Ah, desert. I grew up on the edge of a canyon, riding bikes with my best friend Katie through the hot heat and unforgiving sand. It’s strange to have all those memories recalled simply by the sounds and feel of this place: the rattling snakes, the exact position of the setting sun when the crickets begin their chirps. Being familiar with this terrain doesn’t mean I like it, and in fact I’m far from it. I couldn’t wait to exchange the sub-freezing nights of the Sierra and Northern California for the temperate heat of the desert in fall, but boy did I speak too soon (and forget the harshness of Santa Ana winds).
Where the Wild Things Are
Let’s talk animals, because this area ain’t one for the faint of heart. I’ve come across a few different types of snakes, mainly rattlers who keep to themselves. Joyously, it’s mating season for tarantulas, and they start their docile slow motion jaunt around last light, making cowboy camping out of the question (camping sans tent). I’ve heard stories from friends ahead of me who’ve been approached or charged by mountain lions, but I’ve only seen tracks near river beds. There are the infamous coyotes of my youth, when parents would tell the kids that the cat had just ‘gone on vacation.’ Permanently. I ran into some cows the other day on an Indian Reservation, hanging out right in my path. Cows are HUGE, and these two had intimidating sharp horns and didn’t seem thrilled with my presence, so I had a loud one-way conversation with them until they got scared of me and sauntered off. There are bees and tarantula wasps and Poodle Dog Bush that’ll give you a heck of a rash. And many varieties of plants with knives for leaves that’ll cut your legs to shreds.
Then there’s the sun, unrelenting even in the fall, and the Santa Ana winds that rip the humidity from the air. The water carries are insane, and everything we do is based on where the next water source is. Not to mention the dry 8000 ft climb from the desert floor up to Mt. San Jacinto. I hiked down into Cabazon, famous for its wind farm and outlet mall, in 95 degree heat. After a few days in the high desert up around Big Bear, it was a punch to the face. It feels like you’re walking through pudding, and even the downhill is rough. Suddenly it’s so clear to me why so many hikers drop out in the desert, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind.
So when I got to the I-10 underpass and saw a trail angel sign, I called up Hillbilly and said hey, I’m a wilting tropical flower out here and if you’re willing to take in a dirty hiker I could use a couple hours to worship some ice cubes in air conditioning. He happily obliged, and had me reclined on the couch in his home within 30 minutes. He fed me a barbecue dinner, kept the cold drinks coming and picked out a Disney movie with an “amazing soundtrack” that he insisted we blast at incredible volume to “really feel that music.” Oh and he had a basset hound named Sadie who quickly realized my enamorment and barnacled herself to me throughout my time there. I was in heaven, and truly thankful to have a place to go while the world combusted around me.
And somehow it’s almost over…
But really, where has the time gone? Ever do something mundane like wander through the grocery store and suddenly stop and wonder how time moves so fast? Like you think back to some far gone event that feels like yesterday and try to channel all the feelings associated with it so you can live it again? In those moments we stop and enter a space where we’re floating above ourselves, observing the passage of time in slow motion. Suddenly we’re hyper aware of the influence of time, vowing to take things slower, to feel the gravity of each passing moment. It’s like having a thousand birds fly at you at once and trying to catch as many as you can while still noticing and appreciating the features of each one. And then it’s like: alright, what kind of peanut butter do I want to get?
Moving at foot speed, I’ve occupied that mind space above my life since I started this thing, both living and watching myself live it. In every moment is a total awareness, and I feel at times that I’m watching the passage of time in voluntary slow motion. Like a film reel. I’ve been a little surprised to find that time moves fast even when everything feels like slow motion and even when I’m fully present.
So I’m sad. I already miss what this trail has given me, and I already feel it slipping away. I miss being witness to the slow and wholesome passage of time. I miss living this life in tandem with nature, and I miss living every moment authentically. I miss slowing down and crying out of gratitude and shifting slightly to take on the challenges of each new day.
I visited Seattle recently and met up with friends who said some things (inadvertently) that felt like slow motion slaps across the face. One was that I’m not really having an “off the grid” experience because I’m keeping a blog. The other was about how I seemed to integrate back into society really easily (I’d made a comment about Netflix’s obnoxious new matching scheme), like the trail hadn’t washed out society and replaced it with… zen? – as if a couple months of tent living would negate 27 years of an on-grid non-Thoreau lifestyle. And I sat there like, what is this emotion that’s coming on? Oh, defensive. I’m getting defensive. And it was all so slow in my mind, I had to catch up to the conversation on the experience my friends had expected me to have, juxtapose the reality of what the experience had actually been, and finally struggle to settle back into the new home I’d both passively and actively come to create for myself as a result of trail life. But the subjectivity of the trail means there really isn’t anything to sensibly defend. Truly, there isn’t a way to justify or explain what this time has meant to me because all that does is screw it all up, magnifying certain aspects and leaving others out. Some things just belong in the heart I guess.
