Saturday, August 5, 2017

Not How I Imagined Dying on the PCT (Final Part of Section H Story)

On my adventure thus far, I had been freaked out by a couple things: the thought of drug addicts invading my camp, and unknown creepy howls in the middle of the night. (Oh, and those darn grouse that stay quiet and hidden until you are right next to them, then they furiously flutter away...scares the crap outta me every time!) As I was approaching the camp I needed to stop at for the night, it was my fear of people that was most on my mind."Campsite near an unpaved road" was the PCT map's description; exactly where all the crazies would come find me, I was sure. I told myself I would camp at a random place in the woods if the site looked too sketchy, because I knew I could not make it another 6 miles to the next designated spot.
Finally reaching the campsite, all I can say is "near" the road was an understatement...it was practically on the road! But "unpaved" was also an understatement, because this road looked like nobody had been on it for years. I deemed it safe, even when I noticed a shot gun shell, because I figured it could have been there for over a decade. Though unfortunately, it did put thoughts in my head. I had seen many shot up signs along the way thus far, and it added to my impression that whoever was wandering these wild forest roads could not be trusted. Now, I know shooting up signs does not a rapist/murderer make...though it doesn't exactly suggest "law abiding citizen" either. But, I pushed those thoughts aside, because I was excited that this site had a makeshift fire pit. My Sasquatch night was not far from my mind either, and I was looking forward to making lots of smoke before going to bed.
Looks cozy enough, right? WRONG!
I was cuddled up in my sleeping bag and feeling close to sleep, even though there was still plenty of light in the sky, when I heard another strange howl. "You've got to be kidding me!" was all I could think as I held my breath and listened. More cries, yells, and hollers. Those are guys whooping it up! Why are hikers doing that? Wait...it's coming from the road!!! OMG!!!!
The "untraveled" road
I immediately went into full fledged panic mode. I realize now I had created a whole story in my head; one that was developing ever since my experience at Gillette Lake. Here is how my drama played out: A group of drunk/stoned men come up the road piled in the back of a big ol' truck...they see a woman all by herself camped next to the road...they continue up and do their partying and shooting madness...once they are done, and completely hammered, they come back down and decide they want to harass the lady in the tent...things get out of hand as they incite one another...and now you have a Dateline episode.
This story was very real to me, so my body was reacting as if it were real. I think I may have even been having a panic attack, because I was having difficulty breathing. I don't think men can fully appreciate the gravity of this fear. Even if they worry about the women they love, they haven't lived a woman's life. But I know every woman reading this understands my panic completely.

All the options for what I should do went round and round my head, but ultimately I decided to just stay put, because it dawned on me that they hadn't actually seen me. Why would they assume it's a woman in the tent? (And if I got out to pack up, they might then come back and actually see me.) But I couldn't get past the possibility that this story could come true; thus when I discovered my phone had a couple bars, I sent my husband a quick text before turning it off to save the tiny charge I had left. Here it is:
"I'm camped by an abandoned road at mile 2183. I'm really scared because a bunch of guys just came up the road hooting and hollering and they are shooting. I just wanted you to know, so you know what happened if I don't come back. I was raped and murdered by a bunch of drunk guys. Not how I imagined dying on the PCT. ;) "

