Not Exactly Beach Walking: Three Nights on The Wilderness Coast

Toby and I don’t really know each other. We met on the PCT just before Paradise Valley Cafe and I was there when he got his trail name, Applejuice. I thought he was nice then, and we’ve followed each other on social media since, but no, we don’t know each other. Still, when he posted that he would be finishing up his Pacific Northwest Trail section hike on the Olympic Coast and was open to having people join him, I sent him a message to tentatively RSVP. 

I waited until nearly the last minute to say that the timing would work for certain, and in that time also managed to attempt and quickly abort another multi-day backpacking trip with a friend.

“Do I even like backpacking anymore?” I wondered aloud on that trip, our single night backcountry camping after hiking into camp in the dark. I kept scanning our meadow home with my headlamp, looking for the reflection of animal eyes in the dark. “Maybe I should sell my backpacking gear and just accept I don’t do this anymore.” But it didn’t matter either way: my friend’s sleeping pad sprung a leak so we threw out our plans and went car camping (fresh air mattress in tow) instead.

Even after my existential backpacking dread, I decided to try the coast anyway. Toby and I traded messages arranging shuttles, talking about tide charts, and planning for where I could pick him up near Forks, WA. He added me to his permits, assuring me that the campsites were only 8-10 miles apart. It’s supposed to be beautiful and he wanted to savor it, he said. Amazing. Short miles. Beach walk. Even I could do that!


Day 1: Sand, Tide Pools, and a Hole in the Wall

I pick Toby up in Forks and since we have less than two miles to camp from the trailhead, I give him a tour of Forks. We stop at the post office so he can send mail and then stop by the visitor center and take a selfie with a life-size cardboard cutout of Edward Cullen. And then the tour is over, because there’s not a whole lot to see in town.

Our plan is to hike from Rialto Beach to Cape Alava, the northern section of the Washington coast. At Rialto Beach, we luck out with a parking spot despite the full lot, and after a stop at the toilets start wandering down the beach toward camp. Good news: we get along great. We talk about teaching (he’s a professor), books, distance hiking, and a million other things. We’re laughing a lot. He’s spent the last 31 days with very little human interaction, so despite being introverted, he’s happy to chat. I am chatty, period. This is a good match! We ooh and aah at the beach and talk about how this is such a great way to end his trip, with easy miles in a beautiful place. 

We reach our first camp area past Hole in the Wall and tried to suss out where to stay. Despite the fact that it’s only 1 pm, a lot of campers already seem set up for the night. An older couple had claimed 50–or more—feet of the beach, and as we try to see where we might be able to stay without disturbing them, they keep trying to dissuade us. “We’ll have three tents,” they say. “There will be a three month old!”

We keep looking around and considered a site on the other side of their rock, then the other side of their tree, when the man in the couple comes up to us and says he found a good spot for us. Toby is skeptical but I go look, and it was genuinely cute – tucked behind a big driftwood log and with its own wooden wind chimes.

We set up camp there for the night, and wander around the water and tide pools remarking on anemone and crabs and colors. The sunset is lovely.

I haven’t packed enough water, assuming that of course in the northwest we would have no trouble finding any, but that’s not the case on this stretch. Toby has enough water to give me a liter, so we don’t worry about it.

“I hope we have enough time to get to camp and relax,” he says about the rest of our journey.

I scoff. “We’d have to take psychedelics and lose hours staring at a tide pool to get to camp later than, like, noon,” I say. I’ve done coastal hiking before, just a hundred miles south along the Oregon coast. It’s tedious sometimes, but beautiful, and not much to worry about as long as your tides are OK.

Eventually, we get in our tents. We talked so much our voices got hoarse, but we keep talking until the sun goes down. 

Day 2: Coves, Capes, and Crawling

Toby has been waking up with first light his whole hike, but between our short mileage day ahead and a midday low tide, there’s no point in rushing in the morning. “I feel like I’m cheating by still being in bed,” he says around 8 a.m., and we laugh.

I pull oatmeal out of my bear can and make breakfast. It’s foggy this morning and we can’t even see the next land protrusion we have to cross ahead. I keep looking out and asking, “wait, is it raining?” because the fog is so thick you can see individual particles, like rain, but it’s not exactly falling. The outside of my tent is soaked. It’s not especially fun packing up a wet tent, but we know the forecast told us to expect better weather later. This is just a marine layer, we tell ourselves.

Around 9 am, we start walking. The first stretch ahead of us is beach, and the sand is a little tedious, but we’re in a good, hopeful mood. Quickly, we reach the next headland and start to encounter not sand but big boulders stacked on top of each other, which we much clamber around and over. Our packs are heavy and throw off our balance, and we quickly give up on trekking poles.

“Is this hiking!?” Toby says. Not really. But we don’t have another word for it. Not bouldering. Low-grade scrambling?

Toby demonstrating the “hiking” technique. No photos from this section do justice to the ass-kicker it was.

We’re using our hands and choosing routes and laughing. We’re moving so slow. Each step is a serious consideration on the boulders – what is stable, what leads to a dead end, what is sneakily slippery. Toby keeps checking his phone GPS and seeing that we’re barely inching along. 

Then the boulders end and it’s back to a pebble beach, a large cape ahead. Cape Johnson. We cross paths with another backpacker who’s come from the opposite direction. He has a British – possibly Australian – accent. Toby asks if he has any intel for the trail ahead. “Buckle up,” he says. It took him about an hour and a half to get around the cape. 

An hour and a half? It’s less than a mile of “trail.”

“That means two hours for us,” Toby says after he passes. We’re no mountain goats out here. We assume he means there’s more of those big boulders.

We continue, climbing over and under downed trees (“blowdown!” we joke each time we see them, because Toby encountered so many blowdowns on his PNT hike) and trudging through pebbles and spring-mix colored seaweed that smells like rotting ocean. Another couple of backpackers. One of them is smoking a cigarette. They say they’re doing an out and back, heading out now. They carried a gallon of water. They’d rounded the cape yesterday at high tide. They look beat, but we don’t have a gallon of water in our pack, and we don’t have to cross at high tide, so we don’t take their exhaustion too seriously. We commiserate and then continue. At least it’s not high tide! We think.

