Mile One, Day One, Week One
Also, How I Was Given, and Gave Up, a Trail Name
Also Also, The Saga of the Packs, Part 1
If you’ve not thru hiked a long trail before, it turns out there are a lot of firsts. I suppose some of these are true for any adventure, but somehow they feel more significant when you’re on the PCT.
I had spent all winter preparing for my hike. At least physically preparing for my hike. I was snowshoeing ever increasingly long distances with an ever increasingly heavy pack. I was riding my horses and endlessly running wind-sprints with their grain and hay. I was testing equipment and figuring out how to make the hand-me-down 55L ultralight pack I had been gifted work for me.
I ordered in things, shopped locally when I could, hunted my favorite used goods stores relentlessly. I worked like a fiend to pay for all of the things, tried to save some of it for the trail. I collected food and schemed budget trail meals. I even dehydrated leftover soups from work so I’d have a little bit of homemade goodness out in the wild.
Everything was good until everything went sideways. I’ve previously blogged about that, so I won’t go into detail, but I basically had a full on, multi-level, head exploding meltdown. This culminated in a twenty-something hour cross country drive to land me at my own personal trail angel’s house. And another breakdown. But for relief, so that was positive, at least.
One last bit of crazy late-night repacking, 300+ miles worth of passengering, and a few, “well I guess we’re going THIS WAY” moments was all that it took for me to finally get to the southern terminus.
It could have been worse. I could have discovered I had covid right after an airline company lost my backpack with everything in it and suggested I just buy new stuff ’cause who knows where it’s at or if it’ll ever reappear (this actually happened to a fellow PCT hiker I met). That seems like it would have been worse. But it ended up OK for them, and it ended up OK for me.
Two girls sat at a folding table, the US-Mexico border fence rising behind them. I gave them my name, got my tag, got my photos. I rigged up my pack, double checked I hadn’t forgotten anything else. Anything else? Yup. My hiking poles were still in the safe spot where I left them, in my friend’s house, far, far away. I ate celebratory chocolate and drank some water while saying my goodbyes and casually trying to figure out where the trail actually started.
Eventually I gave up and asked. One of the girls pointed me down a path. I found the first marker, the first PCT hiker noteboard, the first mileage sign. My neighbors honked as they drove by, headed home. Twenty-six hundred something miles lay in front of me. How do you walk twenty-six hundred something miles you might ask? One step at a time, my friend. One step at a time.
Mile One, Mission One
It was already well into the afternoon when I finally hit the trail. I texted my mom and aunt, my hiking partners, straight away. They were out on the trail, somewhere ahead of me, having only the drive from San Diego to make that morning. My aunt assured me I’d quickly catch them, even though they’d had better than an hour head start.
I practically floated down the trail those first few miles. My only thought, my only concern was to not trip and fall and do something ridiculous like twist my ankle in the very first mile. I grinned like a fool when I made it to the first mile marker. You better believe I took a selfie there!
Once the first mile was made, I began to settle myself into a rhythm. I took some photos, crossed a road, had a snack. I was clocking along at a decent pace, averaging something like 20 or 25 minute miles. My pack was too heavy (did I mention that already?) but I planned on eating well the first few days to help myself along. Have I ever run out of food on the trail? Nope. All was going well… And then I found them.
My mom and aunt are both in their 60s. They were both prepping for this trip as best as they could. They have both lived full lives filled with all kinds of physical activities. Activities that have taken a toll on their bodies. Of course, my family also has a stubborn streak, so injuries that would sideline others simply seem to be taken as a given, dealt with and on you continue.
This is how I found my mom and aunt; dealing and continuing. They were just over three miles into the hike, stopping for a break. We were all super excited to see each other again, happy to finally be out hiking the PCT. Well, that’s not quite right. We weren’t just happy to be out hiking the PCT, but to be doing it… Wait for it… TOGETHER!! Yay!!! Yes, we were that excited.
Then I really looked at my mom. She was struggling. She was having a bit of a hard time breathing, the combination of asthma, elevation (she lives at sea level) and hiking with a pack. She hadn’t been able to do much (any?) pack training before coming over from New Zealand due to rehabbing a hip injury the previous four months. Not that a janky hip was going to stop her, mind you, it just slowed her down a bit.
The less than optimal breathing was accompanied by an elevated heart rate. My aunt and I started eyeing the rest spot for a place to pitch the tents for the night. We pointed to a few places we could make work, thinking my mom was ready to give up for the evening. WRONG! ‘Cause, apparently, that’s NOT what Tough Old Broads do (my mom and my aunts have called themselves the TOBs for years now; I’m earning my way into their ranks).
Instead, she let her heart rate and breathing settle a bit more, then stood up, put on her pack and got back to hiking. We chunked out another mile to an actual tent site. Well, an alternate to the actual tent site as that was under water. My mom was finally happy to call it good for the day.
