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

Part V. BOX OF RAIN

18. QUEEN OF THE PCT

It was raining when I woke as the light seeped into the sky the next morning. I was lying in my tent in the shallow trough of the trail, its two-foot width the only flat spot I could find in the dark the night before. It had begun to rain at midnight, it had rained all night long, and as I walked through the morning, the rain came and went. I thought about what had happened with the men, or almost happened or was never really going to happen, playing it over in my mind, feeling sick and shaky, but by noon it was behind me and I was back on the PCT—the detour I’d inadvertently taken having wended its way up to the trail.

Water fell from the sky and dripped from the branches, streaming down the gully of the trail. I walked beneath the enormous trees, the forest canopy high above me, the bushes and low-growing plants that edged the trail soaking me as I brushed past. Wet and miserable as it was, the forest was magical—Gothic in its green grandiosity, both luminous and dark, so lavish in its fecundity that it looked surreal, as if I were walking through a fairy tale rather than the actual world.

It rained and rained and rained off and on through that day and all through the next. It was still raining in the early evening, when I reached the shores of the 240-acre Olallie Lake. I walked past the closed ranger station feeling a deep sense of relief, clomping over the mud and wet grass through a small cluster of picnic tables to the little collection of dark wooden buildings that constituted the Olallie Lake Resort. Until I’d hiked through Oregon, I’d had a profoundly different idea of what the word resort might suggest. No one was in sight. The ten primitive cabins scattered near the lake’s shore all looked empty, and the tiny store amid the cabins was closed for the night.

It began to rain again as I stood under a lodgepole pine near the store. I pulled the hood of my raincoat up over my head and looked at the lake. The grand peak of Mount Jefferson supposedly loomed to the south and the squat rise of Olallie Butte sat to the north, but I couldn’t see either of them, obscured as they were by the growing dark and the fog. Without the mountain views, the pines and wide lake reminded me of the northwoods of Minnesota. The air felt like Minnesota too. It was a week past Labor Day; autumn hadn’t arrived yet, but it was close. Everything felt abandoned and forlorn. I dug inside my raincoat, pulled out the pages of my guidebook, and read about a place to camp nearby—a site beyond the ranger station that overlooked Head Lake, Olallie’s much smaller neighbor.

I made camp there and cooked my dinner in the rain, then crawled into my tent and lay in my damp sleeping bag, dressed in my damp clothes. The batteries of my headlamp had gone dead, so I couldn’t read. Instead, I lay listening to the spatter of raindrops against the taut nylon a few feet from my head.

There would be fresh batteries in my box tomorrow. There would be Hershey’s chocolate kisses that I’d dole out to myself over the next week. There would be the last batch of dehydrated meals and bags of nuts and seeds that had gone stale. The thought of these things was both a torture and a comfort to me. I curled into myself, trying to keep my sleeping bag away from the edges of my tent in case it leaked, but I couldn’t fall asleep. Dismal as it was, I felt a spark of light travel through me that had everything to do with the fact that I’d be done hiking the trail in about a week. I’d be in Portland, living like a normal person again. I’d get a job waiting tables in the evenings and I’d write during the day. Ever since the idea of living in Portland had settled in my mind, I’d spent hours imagining how it would feel to be back in the world where food and music, wine and coffee could be had.

Of course, heroin could be had there too, I thought. But the thing was, I didn’t want it. Maybe I never really had. I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in. I was there now. Or close.

“I’ve got a box,” I called to the ranger the next morning, chasing him as he began to drive away in his truck.

He stopped and rolled down his window. “You Cheryl?”

I nodded. “I have a box,” I repeated, still buried inside my putrid rain gear.

“Your friends told me about you,” he said as he got out of his truck. “The married couple.”

I blinked and pushed my hood off. “Sam and Helen?” I asked, and the ranger nodded. The thought of them sent a surge of tenderness through me. I pulled the hood back up over my head as I followed the ranger into the garage that was connected to the ranger station, which was connected to what appeared to be his living quarters.

“I’m going to town, but I’ll be back later this afternoon, if you need anything,” he said, and handed me my box and three letters. He was brown-haired and mustached, late thirties, I guessed.

“Thanks,” I said, hugging the box and letters.

