Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Part IV. WILD
13. THE ACCUMULATION OF TREES
It was a woman who first thought of the PCT. She was a retired teacher from Bellingham, Washington, named Catherine Montgomery. In a conversation with mountaineer and writer Joseph T. Hazard, she suggested that there should be a border-to-border “high trail winding down the heights of our western mountains.” It was 1926. Though a small group of hikers immediately embraced Montgomery’s idea, it wasn’t until Clinton Churchill Clarke took up the cause six years later that a clear vision of the PCT began to coalesce. Clarke was an oilman who lived in leisure in Pasadena, but he was also an avid outdoorsman. Appalled by a culture that spent “too much time sitting on soft seats in motors, too much sitting in soft seats in movies,” Clarke lobbied the federal government to set aside a wilderness corridor for the trail. His vision went far beyond the PCT, which he hoped would be a mere segment of a much longer “Trail of the Americas” that would run from Alaska to Chile. He believed that time in the wilderness provided “a lasting curative and civilizing value,” and he spent twenty-five years advocating for the PCT, though when he died in 1957 the trail was still only a dream.
Perhaps Clarke’s most important contribution to the trail was making the acquaintance of Warren Rogers, who was twenty-four when the two met in 1932. Rogers was working for the YMCA in Alhambra, California, when Clarke convinced him to help map the route by assigning teams of YMCA volunteers to chart and in some cases construct what would become the PCT. Though initially reluctant, Rogers soon became passionate about the trail’s creation, and he spent the rest of his life championing the PCT and working to overcome all the legal, financial, and logistical obstacles that stood in its way. Rogers lived to see Congress designate the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in 1968, but he died in 1992, a year before the trail was finished.
I’d read the section in my guidebook about the trail’s history the winter before, but it wasn’t until now—a couple of miles out of Burney Falls, as I walked in my flimsy sandals in the early evening heat—that the realization of what that story meant picked up force and hit me squarely in the chest: preposterous as it was, when Catherine Montgomery and Clinton Clarke and Warren Rogers and the hundreds of others who’d created the PCT had imagined the people who would walk that high trail that wound down the heights of our western mountains, they’d been imagining me. It didn’t matter that everything from my cheap knockoff sandals to my high-tech-by-1995-standards boots and backpack would have been foreign to them, because what mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.
It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. That’s what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.
I thought about this as I walked into my sixth week on the trail beneath the humid shade of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. The trail’s gravelly surface was palpable to the soles of my feet through the bottoms of my thin sandals. The muscles of my ankles felt strained without my boots to support them, but at least my sore toes weren’t bumping up against my boots with each step. I hiked until I came to a wooden bridge that spanned a creek. Unable to find a flat spot nearby, I pitched my tent right on the bridge, which was the trail itself, and slept hearing the delicate thunder of the small waterfall beneath me all night long.
I woke at first light and hiked in my sandals for a few hours, climbing nearly 1,700 feet while catching an occasional view of Burney Mountain to the south when I emerged from the shade of the fir and pine forests I was passing through. When I stopped to eat lunch, I reluctantly untied my boots from my pack, feeling I had no choice but to put them on. I’d begun to see evidence of what the authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California had noted in their introduction to the section describing the miles between Burney Falls and Castle Crags. They’d written that the trail in this section was so ill-maintained that it was “little better than cross-country hiking” in places, and though I hadn’t yet seen that, such a warning didn’t bode well for my sandals. Already, they’d begun to give out, their bottoms splitting apart and flapping beneath me with each step, catching small twigs and pebbles as I went.
I forced my feet back into my boots and continued on, ignoring the pain as I ascended past an eerie pair of electrical towers that made otherworldly crackling sounds. A few times throughout the day, I saw Bald Mountain and Grizzly Peak to the northwest—dark green and brown mountains covered with smatterings of scraggly windblown trees and bushes—but mostly I walked in a bushy forest, crossing an increasing number of primitive roads cut with the deep treads of tractors. I passed old clear-cuts that were slowly coming back to life, great fields of stumps and roots and small green trees that stood no higher than me, where the trail became untenable in places, difficult to track among the litter of blown-down trees and branches. The trees were the same species as those I’d hiked past often on the trail, but the forest felt different, desultory and somehow darker, in spite of the intermittent expansive views.
