In hindsight, I have the impulse to say that every one of those final days on trail was easy, enjoyable, and beautiful, full of laughter and inspiring moments. That is, of course, not the case. However, those days did exist, or rather those moments as each hour on trail is subject to its own challenges, it’s own joys, struggles, and lessons. In all, I hiked the last few weeks the same way I had hiked the entire trail: moment by moment, step by step.
From Agua Dulce we hiked 3 days to get to Wrightwood. We saw lots of the nefarious poodle dog bush which supposedly gives you a horrible rash if you touched it. We never discovered if this was true or not, avoiding it like the plague. It has a distinct odor, not unlike marijuana, so you could normally smell it before you saw it. Moneymaker had told us a story about a couple hikers who tried to smoke it and had to get airlifted to a hospital, which we all considered to be population control. Lunar had a small moment of panic when he accidentally touched some with the handle of his trekking pole. I think there was some gratuitous use of hand sanitizer to ensure his pole wasn’t contaminated.
We did 26 miles the first day out of Agua Dulce, but O’Well and I were still feeling burned out from our long days trying to catch up with our trail family. Without asking, Solar changed our plans for the next day so we could do a 20 and a 21 into Wrightwood instead of a 27 and 14, which we were very grateful for. That last day before Wrightwood was a unique day. We were near LA on a Saturday, so we saw many day hikers. They weren’t the type of day hikers we were used to however.
“Those ladies looked like they were ready to go to Zumba at LA fitness. Her crop top matched her yoga pants.”
“Did you see that group of 30 Korean tourists?”
We hung out by a rare creek for several hours, soaking our feet and watching the dayhikers stroll past, and the swarms of ladybugs. That day was full of shenanigans and laughter, and we had a pleasant 3 mile stroll to camp where there were pit toilets and picnic tables. Despite the wide open picnic area with numerous viable campsites, we all pitched our tents within 5 feet of each other. It’s difficult to explain the kind of bond we had formed by that time, but it was tangible and sound.
The downside of hiking 21 into Wrightwood was that we had to get over Mount Baden Powell to do it, a 6000 foot elevation gain, and a steep downgrade to get off of it. O’Well and I lagged behind quite a bit, crossing paths with some other hikers: Slippy, Field Trip, and Sprinkles. The summit was incredible, but the excitement was marred slightly by the heavy smog obscuring most of the view. There were numerous day hikers making a Sunday climb up to the summit, and it was a reminder of how close we were to the heavily populated LA area, the cause of this environmental degradation. After being in nearly pristine forests and mountains for months, it was disappointing to remember that the real world was much less kind. That was the world we would have to go back to soon. I felt frustrated when I saw the day hikers enjoying their time in nature. Though I knew I had no right to feel like I owned the trail, I was selfishly angry that it was so easily accessible to the public, that these people had no concept of how damaged this stretch of trail was, that they, and I, would never know what a truly pristine landscape looked like from this vantage. I felt a sense of loss, I was grieving for a world beyond repair.
By the time we got off Baden Powell I was dragging myself along. I remember trying to get up a 500 foot hill in the last couple miles of the day, stopping halfway up and trying not to scream. O’Well was busy rolling pinecones down the hill towards me, trying to keep the mood light, but I know he was struggling too. He was a little nervous, for we would be meeting my parents at the trailhead. He knew my Dad already, he had hiked with us for a week back in Washington, just a few days after O’Well and I had started hiking together. But O’Well had never met my Mom, and our relationship had developed quite a bit since back then. We didn’t have set plans for after the trail yet, but we knew we would be living together, despite the fact that we lived on complete opposite sides of the country. Our relationship had grown far faster than might have been possible in any other context. We had been dating for about 3 months at that time, which doesn’t sound like much. We had hiked about 2,000 miles together though, and we were together 24 hours a day 7 days a week. We had been living together since the first day we met. We were joined at the hip, we were partners, we carried each others gear, emotional burdens, and joys. From the earliest days of the relationship, I knew, cautiously but unconditionally, that I loved him, and my bond with him would extend far beyond the Southern Terminus of the PCT. He knew it too, so seeing my parents was a big deal.