In fact, we’ve planned tide perfectly — we head around Cape Johnson at exactly low tide. Despite that, we quickly realize this cape is not fucking around. Yes, it is covered in boulders that you have to climb up, around, sometimes leading to dead-ends or cliff-outs where you have to descend again and reroute. But now, in addition to being big and sometimes unstable, the boulders are slick. Even when you find a stable rock, there is no solid footing.

We are using everything. Our hands and knees. Counter weight. Several times we just sit down in order to descend. My quads are confused. My glutes are on fire. It’s like doing weighted single leg squats on dish soap, I tell Toby later.

But we’re laughing to avoid crying. And Cape Johnson is so long, so big. “It can’t be like this forever,” Toby says. But every time we think it has to be the end, we round the corner to find yet more boulders slick with sea stuff. Toby is experimenting with which seaweed has the best grip. I’ve taken to saying “fuck you, rock!” each time I slip, which is every three steps or so. 

“I’m a pretty positive person on trail,” Toby told me the first day. But by an hour into Cape Johnson, even he is starting to swear. Where is our beach walk? Where is his easy meander to the end of his journey? The views? There aren’t any, it’s too foggy. 

I took hundreds of photos on the trip, and almost zero on Cape Johnson. There wasn’t time for photos. We were just trying to survive. I envisioned slipping and hitting my head against the rocks at least a dozen times.

These are the mildest rocks we saw, which is why I was able to take a photo of them.

Sometimes the only thing to do is slide on your butt.

By the time we can see the end — by which I mean, the end of the slippery slick boulders and into the pebbles— Toby apologizes for having invited me. “I had no idea it would be like this!” he says. 

No, no, I’m having fun! I tell him. Well. I hope I am having fun, like type 2 fun, but I’m not sure yet. 

We pass a group of three backpacking women. “How is it up ahead?” We ask them. They tell us about water sources near our campsites — that they had to do a ten minute scramble for just a trickle of water. Lovely. Instead, they say to look for a better stream a half-mile before camp. We warn them about the cape, and one of the women jokes, “I’m just going to turn around and come back with you.” Honestly? I wouldn’t have blamed her.

Once we get into the pebbles, I make us stop for snacks, which I’ve started to call “emotional support food.” I feel spent both physically and psychically. It felt like being on high alert, watching every single step with no relief. We’ve made almost no progress toward camp—maybe 0.7 miles in two hours. I am feeling raw, scooped out. But lunch helps, and it’s like I can feel the calories squirting hope back into my cells.

Still, there’s more to come. We can see more pebbly beaches that make each step five times slower. More “rock hopping on steroids” as Toby called it.

We pass a couple and trade intel. After saying it’s still slow going ahead for us, we continue on, and just as we start up yet another set of full-body boulders, the man calls out from where we’d last seen him. “There’s a beautiful beach ahead!” We yell back our thanks, but honestly? I’ll believe it when I see it.

After some more rocks, we reach a grey beach with compact sand, and our feet feel like new feet. We’re flying. Camp still feels so far away, but at least we’re moving. Only minutes pass before we get to our next challenge of the trail: our first overland crossing. A thick rope dangles from a 30-foot arm made of dirt and sand, and Toby goes first ascending. At the top, just as I am finding my footing and trying not to let myself panic, Toby yells out, “you’re going to be so happy to get up here!”

At the top, I see why. It’s the beautiful beach walk we’d expected of the whole trip. Lovely yellow sands. Compact lower beach. But first, we have to descend, which Toby does with confidence and I do with… less confidence. “Film me!” I say, thinking it will make a good keepsake. Instead, I stop half-way and start repeating, “I don’t like it!” before deciding to scoot down on my butt with the support of the rope instead of trying to walk down facing the wall.

On solid ground, Toby says, “I am so much happier!” It’s 2:30 pm and the clouds have finally burned off and it’s our own solitary paradise. But again, it’s not long before we reach another overland route. This time the descent is three times as long, roped again, but it leads to yet another lovely beach. 

Better yet: it’s the last major adventure before camp. We keep a lookout for the stream the women told us to collect water from before camp but we don’t see it. Instead, we get to Cedar Creek.

“Oh shit, did we miss the water?” I say. The creek where it empties into the ocean is dry. All I want to do is get to camp and eat and lay down, but I won’t be able to cook without more water. The last stream we passed was before the last overland crossing. We wonder if we’ll have to climb back up the ropes to fill our bottles. Maybe it won’t be so bad without packs? It would still be exhausting.

Before we give up, we check further up the creek where it parallels the beach, and as we step over the low wall of pebbles, a flat, reflective surface comes into view. Success! A large pool of water, stopped by some driftwood. It’s a little brown, but our filters will handle that.

“A ten minute scramble for a trickle of water,” the women had told us. This was a 30-second jaunt up some pebbles to more water than we’ll ever be able to drink. Hikers: sometimes a great source of intel, sometimes mistaken. Or as I kept telling Toby, “Oh god, I’m so glad they were just dumb.”

Then we look for camp, and luck upon the cutest little spot tucked into the trees just above the beach. One campsite over looks the ocean, and just south of it is a a little breakfast nook made out of driftwood, complete with a marine-debris table, all looking out over the water. We’ve made it. We survived Cape Johnson. 

But what the hell was that? After we’ve eaten and set up our camps—I initially set mine up in a separate campsite but then realize I’ll be afraid of bears all night and instead relocate my tent within a foot of Toby’s—Toby looks at his guidebook to see what we missed. But of Cape Johnson, all the guidebook author has to say is, “Hiking through here is likely to be slower than you might estimate.”

The understatement of the century. But that’s our keyword for what may lie ahead, so Toby scans the upcoming section for similarly underwhelming descriptions. One section, where we know we’ll need hustle to get before low tide, says, “a particularly rocky and slower area of the beach.”

Dang. There is more ahead. But at least we know what we’re getting ourselves into now.

Day 3: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes Your Body Hurt

We wake up feeling better. At least we know what we’re in for, Toby says. My body seems to have recovered overnight, and while I’m definitely sore, I’m moving. I have breakfast and tea. I am flying through my food—I’ll have enough, but I did not overpack.