Late in the afternoon, I stopped for a break in a spot on the trail with a view over the rolling green land. I was on a slope, the mountain rising above me and descending steeply below. With no other place to sit, I sat on the trail itself, as I often did. I pulled off my boots and socks and massaged my feet as I stared out across the tops of the trees, my perch on the trail essentially a ledge over the forest. I loved the sensation of feeling taller than the trees, of seeing their canopy from above, as a bird would. The sight of it eased my sense of worry over the state of my feet and the rough trail ahead.
It was in this reverie that I reached for the side pocket of my pack. When I pulled on the pocket’s zipper, Monster toppled over onto my boots, clipping the left one in such a way that it leapt into the air as if I’d thrown it. I watched it bounce—it was lightning fast and in slow motion all at once—and then I watched it tumble over the edge of the mountain and down into the trees without a sound. I gasped in surprise and lurched for my other boot, clutching it to my chest, waiting for the moment to reverse itself, for someone to come laughing from the woods, shaking his head and saying it had all been a joke.
But no one laughed. No one would. The universe, I’d learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back. I really did have only one boot.
So I stood up and tossed the other one over the edge too. I looked down at my bare feet, staring at them for a long moment, then began repairing my sandals with duct tape as best I could, sealing the bottoms back together and reinforcing the straps where they threatened to detach. I wore my socks inside the sandals to protect my feet from the lines of tape and hiked away feeling sick about the new state of affairs, but reassuring myself that at least I had a new pair of boots waiting for me in Castle Crags.
By evening the forest opened into a wide swath of what can only be called wilderness rubble, a landscape ripped up by its seams and logged clear, the PCT picking its way faintly along its edges. Several times I had to stop walking to search for the trail, obstructed as it was by fallen branches and clumps of turned-up soil. The trees that remained standing on the edge of the clear-cut seemed to mourn, their rough hides newly exposed, their jagged limbs reaching out at absurd angles. I’d never seen anything like it in the woods. It was as if someone had come along with a giant wrecking ball and let it swing. Was this the wilderness corridor Congress had in mind when they’d set it aside? It didn’t seem so, but I was hiking through national forest land, which, in spite of its promising name, meant that I was on land that the powers that be could use as they saw fit for the public good. Sometimes that meant that the land would remain untouched, as it had been on most of the PCT. Other times it meant that ancient trees were chopped down to make things like chairs and toilet paper.
The sight of the churned, barren earth unsettled me. I felt sad and angry about it, but in a way that included the complicated truth of my own complicity. I used tables and chairs and toilet paper too, after all. As I picked my way through the rubble, I knew I was done for the day. I mounted a steep berm to reach the flattened clear-cut above and pitched my tent among the stumps and upturned mounds of soil, feeling lonely the way I seldom did on the trail. I wanted to talk to someone, and it wasn’t just anyone I wanted to talk to.
I wanted to talk to Karen or Leif or Eddie. I wanted to have a family again, to be folded into something I believed was safe from destruction. Right alongside my longing for them, I felt something as hot as hate for each of them now. I imagined a big machine like the one that had mawed up this forest mawing up our forty acres in the Minnesota woods. I wished with all my heart that it really would. I would be free then, it seemed. Because we had not been safe from destruction after my mom died, total destruction would come now as a relief. The loss of my family and home were my own private clear-cut. What remained was only ugly evidence of a thing that was no more.
I’d last been home the week before I left to hike the PCT. I’d driven up north to say goodbye to Eddie and to visit my mother’s grave, knowing I wouldn’t return to Minnesota after I finished my hike. I worked my last shift at the restaurant where I waited tables in Minneapolis and drove three hours north, arriving at one in the morning. I’d planned to park in the driveway and sleep in the back of my truck so as not to disturb anyone in the house, but when I arrived, there was a party in progress. The house was lit up, and in the yard there was a bonfire; tents were scattered all around, and loud music blared from speakers propped in the grass. It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. I got out of my truck and walked through throngs of people, most of them unknown to me. I was taken aback, but not surprised—by either the raucous nature of the party or the fact that I hadn’t been invited. It was only further evidence of how profoundly things had changed.