I have to roll my eyes a little now, because of course I had imagined dying this way plenty of times. The winkey face at the end was my way of acknowledging that I knew I was being a bit extreme in my logic. I understood I had created a "worse case scenario" that was most likely not grounded in any reality. I trusted my husband would know that. He's never been one to panic, and even though I felt a little guilty putting this worry in his head when we both knew there was not a damn thing he could do about it anyway, I also knew sending it would help me calm down. Ken doesn't construct these kind of horrific fantasies; he would instead deconstruct it, and come to the belief that I would be okay. I needed that same mindset. It took the better part of the night, but eventually I too was able to talk myself out of the dire tale I had convinced myself was happening when it wasn't.
I love my breaks now! Thank you lesson #54!
So, although this is not exactly a hiking lesson, it is one of the most profound and difficult life lessons I am learning and will continue to learn, so I'm including it in my list. Hiking Lesson #55: Be careful with your imaginations. Though it is true that tragic events happen in life, playing them out in your head does not "prepare" you to face them, it only robs you of peace and makes you suffer through a false reality. Knowledge of survival techniques is different--but you can learn plenty without imagining a horror film with you in the starring role. Doing so does not add to that knowledge, so don't fool yourself into thinking it does.
Why not imagine yourself as a super hero instead?
I am not going to go through the night's "deconstruction" process, but I do feel I need to explain that at some point I realized I never heard an engine. In the morning I checked the road, and sure enough, no broken branches or any sign that a car had come through. The only answer I can come up with is this: what I had heard was simply a group of kids coming down on mountain bikes, whooping and hollering at the excitement of it. My mind heard them coming up instead of down, because that fit my story. My mind heard gunshots instead of far away firecrackers (it was the Friday after the 4th of July, after all) because that fit my story as well. I was interpreting everything through the lens of my pre-existing anxiety.
Before I left to head for my final camp, I stood there on the road and imagined how fun it would be to fly down that hill on a mountain bike; living only in the thrill of that moment of speed and danger, without letting any fear or worry of crashing stop me. I smiled and went on my way, determined my last night was going to be a good one.
An amazing campsite I had to pass on because it was dry.
 Not having water was not an option at this point. 
It was yet another day of isolation...once again, not a single soul to be found. After 8 miles, I got to the water and where I planned on staying. Before setting up, I thought long and hard about going the next 4 miles to my car. I had plenty of time; much less energy of course, but I knew I could do it. Except I felt I had to conquer this last night; undo the terror of the night before. I decided to stay, and that I'd even put ear plugs in. Whatever was going to come in the night, let it come; but I was sleeping, dammit! If bears, or Sasquatches, or crazed men come to get me, so be it. Laying there listening for upcoming doom would not change it anyway.
Water was off trail and a little tough to find,
but other hikers are always so helpful!
Camp #8!
I did have a visitor that night. Just before I retired to my tent, a young man showed up asking where the water was. He was just beginning his journey--started at Panther Creek (I told you most PCT'ers don't bother with those first 21 miles on Section H!) and planned on finishing all of Washington. I wanted to give him the trail name "Baby Face" because he honestly looked to be all of twelve; but besides the fact he probably would have hated it, I don't think it's fair to get a name on your first night. I wished him well before I went to bed, because I knew I'd be up at the butt crack of dawn and would never see him again. Just before putting my ear plugs in, I hesitated...what if a bear attacks my neighbor and he needs my help? Ha ha, oh brother! I shoved them in hard, and it was lights out...Baby Face was on his own.
The bunker hill for trees
That's it! Nothing more to tell. I finished; and so here I am, only a year away from facing my biggest goal/challenge/fear of hiking 50 days on the Appalachian Trail. It's been almost 8 years of growing/changing/learning; from my first backpack on the Chain Lakes Loop until now. Is 55 lessons enough? (I love that I ended on double 5's! Feels serendipitous:)) Will I chicken out? Get injured and have to quit? Have a life situation where I won't even be able to go? No need to speculate or worry, because only time will tell. Let it come, and let it be what it will. I think I'm ready.
9 days! Check!
P.S. I'm glad I choose to have such a short day on my way out, because I needed the ENTIRE rest of the day to drive from the south end of the state to the north. This is not a hiking lesson, so I don't have to wreck my perfect number, but advice for all is never drive through Olympia/Tacoma on a Sunday. The only blister I got from this whole trip was from wearing slip on's and having to use my clutch for hours during the unending stop and go traffic. I had to recover from that drive far more than from my hike!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Angel Time and an Encounter with Norseman

