Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)

Part III. RANGE OF LIGHT

9. STAYING FOUND

I’d bypassed. Passed by. I was out of danger now. I’d leapfrogged over the snow. It was clear sailing through the rest of California, I supposed. Then through Oregon to Washington. My new destination was a bridge that crossed the Columbia River, which formed the border between the two states. The Bridge of the Gods. It was 1,008 trail miles away; I’d hiked only 170 so far, but my pace was picking up.

In the morning, Greg and I walked out of Sierra City for a mile and a half along the shoulder of the road until we reached the place where it intersected the PCT, then walked together for a few minutes on the trail before pausing to say goodbye.

“That’s called mountain misery,” I said, pointing at the low green bushes that edged the trail. “Or at least that’s what the guidebook says. Let’s hope it’s not literal.”

“I think it might be,” Greg said, and he was right: the trail would rise nearly three thousand feet over the eight miles ahead. I was braced for the day, Monster loaded down with a week’s worth of food. “Good luck,” he said, his brown eyes meeting mine.

“Good luck to you too.” I pulled him into a hard embrace.

“Stay with it, Cheryl,” he said as he turned to go.

“You too,” I called after him, as if he wouldn’t.

Within ten minutes he was out of sight.

I was excited to be back on the trail, 450 PCT miles north of where I’d been. The snowy peaks and high granite cliffs of the High Sierra were no longer in view, but the trail felt the same to me. In many ways, it looked the same too. For all the endless mountain and desert panoramas I’d seen, it was the sight of the two-foot-wide swath of the trail that was the most familiar, the thing upon which my eyes were almost always trained, looking for roots and branches, snakes and stones. Sometimes the trail was sandy, other times rocky or muddy or pebbly or cushioned with layers upon layers of pine needles. It could be black or brown or gray or blond as butterscotch, but it was always the PCT. Home base.

I walked beneath a forest of pine, oak, and incense cedar, then passed through a stand of Douglas firs as the trail switchbacked up and up, seeing no one all that sunny morning as I ascended, though I could feel Greg’s invisible presence. With each mile that feeling waned, as I imagined him getting farther and farther ahead of me, hiking at his customary blazing pace. The trail passed from the shady forest to an exposed ridge, where I could see the canyon below me for miles, the rocky buttes overhead. By midday I was up above seven thousand feet and the trail grew muddy, though it hadn’t rained in days, and finally, when I rounded a bend, I came upon a field of snow. Or rather, what I took to be a field, which implied there was an end to it. I stood at its edge and searched for Greg’s footprints, but saw none. The snow wasn’t on a slope, just a flat among a sparse forest, which was a good thing, since I didn’t have my ice ax any longer. I’d left it that morning in the PCT hiker free box at the Sierra City post office as Greg and I strolled out of town. I didn’t have the money to mail it back to Lisa’s, much to my regret, given its expense, but I wasn’t willing to carry it either, believing I’d have no use for it from here on out.

I jabbed my ski pole into the snow, skidded onto its icy surface, and began to walk, a feat I achieved only intermittently. In some places I skittered over the top of it; in others, my feet crashed through, sometimes forming potholes halfway up to my knees. Before long, the snow was packed into the ankles of my boots, my lower legs so snowburned it felt as if the flesh had been scraped away with a dull knife.

That worried me less than the fact that I couldn’t see the trail because it was buried beneath the snow. The route seemed apparent enough, I assured myself, holding the pages from my guidebook as I walked, pausing to study each word as I went. After an hour, I stopped, suddenly scared. Was I on the PCT? All the while, I’d been searching for the small metal diamond-shaped PCT markers that were occasionally tacked to trees, but I hadn’t seen any. This wasn’t necessarily reason for alarm. I’d learned that the PCT markers were not to be relied upon. On some stretches they appeared every few miles; on others, I’d hike for days without spotting one.

