Golden Hour Hiking
My tramily never intends to night hike.
We would usually rather wake up earlier or hike a shorter distance. Yet as I increasingly find myself racing the sun, hiking as night falls has become my favorite and most anxious time. The golden light blinks through the trees and paints granite walls. The wildflowers glow, and the fear of lions creeps in. My tired feet begin to move faster, energized by the sun and hasty to beat the dark.
I did break habit and hike under the stars on my way down from Mt San Jacinto. This was my first day alone since the beginning of the trail, the first time I decided to split from the tramily. I had to pick my own lunch spot, find the water source, and answer “how long until we get there?” Confident I could handle the logistics but anxious I’d twist an ankle or slip on snow, I took it really slow. I enjoyed myself, albeit a little lonely just sharing the view with a tortilla and spinach.
When I eventually picked my way down to the water source five miles before camp and two hours before sunset, I was still convinced I had time before dark.
With four liters of water and four more days of food weighing me down, I set off towards camp with a spring in my step. I’d occasionally stop to say “wow” and take a photo, but never for long. Even when the sun slid behind the mountain, I was sure I’d get to camp before it was actually dark. I didn’t put on my headlamp until the snow and trail became indistinguishable. I was sure I was almost there, and I didn’t want to think about how I was alone, hiking in the dark on a hard to follow trail.
When I hefted my bag back on and turned on the headlamp, I saw lights bouncing behind me. Some hikers I’d seen on the mountain came bounding down the trail. Thank god, I thought. And,where the hell did you come from? Even when I thought I’d been jogging to camp, I was still the slowest hiker around. I was glad for the company, but my ego was bruised anyway. I let them pass, only to find them five minutes ahead, waiting to make sure I got across a steep bit of snow safely. I didn’t have much time to thank them as I ran to keep up.
I was overjoyed when I saw the tents of my tramily, who called out congratulations from their sleeping bags. I quickly set up my tent, cooked dinner, and passed out, lulled to sleep by the comforting sounds of familiar coughs and sleeping pads.
The past few towns I’ve been feeling a pull to strike out on my own, to make my own decisions, to read the map before the itinerary is set.
I’m not looking to leave anyone behind, but I always want to make sure I’m pushing myself to learn and grow. It’s been the anxiety of wanting to hike my own hike, and to make sure everyone feels supported to do the same, but not really knowing what my hike would look like if done alone. I might not find out—we can’t seem to get rid of each other. Last week I drafted a blog post about how I was going to make all my own decisions when we got back on trail, but the walk to get pizza aggravated my Achilles so much that I had to back off. Town days make me forget how exhausting the trail is, and how I am already pushing my limits.
I’ve had more golden hour hiking since Mt San Jacinto. They’ve all been evenings shaped by a deviation from the others’ plan: I want to climb a peak, I need a siesta, I’ll take advantage of cell service by this log. Arriving to camp late is usually accompanied by the thrill of knowing I made a decision about how I want to hike my hike that day.
The irony is that I’m increasingly less alone.
Everyone is testing their limits, hiding from the midday sun, and checking their phones. My tramily is more willing to reassess our campsite plan if it’s too windy, small, or dry. Sometimes we camp a few miles apart, but we find our way back to one another. We’re all plodding towards Canada, and for the foreseeable future, we’ll keep similar paces. I’m increasingly convinced it’s well worth the discussion and compromise. If someone is having a rough day, we slow down and stick together for moral support. When I was feeling dizzy, my tramily gave me iron supplements. When water is half a mile from camp, the least sore person gets it for everyone. Could I have done it alone? Sure. But I’m certainly in better shape for their support.
If I can accept the support of family and friends mailing me food and trail angels offering me rides, I can accept the reality that hiking the PCT isn’t a solitary feat. Or at least, that’s not how I’m hiking my hike. Because it’s about to get a lot hotter, and I’m not night hiking the infamously hot LA aqueduct alone.
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