We set up camp and made some dinner. I noticed my mom didn’t eat very much, but since she’s a grown adult, I figured she could do a she pleased. My aunt seemed OK. I ate the heaviest thing I was carrying, my appetite working just fine.
We were all in bed pretty quick that night. I was happy to finally get a full night’s sleep, though I did have a bit of a fiasco getting my air pad inflated. It turns out you have to fully shut the deflate valve before trying to inflate your pad. Who knew?? Half an hour of cursing later, I was in business.
Come the morning, we all managed to get dressed. That was about as good as it got. Maybe we made coffee? I ate some more heavy food and started carefully cramming all of my junk back into my pack. I say carefully, not because anything was delicate, but because I had packed a phenomenal amount of stuff into a rather small pack. If I wasn’t careful, it wouldn’t all fit! My mom and aunt were doing the same.
It was at least eight (nine tops, but certainly not as late as ten, I think) before we finally got ourselves organized enough to hike. That first night/ following morning is always a bit of a shakedown when out camping. It gets easier when you can get a routine going. It gets easier when you get used to the timing of everything. It gets easier with familiarity of all your gear. But the first time, it’s just rough. That particular first day on the trail was no exception.
The Time-Out Tent
By the time lunch rolled around, our first full, long anticipated, glorious day on the trail had progressed from meh to down right shite. It was warm. Not as hot as it could possibly be, but definitely warm enough to make me think we needed to be getting up much earlier. Fortunately, there was still water everywhere. Hooray for hiking in a wet year! But I digress…
So there we are, crawling our way down the trail. My mom was not doing well, struggling with the heat and fatigue. I left her and my aunt in a shady spot and scouted ahead for a nearby camp site where we could eat lunch. While I couldn’t find anything shady on that part of the trail, I did find a breezy spot up on the rocks.
We got my mom up there, set up the tent I was using (a freestanding Duplex) for shade, threw down my foam pad, and got my mom inside. At some point it started dawning on me what was going on. The conversation went something like this:
Me, “mom, what was the last thing you ate?”
Mom, “Dinner? And a bar today.”
Me, “you had two bites of dinner. Did you eat more later?”
Mom, “I wasn’t hungry.”
Me, “wait, did you have breakfast yesterday?”
Mom, “well, no, I was repacking.”
Me, already sighing, “did you eat lunch somewhere before you got to the trail?”
Mom, “hmmm, no?”
Palm to forehead. Here was my mom, trying to hike in the heat while carrying a pack on zero calories. No wonder her body was unhappy! She knew she needed to eat, she just couldn’t make herself do it the night before, thinking it would get better in the morning. Only she hadn’t woken up hungry, and neither my aunt or myself had caught it. So the next first for the hike was born: the time-out tent.
Basically, my mom was sternly told she had to stay in the tent until she ate some food and drank a whole bottle of electrolytes. I put together a rehydrated egg and hashbrown burrito for her (it was actually pretty tasty, in my opinion) and made sure she ate the whole thing. Despite her protests that she was too full and couldn’t possibly eat any more I gave her the eye until she finished it. It was not that big of a burrito.
She eventually managed to get the whole thing down and drink all of her electrolytes. A nap was soon to follow. When she woke up, she actually looked human again and was released from tent suspension. None of us have had any similar issues since then, but we still have a running joke that goes something like, “don’t make me put you in the time-out tent!”
The Pack Predicament
Somewhere in those early days I picked up my mom’s pack for the first time. It was nearly as heavy as mine! I recalled hearing that she had switched packs at the last minute to a larger one meant for the Sierras so as to get all of her stuff in more readily. I heard, but I didn’t truly comprehend until I picked up that pack.
Immediately I knew we were never going to make it to Mount Laguna, much less Canada, unless we made a big change. So I traded my mom my pack for hers and put all the heavy things she had into my now larger pack. This is not the first time I’ve had to do something like this, but I was, without a doubt, regretting all of the “little extras” I had brought. One ounce here, three ounces there, a little six ounce luxury item; eventually it all adds up.
To make matters worse, my mom’s pack was a ULA that didn’t fit me right. Not that the Zpacks pack I had started with fit me great, but I had set it up to work for me with a load. Unfortunately, I’m a bony human being and the system of extra padding I made for the Z-pack didn’t transfer to the ULA very well. I struggled constantly to be even quasi comfortable in it, which made for some very long days.
My mom had another pack back at my aunt’s house in Colorado, so she got that headed our way. We would pick it up in Julian, the next town we’d be in where there was enough time to get things delivered. She was fully confident it was one that fit her. At this point, I was so wrapped up in my own pack issues I didn’t really pay attention to her pack, other than to note she wasn’t being bothered by it.
Earning a Trail Name
With me carrying the bulk of my mom’s pack weight and my mom finally eating again, we were able to make better daily mileage. Not that we were suddenly sprinting down the trail, or anything like that. The gains were in very small increments. But they were gains. And, more importantly, my mom was no longer looking like we might need to push the Garmin’s emergency button for her at any given moment.
