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

Part IV. WILD

14. WILD

Sometimes it seemed that the Pacific Crest Trail was one long mountain I was ascending. That at my journey’s end at the Columbia River, I’d reach the trail’s summit, rather than its lowest point. This feeling of ascension wasn’t only metaphorical. It literally felt as if I were almost always, impossibly, going up. At times I almost wept with the relentlessness of it, my muscles and lungs searing with the effort. It was only when I thought I couldn’t go up any longer that the trail would level off and descend.

How fabulous down was for those first minutes! Down, down, down I’d go until down too became impossible and punishing and so relentless that I’d pray for the trail to go back up. Going down, I realized, was like taking hold of the loose strand of yarn on a sweater you’d just spent hours knitting and pulling it until the entire sweater unraveled into a pile of string. Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost.

When I left Castle Crags at two—an hour behind Stacy and Rex and a few hours ahead of the couples—I was wearing boots that were a whole blissful size bigger than the last pair had been. “I’m the Bigfoot!” I’d joked as I said goodbye to the couples. I walked up and up into the searing hot day, feeling exuberant to be on the trail, the last dregs of my hangover soon sweated out of me. Up and up I went, all through that afternoon and the following day, though it wasn’t long before my enthusiasm over my new boots faded, replaced by the bleak understanding that, footwise, things weren’t going to be any different for me. My new boots had only chawed my feet afresh. I was passing through the beautiful territory I’d come to take for granted, my body finally up to the task of hiking the big miles, but because of my foot troubles, I sank into the grimmest despair. I remembered making that wish upon the star when I was with Brent in Belden Town. It appeared that I really had jinxed myself by saying it aloud. Perhaps my feet would never be okay.

Lost in a spiral of bitter thoughts on my second day out of Castle Crags, I nearly stepped on two rattlesnakes that sat coiled up on the trail within a few miles of each other. Each snake had literally rattled me back from where I was, warning me off at the last minute. Chastened, I tried to rattle myself back too. I marched on, imagining unimaginable things—that my feet were not actually attached to me, say, or that the sensation I was having wasn’t really pain but simply a sensation.

Hot, angry, sick of myself, I stopped for lunch beneath the shade of a tree, laid out my tarp and reclined on it. I’d camped with Rex and Stacy the night before and planned to meet up with them again that night—the couples were still somewhere behind us—but I’d spent the day hiking alone without seeing a soul. I watched birds of prey soaring far over the rocky peaks, the occasional white wispy cloud traveling slowly across the sky, until I fell asleep without meaning to. I woke up a half hour later with a startled gasp, creeped out by a dream—the same dream I’d had the night before. In it, Bigfoot had kidnapped me. He’d done it in a fairly mannerly fashion, approaching to pull me by the hand deep into the woods, where an entire village of other Bigfoots lived. In the dream I was both astonished and frightened at the sight of them. “How have you hid from humans so long?” I’d asked my Bigfoot captor, but he only grunted. As I looked at him, I realized that he was not a Bigfoot at all but a man wearing a mask and a hairy suit. I could see his pale human flesh beneath the edge of his mask, which terrified me.

I brushed the dream aside when I’d awakened that morning, blaming it on the postcard I’d bought in Castle Crags, but now that I’d had the dream twice, it seemed to carry more weight, as if the dream weren’t really a dream but a foreboding sign—of what, I didn’t know. I stood up, hoisted Monster back on, and scanned the lined crags, the rocky peaks and high gray and rust-colored cliffs that surrounded me near and far among the patches of green trees, feeling a cool unease. When I met up with Stacy and Rex that evening, I was more than a little relieved to see them. I’d felt jumpy for hours, tentative about the small noises that came from the bushes and unnerved by the long silences.

“How are your feet?” asked Stacy as I pitched my tent near hers. In reply, I only sat in the dirt and pulled my boots and socks off and showed them to her.

“Damn,” she whispered. “That looks painful.”

“So guess what I heard yesterday morning at the store?” asked Rex. He was stirring a pot of something over the flame of his stove, his face still pink from the day’s exertions. “Apparently there’s this thing called the Rainbow Gathering up ahead at Toad Lake.”