“Cheryl!” Leif bellowed when I entered the garage packed with people. I pushed my way toward him through the crowd and we embraced. “I’m tripping on ’shrooms,” he told me cheerfully, clutching too hard on my arm.
“Where’s Eddie?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but I got something to show you,” he said, tugging on me. “It’s guaranteed to piss you off.”
I followed him into the yard and up the front stairs of our house and through the door until we were standing before our kitchen table. It was the same one we’d had in the Tree Loft apartments when we were kids, the one our mother had bought for ten bucks, the one we’d eaten on that first night we met Eddie, when we thought we were Chinese because we sat on the floor. It was the height of a normal table now. After we’d moved out of Tree Loft and into a regular house with Eddie, he’d cut off the short legs and bolted a barrel to the bottom and we’d eaten off of it all these years sitting in chairs. The table had never been fancy, and it had become less so over the years, cracking in places that Eddie repaired with wood putty, but it had been ours.
Or at least it had been until that night the week before I left to go hike the PCT.
Now the surface of the table was smattered with freshly carved words and phrases, and names and initials of people linked by plus signs or rimmed with hearts, obviously made by those at the party. As we looked on, a teenaged boy I didn’t know carved into the table’s surface with a Swiss army knife.
“Stop it,” I commanded, and he looked at me with alarm. “That table is …” I couldn’t finish what I wanted to say. I only turned and bolted out the door. Leif trailed behind me as we walked past the tents and the bonfire, past the chicken coop that was now devoid of chickens and away from the horse pasture where no horses lived anymore and down a trail into the woods to the gazebo that was back there, where I sat and cried while my brother stayed quietly by my side. I was disgusted with Eddie, but more, I was sick with myself. I’d burned candles and made proclamations in my journal. I’d come to healthy conclusions about acceptance and gratitude, about fate and forgiveness and fortune. In a small, fierce place inside me, I’d let my mother go and my father go and I’d finally let Eddie go as well. But the table was another thing. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to let that go too.
“I’m so glad I’m leaving Minnesota,” I said, the words bitter in my mouth. “So glad.”
“I’m not,” said Leif. He put his hand on my hair at the back of my head and then took it away.
“I don’t mean I’m glad to be leaving you,” I said, wiping my face and nose with my hands. “But I hardly ever see you anyway.” It was true, much as he claimed that I was the most important person in his life—his “second mother,” he sometimes called me—I saw him only intermittently. He was elusive and vague, irresponsible and nearly impossible to track down. His phone was constantly being disconnected. His living situations were always temporary. “You can visit me,” I said.
“Visit you where?” he asked.
“Wherever I decide to live in the fall. After I’m done with the PCT.”
I thought about where I’d live. I couldn’t imagine where it would be. It could be anywhere. The only thing I knew was that it wouldn’t be here. Not in this state! Not in this state! my mother had disconcertedly insisted in the days before she died, when I’d pressed her to tell me where she’d like us to spread her ashes. I couldn’t ever get from her what she meant by that, if she was referring to the state of Minnesota or the state she was in—her weakened and confused condition.
“Maybe Oregon,” I said to Leif, and we were quiet for a while.
“The gazebo is cool in the dark,” he whispered a few minutes later, and we both looked around, seeing it in the shadowy night light. Paul and I had gotten married in it. We’d built it together for the occasion of our wedding nearly seven years before, along with help from Eddie and my mom. It was the humble castle of our naïve, ill-fated love. The roof was corrugated tin; the sides, unsanded wood that would give you splinters if you touched it. The floor was packed dirt and flat stones we’d hauled through the woods in a blue wheelbarrow my family had owned for ages. After I married Paul in the gazebo, it had become the place in our woods where people would walk to when they walked, congregate when they congregated. Eddie had hung a wide rope hammock across its length, a gift to my mother years before.
“Let’s get in this thing,” Leif said, gesturing to the hammock. We climbed in and I rocked us gently, pushing off with one foot from the very stone upon which I’d stood when I’d married Paul.
“I’m divorced now,” I said without emotion.
“I thought you were divorced before.”
“Well, now it’s official. We had to send our paperwork to the state so they could process it. I just got the final papers last week with a stamp from the judge.”