I had been on the trail 51 hours without seeing another face. I've always been pretty okay with solo hiking, but this kind of isolation I could do without. Though, paradoxically, as much as I wanted to connect with whomever it was I passed sleeping in their tent, if I'm honest, I was also relieved to have avoided them. It's the conflict of needing companionship, but fearing rejection even more...pretty much the human struggle in a nutshell, wouldn't you say?
Trying to get creative with the increasingly boring food...
bad idea
I was only 4 miles from where I planned to camp for the night (all downhill--thank God!!) when I spotted a human! "Play it cool and don't babble on like an idiot", I scolded myself before we past each other, but thankfully he was down to chat for a couple minutes. He told me he was completing this section of the PCT after waving the white flag because of rain on his last attempt. I told him he was the first person I had seen in days, and he informed me there were two women down at Trout Creek. Again, I was playing it cool, so I didn't break out in dance. After he left, I realized he didn't actually say they were camped there, so I tried to prepare myself for disappointment in case they were gone when I arrived. But man, was I hoping with every fiber of my being I wouldn't have to spend another night alone.
Anita and Nikki...my angels. They made me feel so welcome, even though I straight up asked if I could camp on their site without even looking if there was another option. Hell, I would have asked if I could sleep between them if I thought I could have gotten away with it! I was so ready to have people around me, and they didn't hesitate to tell me to make myself at home. 
We chatted about our experiences so far. They were "hiking their own hike", and had settled in this spot after finally saying screw it to their 100 miles in 7 days goal. We all agreed that Section H was a little more than we bargained for. When I told them my previous night's story and explained how I had past a tent, they both looked at each other and exclaimed, "It must have been Chicago!" 
Screw it, we are staying put for awhile!
Ha ha, I loved these gals!
I wasn't clear on when they met "Chicago" (her home town; they couldn't remember her name) but they obviously had an in-depth conversation with her, because they talked about her like a couple of mother hens approving over their chick. "She had beat her demons" they affirmed, "she was leaving here feeling like she was enough, and that she was going to be okay." Now I was extra sad we missed each other the night before, but I was thankful Chicago got her angel time too. Maybe she'll come across this blog somehow and realize she has a trail name; I think Chicago is a good one! I'm so jealous! Maybe someday.
After an early goodbye to my angels, it was back to total solitude. Even though I was close to Panther Creek Campground, and had to do a little road walking, still I saw no one. It wasn't until well past noon, while I was sprawled out all over the trail taking one of my newly appreciated long breaks, when I saw him. 
Even though he would have practically had to step over me, he still startled when I said hello. "I was so in my head, I didn't even see you! I haven't seen anyone in days!" he announced animatedly as he plopped himself down right next to me. 
"You're a south bounder" I stated. No need to ask; he was so geared out it was obvious. Plus he looked like hell. I was astonished he had made it through all the snow; I honestly didn't even think it was possible, and told him as much.
"I'm here to tell you it's possible...but it's changed me." It gave me chills when he said it. I couldn't believe I was lucky enough to get a little of his story; thru hikers rarely stop midday just to talk. He told me he was dropped off at Hart's Pass on June 12th, and tried to go north for the 31 miles to Canada, (so he could "start" his south bound journey) but turned around just 11 miles shy because after 6 self arrests, he had to "call it" and surrender to the fact he would have to return later to finish that part. (A self arrest, for anyone who doesn't know, is when you stop yourself from sliding off the mountain with your ice ax.) He went on to say he verified with a ranger that a grizzly mama bear was just 20 feet away from his tent one night. She had taken his shirt that he had hanging out, and then had gone on her way. In the morning he saw her tracks (which I'm assuming he took pics of for the verification) and also cub tracks just a little further above. "She was putting herself between me and her cub" he explained. "Good thing you didn't get out to pee!" I joked. He looked at me like he didn't think it was funny. "Nothing would have gotten me out of that tent." I'm sure truer words were never spoken. 
I told him my Sasquatch story, because y'know, I was trying to hang with the big dogs; but I don't think he was impressed. He warned me about the upcoming 11 miles with no water, (I already knew I didn't have enough, but damn if I don't hate hauling water uphill!) then I asked for a picture with him like a crazed fan. We went our separate ways, and once again I was back to being alone. If I had known my scariest night yet was still ahead, I might have turned around and gone with him. Part 5 will wrap this all up, I promise.
Me and Norseman...
okay, I look like hell too, ha ha!
Someday I hope to hear the entire story of his making it to Mexico.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Bride of Sasquatch (Part 4 Washington PCT Section H)