“Toad Lake?” I asked, suddenly remembering the woman I’d met in the restroom at the Reno bus station. She’d been going there.

“Yeah,” said Rex. “It’s only half a mile off the trail, about nine miles up ahead. I think we should go.”

I clapped my hands in glee.

“What’s the Rainbow Gathering?” asked Stacy.

I explained it to them while we ate dinner—I’d gone a couple of summers before. The Rainbow Gathering is organized by the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a loose tribe of so-called freethinkers, who share a common goal of peace and love on earth. Every summer they set up an encampment on national forest land that attracts thousands in a celebration that culminates during the Fourth of July week, but simmers all summer long.

“There are drum jams and bonfires and parties,” I explained to Rex and Stacy. “But best of all there are these amazing outdoor kitchens where people go and make all these breads and cook vegetables and stews and rice. All sorts of things that anyone can just go and eat.”

“Anyone?” asked Rex in a pained voice.

“Yep,” I said. “You just bring your own cup and spoon.”

While we talked, I decided that I’d stay at the Rainbow Gathering for a few days, my hiking schedule be damned. I needed to let my feet heal and to get my head back in the game, to shake this spooky feeling that had blossomed inside me that I might be abducted by a mythical bipedal humanoid beast.

And possibly, just perhaps, I might get myself laid by a hot hippy.

Later, in my tent, I rummaged through my pack and found the condom I’d carried all this way—the one I’d rescued back in Kennedy Meadows, when Albert had purged the rest from my pack. It was still unspoiled in its little white packet. It seemed it was high time to put it to use. In the six weeks I’d been on the trail, I hadn’t even masturbated, too wrecked by the end of each day to do anything but read and too repulsed by my own sweaty stench for my mind to move in any direction but sleep.

The next day I walked faster than ever, wincing with each step, the trail undulating between 6,500 and 7,300 feet as it offered up views of high pristine lakes below the trail and endless mountains in the near and far distance. It was noon when we started down the little trail that descended from the PCT to Toad Lake.

“It doesn’t look like much so far,” said Rex as we gazed at the lake 350 feet below.

“It doesn’t look like anything,” I said. There was only the lake surrounded by a gathering of scraggly pines with Mount Shasta to the east—after having it in sight north of me since Hat Creek Rim, I was now finally moving past the showy 14,000-foot peak.

“Maybe the Gathering is back a ways from the water,” said Stacy, though once we reached the lake’s shore it was clear that there was no happy encampment, no writhing mass of people jamming and tripping and making hearty stew. There were no dark breads or sexy hippies.

The Rainbow Gathering was a bust.

The three of us lunched dejectedly near the lake, eating the miserable things we always ate. Afterwards, Rex went for a swim and Stacy and I walked without our packs down the steep trail toward a jeep road our guidebook said was there. In spite of the evidence, we hadn’t entirely given up hope that we’d find the Rainbow Gathering, but when we came to the rough dirt road after ten minutes, there was nothing. No one. It was all trees, dirt, rocks, and weeds, just like it had always been.

“I guess we got the wrong information,” said Stacy, scanning the landscape, her voice high with the same rage and regret that welled in me. My disappointment felt tremendous and infantile, like I might have the sort of tantrum I hadn’t had since I was three. I went to a large flat boulder next to the road, lay down on it, and closed my eyes to blot the stupid world out so this wouldn’t be the thing that finally brought me to tears on the trail. The rock was warm and smooth, wide as a table. It felt incredibly good against my back.

“Wait,” said Stacy after a while. “I thought I heard something.”

I opened my eyes and listened. “Probably just the wind,” I said, hearing nothing.

“Probably.” She looked at me and we smiled wanly at each other. She wore a sun hat that tied under her chin and short shorts with gaiters that went up to her knees, a getup that always made her look like a Girl Scout to me. When I’d first met her, I’d been slightly disappointed that she wasn’t more like my friends and me. She was quieter, emotionally cooler, less feminist and artsy and political, more mainstream. If we’d met off the trail I didn’t know if we’d have become friends, but by now she’d become dear to me.

