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

Part II. TRACKS

7. THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WOODS

“Cheryl Strayed?” the woman at the Kennedy Meadows General Store asked without a smile. When I nodded exuberantly, she turned and disappeared into the back without another word.

I looked around, drunk with the sight of the packaged food and drinks, feeling a combination of anticipation over the things I’d consume in the coming hours and relief over the fact that my pack was no longer attached to my body, but resting now on the porch of the store.

I was here. I had made it to my first stop. It seemed like a miracle. I’d half expected to see Greg, Matt, and Albert at the store, but they were nowhere in sight. My guidebook explained that the campground was another three miles farther on and I assumed that’s where I’d find them, along with Doug and Tom eventually. Thanks to my exertions, they hadn’t managed to catch up with me. Kennedy Meadows was a pretty expanse of piney woods and sage and grass meadows at an elevation of 6,200 feet on the South Fork Kern River. It wasn’t a town but rather an outpost of civilization spread out over a few miles, consisting of a general store, a restaurant called Grumpie’s, and a primitive campground.

“Here you go,” the woman said, returning with my box and setting it on the counter. “It’s the only one that’s got a girl’s name on it. That’s how I knew.” She reached across the counter to me. “This came too.”

In her hand was a postcard. I took it and read it: I hope you made it this far, it said in a familiar scrawl. I want to be your clean boyfriend somedayI love you. Joe. On the other side was a photograph of the Sylvia Beach Hotel on the Oregon coast, where we’d stayed together once. I stared at the photograph for several moments, a series of feelings washing over me in waves: grateful for a word from someone I knew, nostalgic for Joe, disappointed that only one person had written to me, and heartbroken, unreasonable as it was, that the one person who had wasn’t Paul.

I bought two bottles of Snapple lemonade, a king-sized Butterfinger, and a bag of Doritos and went outside and sat on the front steps, devouring the things I’d purchased while reading the postcard over and over again. After a while, I noticed a box in the corner of the porch stuffed full with mostly packaged backpacker food. Above it there was a handwritten sign that said:

PCT hiker FREE box!!!
Leave what you don’t want!
Take what you do!

A ski pole was propped behind the box, precisely the thing I needed. It was a ski pole fit for a princess: white, with a bubble-gum-pink nylon wrist strap. I tested it out for a few steps. It was the perfect height. It would help me across not only the snow, but also the many stream fords and rockslides that no doubt lay ahead.

I walked with it an hour later as I made my way along the dirt road that went in a loop around the campground, looking for Greg, Matt, and Albert. It was a Sunday afternoon in June, but the place was mostly empty. I passed by a man preparing his fishing gear and a couple with a cooler of beer and a boom box and eventually came to a campsite where a shirtless gray-haired man with a big tan belly sat at a picnic table reading a book. He looked up as I approached.

“You must be the famous Cheryl of the enormous backpack,” he called to me.

I laughed in agreement.

“I’m Ed.” He walked toward me to shake my hand. “Your friends are here. They all just caught a ride up to the store—you must have missed them as you were coming—but they asked me to watch for you. You can set up your tent right over there if you’d like. They’re all camped here—Greg and Albert and his son.” He gestured to the tents around him. “We were taking bets who’d arrive first. You or the two boys from back east coming up behind you.”

“Who won?” I asked.

Ed thought for a moment. “No one,” he said, and boomed with laughter. “None of us bet on you.”

I rested Monster on the picnic table, took it off, and left it there, so when I had to put it on again I wouldn’t have to perform my pathetic dead lift from the ground.

“Welcome to my humble abode,” Ed said, gesturing to a little pop-up trailer that had a tarp roof extending out its side with a makeshift camp kitchen beneath it. “You hungry?”

