Saturday, September 30, 2017

Mammoth Lakes to the PNT: Welcome to Permit Hell

*Note: This post is being published fifteen months later than it should it have been, but in the period between getting off trail in Mammoth, getting back on and then finally leaving the trail for good, I met this bubble of amazingly generous and peculiar individuals and it's been eating at me that I haven't put it down, so here goes. 

    I'm not sure if I can tell you exactly what was going on in my mind when I decided to get off trail. If it was something a young man with long hair and blue glasses said to me, if it was a brief hormonal imbalance making me impulsive and itching to be somewhere else, if it was my creaking body that I was listening to complain to me as I walked down the street. Really, I didn't even truly decide until I was halfway to Reno and even then, in Sacramento, Portland, West Glacier, I still think about making my way back and getting deposited back at Red's Meadow, walking miles and miles and catching up to Schweppes and Mayor, to Moonsong and the Helicopter Boys, Osprey, England, Necktie, Banjo. They wouldn't be that far ahead, a couple hundred miles at most. A week. That's all. But then I picture myself past Red's and I can't do it. I want to continue only seeing myself in the Sierras, maybe this way I will never leave there. Maybe this way, I will have to go back and finish, stretch it out so that I won't have to participate in real life for a while more.
     I sat in Mammoth for a week, each morning making a different excuse to miss the bus back up to Red's. I would call my mom every day, telling her she wouldn't hear from me for another week because I would be getting back on trail the next morning, but the next day we would be on the phone again. I woke up one morning, the fifth I had been there, and knew I wasn't getting back on trail. I had this overwhelming feeling of being shuttled along with all the other hikers, on a lovely tour of the countryside, stopping at all the pleasant town exhibits, all of us receiving our goodie bags full of sunburn and exhaustion. I sat outside that morning and planned my escape, not yet ready to head home, but unable to get back on that moving sidewalk of a trail. I bought a ticket for a shuttle, packed up, and started on my way to Reno.
     We were all deposited outside the Greyhound station three hours later, where I bought a ticket to Sacramento, then to Portland. Once in Sacramento, I wandered for hours, waiting for my late night bus to leave. My phone showed the temperature at 104 degrees and after walking into a restaurant, sitting at the end of the bar, and mopping the sweat from my face with the available bar napkins, the couple next to me smiled and bought me a beer, commenting how overheated I looked when I walked in the door. I chuckled, thought back to my entrance--me sitting down, bearishly grabbing a handful of drink napkins from the caddy and wiping my face and down my neck. After the beer, I walked back to the bus station and waited a few more hours for the bus to leave. I sat in the aisle seat and slept bent over the armrest, my puffy jacket wadded under my neck, smelling of sweat and dirt. It was midday when the bus arrived in Portland.
     A few hours before, I had reserved a bed on AirBnB and also called a man about an apartment he had listed on Craigslist, telling him I would be able to meet him there shortly after I arrived. My maps told me the apartment was less than two miles away and so I walked as fast as I could, trying to make it there in the fifteen minutes I had until twelve. Finally when I got there, I walked up the stairs and into the open room. It was a studio on the first floor of a mansion built in 1902. The room was small  with wood paneling. It looked out over a parking lot. The kitchen had an old half stove and cabinets where the doors didn't shut all the way. To tell you the truth, I don't even remember there being a bathroom, but there had to have been one, right? I told him I would get back to him and as he drove away I wondered what I was doing there, looking at places to stay. For good. Why had I suddenly thought it was a good idea to settle into a place I had never been, when I had been so content just days before carrying my home on my back?
     I walked back the way I came, watching my map as I went along, trying to navigate my way through this unknown city. The lady who's house I was staying at that night called me and told me she wouldn't be home for another three hours and the bed I was staying in wasn't ready for me, but I could go and drop my things off in the meantime. When I got in the room, I unshouldered my pack and sat down against it on the hardwood, dozing in and out. After awhile, a man came in the house and I asked him where I could find the clean sheets. All he kept saying was how he had to leave right now. "I really was wanting to leave right now, I have somewhere to be very soon." I told him he could just tell me where they were and I would make the bed myself, but he stayed, handing me the sheet, a pillowcase and then another pillowcase, telling me how to tuck in each one just right, all the while repeating how he just had to leave right away. It seemed as though he was there for an eternity, and yet it was only five minutes at the most, but when I heard the front door close, I slept.