It was still raining and wretched outside, so I walked to the little store, where I bought a cup of coffee from the old man who worked the cash register on the promise I’d pay for it once I opened my box. I sat drinking it in a chair by the woodstove and read my letters. The first was from Aimee, the second from Paul, the third—much to my surprise—from Ed, the trail angel I’d met way back in Kennedy Meadows. If you get this, it means you’ve made it, Cheryl. Congrats! he wrote. I was so touched to read his words that I laughed out loud, and the old man by the cash register looked up.

“Good news from home?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Something like that.”

I opened my box and found not only the envelope that held my twenty dollars, but another envelope that held another twenty dollars—the one that was meant to have been in my box at the Shelter Cove Resort, which I must have mispacked months before. It was all the same now. I’d made it through with my two pennies, and my reward was that I was now rich with forty dollars and two cents. I paid for my coffee, bought a packaged cookie, and asked the man if there were any showers, but he only shook his head as I looked at him, crestfallen. It was a resort without showers or a restaurant, there was a driving, drizzling rain, and it was something like 55 degrees out.

I refilled my coffee cup and thought about whether I should hike on that day or not. There wasn’t much reason to stay, and yet going back out to walk in the woods with all my wet things was not only dispiriting but possibly dangerous—the inescapable wet chill put me at risk of hypothermia. At least here I could sit in the warmth of the store. I’d been alternately sweating hot or freezing cold for going on three days. I was tired, both physically and psychologically. I’d hiked a few half days, but I hadn’t had a full day off since Crater Lake. Plus, much as I looked forward to reaching the Bridge of the Gods, I wasn’t in any hurry. I was close enough now that I knew I’d easily make it by my birthday. I could take my time.

“We don’t have showers, young lady,” said the old man, “but I can give you dinner tonight, if you’d like to join me and a couple of the staff at five.”

“Dinner?” My decision to stay was made.

I returned to my camp and did my best to dry my things out in between rain showers. I heated a pot of water and hunched naked near it, bathing myself with my bandanna. I took apart my water purifier, shook out the muck that the sandy-haired man had sucked up into it, and ran clean water through my pump so I could use it again. A few minutes before I was going to walk to the small building where I’d been instructed to go for dinner, the Three Young Bucks appeared, soaking wet and dreamier than ever. I literally leapt with joy at the sight of them. I explained to them that I was off to have dinner and they could probably have dinner with me too and I’d be right back to get them if they could, but when I reached the little building and inquired, the woman in charge was unmoved by their arrival.

“We don’t have enough food,” she said. I felt guilty about sitting down to eat, but I was starving. Dinner was family fare, the kind I’d eaten at a thousand potlucks as a kid in Minnesota. Cheddar-cheese-topped casserole with ground beef, canned corn, and potatoes with an iceberg lettuce salad. I filled my plate and ate it in about five bites and sat politely waiting for the woman to cut the yellow cake with white frosting that sat enticingly on a side table. When she did, I ate a piece and then returned to discreetly take another—the biggest piece in the pan—and folded it into a paper napkin and put it in the pocket of my raincoat.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’d better get back to my friends.”

I walked across the wet grass, holding the cake very carefully inside my coat. It was only 5:30, but it was so dark and dreary it might as well have been the middle of the night.

“There you are. I was looking for you,” a man called to me. It was the ranger who’d given me my box and letters that morning. He was blotting his lips with a dish towel. “I’m talking funny,” he slurred as I approached him. “I had some surgery on my mouth today.”

I pulled my hood up over my head because it had started to rain again. He seemed slightly drunk in addition to having the troubles with his mouth.

“So how about you come to my place for a drink now? You can get out of the rain,” he said in his garbled voice. “My place is right there, the other half of the station. I got a fire going in the fireplace and I’ll mix you up a nice cocktail or two.”

“Thanks, but I can’t. My friends just got here and we’re all camped,” I said, gesturing to the rise beyond the road, behind which my tent and probably by now the tents of the Three Young Bucks were erected. As I did so, I had a precise image of what the Three Young Bucks were likely doing at that very moment, the way they’d be crouched beneath their raincoats in the rain, trying to eat their loathsome dinners, or sitting alone in their tents because there was simply no other place to be, and then I thought of that warm fire and the booze and how if the men went with me to drink with the ranger I could use them to help me dodge whatever else he had in mind. “But maybe,” I wavered, as the ranger drooled and then blotted his mouth. “I mean, as long as it’s okay to bring my friends.”

