Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Part IV. WILD
12. THIS FAR
I woke at first light, moving with precision as I broke camp. I could pack up in five minutes now. Every item that had been in that unfathomable heap on the bed in the motel in Mojave that hadn’t already been ditched or burned had its place in or on my pack and I knew exactly where that place was. My hands moved to it on instinct, seeming almost to bypass my brain. Monster was my world, my inanimate extra limb. Though its weight and size still confounded me, I’d come to accept that it was my burden to bear. I didn’t feel myself in contradiction to it the way I had a month before. It wasn’t me against it. We two were one.
Bearing Monster’s weight had changed me on the outside too. My legs had become as hard as boulders, their muscles seemingly capable of anything, rippling beneath my thinning flesh in ways they never had. The patches on my hips and shoulders and tailbone that had repeatedly bled and scabbed over in the places where Monster’s straps rubbed my body had finally surrendered, becoming rough and pocked, my flesh morphing into what I can only describe as a cross between tree bark and a dead chicken after it’s been dipped in boiling water and plucked.
My feet? Well, they were still entirely, unspeakably fucked.
My two big toes had never recovered from the beating they took on the merciless descent from Three Lakes to Belden Town. Their nails looked near dead. My pinky toes had been rubbed so raw I wondered if they’d eventually just wear clean away from my feet. What seemed like permanent blisters covered the backs of my heels all the way up to my ankles. But I refused to think of my feet that morning in Old Station. So much of being able to hike the PCT depended upon mind control: the stout decision to move forward, regardless. I covered my wounds with duct tape and 2nd Skin, then I put on my socks and boots and hobbled over to the campground’s spigot to fill up my two bottles with sixty-four ounces of water, which had to last me for fifteen searing miles across Hat Creek Rim.
It was early but hot already as I walked the road to the place where the PCT crossed it. I felt rested and strong, braced for the day. I spent the morning weaving my way through dry creek beds and bone-hard gullies, pausing to sip water as seldom as I could. By midmorning I was walking across a miles-wide escarpment, a high dry field of weeds and wildflowers that offered barely a scrap of shade. The few trees I passed were dead, killed in the fire years before, their trunks scorched white or charred black, their branches broken and burnt into daggers. Their stark beauty bore down on me with a silent anguished force as I passed them by.
The blue sky was everywhere above me, the sun bright and unrelenting, scorching me even through my hat and the sunscreen I rubbed into my sweaty face and arms. I could see for miles—snowy Lassen Peak nearby to the south and the higher and snowier Mount Shasta rising far to the north. The sight of Mount Shasta filled me with relief. I was going there. I would walk past it and beyond it, all the way to the Columbia River. Now that I’d escaped the snow, it seemed nothing could take me off course. An image of myself hiking with ease and alacrity through the rest of the miles formed in my mind, though the shimmering heat soon eradicated it, reminding me that I knew better. If I made it to the Oregon-Washington border, I knew it would only be with all the hardships that moving at foot speed beneath a monster of a pack entailed.
Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one. And humbler still that day on Hat Creek Rim as the temperature moved from hot to hotter, the wind doing little more than whip the dust into swirls at my feet. It was during one such gust that I heard a sound more insistent than any caused by the wind and realized that it was a rattlesnake shaking its rattle hard and near, warning me off. I scrambled backwards and saw the snake a few steps ahead of me on the trail, its rattle held like a scolding finger slightly above its coiled body, its blunt face darting in my direction. If I’d taken another few steps, I’d have been upon it. It was the third rattlesnake I’d encountered on the trail. I made an almost comically wide arc around it, and continued on.
At midday I found a narrow patch of shade and sat down to eat. I took my socks and boots off and reclined in the dirt to prop up my swollen and battered feet on my pack, as I almost always did on my lunch break. I stared at the sky, watching the hawks and eagles that soared in serene circles above me, but I couldn’t quite relax. It wasn’t only because of the rattlesnake. The landscape was barren enough that I could see for great distances, though I kept having the vague feeling that something lurked nearby, watching me, waiting to pounce. I sat up and scanned the terrain for mountain lions, then lay back down, telling myself that there was nothing to fear, before I quickly sat up again at what I thought was the snap of a branch.
It was nothing, I told myself. I was not afraid. I reached for my water bottle and took a long drink. I was so thirsty that I chugged it until it was empty, then I opened the other one and drank from that too, unable to stop myself. The thermometer that dangled from the zipper on my pack said it was 100 degrees in my shaded patch.
