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

Part II. TRACKS

                                                        The words are purposes.

                                                        The words are maps.

ADRIENNE RICH,
“Diving into the Wreck”

                                                        Will you take me as I am?

                                                        Will you?

JONI MITCHELL,
“California”

4. THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, VOLUME 1: CALIFORNIA

I’d done a lot of dumb and dangerous things in my life, but soliciting a ride with a stranger was not yet one of them. Horrible things happened to hitchhikers, I knew, especially to women hitchhiking alone. They were raped and decapitated. Tortured and left for dead. But as I made my way from White’s Motel to the nearby gas station, I could not allow such thoughts to distract me. Unless I wanted to walk twelve miles along the broiling shoulder of the highway to reach the trail, I needed a ride.

Plus, hitchhiking was simply what PCT hikers did on occasion. And I was a PCT hiker, right? Right?

Right.

The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California had explained the process with its usual equanimity. On some occasions the PCT would cross a road and miles down that road would be the post office where one would have mailed the box of food and supplies needed on the next section of the trail. Hitchhiking was the only practical solution when it came to fetching those boxes and returning to the trail.

I stood near the soda machines up against the gas station building, watching people come and go, trying to work up the nerve to approach one of them, hoping I’d sense that I was safe from harm when I saw the right person. I watched old desert-grizzled men in cowboy hats and families whose cars were full already and teenagers who pulled up with music blasting out their open windows. Nobody in particular looked like a murderer or rapist, but nobody in particular didn’t look like one either. I bought a can of Coke and drank it with a casual air that belied the fact that I could not stand up properly because of the unbelievable weight on my back. Finally, I had to make a move. It was nearly eleven, pitching steadily into the heat of a June day in the desert.

A minivan with Colorado plates pulled up and two men got out. One man was about my age, the other looked to be in his fifties. I approached them and asked for a ride. They hesitated and glanced at each other, their expressions making it apparent that they were united in their silent search for a reason to say no, so I kept talking, explaining in quick bursts about the PCT.

“Sure,” the older one said finally, with obvious reluctance.

“Thank you,” I trilled girlishly. When I hobbled toward the big door on the side of the van, the younger man rolled it open for me. I gazed inside, realizing suddenly that I had no idea how to get in. I couldn’t even attempt to step up into it with my pack on. I’d have to take my pack off, and yet how? If I undid the buckles that held the backpack’s straps around my waist and over my shoulders, there would be no way that I could keep it from falling so violently away from me that it might rip my arms off.

“You need a hand?” the young man asked.

“No. I’ve got it,” I said in a falsely unruffled tone. The only thing I could think to do was turn my back to the van and squat to sit on the doorframe while clutching the edge of the sliding door, letting my pack rest on the floor behind me. It was bliss. I unclipped my pack’s straps and carefully extricated myself without tipping my pack over and then turned to climb inside the van to sit beside it.

The men were friendlier to me once we were on our way, driving west through an arid landscape of parched-looking bushes and pale mountains stretching off into the distance. They were a father and son from a suburb of Denver, on their way to a graduation ceremony in San Luis Obispo. Before long, a sign announcing Tehachapi Pass appeared and the older man slowed the van and pulled to the side of the road. The younger man got out and slid the big door open for me. I’d hoped to put my pack on the same way I’d taken it off, aided by the height of the van’s floor as I squatted in the doorway, but before I could step out, the man pulled out my pack and dropped it heavily in the gravelly dirt by the side of the road. It fell so hard I feared my dromedary bag would burst. I climbed out after it and pulled it back to standing position and dusted it off.

“Are you sure you can lift that?” he asked. “ ’Cause I barely can.”

“Of course I can lift it,” I said.

He stood there, as if waiting for me to prove it.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said, wanting him to leave, so he wouldn’t be witness to my humiliating pack-donning routine.

He nodded and slid the van’s door shut. “Be safe out there.”

“I will,” I said, and watched him get back in the van.

