PCT 17 | Beauty and pain

Day 85: Emigrant Sunset

Kennedy Meadows North to camp, mile 1646, elevation 9512′, low of 22*F

When Mary Poppins got cell service the day after the snowstorm, I Amazon-Primed rain pants and neoprene socks to Kennedy Meadows North. They were delivered with zero minutes to spare before the 3:00pm shuttle back to Sonora Pass.

The forecast was nebulous. As I climbed towards 12,000 ft, it snowed off and on. I put on my new rain pants and then removed them. I put on my homemade rain mitts (carefully!) then stuffed them (carefully!) in a hip belt pocket.

The Sierras: more costume changes than the ensemble in a Broadway musical.

Our old friend the Wall of Fog returned. I got a little nervous, because I had promised myself I wouldn’t hike in a white-out again. But it wasn’t actually snowing, so I pressed on.

The Emigrant Wilderness. The name reverberated in my head. Emigrant is almost synonymous with migrant, but refers specifically to a person who leaves their native country for another.

Wilderness areas are named in celebration or thanks. Who was the Emigrant Wilderness meant to honor?, I demanded of the fog.

I knew. I was just angry at the contradiction, angry at colonial violence and the incomprehensible ignorance of so many Americans.

As a child I loved books about the colonization of the American West, though of course they didn’t call it that. White emigrants, with their guns and covered wagons, were heroes. They ventured into the dangerous unknown in search of a better life. This made them strong and brave. And here on a ridge above the rugged mountains, it was easy to imagine how they had looked out over something vast and beautiful and thought, I have found what I’ve been searching for.

But those emigrants were there because they believed in manifest destiny, the god-given right of white people to kill indigenous people, seize their land, and keep it. That’s the legacy of every piece of earth that the PCT touches, and that’s what people defend when they say we should curb or limit immigration to the United States. And as we traveled further and further south towards the Mexican border, I agonized over how to confront the past and present brutalities of white supremacy. The climate crisis. The people locked in cages because they were emigrants in the wrong year, with the wrong skin color.

To my surprise, the air began to clear.

The fog gave way to a view I knew I had seen before, in a dream or a postcard or an art museum. I felt the old and beloved rush of flying, soaring over peaks and pinnacles and drinking in the sky.

Look how big this country is. Look how much space we have in the world.

I wanted to scream, but I didn’t want my friends to think something was wrong. I wanted to cry, Hallelujah! I looked at the sunset and almost cried. “I’m saved,” I told Six. “Jesus tracked me down in the Emigrant Wilderness.”

We knew it was going to be a cold night. I made dinner in my tent and ate it slowly, still thinking about the emigrants and a land torn between beauty and pain. I made a hot water bottle with the dishwater and lay down. Ice crystals were already forming on my tent.

Day 86: Swirly and Scratchy

Camp to Kerrick Creek, mile 1673, elevation 7957′, low of 32*F

It took three hot water bottles to get through the night. Was it really going to be like this?

I made hot chocolate with instant coffee and watched the alpenglow creep in. Through the branches of the whitebark, I could see Six packing up her tent. Not me, I thought. In the Sierras I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.

Except that I did. Eventually and begrudgingly, I packed up too. The frozen ground sparkled in the morning light.

We passed mile 1650, indicating that we had less than 1000 miles left on the PCT. It was one of those moments that I wanted to have meaning, but didn’t. Numbers, numbers… hiking involves so much goddamn math.

The number one word for the Sierras, I had decided, was swirly. The rock looked like someone had taken a baking spatula to some very thick, shiny batter.

We crossed into Yosemite National Park, which did feel meaningful. Poppins seemed annoyed that we had only hiked ten miles by noon, which annoyed me in turn. I said something that would become my mantra in the days to follow: I want to take my time and enjoy the Sierra. I didn’t want to hike over 25 miles, ever. I had pushed hard through Oregon and Northern California for this.

Yosemite was full of steep traverses from valley to valley, and we had no less than two over 1000 feet in the hours before camp. A Snickers bar would be good before the final climb, I thought. I took one out of my hip belt pocket and started to eat it, pausing to fiddle with the wrapper. Then, in slow motion, I went down.

My elbow and knee were cut up, and it took me a while to piece together large enough bandages. I had a new word for the Sierras: scratchy.

The alpenglow spread its pink lips wide across the valley. An aspen tree above the trail offered a single drop of gold, like a blaze pointing the way to fall.