We start out and we have more big boulders to cross. They’re tough—my legs lack any fo the precision they had when they were fresh, and it feels like I’m swinging big tree stumps around—but at least they’re not Cape Johnson. We take to saying this through the whole day. “I mean, it’s no Cape Johnson.”

The next big section we have to navigate, we run into a father and son. The ground beneath us is rocky but flat. “It’s basically this for the next mile and a half,” the dad says. And he’s right. It’s like getting a brutal, rocky foot massage—but hey, it’s no Cape Johnson.

Instead, most of our concern goes to a section we have to navigate later at low tide: Point Five. The guidebook author has noted this as ‘a particularly rocky and slower area of the beach.” On this author’s scale, it could mean slaying a sea dragon for all we know. So we trudge forward. If it’s not a rocky foot massage, it’s pebbles that make us move at super slow speed. Our steps look like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

One stretch of boulder-scurrying is short, but the last section is still flooded with tidal water, and our only option is to wade through shin-deep pools. Our feet are wet, but who cares? It’s no Cape Johnson. We climb over and duck under blowdowns. We meet large caves carved by waves, which I keep calling “coves”—any inward protrusion is a cove, my brain decides, although we learn later that’s not the real definition—and take pictures, feeling small within them.

There’s beach trash and bottles from Japan, there are more buoys than we can count, there are large rusted pieces of ships whose purposes we can’t imagine. We pass a deer munching on the cliffside plants.

Finally, we reach Point Five, and at first it seems to be another treacherous excursion. The beginning of the route around the Point is being splashed with waves, and we hug the rocky sidewall, which is also dripping with springwater. “This is not the safest I’ve felt on the trip,” I say.

Toby tackling the beginning of Point Five

But once we make it past the slippery entrance, things start to get cool. We have to crawl up and through a four-foot diameter hole in the rocks, which leads us to a kind of Tomb Raider landscape with large dark rocks and spires and more “coves” that aren’t coves.

My fully-wet butt going up through the hole in the rock
Photo of Toby from the other side of the hole
Point Five, which is not at all Cape Johnson

Not long after that, we stop for water, and then we find camp. At first, we explore a tree-covered spot where someone had lined a bunch of rocks and branches up to create a kind of grand driveway to the camp spot, but the spot itself is lackluster compared to yesterday’s. There’s a couple of very low benches and enough spot for tents, but Toby isn’t satisfied, so he checks out a couple of other camps while I sit down.

“The other camp is pretty cool,” he says, so we move. And he’s right: a table and benches, and best of all, it has a swing made of marine debris.

It’s only 4 p.m., but we’re starving, so we eat dinner and then relax in our tents for a few hours before getting hungry again. At our second dinner, a young buck comes wandering through camp. Toby’s OK, but I’ve had my fill of deer encounters for the year, so I keep my distance.

Tomorrow is our last day, but we have a problem: one of the coastal points needs a four foot tide to cross, and the lowest tide of the day is 3.3 feet—and just a half an hour before our shuttle leaves. The timing doesn’t work.

Instead, Toby decides that to get to the trail’s terminus we’ll take the Ozette Triangle trail out from Sand Point to Ozette, then take the trail from Ozette to Cape Alava. We won’t get to see the last few miles of the beach, and we’ll have a longer mileage day, but we’ll still get to the end.

Day 4: Smooth Trails and Shuttle Drivers

It’s a quick beach walk to reach the trail after Sand Point, with a little bit of tide pool hopping, but then the trails themselves are breezy: hard packed dirt and boardwalk with minimal elevation change. We cruise along, still chatting as thoroughly as day one. As we approach Cape Alava, we heard what sounds like a rowdy party, and as we get closer we realize it’s not people—it’s sea lions barking on an island off the coast.

We take a lot of pictures at the terminus, the westernmost point of the contiguous United States. There’s no sign, but there is a big rock and beautiful views. We started early and we have more than enough time.

Cape Alava

After eating the last of our food, Toby sees on the map that there’s a campstore with deli sandwiches and pizza a quartermile from the trailhead where our shuttle will pick us up. It’s motivation enough to get us moving.

We reach the trailhead, use the bathrooms, and walk over to the camp store. At the bottom of the camp store’s driveway a couple of guys are waiting for a hitch—they’ve just hiked the whole PNT. Toby talks with them a while—he hasn’t met very many PNT hikers this year—but then we head to the store and eat a truly delicious deli sandwich. Then we head back to the trailhead, where our shuttle driver is waiting.

I wish I’d gotten our shuttle driver’s actual name, but Toby and I later settle on “Chatty Charlie.” Charlie has lived in Forks his whole life, first working for the local prison for 31 years, now driving shuttles and selling commercial chanterelles. He hasn’t hiked the coast since the 5th grade, so he doesn’t seem so interested in our stories about slick rocks and tides. Mostly what Charlie loves is fishing, and everything on the peninsula relates back to it. The buoy where the halibut catch is good, they bay where the silver salmon jump, the watering hole where his daughter nearly caught a 45-pound fish when she was barely 45 pounds herself. We talk about hunting—a buddy of his is going to give him some bear pepperoni, something I’ve never heard of—and the taste of west-side dear versus east-side deer.

It’s the kind of local chatter you can only ever hope to stumble upon, and he tells us where to get milkshakes, so we head there when we get my car. From there, it’s almost four hours of driving back to Seattle.

When I drop Toby off, I feel like I’ve made a very good friend, and that I might be hobbling for the rest of the week. It wasn’t the adventure we expected, but we’ll always have Cape Johnson.