I returned with the cake to our camp. The Three Young Bucks were all zipped into their tents. “I have cake!” I called, and they came and stood around me and ate it with their fingers out of my hands, splitting it among themselves in the easy, unspoken way they’d honed over months of endless deprivation and unity.

In the nine days since I’d said goodbye to them, it seemed as if we’d grown closer, more familiar, as if we’d been together in that time instead of apart. They were still the Three Young Bucks to me, but they’d also begun to differentiate in my mind. Richie was hilarious and a little bit strange, with a dark edge of mystery I found compelling. Josh was sweet and smart, more reserved than the others. Rick was funny and incisive, kind and a great conversationalist. As I stood there with the three of them eating cake out of my hands, I realized that though I had a little crush on all of them, I had a bigger crush on Rick. It was an absurd crush, I knew. He was nearly four years younger than me and we were at an age when those nearly four years mattered, when the gap between what he had done and what I had done was large enough that I was more like a big sister than I was someone who should be thinking about being alone with him in his tent—so I didn’t think about it, but I couldn’t deny that to an increasing degree I got a little fluttery feeling inside me every time Rick’s eyes met mine, and I also couldn’t deny that I could see in his eyes that he got a little fluttery feeling too.

“I’m sorry about dinner,” I said, after explaining what had happened. “Did you guys eat?” I asked, feeling guilty, and they all nodded, licking the frosting from their fingers.

“Was it good?” asked Richie in his New Orleans accent, which only increased his appeal, in spite of my crush on Rick.

“It was just a casserole and salad.”

They all three looked at me like I’d injured them.

“But that’s why I brought you the cake!” I cried from beneath my rain hood. “Plus, I have something else that might be of interest. A different sort of treat. The ranger here invited me to his place for a drink and I told him I’d come only if you guys came too. I should warn you that he’s a little bit odd—he had mouth surgery today or something, so I think he’s on painkillers and a bit drunk already, but he has a fireplace with a fire in it and he has drinks and it’s inside. Do you guys want to go?”

The Three Young Bucks gave me their barbarians-loose-upon-the-land look and about two minutes later we were knocking on the ranger’s door.

“There you are,” he slurred as he let us in. “I was beginning to think you were going to stand me up.”

“These are my friends Rick, Richie, and Josh,” I said, though the ranger only looked at them with open disdain, his dish towel still pressed to his lips. It wasn’t true he’d been entirely agreeable about my bringing them along. He’d only barely consented when I’d said it was all of us or none.

The Three Young Bucks filed in and sat in a row on the couch in front of the blazing fire, propping their wet boots up on the stone hearth.

“You want a drink, good-looking?” the ranger asked me as I followed him into the kitchen. “My name’s Guy, by the way. Don’t know if I told you that before or not.”

“Nice to meet you, Guy,” I said, trying to stand in a way that suggested I wasn’t really with him in the kitchen so much as I was bridging the space between us and the men by the fire and that we were all one big happy party.

“I’m making something special for you.”

“For me? Thanks,” I said. “Do you guys want a drink?” I called to the Three Young Bucks. They answered in the affirmative as I watched Guy fill one gigantic plastic tumbler with ice and then pour various kinds of liquor into it and top it off with fruit punch from a can he took from the fridge.

“It’s like a suicide,” I said when he handed it to me. “That’s what we used to call this kind of drink when I was in college, where you put all different kinds of liquor in it.”

“Try it and see if you think it’s good,” said Guy.

I took a sip. It tasted like hell, but in a nice way. It tasted better than sitting out in the cold rain. “Yum!” I said too cheerfully. “And these guys—Rick and Richie and Josh—they’d like one too, I think. Would you guys like one?” I asked again as I bolted to the couch.

“Sure,” they all said in a chorus, though Guy didn’t acknowledge it. I handed Rick the tumbler of booze and wedged myself in beside him, all four of us in a row in the plush wonderland of the fireside couch without an inch to spare, the side of Rick’s lovely body plastered against mine; the fire like our own personal sun before us, baking us dry.