     When I woke up, it was dark outside and I walked the few blocks to a neighborhood brewery. I sat at the bar beside two others while everyone else sat outside playing trivia. The last couple of days I spent in Mammoth, I kept thinking of Montana and Polebridge and all of the trails through Glacier National. The first one that came to me, however, was the Pacific Northwest Trail which starts at the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail and goes along just underneath the Canadian border to the western coast of Washington. 1,200 miles. Just about what I would have had left on the PCT. For those last days in Mammoth, I searched and searched for public transportation to Glacier National, all to no avail, but as I sat at that bar in Portland, there on Amtrak's website, a ticket to West Glacier for under $100. I gasped and the bartender glanced over at me and I immediately booked it for the following day. The next morning, I made my way to Union Station and boarded the train that would take me up through Washington, across the small finger of Idaho and into Montana's Kootenai Forest and then Glacier.
     However, as I stood in line to board the train in Portland, I noticed the young guy a couple people ahead of me had an ice axe strapped to his Osprey pack. Slowly, I made my way forward, and when finally, I came up behind him, I asked what he'd planned on using that ice axe on in the coming weeks of July. He laughed and said he was hiking in Glacier. I asked where and he said his camping ground was Polebridge. I couldn't believe it. For six months if anyone had told me they had stepped foot in Montana, I had asked about Polebridge, yet this one random man in the station in Portland just happened to be heading to that exact place. He knew the general store and the cabins, with all their own wood stoves, their double beds, their electricity turned out by 7. But when he sat beside me on the train, asked about where I was headed, I told him about getting off trail. He looked at me, laughed that weird, surprised, gasping laugh people do when it's just been a little too much for one day, and told me about his PCT thru-hike the year before. After a half hour, he hopped out of his seat, came back with two cans of beer, handed me one and continued on with the conversation. We drank and laughed until it was apparent we were the only ones awake on the train and so he moved over to the two empty seats across the aisle and we both slept, if that's what you can call being slumped between two seats for five hours.
    An hour before I rolled into the West Glacier, my mom called, telling me about the grizzly attack the day before that had happened a mile from where I would be arriving, how it was a forest ranger  that had been killed and if they weren't capable, then who would be? I assured her I would be as aware as I possibly could be, and when I arrived in West Glacier, I cannot lie, I was ecstatic (probably since I was off the train after a fourteen hour trip). I got off the train, walked through the gift shop, slightly avoiding the awkward feeling I had developed towards the ice axe kid since arriving in West Glacier, and made my way to bathroom. When I came out, he was nowhere to be seen and to be honest, there was this horrible feeling of relief. It didn't matter how much he made me laugh, how much we had in common, I was so glad to be alone again. I walked across the street to the nearest cafe and had huckleberry french toast and coffee and asked about their lodging options. The guy behind the counter shrugged his shoulders and claimed to know basically nothing about the area so I walked to the nearest market and found information there. The man told me of different camping options, but the one he pointed me towards was the golf course a mile outside of town. I bought white cheddar popcorn, strapped it to the outside of my bag and I walked up a mile and a half of back road, only to find that there was no camping nearby and 'Wasn't that weird that the man recommended the golf course?'  After 30 minutes of the woman trying to find a legitimate campground for me, she pointed me in the direction of a campground two miles from West Glacier, three miles from where I currently stood. Compared to what I am used to walking on a daily basis, three miles is nothing, however, if you ever speak to a long distance hiker off-trail, they will never ever want to road walk further than a quarter mile. I couldn't believe it. Standing amongst the crisp, clean golf t-shirts on their hangers, I wanted to make the most of my exit and obliterate everything in my path on the way out, but seeing as I had no getaway car, I would most likely get arrested, which would be much more uncomfortable than finding a flat spot in the woods to unroll my sleeping bag. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

VVR to Mammoth Lakes: Getting Off Trail (Sorta)

     In my tent, I am finally by myself. I walk through the woods, down the trail, but there are always potentially others. Nice people who say good morning, wish you a good hike. I am in my tent, finally alone with many other people surrounding me. I showered today. Looked at my body in the mirror and wasn't sure what I was looking at. The days from Kennedy Meadows caused my ribs and hips to poke out from underneath my skin. The days in Bishop hid them again, but since Bishop, my body has grown muscle and trimmed the fat from my sides. I pull my waistbelt tight and it no longer pushes anything extra out from underneath it.
My body is sunburnt, more so than in the desert. Schweppes said it's because we're closer to the sun. Underneath my nose and chin, the skin is peeling from the light reflecting off the snow after hours of walking through it. My shoulders blister. I walk towards the passes in anticipation. The approaches drain your energy, pulling your body towards the ground. On the steep, rocky switchbacks, I tell myself I only have to make it to the next shady spot and then I can stop and breathe. When I make it to that spot, I tell myself there must be a better spot to stop and rest and so I walk on. By the time I finally recognize the spot I would like to sit, the rocky incline usually flattens and I continue on my way.