From the Crest to the Coast – Day 70 – 73: Bishop to Cape Mear, OR

Miles: 1.5

My panic keeps me up until 3 am, a time of morning I haven’t seen in a really long time, but eventually I get two hours of half-sleep. Then I see Denied walk past my tent, ready at the time we’d agreed upon, and so I get out to tell him the news: I won’t be going forward.
“I’m really sorry,” I tell him.
He’s chipper in the way people are when they haven’t quite processed the situation yet. “No worries!” He says. I go back to my tent and start packing my things and he sits on a rock by the trail. He’s still there as I go to leave.
“Do you have everything you need?” I ask.
“Yeah.” He is more sullen now.
“I’m really sorry. I hope you have a really awesome hike. The others should be waking up soon if you want some people to walk with.”
“I’m probably going to have to go back to town,” he says. “I wouldn’t have brought so much food if I wasn’t following your hiking plan.”
I ask if I can bring the extra food down for him and ship it ahead but he says no. I apologize again. I hope he’s okay. He did me a favor by saying he’d hike with me and I’ve let him down. I’m not usually a flake. But as guilty as I feel, I also am feeling really hopeful about the decision. I am tired of trying to fight so hard to stay on this trail, with these groups of people. I am ready to keep hiking. But not here.
I head back down and go looking for a ride back in the parking area. As I walk, I ran into another hiker who was headed in, Aika. She’d turned around the day before, too, after trying to hike by herself. I tell her about the OCT and her eyes light up. If things don’t go well, she might come out and join me.
I get a ride from a local and he seems happy to hear I’m not headed in. He tells me the bus to Reno, where I need to get, isn’t running again until Monday. He says the highway is busy, though, and getting a hitch shouldn’t be too hard.
He drops me in Independence and I catch another ride to Bishop, and then I hang out outside the hostel for a few hours. I tell some people my plans and they’re mostly supportive. 
I go to lunch. Mark is texting me saying how much he doesn’t want me to hitch that far. He’ll rent me a car. He’ll come drive me himself. Just don’t hitch, he says. 
But a hitch seems the most simple, and Aika has turned around and thinks she’ll go with me, so I make myself a sign, “PCT Hiker to Reno.”
But then another hiker says: we’re headed to Mammoth Lakes in five, anyone want a ride? The other hikers say I should take it because it puts me 40 minutes closer. I text Aika and she says to go for it. 
When I get in the car, the hikers, Kelley and Derek, say they’re trying to get a car in Mammoth Lakes to go to Reno. They’re flipping North. They say I’m welcome to ride with them.
So that’s what we do, and I don’t have to hitch at all. We have an awesome conversation the whole way. Right outside of Reno we see a PCT hiker hitching and we pick her up. Her name is Energizer Bunny. She’s planning to flip north, too, but then I mention the OCT and she asks if she can go with me so I say yes. 
We drop Energizer Bunny off at a hostel and Kelley and Derek drop me off at Amelia’s house. It is so good to see her again. She and her mom take me to Pho and then give me a bed and I am tired, so tired – I haven’t slept more than 3 hours today. So I lay down. And it takes no time at all to fall asleep. 

Day 71: 
I wake up and hang out in bed for a while and then eat cereal with Amelia and her mom. I rearrange my bag and take my bear can, ice axe, microspikes and about 7 days of food to a local shipping store. 
After that, we relax. Amelia and I catch up on Dr Who. I am happy about how easy it is to be around Amelia. I download maps and guides to the Oregon Coast Trail. I am feeling good about the decision to hike this trail, and excited. I wonder if I will miss the PCT or not. 

Day 72:
I wake up in the middle of the night and think I’m on the edge of a mountain. I see the slope of snow ahead of me and it looks impossibly steep. I see a headlamp below me. I’m alone out here.
But then I remember: I’m in a bed. The snow is a curtain. The headlamp is a light on the floor. The edge is the bed. My brain thinks I’m outside as a default, now. It tries to make wilderness patterns out of domestic shapes. 
In the afternoon we go to REI and Sierra Trading Post. I buy a pair of Tevas and consider a better rain jacket but decide against it. 
Amelia’s brothers and Dad come home and I am surprised that this does not make me feel more out of place. I feel more welcome here than I have for a while on the PCT. 
That night, we watch The Handmaid’s Tale. Am I brave? I wonder. Would I fight? Do I know when to run?
I call Mark. I tell him how I scared I am of the end of this summer of hiking. How do I live real life after this? 
Day 73: 
I lay on the couch into the morning. I watch more Handmaid’s Tale. I take a shower and throw my hiking clothes in with a load of laundry. They smell bad so quickly, even without hiking. But I am itching to hike again, to see new things, to move forward. 
Amelia, her mom and I go to Chipotle and then they pick up Energizer Bunny, who has booked the same flight as me, and drop us off at the airport. 
Loner, a hiker who regularly section hiked the PCT and just thru hiked the OCT, picks us up from the airport and takes us to his family’s beach vacation home. We chat with his family – his dad is 91, his mother a few years younger and they still backpack – and then go upstairs to bed at well past hiker midnight. Tomorrow Loner drops us off at the border or Oregon and Washington, and then we hike south. 

Nero in Bishop, Panic on Trail – Day 69: bishop to Onion Valley Trail Head

Date: June 29

PCT miles: no
Miles: 1.5
I get up early and ride a loaner bicycle to the grocery store. Well, first I go for a mile in the wrong direction, but I genuinely don’t mind because riding bikes is fun and the weather is perfect. 
When I get back I have to try to pack my bear can which is comical. We’re carrying 10 days of food, the biggest carry on the trail, and I have to use both my bear can and my opsack to fit it all. 
I go get breakfast and go to the gear store where I get some new shoes. Karma and Soulshine get my attention by banging on a window as I walk by. “Did you get my text?” She asks me. No. She says she’s hiking with a group and I can go with them. But that group is close with the one that just left me, and I don’t want to hold Karma back. I tell her about my plans to hike with Denied but our itineraries sound similar so we’ll likely see each other anyway. 
I go to the post office and ship myself some food to VVR, our next resupply stop. I grab lunch with Denied and then we catch a ride back to the trail with Santa’s Helper. 
I am hiking up the mountain and feeling a heavy weight in my chest. It’s just the post-town blues, I am trying to tell myself. 
We get to one of the camping options for the night, a mile and a half in, and some hikers who were close with my group are camping there. Denied wants to camp there and they say it’s okay, but before our tents are set up they have all gone to bed. It’s early, 8. Am I imagining things, or are they avoiding me? I can’t tell. 
I crawl in my own tent and try to go to sleep, but suddenly it’s like my body has forgotten how to breathe. I take a deep, calming breath and then choke on the following breaths. Too shallow ones that make my lungs tingle, like they’re collapsing. Is this altitude sickness? I wonder. I try to run through all the symptoms I know of, but this feeling feels familiar – it feels like a panic attack. 
It’s then that I notice my brain is racing. I’m imagining climbing up over Kearsarge, Glen, Mather, Muir with this bubble of people watching me, waiting for me to freak out, waiting for me to fail. I’m imagining them hiking purposefully ahead of me so that I can’t follow their paths. I’m imagining Denied, young and unsure and trying to find his own way up the mountain, trying to help me out of my fears entirely on his own. In this bubble, I am a burden, my brain believes. That is too heavy a thought to carry through these mountains. 
And this feeling isn’t new. Before starting the PCT I read on and in about trail families, how they are some of the best friendships you’ll ever have. But that isn’t what I’ve found out here, though I’ve truly wanted to. In the desert, it wasn’t a problem. The casual friendships were enough, and hiking in my own was safe. I thought a family would happen organically. But it didn’t. And for the last section of the Sierra, I’ve been left feeling lost. The trail has been perfect and enlivening and humbling. But the community, not so much. It feels like a taboo to say, really. Everyone says the people are what make the trail. But so often, for me, they are what is unmaking it. 
I send Mark a series of text messages about how I’m feeling, knowing he is asleep. In the flurry of sending them I have a moment of clarity: what I need is to by myself, so I can rebuild my confidence as a hiker. I don’t like how desperate I have felt for friendship, how small i was willing tinned in order to have people near me. But the PCT – the Sierra, NorCal, Oregon, Washington – they are all too full of snow for me to feel comfortable on my own right now. 