I stood by the silent highway after they drove away. Small clouds of dust blew in swirling gusts beneath the glaring noon sun. I was at an elevation of nearly 3,800 feet, surrounded in all directions by beige, barren-looking mountains dotted with clusters of sagebrush, Joshua trees, and waist-high chaparral. I was standing at the western edge of the Mojave Desert and at the southern foot of the Sierra Nevada, the vast mountain range that stretched north for more than four hundred miles to Lassen Volcanic National Park, where it connected with the Cascade Range, which extended from northern California all the way through Oregon and Washington and beyond the Canadian border. Those two mountain ranges would be my world for the next three months; their crest, my home. On a fence post beyond the ditch I spied a palm-sized metal blaze that said PACIFIC CREST TRAIL.

I was here. I could begin at last.

It occurred to me that now would be the perfect time to take a photograph, but to unpack the camera would entail such a series of gear and bungee cord removals that I didn’t even want to attempt it. Plus, in order to get myself in the picture, I’d have to find something to prop the camera on so I could set its timer and get into place before it took the shot, and nothing around me looked too promising. Even the fence post that the PCT blaze was attached to seemed too desiccated and frail. Instead, I sat down in the dirt in front of my pack, the same way I’d done in the motel room, wrested it onto my shoulders, and then hurled myself onto my hands and knees and did my dead lift to stand.

Elated, nervous, hunching in a remotely upright position, I buckled and cinched my pack and staggered the first steps down the trail to a brown metal box that was tacked to another fence post. When I lifted the lid, I saw a notebook and pen inside. It was the trail register, which I’d read about in my guidebook. I wrote my name and the date and read the names and notes from the hikers who’d passed through in the weeks ahead of me, most of them men traveling in pairs, not one of them a woman alone. I lingered a bit longer, feeling a swell of emotion over the occasion, and then I realized there was nothing to do but go, so I did.

The trail headed east, paralleling the highway for a while, dipping down into rocky washes and back up again. I’m hiking! I thought. And then, I am hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was this very act, of hiking, that had been at the heart of my belief that such a trip was a reasonable endeavor. What is hiking but walking, after all? I can walk! I’d argued when Paul had expressed his concern about my never actually having gone backpacking. I walked all the time. I walked for hours on end in my work as a waitress. I walked around the cities I lived in and visited. I walked for pleasure and purpose. All of these things were true. But after about fifteen minutes of walking on the PCT, it was clear that I had never walked into desert mountains in early June with a pack that weighed significantly more than half of what I did strapped onto my back.

Which, it turns out, is not very much like walking at all. Which, in fact, resembles walking less than it does hell.

I began panting and sweating immediately, dust caking my boots and calves as the trail turned north and began to climb rather than undulate. Each step was a toil, as I ascended higher and higher still, interrupted only by the occasional short descent, which was not so much a break in the hell as it was a new kind of hell because I had to brace myself against each step, lest gravity’s pull cause me, with my tremendous, uncontrollable weight, to catapult forward and fall. I felt like the pack was not so much attached to me as me to it. Like I was a building with limbs, unmoored from my foundation, careening through the wilderness.

Within forty minutes, the voice inside my head was screaming, What have I gotten myself into? I tried to ignore it, to hum as I hiked, though humming proved too difficult to do while also panting and moaning in agony and trying to remain hunched in that remotely upright position while also propelling myself forward when I felt like a building with legs. So then I tried to simply concentrate on what I heard—my feet thudding against the dry and rocky trail, the brittle leaves and branches of the low-lying bushes I passed clattering in the hot wind—but it could not be done. The clamor of What have I gotten myself into? was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out. The only possible distraction was my vigilant search for rattlesnakes. I expected one around every bend, ready to strike. The landscape was made for them, it seemed. And also for mountain lions and wilderness-savvy serial killers.

But I wasn’t thinking of them.

It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.

I was working too hard to be afraid.

I took one step and then another, moving along at barely more than a crawl. I hadn’t thought that hiking the PCT would be easy. I’d known it would take some getting adjusted. But now that I was out here, I was less sure I would adjust. Hiking the PCT was different than I’d imagined. I was different than I’d imagined. I couldn’t even remember what it was I’d imagined six months ago, back in December, when I’d first decided to do this.

I’d been driving on a stretch of highway east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when the idea came to me. I’d driven to Sioux Falls from Minneapolis the day before with my friend Aimee to retrieve my truck, which had been left there the week before when it broke down while a friend was borrowing it.