I pulled the topographical map of this area out of my shorts pocket. When I did, the nickel in my pocket came with it and fell into the snow. I reached for it, bending over unsteadily beneath my pack, but the moment my fingers grazed it, the nickel sank deeper and disappeared. I clawed through the snow looking for it, but it was gone.

Now I only had sixty cents.

I remembered the nickel in Vegas, the one with which I’d played the slots and won sixty dollars. I laughed out loud thinking about it, feeling as if these two nickels were connected, though I couldn’t explain why other than to say the daffy thought came to me as I stood there in the snow that day. Maybe losing the nickel was good luck the same way that the black feather that symbolized the void actually meant something positive. Maybe I wasn’t really in the very midst of the thing I’d just worked so hard to avoid. Maybe around the next bend I’d be in the clear.

I was shivering by now, standing in the snow in my shorts and sweat-drenched T-shirt, but I didn’t dare continue on until I got my bearings. I unfolded the guidebook pages and read what the authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California had to say about this portion of the trail. “From the trailside ridge, you confront a steady, bush-lined ascent,” it said to describe the place I thought I might have been. “Eventually your trail levels off at an open-forested flat …” I turned in a slow circle, getting a 360-degree view. Was this the open-forested flat? It would seem that the answer would be clear, but it was not. It was only clear that everything was buried in snow.

I reached for my compass, which hung from a cord on the side of my pack near the world’s loudest whistle. I hadn’t used it since the day I was hiking on that road after my first hard week on the trail. I studied it in conjunction with the map and made my best guess about where I might be and walked on, inching forward uncertainly on the snow, alternately skidding across the top or breaking through the surface, my shins and calves growing ever more chafed each time. An hour later I saw a metal diamond that said PACIFIC CREST TRAIL tacked to a snowbound tree, and my body flooded with relief. I still didn’t know precisely where I was, but at least I knew I was on the PCT.

By late afternoon I came to a ridgeline from which I could see down into a deep snow-filled bowl.

“Greg!” I called, to test if he was near. I hadn’t seen a sign of him all day long, but I kept expecting him to appear, hoping the snow would slow him enough that I’d catch him and we could navigate through it together. I heard faint shouts and saw a trio of skiers on an adjoining ridge on the other side of the snowy bowl, close enough to hear, but impossible to reach. They waved their arms in big motions to me and I waved back. They were far enough away and dressed in enough ski gear that I couldn’t make out whether they were male or female.

“Where are we?” I yelled across the snowy expanse.

“What?” I barely heard them yell back.

I repeated the words over and over again—Where are we, Where are we—until my throat grew raw. I knew approximately where I believed myself to be, but I wanted to hear what they’d say, just to be sure. I asked and asked without getting through, so I tried one last time, putting everything I had into it, practically hurling myself off the side of the mountain with the effort, “WHERE ARE WE?

There was a pause, which told me they’d finally registered my question, and then in unison they yelled back, “CALIFORNIA!

By the way they fell against one another, I knew they were laughing.

“Thanks,” I called out sarcastically, though my tone was lost in the wind.

They called something back to me that I couldn’t quite make out. They repeated it again and again, but it got muddled each time until finally they shouted out the words one by one and I heard them.

“ARE”

“YOU”

“LOST?

I thought about it for a moment. If I said yes, they’d rescue me and I’d be done with this godforsaken trail.

NO,” I roared. I wasn’t lost.

I was screwed.

I looked around at the trees, the waning light slanting through them. It would be evening soon and I’d have to find a place to camp. I would pitch my tent in the snow and wake in the snow and continue on in the snow. This, in spite of everything I’d done to avoid it.

I walked on and eventually found what passed for a fairly cozy spot to pitch a tent when you have no choice but to allow a frozen sheaf of snow beneath a tree to be cozy. When I crawled into my sleeping bag, wearing my rain gear over all my clothes, I was chilly but okay, my water bottles wedged in close beside me so they wouldn’t freeze.