And then I remember photos from a friend’s recent hike of the OCT, that many former PCT hikers have headed there, and I feel a sense of relief. 
That relief, of course, quickly turns into desperation to plan. I make notes to myself about gear. I call my friend in Washington and talk to her about the possibility, how she might hike with me for a few days. I like the idea of being around people who like me, who I’m not constantly trying to endear myself to. She tells me some friends of a friend quit the trail because they weren’t loving the culture, too. 
You didn’t really go out there because you needed to be a thruhiker, she says. So what does it matter what trail you’re on?
And she’s right. What I wanted was to spend 5-6 months hiking, learning about myself, learning how to take care of myself. Thruhiking was the simplest way to do that. I can still do that. I can southbound the OCT and then hike north to Canada from the Oregon/California border on the PCT once the snow has melted.
I am still sad that I’m not able to test myself more in the Sierra. The trail itself has been such an incredible comfort to me. I crave it’s neutrality. But I haven’t been able to figure out how to live with people out here, or I suppose how to live without them. Maybe it’s time I do that, somewhere a little more safe. 

A Risk to Others – Day 68: Zero in Bishop

Date: June 28

I wake up and grab breakfast with Rainfly. He pays for my breakfast which is sweet and then we have a nice conversation about the trail. Afterward I go to do laundry and the whole group is there. They’re planning the next section of the trail.
“Anything I can do to help?” I ask.
“No,” they say.
I listen to their planning and put my clothes in the dryer and then they all go and sit on the floor. I think this is funny, how hikers get so used to sitting on the floor that they avoid chairs. I sit in a chair.
“I think we need to have a talk,” Sole says. I already know what’s coming.
“We’re worried about you in this next section,” she says. “And we’re worried about Co and LiterBit exposing themselves to extra risk by having to help you so much.”
She says a little more and asks if I have anything I’d like to say. I say I think I’ve grown and learned a lot from the last section but I understand if they want to move forward without me.
“I think that’s what we’re saying,” LiterBit says. 
I say thank you for what they did to help me. They go back to the hostel. Rainfly and my clothes are still drying. He sits next to me. “I wasn’t sure if I should have said something earlier.” Ah. This is why he bought me breakfast.
We get our clothes and I pack my bag back at the hostel and we’re doing that weird thing where we’re trying to be polite and casual but it’s not quite working.
I start considering my options. I can’t go into the Sierra alone. There are people doing it, but it won’t be me. I can ask Karma and Nirvana if I can hike with them, but part of me feels like if we were going to hike together we would already be doing it. I ask anyway. But I also start considering other options. Too snowy to go north. I could go west, maybe, and hike the California Coast Trail, a trail made of mostly road walking.
One thing I know: I am not going home.
But I am also sad, and angry. It hurts to be rejected, and I’m angry because I genuinely think I can do this section if I had a solid group. Not a group to baby me or cut my steps or find every river crossing – but a group I could trust and rely on and who knew they could trust and rely on me. I’m angry because I may not get a chance to see what I am capable of in the Sierra. I’m sad because I really wanted to be part of a trail family. I’m sad because I picked the wrong one. I’m sad because I wasn’t worth waiting for. 
I’m glad, at least, that the vibes I was picking up on were not all in my head. 
I spend the rest of the day trying to pull together information on the coast trail. I call Mark, and my friend Sarah, two people I know would drag me up a mountain if that’s what it took. I wish they were hiking with me. 
I get another night at the hostel. Denied is staying in the same room. I mention my dilemma and he says: you can hike with me. I try to make it clear why I am in the dilemma I am in – I am afraid of heights, I am new to the equipment, I slowed my group down. But he says he’s been wanting to hike with someone and to hike slower. He seems to mean it. So I say, okay. 
Tomorrow I’ll resupply and try to find new shoes and we’ll try to get back to the trail. 

Kearsarge Pass Day 67: Campsite before Kearsarge to Bishop

Date: June 27

PCT miles: ?

Miles: 8ish

We get up around 5 and immediately head up steep switchbacks, but they’re dry and so I’m happy to have them. The group waits for me where the snow begins and Co navigates us through trees and sun cups around Bullfrog Lake. At one point I get ahead of everyone and it’s unclear which direction to take, although I can see on my GPS the general direction we’re headed, and the pass we need to get to – but there’s no footpath and I want us all to stay together so I wait for them. 
“I’m pretty sure the pass is over there, but I’m not sure which way you’d rather go.”
“No,” Co says. “We have to go around the lake.”
But as we head around the lake she realizes where the pass is and starts taking us in the direction I’d pointed out. This is the hard part of new groups – nobody knows if they can trust you or not.

