Milestones and Maladies: A Day of Elation, A Day of Disaster
How One Misstep can Rewrite Your Hike
Thru hiking can be very rewarding. It can bring you the highest of highs, both physically and figuratively. Meeting goals you have set out for yourself can bring a deep sense of accomplishment.
However, thru hiking can also make you question your sanity and contemplate at what point you have to throw in the towel. It’s just one of those things. If you’re on the trail for months at a time, you’re going to fall at some point. What happens when you go down, well that’s the roll of the dice mystery.
Celebrating My First Milestone
Beyond seeing the first mile marker, beyond the first 50 or 100 mile markers, thru hikers look forward to loftier objectives. For many, major milestones include reaching locations like Kennedy Meadows South or The Bridge of the Gods. These are places where big changes happen on the trail, such as leaving the deserts of southern Cali behind for the high Sierra Nevada Mountains, or crossing the Columbia River into Washington for the final 500 mile push to Canada.
For me, while Kennedy Meadows was one goal I did hope to achieve, the first major milestone I was looking for was in the Big Bear Lake area. Here, the trail stops running generally north, taking a huge, 170 mile swing to the west instead. This “jog” is quite noticeable on a map, even a very small one. It’s easy to point to it and say, “I’m there!” And since “there” is nowhere near the border, getting to it felt like it should be a big accomplishment.
After too many weeks on the trail, we finally made it to Onyx Peak. This is the first easy access to Highway 38 from the PCT, the road into the hiker friendly town of Big Bear Lake. The climb out of the desert took us a solid six days, so yeah, we were as ready for another break as anyone.
We found a place to stay for a few days; we found a ride into town from trail angel Tiana. We showered, ate at the nearby restaurant, and figured out the trolley system. We sat down to plan our next week’s hike and discovered something that would ultimately change everything; there are many, many roads intersecting the PCT in the Big Bear area.
Slackpacking Big Bear
We realized we could cover a lot of miles easily by hiking from road to road, carrying just a light day pack, returning to our comfy cabin at the end of the day. This type of hiking is a form of “slackpacking”, where you cover miles carrying a lighter load with the aid of someone else. In our case, Tiana, was able to help us by giving us rides to and from the trail.
Slackpacking allowed us to make our first fourteen-mile day. I know this doesn’t seem like a lot, but for us, then, it was a big deal. Now a days, fourteen miles is readily doable. We can do that up and down hills, nearly in our sleep. We don’t even have to get an early start to make fourteen. Who would have believed that possible? And it’s all thanks to the idea of slackpacking.
So there we were, working our way around Big Bear. We had gotten massages to work out some major muscle issues. My aunt was working on a trail rehab program for an Achilles tendon flare-up with positive results. We were feeling strong and up to snuff. We were figuratively AND literally turning a corner in our hike. So it is, perhaps, inevitable that we would come crashing back down to earth. Unexaggeratedly, crashing down to earth. Sigh…
The Day of the Demise
The day everything changed started off well enough. Trail angel Tiana, who longed to do some hiking on the PCT, joined us for a couple of miles to kick things off. We’d leave her at her van at Highway 18, then catch another eight or so miles of trail to the prearranged pickup spot. Easy-peasy. It was a good plan. Nothing wrong with it. It just didn’t end up working out like it should.
We left the Highway 18 trailhead ready to make some quick miles. We were all feeling good, not quite dead yet. Feeling happy. Ready to go for a walk.
The scenery was lovely, the trail was in good shape. We took pictures of flowers and vistas. We passed through a rock outcrop, my mom striding along confidently, looking around, thoroughly enjoying the hike. My aunt and I were following closely behind.
I was right there, but I’m not sure exactly what happened, it happened so fast. Piecing it together as best as we could, we think my mom clipped a toe on a rock, tangling up her feet and maybe a pole. Since she was clocking along at a good pace, she didn’t have enough time to catch herself before falling. It was that simple. She tripped and fell.
Now, every long distance thru hiker is going to trip and fall out on the trail at some point. It just happens. In this case, it might not have been such a big deal, except it happened right at a big pile of rocks poking up through the dirt of the otherwise smooth (at that point) trail. When my mom fell, various body parts landed among and on those pesky, pokey rocks. The results were as one might expect, if one were pessimistic.
Maybe It’s Not That Bad
So there we were, looking down at my mom in horror as she’s laying on a pile of rocks in the trail. Pretty much immediately we knew she wasn’t dead, so that was a good first step. Her shirt sleeve was blooming red, a result of some impressive looking skin tears. She had landed on her already janky hip, not good. But she could still move her leg, so not as bad as it could be. The most painful thing was her hand, but she could move all of her fingers, so the hope was it was bruised and not much more.
She gingerly climbed to her feet, making sure her hip would indeed hold her weight. She was shaken but determined to move along down the trail. Though she was hiking under her own power, she was clearly in pain.
Pretty quickly we realized we’d need to cut our day’s hike short. Fortunately, we had some cell service and were able to get a message to Tiana, who was going to pick us up later anyways. It was at least a mile out to the next road crossing from where the accident had happened. Fortunately, it wasn’t a challenging mile. I mean, except for the fact my mom was banged up and hobbling along, and there wasn’t much to do for her…
After a reasonably short wait next to the road, our ride arrived. Before long, we were back at the cabin and reassessing the injuries. The arm scrape looked horrid, but was the least of it. The hip was sore and developing some terrific colored bruises. The hand was sore, but ok. The wrist, however, was swelling with a limited range of motion.