In the morning, the walls of my tent were covered with swirls of frost, condensation from my breath that had frozen in the night. I lay quiet but awake for a while, not ready to confront the snow yet, listening to the songs of birds I couldn’t name. I only knew that the sound of them had become familiar to me. When I sat up and unzipped the door and looked out, I watched the birds flitter from tree to tree, elegant and plain and indifferent to me.

I got my pot and poured water and Better Than Milk into it and stirred, then added some granola and sat eating it near the open door of my tent, hoping that I was still on the PCT. I stood and washed out my pot with a handful of snow and scanned the landscape. I was surrounded by rocks and trees that jutted out from the icy snow. I felt both uneasy about my situation and astounded by the vast lonesome beauty. Should I continue on or turn back? I wondered, though I knew my answer. I could feel it lodged in my gut: of course I was continuing on. I’d worked too hard to get here to do otherwise. Turning back made logical sense. I could retrace my steps to Sierra City and catch another ride farther north still, clear of the snow. It was safe. It was reasonable. It was probably the right thing to do. But nothing in me would do it.

I walked all day, falling and skidding and trudging along, bracing so hard with my ski pole that my hand blistered. I switched to the other hand and it blistered too. Around every bend and over every ridge and on the other side of every meadow I hoped there would be no more snow. But there was always more snow amid the occasional patches where the ground was visible. Is that the PCT? I’d wonder when I saw the actual ground. I could never be certain. Only time would tell.

I sweated as I hiked, the whole backside of me wet where my pack covered my body, regardless of the temperature or what clothing I wore. When I stopped, I began shivering within minutes, my wet clothes suddenly icy cold. My muscles had at last begun to adjust to the demands of long-distance hiking, but now new demands were placed on them, and not only to brace myself in the constant effort to stay upright. If the ground upon which I was walking was on a slope, I had to chop out each step in order to get my footing, lest I slip down the mountain and crash into the rocks and bushes and trees below, or worse, go sailing over the edge. Methodically, I kicked into the snow’s icy crust, making footholds step by step. I remembered Greg teaching me how to do this very thing with my ice ax back in Kennedy Meadows. Now I wished for that ice ax with an almost pathological fervor, picturing it sitting uselessly in the PCT hiker free box in Sierra City. With all the kicking and bracing, my feet blistered in new places as well as in all the old places that had blistered back in my first days of hiking, the flesh on my hips and shoulders still rubbed raw by Monster’s straps.

I walked on, a penitent to the trail, my progress distressingly slow. I’d generally been covering two miles an hour as I hiked most days, but everything was different in the snow: slower, less certain. I thought it would take me six days to reach Belden Town, but when I’d packed my food bag with six days’ worth of food, I didn’t have any idea what I’d encounter. Six days in these conditions were out of the question, and not only for the physical challenge of moving through the snow. Each step was also a calculated effort to stay approximately on what I hoped was the PCT. With my map and compass in hand, I tried to remember all I could from Staying Found, which I’d burned long ago. Many of the techniques—triangulating and cross bearing and bracketing—had perplexed me even when I’d been holding the book in my hand. Now they were impossible to do with any confidence. I’d never had a mind for math. I simply couldn’t hold the formulas and numbers in my head. It was a logic that made little sense to me. In my perception, the world wasn’t a graph or formula or an equation. It was a story. So mostly I relied on the narrative descriptions in my guidebook, reading them over and over, matching them up with my maps, attempting to divine the intent and nuance of every word and phrase. It was like being inside a giant standardized test question: If Cheryl climbs north along a ridge for an hour at a rate of 1.5 miles per hour, then west to a saddle from which she can see two oblong lakes to the east, is she standing on the south flank of Peak 7503?