It’s a mostly uneventful walkup except for a steep snow shoot surrounded by rock scrambles. At first Sole and I try to scramble up some boulders but I quickly decide it’s more effort than it’s worth and cross the snow, where LiterBit and Co are scrambling up some loose rock and dirt – my least favorite. They try to tell me how to get up the scramble but I’m looking at the snow thinking that it seems way more secure. After debating a bit with myself, I decide to go for the snow, even though it’s steep. It’s the right decision for me. My spikes are grippy and Forester has taught me how to work with my ice axe and I move slow but I feel confident on the ice. We get to the top and I feel redeemed – I am not a helpless hiker in the snow. I am capable. 

Of course, heading down Kearsarge is slushy and steep and scary and LiterBit heel-kicks steps into the snow for me to use. There are a few glissades that are fun and a little sketchy and we take turns almost running into rock walls or almost sliding off edges around corners.
It feels like it takes forever to get to the Trailhead, but I’m still happy to be headed there because I know I’ll be getting to town. The last switchbacks in particular, even though they’re dry, seem never ending. 

My feet are wet from snow and streams that run down the trail and they start to hurt from being wet for so long. When I get to the parking lot I put on dry socks and walk to the end of the road closure without shoes. 
There, the Swiss Boys and Taylor are climbing out of a car. It is good to see familiar faces. The man who gave them a ride is Santa’s Helper, a section hiker who took time off trail to shuttle hikers around. I ask if he can give me and the group a ride and he says yes. We wait for them and eventually they turn up, but they’ve already found another ride with a day hiker. Another hiker named Denied starts to walk by and I ask if he wants a ride and he says yes and climbs in. Yoav and Dean pull up and we hug and Yoav shows me a video of him glissading for a solid 2 minutes down Whitney Portal, which is insane. Then they hike on. Denied and I chat with Santa’s Helper while waiting to see if any other hikers come by. They don’t. So we head to town. 
Santa’s Helper drops us off at the hostel but the group is having lunch at a diner so I go join them. We’re all unshowered and when I walk in a man waves his hand in front of his face as if to say, “you stink.” Ah, to be hiker trash. We all go back to the hostel and decide to share a private room. I shower last because they’re headed out for drinks and I’m going to stay in to call Mark.
The call with Mark is good. I miss him, but I know that I want to keep walking, that there is something about being out here and having the chance to walk, to carry everything I need on my back, that is necessary right now. I am not ready to go home. 

Forester Pass, aka The Trail Made Me Cry, Part 2 – Day 66: Tyndall Creek Campground to Campsite Before Kearsarge

PCT miles: 774.5 to 787.2
Miles: 12.7*
We wake early and are hiking around 4:30. I’m feeling apprehensive but the pass has to be climbed, so onward we go. 
Last night I told the group I would really like to not be left alone, and they do a good job of waiting for me when I lag behind. Rainfly joins us as does another hiker, Nick, and Diggs. Diggs is normally a pretty fast, confident hiker but today she’s lagging. Someone asks if she’s okay and she says she feels weird, a little dizzy. I tell to the others that we need to wait, but she insists she’s fine. She tries to keep pushing but has to keep stopping, and eventually Rainfly takes off his pack and insists she eat. This seems to help and she’s able to continue.
The approach is honestly kind of fun. The snow and sun ups are firm and I mostly just stare at my feet as I walk and then look up to gorgeous sunrise views.

But then we get to the approach of Forester. I can see that the switchbacks are largely covered by snow and there are a series of footprints winding up or going straight up the ice. I follow them, and eventually they run out. Sole is ahead of me going straight up, but I start to get nervous. Co catches up to me and starts telling me to take one step at a time, leading me toward a loose rock scramble. At the scramble, I start to really get afraid – the dirt falls beneath my feet and I’m having to have Co test out safe spaces to step. She’s patient. “One step. Good job.” When I finally get back to ice she has me take out my ice axe, which we haven’t had any time to practice with and feels strange in my hands. I still can’t seem to move and I don’t trust my microspikes on the incline. So Co starts creating steps with her ice axe for me, and LiterBit follows behind. I can see how much effort they are putting in for me and I am insanely grateful, while also having a sense that this will count against me. 
When I finally get to dry trail, I sob. I know I’m safe but I need to let go of the fear I was tamping down in order to get through it. I take my spikes off and put my pack on and walk up the switchbacks. The ice shoot that everyone talks about is nothing compared to what we just did and I walk across it without issue. 
We get to the top at 9am. Hikers are taking pictures. 3 women get naked and pose with their crampons and ice axes. Nature Monster climbs up the ice shoot. But we don’t stick around for long – we head down to get the descent started. The descent is scary too, slushy snow and steep drop offs. We hope for glissades but they are few and far between and don’t relieve us of much walking. Sole’s head starts to pound again and I stick near her to make sure she’s okay. The descent seems to trigger and altitude headache for her. 

Meanwhile, Co is doing an excellent job of navigating us safely down the mountain. My muscles are getting used to sliding on the snow and moving in new ways. The river crossing continue to be completely manageable. The trail goes from completely snow covered, to mush, to thick patches, to small patches as we descend. It is nice to end the day stretching out my legs on relatively dry trail at the end of the day. 
It feels like a week of trail life packed into one day. We camp a few miles short of the junction to Kearsarge and make a campfire and try to dry our shoes and eat dinner. 
Even though it was hard and very scary for me on the traverse, I feel like I learned a lot for next time. I hope this group would still be comfortable hiking with me because they’re a solid team in sketchy situations. But I don’t know that they will. I don’t feel like I’m growing closer to them, and I’m feeling a strange sense of… pity? Patronization? I’m not sure. I don’t feel like an equal, and it’s hard to tell how much of that is a problem and how much of it is just a function of being new. 
But I’m not dreading tomorrow. It’s hard to think of anything stopping me, because tomorrow is town day. There’s only one pass between me and hot food and a shower. 
*at this point these are estimates – there is enough snow coverage that we’re often traversing across snow without trail and so may be going less (or more)… just in case you’re a stickler for these things 

Still A Little Shaken – Day 65: Crabtree Meadow Ranger Station to Tyndall Creek Campsite