He nodded and said nothing. It seemed he had little pity for me and the divorce I’d brought on myself. He, Eddie, and Karen liked Paul. I couldn’t make them understand why I’d had to smash things up. But you seemed so happywas all they could say. And it was true: we had seemed that way. Just as I’d seemed to be doing okay after my mom died. Grief doesn’t have a face.
As Leif and I swung in the hammock, we caught glimpses of the house lights and the bonfire through the trees. We could hear the dim voices of the partiers as the party died down and disappeared. Our mother’s grave was close behind us, maybe only another thirty steps farther on the trail that continued past the gazebo and out into a small clearing, where we’d made a flowerbed, buried her ashes, and laid a tombstone. I felt her with us and I felt Leif feeling her with us too, though I didn’t say a word about it, for fear my words would make the feeling go away. I dozed off without knowing it and roused as the sun began to seep into the sky, turning to Leif with a start, having forgotten for an instant where I was.
“I fell asleep.” I said.
“I know,” he replied. “I’ve been awake the whole time. The ’shrooms.”
I sat up in the hammock and turned back to look at him. “I worry about you,” I said. “With drugs, you know.”
“You’re the one to talk.”
“That was different. It was just a phase and you know it,” I said, trying to keep my voice from sounding defensive. There were a lot of reasons I regretted having gotten involved with heroin, but losing credibility with my brother was the thing I regretted the most.
“Let’s take a walk,” he said.
“What time is it?” I asked.
I followed him back along the trail, past the silent tents and cars and down our driveway to the gravel road that passed our house. The light was soft and tinged with the slightest shade of pink, so beautiful that my exhaustion didn’t matter. Without discussing it, we walked to the abandoned house a short way down the road beyond our driveway, where we used to go as kids, bored on the long hot summer days before we were old enough to drive. The house had been empty and falling to the ground then. Now it was falling more.
“I think her name was Violet, the woman who lived here,” I said to my brother when we mounted the porch, remembering the lore about the house I’d heard from the Finnish old-timers years before. The front door had never been locked and it still wasn’t. We pushed it open and went inside, stepping over places where boards were missing from the floor. The same items that had been scattered around the house a dozen years ago were still there, amazingly, only now they were even more decrepit. I picked up a yellowed magazine and saw that it was published by the Communist Party of Minnesota and dated October 1920. A chipped teacup with pink roses on it sat on its side and I bent to right it. The house was so tiny it took only a few steps to have it all in view. I walked to the back and approached a wooden door that hung diagonally from one hinge, a pane of pristine glass in its top half.
“Don’t touch it,” whispered Leif. “Bad karma if it breaks.”
We walked carefully past it and into the kitchen. There were gouges and holes and a giant black stain where the stove used to be. In the corner stood a small wooden table that was missing a leg. “Would you carve your name into that?” I asked, gesturing to the table, my voice suddenly flashing with emotion.
“Don’t,” said Leif, grabbing my shoulders to give me a firm shake. “Just forget it, Cheryl. It’s reality. And reality is what we have to accept, like it or not.”
I nodded and he let go of me. We stood side by side, gazing out the windows to the yard. There was a dilapidated shed that used to be the sauna and a trough that was overrun by weeds and moss now. Beyond it, a wide swampy field gave way to a stand of birch trees in the distance, and beyond that a bog we knew was there but couldn’t see.
“Of course I wouldn’t carve into that table and neither would you,” Leif said after a while, turning to me. “You know why?” he asked.
I shook my head, though I knew the answer.
“Because we were raised by Mom.”
I hiked away from my camp in the clear-cut at first light and saw no one all morning. By noon I didn’t even see the PCT. I’d lost it amid the blow-downs and temporary roads that crisscrossed and eventually obliterated the trail. I wasn’t terribly alarmed at first, believing that the road I was following would snake its way back to another place where it intersected the trail, but it didn’t. I pulled out my map and compass and got my bearings. Or what I believed were my bearings—my orienteering skills were still rather unreliable. I followed another road, but it only led to another and another until I couldn’t clearly recall which one I’d been on before.