I sang cool songs as I walked, the sun beating me as if it had an actual physical force that consisted of more than heat. Sweat collected around my sunglasses and streamed into my eyes, stinging them so I had to stop and wipe my face every now and then. It seemed impossible that I’d been up in the snowy mountains wearing all of my clothes only the week before, that I’d awakened to a thick layer of frost on my tent walls each morning. I couldn’t rightly remember it. Those white days seemed like a dream, as if all this time I’d been staggering north in the scorching heat into this, my fifth week on the trail, straight through the same heat that had almost driven me off the trail in my second week. I stopped and drank again. The water was so hot it almost hurt my mouth.
Sagebrush and a sprawl of hardy wildflowers blanketed the wide plain. As I walked, scratchy plants I couldn’t identify grazed my calves. Others I knew seemed to speak to me, saying their names to me in my mother’s voice. Names I didn’t realize I knew until they came so clearly into my mind: Queen Anne’s lace, Indian paintbrush, lupine—those same flowers grew in Minnesota, white and orange and purple. When we passed them as we drove, my mother would sometimes stop the car and pick a bouquet from what grew in the ditch.
I stopped walking and looked up at the sky. The birds of prey still circled, hardly seeming to flap their wings. I will never go home, I thought with a finality that made me catch my breath, and then I walked on, my mind emptying into nothing but the effort to push my body through the bald monotony of the hike. There wasn’t a day on the trail when that monotony didn’t ultimately win out, when the only thing to think about was whatever was the physically hardest. It was a sort of scorching cure. I counted my steps, working my way to a hundred and starting over again at one. Each time I completed another set it seemed as if I’d achieved a small thing. Then a hundred became too optimistic and I went to fifty, then twenty-five, then ten.
One two three four five six seven eight nine ten.
I stopped and bent over, pressing my hands to my knees to ease my back for a moment. The sweat dripped from my face onto the pale dirt like tears.
The Modoc Plateau was different from the Mojave Desert, but it didn’t feel different. Both teemed with jagged desert plants while being entirely inhospitable to human life. Tiny gray and brown lizards either zipped across the trail as I approached or held their position as I passed. Where did they get water? I wondered, trying to stop myself from thinking about how hot and thirsty I was. Where would I? I was three miles away from the water tank, I reckoned. I had eight ounces of water left.
I forced myself not to drink the last two until I had the water tank in sight and by 4:30 there it was: the stilted legs of the burned fire lookout on a rise in the distance. Nearby was a metal tank propped up against a post. As soon as I saw it, I pulled out my bottle and drank the last of my water, thankful that in a matter of minutes I’d be able to drink my fill from the tank. As I approached, I saw that the wooden post near the tank was covered with something that flapped in the wind. It looked like several shredded ribbons at first and then a ripped cloth. It wasn’t until I got up close that I saw they were tiny scraps of paper—notes stuck to the post with duct tape and now fluttering in the wind. I lurched forward to read them, knowing what they would say even before my eyes met the paper. They said what they said in various ways, but they all bore the same message: NO WATER.
I stood motionless for a moment, paralyzed with dread. I gazed into the tank to confirm what was true. There was no water. I had no water. Not even a sip.
I kicked the dirt and grabbed fistfuls of sage and threw them, furious with myself for yet again doing the wrong thing, for being the same idiot I’d been the very day I set foot on the trail. The same one who had purchased the wrong size boots and profoundly underestimated the amount of money I’d need for the summer, and even maybe the same idiot who believed I could hike this trail.
I pulled the ripped-out guidebook pages from my shorts pocket and read them again. I wasn’t scared in the same way I’d been earlier in the day, when I had the funny feeling that something was lurking nearby. Now I was terrified. This wasn’t a feeling. It was a fact: I was miles from water on a hundred-and-something-degree day. I knew that this was the most serious situation I’d been in so far on the trail—more threatening than the marauding bull, more harrowing than the snow. I needed water. I needed it soon. I needed it now. I could feel that need in my every pore. I remembered Albert asking me how many times I urinated each day when I’d first met him. I hadn’t peed since I’d left Old Station that morning. I hadn’t needed to. Every ounce I’d ingested had been used. I was so thirsty I couldn’t even spit.
The authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California said the nearest “reliable” water was fifteen miles away at Rock Spring Creek, but they conceded there was, in fact, water nearer by in a reservoir that they strongly advised against drinking from, calling its quality “questionable at best.” That water was nearly five miles farther up the trail.
Unless, of course, the reservoir had also gone dry.
There was a distinct chance that it had, I acknowledged, as I did my version of racing toward it, which, given the condition of my feet and the weight of my pack, was nothing more than a decidedly brisk walk. It felt as if I could see the entire world from the east rim of Hat Creek. A wide valley spread below me into the distance, interrupted by green volcanic mountains to both the north and the south. Even in my anxious state, I couldn’t help but feel rapturous at the beauty. I was a big fat idiot, yes, one who might die of dehydration and heat exhaustion, yes, but at least I was in a beautiful place—a place I’d come to love, in spite and because of its hardships—and I’d gotten myself into this place on my own two feet. Consoling myself with this, I walked on, so thirsty that I became nauseated and slightly feverish. I’ll be okay, I told myself. It’s just another bit farther, I said around each bend and over every rise as the sun sank toward the horizon until at last I saw the reservoir.
I stopped to gaze at it. It was a miserable-looking mucky pond about the size of a tennis court, but there was water in it. I was laughing with joy as I staggered down the slope toward the little dirt beach that surrounded the reservoir. I’d hiked my first twenty-mile day. I unbuckled Monster and set it onto the ground and went to the muddy shore and squatted to put my hands in the water. It was gray and warm as blood. When I moved my hands, the muck from the bottom rose in weedy tendrils and streaked the water black.
I got my purifier and pumped the questionable liquid into my bottle. My purifier had remained as difficult to use as it had been that first time I used it at Golden Oak Springs, but it was especially difficult in this water, so dense with sludge that it half jammed my filter. By the time I was done filling one bottle, my arms shook with fatigue. I went to my first aid kit and took out my iodine pills and dropped a couple into the water. I’d brought the pills for just this reason, reinforcement should I ever be compelled to drink water that was likely contaminated. Even Albert had thought the iodine pills a good idea back in Kennedy Meadows, when he’d been ruthlessly tossing things into the get-rid-of pile. Albert, who’d been felled by a waterborne illness the very next day.
I had to wait thirty minutes for the iodine to do its work before it was safe to drink. I was desperately thirsty, but I distracted myself by filling my other bottle with water. When I was done, I laid out my tarp on the dirt beach, stood on top of it, and took off my clothes. The wind had mellowed with the fading light. In gentle wafts, it cooled the hot patches on my naked hips. It didn’t occur to me that anyone might come along the trail. I hadn’t seen a soul all day, and even if someone did come along, I was too catatonic with dehydration and exhaustion to care.
I looked at my watch. Twenty-seven minutes had passed since I’d plopped the iodine pills into my water. Usually I was starving by evening, but the idea of eating was nothing to me now. Water was my only desire.
I sat on my blue tarp and drank one bottle down and then the other. The warm water tasted like iron and mud and yet seldom have I ever consumed anything so amazing. I could feel it moving into me, though even once I’d had two 32-ounce bottles, I wasn’t entirely restored. I still wasn’t hungry. I felt like I had in those first days on the trail, when I’d been so astoundingly exhausted that all my body wanted was sleep. Now all my body wanted was water. I filled my bottles again, let the iodine purify them, and drank them both.
By the time I was sated, it was dark and the full moon was rising. I couldn’t muster the energy to set up my tent—a task that required little more than two minutes’ effort, which now seemed Herculean to me. I didn’t need a tent. It hadn’t rained since my first couple of days on the trail. I put my clothes back on and spread out my sleeping bag on the tarp, but it was too hot still to do anything but lie on top of it. I was too tired to read. Even gazing at the moon felt like a mild effort. I’d consumed 128 ounces of questionable reservoir water since I’d arrived a couple of hours before and I still didn’t have to pee. I had done a stupendously dumb thing by setting out across Hat Creek Rim with so little water. I’ll never be so careless again, I promised the moon before falling asleep.
I woke two hours later with the vaguely pleasant sensation that tiny cool hands were gently patting me. They were on my bare legs and arms and face and in my hair, on my feet and throat and hands. I could feel their cool weight through my T-shirt on my chest and belly. “Hmm,” I moaned, turning slightly before I opened my eyes and a series of facts came to me in slow motion.