PCT Miles: 767 to 774.5 + 1 from campsite 
Miles: 8.5
We get a later start, because we don’t have passes, just creek crossings. We’re trying to get as close to the notorious Forester Pass as we can do we can do it early in the morning while the snow is still hard.
I hike by myself for a while because the terrain is still dry. LiterBit and Co wait for Sole Sister and I at the crossings. I feel bad – I’m happy to scout crossings, but because I’m not as fast I always arrive later, and I also get the sense that the group doesn’t trust me to find them. I’m feeling weird about my position in the group, like a hanger-on, not someone who is contributing and capable. I try to tell myself this isn’t the case and just be grateful that their judgment is good and they are finding safe places for us to cross. 
Patches of snow slow us down, as does the and altitude. I’m struggling to figure out how to take care of myself while also group hiking – I feel guilty when I need a break to eat so I often keep pushing and then start crashing, and even when I push I lag behind. 
We cross our last Creek for the day, Tyndall Creek. We get back to trail and find some shade/sun and eat while we dry out our shoes and socks. We want to try to do a couple more miles to get nearer to the pass, but Lysol, who has been hiking with us, is encouraging us to stay. Rainfly gets his stuff together and goes to find his own campsite in the next few miles. There are already several campers setting up camp where we are. Eventually Co and Sole take a look at the upcoming section, which they can see with a little walk ahead, and realize it’s largely snow covered and slanted. That settles it. We’re staying. We set up our tents. 
Just as I’m finishing up getting camp ready, Karma and Nirvana walk up. “How did the stream crossing go?” I ask. 
“Eventful,” Nirvana says, and I look closer and see that Karma is crying. She’d fallen in, lost her poles and banged up her knees. She’d caught herself on the bank – she’d only been a few steps in – and gotten back on shore, and then Nirvana had gone back to cross with her. She was okay but shaken. I got up and hugged her and tried to keep from crying, too. Karma is one of my favorite people out here and an incredibly strong hiker and it hurt to see her hurt. A little later, after she’d gotten set up and started cooking, I went over to chat with her. We caught up a little. I tell her I’m nervous about Forester, especially because of how Whitney went with my group where I was by myself for some sketchy sections. Soulshine says I should be clear with the group that I don’t want to be alone. Karma tells me that after the crossing she’s feeling nervous too and it’s nice not to be alone in that. I really missed her and Nirvana, and Soulshine is really nice too, and I’m really glad we’re traveling in the same bubble again, even if I’ve attached myself to another group. 
I hope I feel a little braver tomorrow. I feel like I haven’t had time to rewrite the story of Whitney into one of triumph (I made it up and down despite my fears) and instead it’s replaying in my head as a series of what-ifs – what if Forester is worse, what if I’m alone again, what if I’m not safe?
But there are only three options on the trail, really. You stay put, you turn around, or you move forward. And I intend to keep going. 

Mt Whitney Day, aka The Trail Made Me Cry – Day 64: Crabtree Meadow Ranger Station & Back

PCT miles: 0

Miles: 14ish

We gave up on hitting Mt Whitney at sunrise and instead get up at 330 and are hiking by 445. I’m happy for this because I don’t do well when my sleep schedule is messed up. 
We’re hiking in the dark briefly and then the sun rises, but it doesn’t take long for me to realize my group is moving much faster than I can sustain. 

After a few miles I am crashing – we haven’t stopped for a break and I’m moving on 200 calories from a breakfast bar. I see some rocks ahead and yell out that I’ll be stopping for a break. They continue on. 

Soon I’m moving alone on snow. There is a track in the snow of footsteps going in the right direction so I let myself follow them. It is both peaceful and disappointing. I don’t think it’s smart to be alone out here, and I don’t think it’s a good group dynamic to leave people behind in the Sierra, regardless of the terrain. There are too many things that could go wrong that we’re all new with, more remote, more spread out. But we’ve all been told to “hike our own hike” and we’ve taken it to heart and we’re used to the desert where none of us were beholden to anyone. 

And anyway, I’m moving slow. The altitude, the snow, it all makes me take smaller, slower steps. People who left an hour, two hours after us are starting to pass me. 
I’ve told the group I’m afraid of exposed, sketchy places but they’re not there when I get to an ice shoot that must be crossed. I put on my microspikes and go gently across and it’s fine. I am glad I practiced with steep, sketchy terrain before coming out here, to learn how to push through my terror. After that there are dry switchbacks and I think: well, at least the sketchy stuff is over. 

And then there is a rock scramble. It’s been created by hikers to avoid an even sketchier snow shoot with poor foot steps that few hikers are choosing to attempt. I hate scrambles on terrain like this – loose, rocky dirt with big boulders that look secure and then slide beneath your weight. But there isn’t much choice so I start moving up. I get about halfway when I don’t see any good choices and the fear is getting to me. Some hikers above who had passed me ask if I’d like them to stay until I get to the top and I say yes. 
They try to tell me where to step. Then they see another hiker, Couscous, coming up behind me. 
“Are you okay?” He asks me.
“I’m pretty freaked out,” I tell him. So he guides me up until I reach the trail again. When I’m on solid ground I start crying. It’s just the release of the fear and adrenaline. I know I’m okay. The tears need to happen anyway. 
Couscous offers to hike with me and I accept. I try to move fast and he tells me to slow down and he’s patient with me. But I’m getting more and more pissed off at the mountain. I am not a peak bagger, I’m telling myself. What the fuck is the point of this, I’m thinking. I’m not even moving forward – I have to go back the way I came. I get to the point where I can’t stand my own brain anymore so I tell Couscous I’m going to take a break. 
“Do you want me to wait for you?” He asks. 
“No, there are plenty of people, I’ll figure it out.”
He moves on and I sit for a break and collect myself a little. My brain is still pissed, but calmed a little, and after a few minutes I keep hiking. I only get about 200 feet up the trail when I see Couscous. 
“I felt really bad about leaving you,” he says. “So I waited.”
It’s a sweet gesture and we continue up the mountain. There is more rock scrambling but it’s stable rock and it’s slow going because of the altitude, but not scary. 
And then I’m at the top. 

I see the hut, still half filled with snow. I write my name in the log book and see that several people have written notes about how hard the hike was and I feel a little better. It’s 10:30 am. I sit near my group and Karma and Nirvana and Soulshine. My group only got there 30 minutes before me, which is comforting. 
I call Mark from the top and it is good to hear his voice. I try eat some snacks but I don’t get to relax much before we start to see some clouds roll in. 