We made it to the trailhead and my parents arrived soon after to pick us up (Solar, Lunar and Gretzky had made it there some time earlier and already caught a hitch into town). My parents flew into LA, rented a car and drove an hour and a half to meet us in Wrightwood. Mom would drive back to LA and fly back to Seattle and Dad would hike the section to Big Bear Lake with us.
We had dinner that night and enjoyed a pleasant evening catching up with my parents, our trail family getting some R&R elsewhere in town. We all met up for breakfast in the morning. After getting our resupply together, hanging out and playing hackey sack (very poorly for the most part but enjoying it nonetheless), we said goodbye to Mom and hit the trail around noon. We did 13.5 miles out of town and camped with a great view of the city, and of the stopped traffic on the freeway. The taillights were like a long line of angry red ants. I wrote in my journal, “So glad not to be down in all that muck. The trail will end soon enough though. I’m remembering that I’ll be going back to real life soon, and real life is much more complicated. I’m not looking forward to it entirely.”
Dad was excited to be back on trail, and I was glad to help him live a little bit of the adventure he craved. “So many people are following your journey.” He told me as we walked. “Every day people are asking me how you’re doing. When you get back you should do a talk, go talk to the boyscouts, tell people about your journey.” I didn’t know what to say to that, and I didn’t say much at all. He may have thought I was ungrateful, which is not the case at all. One thing I had learned through hiking though was that I didn’t have to do things just because I thought I was “supposed to.”
To my way of thinking, my blog stood as documentation enough of my experience. If people wanted to share my adventure through it, I was happy to accomodate. I didn’t know how to respond to his insistence that “people” (in a general and indefinite sense) were interested in what I was doing. My sister had told me over the phone, “People care about what you’re doing. They want to know. Most of them can’t do what you’re doing, and they want a taste of it.” I was happy to give others a glimpse of something they couldn’t do themselves. I was happy to share the message that, if you want to do something, the only thing standing in your way is yourself. I didn’t see it as my responsibility to hand people a fantasy, to do things for their sake. I was hiking for myself. It was fully selfish, and fully rewarding, for me. My story wouldn’t be engaging if I wasn’t doing it for myself. If I was posting things on social media, or making YouTube videos, or going home and giving talks that I wasn’t excited about, that wouldn’t have been for me. I was writing my blog, for me, and I was hiking, for me. I was glad that people could find entertainment in the crazy things I was willing to do; for me. I hoped that they would see the bigger picture I was trying to paint though, rather than just looking at the pictures and marveling at what it must be like to dig a hole every time you have to poop for 5 months.
No one can live your adventure for you. At the same time, no one can tell you what you are and are not capable of. You might say to yourself, “I would love to start a garden, I would love to run a marathon, I would love to quit drinking soda, I would love to walk my dog more… but I don’t have time. My job, my debt, my kids, my back pain, so on and so forth.” I used to tell myself those things too. Those are reasons I made up in my head for why I couldn’t do something, but they weren’t real. You are the only person who can create the circumstances to do the things you want to do; it doesn’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be, as big and grand as hiking the PCT. Do what you want, this might be the only chance you have to do it. Now allow me to respectfully step down from my soap box and deeply hope that my rants don’t put you off of reading my selfish blog.
We hiked 27 miles the next day, and it was a long day. Dad was a trooper, though in my head I was swearing to myself that I wasn’t going to allow Dad do a day that big again though, no matter what he said. Before Dad came out Solar had asked if I wanted her to change up the mileage so we could do shorter days for him. I told her no, because if Dad found out we were slowing down for him he would absolutely throw a fit. I won’t say that I regretted that choice, but suffering for the sake of it doesn’t make for the best hike. Sometimes it’s better to have fun than to protect your pride, and I promised myself I wasn’t going to focus so much on protecting his pride in the future. 27 miles is just a lot, you know?
I enjoyed catching him up on some of our misadventures over the past few months though, and he brought up new things to talk about, which was refreshing since we tended to recycle the same conversations over and over again. We stopped at a McDonald’s just a half mile off trail that day, I ate 5 apple pies. We ran into a bunch of other hikers, and we all ended up camping together that night. It was a big party, with picnic tables and electric lights. Aside from Dad, O’Well, me, and our trail family, Solar, Lunar, and Gretzky, we camped with Slippy, Field Trip, and Sprinkles, and a British couple, Spreadsheet and Cross Stitch. That was the last time we would spend much time with any of those people, and it felt like a class reunion right at the end of things.