I guessed and guessed again, measuring, reading, pausing, calculating, and counting before ultimately putting my faith in whatever I believed to be true. Fortunately, this stretch of the trail held plenty of clues, riddled with peaks and cliffs, lakes and ponds that were often visible from the trail. I still had the same feeling as I had from the start, when I’d begun walking the Sierra Nevada from its southern beginning—as if I were perched above the whole world, looking down on so much. I pushed from ridge to ridge, feeling relieved when I spotted bare ground in the patches where the sun had melted the snow clean away; quivering with joy when I identified a body of water or a particular rock formation that matched what the map reflected or the guidebook described. In those moments, I felt strong and calm, and then a moment later, when I paused yet again to take stock, I became certain that I’d done a very, very stupid thing in opting to continue on. I passed trees that seemed disconcertingly familiar, as if I’d surely passed them an hour before. I gazed across vast stretches of mountains that struck me as not so different from the vast stretch I’d seen earlier. I scanned the ground for footprints, hoping to be reassured by even the slightest sign of another human being, but saw none. I saw only animal tracks—the soft zigzags of rabbits or the scampering triangles of what I supposed were porcupines or raccoons. The air came alive with the sound of the wind whipping the trees at times and at other times it was profoundly hushed by the endless silencing snow. Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself. The sky didn’t wonder where it was.

“HELLO!” I bellowed periodically, knowing each time that no one would answer, but needing to hear a voice anyway, even if it was only my own. My voice would guard me against it, I believed, it being the possibility that I could be lost in this snowy wilderness forever.

As I hiked, the fragments of songs pushed their way into the mix-tape radio station in my head, interrupted occasionally by Paul’s voice, telling me how foolish I’d been to trek into the snow like this alone. He would be the one who would do whatever had to be done if indeed I didn’t return. In spite of our divorce, he was still my closest kin, or at least the one organized enough to take on such a responsibility. I remembered him lambasting me as we drove from Portland to Minneapolis, when he’d plucked me out of the grips of heroin and Joe the autumn before. “Do you know you could die?” he’d said with disgust, as if he half wished I had so he could prove his point. “Every time you do heroin it’s like you’re playing Russian roulette. You’re putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger. You don’t know which time the bullet’s going to be in the chamber.”

I’d had nothing to say in my defense. He was right, though it hadn’t seemed that way at the time.

But walking along a path I carved myself—one I hoped was the PCT—was the opposite of using heroin. The trigger I’d pulled in stepping into the snow made me more alive to my senses than ever. Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.

Somber and elated, I walked in the cool air, the sun glimmering through the trees, bright against the snow, even though I had my sunglasses on. As omnipresent as the snow was, I also sensed its waning, melting imperceptibly by the minute all around me. It seemed as alive in its dying as a hive of bees was in its life. Sometimes I passed by places where I heard a gurgling, as if a stream ran beneath the snow, impossible to see. Other times it fell in great wet heaps from the branches of the trees.

On my third day out from Sierra City, as I sat hunched near the open door of my tent doctoring my blistered feet, I realized the day before had been the Fourth of July. The fact that I could so clearly imagine what not only my friends but also a good portion of the residents of the United States had done without me made me feel all the more far away. No doubt they’d had parties and parades, acquired sunburns and lit firecrackers, while I was here, alone in the cold. In a flash, I could see myself from far above, a speck on the great mass of green and white, no more or less significant than a single one of the nameless birds in the trees. Here it could be the fourth of July or the tenth of December. These mountains didn’t count the days.

The next morning I walked through the snow for hours until I came to a clearing where there was a large fallen tree, its trunk bare of both snow and branches. I took my pack off and climbed up on top of it, its bark rough beneath me. I pulled a few strips of beef jerky out of my pack and sat eating it and swigging my water. Soon I saw a streak of red to my right: a fox walking into the clearing, his paws landing soundlessly on top of the snow. He gazed straight ahead without looking at me, not even seeming to know I was there, though that seemed impossible. When the fox was directly in front of me, perhaps ten feet away, he stopped and turned his head and looked peaceably in my direction, his eyes not exactly going to mine as he sniffed. He looked part feline, part canine, his facial features sharp and compact, his body alert.