There was the fact of the moon and the fact that I was sleeping out in the open on my tarp.
There was the fact that I had woken because it seemed like small cool hands were gently patting me and the fact that small cool hands were gently patting me.
And then there was the final fact of all, which was a fact more monumental than even the moon: the fact that those small cool hands were not hands, but hundreds of small cool black frogs.
Small cool slimy black frogs jumping all over me.
Each one was the approximate size of a potato chip. They were an amphibious army, a damp smooth-skinned militia, a great web-footed migration, and I was in their path as they hopped, scrambled, leapt, and hurled their tiny, pudgy, bent-legged bodies from the reservoir and onto the scrim of dirt that they no doubt considered their private beach.
Within an instant, I was among them, hopping, scrambling, leaping, and hurling myself, my pack, my tarp, and everything that sat on it into the brush beyond the beach, swatting frogs from my hair and the folds of my T-shirt as I went. I couldn’t help but squash a few beneath my bare feet. Finally safe, I stood watching them from the frog-free perimeter, the frantic motion of their little dark bodies apparent in the blazing moonlight. I checked my shorts pockets for errant frogs. I gathered my things into a little clear patch that seemed flat enough for my tent and pulled it from my pack. I didn’t need to see what I was doing. My tent was up with the flick of my wrist.
I crawled out of it at 8:30 the next morning. Eight thirty was late for me, like noon in my former life. And this 8:30 felt like noon in my former life too. Like I’d been out drinking into the wee hours. I half stood, looking around groggily. I still didn’t have to pee. I packed up and pumped more filthy water and walked north beneath the scorching sun. It was even hotter than it had been the day before. Within an hour, I almost stepped on another rattlesnake, though it too warned me off politely with its rattle.
By late afternoon any thought of making it all the way to McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park by day’s end had been shot down entirely by my late start, my throbbing and blistered feet, and the staggering heat. Instead, I took a short detour off the trail to Cassel, where my guidebook promised there would be a general store. It was nearly three by the time I reached it. I took off my pack and sat on a wooden chair on the store’s old-fashioned porch, nearly catatonic from the heat. The big thermometer in the shade read 102 degrees. I counted my money, feeling on the verge of tears, knowing that no matter how much I had, it wouldn’t be enough for a Snapple lemonade. My desire for one had grown so large that it wasn’t even a longing anymore. It was more like a limb growing from my gut. It would cost 99 cents or $1.05 or $1.15—I didn’t know how much exactly. I knew I had only 76 cents and that wouldn’t be enough. I went into the store anyway, just to look.
“You a PCT hiker?” the woman behind the counter asked.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling at her.
“Where you from?”
“Minnesota,” I called as I made my way along a bank of glass-fronted doors with cold drinks lined up in neat rows inside. I passed cans of icy beer and soda pop, bottles of mineral water and juice. I stopped at the door where the racks of Snapples were kept. I put my hand to the glass near the bottles of lemonade—there was both yellow and pink. They were like diamonds or pornography. I could look, but I couldn’t touch.
“If you’re done hiking for the day, you’re welcome to camp out in the field behind the store,” the woman said to me. “We let all the PCT hikers stay there.”
“Thanks, I think I’ll do that,” I said, still staring at the drinks. Perhaps I could just hold one, I thought. Just press it against my forehead for a moment. I opened the door and pulled out a bottle of pink lemonade. It was so cold it felt like it was burning my hand. “How much is this?” I couldn’t keep myself from asking.
“I saw you counting your pennies outside,” the woman laughed. “How much you got?”
I gave her everything I had while thanking her profusely and took the Snapple out onto the porch. Each sip sent a stab of heady pleasure through me. I held the bottle with both hands, wanting to absorb every bit of cool I could. Cars pulled up and people got out and went into the store, then came out and drove away. I watched them for an hour in a post-Snapple bliss that felt more like a drugged-up haze. After a while, a pickup slowed in front of the store just long enough for a man to climb out of the back and pull out his backpack behind him before waving the driver away. He turned to me and spotted my pack.
“Hey!” he said, a giant smile spreading across his pink beefy face. “It’s one hell of a hot day to hike on the PCT, don’t you think?”