     It's the mile before the pass that my excitement comes to me. I am able to look up, see other hikers slogging up the switchbacks, kicking footholds into the snow. I can see the top, where most often, there is a mound of snow that you must climb up almost vertically. My body is in constant pain, a dull ache that feels natural. I no longer grunt when I hoist my backpack onto my back. I know now that it belongs there, the straps hugging my shoulders, my filled camelback resting in the dip on my lower back. It took five days to make it to VVR, a campground they call a resort that gives you a ferry ride across the lake and a free beer when you walk in the store. When I made it to the spot where the ferry would eventually pick me up, there were four others scattered around the rock outcropping, a couple hunched under their sun umbrellas, a couple others shifting along with the shadows. We all waited four hours, all the while watching as hiker after hiker appeared from the woods. Everyone began to shift as 3pm came around and then a girl said, "There!" She pointed to a speck on the water, all of us squinting, laughing how that could not possibly be the ferry we had been waiting for. Sure enough, a rocking, fourteen foot outboard fishing boat comes skudding up, an older lithe man hopping around the two hikers inside it to keep it from slamming into the rocky shore. Somehow, he managed to fit six of us in there with our bags strapped to the bow. All through the ride, all I could think of was how if we were to tip, thanks to my swimming skills, I would be able to make it to shore and at one point in the ride, I looked to the side of me and noticed a sticker with the recommended weight. I looked around, counted the bags, and came up with a number a few hundred pounds over the weight limit. As long as we hit no waves on the seven mile ride, we would totally be fine. 
     I stayed there for a night, sitting around a fire with others-- PCTers, JMTers and a photographer. I got back to the trail midday and climbed Silver Pass, knowing this would be the one of the last of the passes in Sierras. When I reached the top, I didn't stop, I could see someone up ahead and I would try to catch them, but with the snow there were many different paths and this person somehow just disappeared. A JMT hiker warned me after the pass, when you dropped down into Tully Hole, the mosquitos would be horrendous so try and make it up the switchbacks. I smiled and nodded, yes, sure I would make it up the switchbacks. I lasted another five miles and set up my tent next to a narrow, fast running creek. I moved as fast as I could. I would snap a pole into place and then swipe along all of the exposed parts of my skin. Finally when my tent was standing, I unzipped the door and threw all of my belongings in as fast as I could. After ducking in, zipping the door back up, I swatted at all of the small flying blood bags, my palms showing remnants of wings and innards. All through the evening I watched them buzz around me, bouncing off the mesh walls, wanting in. I made a quick sweep of the walls to make sure there were no new tiny tears in the fabric and went to sleep. 
In the morning, I came to the switchbacks I was supposed to make it up the night before. I walked a quarter of a mile and would stop, take a breath, grab my water bottle and gulp down what I could. I would look up, sure that I would be able to see the trunks of the trees in their home at the top of the hill, but it would just be the tips of the branches, reaching out above the trail that I would see. When I reached the top, I zipped along, lightfooted and eager that I only had another 600ft to climb before Red's Meadow. After a mile, my body became tired and I couldn't make it happy again. I sat beside the trail and dug out a Twix bar, chewed at that for a few minutes and watched as six separate people passed me. I nodded to myself, thinking surely it was because we were only 15 miles from a town that I was seeing so many hikers, how yes, I had to be expecting this in the Sierras. But as I got closer to Red's, I couldn't shake that feeling of the trail no longer snaking through the wilderness, but instead it sat just on the outskirts of town, tricking all of us into believing we are experiencing everything nature can throw at us, but really it's like the Truman Show and it's not real after all. We are all just playing at backpacking in the woods. 