“You want to talk about suicide, darling, I’ll tell you about suicide,” Guy said, coming to stand before me and lean against the stone mantel. Rick drank from the tumbler and handed it to Josh on the other side of him, then Josh took a sip and handed it to Richie on the far end. “We got some dealings with suicide around here, unfortunately. Now that’s where this job gets interesting,” Guy said, his eyes growing animated, his face hidden behind the dish towel from his mustache down. The tumbler made its way slowly back to me; I took a sip and handed it back to Rick, and so on, like we were smoking a gigantic liquid joint. As we drank, Guy told us in great detail about the scene he’d come across one afternoon when a man had blown his brains out in a Port-a-Potty in the woods nearby.

“I mean just absolutely brains fucking everywhere,” he said through the towel. “More than you’d imagine. Think of the most disgusting thing that you can even picture, Cheryl, and then picture that.” He stood staring only at me, as if the Three Young Bucks weren’t even in the room. “Not just brains. But blood too and pieces of his skull and flesh. Just all over. Splattered all over the walls inside this thing.”

“I can’t even picture it,” I said as I shook the ice in my tumbler. The Bucks had left me with sole custody of it now that it was empty.

“You want another one, hot stuff?” Guy asked. I handed it to him, and he took it into the kitchen. I turned to the men and we all looked at one another with meaningful expressions and then burst out laughing as quietly as we could while basking in the glow of the fire.

“Now there’s this other time I got to tell you about,” said Guy, returning with my drink. “Only this time it was murder. Homicide. And it wasn’t brains, but blood. Gallons of blood, I mean BUCKETS of blood, Cheryl.”

And so it went, all through the evening.

Afterwards, we walked back to our camp and stood around in a circle near our tents talking half drunk in the dark until it started to rain again and we had no choice but to disperse and say goodnight. When I got into my tent, I saw a puddle had formed at the far end. By morning it was a small lake; my sleeping bag was soaked. I shook it out and looked around the campsite for a place to drape it, but it was useless. It would only get wetter as the rain continued to pour down. I carried it with me when the Three Young Bucks and I walked to the store, holding it near the woodstove as we drank our coffee.

“So we came up with a trail name for you,” said Josh.

“What is it?” I asked reluctantly from behind the scrim of my drenched blue sleeping bag, as if it could protect me from whatever they might say.

“The Queen of the PCT,” said Richie.

“Because people always want to give you things and do things for you,” added Rick. “They never give us anything. They don’t do a damn thing for us, in fact.”

I lowered my sleeping bag and looked at them, and we all laughed. All the time that I’d been fielding questions about whether I was afraid to be a woman alone—the assumption that a woman alone would be preyed upon—I’d been the recipient of one kindness after another. Aside from the creepy experience with the sandy-haired guy who’d jammed my water purifier and the couple who’d booted me from the campground in California, I had nothing but generosity to report. The world and its people had opened their arms to me at every turn.

As if on cue, the old man leaned over the cash register. “Young lady, I wanted to tell you that if you want to stay another night and dry out, we’d let you have one of these cabins for next to nothing.”

I turned to the Three Young Bucks with a question in my eyes.

Within fifteen minutes, we’d moved into our cabin, hanging our sopped sleeping bags over the dusty rafters. The cabin was one wood-paneled room taken up almost entirely by two double beds that sat on antediluvian metal frames that squeaked if you so much as leaned on the bed.

Once we’d settled in, I walked back to the store in the rain to buy snacks. When I stepped inside, Lisa was standing there by the woodstove. Lisa, who lived in Portland. Lisa, who’d been mailing my boxes all summer long. Lisa, whom I’d be moving in with in a week.

“Hello!” she half screamed while we grabbed each other. “I knew you’d be here right about now,” she said once we’d recovered from the shock. “We decided to drive up and see.” She turned to her boyfriend, Jason, and I shook his hand—I’d met him briefly in the days before I’d left Portland for the PCT, when they’d first begun dating. It felt surreal to see people I knew from my old familiar world and a bit sad too. I was both happy and disappointed to see them: their presence seemed to hasten the end of my trip, underlining the fact that though it would take me a week to get there, Portland was only ninety miles away by car.