“I hear it again,” she said suddenly, looking down the road.

I stood up when a small beat-up pickup truck packed full of people rounded the bend. It had Oregon plates. It drove straight up to us and screeched to a sudden stop a few feet away. Before the driver had even turned the engine off, the seven people and two dogs in the truck started leaping out. Ragtag and grubby, dressed in high hippy regalia, these people were unquestionably members of the Rainbow Tribe. Even the dogs were discreetly funked out in bandannas and beads. I reached to touch their furry backs as they darted past me and into the weeds.

“Hi,” Stacy and I said in unison to the four men and three women who stood before us, though in return they only gazed at us, squinty-eyed and aggrieved, as if they’d emerged from a cave rather than the bed or the cab of a truck. It seemed as if they’d been up all night or were coming down from hallucinogenics or both.

“Is this the Rainbow Gathering?” the man who’d been behind the wheel demanded. He was tan and small-boned. A strange grungy white headband that covered most of his head held his long wavy hair back from his face.

“That’s what we were looking for too, but we’re the only ones here,” I replied.

“Oh my fucking GOD!” moaned a pale waif of a woman with a bare, skeletal midriff and a collage of Celtic tattoos. “We drove all the way from fucking Ashland for nothing?” She went to lie across the boulder I’d recently vacated. “I’m so hungry I’m seriously going to die.”

“I’m hungry too,” whined another of the women—a black-haired dwarf who wore a string belt with little silver bells attached to it. She went and stood by the waif and petted her head.

“Fucking folkalizers!” bellowed the headband man.

“Fucking right,” mumbled a man with a green Mohawk and a big silver nose ring like the kind you see every now and then on a bull.

“You know what I’m gonna do?” asked the headband man. “I’m gonna make my own fucking Gathering up at Crater Lake. I don’t need those fucking folkalizers to tell me where to go. I got major influence around here.”

“How far is Crater Lake?” asked the last of the women in an Australian accent. She was tall, beautiful, and blonde, everything about her a spectacle—her hair in a heap of dreadlocks bundled on top of her head, her ears pierced with what looked like actual bird bones, her every last finger clad in extravagant rings.

“Not too far, toots,” said the headband man.

“Don’t call me ‘toots,’ ” she replied.

“Is ‘toots’ offensive in Australia?” he asked.

She sighed, then made a growling sound.

“All right, baby, I won’t call you ‘toots,’ then.” He cackled to the sky. “But I will call you ‘baby’ if I damn well please. Like Jimi Hendrix said: ‘I call everybody baby.’ ”

My eyes met Stacy’s.

“We were trying to find the Gathering too,” I said. “We heard it was here.”

“We’re hiking the Pacific Crest Trail,” added Stacy.

“I. Need. Food!” wailed the waif on the rock.

“I’ve got some you’re welcome to,” I said to her. “But it’s up at the lake.”

She only looked at me, her face expressionless, her eyes glazed. I wondered how old she was. She seemed to be my age, and yet she could’ve passed for twelve.

“Do you have room in your car?” asked the Australian confidentially. “If you two are headed back to Ashland, I’d catch a ride with you.”

“We’re on foot,” I said to her blank stare. “We have backpacks. We left them up at the lake.”

“Actually, we are going to Ashland,” said Stacy. “But it’ll take us about twelve days to get there.” The two of us laughed, though no one else did.

They all piled back into the truck and drove away a few minutes later, and Stacy and I walked the trail back to Toad Lake. The two couples were sitting with Rex when we returned and we all hiked back up to the PCT together, though it wasn’t long before I was bringing up the rear, the last to limp into camp that night near dark, hindered by the catastrophe of my feet.

“We didn’t think you were going to make it,” said Sarah. “We thought you’d already stopped to camp.”