There were no showers at the campground, so while Ed made lunch for me, I walked to the river to wash as best as I could with my clothes still on. The river felt like a shock after all that dry territory I’d crossed. And the South Fork Kern River wasn’t just any river. It was violent and self-possessed, ice-cold and raging, its might clear evidence of the heavy snows higher up the mountains. The current was too fast to go in even ankle-deep, so I walked down the bank until I found an eddying pool near the river’s edge and waded in. My feet ached from the cold water and eventually went numb. I crouched and wetted down my filthy hair and splashed handfuls of water beneath my clothes to wash my body. I felt electric with sugar and the victory of arriving; filled with anticipation of the conversations I’d have over the next couple of days.

When I was done, I walked up the bank and then across a wide meadow, wet and cool. I could see Ed from a distance, and as I approached I watched him move from his camp kitchen to the picnic table with plates of food in his hands, bottles of ketchup and mustard and cans of Coke. I’d known him only a few minutes and yet, like the other men I’d met, he felt instantly familiar to me, as if I could trust him with close to anything. We sat across from each other and ate while he told me about himself. He was fifty, an amateur poet and seasonal vagabond, childless and divorced. I tried to eat at his leisurely pace, taking bites when he did, the same way I’d attempted to match my steps to Greg’s a few days before, but I couldn’t do it. I was ravenous. I devoured two hot dogs and a mountain of baked beans and another mountain of potato chips in a flash and then sat hungrily wishing for more. Meanwhile, Ed worked his way languidly through his lunch, pausing to open his journal to read aloud poems that he’d composed the day before. He lived in San Diego most of the year, he explained, but each summer he set up camp in Kennedy Meadows in order to greet the PCT hikers as they passed through. He was what’s referred to in PCT hiker vernacular as a trail angel, but I didn’t know that then. Didn’t know, even, that there was a PCT hiker vernacular.

“Look here, fellas, we all lost the bet,” Ed hollered to the men when they returned from the store.

“I didn’t lose!” Greg protested as he came close to squeeze my shoulder. “I put my money on you, Cheryl,” he insisted, though the others disputed his claim.

We sat around the picnic table, talking about the trail, and after a while, they all dispersed to take naps—Ed to his trailer; Greg, Albert, and Matt to their tents. I stayed at the picnic table, too excited to sleep, pawing through the contents of the box I’d packed weeks before. The things inside smelled like a world far-off, like the one I’d occupied in what seemed another lifetime, scented with the Nag Champa incense that had permeated my apartment. The ziplock bags and packaging on the food were still shiny and unscathed. The fresh T-shirt smelled of the lavender detergent I bought in bulk at the co-op I belonged to in Minneapolis. The flowery cover of The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor was unbent.

The same could not be said of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or rather the thin portion of the book I still had in my pack. I’d torn off the cover and all the pages I’d read the night before and burned them in the little aluminum pie pan I’d brought to place beneath my stove to safeguard against errant sparks. I’d watched Faulkner’s name disappear into flames feeling a bit like it was a sacrilege—never had I dreamed I’d be burning books—but I was desperate to lighten my load. I’d done the same with the section from The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California that I’d already hiked.

It hurt to do it, but it had to be done. I’d loved books in my regular, pre-PCT life, but on the trail, they’d taken on even greater meaning. They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear. When I made camp in the evenings, I rushed through the tasks of pitching my tent and filtering water and cooking dinner so I could sit afterwards inside the shelter of my tent in my chair with my pot of hot food gripped between my knees. I ate with my spoon in one hand and a book in the other, reading by the light of my headlamp when the sky darkened. In the first week of my hike, I was often too exhausted to read more than a page or two before I fell asleep, but as I grew stronger I was reading more, eager to escape the tedium of my days. And each morning, I burned whatever I’d read the night before.

As I held my unspoiled copy of O’Connor’s short stories, Albert emerged from his tent. “Looks to me like you could stand to lose a few things,” he said. “Want some help?”

“Actually,” I said, smiling ruefully at him, “yes.”

“All right, then. Here’s what I want you to do: pack up that thing just like you’re about to hike out of here for this next stretch of trail and we’ll go from there.” He walked toward the river with the nub of a toothbrush in hand—the end of which he’d thought to break off to save weight, of course.

