Part Sixteen – Pushing Through Pain: Reaching Washington

The Phenomenon of Boredom

After a night spent under flashing meteors, I left the vastness of Crater Lake to sink back into the claustrophobic green tunnel of Southern Oregon. Amid August, fire season was well on its way. The smoke from the nearby wildfires inhabited the dense and oppressive forest, outlining the rays of light piercing through the sprawling branches, and giving the place an eerie atmosphere. Every day, I walked under the constant threat of discovering that a section of the trail had closed because of a fire. 

Alone most of the time, the solitude I sought after leaving the Sierra was now something I rejected. With no one to talk to, besides the occasional “Howdy” to a Southbound hiker, listening to the same songs on repeat, or walking in silence for miles at a time, I became bored. Bored. A word I thought I would never use while on such an epic journey. But the phenomenon of boredom was real, and it was hitting me. Days became long and the monotony of the trail, a psychological challenge. I caught myself becoming numb to the beauty that surrounded me daily, almost taking it for granted. The sharp contrast between the awe-inspiring views of California and the cloistered environment of Oregon revealed the extent of my unreasonable expectations for the trail. The baseline for what it would take to amaze me was too high, and I needed to hit a reset button in order to start appreciating the journey again. Easier said than done when walking in the heat of a forest that felt like a jungle, passing by hundreds of lakes where swarms of mosquitoes would rise from and attack me if I dared to stop for even a few seconds. I needed a break. Trail Days was coming up, and it would be a great opportunity to reunite with my friends and get a change of scenery. I thought long and hard about it, hesitating about whether or not this would be a good idea. On the one hand, it would put me two or maybe even three days late on the schedule I had set up to finish the trail early enough in September and beat the early winter storms in Washington. But on the other hand, what good would it be to keep pushing if it were to end up getting injured and having to come off the trail? My body was talking to me, and I needed to listen. I messaged the group chat:

“I will be in Bend. Can you pick me up there?”

Out of the Oregon “jungle,” I hiked through the Three Sisters wilderness, without being able to see any of them. A layer of greyish smoke from a close wildfire covered the entire volcanic landscape. The ground was covered with dark rugged lava rocks, changing the trail into a torturous parkour that tested the flexibility of my ankles and resistance of my feet at every step. The entire scene felt like a post-apocalyptic movie, and I was here for it. Somehow, this spectacle forced me to change my perspective on the current experience: yes, I wasn’t seeing any of the expected beauty from the peaks surrounding me, but this was also beautiful in its own way. It was unique, and not many people would see it that way. I felt lucky. The night before reaching Bend, it rained ashes on me while setting up my tent. It was time to get off the trail.

PCT Trail Days

I caught a ride to Bend with Corbin and his dad. During our 45-minute ride, I got to know them and they got to know me. Corbin was getting ready to move to college in Montana, while his dad was getting ready to let his son go away to fly with his own wings. Quite literally, since Corbin was also training to get his pilot license. Their relationship dynamic was inspiring. In the way his dad talked about him, I could feel a lot of pride for the man his son was becoming. I could also feel a hint of sadness and worry, not because he didn’t trust him, but because he didn’t trust the world around him. To let a piece of you that took all of your time and energy to cherish and polish like a precious stone, go away from your reach and protection, required a tremendous amount of strength. For a second, although I never really thought of having kids, I got a glimpse of what it felt like to be a parent. I felt empathy for mine. I was happy, which was all they needed to know so that they could be too. But through my adventures, I was also putting them through all kinds of stressful situations that only a parent understood. I was constantly putting the fruit of their labor at risk, and they could feel it even though they were hundreds of thousands of miles away. The bravery of a parent was to be strong enough to have the ability to let their child go out into the world knowing that they were still vulnerable. To facilitate it even. The most precious gift my parents ever gave me was the tools they provided me while growing up to lead the life I aspired to, and I wasn’t going to waste it. To live the way I wanted it, to explore the world like I was doing, to push myself out of my boundaries and grow as a man, was to me the best and only way I could give back to them and make them proud not only of me but of the work they put in.

I said my goodbyes to Corbin and his dad and promised to keep them updated on my journey. The next day, “Ghost”, “Twigs”, and “Shortcut” picked me up in Bend to drive up to Trail Days for the weekend. It was good to see them, to hear their voices again, to see that they were doing well. We caught up on our individual experiences since leaving each other after the Sierra and reminisced about our journey together. In Cascade Locks, we discovered quite a unique sight: hundreds of tents pitched on a small island along the Columbia River. All these hikers had done the trip to attend PCT Trail Days, an annual summer festival that celebrated and promoted hiking, camping, backpacking & outdoor stewardship. On our way to the campsite, we were stopped every other step by familiar faces who had made it here too. After finally being able to set up our tents, we made our way to the brewery, where we reunited with “Beer Slide.” He had successfully made it to Cascade Locks on foot and would rest this weekend with us. I was pumped to see him. During the Sierra, we bonded through the different challenges that were thrown at us, attempting our best to set an example of bravery and determination through our shared leadership of the group. I now considered him a real friend.