Not wanting to jump to conclusions, we thought we’d give everything a day to settle. Before anyone gets excited about this, my mom is a doctor, my aunt a vet and a vet, and I’ve been participating in high-risk sports for decades. We’ve seen/had/attended to A LOT of injuries. Our group consensus was there was concern, but not critical, life-threatening concern. We weren’t going to show up at the ER for some bruises but would go in if things didn’t improve the next day.
Yup, It’s Broken
The next day we went over all of the things again. Skin tears? Ugly, but already working on healing. The janky hip? Beautiful bruising, sore, but ok. The wrist? Hmmmmmm… Swollen, even less movement, plenty painful. Better get that looked at.
Fortunately for us, not only is the Big Bear Lake area popular with hikers, there is also ATVing, biking, and water and winter sports. All these activities mean the local hospital is used to seeing these types of injuries. We were able to get my mom in for x-rays that day, and the staff was very friendly.
We hoped against hope that it was just a bone bruise. A little down time and all would be well. We hoped, but that was not the case. One of the tiny little wrist bones, the scaphoid, the one below your thumb, was broken. Fortunately, she would be able to hike with it once it was cast. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be able to use a pole with that hand for a while. While this isn’t an issue for some, because of her hip and an old glute injury, she was heavily relying on her upper body when hiking, particularly when climbing hills.
My favorite part of that visit to the hospital came when the doc asked my mom how soon she wanted to get back to hiking. “Oh, a couple of days,” was her enigmatic response. I give my mom credit for being tough, but I had to step up.
“We’ll take at least a week off,” I reassured the poor fellow. He seemed happier with my answer. Even more fortunate for us, he had an orthopedic friend down in Victorville who had waterproof casting materials. With that, she could safely get back on the trail when she was ready.
Since there was a holiday weekend fast approaching, and our current cabin was already booked out, we decided to call in the cavalry. My Inyokern neighbors are terrific people. They came to our rescue on very short notice, kindly taking us over to Wrightwood to pick up a couple of packages we’d had shipped there on our way back to Ridgecrest. They even introduced us to one of their favorite lunch stops, the Mountain Top Cafe, along the way.
With our packages in tow, we said goodbye to the still snowy peaks of the San Bernadinos and San Gabriels and headed for the true desert. We hung out around Ridgecrest for a few days, doing some R and R over the holiday weekend. The plan was to sit around and take it easy. Which we did. For ten minutes. Ok, maybe it was fifteen.
After the first day, my mom got bored, so we took a drive to the Trona Pinnacles, a short distance east of Ridgecrest. Here tufa spires rise from the floor of the now dry Searles Lake. The next day, we found ourselves wandering around Fossil Falls, another geologically interesting area north of Inyokern. We even stopped by a petroglyph panel close to 9 Mile Canyon Rd, the main road into Kennedy Meadows.
Because nothing says “holiday weekend” like washing your vehicle, we killed some more time by taking my heavily mud encrusted truck to the car wash. I think my mom has a secret love of carwashes as she insisted on going with me. She was probably also tired of getting dirty just walking near my truck. I think my fuel economy went up after the washing, without the weight and drag of the dirt layer.
Once everything opened back up, after the holiday, my mom was able to get her arm cast. We decided that while we weren’t done hiking just yet, we needed to take a bit of time off and head home to regroup. And maybe let the healing process really get underway. When you are young, things heal quickly. Unfortunately, the process slows down as you get older. It takes ever longer (and with more effort) to get yourself back as the decades pile on.
Down, but Not Out!
Before heading home, we took one last trip north of Inyokern to the famed Alabama Hills for a bit of inspiration. No shortage of movies have been filmed amongst these massive rock formations. And, as a bonus, the backdrop is the magnificent Sierra Nevada Range. We stared in awe at the amount of snow still piled up on Mount Whitney, while dreaming of the day we could reach her lofty summit.
We weren’t sure how things would work when we came back to the trail. We had ideas, but we just didn’t know if they were good ideas. One thing we were certain of, we weren’t ready to give up.
On the first morning in June, we started our drive back to my aunt’s house in Colorado. We stopped by Death Valley on our way, so we could say we were at the highest point and the lowest point in the continental US in one summer. You know, in case we could actually get to the top of Whitney. And because Death Valley is the hottest cool place I know, if I do say so myself. See the part where I do love a desert.
It took us a couple of days to make it to Colorado. We stopped here and there along the way, savoring the journey. We kept reminding each other it was only for a week or two. We’d be back together on the PCT in no time.
As I left my family for my own home in Wyoming, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness for the chapter of our story that was ending. I knew things would be different when we went back. They’d have to be. But maybe that was really OK. We could still make this work. We could still continue the journey of our lives. We were down, sure, but we were definitely not out.
Thank you for sharing this journey with me. Our story definitely continues, and yes, we make it out of Southern California! In the meantime, hike on my friends. See you down the trail!
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