His name was Rex. He was a big red-haired guy, gregarious and gay and thirty-eight years old. He struck me as the kind of person who gave a lot of bear hugs. He went into the store and bought three cans of beer and drank them as he sat beside me on the porch, where together we talked into the evening. He lived in Phoenix and held a corporate job he couldn’t properly make me understand, but he’d grown up in a little town in southern Oregon. He’d hiked from the Mexican border to Mojave in the spring—getting off the trail at the very place where I’d gotten on and at about the same time as well—to return to Phoenix for six weeks to tend to some business matters before starting back on the trail at Old Station, having elegantly bypassed all the snow.
“I think you need new boots,” he said when I showed him my feet, echoing Greg’s and Brent’s sentiments.
“But I can’t get new boots. I don’t have the money,” I told him, no longer too ashamed to admit it.
“Where’d you buy them?” asked Rex.
“Call them. They’ve got a satisfaction guarantee. They’ll replace them for free.”
“Call the 1-800 number,” he said.
I thought about it all through the evening as Rex and I camped together in the field behind the store, and all the next day as I raced faster than ever through twelve mercifully unchallenging miles to McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. When I arrived, I immediately collected my resupply box from the concessionaire’s store and went to the pay phone nearby to call the operator and then REI. Within five minutes, the woman I spoke to had agreed to mail me a new pair of boots, one size larger, via overnight mail, no charge.
“Are you sure?” I kept asking her, yammering on about the trouble my too-small boots had caused me.
“Yes,” she said placidly, and now it was official: I loved REI more than I loved the people behind Snapple lemonade. I gave her the address of the park store, reading it from my as-yet-unopened box. I’d have jumped with joy after I hung up the phone if my feet had been well enough to do it. I ripped open my box and found my twenty dollars and joined the crowd of tourists in the line, hoping none of them would notice that I reeked. I bought an ice-cream cone and sat at a picnic table eating it with barely restrained glee. Rex walked up as I sat there, and a few minutes after that Trina appeared with her big white dog. We embraced and I introduced her to Rex. She and Stacy had arrived the day before. She’d decided to get off the trail here and return to Colorado to do several day hikes near her home for the rest of the summer instead of hiking the PCT. Stacy would be continuing on as planned.
“I’m sure she’d be happy if you joined her,” Trina added. “She’ll be hiking out in the morning.”
“I can’t,” I said, and giddily explained that I needed to wait for my new boots.
“We worried about you on Hat Creek Rim,” she said. “No water at—”
“I know,” I said, and we ruefully shook our heads.
“Come,” she said to Rex and me. “I’ll show you where we’re camped. It’s a twenty-minute walk, but it’s away from all this,” she gestured with an air of disdain toward the tourists, the snack bar, and the store. “Plus, it’s free.”
My feet had gotten to the point that each time I rested it hurt more the next time I got up to walk, their various sores reopening with every new effort. I limped behind Trina and Rex down a path through the woods that took us back to the PCT, where there was a small clearing among the trees.
“Cheryl!” Stacy called, coming to hug me.
We talked about Hat Creek Rim and the heat, the trail and the lack of water, and what the snack bar had to offer for dinner. I took off my boots and socks and put on my camp sandals and set up my tent and went through the pleasant ritual of unpacking my box while we chatted. Stacy and Rex made fast friends and decided to hike the next section of the trail together. By the time I was ready to walk back up to the snack bar for dinner, my big toes had swollen and reddened so much that they looked like two beets. I couldn’t even bear to wear socks anymore, so I hobbled up to the snack bar in my sandals instead, where we sat around a picnic table with paper boats of hot dogs and jalapeño poppers and nachos with fluorescent orange cheese dripping off the sides. It felt like a feast and a celebration. We held up our wax cups of soda pop and made a toast.
“To Trina and Odin’s trip home!” we said, and clinked our cups.
“To Stacy and Rex hitting the trail!” we cheered.
“To Cheryl’s new boots!” we yelled.
And I drank with solemnity to that.
When I woke the next morning, my tent was the only one in the clearing among the trees. I walked up to the bathhouse meant for the campers in the official park campground, took a shower, and returned to my campsite, where I sat in my camp chair for hours. I ate breakfast and read half of A Summer Bird-Cage in one sitting. In the afternoon, I walked to the store near the snack bar to see if my boots were there, but the woman who worked at the counter told me the mail hadn’t arrived yet.
