WEEK 20: Fabulous! Forty! Fall! Finished! Miles (1594-1501)
The Trinity Alps
The last three days would’ve been exciting no matter what. But the final favor from the fire flip-flop was that we were heading into Klamath National Forest and the Trinity Alps Wilderness: Remote, rugged mountains, alpine lakes, long climbs to big views. I wasn’t mad.
I lingered at Paynes Lake in the morning, drinking coffee, looking at the water. It felt like the last couple miles of a marathon: I was tired, achy, and ready to be done, but there was thrumming joy under everything and no question in my mind as to whether or not I would finish. It might be painful or take slightly longer than planned. But self-doubt was not a part of the trail at this point. The hiking doesn’t become easier, per se, but you’re able to tolerate more of it and recover more quickly.
The trail started rocky and didn’t let up. It dawned clear but clouds rolled in and I found myself climbing up into a thick fog with cold, light rain. Pine trees popped out of jagged granite peaks, not dissimilar to the Sierra. I hiked through another burn scar. I alternated between being cold and hot, eager to finish yet all of the sudden horrified that I’d soon reach the end.
After crossing Highway 90 and entering the Trinity Alps Wilderness, both the rain and burn tapered off, giving way to fluffy clouds and blue skies over an expansive meadow at the base of a climb. Was it a hard ascent? Yes. But dammit, this was it. Hiking to slow down time, hiking to be present, hiking to see places from one end to another, be it in shitty rain or beaming sun, with a growling stomach or a searing foot pain or aimless emotional distress for no particular reason or the waves of happiness that were coursing through my stomach as I walked that afternoon.
I caught up with Crisis, who was also having a banner day. We decided to hike into the night. Our destination was the Scott Mountain Campground along Highway 3. It said there was a pit toilet and picnic tables and proper campsites; this is exactly what I wanted to set me up for the last full day.
The Longest, Lastest Day:
Ten Before Ten
I’d read on The App that there was a tent site 41.3 miles away that was “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” and “a top-five camp spot.” Someone wrote, “I don’t care if it takes you till 2 am to get here, the sunrise will be worth it. And for all my grumbling about the comments on this app, this comment – and the promise of one final glorious sunrise – carried me through a day that was, to no one’s surprise, challenging.
The presence of a picnic table meant I was going to sit and have a proper coffee-slash-Breakfast Essential; the presence of the pit toilet meant I wasn’t leaving that campsite until I’d availed myself of its services. There are many things I love about hiking for weeks at a time; Shitting in a hole that I have to dig for myself with a titanium trowel and then packing out the fecal toilet paper is not one of them.
The first step in getting to this allegedly epic campsite was to knock out 10 before 10: Not my forte. I’m more in the “10 after four” camp; rarely did I hike 10 miles before 12. The entire day “only” had 5200 feet of elevation gain. That’s not nothing, but there’d been many days with more elevation in far fewer miles. Reasonable terrain and cool weather pushed me through the first quarter of the day as the clock was striking 10. There was a water source, where I’d planned on taking a break. Unfortunately, there was also a massive hive of bees.
I got stung three more times, the sharp pain searing like a burn the second I walked into the danger zone. I was nervous about a potential reaction, particularly as I’d been stung two days prior. My hiking companion saw my concern as irrational hand-wringing, the type of unfounded anxiety that used to get Victorian ladies sent to the seaside to “recuperate” (I wouldn’t object, TBH). I could link articles about allergy thresholds or stories about adults having adverse reactions to bee stings to attempt to justify the fact that I felt scared after getting stung by bees three more times. But why? I cut another hole in my cheapy leggings to accommodate for my swelling calf and ankle – my left leg was taking the brunt of these stings, six in 48 hours! – and hiked on.
The Next Toilet
There was a trailhead with another pit toilet about nine miles south so I planned on taking lunch there. The sun, a brief morning visitor, had long since retreated, and it began to rain. Then it began to hail pretty darn hard. People always say things like “of course it hailed on the last day!” but like…of course it hailed on the last day!