By the time Aimee and I arrived in Sioux Falls, my truck had been towed from the street. Now it was in a lot surrounded by a chain-link fence and buried in snow from the blizzard that had passed through a couple of days before. It had been for this blizzard that I’d gone to REI the previous day to purchase a shovel. As I waited in line to pay for it, I’d spotted a guidebook about something called the Pacific Crest Trail. I picked it up and studied its cover and read the back before returning it to its place on the shelf.

Once Aimee and I had cleared the snow away from my truck that day in Sioux Falls, I got inside and turned the key. I assumed I’d hear nothing but that dead clicking sound that automobiles make when they’ve got nothing left to give you, but it started right up. We could’ve driven back to Minneapolis then, but we decided to check into a motel for the night instead. We went out to a Mexican restaurant for an early dinner, elated with the unexpected ease of our journey. As we ate chips and salsa and drank margaritas, I got a funny feeling in my gut.

“It’s like I swallowed the chips whole,” I told Aimee, “like the edges are still intact and jabbing me inside.” I felt full and tingly down low, like I’d never felt before. “Maybe I’m pregnant,” I joked, and then the moment I said it, I realized I wasn’t joking.

“Are you?” asked Aimee.

“I could be,” I said, suddenly terrified. I’d had sex a few weeks before with a man named Joe. I’d met him the previous summer in Portland, when I’d gone there to visit Lisa and escape my troubles. I’d been there only a few days when he’d walked up to me in a bar and put his hand on my wrist.

“Nice,” he said, outlining the sharp edges of my tin bracelet with his fingers.

He had neon punk-rock hair cut close to the scalp and a garish tattoo that covered half his arm, though his face was in precise contradiction to those disguises: tenacious and tender—like a kitten wanting milk. He was twenty-four and I was twenty-five. I hadn’t slept with anyone since Paul and I had broken up three months before. That night we had sex on Joe’s lumpy futon on the floor and barely slept, talking until the sun rose, mostly about him. He told me about his smart mother and his alcoholic father and the fancy and rigorous school where he’d earned his BA the year before.

“Have you ever tried heroin?” he asked in the morning.

I shook my head and laughed idly. “Should I?”

I could’ve let it drop. Joe had only just started using it when he met me. It was something he did separate from me, with a group of friends he’d made whom I didn’t know. I could’ve glided right past it, but something compelled me to pause instead. I was intrigued. I was unattached. In my youth and sorrow, I was ready to self-destruct.

So I didn’t just say yes to heroin. I pulled it in with both hands.

I was cuddled up with Joe, postsex, on his ratty couch the first time I used it, a week after we’d met. We took turns sucking up the smoke from a burning dab of black tar heroin that sat on a sheet of aluminum foil through a pipe that was made of foil too. Within a few days, I wasn’t in Portland to visit Lisa and escape my sorrows anymore. I was in Portland falling into a drug-fueled half love with Joe. I moved into his apartment above an abandoned drugstore, where we spent most of the summer having adventuresome sex and doing heroin. In the beginning, it was a few times a week, then it was every couple of days, then it was every day. First we smoked it, then we snorted it. But we would never shoot it! we said. Absolutely not.

Then we shot it.

It was good. It was like something inordinately beautiful and out of this world. Like I’d found an actual planet that I didn’t know had been there all along. Planet Heroin. The place where there was no pain, where it was unfortunate but essentially okay that my mother was dead and my biological father was not in my life and my family had collapsed and I couldn’t manage to stay married to a man I loved.

At least that’s how it felt while I was high.

In the mornings, my pain was magnified by about a thousand. In the mornings there weren’t only those sad facts about my life. Now there was also the additional fact that I was a pile of shit. I’d wake in Joe’s squalid room implicated by every banal thing: the lamp and the table, the book that had fallen and rested now belly-down and open, its flimsy pages buckled on the floor. In the bathroom, I’d wash my face and sob into my hands for a few fast breaths, getting ready for the waitressing job I’d picked up at a breakfast place. I’d think: This is not me. This is not the way I am. Stop it. No more. But in the afternoons I’d return with a wad of cash to buy another bit of heroin and I’d think: Yes. I get to do this. I get to waste my life. I get to be junk.

But this was not to be. Lisa called me one day and said she wanted to see me. I’d stayed in touch with her, hanging out for long afternoons at her place, telling her glimmers of what I was up to. As soon as I walked into her house this time, I knew something was up.

“So tell me about heroin,” she demanded.