I left forlornly, strolling in my sandals down a short paved path to an overlook to see the grand falls that the park is named for. Burney Falls is the most voluminous waterfall in the state of California for most of the year, a sign explained. As I gazed at the thundering water, I felt almost invisible among the people with their cameras, fanny packs, and Bermuda shorts. I sat on a bench and watched a couple feed an entire pack of Breathsavers to a gaggle of overly familiar squirrels who darted around a sign that said DO NOT FEED THE WILDLIFE. It enraged me to see them do that, but my fury was not only about how they were perpetuating the habituation of the squirrels, I realized. It was also that they were a couple. To witness the way they leaned into each other and laced their fingers together and tugged each other tenderly down the paved path was almost unbearable. I was simultaneously sickened by it and envious of what they had. Their existence seemed proof that I would never succeed at romantic love. I’d felt so strong and content while talking on the phone with Paul in Old Station only a few days before, but I didn’t feel anything like that anymore. Everything that had rested then was roiling now.
I limped back to my camp and examined my tortured big toes. To so much as graze against them had become excruciating. I could literally see them throbbing—the blood beneath my flesh pulsating in a regular rhythm that flushed my nails white then pink, white then pink. They were so swollen that it looked as if my nails were simply going to pop off. It occurred to me that popping them off might actually be a good idea. I pinched one of the nails, and with a solid tug, followed by a second of searing pain, the nail gave way and I felt instant, almost total, relief. A moment later, I did the same with the other toe.
It was me against the PCT when it came to my toenails, I realized.
The score was 6-4, and I was just barely hanging on to my lead.
By nightfall four other PCT hikers joined my encampment. They arrived as I was burning the last pages of A Summer Bird-Cage in my little aluminum pie pan, two couples about my age who’d hiked all the way from Mexico, minus the same section of the socked-in Sierra Nevada I’d skipped. Each couple had set out separately, but they’d met and joined forces in southern California, hiking and bypassing the snow together in a weeks-long wilderness double date. John and Sarah were from Alberta, Canada, and hadn’t even been dating a year when they’d started to hike the PCT. Sam and Helen were a married couple from Maine. They were laying over the next day, but I was heading on, I told them, as soon as my new boots arrived.
The next morning I packed up Monster and walked to the store wearing my sandals, my boots tied to the frame of my pack. I sat at one of the nearby picnic tables waiting for the mail to arrive. I was eager to hike away not so much because I felt like hiking, but because I had to. In order to reach each resupply point on roughly the day I’d anticipated, I had a schedule to keep. In spite of all the changes and bypasses, for reasons related to both money and weather, I needed to stick to my plan to finish my trip by mid-September. I sat for hours reading the book that had come in my box—Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—while waiting for my boots to arrive. People came and went in waves, sometimes gathering in little circles around me to ask questions about the PCT when they noticed my pack. As I spoke, the doubts I had about myself on the trail fell away for whole minutes at a time and I forgot all about being a big fat idiot. Basking in the attention of the people who gathered around me, I didn’t just feel like a backpacking expert. I felt like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen.
“I advise you to put this on your résumé,” said an old woman from Florida adorned in a bright pink visor and a fistful of gold necklaces. “I used to work in HR. Employers look for things like this. It tells them that you’ve got character. It sets you apart from the rest.”
The mailman pulled up around three. The UPS guy came an hour later. Neither one of them had my boots. My stomach sinking, I went to the pay phone and called REI.
They hadn’t yet mailed my boots, the man I spoke to politely informed me. The problem was, they’d learned they could not get them to the state park overnight, so they wanted to send them by regular mail instead, but because they hadn’t known how to contact me to tell me this, they’d done nothing at all. “I don’t think you understand,” I said. “I’m hiking the PCT. I’m sleeping in the woods. Of course you couldn’t have gotten in touch with me. And I can’t wait here for—how long will it take for my boots to come in the regular mail?”
“Approximately five days,” he replied, unperturbed.
“Five days?” I asked. I couldn’t exactly be upset. They were mailing me a new pair of boots for free, after all, but still I was frustrated and panicked. In addition to maintaining my schedule, I needed the food I had in my bag for the next section of the trail—the eighty-three-mile stretch that took me to Castle Crags. If I stayed in Burney Falls to wait for my boots, I’d have to eat that food because—with little more than five dollars left—I didn’t have enough money to spend the next five days eating from the park’s snack bar. I reached for my pack, got my guidebook, and found the address for Castle Crags. I couldn’t imagine hiking another blistering eighty-three miles in my too-small boots, but I had no choice but to ask REI to send them there.
