On Preparation: Meditations from Joshua Tree on the Last Days Before a Thru-Hike



There’s a breeze in this desert. The cool wind strikes my dirt-covered cheeks as I make my nightly contact with the large inflatable chip bag lying below me. The yellow padding that gives a rush to my noggin every time I blow it up sounds like cellophane as I settle in for a night under the Milky Way.




I’m in Joshua Tree National Park. As I stare up at the sky, the half moon seems to swallow the head of Leo behind the looming boulder to my left. A tower of monzogranite, painted dark gray from the shadow of an even larger one resting some five hundred yards to the West, sleeps next to me. This place has been home for the past six weeks, an odd oasis of talus caves and yucca trees that dot a landscape of extremes.

A friendly rock greets Chris and I in the backcountry of Joshua Tree

I had learned to love the Mojave, a skill that terrified the Chicagoan in me in October of last year. How I was going to make it through the 700 mile desert section of the Pacific Crest Trail as a wind-chilled Midwesterner was beyond me. But now, I felt at peace in this surreal enclave of dirt and rock.




This time it’s Chris. I lay stagnant in my sleeping bag as I hear him rustle for something in his castle of a tent. He offered to share with me, but not tonight. Tonight I wanted to sleep out.

Sunset over Evolution Lake, 2021

“Maybe it’s his glasses”, I think to myself as I stare watchfully at the sky above. I hear the two clicks of the frames being closed and my hypothesis is confirmed.




Chris is the closest thing to a brother that I have. We both grew up together in a small suburb Northwest of the Windy City, doing plays and singing in a capella groups to excite the time after mundane high school class work. He’s the rare type of friend you find whose door truly is always open, one who garners respect and kindness for what it is, one that has me laughing on the floor one moment and sitting completely content in shared silence the next. When I called him a month ago and asked him to drive me to the trailhead of a 2,650 mile journey, the first thing he asked me was “Mexico or Canada?”

My gear and Chris’s (respectively) in 2021. How proud we were of a 30 pound base weight.

Two years prior, we mailed five gallon buckets of ramen and couscous halfway across the country before loading my car with gear and setting off to hike the John Muir Trail. After we finished, I helped him move into his new life in Los Angeles as a production assistant in the film industry before turning around and heading back to finish my last year of college in 2022.

Chris knew the effect hiking a long trail for weeks at a time had on a person, quite possibly he was the only person in my life who truly understood how important being on the PCT was to me. Naturally, he was determined to be the one to send me off.




I hear Chris roll over in his sleep. We had spent the day aimlessly wandering around the park, pointing out shapes we saw in the rock like kids playing eye-spy, then headed into the town of Joshua Tree to meander our way out of the heat. As we sat at a diner shoveling our faces with pizza, I showed him pictures of Forester Pass and Thousand Island Lake, barely recognizable in the immense snowpack that was absent from our JMT thru-hike two years ago. How ironic, I think to myself as Chris studies the photographs, that six months ago I was worried about heat. Now, the object of concern is quite the opposite.

Me taking a rest at the Muir Shelter.



I jolt my head up and turn around to face Chris’ tent.


“Got ya, you sonofabitch”, I hear him whisper to himself before leaning back against his sleeping pad. Mosquito.



I lay back down and return my gaze to the dazzling light show that cradles me off to sleep. Mapping the tiny specks of flickering light before counting sheep has become my nightly routine this Spring working Outdoor Education. As I waved some 12-15 fifth graders off to bed, I would crane my neck at the night sky and gawk at its little shapes, pointing out the names on the chart on my phone and excitedly dancing whenever I solidified a new constellation in my brain. This night was no different.


Beep beep.


The lights of a neighbor’s Acura being unlocked blind me for a moment. A rustle of keys and some four letter expletives fill my ears as my eyes go black for a second.


“He’s got it”, I think to myself as I wait for the headlights to switch off. Relief comes in the form of darkness as the soft hues of nighttime return once again and dilate my pupils.


I hear the lull of Chris’s breathing. He’s asleep.


A week ago I had monopolized Chris’s dining table with protein bars and bags of rice, stuffing almond butter packets into Ziplocs that had a priority mail flat-rate box bursting at the seams. Living in the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, his roommates probably thought the skewed assortment of condensed and hydrogenated excuses for food that I would live off of for the next five months seemed insane.


Hruhhhh. Chris begins to snore.


Yesterday I was hunched over the hood of my Subaru Outback, carefully unscrewing the cables from my car battery’s terminal and placing them aside for its long summer’s nap. I waved goodbye to my little mobile home for the coming season, having downsized from a tiny home that I drove with me from place to place to one that I carried with two straps on my shoulders.

By a stroke of luck, I had found a trail angel that was willing to hold my car on their land for the duration of my hike.

How great it felt to walk into Happy Isles at the end of 250 miles on trail.

“Pay it forward”, I think to myself as I shake Richard’s hand and step into Chris’s navy blue Accord. This was the first of many gratitudes I imagined I would give on my long walk to the Great White North.


Hruhhh. Chris snores again.


Tomorrow we would leave the dusty, beige desert landscape for a brief interlude of green-covered hills. San Diego would be the last bastion in defense of my personal hygiene, the comfort of a shower and a bed before setting off for Campo.




My eyes begin to close as I roll over onto my side and settle in to sleep.


Two days, I think to myself. Two days and I’m there.


Two days until it begins.

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Comments 1

  • Elisabeth Tapping : May 1st

    Hi love your style of writing. Makes me want to read more.
    Stay safe and enjoy. My daughter started the trail a week ago from the UK and is finding the heat very hard but soldiering on. She had a couple of scary encounters with snakes….so has the name snake charmer!!
    Good luck ?


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