What animal makes a noise that sounds like a cross between a wolf, an owl, and a ghost? You don't know? Me either. But that's what I heard...alone in the dark...in my tent that was full of menstrual blood. I may not have known what animal it was, but I had a good idea what it was saying--"Hey, anybody else smell that? I think something's been slaughtered over there. Let's check it out!"

I wish I could make the sound for you, so you could truly understand how f***ing eerie it was. I've never heard anything like it, and may have even thought I was being punked, except I had not seen even one soul in the previous 35 hours. 
Bear scat on the trail
My mind was doing cartwheels, trying to figure out what on earth would make a sound like that. I'll confess, Big Foot looking for a mate was seemingly the most likely candidate. (I made the mistake of reading a thread called "Have you ever seen a Sasquatch" on my favorite hiking forum, and remembered someone mentioning "strange moaning/howling noises.") I tried to calm myself by thinking of "Harry and the Henderson's", but with no success. I could hear two of them; the second one being a farther distance away. "Please go towards the farther one, please go towards the farther one...", I repeated in my head like a mantra. 

Nope. Of course I eventually heard it close. How close? Who knows, though I could swear he was hiding behind the nearest tree. (And please don't comment that it was an owl, barred or otherwise. I've listened to all sorts of calls on the internet, and I am sure it was not an owl. An extremely low, sustained wolf call was the only thing that came close.) You may be wondering why I didn't make some loud noises to scare whatever it was away; I mean, you'd think common sense and a desire to live would have prompted me to do so. The truth is, I just couldn't. When the forest is so quiet you could hear a mouse fart (apart from the occasional God-awful howl, of course) you feel like you shouldn't even be making breathing sounds, much less any sort of yelling. So how in the hell do I signal to, whatever that is, that I am not something to be messed with? The power of man's red flower! If Disney has taught us anything, it's that animals hate fire; and if you can't trust Disney, who can you trust? ;)

As quietly as I could (I cannot stress enough how badly making any sound felt...I know it does not make a lot of sense, but it was a powerful instinct) I ripped pages out of my book and burned them in my pot just inside of my vestibule, praying I didn't burn my tent down. Crazy, and probably stupid, but it worked. The rest of the night I only heard them in the distance, going in the opposite direction. 

I think I did actually sleep a little, but as soon as there was the slightest light, I was out of there faster than you can say "Don't Sass the Squatch". I hiked for about 10 minutes and found the campsite I was searching for the day before, and would you believe it was occupied?! Such a torturous night, and the whole time I was less than a quarter mile from another human being! Ugh, if only I had persisted. I wanted SO badly to wake whomever was in that tent and ask them about the noise, but it was too damn early. Sigh...nothing to do but keep going. 

The view from the camp with the sleeping hiker

This was my 15 mile day, and I was dreading it. I know a 15 mile day is practically a rest day to a thru-hiker, but I know from experience that 15 miles totally maxes me out. But I had no choice; it was either 5 miles, or 15, with nothing in between. I needed to suck it up and do the 15 miles if I wanted to make it to my car in my allotted 9 day time frame. 
The camp after 5 miles at Rock creek that I had to pass up 
I was almost 10 miles in and through the worst of it when I decided to take a long "sit down and collect yourself" break. It was a thick forest, and I was up toward the top and approaching the ridge where I knew it would get easier. Suddenly I was screaming before I could even process why. Was it a bear? Sasquatch coming back for me? All I knew was that I was startled by the LOUDEST crashing that came barreling down and crossed the trail just 15 feet from me, then continued down the hill...stopped for a second...crashed foward a little further...then stopped in dead silence. I collected my things, and more calmly than I thought possible, went on my merry way.
I was too scared to even try to look down and see what it was, though I doubt with the thick foliage I could have seen it anyway. I had the rest of the day to ponder, and you better believe I thought of little else. After weighing all the possibilities, I finally concluded that it was most likely a huge rock...a rock that would have surely crushed me if I had sat down just a few feet further than I did.

