lose my mind.
I started thinking obsessively about dinosaur spleen (Did dinosaurs have them? How big were they? Could I use one as a backpack, like a sheep bladder water bottle?). Why? I don’t know. I don’t even know a lot about dinosaurs. I pretended like dinosaurs had never gone extinct, and that I was dodging the giant feet of the massive beasts as I walked.
I talked to myself and talked almost exclusively in a Bear Grylls accent. Why? I don’t know.
I wore my thermal pants inside out so there were little silver dots that lit up like a disco ball when I looked down while night hiking. A little party for me!
I planned out my life about 95 1/2 different ways. I included possibilities like losing a limb, getting stranded at sea, fighting in wars, and rescuing chipmunks.
I imagined mosquitoes (enlarged quite a lot) as the ones hiking and us hikers (made tiny) as the ones totally bugging the heck out of the mosquitoes. I thought about this one for days and days on end.
I also thought a lot about tuna. I don’t even like tuna that much. Huh.
So I 100 percent lost my mind in the Sierra. In fact, the Sierra completely wrecked me mentally. So much so, that even when I got to Truckee (well into Northern California), I still wasn’t the happy go lucky hiker that started the trail. I left the Sierra a different person. I left Truckee needing a break.
But what I did find in the Sierra was my soul. And I don’t mean this in a cheesy way. I mean in the tiny lilac butterflies, the silent mountains, the gentle lakes, the sweeping valleys, the craggy rocks, the soft grass, and the merciless sun, the quiet splendor of being alone among giants, in the “cathedral of the Gods,” I have found myself. I am not meant to live in front of a computer screen, or waste away at a desk, or be sedentary or complacent. No, I’m meant to be free, out here, in the place that makes me feel the strongest and the most vulnerable. My soul does not reside in the entitled nature of society, if that makes any sense. No, I have to earn what is coming, earn my soul outside in the pain and beauty and fragility and the silence of nature. I’ll stop waxing poetic now, but suffice it to say that though my mind was lost in the Sierra, my soul was found. And though I left the trail because I need my mind back for the coming school year, my soul is still firmly intertwined with the fog in the trees and the call of the birds. And though my hike may be done for this year, I’ll finish the PCT next year. I’ll hike the AT and the CDT, the Camino and then the PCT again. My mind isn’t ready quite yet, but my soul is.
The Sierra, by the Numbers
Miles walked: 1,153
Number of rolled ankles (only counts if I had to stop and wait to see if I could put weight back on it): Nine
Marmots seen: 26 (including a baby)
Lizards seen: Four (unlike in the desert, where they were literally everywhere)
Bears seen: One (wayyyy cute)
Passes submitted during the day: Two
Passes submitted during the night: Five
Snow-cones eaten: Eight (just pop some electrolyte powder on top of snowballs at the top of passes)
Zero days: Five
New stickers on my bear canister: Six
Stunning sunsets seen: 14
New cracks in my phone: Seven (but they’re branching. My phone should be screwed, but it keeps pulling through. There’s also screen damage from my sweat and rain)
Times I didn’t filter my water: One
Times I had spotty reception on top of mountains: Four (Go Verizon! Sorry I kept cutting out, Mom.)
Bacon cheeseburgers eaten: Six
Number of times I seriously thought about quitting the trail: More than I can count. At least 15 times per day.
Number of toilet paper rolls used: One
Trail cries: Two
Number of times I set up my tent: One (I am a cowboy camper, through and through)
Number of times I blew up my air mattress: One (usually at the end of the hike I don’t have 30 breaths left in me)
Audiobooks listened to: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the first half of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the beginning of Child 44 (so good), Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
Podcasts listened to: More than I can count. Mostly I listened to Myths and Legends, Stuff You Should Know, Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, Stuff You Missed in History Class, Survival and Basic Badass Podcast, The Moth, and 99% Invisible.
Movies watched: Three (Shutter Island, Logan Lucky, and How To Be A Latin Lover)
TV episodes watched: 43 episodes of Psych and 13 episodes of Mr. Robot
So that was what I figured out in the Sierra. I found purpose in the pain, I found meaning in the monotony, and I found a drive to hike, to go alone, to do what nobody has done before — I found myself. And that’s what the trail is all about. That’s what my trail was all about. And I’ve only just begun my journey.
PS. The featured image is my trail family around a campfire at mile 742. Love them to death!
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