The next day we did a more reasonable 22 miles. It was a windy, chilly day. I had already forgotten how tough the cold in the Sierra’s was, and Dad kept asking, incredulous, “Is this the desert?” My feet were rubbing pretty badly and I lagged behind for a while as we hiked along a graffitied canyon. We camped at a hot spring which was infected with meningitis. It was fairly accessible to the general public, and there were numerous “Charmin Lilly’s” around, or places where people didn’t bury their excrement deep enough and toilet paper was scattered about. We didn’t swim in the hot springs. It was sad to see how some irresponsible people had ruined what should have been a magical place. The wind howled through the canyon, and we scattered about to find sheltered places to pitch our tents.
The next day was October 31st. It was a fun and festive day which we called “Trailoween.” We hiked 23 miles, enjoying a break where we ate the whole apple pie I packed out from Wrightwood and some of the whiskey provided by Lunar and Solar. We all had costumes. I was a spider, dad strapped a pinecone to his head, he was a “conehead” for those who get the reference. Lunar wrapped himself up in biohazard tape, Solar had a pair of cat ears, and Gretzky stuck a couple sprigs of a desert plant in his hat to become a Hassitic Jew instead of just Amish like he normally looked. I was lagging behind once again late in the day. Just before dusk, and I tripped and snapped one of my trekking poles (it had survived longer than my relationship, so I felt like I had gotten my money’s worth out of it), and I scraped up my knees pretty good in the process. That slowed me down a bit more, though I really dislike hiking in the dark alone so I kept pushing to catch up. O’Well and Dad waited for me after it got dark and we got turned around at a road crossing. We walked into camp well after dark. As we walked down the side trail into camp, Gretzky jumped out of a bush to scare O’Well (it was Halloween after all) and O’Well almost stabbed him with his trekking pole.
The temperature plummeted that night. We enjoyed the cookies Gretzky packed out for Trailoween, and the rest of the hot apple cider and whiskey the Sunnymooners brought, but soon we had to escape to our tents and warm sleeping bags. When Dad checked the thermometer on his pack the next morning it read 8 degrees. It had been a long night, and it was a tough morning packing up with numb fingers. When the sun came up it warmed up nicely though.
We did 10 miles into Big Bear Lake that morning. We had planned to do 20, but we were all feeling a little sick of hiking, and there was a zero day waiting for us in town. So, we found a spot where we could get off trail earlier and hitch into town. I checked with Dad to make sure he didn’t feel like he missed out on his promised 100 mile section, he said 90 miles was plenty. We had really put him through the wringer, I don’t think desert hiking was quite what he expected, but I know he appreciated the adventure nonetheless.
The Sunnymooner’s were going to Palm Springs the next day with Solar’s dad and stepmom, so Gretzky, O’Well, and I were on our own. We had Dad drop us back off where we had gotten off trail the day before so we could hike the 10 miles to our intended exit point to Big Bear Lake. Solar and Lunar would be taking two zero’s, so for the three of us we felt it made more sense to hike 10, zero, then hike 7 miles the next day out of town, while the Sunnymooners would be doing 17 to catch up to us. That 10 mile day was fun. We took as many breaks as we felt like, our packs were pretty light without having a full resupply, and we ran into a couple of day hikers who were really fun to talk to. The lady was hoping to section hike the whole trail, and her excitement about the trail was refreshing. I was feeling worn thin. I loved the trail, and I knew I was going to miss it, but I was so looking forward to not having to walk every day. It was hard not to focus on that desire, to stay in the moment like I promised myself I would.