I stopped to eat lunch in the midafternoon heat, my monumental hunger slightly deadened by the queasy realization that I didn’t know where I was. I silently lambasted myself for having been so careless, for pushing on in my annoyance rather than pausing to consider a course, but there was nothing I could do now. I took off my Bob Marley T-shirt and draped it over a branch to dry, pulled another T-shirt from my pack and put it on. Ever since Paco had given me the Bob Marley shirt, I’d carried two, switching them out during the day the same way I did my socks, though I knew such a practice was a luxury that only added more weight to my pack.
I studied my map and walked on, down one rough logging road and then another, feeling a flutter of hope each time that I’d found my way back on track. But by early evening the road I was on ended in a bulldozed heap of dirt, roots, and branches as high as a house. I scaled it for a better view and spotted another road across an old clear-cut swath. I made my way across it until one of my sandals fell off, both the duct tape and the strap that held it across the top of my foot having detached from the rest of the shoe.
“AHHHH!” I yelled, and looked around, feeling the strange hush of the trees in the distance. They were like a presence, like a people, protectors who would get me out of this mess, though they did nothing other than silently look on.
I sat in the dirt among the weeds and knee-high saplings and did more than extensive repair on my shoes. I constructed a pair of metal-gray booties by winding the duct tape around and around my socks and the skeletal remains of my sandals, as if I were making a cast for my broken feet. I was careful to wind them tight enough that the booties would stay on while I hiked, but loose enough that I could pry them off at the end of the day without ruining them. They had to last me all the way to Castle Crags.
And now I had no idea how far away that might be or how I would get there.
In my duct tape booties, I continued across the clear-cut to the road and looked around. I wasn’t sure anymore in which direction I should go. The only views I had were those afforded me by the clear-cuts and roads. The woods were a dense thicket of fir trees and fallen branches, and the day had taught me that the logging roads were only lines in an inexplicable maze. They’d go west and then northeast and later veer south for a stretch. To make matters more complicated, the section of the PCT between Burney Falls and Castle Crags didn’t go north so much as in a wide westerly hook. It seemed unlikely that I could even pretend to be following the trail’s course anymore. My only goal now was to find my way out of wherever I was. I knew if I went north I’d eventually run into Highway 89. I walked the road until it was nearly dark, and found a reasonably flat stretch beside it in the woods to pitch my tent.
I was lost but I was not afraid, I told myself as I made my dinner. I had plenty of food and water. Everything I needed to survive for a week or more was in my backpack. If I kept walking I’d find civilization eventually. And yet, when I crawled into my tent, I shivered with palpable gratitude for the familiar shelter of the green nylon and mesh walls that had become my home. I squiggled my feet carefully out of my duct tape booties and set them in the corner. I scanned the maps in my guidebook for the hundredth time that day, feeling frustrated and uncertain. At last I simply gave up and devoured a hundred pages of Lolita, sinking into its awful and hilarious reality so thoroughly that I forgot my own.
In the morning, I realized I didn’t have my Bob Marley T-shirt. I’d left it on that branch to dry the day before. Losing my boots was bad. But losing my Bob Marley T-shirt was worse. That shirt wasn’t just any old shirt. It was, at least according to Paco, a sacred shirt that meant I walked with the spirits of the animals, earth, and sky. I didn’t know if I believed that, but the shirt had become an emblem of something I couldn’t quite name.
I reinforced my duct tape booties with another layer of tape and walked all through the humid day. The night before, I’d made a plan: I would follow this road wherever it led me. I’d ignore all the others that crossed its path, no matter how intriguing or promising they looked. I’d finally become convinced that if I didn’t, I’d only walk an endless maze. By late afternoon I sensed that the road was leading me somewhere. It got wider and less rutted and the forest opened up ahead. Finally, I rounded a bend and saw an unmanned tractor. Beyond the tractor, there was a paved two-lane road. I crossed it, turned left, and walked along its shoulder. I was on Highway 89, I could only assume. I pulled out my maps and traced a route I could hitchhike back to the PCT and then set to work trying to get a ride, feeling self-conscious in my metal-gray boots made of tape. Cars passed in clumps of two and three with long breaks in between. I stood on the highway for half an hour holding out my thumb, feeling a mounting anxiety. At last, a man driving a pickup truck pulled to the side. I went to the passenger door and opened it up.
“You can throw your pack in the back,” he said. He was a large bull of a man, in his late forties, I guessed.
