In the calmness between digging my ice axe into the side of a mountain and planting my feet, one at a time, into place behind it, I can feel my lungs remembering to do their job. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. The crisp air flows through my body, cooling my ears which are pounding with anxiety. I am no more than halfway up Forrester Pass, the highest point on the PCT, and with the trail being almost completely covered in snow, we are cutting our own paths straight up the mountain.
Last night we camped near the base so we could wake up and begin tackling the pass before the sun emerges and turns the snow to slush. It is nearing 9 am, the time I used to be settling into my desk chair for the day, coffee next to my computer and emails ringing into my inbox. Back then, getting out of bed by 7:00 am was the hardest part of my day. Sure, wedging myself between strangers' armpits on the subway or making it through kickboxing class after work was usually pretty tough, but dragging myself out of bed definitely takes the cake. Back then, my body didn't know what early was.
Two days ago Amnesia (Bryant), Lucky Foot, and I woke up at 12 am to take a small side hike up Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US. The four hours of sleep my body got was not enough but the adrenaline kept me going as it does on most early mornings, late nights, brutal afternoons, and cold evenings. We hiked beneath a blanket of stars for five hours, losing the trail more than once, but never our spirit. The summit sunrise we were hoping for slowly slipped through our fingers but we all sat in what felt like a doorway to the new day about a mile from the summit and watched the sun ring it in.
Yesterday we spent the majority of our day crossing snow melt creeks. Nobody warned us of the shooting pain that pulsed through our legs post emersion when the blood came rushing back. Again, the adrenaline guided me across the creeks and then back into the snow. We didn't camp until the sun had nearly dipped behind the mountains so my wet shoes became slightly frozen shoes just in time to put them on this morning.
Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. I've made it to a patch of sand and rocks -- a patch of dry land over which to walk, but the microspikes on my feet make me feel unsteady and I quickly resort back to the hardened snow where I've learned, over the past few hundred feet, to trust myself and the tools I'm working with. I can see dirt switchbacks ahead of me...I've only got a bit further to go and I see the line I'll take to get there. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. And then I'm there, standing on level ground. I walk 10 yards up trail where I see a small alcove, an area big enough for me to sit down and catch my breath. Bianca was right in front of me and we both take a seat in the dirt, looking at each other with exhaustion and pride for what we have just accomplished.
A few switchbacks later we arrive at the snow shoot and walk the narrow snow path like a tightrope to the other side. And then we're at the top of the pass. We've made it to the highest point on the PCT. I spend the rest of the day glissading (sledding without a sled) down snowy hills, getting lost in snow fields, and holding my breath as I cross creeks over logs. Our eight-person group and another hiker named Legs all pitch tents and fall asleep to the rushing sounds of a nearby river.
We awake the next morning before the sun and traipse through yet another snowmelt creek less than a quarter mile from where we camped. We only have 9 miles to hike today but 7 of it is on a side trail leading to town. We spend the majority of our day alternating between slushy snow and loose sand and rocks as we weave in and out of trees and around one another trying to find the most direct route to the pizza we know we'll order once we make it over Kearsarge Pass and into Bishop.
We finally see a road down below and cut switchbacks whenever possible. It's the first time I'm willing to cut switchbacks, knowing I won't feel guilty for skipping steps of the PCT because this isn't the PCT. Side trail miles don't count. A day hiker makes it to the road just after we do and he offers us a ride to Independence. He's from out of town and has a rental car which we immediately christen with our hiker stench. He drops us at the post office at 4:01 pm and the postmaster is locking the doors as we race to him. The postmaster must be in a good mood -- he grabs the packages we need even though we're late. We head across the street to buy cold drinks as we wait for the bus that will take us to Bishop, an actual town where we plan to resupply, shower, and do laundry before getting back on trail.
The bus drops us off near a motel where Amnesia and I would like to stay. Two others in our group beat us here and have reserved the last room at the hostel. Amnesia and I head to the motel and drop our packs while everyone else heads to the hostel. We're thankful to have a little time away from the group...we've been with them constantly for the past week and have had very little time to decompress from the endless socializing. We get pizza, shower, and lay down to mindlessly scroll through instagram. We read stories of hikers making it through rough sections of trail and of a few people who have decided to skip those rough sections for now and do them later.
Between the snow covering trails and potentially dangerous creek crossings, our daily mileage changed from 17-20 mile days to 9-12 mile days. It's a little discouraging to be slowed down so much by forces out of our control. A lot of people are on time constraints so it makes sense to skip the snowy section for now and come back after the snow has melted and hike bigger mile days.
I scroll through the comments on an instagram post detailing just that and find a comment from Sticks, a member of our eight-person group. He says he and Pretzel are skipping up to Chester. Two people in our group are leaving us and we have just found out on instagram of all places. It'll work out, though. We still have six people willing to hike this section with us and that should be plenty to make sure we're safe for creek crossings.
Sticks, Frizz, and Lucky Foot show up at our motel room shortly after and I ask Sticks about them skipping up. He makes a good case and I don't argue. Then Frizz says he has another bomb for us. Apparently him and Caboose are skipping to Chester too. That leaves four of us. Luckyfoot will continue on from here whether we're with him or not and Bianca will do what Frizz and Caboose do because she's grown so close to both of them and wouldn't want to hike without them.
What the hell just happened? We went from a group of eight to a group of maybe three in the blink of an eye. Can we even safely hike this portion of the trail without a large group? And why did we spend three days in Lone Pine waiting for Pretzel and Sticks to get their package if they were going to bail on us in the next town anyway? For that matter, why had we spent the last 800 miles making decisions based on a group of people who never intended to make decisions based on us? I got so caught up in the love I have for these people and the enjoyment I get from spending time with them that I almost forgot that I'm trying to get to Canada using my own two feet, not theirs.