“Well, I’m here,” I replied, feeling stung, though I knew she meant only to console me about my foot troubles. In the midst of our drinking and storytelling back in Castle Crags, Sam had joked that my trail name should be the Hapless Hiker after I’d told them about my various misadventures. I’d laughed at the time—the Hapless Hiker seemed a fairly apt name—but I didn’t want to be that hiker. I wanted to be the hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen.

In the morning, I rose before the others, quietly mixing my Better Than Milk into my pot with cold water and mildly stale granola and raisins. I’d woken from another Bigfoot dream, almost exactly the same as the two previous ones. As I ate my breakfast, I found myself listening carefully for sounds in the still-dark trees. I hiked away before the others even emerged from their tents, happy to get a head start. Exhausted, slow, and footsore as I was, hapless as I might be, I was keeping up with the others—the people I thought of as real hikers. Seventeen and nineteen miles a day, day after day, had become de rigueur.

An hour out, I heard an enormous crashing in the bushes and trees beside me. I froze, unsure of whether to yell or remain perfectly quiet. I couldn’t help it: silly as it was, that man with the Bigfoot mask in my dreams flashed through my mind.

“Ah!” I yelled when a hairy beast materialized in front of me on the trail, so close I could smell him. A bear, I realized a moment later. His eyes passed blandly over me before he snorted and reeled and ran northward up the trail.

Why did they always have to run in the direction I was going?

I waited a few minutes and then hiked on, picking my way trepidatiously along, belting out lines from songs. “Oh I could drink a case of youuuuu, darling, and I would still be on my feet,” I crooned loudly.

“She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean …!” I growled.

“Time out for tiny little tea leaves in Tetley Tea!” I chirped.

It worked. I didn’t run into the bear again. Or Bigfoot.

Instead, I came upon something I actually had to fear: a wide sheaf of icy snow covering the trail at a 40-degree angle. Hot as it was, not all the snow had melted off the north-facing slopes. I could see to the other side of the snow. I could practically throw a stone across it. But I couldn’t do the same with myself. I had to walk it. I looked down the mountain, my eyes following the course of the snow, should I slip and slide. It ended far below at a gathering of jagged boulders. Beyond them there was only air.

I began to chip my way across, kicking each step with my boots, bracing myself with my ski pole. Instead of feeling more confident on the snow, given the experience I’d had with it in the Sierra, I felt more shaken, more aware of what could go wrong. One foot slipped out from beneath me and I fell onto my hands; slowly I stood again with my knees bent. I’m going to fall was the thought that came into my head, and with it I froze and looked down at the boulders below me, imagining myself careening into them. I looked at the place I’d come from and the place I was going, the two equidistant from me. I was too far from either, so I forced my way forward. I went down on my hands and crawled the rest of the way across, my legs shaking uncontrollably, my ski pole clanging along beside me, dangling from my wrist by its pink nylon strap.

When I reached the trail on the other side, I felt stupid and weak and sorry for myself, vulnerable in a way I hadn’t felt on the trail before, envious of the couples who had each other, and of Rex and Stacy who had so easily become a hiking pair—when Rex left the trail in Seiad Valley, Stacy would be meeting her friend Dee so they could hike through Oregon together, but I’d forever be alone. And why? What did being alone do? I’m not afraid, I said, calling up my old mantra to calm my mind. But it didn’t feel the same as it usually did to say it. Perhaps because that wasn’t entirely true anymore.

Perhaps by now I’d come far enough that I had the guts to be afraid.

When I stopped for lunch, I lingered until the others caught up to me. They told me they’d met a backcountry ranger who warned them of a forest fire to the west and north, near Happy Valley. It hadn’t affected the PCT so far, but he’d told them to be on alert. I let them all hike ahead, saying I’d catch up to them by nightfall, and walked alone into the heat of the afternoon. A couple of hours later, I came to a spring in an idyllic meadow and stopped to get water. It was too beautiful a spot to leave, so afterwards I lingered, soaking my feet in the spring until I heard an ever-loudening jangle of bells. I had only just scrambled to my feet when a white llama rounded the bend and came bounding straight up to me with a toothy grin on his face.