I went to work, integrating the new with the old, feeling as if I were taking a test that I was bound to fail. When I was done, Albert returned and methodically unpacked my pack. He placed each item in one of two piles—one to go back into my pack, another to go into the now-empty resupply box that I could either mail home or leave in the PCT hiker free box on the porch of the Kennedy Meadows General Store for others to plunder. Into the box went the foldable saw and miniature binoculars and the megawatt flash for the camera I had yet to use. As I looked on, Albert chucked aside the deodorant whose powers I’d overestimated and the disposable razor I’d brought with some vague notion about shaving my legs and under my arms and—much to my embarrassment—the fat roll of condoms I’d slipped into my first aid kit.

“Do you really need these?” Albert asked, holding the condoms. Albert the Georgia Daddy Eagle Scout, whose wedding band glinted in the sun, who cut off the handle of his own toothbrush, but no doubt carried a pocket-sized Bible in his pack. He looked at me stone-faced as a soldier, while the white plastic wrappers of a dozen ultrathin nonlubricated Trojan condoms made a clickety-clack sound as they unfurled like a party streamer from his hand.

“No,” I said, feeling as if I was going to die of shame. The idea of having sex seemed absurd to me now, though when I’d packed my supplies it had struck me as a reasonable prospect, back before I had a clue of what hiking the Pacific Crest Trail would do to my body. I’d not seen myself since I was at the motel in Ridgecrest, but after the men had gone off to nap, I’d taken the opportunity to gaze at my face in the mirror attached to the side of Ed’s truck. I looked tan and dirty, despite my recent dunk in the river. I’d become remotely leaner and my dark blonde hair a tad lighter, alternately flattened and sprung alive by a combination of dried sweat, river water, and dust.

I didn’t look like a woman who might need twelve condoms.

But Albert didn’t pause to ponder such things—whether I’d get laid or not, whether I was pretty. He pushed on, pillaging my pack, inquiring sternly each time before tossing another item I’d previously deemed necessary into the get-rid-of pile. I nodded almost every time he held an item up, agreeing it should go, though I held the line on both The Complete Stories and my beloved, intact copy of The Dream of a Common Language. I held the line on my journal, in which I recorded everything I did that summer. And when Albert wasn’t looking, I tore one condom off the end of the fat roll of condoms he’d tossed aside and slid it discreetly into the back pocket of my shorts.

“So what brought you out here?” Albert asked when his work was done. He sat on the bench of the picnic table, his broad hands folded in front of him.

“To hike the PCT?” I asked.

He nodded and watched as I pushed the various items we’d agreed I could keep back into my pack. “I’ll tell you why I’m doing it,” he said quickly, before I could answer. “It’s been a lifelong dream for me. When I heard about the trail I thought, ‘Now there’s something I’d like to do before I go to meet the Lord.’ ” He rapped his fist gently on the table. “So how about you, girly-o? I’ve got a theory that most folks have a reason. Something that drove ’em out here.”

“I don’t know,” I demurred. I wasn’t about to tell a fifty-something Christian Georgia Eagle Scout why I decided to walk alone in the woods for three solid months, no matter how kindly his eyes twinkled when he smiled. The things that compelled me to hike this trail would sound scandalous to him and dubious to me; to both of us, they’d only reveal just how shaky this whole endeavor was.

“Mainly,” I said, “I thought it would be something fun.”

“You call this fun?” he asked, and we both laughed.

I turned and leaned into Monster, threading my arms into the straps. “So let’s see if it made a difference,” I said, and buckled it on. When I lifted it from the table, I was amazed at how light it felt, even fully loaded with my new ice ax and a fresh supply of eleven days’ worth of food. I beamed at Albert. “Thank you.”

He chuckled in response, shaking his head.

Jubilant, I walked away to take my pack on a trial run on the dirt road that made a loop around the campground. Mine was still the biggest pack of the bunch—hiking solo, I had to carry things that those who hiked in pairs could divvy up, and I didn’t have the ultralight confidence or skills that Greg did—but in comparison to how my pack had been before Albert helped me purge it, it was so light I felt I could leap into the air. Halfway around the loop I paused and leapt.