I hate that sort of randomness with life and death. The "if only's" abound; and unlike this time, are not always in your favor. It messes with your head. Ultimately I have to surrender to the fact that there is no making sense of it, or trying to control it. Somehow I need to embrace the beauty and the tragedy of life, and believe that there is meaning in the interaction between the two. But I wrestle with faith all the time, and struggle to believe that "at the bottom of all reality is always a deep goodness" (Richard Rohr's way of talking about God) that I can feel safe with. But all this talk is more suited for my other blog, so I will stop here. Though I still have 3 more hiking days to tell you about, and the best part is coming. You don't want to miss my meeting with "The Norseman", so please come back. He had stories that put my Sasquatch night to shame. (I just love thru-hikers! What a bunch of one-uppers, ha ha!)



Saturday, July 22, 2017

Going Up and Bleeding Out in Washington


CAUTION: Mensuration talk ahead. Click away now if buying tampons for your wife/girlfriend/daughter makes you uncomfortable. Read ahead if you want to better understand the challenges of a woman on the trail...but you have been forewarned--I'm not holding back with describing the reality of what it's like.

Sometimes I wonder if my body wants to sabotage me. Why is "Aunt Flow" such a bitch? She always shows up just before the vacation, special occasion, long trip...pretty much any time she can get in the way and make you miserable. You mark your calendar, count out days to try to work around her, but no. Here she is, a whole week early. "SURPRISE, aren't you glad to see me?!"
Thank God my fourth day brought me to the town of Cascade Locks, Oregon. This is the home of the famous "Bridge of the Gods", where the PCT crosses over into Washington. I was so excited/nervous about walking over it...but first things first. I had to find a store, and head directly for the "feminine hygiene" isle. 
Oregon is really concerned that you don't get lost
I bought what I thought was an absurd amount of products (turns out it was barely enough--apparently it's impossible to have too many baby wipes) and some period medication, (wine and chocolate) then headed back to the bridge.
Had to get a burger too, of course
I have to say my nerves were not so much about the cars and height, but more about the exposure of feeling like everyone is looking at you. Normally I'm not opposed to that kind of attention (I might even like it a little ;)) but because I'm not a "thru-hiker", I felt like a big fat fake. I have SUCH respect for those who have crossed after coming from Mexico or Canada, that I felt like I should have a sign that said "I'M ONLY OUT HERE FOR 9 DAYS! I DON'T DESERVE YOUR STARES! LOOK AWAY!" 
But I have to admit, I was geeking out too. (Can I say "geeking out" about hiking?) I thought about what a thru-hiker experiences as they cross--it must feel a bit like a right of passage. I felt it a little too...even as a big fat fake. ;) 
I knew as I started Washington's "section H" that I shouldn't expect much. Most hikers heading to Canada skip the first 21 miles altogether and instead march 14 miles up the highway where they can easily connect again at Panther Creek. Descriptions I read included "not great views, loads of poison oak, rocky trail, dry waterless stretches"... pretty much misery on a plate. But I was avoiding snow, and getting my 9 day goal in, so I just excepted that this was part of the deal. And besides, misery is what makes a hike great! Serve me up!
Beautiful wildflowers made up for the ugly power lines.
At first it didn't seem so bad. Lots of day hikers were on the trail who were also headed to Gillette Lake, where I planned to camp. It must be beautiful if these people are spending their 4th of July holiday going there! But suddenly I hit the clearcut--an ugly, no shade, poison oak mess. Oh well...the lake will make up for it! 
This is kind of nice...
What happened?!?!