“Ah!” I yelled, the same as I had when I saw the bear, but I reached for the lead rope that dangled from his halter anyway, an old habit from my childhood with horses. The llama wore a pack that was strung with silver bells, not so unlike the belt on the woman I’d met at Toad Lake. “Easy,” I said to him as I stood, barefoot and stunned, wondering what to do next.

He looked stunned too, his expression both comical and stern. It occurred to me that he might bite me, but I had no way to know. I’d never been so close to a llama. I’d never even been far from a llama. I’d had so little experience with llamas that I wasn’t even 100 percent sure that a llama was what he was. He smelled like burlap and morning breath. I pulled him discreetly in the direction of my boots and stuffed my feet into them and then petted his long bristly neck in a vigorous manner that I hoped struck him as commanding. After a few minutes, an old woman with two gray braids down the sides of her head came along.

“You got him! Thank you,” she called, smiling broadly, her eyes twinkling. With the exception of the small pack on her back, she looked like a woman out of a fairy tale, elfin, plump, and rosy-cheeked. A small boy walked behind her and a big brown dog followed him. “I let go for a moment and off he went,” the woman said, laughing and taking the llama’s rope from me. “I figured you’d catch him—we met your friends up the way and they said you’d be coming along. I’m Vera and this is my friend Kyle,” she said, pointing to the boy. “He’s five.”

“Hello,” I said, gazing down at him. “I’m Cheryl.” He had an empty glass maple syrup bottle full of water slung over his shoulder on a thick string, which was odd to see—glass on the trail—and it was also odd to see him. It had been ages since I’d been in the company of a child.

“Hello,” he replied, his seawater-gray eyes darting up to meet mine.

“And you’ve already met Shooting Star,” said Vera, patting the llama’s neck.

“You forgot Miriam,” Kyle said to Vera. He placed his small hand on the dog’s head. “This is Miriam.”

“Hello, Miriam,” I said. “Are you having a good time hiking?” I asked Kyle.

“We’re having a wonderful time,” he answered in a strangely formal tone, then went to splash his hands in the spring.

I chatted with Vera while Kyle tossed blades of grass into the water and watched them float away. She told me she lived in a little town in central Oregon and backpacked as often as she could. Kyle and his mother had been in a horrible situation, she said in a low voice, living on the streets of Portland. Vera had met them only a few months before, through something they were all involved in called Basic Life Principles. Kyle’s mother had asked Vera to take Kyle on this hike while she got her life straightened out.

“You promised not to tell people about my problems!” Kyle yelled vehemently, charging over to us.

“I’m not telling about your problems,” Vera said amiably, though it wasn’t true.

“Because I’ve got big problems and I don’t want to tell people I don’t know about them,” Kyle said, his eyes going to mine again.

“A lot of people have big problems,” I said. “I’ve had big problems.”

“What kinds of problems?” he asked.

“Like problems with my dad,” I said uncertainly, wishing I hadn’t said it. I hadn’t spent enough time with children to be exactly sure how honest one should be with a five-year-old. “I didn’t really have a dad,” I explained in a mildly cheerful tone.

“I don’t have a dad either,” Kyle said. “Well, everybody has a dad, but I don’t know mine anymore. I used to know him when I was a baby, but I don’t remember it.” He opened his palms and looked down at them. They were full of tiny blades of grass. We watched as they fluttered away in the wind. “What about your mommy?” he asked.

“She’s dead.”

His face shot up to mine, his expression moving from startled to serene. “My mommy likes to sing,” he said. “You wanna hear a song she taught me?”

“Yes,” I said, and without a moment’s hesitation he sang every last lyric and verse of “Red River Valley” in a voice so pure that I felt gutted. “Thank you,” I said, half demolished by the time he finished. “That might be the best thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.”

“My mother has taught me many songs,” he said solemnly. “She’s a singer.”

Vera snapped a photograph of me and I cinched Monster back on. “Goodbye, Kyle. Goodbye, Vera. Goodbye, Shooting Star,” I called as I walked up the trail.

“Cheryl!” Kyle hollered when I was nearly out of sight.