I made it only an inch off the ground, but at least it could be done.

“Cheryl?” a voice called out just then. I looked up and saw a handsome young man wearing a backpack walking toward me.

“Doug?” I asked, guessing right. In response he waved his arms and gave out a joyous hoot, and then he walked straight up to me and pulled me in for a hug.

“We read your entry in the register and we’ve been trying to catch up to you.”

“And here I am,” I stammered, taken aback by his enthusiasm and good looks. “We’re all camped over there.” I gestured behind me. “There’s a bunch of us. Where’s your friend?”

“He’ll be coming up soon,” Doug said, and hooted again, apropos of nothing. He reminded me of all the golden boys I’d known in my life—classically handsome and charmingly sure of his place at the very top of the heap, confident that the world was his and that he was safe in it, without ever having considered otherwise. As I stood next to him, I had the feeling that any moment he’d reach for my hand and together we’d parachute off a cliff, laughing as we wafted gently down.

“Tom!” Doug bellowed when he saw a figure appear down the road. Together we walked toward him. I could tell even from a distance that Tom was Doug’s physical and spiritual opposite—bony, pale, bespectacled. The smile that crept onto his face as we approached was cautious and mildly unconvinced.

“Hello,” he said to me when we got close enough, reaching to shake my hand.

In the few short minutes it took for us to reach Ed’s camp, we exchanged a flurry of information about who we were and where we were from. Tom was twenty-four; Doug, twenty-one. New England blue bloods, my mother would have called them, I knew almost before they told me a thing—which meant to her only that they were basically rich and from somewhere east of Ohio and north of D.C. Over the course of the coming days, I’d learn all about them. How their parents were surgeons and mayors and financial executives. How they’d both attended a tony boarding school whose fame was so great even I knew it by name. How they’d vacationed on Nantucket and on private islands off the coast of Maine and spent their spring breaks in Vail. But I didn’t know any of that yet, how in so many ways their lives were unfathomable to me and mine to them. I knew only that in some very particular ways they were my closest kin. They weren’t gearheads or backpacking experts or PCT know-it-alls. They hadn’t hiked all the way from Mexico, nor had they been planning the trip for a decade. And even better, the miles they’d traversed so far had left them nearly as shattered as they’d left me. They hadn’t, by virtue of their togetherness, gone days without seeing another human being. Their packs looked of a size reasonable enough that I doubted they were carrying a foldable saw. But I could tell the instant I locked eyes with Doug that, despite all his confidence and ease, he had been through something. And when Tom took my hand to shake it, I could read precisely the expression on his face. It said: I’VE GOT TO GET THESE FUCKING BOOTS OFF MY FEET.

Moments later, he did, sitting on the bench of Ed’s picnic table, after we arrived at our camp and the men gathered around to introduce themselves. I watched as Tom carefully peeled off his filthy socks, clumps of worn-out moleskin and his own flesh coming off with them. His feet looked like mine: white as fish and pocked with bloody, oozing wounds overlaid with flaps of skin that had been rubbed away and now dangled, still painfully attached to the patches of flesh that had yet to die a slow, PCT-induced death. I took off my pack and unzipped a pocket to remove my first aid kit.

“Have you ever tried these?” I asked Tom, holding out a sheet of 2nd Skin—thankfully, I had packed more into my resupply box. “These have saved me,” I explained. “I don’t know if I could go on without them, actually.”

Tom only looked up at me in despair and nodded without elaborating. I set a couple of sheets of 2nd Skin beside him on the bench.

“You’re welcome to these, if you’d like,” I said. Seeing them in their translucent blue wrappers brought to mind the condom in my back pocket. I wondered if Tom had packed any; if Doug had; if my bringing them had been such a dumb idea after all. Being in Tom and Doug’s presence made it seem slightly less so.