Day 87: Various Ways To Get Through A Day

Kerrick Creek to camp, mile 1698, elevation 8986′

I lost the trail and actually had to use Guthook to find it, leading me to theorize that Yosemite didn’t bother much with the PCT because they had other priorities. I found the trail via a rock scramble that drove home just how heavy my pack was, which did not bode well for the Sierra High Route.

I had twin injuries now. My right knee, which smashed the swirly rock during yesterday’s fall, strained and wobbled the same as the left, which had smashed into the Rocky Mountain rock three years ago. I felt a pit in my stomach that was worse than the actual pain. Why was this happening now, right when the crux of the adventure was about to begin?

I tightened my hip belt for the climb, and noticed it was at capacity — meaning, it couldn’t get any tighter. That made me want to cry. What would I do if my body shrank even more, buy a child’s backpack?

I broke my cardinal rule and checked Guthook to see how much was left in the climb. When I saw that it was over 1,000 feet, I actually began to sob. Somehow, quite suddenly, my rugged NorCal desert strength was gone. I felt like shit.

I pulled over and ate a package of crackers, then a Clif bar. I thought about being too skinny and struggling with body image my whole life. Soon I was crying about that.

The forest listened without judgement or compassion. The slow and steady rhythm of a woodpecker echoed gently in the canyon; the tree branches wavered impassively in the wind. The white rocks absorbed the sounds with absolute stillness and I was reminded of my status as an organism with a tiny life span.

The forest accepted me, I thought — a little more saccharine than usual. I was welcome here, no matter how skinny I was or how long it took me to climb a mountain or whether I was the right kind of thru-hiker because I wasn’t always crushing miles, wearing smiles or being chill.

Okay then. Back to the climb. I stuffed the empty bear can with clothing so it sat lower on my pack. Maybe that would help.

I climbed all day. I climbed to shark fin ridges and twist-top peaks like soft serve ice cream. I climbed to one Very Blue Lake after another, where I usually found my friends waiting.

A very long time ago in Washington, Sprinkles and Field Trip told us that they passed the time on a difficult stretch by seeing if they could describe a Harry Potter movie scene-by-scene. What funny, old-school, empowering movie did I know that well?

It turned out the answer was Legally Blonde. It certainly wouldn’t hold up to any modern scrutiny, but for girls at my middle school in the early 2000s, Elle Woods was a feminist icon. If I’m going to be a partner in a law firm by the time I’m 30, I mouthed, I’m going to need a boyfriend who’s not a complete bonehead.

Oh look, I made it to camp.

Day 88: Away We Go

Camp to Tuolumne Meadows; to be continued!

From 1:30am to 5:30am I was wide awake. At some point I just pulled out my phone and read all the Guthook comments for everything in the Sierras. Finally I fell asleep and dreamed that my mom had rented a vacation treehouse near the PCT for herself and my siblings, which I stumbled upon accidentally because no one told me. She wouldn’t let me drive her car to Yosemite Valley so I went to a socialist organizing meeting instead, which turned out to be a performance by a hip-hop dance squad. Enjoyable, but it wasn’t the reason I had come. And why was I naked?

The temperature changed rapidly from frosty to hot. The trail this morning was as flat as Oregon, but I still wasn’t making great time. Push, I told myself. We need every second.

Poppins and Six waited at Tuolumne Falls for a fuck-you break — the kind where you take off as soon as your slow friend shows up. I sat at the waterfall in a bad mood. Five miles to Tuolumne Meadows and I just couldn’t bring myself to stand up. Here I was, finally in the High Sierra, not wanting to hike one bit.

Expectations are a bitch.

I lingered at Soda Springs, where cold carbonated water pops out of a rusty orange hole in the ground. What made it captivating is that geologists have absolutely no idea why it happens.

When I finally arrived at Tuolumne Meadows, it was swarmed with JMT and PCT hikers I had never seen before. There was a general store with all groceries 25% off, since the season was rolling to a close. There was a grill with a very friendly cashier but very bad hamburgers.

I filled my bear can to the brim and drank beer and chocolate milk. When I was packed, I spread out the SE Yosemite map and showed Six and Poppins our planned deviation from the PCT on the Sierra High Route.

I wasn’t feeling better. But I was excited as fuck. This was it, this was finally it.

We set off.

Up next: The team levels up for a new challenge. Will they survive and thrive on the trail-less Sierra High Route?