“Heroin?” I replied lightly. What could I possibly say? It was inexplicable, even to me. “I’m not becoming a junkie, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I offered. I was leaning against her kitchen counter, watching her sweep the floor.

“That’s what I’m worried about,” she said sternly.

“Well, don’t,” I said. I explained it to her as rationally and playfully as I could. It had been only a couple of months. We would stop soon. Joe and I were simply messing around, doing something fun. “It’s summertime!” I exclaimed. “Remember how you suggested that I come here to escape? I’m escaping.” I laughed, though she didn’t laugh along. I reminded her that I’d never had trouble with drugs before; that I drank alcohol with moderation and reserve. I was an experimentalist, I told her. An artist. The kind of woman who said yes instead of no.

She challenged my every statement, questioned my every rationale. She swept and swept and swept the floor as our talk turned into an argument. She eventually became so furious with me that she swatted me with the broom.

I went back to Joe’s and we talked about how Lisa just didn’t understand.

Then, two weeks later, Paul called.

He wanted to see me. Right now. Lisa had told him about Joe and about my using heroin, and he’d immediately driven the seventeen hundred miles straight through from Minneapolis to talk to me. I met him within the hour at Lisa’s apartment. It was a warm, sunny day in late September. I’d turned twenty-six the week before. Joe hadn’t remembered. It was the first birthday of my life when not one person had said happy birthday to me.

“Happy birthday,” said Paul when I walked in the door.

“Thank you,” I said, too formally.

“I meant to call, but I didn’t have your number—I mean, Joe’s.”

I nodded. It was strange to see him. My husband. A phantom from my actual life. The realest person I knew. We sat at the kitchen table with the branches of a fig tree tapping on the window nearby, the broom with which Lisa had struck me propped against the wall.

He said, “You look different. You seem so … How can I say this? You seem like you aren’t here.”

I knew what he meant. The way he looked at me told me everything I’d refused to hear from Lisa. I was different. I wasn’t there. Heroin had made me that way. And yet the idea of giving it up seemed impossible. Looking Paul squarely in the face made me realize that I couldn’t think straight.

“Just tell me why you’re doing this to yourself,” he demanded, his eyes gentle, his face so familiar to me. He reached across the table and took my hands, and we held on to each other, locked eye to eye, tears streaming first down my face, then down his. He wanted me to go home with him that afternoon, he said evenly. Not for a reunion with him but to get away. Not from Joe, but from heroin.

I told him I needed to think. I drove back to Joe’s apartment and sat in the sun on a lawn chair that Joe kept on the sidewalk outside the building. Heroin had made me dumb and distant from myself. A thought would form and then evaporate. I could not quite get ahold of my mind, even when I wasn’t high. As I sat there a man walked up to me and said his name was Tim. He took my hand and shook it and told me that I could trust him. He asked if I could give him three dollars for diapers, then if he could use my phone inside the apartment, and then if I had change for a five-dollar bill, and on and on in a series of twisting questions and sorry stories that confused and compelled me to stand and pull the last ten dollars I had out of my jeans pocket.

When he saw the money, he took a knife out of his shirt. He held it almost politely to my chest and hissed, “Give me that money, sweetheart.”

I packed my few things, wrote a note to Joe and taped it to the bathroom mirror, and called Paul. When he pulled up to the corner, I got into his car.

I sat in the passenger seat as we drove across the country, feeling my real life present but unattainable. Paul and I fought and cried and shook the car with our rage. We were monstrous in our cruelty and then we talked kindly afterward, shocked at each other and ourselves. We decided that we would get divorced and then that we would not. I hated him and I loved him. With him I felt trapped, branded, held, and beloved. Like a daughter.

“I didn’t ask you to come and get me,” I yelled in the course of one of our arguments. “You came for your own reasons. Just so you could be the big hero.”

“Maybe,” he said.

“Why’d you come all this way to get me?” I asked, panting with sorrow.

“Because,” he said, gripping the steering wheel, staring out the windshield into the starry night. “Just because.”

I saw Joe several weeks later, when he came to visit me in Minneapolis. We weren’t a couple anymore, but we immediately started back up with our old ways—getting high every day for the week he was there, having sex a couple of times. But when he left, I was done. With him and with heroin. I hadn’t given it another thought until I was sitting with Aimee in Sioux Falls and I noticed the bizarre being-poked-by-sharp-edges-of-uncrushed-tortilla-chips feeling in my gut.