When I hung up the phone, I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen anymore.
I stared at my boots with a pleading expression, as if we could possibly work out a deal. They were dangling from my pack by their dusty red laces, evil in their indifference. I’d planned to leave them in the PCT hiker free box as soon as my new boots arrived. I reached for them, but I couldn’t bring myself to put them on. Perhaps I could wear my flimsy camp sandals for short stretches on the trail. I’d met a few people who switched off between boots and sandals while they hiked, but their sandals were far sturdier than mine. I’d never intended to wear my sandals to hike. I’d brought them only to give my feet a break from my boots at the end of the day, cheap knockoffs I’d purchased at a discount store for something like $19.99. I took them off and cradled them in my hands, as if by examining them up close I could bestow on them a durability they did not possess. The Velcro was matted with detritus and peeling away from the black straps at the frayed ends. Their blue soles were malleable as dough and so thin that when I walked I could feel the contours of pebbles and sticks beneath my feet. Wearing them was just barely more than having no shoes on at all. And I was going to walk to Castle Crags in these?
Maybe I shouldn’t, I thought. Maybe I wouldn’t. This far was far enough. I could put it on my résumé.
“Fuck,” I said. I picked up a rock and whipped it hard as I could at a nearby tree, and then another and another.
I thought of the woman I always thought of in such moments: an astrologer who’d read my natal chart when I was twenty-three. A friend had arranged for the reading as a going-away gift just before I left Minnesota for New York City. The astrologer was a no-nonsense middle-aged woman named Pat who sat me down at her kitchen table with a piece of paper covered in mysterious markings and a quietly whirring tape recorder between us. I didn’t put much faith in it. I thought it would be a bit of fun, an ego-boosting session during which she’d say generic things like You have a kind heart.
But she didn’t. Or rather, she said those things, but she also said bizarrely specific things that were so accurate and particular, so simultaneously consoling and upsetting, that it was all I could do not to bawl in recognition and grief. “How can you know this?” I kept demanding. And then I would listen as she explained about the planets, the sun and the moon, the “aspects” and the moment I was born; about what it meant to be a Virgo, with a moon in Leo and Gemini rising. I’d nod while thinking, This is a bunch of crazy New Age anti-intellectual bullshit, and then she’d say another thing that would blow my brain into about seven thousand pieces because it was so true.
Until she began to speak of my father. “Was he a Vietnam vet?” she asked. No, I told her, he wasn’t. He was in the military briefly in the mid-1960s—in fact, he was stationed at the base in Colorado Springs where my mother’s father was stationed, which is how my parents met—but he never went to Vietnam.
“It seems he was like a Vietnam vet,” she persisted. “Perhaps not literally. But he has something in common with some of those men. He was deeply wounded. He was damaged. His damage has infected his life and it infected you.”
I was not going to nod. Everything that had ever happened to me in my whole life was mixed into the cement that kept my head perfectly still at the moment an astrologer told me that my father had infected me.
“Wounded?” was all I could manage.
“Yes,” said Pat. “And you’re wounded in the same place. That’s what fathers do if they don’t heal their wounds. They wound their children in the same place.”
“Hmm,” I said, my face blank.
“I could be wrong.” She gazed down at the paper between us. “This isn’t necessarily literal.”
“Actually, I only saw my father three times after I was six,” I said.
“The father’s job is to teach his children how to be warriors, to give them the confidence to get on the horse and ride into battle when it’s necessary to do so. If you don’t get that from your father, you have to teach yourself.”
“But—I think I have already,” I sputtered. “I’m strong—I face things. I—”
“This isn’t about strength,” said Pat. “And you may not be able to see this yet, but perhaps there will come a time—it could be years from now—when you’ll need to get on your horse and ride into battle and you’re going to hesitate. You’re going to falter. To heal the wound your father made, you’re going to have to get on that horse and ride into battle like a warrior.”
I laughed a bit then, a self-conscious puff-croak of a chuckle that sounded more sad than happy. I know because I took the cassette tape home and listened to it over and over again. To heal the wound your father made, you’re going to have to get on that horse and ride into battle like a warrior. Puff-croak.
“Would you like a knuckle sandwich?” my father used to ask me when he was angry, holding his man-fist an inch from my three- and four- and five- and six-year-old face. “Would you? Huh? Huh? HUH?
I put on my stupid sandals and began the long walk to Castle Crags.