Over an hour had passed since the last wave of stings so my worry lessened; my leg felt like an encased sausage, though, and was hard as a rock in multiple places. I know we have to love the bees but I recommend doing it from afar. Hail pitter-pattered down, the trail was slush, I hiked as fast as I could, blaring music, searching for cell service to see how long this weather event would last. But why? I thought. It wasn’t like I wasn’t going to keep going. It wasn’t like anything had stopped me mid-afternoon and made me fly back to New York.
By the time I rounded the corner and got to the Parks Creek Trailhead, the weather had lessened. I sat down under a big tree outside the toilet, eating lunch and talking with a SOBO hiker who was getting picked up to go to a concert. Crisis caught up as I was getting ready to head out; that’s the last we saw of one another on the PCT. I was only halfway done with the day so I headed back out.
She’s Baaaaack (Shasta!)
When we’d decided to skip, we’d briefly entertained the idea of climbing Mount Shasta after finishing the trail. We did a little research, though, and quickly realized that long-distance hiking gives you few tangible skills that translate to mountaineering. Long-distance hiking is the service industry of athletic-adjacent hobbies: The people involved think they’re saving and changing the world but really we’re just squawking around, looking at memes, being self-satisfied.
The sun came out and so did Shasta as I walked and walked and walked. Mount Shasta is a presence for much of Northern California. I remembered seeing the snow-covered peak towering in the distance when we did the night hike across Hat Creek Rim towards Burney; from the backseat of a stranger’s car who was giving me a ride to the KOA from downtown Dunsmuir; and now from the slender trail heading towards the volcano once again.
To Forty and Beyond
A couple of posts ago, I shared my equivalency theory: Seven miles = one drink. Would I feel like shit the next day? Probably. But as I finished my fifth drink and went on to my sixth, I felt those waves of intoxicated confidence and expansiveness that come before the crash. I called my dear friend who I’d reunited with at Snoqualmie Pass – a drunk-hike-dial, if you will – and spent an hour – hours? I don’t even know – talking.
All of the thoughts went through my mind: elation at the impending completion of this goal; sadness that it would be over; frustration about how I’d done certain things; fear about the lack of money I was returning with; happiness that I’d decided to do this in the first place. More than anything, though, I felt safe, like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Despite the black night and tight trail through rocks and bushes, night hiking felt right.
Spending months on a long trail gives you a false sense of security, makes you think that a fucking woods trail has your back in some weird way, that because you know how to put your feet in a line for a long time you’re doing something. It’s so stupid and I hate it. I hate the way the people make walking their entire identity, I hate the culty mindset surrounding gear, I hate the dick-swinging and the passive-aggressive comments, and I really hate that stupid lady who followed us around in Washington throwing shade for absolutely no reason.
But I also love everything about it. I love having everything I’ll need to live in a sack on my back, I love the way time slows down when you do one single thing all day long. I love looking at a map and seeing that my body and mind took me hundreds and hundreds of miles. I love eating Twizzlers and drinking shitty instant coffee; I love dirt manicures and thrift store shirts and dried blood from fake bushwhacks. I love how walking across America, a less a country than a cruel and isolating concept, has made me feel connected and less hateful towards this place in which I was born.
Autumn Upon Us
My weather app said it was 27°F but with the wind up on the ridge, it may as well have been zero. I slept intermittently, desperate for rest but eager to wake up and finish. There were a few other tents scattered about but I was nestled in a nook and felt like I was alone. The sun first snuck then shot up behind Castle Crags, Shasta overlooking on the left. I took down my tarp and sat on my sleeping pad, drinking coffee, in no rush. It was the first day of fall.