We left the Mexican restaurant and went to a vast supermarket in search of a pregnancy test. As we walked through the brightly lit store, I silently reasoned with myself that I probably wasn’t pregnant. I’d dodged that bullet so many times—fretted and worried uselessly, imagining pregnancy symptoms so convincing that I was stunned when my period arrived. But now I was twenty-six and wizened by sex; I wasn’t going to fall for another scare.

Back at the motel I shut the bathroom door behind me and peed onto the test stick while Aimee sat on the bed outside. Within moments, two dark blue lines appeared on the test’s tiny pane.

“I’m pregnant,” I said when I came out, tears filling my eyes. Aimee and I reclined on the bed talking about it for an hour, though there was nothing much to say. That I would get an abortion was a fact so apparent it seemed silly to discuss anything else.

It takes four hours to drive from Sioux Falls to Minneapolis. Aimee followed me the next morning in her car, in case my truck broke down again. I drove without listening to the radio, thinking about my pregnancy. It was the size of a grain of rice and yet I could feel it in the deepest, strongest part of me, taking me down, shaking me up, reverberating out. Somewhere in the southwestern farmlands of Minnesota, I burst into tears, crying so hard I could barely steer, and not only for the pregnancy I didn’t want. I was crying over all of it, over the sick mire I’d made of my life since my mother died; over the stupid existence that had become my own. I was not meant to be this way, to live this way, to fail so darkly.

It was then that I remembered that guidebook I’d plucked from a shelf at REI while waiting to buy the shovel a couple of days before. The thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face. I believed I’d only been killing time when I’d picked up the book while standing in line, but now it seemed like something more—a sign. Not only of what I could do, but of what I had to do.

When Aimee and I reached Minneapolis, I waved her off at her exit, but I didn’t go to mine. Instead, I drove to REI and bought The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and took it back to my apartment and stayed up reading it all night. I read it a dozen times over the next months. I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink. I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be—strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous.

But here I was, on the PCT, ridiculous again, though in a different way, hunching in an ever-more-remotely upright position on the first day of my hike.

Three hours in, I came to a rare level spot near a gathering of Joshua trees, yuccas, and junipers and stopped to rest. To my monumental relief, there was a large boulder upon which I could sit and remove my pack in the same fashion I had in the van in Mojave. Amazed to be free of its weight, I strolled around and accidentally brushed up against one of the Joshua trees and was bayoneted by its sharp spikes. Blood instantly spurted out of three stab wounds on my arm. The wind blew so fiercely that when I removed my first aid kit from my pack and opened it up, all of my Band-Aids blew away. I chased them uselessly across the flat plain and then they were gone, down the mountain and out of reach. I sat in the dirt and pressed the sleeve of my T-shirt against my arm and took several swigs from my water bottle.

I’d never been so exhausted in all of my life. Part of it was due to my body adjusting to the exertion and the elevation—I was up at about 5,000 feet now, 1,200 feet higher than where I’d begun, on Tehachapi Pass—but most of my exhaustion could be blamed on the outrageous weight of my pack. I looked at it hopelessly. It was my burden to bear, of my very own ludicrous making, and yet I had no idea how I was going to bear it. I retrieved my guidebook and looked through it, holding the fluttering pages against the wind, hoping that the familiar words and maps would dispel my growing unease; that the book would convince me, in its benign four-part harmony, that I could do this, the same way it had in the months that I’d been hatching this plan. There were no photographs of the four authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, but I could see them each in my mind’s eye: Jeffrey P. Schaffer, Thomas Winnett, Ben Schifrin, and Ruby Jenkins. They were sensible and kind, wise and all-knowing. They would guide me through. They had to.

Plenty of people at REI had told me of their own backpacking excursions, but none had ever hiked the PCT and it hadn’t occurred to me to attempt to track down someone who had. It was the summer of 1995, the stone ages when it came to the Internet. Now there are dozens of online PCT hiker journals and a deep well of information about the trail, both static and ever changing, but I had none of that. I had only The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California. It was my bible. My lifeline. The only book I’d read about hiking on the PCT, or anywhere else for that matter.