We camped at Hauser Creek on the third night, ready for the big climb out the following morning. I convinced my mom and aunt to get up extra early to climb the hill while it was still cool out. I went up ahead of them, found a spot to rest at the top of the canyon, then went back down to check on them.
To my happy surprise, they were moving right along, nearly done with the main climb by the time I found them! Though, they were certainly ready for a break by the time they got up to the lookout. That was my first glimmer of hope we might actually be able to do this hike.
Somewhere in these early days, my mom and aunt started calling me “oh sherpa” (emphasis on the little s). At the time it seemed fitting and was well intentioned.
I was going ahead, finding rest spots and camping places, carrying double the load and sharing my knowledge of the outdoors to get us all to our destination. I live at 8000 feet, which I know falls far short of the 14k homes of true Sherpas, but has certainly been an advantage for me out hiking on this trail. I respect nature. Truly I try to leave no trace.
The trail name was given and accepted with nothing but respect for the real Sherpas. In the end, though, I decided it wasn’t right for me. To be honest, this was not because I read some article talking about how calling yourself a sherpa for leading your friends to the best burrito spot in town is inappropriate (though, I did read that article and a few more like it).
Rather, the thing that changed my mind was a change.org petition I ran across from several years back. In it, members of the Sherpa community talk about how their name has become synonymous with a job of servitude, as though that is all they have to offer. Further, companies and people are profiting from their name, often while continuing to marginalize actual Sherpas as a cultural group (or perhaps worse yet, using their name to promote products that either don’t have anything to do with or completely go against the Sherpa’s cultural beliefs).
The petition, https://www.change.org/p/stop-misusing-sherpa, as well as a matching Twitter account, #reclaimingsherpa, opened my eyes to the plight of this group of fellow human beings. Sure, I could have continued to use the nickname, justified by a dictionary definition of a sherpa (little s) as a knowledgeable guide who carries a heavy load. But to me, that just didn’t feel right after my bit of research. In the end, I dropped the trail name.
So, for now I’m back to just being Dulce. Perhaps said as, “The Dulce.” That crazy girl with the GIANT pack. Maybe someday it’ll be my name referenced when talking about a person who shoulders the load to help another fulfill a dream of hiking the PCT. I mean, it could happen.
The First Tramily Goodbye
One of the best things about hiking a trail like the PCT is getting to know people. They start as total strangers who you’d probably never talk to under other circumstances, but something about sharing even part of a journey like this has a way of connecting people.
We’ve certainly met a lot of people along our travels, most for only a day or two before they’ve far out paced us. Every now and then (due to any number of reasons) we get to see people we’ve met again. When we do, it’s always fun to catch up. I’m now following multiple people on different social media platforms, keeping up with their hikes. I never thought I’d find myself rooting for random people, but I definitely do now.
Not everyone makes it on the trail, though. Hiking a long distance trail is hard enough. If you’re older, have an injury, aren’t in terrific shape, are pushing too hard, are hiking in a challenging weather year, have issues with a vital piece of equipment, are hiking on a tight time-line, a tight budget, have problems “back home”, or any number of other issues, a long distance hike like the PCT becomes that much more challenging. Injuries on the trail (some minor, some major) are just a given. Some people continue on, some don’t. Gill was the first person we personally hiked with to bow out.
I met Gill on day two, shortly before the time-out tent incident. It turns out he could have used a similar intervention, but wasn’t hiking with someone to do so. We’d actually get to know Gill at the campground in Lake Morena.
We were all sharing a rare table in a piece of shade, chatting and relaxing. We learned Gill had done some section hiking on the Appalachian Trail previously and was now trying his hand at the PCT. He joined us for some lunch at the malt shop, and we were sure he knew he was welcome to hike with us the following day, which he did.
That was our first experience hiking with a new tramily (trail family) member. Everyone kind of does their own thing, aka HYOH (hike your own hike), but we all look out for each other. We’re there for each other when we might need help.
Eventually, Gill decided he didn’t have the PCT hike in him this year and got a ride out. He gave away his food and some of his gear to his fellow hikers. I was lucky enough to be gifted his trail umbrella which I personally love and use regularly. If you’re reading this, thanks again Gill!
I still think about Gill from time to time. I wonder how he’s doing and if he’ll be back someday to try the trail again. I can’t explain why I care how a random person is doing, a person who I knew for only a couple days. It’s just something that happens on the trail. Things that would be otherwise mundane become important and the things that were so important before slip to the side.
Maybe, in the end, this is one of the most unexpected lessons of long distance hiking. Sure, you can get to a destination. You can accomplish a challenging feat. But the hike becomes more than that. In this day and age, when our perspectives tend to narrow, a thru hike can expand them, whether you like it or not. For me, I see this as a good thing. A welcome thing. A thing we need more of.
See you down the trail. Cheers! Dulce
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