We also crossed paths with Fieldtrip and Sprinkles, a married couple O’Well and I had met early on in Oregon then crossed paths with again more recently. Ironically Fieldtrip’s family had day hiked out to hike with them too, and they gave us each a beer. We relaxed for a few minutes then hiked our last mile to the highway, slightly tipsy and satisfied with our light days work. We got a hitch to a hostel in town with a Mexican man who had never heard of the trail and had lots of questions. Unfortunately the hostel wasn’t open to more guests, so we had to figure out getting the bus in town to first the grocery store then the Motel 6 so we could get an (overpriced) room for two nights. There was no fridge or microwave in the room, but there was a tv and a shower. The three of us spent a full day doing nothing but watching Disney movies on cable and eating. I think my ass print is probably permanently imbedded in that mattress now, because I didn’t leave it except to use the bathroom for over 24 hours. I felt horrible for the maid, we didn’t leave a mess of course but the odor was horrendous when we left.
Solar and Lunar had rented a car to get back from Palm Springs, so they gave us a ride back up to the trailhead that afternoon before they found their own way back to the trail. Gretzky packed out their tent and O’Well and I pitched it when we got to camp. They were getting a late start so we figured that would be one less thing they had to do after dark. We again took our time hiking 7 miles, and went to bed before the Sunnymooners arrived. Daylight savings had occured and it was getting dark super early. We slept almost 12 hours that night, our bodies tuned in to the setting and rising sun. I woke up when we heard the Sunnymooners getting to camp, and I fell back asleep quickly, feeling comfortable knowing they had made it safely. Gretzky had also packed a couple beers out of town and he left two inside the tent for them to enjoy at the end of a long day. It was nice to be back in the woods after so long in town, I slept really well.
The next section from Big Bear to Idyllwyld was a mixture of fun shenanigans and struggles. Solar had cooked up this idea to play “Traillympics,” a combination of all the trail games we had come up with and film them for the Sunnymooner’s YouTube channel. We played pinecone golf, pinecone bowling, pinecone baseball (there were a lot of pinecones in that section), and pie tin frisbee (I had packed out another pie, this time just for myself). We took some long and luxurious breaks, enjoying not having to feel rushed. There was one abandoned cabin where Gretzky, O’Well and I climbed up into the rafters and enjoyed not hiking. I was feeling antsy, there were a lot of complicated emotions. I remember going to bed one night, O’Well and I were cuddling, as usual, and I was crying, admitting for the first time how terrified I was for the trail to end. “It’s going to be okay,” he told me, and there was nothing I could do but blindly trust him. That first day out of Big Bear marked two weeks left on trail.
We did 19.5, then 20 through a section where a big flood had happened earlier in the year and the trail had washed out. We crossed the same creek probably 20 times that day, and that section was without a doubt the most difficulty I had following the trail. I had horrible menstrual cramps that day and O’Well and I lagged behind (not unusual for us). It was a beautiful section though, the rocks in the canyon had a unique form, and I felt like we were in ancient and precious territory. We dropped 3,000 feet to camp, and it got a lot warmer than it had been the past week or so, making for a pleasant evening. We camped along a rushing creek, our three tents lined up to share tent stakes in the small campsite in the creek bed.
We did 23 miles the next day. It had become hot overnight, around 80 degrees in the day, and it was incredibly exposed. I didn’t know how the NOBO’s hiked in the 100+ degree weather in the summer through that section. We stopped in an air conditioned office on a wind farm that morning for water and some leftover Halloween candy, then Gretzky, O’Well and I explored a weird abandoned house full of garbage, smashed drywall, and sand from a flood. We crossed Interstate 10 midday and had a hot slog up to a water spigot. We spent over an hour there, waiting for it to cool off a bit before we started our climb up San Jacinto. O’Well was having a hard day. In my journal all I wrote for day 146 on trail was, “Probably 14 to Idyllwild.” The two of us were in a weird, melancholic funk, and San Jacinto was a challenge. Our whole family commiserated on that point, feeling like hiking should be easy by that point, but we all struggled to get up and over that mountain.
O’Well and I were pretty broke by that time. Gretzky had decided to summit San Jacinto, an extra couple miles on a side trail, and Solar and Lunar took a different route getting into town, so we got into town on our own and went to the campground where we would camp for $5 a night instead of paying for a hotel like I wanted to. There was a low moment while we sat on the front porch of the closed ranger station, trying to decide whether to pay for a hotel or not.
“I feel tired of this.” I told him. “Getting to town, trying to figure out what to do, never knowing quite what you’re doing, where you’re going to get food and water. That insecurity.”