“We thought we’d all go up to Grumpie’s at six,” Ed said, looking at his watch. “We’ve got a couple hours. I’ll drive us all up in my truck.” He looked at Tom and Doug. “Meanwhile, I’d be happy to get you boys a snack.”

The men sat at the picnic table, eating Ed’s potato chips and cold baked beans, talking about why they chose the pack they chose and the pros and cons of each. Someone brought out a deck of cards, and a game of poker started up. Greg paged through his guidebook at the end of the table near me, where I stood beside my pack, still marveling at its transformation. Pockets that had been bursting full now had tiny cushions of room.

“You’re practically a Jardi-Nazi now,” said Albert, in a teasing tone, seeing me gazing at my pack. “Those are the disciples of Ray Jardine, if you don’t know. They take a highly particular view about pack weight.”

“It’s the guy I was telling you about,” added Greg.

I nodded coolly, trying to conceal my ignorance. “I’m going to get ready for dinner,” I said, and ambled to the edge of our campsite. I pitched my tent and then crawled inside, spread out my sleeping bag, and lay on top of it, staring at the green nylon ceiling, while listening to the murmur of the men’s conversation and occasional bursts of laughter. I was going out to a restaurant with six men, and I had nothing to wear but what I was already wearing, I realized glumly: a T-shirt over a sports bra and a pair of shorts with nothing underneath. I remembered my fresh T-shirt from my resupply box and sat up and put it on. The entire back of the shirt I’d been wearing since Mojave was now stained a brownish yellow from the endless bath of sweat it had endured. I wadded it up in a ball and put it at the corner of my tent. I’d throw it away at the store later. The only other clothes I had were those I brought for cold weather. I remembered the necklace I’d been wearing until it got so hot that I couldn’t bear to have it on; I found it in the ziplock bag in which I kept my driver’s license and money and put it on. It was a small turquoise-and-silver earring that used to belong to my mother. I’d lost the other one, so I’d taken a pair of needle-nose pliers to the one that remained and turned it into a pendant on a delicate silver chain. I’d brought it along because it had been my mother’s; having it with me felt meaningful, but now I was glad to have it simply because I felt prettier with it on. I ran my fingers through my hair, attempting to shape it into an attractive formation, aided by my tiny comb, but eventually I gave up and pushed it behind my ears.

It was just as well, I knew, that I simply let myself look and feel and smell the way I did. I was, after all, what Ed referred to somewhat inaccurately as the only girl in the woods, alone with a gang of men. By necessity, out here on the trail, I felt I had to sexually neutralize the men I met by being, to the extent that was possible, one of them.

I’d never been that way in my life, interacting with men in the even-keeled indifference that being one of the guys entails. It didn’t feel like an easy thing to endure, as I sat in my tent while the men played cards. I’d been a girl forever, after all, familiar with and reliant upon the powers my very girlness granted me. Suppressing those powers gave me a gloomy twinge in the gut. Being one of the guys meant I could not go on being the woman I’d become expert at being among men. It was a version of myself I’d first tasted way back when I was a child of eleven and I’d felt that prickly rush of power when grown men would turn their heads to look at me or whistle or say Hey pretty baby just loudly enough that I could hear. The one I’d banked on all through high school, starving myself thin, playing cute and dumb so I’d be popular and loved. The one I’d fostered all through my young adult years while trying on different costumes—earth girl, punk girl, cowgirl, riot girl, ballsy girl. The one for whom behind every hot pair of boots or sexy little skirt or flourish of the hair there was a trapdoor that led to the least true version of me.

Now there was only one version. On the PCT I had no choice but to inhabit it entirely, to show my grubby face to the whole wide world. Which, at least for now, consisted of only six men.

“Cherylllll,” Doug’s voice called softly from a few feet away. “You in there?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“We’re going down to the river. Come hang with us.”

“Okay,” I said, feeling flattered in spite of myself. When I sat up, the condom made a crinkling sound in my back pocket. I took it out and slid it into my first aid kit, crawled out of my tent, and walked toward the river.

