A Day on the PCT in the High Sierra
Without fail, I wake to a bursting bladder at 4:48 or 4:52 or some other time a hair or two before my alarm, and decide to ignore both the shrill ring and the sharp pain in search of another fifteen minutes of down-swaddled bliss.
The inevitable worry kicks in. The miles. The pass. The daylight. The rain. I force myself semi-upright in the waning darkness. Out come the earplugs, off comes the hat, and once I wrestle my semi-conscious body halfway out of my cocoon, I finger comb and re-braid the gnarled mat of sunblock-smeared, dirt-crusted hair sprouting from my head, then customarily turn my nose at my own unfortunate smell.
Once less comatose, I make a full exit from my sleeping bag and replace my wool socks with one of two pair of semi-clean, semi-dry hiking socks that were likely festering in some forgotten corner of the enclosure. Then I slither out of one pair of underwear into the other, and lazily pull my sun-bleached skirt to my shrinking hips. On goes the sports bra, over that the tank top, and finally – The Shirt. Shock-stiff with dried sweat, it always sits half crumpled at the foot of the tent, just far enough away to avoid waking me with drifting waves of hard-won B.O.
Then my bandanna. Then my gaiters. Then everything else is flung just outside my tent atop a small square of blue tarp scavenged from a Dollar Store in Pasadena. I stare at it all for a little bit as I continue to dig the sleep from my eyes, then avoid the whole mess by focusing on some inappropriate form of breakfast. Payday candy bar and coffee. Cajun-flavored trail mix and coffee. A handful of nuts. A piece of saltwater taffy. Fuel.
Eventually the tarp pile beckons, so its contents are methodically crammed into Bertha, my 62-liter, literally falling-apart-at-the-seams cavern of a bag. The tent is dismantled, its scattering of condensation cursed at. Throughout this all, I maintain a steady state of prayer that I’m able to work up enough digestive magic to abscond to some semi-private location and make a deposit before hitting the trail, returning with a slight bounce in my step. You understand.
Then Bertha is slung on, the hip belt fruitlessly tightened (we all fight a losing battle against an insurmountable caloric deficit on a long-distance backpacking trip), my sit pad jammed under to help distribute the weight, and various things clipped and pulled on – camera, water bottle, fanny pack, hat, gloves, GPS. Hiking poles are set at 115, whatever that means, and it’s almost always uphill from here. To a pass, to a highpoint, to whatever 10,000-foot-plus thing I’m trying to best before the afternoon storms roar through.
Within a mile, I’m in my stride, which can really mean anything at all. I could be deep in conversation or taking deep, greedy, gasping breaths. Up, up, up. I’m almost on top of It, whatever It is that day, by lunchtime or just after, and this topness almost always becomes the emotional apex of the day, the physical highpoint after which my adrenaline begins to wane, my muscles fatigue, my bones creak against the oppressive heft of Bertha.
Before a complete shutdown, I descend in search of a place that has a mixture of both quality shade for my body and quality sun for the drying of things. Water is boiled, semi-palatable food is heated, and after a vicious tooth-gnashing that scarcely resembles more civilized human eating mechanics, I settle in to the dense brain fog of the post-lunch foma. If it’s cold, I lay prone in the quality sun; if it’s hot, I splay out in the quality shade, and then I drift off into that weird sort of head-nod naptime so common on airplanes. And apparently on granite slabs.
Once somewhat roused from my afternoon slumber, I walk for a while like Frankenstein or a newborn foal or any other awkward thing you can imagine, stumbling over talus, making heavy steps over large granite blocks. As if by magic, a second wind appears at 3 or 4pm and whips me awake. I talk to the marmots and sing to the trees and my river crossings evolve into a delicate form of riparian ballet.
Until the last mile.
The last mile to camp is always a drag. Almost always. Or always. I could be strolling through a wonderland of gold and diamonds and chocolate fountains and unicorns, but moving like an uninspired sloth. My feet are tired. My butt is gently chafed. I need nutrients.
In camp, I immediately engage in some sort of polite battle with fellow tent-pitchers over The Best Spot. “No, you pick first.” “No, no – you pick.” I invariably choose one that seems flat and windless. Seems.
Time for water math. Do I have enough? Should I filter tonight or in the morning? How much should I grab for dinner? Once finished, I regard the evening’s meal with contempt, cook it, eat it, and make one last cathole lap before retiring to my mountain chateau.
Clean the camera lens. Set the alarm. Pull out the next day’s maps and mileage and notes. Write in my journal. Spend entirely too many precious high-altitude breaths inflating my sleeping pad, then spend entirely too many minutes wriggling around on it like an angry worm. Once comfortable-adjacent, I burrow into my quilt, the soft black interior grazing my nose as I pull it tight around my face, blocking out the bright summer evening.
And then I smile…Every. Single. Time. Today was a good day. They always are.
Important Note for Context
I wrote this while downing a box of wine in a leaky trailer at VVR at the tail end of a solid week of vicious thunderstorms. I was reading Steinbeck and feeling poetic. And gently drunk.