“Is this Highway 89?” I asked.
He looked at me, befuddled. “You don’t even know what road you’re on?”
I shook my head.
“What in the Lord’s name have you got on your feet?” he asked.
Nearly an hour later, he dropped me off at a place where the PCT crossed a gravel road in the forest, not unlike those I’d followed when lost the day before. The next day I hiked at what for me was record speed, spurred on by my desire to reach Castle Crags by day’s end. My guidebook explained that, as usual, I wouldn’t exactly be arriving at a town. The trail emerged at a state park that bordered a convenience store and post office, but that was enough for me. The post office would have my boots and my resupply box. The convenience store had a small restaurant where I could fulfill at least some of my food and beverage fantasies once I retrieved the twenty-dollar bill from my box. And the state park offered a free campsite to PCT hikers, where I could also get a hot shower.
By the time I dragged into Castle Crags at three, I was almost barefoot, my booties disintegrating. I hobbled into the post office with strips of dirt-caked tape flapping along beside me and inquired about my mail.
“There should be two boxes for me,” I added, feeling desperate about the package from REI. As I waited for the clerk to return from the back room, it occurred to me that I might have something else besides the boots and my resupply box: letters. I’d sent notifications to all the stops I’d missed when I’d bypassed, instructing that my mail be forwarded here.
“Here you go,” said the clerk, setting my resupply box heavily on the counter.
“But, there should be … Is there something from REI? It would be—”
“One thing at a time,” she called as she returned to the back room.
By the time I walked out of the post office, I was almost whooping out loud with joy and relief. Along with the pristine cardboard box that contained my boots—my boots!—I held nine letters, addressed to me at stops along the way I hadn’t gone, written in hands I recognized. I sat on the concrete near the little building, shuffling quickly through the envelopes, too overwhelmed to open any yet. One was from Paul. One was from Joe. Another was from Karen. The rest were from friends scattered around the country. I set them aside and ripped the box from REI open with my knife. Inside, carefully wrapped in paper, were my brown leather boots.
The same boots that had gone over the side of the mountain, only new and one size bigger.
“Cheryl!” a woman called, and I looked up. It was Sarah, one of the women from the two couples I’d met in Burney Falls, standing there without her pack. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“What are you doing here?” I replied. I expected her to still be behind me on the trail.
“We got lost. We ended up coming out on the highway and hitching a ride.”
“I got lost too!” I said in delighted surprise, grateful that I wasn’t the only one who’d managed to lose the trail.
“Everyone got lost,” she said. “Come on,” she gestured to the entrance of the restaurant at the end of the building. “We’re all inside.”
“I’ll be right in,” I said. After she left, I took my new boots out of their box, peeled off my booties for the last time, and tossed them into a nearby garbage can. I opened my resupply box and found a fresh pair of clean, never-worn socks, put them on my filthy feet, and then laced my boots on. They were impeccably clean. They seemed almost a work of art in their perfection as I paced the parking lot. The wonder of their virgin tread; the glory of their unmarked toes. They felt stiff, but roomy; like they would work, though I worried about the fact that I’d be breaking them in on the trail. There was nothing I could do but hope for the best.
“Cheryl!” Rex boomed when I walked into the restaurant. Stacy was sitting beside him, and beside her were Sam and Helen and John and Sarah, the six of them practically filling the small restaurant.
“Welcome to paradise,” said John with a bottle of beer in hand.
We ate cheeseburgers and fries, then afterwards walked through the convenience store in postprandial ecstasy, loading our arms full of chips and cookies and beer and double-sized bottles of cheap red wine, pooling our money to pay for it all. The seven of us trooped giddily up a hill to the state park campground, where we crammed our tents close together in a circle in the designated free campsite and spent the evening around the picnic table, laughing and telling story after story as the light faded from the sky. While we talked, two black bears—who actually looked black—emerged from the trees that ringed our campsite, only mildly afraid of us when we shouted at them to go away.