I stopped and turned.

“The dog’s name is Miriam.”

“Adios, Miriam,” I said.

Late in the afternoon, I came to a shady spot where there was a picnic table—a rare luxury on the trail. As I approached, I saw that there was a peach on top of the table and beneath it a note.

Cheryl!
We yogied this from day hikers for you. Enjoy!
Sam and Helen

I was thrilled about the peach, of course—fresh fruit and vegetables competed with Snapple lemonade in my food fantasy mind—but more so, I was touched that Sam and Helen had left it for me. They no doubt had food fantasies every bit as all-consuming as my own. I sat on top of the picnic table and bit blissfully into the peach, its exquisite juice seeming to reach my every cell. The peach made it not so bad that my feet were a throbbing mass of pulp. The kindness with which it was given blunted the heat and tedium of the day. As I sat eating it, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to thank Sam and Helen for leaving it for me. I was ready to be alone again; I was going to camp by myself that night.

When I tossed the peach pit, I saw that I was surrounded by hundreds of azaleas in a dozen shades of pink and pale orange, a few of their petals blowing off in the breeze. They seemed to be a gift to me, like the peach, and Kyle singing “Red River Valley.” As difficult and maddening as the trail could be, there was hardly a day that passed that didn’t offer up some form of what was called trail magic in the PCT vernacular—the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail. Before I stood to put Monster on, I heard footsteps and turned. There was a deer walking toward me on the trail, seemingly unaware of my presence. I made a small sound, so as not to startle her, but instead of bolting away she only stopped and looked at me, sniffing in my direction before slowly continuing toward me. With each step, she paused to assess whether she should continue forward, and each time she did, coming closer and closer until she was only ten feet away. Her face was calm and curious, her nose extending as far as it dared in my direction. I sat still, watching her, not feeling even a little bit afraid, as I’d been weeks before when the fox had stood to study me in the snow.

“It’s okay,” I whispered to the deer, not knowing what I was going to say until I said it: “You’re safe in this world.”

When I spoke, it was as if a spell had been broken. The deer lost all interest in me, though she still didn’t run. She only lifted her head and stepped away, picking through the azaleas with her delicate hooves, nibbling on plants as she went.

I hiked alone the next few days, up and down and up again, over Etna Summit and into the Marble Mountains on the long hot slog to Seiad Valley, past lakes where I was compelled by mosquitoes to slather myself in DEET for the first time on my trip and into the paths of day hikers who gave me reports about the wildfires that were raging to the west, though still not encroaching on the PCT.

One night I made camp in a grassy spot from which I could see the evidence of those fires: a hazy scrim of smoke blanketing the westward view. I sat in my chair for an hour, looking out across the land as the sun faded into the smoke. I’d seen a lot of breathtaking sunsets in my evenings on the PCT, but this one was more spectacular than any in a while, the light made indistinct, melting into a thousand shades of yellow, pink, orange, and purple over the waves of green land. I could’ve been reading Dubliners or falling off to sleep in the cocoon of my sleeping bag, but on this night the sky was too mesmerizing to leave. As I watched it, I realized I’d passed the midpoint of my hike. I’d been out on the trail for fifty-some days. If all went as planned, in another fifty days I’d be done with the PCT. Whatever was going to happen to me out here would have happened.

“Oh remember the Red River Valley and the cowboy who loved you so true …,’ ” I sang, my voice trailing off, not knowing the rest of the words. Images of Kyle’s little face and hands came to me, reverberations of his flawless voice. I wondered if I would ever be a mother and what kind of “horrible situation” Kyle’s mother was in, where his father might be and where mine was. What is he doing right this minute? I’d thought occasionally throughout my life, but I was never able to imagine it. I didn’t know my own father’s life. He was there, but invisible, a shadow beast in the woods; a fire so far away it’s nothing but smoke.

That was my father: the man who hadn’t fathered me. It amazed me every time. Again and again and again. Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have had always been the wildest thing of all. But on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore.

There were so many other amazing things in this world.

They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.

I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too.