Doug, Tom, and Greg were wading in the shallow spot where I’d cleaned up a few hours before. Beyond them, the water raged in torrents, rushing over boulders as big as my tent. I thought of the snow I’d soon be encountering if I continued on with the ice ax I didn’t yet know how to use and the white ski pole with its cute little pink wrist strap that had come to me only by chance. I hadn’t yet begun to think about what was next on the trail. I’d only listened and nodded when Ed told me that most of the PCT hikers who’d come through Kennedy Meadows in the three weeks he’d been camped here had opted to get off the trail at this point because of the record snowpack that made the trail essentially unpassable for most of the next four or five hundred miles. They caught rides and buses to rejoin the PCT farther north, at lower elevations, he told me. Some intended to loop back later in the summer to hike the section they’d missed; others to skip it. He said that a few had ended their hikes altogether, just as Greg had told me earlier, deciding to hike the PCT another, less record-breaking year. And fewer still had forged ahead, determined to make it through the snow.

Grateful for my cheap camp sandals, I picked my way over the rocks that lined the riverbed toward the men, the water so cold my bones hurt.

“I got something for you,” said Doug when I reached him. He held his hand out to me. In it was a shiny feather, about a foot long, so black it shone blue in the sun.

“For what?” I asked, taking it from him.

“For luck,” he said, and touched my arm.

When he took his hand away, the place where it had been felt like a burn—I could feel how little I’d been touched in the past fourteen days, how alone I’d been.

“So I was thinking about the snow,” I said, holding the feather, my voice raised over the rush of the river. “The people who bypassed? They were all here a week or two before us. A lot more snow has melted by now, so maybe it’ll be okay.” I looked at Greg and then at the black feather, stroking it.

“The snow depth at Bighorn Plateau on June first was more than double what it was the same day last year,” he said, tossing a stone. “A week isn’t going to make much of a difference in that regard.”

I nodded, as if I knew where Bighorn Plateau was, or what it meant for the snowpack to be double what it was a year ago. I felt like a fraud even having this discussion, like a mascot among players, as if they were the real PCT hikers and I was just happening through. As if somehow, because of my inexperience, my failure to read even a single page written by Ray Jardine, my laughably slow pace, and my belief that it had been reasonable to pack a foldable saw, I had not actually hiked to Kennedy Meadows from Tehachapi Pass, but instead had been carried along.

But I had walked here, and I wasn’t ready to give up on seeing the High Sierra just yet. It had been the section of the trail I’d most anticipated, its untouched beauty extolled by the authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and immortalized by the naturalist John Muir in the books he’d written a century before. It was the section of mountains he’d dubbed the “Range of Light.” The High Sierra and its 13,000- and 14,000-foot-high peaks, its cold, clear lakes and deep canyons were the point of hiking the PCT in California, it seemed. Plus, bypassing it would be a logistical mess. If I had to skip the High Sierra, I’d end up in Ashland more than a month before I intended to.

“I’d like to push on, if there’s a way,” I said, waving the feather with a flourish. My feet didn’t hurt anymore. They’d gone blissfully numb in the icy water.

“Well, we do have about forty miles to play with before the going gets seriously rough—from here up to Trail Pass,” said Doug. “There’s a trail there that intersects the PCT and goes down to a campground. We can hike at least that far and see how it goes—see how much snow there is—and then bail out there if we want to.”

“What do you think of that, Greg?” I asked. Whatever he would do was what I’d do.

He nodded. “I think that’s a good plan.”

“That’s what I’m going to do,” I said. “I’ll be okay. I have my ice ax now.”

Greg looked at me. “You know how to use it?”

The next morning he gave me a tutorial.

“This is the shaft,” he said, running his hand up the length of the ax. “And this is the spike,” he added, touching a finger to the sharp end. “And on the other end there’s the head.”

The shaft? The head? The spike? I tried not to crack up like an eighth grader in sex ed class, but I couldn’t help myself.