As predicted, I hiked most of the morning like a zombie. My body felt fine but I was tired, not just from the previous day but from the 136 days overall. I listened to music and moved robotically, checking The App and counting down. The cold night had transitioned into a sunny morning and then a blazing hot afternoon. I was dripping sweat and wondering how the human body doesn’t just stop sometimes.
I got to Burstarse Creek, about nine miles from the road, and took a long break. I ate ramen, had coffee, and chugged water. The trail is 2653 miles; we’d skipped 44 and would hike a total of 2609 PCT miles. Nine more miles seemed impossible, unbearable. Yet I’d done so many. 2600, in fact, at this exact junction! Do numbers matter? I guess not. But this number was like a jolt of blue Gatorade to my fading self. The rally! Let’s go!
I hiked fast, giggling to myself about the impending finish. Seriously? Was I going to be done? It felt appropriate to be dripping sweat in NorCal on the last day.
The last few miles were not an epic ascent: They were a gradual downhill on an old roadbed. Why suffer? I’d done enough already. The dirt road flattened out, turning into pavement, and I let myself through a green metal gate. The I-5 underpass was just ahead; I’ve never been so excited to see good old American infrastructure. I jogged over, crossed under, and there it was: The bus stop I’d last seen on Friday, July 29th, that fateful day!
I was done! Hilarious.
Dunsmuir, One Last Time
I stood at the I-5 Interstate sign alone. I texted my mom, called a couple of friends, stuck my thumb out, and within thirty seconds had a ride with a local woman and her daughter.
“I never pick up hitchhikers,” she said, “but you’re a woman.”
I am, dammit!
I got dropped off at the grocery store and went straight for the deli counter to order the same roast beef and pickle sandwich I’d had last time. I got an Energy Vitamin Water, just like I had before. I went to the park and sat under a tree, looking at the small town.
One of the drawbacks to long-distance hiking is you only experience places for fleeting amounts of time. We’d all talk about the spots we’d love to see again for more time or the places we’d take loved ones to visit in person. You pass through and by but you don’t linger. You’ve visited a place but you haven’t been there in a deeper sense. That’s the nature of this activity: Constant motion. Returning to a place we’d been before was a novelty; the fact that it was where so much had shifted made it feel like I’d come full circle and completed something. It wasn’t an entirely linear journey, but a journey it had been.
Oh, Wait: More Logistics!
Lest you think I magically floated back to New York from the Dunsmuir Town Park, I shall share the extraction process in a way that is hopefully less painful than the actual event. Crisis showed up a few hours after I did and we headed to a Mexican restaurant to eat, drink, and be merry. Our train to San Francisco was at 12:45 am. No problem! We had a hike to celebrate. There was a bar – Spirits Bar and Lounge, to be precise – that was open until two in the morning.
LOL: There were two problems. First, we were utterly exhausted. I could barely finish my beer with dinner; the thought of doing shots made me want to sleep for a week. Second, the train was delayed by an hour. Fine! We’d hang in the bar (sleeping in the bathroom, hopefully). Then it was delayed by two hours. Then five. There was a bridge out in Portland? Are you kidding? I debated moving to Dunsmuir full-time. Thinking was hard.
Crisis’ girlfriend did her own logistical magic and was kind enough to find us a hotel room walking distance from the train station. We headed over, stone-cold sober, shaking our heads. I know everyone says this, but of course this is how it ends!
The night was not restful. I set alarms every half hour to reload the Amtrak website and see if any changes had been made to the itinerary. Our 12:45 am train ended up departing around nine, which gave us time to spend money on semi-acceptable breakfast food in an era of inflation in the state of California. We arrived in sunny San Fran in the late afternoon. Crisis and I bid each other au revoir: He headed off with a friend and I to the water.
I walked around the city, got frozen yogurt, looked at the bay, and talked to people on the phone. My flight was the following afternoon but I just wanted to go home, so I headed to SFO and changed my ticket to a six am flight. The desk agent said the airport was open 24 hours so I found a nook near some trash cans and settled in for one final night of sleeping on the ground.
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