At the brewery, I was surprised to see the YouTuber, filmmaker, and thru-hiker Darwin OnTheTrail. To see him here meant something more to me since it was partly because of his videos that I fell in love with the world of thru-hiking. I walked to him and politely introduced myself to him:

“I also wanted to thank you for the videos you created during your thru-hikes. They were a great inspiration to me.”

“Thank you, this means a lot!” he replied, before adding jokingly, “And I’m sorry I ruined your life!”

“You ruined it for the better, trust me!” I answered laughing.


Who Are You?

Over the weekend, I caught up with friends and made new ones. I also won a free water filter (cheers Sawyer products). But most importantly, I got the break I needed. Back where I had left off the trail in central Oregon, I had to come back to Cascade Locks, but this time by foot. The landscape was still hazy from the wildfires surrounding the area, but the trail was still open. I caught up with “Birdie,” a French guy I had met back in NorCal. Together, we pushed long days through the burnt areas of Oregon, trying to make up for the time recently spent off the trail. It was nice to hike with someone again.

We reached Mt Hood and the Timberline Lodge, infamous for its appearance in the movie “The Shining.” On the way up there, my right shin started to hurt. I thought little of it, thinking a good night of rest would fix this. I was wrong. The next day, I descended from the white-topped mountain limping at every step, trying to manage my leg to not aggravate the pain into something more serious. Cascade Locks was 40 miles away. My goal was to reach it by tomorrow. I let “Birdie” get ahead, not wanting to slow him down. I was frustrated with my body, blaming it for letting me down again. But I kept pushing. I had to.

At the bottom of the mountain, I sat down to eat lunch and take a break from the pain. In these moments of suffering, both mental and physical, doubt crept in. Would I be able to finish this journey? For me, quitting was out of the question. I would jokingly tell people that it would take a broken leg for me to get off the trail, but deep down I meant every word. But with the recurrent injuries, every day was getting harder. As I searched through my fanny pack to get food, I stumbled upon that little piece of pink paper, neatly folded in two. This piece of paper had been given to me at the start of Oregon by “Worthy,” a Southbound hiker I crossed paths with. On it was a word of encouragement he had asked one of his young students to write so that he could give it away to any hiker in need of comfort and motivation. I had kept it safely until the moment I would be in such need.

Carefully, I unfolded this little pink piece of paper. As I read it, emotions overwhelmed me. Gentle words, coming from the pure and innocent kindness of a kid completely unknown to me, besides her name. A kid motivated by only one wish, to provide a little bit of courage and encouragement to a total stranger. Mission accomplished. With newly-found energy and inspiration, I kept pushing the whole afternoon, determined to make it to Washington the next day.

Friday, August 25th:

This morning, the pain is still there. Every step I take feels like having a knife stabbed into my shin. I can hardly walk. Time moves slowly, just like me. I can feel every elapsing minute. It’s going to be a long day, I know it. I have 22 miles to go until the next town, Cascade Locks.

Moving so slowly, knowing how much faster I could go if I was healthy, frustrates me. I feel betrayed by my own body which keeps failing me. I sit down for a few minutes to get some relief from the pain. Looking into a void, I get lost in my thoughts, wondering what to do. Wondering why this happens to me. But before I even get the chance to let myself sink into a never-ending hole of despair and self-lamentation, I stand up, grab my pole, and start walking with newly found determination. I will not stop. Not today. Not this close to my goal.

I choose to hike in silence, with no music. I force my mind to face the pain every step I take. I try to recalibrate my brain to accept this pain, to accept this discomfort. This mental confrontation makes me feel vulnerable. But it’s in those moments, when you strip off the armor, that you discover who you really are. Are you a quitter? Or are you a fighter? I wanted to know. I kept moving, thinking that if I could take another step, then I owed to take it. I had no other choice anyway. I had to make it to town. 

The pain somehow started to settle down. It was still there physically, but my mind was stronger than it was. That night, I made it to town after 11 hours of hiking on one leg. But that night, I felt a special sense of accomplishment. Today, I pushed the boundaries of how much pain I could tolerate. Today, I found peace in discomfort and difficulty. And today, I finished Oregon.

“Hard” feels shitty sometimes. This is what hard feels like. If it were easy, everybody would do it.

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