“What?” asked Greg, his hand around the shaft of his ax, but I only shook my head. “You’ve got two edges,” he continued. “The blunt edge is the adze. That’s what you use to chop your steps. And the other edge is the pick. That’s what you use to save your ass when you’re sliding off the side of the mountain.” He spoke in a tone that assumed I knew this already, as if he were just reviewing the basics before we got started.

“Yep. The shaft, the head, the spike, the pick, the ad,” I said.

“The adze,” he corrected. “There’s a z.” We were standing on a steep bank along the river, the closest thing we could find to simulate an icy slope. “Now let’s say you’re falling,” said Greg, throwing himself down the incline to demonstrate. As he fell, he jammed the pick into the mud. “You want to dig that pick in as hard as you can, while holding on to the shaft with one hand and the head with the other. Like this. And once you’re anchored in, you try to get your footing.”

I looked at him. “What if you can’t get your footing?”

“Well, then you hold on here,” he answered, moving his hands on the ax.

“What if I can’t hold on that long? I mean, I’ll have my pack and everything and, actually, I’m not strong enough to do a single pull-up.”

“You hold on,” he said dispassionately. “Unless you’d rather slide off the side of the mountain.”

I got to work. Again and again I threw myself against the increasingly muddy slope, pretending that I was slipping on ice, and again and again I planted the pick of my ice ax into the soil while Greg watched, coaching and critiquing my technique.

Doug and Tom sat nearby pretending they weren’t paying attention. Albert and Matt were lying on a tarp we’d spread out for them beneath the shade of a tree near Ed’s truck, too ill to move anywhere but to the outhouse several times an hour. They’d both woken in the middle of the night sick with what we were all beginning to believe was giardia—a waterborne parasite that causes crippling diarrhea and nausea, requires prescription medication to cure, and almost always means a week or more off the trail. It was the reason PCT hikers spent so much time talking about water purifiers and water sources, for fear they’d make one wrong move and have to pay. I didn’t know where Matt and Albert had picked up whatever they had, but I prayed I hadn’t picked it up too. By late afternoon we all stood over them as they lay pale and limp on their tarp, convincing them it was time they got to the hospital in Ridgecrest. Too sick to resist, they watched as we packed their things and loaded their packs into the back of Ed’s truck.

“Thank you for all your help with lightening my pack,” I said to Albert when we had a moment alone before he departed. He looked wanly up at me from his bed on the tarp. “I couldn’t have done it myself.”

He gave me a weak smile and nodded.

“By the way,” I said, “I wanted to tell you—about why I decided to hike the PCT? I got divorced. I was married and not long ago I got divorced, and also about four years ago my mom died—she was only forty-five and she got cancer suddenly and died. It’s been a hard time in my life and I’ve sort of gotten offtrack. So I …” He opened his eyes wider, looking at me. “I thought it would help me find my center, to come out here.” I made a crumpled gesture with my hands, out of words, a bit surprised that I’d let so many tumble out.

“Well, you’ve got your bearings now, haven’t you?” he said, and sat up, his face lighting up despite his nausea. He rose and walked slowly to Ed’s truck and got in beside his son. I clambered into the back with their backpacks and the box of things I no longer needed and rode with them as far as the general store. When we reached it, Ed stopped for a few moments; I jumped out with my box and waved to Albert and Matt, hollering good luck.

I felt a stinging rush of affection as I watched them drive away. Ed would return in a few hours, but most likely I’d never see Albert and Matt again. I would be hiking into the High Sierra with Doug and Tom the next day, and in the morning I’d have to say goodbye to Ed and Greg too—Greg was laying over in Kennedy Meadows another day, and though he would certainly catch up to me, it would likely be a fleeting visit, and then he too would pass out of my life.

I walked to the porch of the general store and put everything but the foldable saw, the special high-tech flash for my camera, and the miniature binoculars into the PCT hiker free box. Those I packed into my old resupply box and addressed it to Lisa in Portland. As I sealed my box with a roll of tape Ed had loaned me, I kept having the feeling that something was missing.

Later, as I walked the road back to the campground, I realized what it was: the fat roll of condoms.

Every last one was gone.