The group decides they’re headed back down so I pack quickly and go after them. The downhill is much better for me – I can breathe and move. But I see that Sole Sister had fallen behind me and some hikers say she’s struggling with altitude sickness, a bad headache, so I wait for her and make sure she doesn’t lag far behind. We pause at the scramble down and Couscous and Physsie help Sole and I navigate it. 
At the end of the switchbacks is a glissade and the group is waiting at the bottom. It’s fun and I go fast, and then I try to learn to walk on slushy snow. I get better at sliding. Thunder starts to rumble nearby. A bunch of hikers are behind me but most don’t ask me to move. The snow seems to last and last and last. 
Then it starts to rain. People stop to out on their rain jackets but I push to a dry piece of land to put mine on. 
Eventually the trail appears again and about am hour after than I’m back at camp. It’s early, 4pm. I had my rain fly on my tent but had left the door of it open but luckily nothing inside is wet. I grab my bear can and get in my tent and put on dry clothes and eat food. A group of hikers is gathering outside my tent chatting. But I don’t feel like chatting, so I lay there. 
I’m exhausted and feeling the leftover fear from Whitney. Forester Pass is in two days and I’m nervous. But it’s also cool to know it’s done. I hiked Mt Whitney. I brought my body to incredible, oxygen-deprived heights. 
But I don’t know what else the Sierra will hold for me, and that makes me hesitant. I fall asleep around 6. 

Staging for Whitney – Day 63: Chicken Spring Lake to Crabtree Meadow Ranger Station Camp

PCT miles: 750.8 to 767.0 + 1 mile to camp 
Miles: 17.2
I get up early and set out. I tend to get on trail by 6am and the group tends to be more like 7 or 730, but they don’t really take breaks other than lunch and I like to break somewhat frequently, so I figure we’ll catch each other, and if not, we planned to meet up for creek crossings to tackle them. 
I haven’t been hiking for long when I see Karma, Nirvana and Soulshine still at camp. They’re all sitting around in their tents eating breakfast so I join them and chat a little. Nirvana is goofing around with his ice axe and making us laugh and a little nervous.

It’s interesting the different dynamics out here. I feel more myself with Karma and Nirvana but I’ve also known them longer. They seem willing to laugh and my jokes and acknowledge my comments in a way my new group isn’t necessarily. But.. maybe that will come with time? I don’t know. The people part of the trail – where do I fit in, how do I be myself, who is my family – continues to be a point of uncertainty. 

It’s nice to talk to them and a few other hikers join and I’m there for about 45 minutes, but I have more miles to do and I don’t want to slow my group – who passes by while I’m there – down, so I keep hiking. 

The trail is patches of snow and I have to learn to walk on them. I take them slow and it’s mostly fine, and then I take solid ground for granted and slam my knee into a rock. Oops. I take a break to soothe my ego a little and then move on.
Later, Sole Sister and I are hiking together and come to a glissade and take it. A glissade is just sliding down snow on your butt, like sledding. The first glissade of the trail. It makes me feel like a little kid. 
We cross a river where they’re waiting for me and show me where to go. Everyone seems to be standing around and it’s straight up a mountain to camp so I get started. I’m about halfway there when I realize they were standing around because they were waiting for more of the group — oops. I get to camp and set up and when they arrive I apologize. Next time I’ll clarify. 
Tomorrow is Mt Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous US. 14,505 feet. We’ll be leaving most of our food, tents, etc behind and slack packing to the top. I am nervous when everyone else seems excited. I’m not sure exactly what kind of terrain we’ll face. I hope I am able to reach the top. 

Into the High Sierra – Day 62: Lone Pine to Chicken Spring Lake

PCT miles: 745.3 to 750.8 + 2ish miles up Trail Pass
Miles: 7ish

This morning our trail angel makes us breakfast – eggs and bagels and fresh fruit and juices. We eat outside on her patio (we did this last night when she ordered us all Chinese food) and her desert tortoise wanders around entertaining us. 
It takes us a while to leave the house and I can tell the group is getting antsy. On the way out of town we split up – I go to a cafe for a sandwich, some others grab Subway, some others are just going to try for a hitch. 
In the cafe while I’m waiting for takeout two older men start asking me about backpacking. Their names are Scott and Mark and they ask where I’m trying to get to so I tell them I’m headed to the Horseshoe Meadow Trailhead. 
“We can take you there,” they say.
“That would be awesome.”
We wait for our food and on the drive they take a couple detours to talk about cattle ranching in the area because that’s what they do. They ask me about hiking and it takes me a while to realize they don’t know I’m thruhiking – when I explain that I’ve been walking for two months (!!) from the border of Mexico and California, Mark says: “So you’re kind of a badass.”
And Scott says: “Like Reese Witherspoon!”
They have a back and forth because Mark hasn’t seen the movie but for the rest of the drive they call me Reese, and when they drop me off they take a picture with me and give me their cards and then take some other thruhikers – “more Reese Witherspoons!” – back to town. 
These are the kinds of interactions I really like out here. I am grateful for any kind of kindness or magic, but because there are so many hikers many trail angels are too overwhelmed to see us as individuals. Bumping into people who aren’t familiar with what I’m doing, who aren’t meeting their 500th thruhiker but their first, kind of breathes some life back into interactions off trail. 

I kill some time at the trail head hoping the group will show up, so I get hiking. I’m not sure if they’re ahead of or behind me and I ask several southbound hikers if they’ve seen anyone, but no one has. Eventually I get to our planned meeting spot and wait and they catch me. 
“Show me the bottom of your shoes!” Sole Sister says. I do. “I knew those were your prints!”
We do some hemming and hawing about whether we should hike further, but ultimately decide to stay at the lake because we heard the next section wasn’t too bad for snow. Soon others – Whoopie, Nature Monster, Campo – join. We all eat dinner by the lake. Campo gets his trail name – Rainfly – because he accidentally sent his tent rather than his damaged rainfly to Big Agnes. 
We talk about how heavy our packs are. Mine weighed in at 30 lbs – and it was the lightest of the group. It has to be food – everyone else’s pack is at least 37. Did I carry enough? I’m wondering. Am I going to starve? 
It’s our first cold night in a while and it’s delightful. We’re at 11,200 feet. I don’t feel any issues with the altitude and I feel hopeful that it won’t be a problem for me.