But paging through it for the first time while actually sitting on the trail was less reassuring than I’d hoped. There were things I’d overlooked, I saw now, such as a quote on page 6 by a fellow named Charles Long, with whom the authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California heartily agreed, that said, “How can a book describe the psychological factors a person must prepare for … the despair, the alienation, the anxiety and especially the pain, both physical and mental, which slices to the very heart of the hiker’s volition, which are the real things that must be planned for? No words can transmit those factors …”

I sat pie-eyed, with a lurching knowledge that indeed no words could transmit those factors. They didn’t have to. I now knew exactly what they were. I’d learned about them by having hiked a little more than three miles in the desert mountains beneath a pack that resembled a Volkswagen Beetle. I read on, noting intimations that it would be wise to improve one’s physical fitness before setting out, to train specifically for the hike, perhaps. And, of course, admonishments about backpack weight. Suggestions even to refrain from carrying the entire guidebook itself because it was too heavy to carry all at once and unnecessary anyway—one could photocopy or rip out needed sections and include the necessary bit in the next resupply box. I closed the book.

Why hadn’t I thought of that? Of ripping the guidebook into sections?

Because I was a big fat idiot and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, that’s why. And I was alone in the wilderness with a beast of a load to carry while finding that out.

I wrapped my arms around my legs and pressed my face into the tops of my bare knees and closed my eyes, huddled into the ball of myself, the wind whipping my shoulder-length hair in a frenzy.

When I opened my eyes several minutes later, I saw that I was sitting next to a plant I recognized. This sage was less verdant than the sage my mother had grown in our yard for years, but its shape and scent were the same. I reached over and picked a handful of the leaves and rubbed them between my palms, then put my face in them and inhaled deeply, the way my mother had taught me to do. It gives you a burst of energy, she’d always declared, imploring my siblings and me to follow her lead on those long days when we’d been working to build our house and our bodies and spirits had flagged.

Inhaling it now, I didn’t so much smell the sharp, earthy scent of the desert sage as I did the potent memory of my mother. I looked up at the blue sky, feeling, in fact, a burst of energy, but mostly feeling my mother’s presence, remembering why it was that I’d thought I could hike this trail. Of all the things that convinced me that I should not be afraid while on this journey, of all the things I’d made myself believe so I could hike the PCT, the death of my mother was the thing that made me believe the most deeply in my safety: nothing bad could happen to me, I thought. The worst thing already had.

I stood and let the wind blow the sage leaves from my hands and walked to the edge of the flat area I was occupying. The land beyond gave way to a rocky outcropping below. I could see the mountains that surrounded me for miles, sloping gently down into a wide desert valley. White, angular wind turbines lined the ridges in the distance. My guidebook told me that they generated electricity for the residents of the cities and towns below, but I was far from that now. From cities and towns. From electricity. From California, it even seemed, though I was squarely in the heart of it, of the real California, with its relentless wind and Joshua trees and rattlesnakes lurking in places I had yet to find.

As I stood there, I knew I was done for the day, though when I’d stopped I’d intended to push on. Too tired to light my stove and too exhausted to be hungry in any case, I pitched my tent, though it was only four in the afternoon. I took things from my pack and tossed them into the tent to keep it from blowing away, then pushed the pack in too and crawled in behind it. I was immediately relieved to be inside, even though inside meant only a cramped green nylon cave. I set up my little camp chair and sat in the small portal where the tent’s ceiling was high enough to accommodate my head. Then I rummaged through my things to find a book: not The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, which I should have been reading to see what lay ahead the next day, and not Staying Found, which I should have read before starting the trail, but Adrienne Rich’s book of poems, The Dream of a Common Language.

This, I knew, was an unjustifiable weight. I could imagine the disapproving expressions on the faces of the authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California. Even the Faulkner novel had more right to be in my pack, if only because I hadn’t yet read it and therefore it could be explained as entertainment. I’d read The Dream of a Common Language so often that I’d practically memorized it. In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I’d chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didn’t regret carrying it one iota—even though carrying it meant that I could do no more than hunch beneath its weight. It was true that The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California was now my bible, but The Dream of a Common Language was my religion.

I opened it up and read the first poem out loud, my voice rising above the sound of the wind battering the walls of my tent. I read it again and again and again.

It was a poem called “Power.”