     The last six miles, I walked and walked, not stopping for any water breaks, passing hikers going south. When I got into Red's, a city bus pulled in front of the cafe and I got in the line behind all of the people in clean clothes with plastic water bottles, all of them sweating and yelling in the direction of their young wandering children. I flopped my bag on the shelf and sat down, people staring at me, wondering where in the woods this dirty, frowning girl had com from. The bus zipped into Mammoth, and I was let off near the city center, where I walked slowly to the brewery. I shed my bag outside and went to the counter and ordered their burger on a brioche bun with gouda and kale and tomatoes. I asked whether it came with sides and the girl informed me most people didn't even usually finish the burger so they don't give a side with it. When I ordered a salad as well, she looked at me with a smirk and when they came out, the burger took up most of the plate, and I sat there, the burger in one hand and a fork in the other, alternating bites. I sat there, my body aching and when Schweppes texted me, asking if I was staying in town for the night, I left and walked up towards the hostel. Afterwards, we went grocery shopping, buying real food and beer and when we got back to the hostel, I made him my favorite childhood meal of broccoli rolls and he made a massive tray of lasagna and we ate our double dinners and sat on the couches and we watched Orange Is the New Black with all the other hikers. We really were unaware of what was happening on the screen, but were so very content sitting next to sunburnt strangers in a generic resort town miles from that trail that was eating us all up. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Kennedy Meadows to Bishop: It's a Beautiful Place to Feel Like Shit

    I woke up the night we left Kennedy Meadows, off in the woods getting sick, far enough away so that I wouldn't wake anyone. The next morning, we had two miles until the next water and as I walked, I would sweat and would double over, put my head on the ends of my trekking poles. Schweppes came up behind me, handed me his Gatorade, made me drink half. "You look bad," he said after I handed him back his bottle. I turned away, trying not to be sick again. At the water, we sat for an hour, my stomach turning as he ate his two packets of ramen. We decided to go another three miles to a campsite next to the Kern River, let whatever was in my system work its way out. We made it to the river around 1pm and I put my pack down in the dirt and leaned up against it. I woke up an hour later, curled in between the waistbelt of my bag. I dragged my sleeping bag down to the side of the water and slept while other hikers came and went, in and out of the river.
     I woke the next morning and chewed at a granola bar, my stomach seizing up. I thought about the 2200ft climb over the next eight miles and nodded to myself. I could do it no problem. At three miles, I found myself sitting on the side of the trail, my chest heaving and my clothes and hair drenched in sweat. The Aussies passed me, chatting away, the incline not phasing them in the least. After another mile, I came upon Schweppes sitting beside the trail. "Yeah, I've been here for like twenty minutes." I unclipped my bag, letting it fall to the ground and I sat on the log beside me. I shook my head and I heard Schweppes say, "You look bad," for the second time in twenty-four hours. After that, I would make it only half a mile and bend over, resting my head on my trekking poles, trying to catch my breath. I stood on the trail, telling myself I would make it to the top. I would walk a few more paces, stop and try to quit heaving. When we would take a break, I would ask Schweppes to just go ahead, I didn't want to slow him down. "I have a feeling if I walk ahead of you, I won't see you again. You're not going to be able to catch up." I shrugged. "It'll be okay. I'll catch you." As he walked away, I stood there, knowing I could catch him on the downhill, but unable to make myself move. After a quarter mile, I saw him up ahead, his red hair still visible underneath the camo hat. He made it a game. He told me I wouldn't be able to catch him, not on the uphill anyway, but I did. I had to. My eyes scanned the trail a few feet ahead of me, and every few minutes I would look up, making sure I could still see his head bobbing in the distance. When we hit the summit and the trail leveled, it wrapped around to the left and he looked up and saw me. "How did you catch me? I was for sure thinking I wasn't gonna see you again." "You told me I wouldn't be able to, so I did."
     On the way down, I chewed dryly on another granola bar, glad that we were finally done with the climbing. We decided I would have to get off trail in Lone Pine, sixteen miles from base of the hill so that I could get to a doctor before I could summit Forester. That night, we camped just before another climb and I told myself I would feel better in the morning. I wouldn't even need a doctor after all. For dinner, I nibbled at a ramen and told myself I would feel better for sure. Everything would be fine.
     Hours later, I sat with my arms wrapped across my stomach, feeling it bubble and tighten. I would wander out into the night, listening to the coyotes' yipping move closer to our camp and I would scan the boulders with my headlamp for shining eyes. At 3am, I fell asleep and woke back up at 5. I whimpered and rolled over, "I'm definitely going to have to go into Lone Pine." Schweppes nodded. "I knew you would."   
     We packed up and started the climb. After a couple miles, I followed a switchback up and saw Schweppes standing at an open spot in the trees, looking towards Forester. We sat down under a tree, watching the Aussies pass one by one, all of them quiet. After another hour and a half, we reached the summit, Fighter jets roaring overhead, barrel rolling over the lookout to the valley below.
     At three o'clock, we came to the trail junction. I looked over at Schweppes, "Well, hopefully I'll see you again. If not, good luck." I followed the trail down, unkempt compared to what I was used to walking on and made it to Horseshoe Meadow, an open field  with a small creek running through it at the base of the 11,000ft mountains I had just been up in. It was so green and full of oxygen there. After being so high for that long, I felt my body loosen. I saw day hikers in the distance, their little packs light on their backs. They seemed to be moving so slow and when I caught them, they asked about the trail, but I knew they wouldn't offer me a ride the 22 miles to town, so I waked on.