By evening we all piled into Jason’s pickup truck and drove along the winding forest roads to Bagby Hot Springs. Bagby is a version of paradise in the woods: a trilevel series of wooden decks that hold tubs of various configurations on a steaming hot creek a mile-and-a-half walk back from a roadside parking area in the Mount Hood National Forest. It’s not a business or a resort or a retreat center. It’s just a place anyone can go for no charge at any hour of the day or night to soak in the natural waters beneath an ancient canopy of Douglas firs, hemlocks, and cedars. Its existence seemed more surreal to me than Lisa standing in the Olallie Lake store.

We practically had the place to ourselves. The Three Young Bucks and I walked to the lower deck, where there were long hand-hewn tubs as big as canoes made from hollowed-out cedars beneath a high airy wooden ceiling. We undressed as the rain fell gently down on the lush branches of the big trees that surrounded us, my eyes skating over their naked bodies in the half light. Rick and I got into neighboring tubs and turned on the spigots, moaning as the hot, mineral-rich water rose around us. I remembered my bath in that hotel in Sierra City before I hiked up into the snow. It seemed fitting that I was here now, with only a week left to go, like I’d survived a hard and beautiful dream.

I’d ridden up front with Lisa and Jason on the drive to Bagby, but on the return trip to Olallie Lake, I climbed in back with the Three Young Bucks, feeling clean and warm and blissed out as I clambered onto the futon that covered the truck’s bed.

“That futon is yours, by the way,” said Lisa, before she closed the camper hatch behind us. “I took it out of your truck and put it in here in case we decided to spend the night.”

“Welcome to my bed, boys,” I said in a mockingly lascivious tone to cover for the dislocation I felt at the prospect that this really was my bed—the futon I’d shared with Paul for years. The thought of him dimmed my ecstatic mood. I hadn’t yet opened the letter he’d sent me, in contrast to the customary envelope-ripping glee with which I usually greeted mail. The sight of his familiar handwriting had given me pause this time. I’d decided to read it once I was back on the trail, perhaps because I knew that this would prevent me from mailing off an immediate reply, from saying rash and passionate things that weren’t true any longer. “I’ll always be married to you in my heart,” I’d told him on the day we’d filed for divorce. It had been only five months ago, but already I doubted what I’d said. My love for him was indisputable, but my allegiance to him wasn’t. We were no longer married, and as I settled alongside the Three Young Bucks into the bed I used to share with Paul, I felt a kind of acceptance of that, a kind of clarity where there’d been so much uncertainty.

The four of us lay wedged in across the futon’s expanse as the truck bumped over the dark roads—me, Rick, Josh, and Richie, in that order across the truck’s bed. There wasn’t an inch to spare, just as it had been on the deranged ranger’s couch the night before. The side of Rick’s body was pressed against mine, ever so slightly tilted in my direction and away from Josh. The sky had finally cleared and I could see the almost full moon.

“Look,” I said just to Rick, gesturing toward the window of the camper at the sky. We spoke quietly of the moons we’d seen on the trail and where we’d been when we’d seen them and of the trail ahead.

“You’ll have to give me Lisa’s number so we can hang out in Portland,” he said. “I’ll be living there too after I finish the trail.”

“Absolutely, we’ll hang out,” I said.

“For sure,” he said, and looked at me in this delicate way that made me swoon, though I realized that in spite of the fact that I liked him perhaps a thousand times more than a good number of the people I’d slept with, I wasn’t going to lay a hand on him, no matter how deeply I longed to. Laying a hand on him was as far away as the moon. And it wasn’t just because he was younger than me or because two of his friends were in bed with us, pressed up against his very back. It was because for once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart, good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend. For once I didn’t ache for a companion. For once the phrase a woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head. That phrase, it didn’t even live for me anymore.

“I’m really glad I met you,” I said.

“Me too,” said Rick. “Who wouldn’t be glad to meet the Queen of the PCT?”

I smiled at him and turned to gaze out the little window at the moon again, intensely aware of the side of his body so warm against mine as we lay together in an exquisitely conscious silence.

“Very nice,” said Rick after a while. “Very nice,” he repeated, with more emphasis the second time.

“What is?” I asked, turning to him, though I knew.

“Everything,” he said.

And it was true.