After an impossibly long mile, I crossed the forest road where Gillette came into view. Not exactly mind blowing, but not that bad either. Though, once I got down there...bad. Never have a seen campsites so trashed.(Except at Lake Blanca, but that's another story.) It started putting thoughts in my head. Anyone can drive that forest road and come down here and party. People do drugs in places like this, right? This does not feel like a grandma-friendly environment. As I was filling up my water and contemplating what to do, a couple came up behind me. "Did you camp here last night?" she asked me in a sort of dreamy/weird way. Oh, and did I mention she was completely naked? No more contemplation needed...deuces, I'm out.
Gillette Lake
Gross. 
I thought maybe I could go just a little bit further where my map showed another area for tents, but the people who had already taken it over looked like they may have been there for the last few months. Of course, as my mind quickly jumped into complete paranoia mode, I concluded they were homeless meth heads that would kill and rob me if I even stopped for a second.
Unlike Oregon, Washington only gives a
tiny little shit that you don't get lost
I kept going, crossing more forest roads, more and more clearcut ugliness...what was I thinking doing this section!!!! One time I thought maybe I'd just "hide" off trail where it was flat, but as I went to investigate, I found a party area with a big bonfire firepit. OMG, I can't escape! The druggies are going to find me anywhere I go!!!
A view of the damn
It took me awhile to calm down. But once I hit the forest and realized I had not seen anyone since the lake, I started to feel safe again. When I finally got to the next camp site, I felt far away from anyone; and for the first time that felt comforting! I took my "medication" by the fire, and went straight to bed.
The next day, Aunt Flow followed me hard. Again, as much as I prefer having some other hikers around, this time it was a comfort to be alone. Stopping to pee is bad enough...stopping to pull out my cup and dump it, attempt to clean it, and then shove it back in and wipe all the blood off my hands...that is another show altogether. For those who are wondering what a cup is; it's the only way to survive when you are bleeding like a stuck pig. Supposedly it will hold 8 hours worth of menses, but for those of us who are blessed to be pre-menopausal and are having a "full shed" kind of day, it will get you through an hour or two at best; but that is way better than stopping every 20 minutes to change a tampon. 
Besides being upset with my period, this day felt like I would never stop going up. Relentlessly up and up and up. I let out a sob when I looked at my watch, thinking I had been going for hours when it had only been 20 minutes. This is when I learned lesson # 54: For heaven's sake, just stop and take time to collect yourself when you feel overwhelmed. I know this seems obvious, but I really don't like to take breaks. I pride myself with my "slow and steady wins the race" determination. When I'm feeling frustration, my ego tells me to keep going so I can "earn" the privilege of stopping at my destination. But this trip really taught me it's okay to be slow AND take your time. What a relief!
Again, good job with the signage, Washington!
The good thing about "up", is it usually brings you
to the views.
I was so ready to stop for good when I got to the place I thought the camp must be, but I could not find it. Either I keep going, and hope it would show itself soon (and risk that I had already missed it and would have to go another 5 miles to the next camp) or I just make my own camp at the first available flat spot. I opted for stopping. 
More clearcutting and forest roads, but at least there's
a good view of Mt. St. Helens!
So many wildflowers! I can't get enough!
I had not seen a single soul since Gillette. Never had I been so isolated, and it was starting to get in my head. Being in an "un-designated" campsite added to the stranded feeling, and the fact I was leaving puddles of blood everywhere certainly compounded my uneasiness. 
That night was bad. I was too scared to leave my tent, but thankfully I was so dehydrated I didn't have to pee. (They weren't kidding when they said "dry waterless sections"--we're talking 11 miles!) But what do I do about this ridiculous amount of blood? I couldn't use my cup, unless I wanted to go out and add to the predator bait; so I reverted to the tampons and the 20 minute change. But is having zip locks full of gore in the tent any better than having a circle of blood around it? I didn't think so.

And then I heard it. That's called a cliff hanger. :) Next time.