I spend the following day debating my options. I could flip up to Chester with everybody else and continue hiking the way I have been, but that doesn't seem a feasible option -- I don't want to continue hiking somebody else's hike. I've realized that nobody is hiking the hike I want to hike...turns out that's my role. I could try to continue on from here, but with whom? Amnesia wants to flip up with the group so that only leaves Lucky Foot. He's going with a different large group but I don't know any of them or how they hike. Will I be forced to cross creeks where I'm not comfortable or go over passes faster than my body's natural speed? I could flip up and do my own thing. Maybe meet up with someone I already know is up there? Nature Monster? Outlaw? I'm so lost. I call some friends and family. Cry a little. Argue with Amnesia for four hours. Cry a little more.
Amnesia and I go inside the Bishop Hostel to hang out with the group. Amnesia jokingly says, "Good news, everybody! Kams is flipping to Chester with us!" I shake my head to say I haven't made a decision yet at the same time that Frizz says, "How are y'all getting there?" Apparently they've already figured out how they're getting to Chester...without us. I have almost decided to just continue on through the Sierra with Lucky Foot and his new group by this point. But how can I leave Amnesia to figure out his own way up to Chester? That isn't fair to him. It'd be one thing if he was able to just hop in the car with the rest of the group and leave me behind but abandoning him to find a way north on his own isn't something a friend would do.
We both feel unwanted and defeated. We sulk around for the next few hours and then decide that if we want to flip north we will rent a car and take a detour to the redwoods for a few days. We entertain the idea that we continue on through the Sierra as just the two of us. Reality is, though, that Amnesia wants to flip up and I want to keep trekking on. I can't leave him to find a ride on his own so we start talking with other hikers.
Sprite and Snack Man are trying to flip up to Chester and are looking for a way up. Birdie and Justin are down to take a few days off trail to hang out in the redwoods but want to come back down to get on the PCT where they left off. If we rent a car with this group and head to the redwoods I get a few more days to think about what I want and can choose to be dropped off in Chester or go back down to Bishop.
We spend the next four days driving, walking through giant trees, taking in the smell of the sea as the fog rolls onto the beach, and doing little talking about anything of substance. Finally, I tell Amnesia I need to take a little time to hike solo. He's hurt -- I see it in the way he looks at me and the way he holds his breath. We started this thing together and we were both planning on finishing together. But the hike hasn't been how I've wanted it to be in a very long time and something's got to change. Maybe if I just hike exactly how I want to for the next few weeks I'll be able to better convey how I want to hike with a partner from then on. But can I hike alone? Will I be scared? Bored? Lonely?
I text Outlaw, "Where are you?" I want to meet up with an old familiar face. I want to feel safe and comfortable but not tied to anybody. Outlaw has left and rejoined our group so many times I can't even count the number of goodbyes we've had. He's not big on being tied to other people but he's always happy to see me. "I'm expecting to get to Etna around noon on July 6th," he responds. That settles it. Amnesia can go meet up with the rest of the crew around Chester and I'll say hey to Outlaw then continue north with him for a couple of days before our schedules are bound to diverge and I'll finally be on my own -- just me and the trail.
I tell Amnesia what my plan is and again he is hurt. I can hardly look him in the eyes. We get dropped off near Old Station at an RV park where we stealth camp amongst bushes and I cry myself to sleep. The next morning we each cram new food into our bear vaults and head to the road to try hitching -- him toward Burney Falls and me toward Redding where I'll pick up my jacket that I left at a restaurant and then ultimately head to Etna. We bicker and gripe at each other for half an hour with neither of us having any luck on the hitch. Finally an old truck drives past me, reverses toward me and asks where I'm going. "There's your ride, is this really goodbye?" says Amnesia. "Wanna come to Redding with me?" I respond. We hop in the truck and laugh along with the driver's stories about hunting and logging.
When we get to Redding we spend several hours running errands and eating lunch. We make our way to a Barnes and Noble to look at maps and calculate our hitching plans. As the time inches nearer to me heading to Etna I begin to feel uneasy. Something doesn't feel right. I don't want to go to Etna. I want to go home. Then I realize that I don't have one of those. There are plenty of places I could go but none of them are home to me.
Amnesia and I play with the idea of ditching it all and going to see his mom in Mexico. I think about logistics and call my brother to get some reliable advice. He tells me going to Mexico isn't the best choice right now and I agree, but it was fun to imagine for ten minutes. I try to hang up before he hears the tears behind my words, but I think he knows.
Again, I'm lost. I've got no direction. Nothing seems like the right choice. I just want to go home. But where is that? This trail is the closest thing I've ever felt to home. My backyard is different every night, all of my neighbors are my closest friends, and I can pick where I dig a cat hole based on what view I want to have.
I recall Lucky Foot's advice before I ever left Bishop, "I think it's smartest to make your decision based on the hike, if you think you wanna continue in the Sierras or if NorCal seems right." He's right -- I've spent so much time thinking about the people in each scenario that I've forgotten what this hike even is.
Everyone's got their own definition of a thru hike on the PCT but for me it's hiking straight from Mexico to Canada -- or as true to that as possible. It isn't flipping north then going back down south. It isn't hitchhiking up and down the west coast. It's one foot in front of another from border to border on this ribbon of trail I call home. I don't feel deserving of the warm Northern California mountains or the big mile days of Oregon yet. I haven't gone through the Sierra and earned those views and miles yet. It's not time to be up here...I should be in the Sierra.
A bus ride and six hitches later, Amnesia and I are back on trail in the Sierras . Why didn't I quit? I'm not sure. That's what I'm still here trying to figure out as I, yet again, put one foot in front of the other. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe. Clink-crunch-crunch, breathe.