We decided to stay in the campground with Gretzky, and we zeroed the next day, getting our laundry done and we all watched Monte Python and the Holy Grail in the Sunnymooner’s hotel room. It was a nice, lazy day, but I was restless. We were so close. I was ready to be done.
We did an easy 15 out of town, running into my friend Kicks and Shogun. Kicks was one of my first friends on trail, we had met in Mazama way back in Mazama, Washington. Shogun we had met in Trout Lake, so it was a very happy reunion. They were heading into town while we were hiking out, so we promised to catch up in a few days when they overtook us. They planned to finish a couple days before our family, so we knew we would cross paths again. That night we camped with a couple other thru hikers and a couple who were section hiking, staying up until 8 which was basically like staying up to 3 am for us at that point.
The next day we did 19, and it was a mellow day for me mentally. O’Well and Gretzky got into a war throwing acorns at each other. I had turned a corner in my head. The hiking got easier again. I wasn’t dragging myself through, I was remembering that these days were numbered, and that I was finishing the adventure of a lifetime. I wanted to do it the right way. We camped in a burn area near a highway. Solar was telling us the story of how Lunar proposed, (“He just got a little nervous….” “Way to build up my masculinity!”) when Gretzky pointed out the full moon rising. I mistook this to be a very strange and indefinite joke about Lunar’s masculinity and we had a good laugh about that.
We hiked 21 miles that day, including 2 miles to and from the Paradise Valley Cafe. This is supposedly the best cafe on trail, but for me it was disappointing as they didn’t have a single vegan breakfast option. I never expected a lot, but not even getting french fries was a bummer. We saw Kicks and Shogun that afternoon at a water cache though, and that boosted my mood quite a bit. I was sad to say goodbye to her, but I was proud of us both for making it so far. It was a reminder of what was really important on the trail: the people. From memory I remember long, slow climbs, some easy night hiking, and being startled when I caught up to Lunar without realizing it. He was hiking without his headlamp, “So Gretzky won’t know when I’m coming, he’s trying to scare me.” O’Well was having another hard night though, he had eaten something that didn’t agree with him and I remember him throwing up before we made it to camp. It was my 150th day on trail.
We hiked 22 the next day, and I didn’t write a single thing in my journal. Again, from memory, I remember hiking with Gretzky at a beautiful dusk and playing “kick the small squash down the trail.”
We hiked 2 miles into the community center at Warner Springs that night, then 8 miles out of town. The Sunnymooners had stayed the night in town and they did our laundry for us in their hotel room.
We had a brief sojourn to Eagle Rock, and wasted some time stabbing those little squashes and hurling them with our trekking poles. Solar had taken off, determined to get to camp before dark, and the boys were a little more interested in the pumpkin throwing than I was, so I hiked alone for several miles. I remember reflecting on my time with our family, and letting it sink in that we were on our final section. There wasn’t much to consider; that day was a good day. The next day would come when it did. I was in a state of calm acceptance. We camped at a water source with a warning about rat corpses. We filtered and drank the water dripping from a small spigot rather than dipping into the cistern.
The Last 5 Days
(I have maintained the formatting and structure from my original journal for this section.)
We hiked 25 miles. There was a big water cache around midday, then we didn’t know if there would be water for a 40 mile section. My max water capacity was 5 liters, so 5 liters had to cover a day and a half for me, including dinner, breakfast, and lunch the next day. We all filled up and left some money at the cache for future hikers to have water. I had learned that certain water caches in the desert are absolutely crucial. Without this particular cache it may have been 50-60 miles between water sources.
My feet are starting to hurt again, I know my shoes were losing their support already. But we are in the twilight hours of the trail, so it doesn’t matter. I just have to get to Campo.
Gretzky doesn’t want the trail to end and Solar really does (but she and Lunar are heading to Latin America after this, so she’s just looking forward to some lazy days on the beach). I’m of two minds. I want the trail to last forever but I know it won’t. I’m also ready to move on to the next thing. Even when it’s blazing hot and I’m carrying 5 liters of water, and I’m miserable, that is a temporary state. One way or another it will all be over soon. (Queue Bon Iver – 22 Over Soon, which has been stuck in my head for three days.)