My heart raced, but I sat perfectly still, fighting the urge to scramble to my feet and leap behind the tree for protection. I didn’t know what the fox would do next. I didn’t think he would harm me, but I couldn’t help but fear that he would. He was barely knee-high, though his strength was irrefutable, his beauty dazzling, his superiority to me apparent down to his every pristine hair. He could be on me in a flash. This was his world. He was as certain as the sky.

“Fox,” I whispered in the gentlest possible voice I could, as if by naming him I could both defend myself against him and also draw him nearer. He raised his fine-boned red head, but remained standing as he’d been and studied me for several seconds more before turning away without alarm to continue walking across the clearing and into the trees.

“Come back,” I called lightly, and then suddenly shouted, “MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM!” I didn’t know the word was going to come out of my mouth until it did.

And then, just as suddenly, I went silent, spent.

The next morning I came to a road. I’d crossed smaller, rougher jeep roads in the previous days that were buried in snow, but none so wide and definitive as this. I almost fell to my knees at the sight of it. The beauty of the snowy mountains was incontestable, but the road was my people. If it was the one I believed it to be, simply arriving there was a victory. It meant I’d followed the path of the PCT. It also meant that there was a town miles away in either direction. I could turn left or right and follow it, and I’d be delivered to a version of early July that made sense to me. I took off my pack and sat down on a grainy mound of snow, pondering what to do. If I was where I thought I was, I’d covered forty-three miles of the PCT in the four days since I’d left Sierra City, though I’d probably hiked more than that, given my shaky abilities with map and compass. Belden Town was another fifty-five mostly snow-covered trail miles away. It was hardly worth thinking about. I had only a few days’ worth of food left in my pack. I’d run out if I tried to push on. I began walking down the road in the direction of a town called Quincy.

The road was like the wilderness I’d been hiking through the last several days, silent and snow-covered, only now I didn’t have to stop every few minutes to figure out where I was going. I only followed it down, as the snow gave way to mud. My guidebook didn’t say how far away Quincy was, only that it was “a long day’s walk.” I quickened my pace, hoping to reach it by evening, though what I was going to do there with only sixty cents was another question.

By eleven I rounded a bend and saw a green SUV parked on the side of the road.

“Hello,” I called, altogether more cautiously than I had in the times I’d bellowed that same word across the white desolation. No one answered. I approached the SUV and looked inside. There was a hooded sweatshirt lying across the front seat and a cardboard coffee cup on the dash, among other thrilling objects reminiscent of my former life. I continued walking down the road for a half hour, until I heard a car approaching behind me and turned.

It was the green SUV. A few moments later, it came to a halt beside me, a man at the wheel and a woman in the passenger seat.

“We’re going to Packer Lake Lodge if you want a ride,” the woman said after she rolled down the window. My heart sank, though I thanked her and got into the back seat. I’d read about Packer Lake Lodge in my guidebook days before. I could have taken a side trail to it a day out of Sierra City, but I’d decided to pass it by when I opted to stay on the PCT. As we drove, I could feel my northward progress reversing itself—all the miles I’d toiled to gain, lost in less than an hour—and yet to be in that car was a kind of heaven. I cleared a patch in the foggy window and watched the trees blaze past. Our top speed was perhaps twenty miles an hour as we crept around bends in the road, but it still felt to me as if we were moving unaccountably fast, the land made general rather than particular, no longer including me but standing quietly off to the side.

I thought about the fox. I wondered if he’d returned to the fallen tree and wondered about me. I remembered the moment after he’d disappeared into the woods and I’d called out for my mother. It had been so silent in the wake of that commotion, a kind of potent silence that seemed to contain everything. The songs of the birds and the creak of the trees. The dying snow and the unseen gurgling water. The glimmering sun. The certain sky. The gun that didn’t have a bullet in its chamber. And the mother. Always the mother. The one who would never come to me.