     When I reached the road, I looked around, not seeing a single person. After a few minutes, a small car came around the corner and I stuck my thumb out, smiling ridiculously, trying to look friendly. The car slowed and the man told me he only had two seats, his young son in a booster seat in the back. I told him it was only me, and he unlocked the door, letting me squeeze my monster bag in the back.
     On the way down, he explained how him and his son hiked 20 miles of the trail in a couple days. I looked back at the small boy in back. "You hiked 20 miles?" He nodded meekly, looking back to the Kindle he was holding. "What are you reading?" "Lord of the Rings," he mumbled. "Wow. Have you read the Hobbit yet?" He nodded. I asked him what grade he was in and he answered that he was in third. "And on your hike, did you carry all your stuff? Your sleeping bag and food and everything?" The dad looked back at him in the rear view smiling, "Yeah, carried all of his own stuff, food and everything." On the trail, it's always so impressive when you see the kids, their own ultralight bags, miniatures of their parent's.
     When I got into Lone Pine, I made a beeline for the McDonald's in town after having a touch of my appetite return. I sat and ate slowly, calling my mom, glad I was in a public place so that I wouldn't be able to break down when I heard her voice.
     The days before, exhausted and nauseated, all I could think of was what would happen when I was finally able to get ahold of her. I could imagine my voice when she answered. I knew she would think something terrible had happened. I thought about texting her beforehand, Nothing serious is the matter. I'm gonna call you and it might sound like something horrible has happened since I'll most likely be sobbing, but everything is just fine. When I did call her, I was calm. I told her of the past three days, not being able to eat for forty-five miles and how it took eight hours to walk thirteen miles, how Schweppes wouldn't leave me because he thought I would end up passed out on the side of the trail. And that night, I checked myself into a cheap motel and stayed in the dark, cool room until midday, glad I no longer had to crawl out of my tent in the darkness when my stomach revolted and only had to unwrap myself from the sheets and make it the few feet to the bathroom.
     When I finally left, I shuffled to the nearby clinic, where they gave me medicine for Giardia and told me it was going to get a lot worse for the next three days. Of course it would.
     Early the next day, I caught a bus to Bishop and found The Hostel California. I sat in the living room area, watching Men In Black. It reminded me sorely of my best friend's home, where you could show up in the middle of the day when no one was home, but still feel welcome.
     I've been staying at the hostel in Bishop. One days, two, three. I can't seem to leave and a few are having the same problem.
     It snowed last night, up on the peaks where we're going. Penny and another blonde kid with dreads walk in from a festival that was out in the middle of the desert. They were left there. The other guys who went were eating pancakes around the table this morning, wondering where the two had gotten to, Philly commenting that he had the blonde kid's wallet. There's a few cars in the parking lot, but no one leaves. I think it might be impossible. Girls wear dresses and hiking boots. They walk down the street unselfconciously. They know all the others will understand and those who don't are the ones who ask how long it will take, what you eat up there, comment how they'd never be able to. We all smile and nod, thinking what utter bullshit that is. We think about all the different kinds of people on the trail. There's no shortage of diversity. I'm waiting for my group of people. People in, no people out. Soon, I have to go tell them I still want my bed, my fifth zero. What am I doing here? I want to wake alongside Schweppes, his quilt just barely touching the side of my bag, wake up early to make it up the pass before the afternoon so you don't posthole until evening. He asks me to scratch his head since I have nails. I tell him afterward he has to rub my feet and he makes me put on my foot massage socks. Clean socks I keep in my clothes bag just so someone can rub those sore nubbins at the end of my legs. I think if I stayed here much longer, the muscles in my legs would atrophy, they would break down and rot and I would no longer be able to walk at all.
     Someone compared hikers to stray dogs the other day. When we get into towns, we all congregate where there's food, we smell and if we see a fellow hiker we know across the street, we'll call to each other, having a stunted conversation, looking as though we're barking at each other. In towns, we have no chill.
     But now, I look up at the snow covered mountains and Schweppes comments how I need to get a hat and gloves. Especially now, especially if I'm not going to be hiking with him anymore.
     We're leaving today though. Climbing up Kearsarge, up Glen. We're making our way farther into the Sierras where it will be cold again, our feet wet from snow and river crossings, where we have to make sure we're not swept away through the rapids, the current strong from the melt.   
     The live-ins here, they tell me I have to mark the Californian flag before I leave. People who stay this long sign the flag, they say, tally the days you've been here. A southbound JMTer tells us after this, after Forester, we'll be singing and just going along like it's nothing. It's all downhill from here, she says. I'm not quite sure I believe her though.