We camped under a highway overpass where there was a couple gallons of water so we were able to top off our bottles which was nice. I don’t know who hikes in the desert just for fun, I certainly wouldn’t be out here if I wasn’t hiking the PCT. Lunar made shadow puppets on the ceiling of the overpass with his headlamp. O’Well played a 10 minute meditation called “Let that shit out,” and Lunar and Gretzky were really into it. Gretzky’s feet stink.
Hiked 25. We are all realizing we only have a few more days on trail and I think we are sad. The vibe has changed. I’m doing some reminiscing. I have some moments of deep contemplation and reflection, but mostly I’m just exhausted and so ready to be done. Overall though I’m just hiking like I’ve hiked the rest of the trail.
We camped at a picnic area with a water faucet, ending our 40 mile water carry. This guy who came out to take pictures or day hike or something interrogated Solar about what we were doing, I had to rescue her. I ran up, “Solar, where are we camping, over there? I need you to show me, please help!” Guy was super annoying.
Lots of funny laughs with the trail family. Gretzky finally told me the story about that first day we ran into him out of VVR, and we had a good laugh about him sleeping in a pit toilet and his misadventures trying to catch up to Moneymaker and Pineapples.
Our family has been together for 700 miles. I’m sad to part from them soon.
Hiked 20. We stopped in Mount Laguna for a small resupply top off for O’well (his appetite is impossible to keep up with at this point) and lunch at the cafe. A couple ladies at the next table over gave us $30, which was unexpected and strange, but exactly what we needed since we are running very low on funds. Trail magic isn’t always someone set up with a buffet of food, sometimes the universe knows what you need better than you do.
My feet are hurting quite a lot and I’m sad to end the trail on this note, just eager to be done. I’m remembering that suffering is temporary. That’s what thru hiking is, a constant cycle of suffering then high moments then back to some very low lows. I’ve learned how to be comfortable, or at the very least tolerant of suffering, and it’s not weighing me down. Two more days.
Hiked 21. We started the day with exactly 30 miles to the Mexican border. All day hiking felt like a breeze and it flew by. I was just trying to enjoy every moment while I still could.
Gretzky and I spent probably 2 hours playing a puzzle game about trains except it wasn’t about trains at all, it was a great way to pass the time. At lunch the others got off trail a little to go to a malt shop, but O’Well and I weren’t excited about it so we took a shower at the campground right on the trail then hiked on, very luxurious for our last full day of hiking.
When we got to camp that night we discovered Lunar and Solar brought some whiskey out for us all, and we had a lovely evening celebration. We stayed up till 8 to watch Gretzky burn out all the fuel in his canister, a truly monumental moment. We sat around the “campfire” cracking jokes and reminiscing a little, watching the stars twinkle overhead. It wasn’t sad or exciting, it felt like any other night on trail really, but with a certain lightness. It felt impossible to feel anything but content with a job well done.
We hiked 11 miles to the border. We hiked 11 miles through the small, ramshackle town of Campo, and then we finished. I was there every moment. We tagged the monument together and took our pictures, popped champagne, and laughed while Solar’s mom struggled to find the trail head (the border wall was intimidating to her and she was nervous to get too close).
700 miles had been wonderful with these people. We said a painful goodbye to Solar and Lunar, and I cried my eyes out as we watched the car pull away from the monument.
“I thought I would be excited at the end,” I sobbed into O’Wells shoulder, shocked at the unexpected and overwhelming heartbreak I was experiencing.
“How do you feel Gretzky?” O’Well asked.
“I’m sad too,” he said, and we shared a group hug and cried together. Then there was nothing to do but walk a mile into town to get food from the small market and wait for Gretzky’s uncle to pick us up and take us to San Diego. I tried not to think about the fact we would have to say goodbye to Gretzky too before the day was over. I got myself a $2 mango popsicle, a bunch of bananas, and a cup of coffee to celebrate, but O’Well and I only had about $50 to get us up to San Jose so we had to be conservative.
Along the road we crossed the trail several times, and it felt wrong to not be following it. I realized I wasn’t following any path anymore, I had to make it up for myself now. I realized that that was okay.