Throughout the evening I repeatedly filled the little paper cup I’d taken from the convenience store, gulping smooth sips of wine as if it were water until it tasted like nothing but water to me. It didn’t feel like I’d hiked seventeen miles in midnineties heat that day with a pack on my back and duct tape wound around my feet. It seemed as if I’d floated there instead. Like the picnic table was the best place I’d ever been or would ever be. I didn’t realize that I was drunk until we all decided to turn in and I stood up and it struck me that the art of standing had changed. In an instant I was down on my hands and knees, retching miserably onto the dirt in the middle of our camp. In spite of all the ridiculousness of my life in the preceding years, I’d never been sick from alcohol before. When I was done, Stacy placed my water bottle beside me, murmuring that I needed to drink. The real me inside the blur I’d become realized she was right, that I wasn’t only drunk but also profoundly dehydrated. I hadn’t had a sip of water since I was on the hot trail that afternoon. I forced myself to sit up and drink.
When I took a sip, I instantly retched again.
In the morning, I rose before the others and did what I could to sweep the vomit away with the branch of a fir tree. I went to the shower room, took off my dirty clothes, and stood under the hot spray of water in the concrete stall feeling like someone had beaten me the night before. I didn’t have time to be hungover. I planned to be back on the trail by midday. I dressed and returned to camp and sat at the table drinking as much water as I could tolerate, reading all nine of my letters one by one while the others slept. Paul was philosophical and loving about our divorce. Joe was romantic and rash, saying nothing about whether he was in rehab. Karen was brief and workaday, providing me with an update about her life. The letters from friends were a rush of love and gossip, news and funny tales. By the time I finished reading them, the others were emerging from their tents, limping into the day the way I did each morning until my joints warmed up. I was grateful that every last one of them looked at least half as hungover as me. We all smiled at one another, miserable and amused. Helen, Sam, and Sarah left to take showers, Rex and Stacy to pay one more visit to the store.
“They have cinnamon rolls,” said Rex, trying to tempt me to join them as they walked away, but I waved him off, and not only because the idea of eating made my stomach roil. Between the burger and the wine and the snacks I’d purchased the afternoon before, I was already, and yet again, down to a little less than five bucks.
When they left, I culled my resupply box, organizing my food into a pile to pack into Monster. I’d be carrying a heavy load of food on this next stretch—one of the longest sections on the PCT: it was 156 miles to Seiad Valley.
“You and Sarah need any dinners?” I asked John, who was sitting at the table, the two of us briefly alone in camp. “I’ve got extras of these.” I held up a packet of something called Fiesta Noodles, a dish I’d tolerated well enough in the early days but now loathed.
“Nah. Thanks,” he said.
I pulled out James Joyce’s Dubliners and put it to my nose, the cover green and tattered. It smelled musty and nice, exactly like the used bookstore in Minneapolis where I’d purchased it months earlier. I opened it and saw my copy had been printed decades before I was born.
“What’s this?” John asked, reaching for a postcard I’d bought in the convenience store the afternoon before. It was a photograph of a chainsaw carving of a Sasquatch, the words Bigfoot Country emblazoned across the top of the card. “Do you believe they exist?” he asked, putting the card back.
“No. But the people who do claim that this is the Bigfoot capital of the world.”
“People say a lot of things,” he replied.
“Well, if they’re anywhere, I suppose it would be here,” I said, and we looked around. Beyond the trees that surrounded us stood the ancient gray rocks called Castle Crags, their crenellated summits rising cathedral-like above us. We’d pass them soon on the trail, as we hiked through a miles-long band of granite and ultramafic rocks that my guidebook described as “igneous in origin and intrusive by nature,” whatever that meant. I’d never been much interested in geology, but I didn’t need to know the meaning of ultramafic to see that I was moving into different country. My transition into the Cascade Range had been like the one I’d experienced crossing into the Sierra Nevada: I’d been hiking for days in each before I felt I was actually entering my idea of them.
“Only one more stop,” said John, as if he could read my thoughts. “We’ve just got Seiad Valley and then it’s on to Oregon. We’re only about two hundred miles from the border.”
I nodded and smiled. I didn’t think the words only and two hundred miles belonged in the same sentence. I hadn’t let myself think much beyond the next stop.
“Oregon!” he exclaimed, and the joy in his voice almost lured me in, almost made it seem like those two hundred miles would be a snap, but I knew better. There hadn’t been a week on the trail that hadn’t been a crucible for me.
“Oregon,” I conceded, my face going serious. “But California first.”