So there are some morals in this. We have to interact with each other but sometimes it’s really nice not to. Sometimes, I think, we deserve to have an experience all our own. I hadn’t realized prior to this just how much influence there is out there. But duh, right? What else is a conversation but two or more minds coming together to dance around an idea? And that’s great, no doubt about it, but what if we gifted ourselves a time/space/idea/experience all our own, no outside influences, no conversations, no expectations?
Thus, my second compass. I don’t think it’s possible to name the experience of this hike unless you’ve hiked it. Just like I can’t name the experience of your joy, loss, thrill, heartache unless I’ve lived it. I don’t think it’s possible for me to explain the entirety of what this trail has been and represented for me. That’s okay, and nobody needs to get defensive about it. It’s an exclusivity that I chose unknowingly, and a space I get to navigate and observe in whatever way suits me. It’s a gift we can all experience – and the cool thing is we don’t have to walk 2600 miles to get there, but we do have to work for it.
Now that I have less than 200 miles to the Mexican border, the physical challenges of the trail have become a little annoying. The other day, I came across Deep Creek, and wouldn’t you know that it’d be the only creek I’d cross that would go up to my waist. In the desert. Did I really need that? So as I took my first step into the opaque dirty brown water, my shoes getting slurp-sucked into the mud below, I stuck my poles in the water in front of me to check the depth and let out a monumental sigh. My poles went all the way in. So across I went, through the reeds and sticks and trash and all the other things tickling my legs, wetting my backpack and exiting the other side with an arm full of prickers from some jerk of a plant. Really? Really.
I don’t need the challenges anymore. Thanks PCT, really, it’s been great, but let’s tone it down for this final stretch. Part of my impatience with it is that by this point I know I can survive it all, I just don’t want to have to deal with it. Trash floating by as I make my way across? No thanks. Spending a day pulling prickers out of my arm? Don’t need it. If I get Giardia in my last week out here I will seriously lose my cool.
That’s how the desert has felt, although it’s kind of a pull between preemptive nostalgia and utter annoyance. I don’t want to walk exposed high elevation ridgelines in 95 degree heat. I don’t want to nurse my scratched and bleeding legs every night. I just don’t. But I also don’t want this experience to ever end. So here we have arrived, finally, at my mental challenge. The rest of the trail has been gorgeous views, tough terrain, amazing friendships, constant newness, but now I’m in this sand globe of scorching heat and reptiles. Suddenly my unoccupied brain doesn’t want to be here anymore because it’s hard. Not physically hard, mentally hard. Boring. In the past, I’ve bailed on things when they get boring, so in this moment I’m exploring how not to. I want to finish this thing, I want to walk to Mexico, and I can feel that owning this mental challenge will make reaching the end that much more meaningful. In the meantime, I’m screaming in my head and sometimes out loud while I slowly morph into a baked potato. Ugh, yum.
My epic trail angel and high desert experiences certainly make this stretch more bearable (California’s desert is gorgeous above 8000 ft). My coworker Lori and her husband Rob have a cabin in Big Bear, so they came up for the weekend and spoiled me to death. I had a wonderful bed with so many pillows that each of my limbs had its own. They cooked for me, did my laundry, shuttled me around for resupply errands and took me to dinner and a movie. I don’t think I’ve had a more perfect off trail experience, and I told them as much. I got all my town chores done and still had time to relax and enjoy their company. Plus I left with a bag full of brownies and lemon bars that Lori made just for me! Suddenly the desert wasn’t looking so bad after all, and I have them to thank for that.
As I mentioned above, I took a little time in Seattle before I started the desert section. I wanted to wait for some of the other SOBOs to get further south so that I’d have friends to hike with, and I wanted to see how Seattle felt after some time away. Sadly, the city has really lost its luster for me, and within a couple days I’d moved the rest of my things into storage without a plan to return. Seattle had been a sort of serendipitous and strange opportunity that I poured myself into but never felt quite right about, and I certainly never felt as good as I do now. I met wonderful people and had great times there, but I was constantly trying to drown the feeling that I was putting coins into a happiness machine that had morphed from a sure thing to a gamble. The problem was that I felt the presence of a machine at all. I wasn’t happy in Seattle, and now that I know what authentic, uncompromised, unabated happiness feels like, I don’t see the point in fighting to make Seattle work for me. There’s a place out there, like the place I am now, where I won’t have to fight to make it feel right or okay.
So as the end of the trail draws closer and I start wishing I could go back and do it all again, I’ve been reflecting a lot on gratitude. Never in my life have I gone into something with zero expectation of what I’d get out of it, and never in my life have I lived something so vividly. Throughout this journey, I haven’t been anywhere but right here. I can’t believe the gifts I’ve been given, I can’t believe how good my heart feels. Why can’t everything feel this way?
I’ve followed the footprints of my friends to Canada and now to Mexico, smiling as they lead the way at confusing junctions and walk in solidarity with me. I told Lori about the footprints the other day, pointing them out as we walked from the car to the trail. “Those are my friends,” I said. “I’ve been following them for miles and miles.” Then I got to thinking about my own footprints… what do they look like? I have no idea. I’ve hiked all these miles and I havent looked back at what I’ve been leaving behind. Of all the convoluted, pure, flurried thoughts that have crossed my mind these past months, that one is by far my favorite. Onward, upward.
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