I must admit, I am completely bewildered by my backpacking trip, a bewilderment that began the night before I left. For one thing, I didn’t feel any resfeber. (Resfeber is a fabulous Swedish word meaning the mingled excitement and dread a traveler feels just before the journey begins.) I just felt . . . ho hum. As if it were the night before an ordinary day. At least it felt that way until I finished packing my backpack. When I added food and water for four days (there are many places on the Pacific Crest Trail a person can hike and not need to carry more than a liter of water because water sources are ubiquitous, but not around here), what had been a moderately light pack turned into a monstrous load. Water is heavy. Sixteen ounces of water weighs a pound. The proverbial eight glasses of water a day weighs four pounds. Four pounds times four days. Eek.
I sat on the bed to put the pack on because it was too heavy to sling onto my shoulders any other way, and walked around the room for a bit. I moved okay, and it didn’t seem that much heavier than my backpack practicing weight, though I’m sure it was about ten pounds more than I’d ever tried carrying. (Did I mention that water is heavy?)
I worried about the long, steep climb up the Acorn trail to the Pacific Crest Trail, but decided I’d take things as they came. If it took me all day to climb those three miles, well, then, it would take all day. It’s a good thing I didn’t spend much time worrying about that climb because I ended up experiencing some trail magic. The fellow who let me park in his driveway drove me to a different trail head right off the road, where two easy steps took me onto the trail.
As I started walking, I could feel a big smile on my face. The day was lovely, the pack seemed doable, the trail (and a sense of freedom) stretched ahead of me.
After a less than a mile, I paused to get a silk scarf from my belly pack to put around my ears to protect them from the wind. A young fellow stopped just in front of me to remove something from his pack, and we talked a bit. He was thru hiking the PCT, had spent the night in town to do some work on the computer, and was now hurrying to catch up to his hiking buddies.
He apologized for speeding ahead, and then he sped ahead. Within a few seconds he had disappeared around a bend. Watching him practically run with his pack, I thought how nice it must be to be a young male, so strong and full of vigor and testosterone. And then I looked around and thought it wasn’t so bad being an old (well, older) woman, either.
I didn’t see another person on the trail, so I got my solo wilderness experience, except it didn’t feel any different from any other hike I took alone. Just a hike.
But it wasn’t just another hike. I’d never before carried much more than a bottle of water, even on the long hikes I took a couple of years ago in the redwood forests and on the beaches in northern California.
At one point, I had to stop to retie my shoe laces to keep my feet from sliding forward on the downhill slopes. Since I couldn’t bend over, I perched on a low tree stump, tied the shoes, drank some water, and then tried to get up. Absolutely could not. I ended up having to take off the pack, stand up, drag the pack to a higher stump, heft it onto the hump, and reposition it on my back. Not elegant, but it worked.
I hiked most of the day — one slow step after another, picking my way up (and down) a narrow, dusty, and sometimes gravelly trail. Then I hit a section of steep down slope, and after about a half mile, my legs stopped working. I simply could not take another step. Luckily, I’d arrived at about the only flat place I’d seen all day. I collapsed, rested, then hauled myself to my feet and set up camp. I went inside the tent and lay there. It was only about five o’clock, way too early to go to sleep, but I had no energy to do anything else. I just lay there listening to the wind howling through the trees above me. I was totally alone, the closest road a thousand feet beneath me, and it felt like . . . nothing out of the ordinary.
The ordinariness, actually, was not bewildering. I’d experienced that sort of thing before, where I thought something would be life changing, but when it came time to do the thing, it turned out that the change had happened before the actual event. (Or maybe living in the moment makes every moment feel ordinary because it is the only moment that exists.)
What did bewilder me was that I didn’t feel any soreness after carrying the pack all that time. I just got exceedingly wobbly, then I hit a wall. What bewildered me even more is that the trail seemed to consist of steep ups and downs, but on an elevation map, it looked fairly straight. What bewildered me most of all is that it took me five hours to hike a mere four miles. Four miles??? That’s nothing. It’s what I normally walk, though admittedly, the desert paths I frequent are wide and packed solidly enough that even with a pack, I can stride along without having to carefully settle one foot before lifting the other. And I have never carried such a heavy pack. But still, five hours to walk four miles? Apparently, I am not as strong as I think I am.
The next day, I broke camp early and was back on the downward trail with steep switchbacks.
By the time I got to the end of that section, I was almost done for. Couldn’t go up the next steep slope, couldn’t go back up the steep slope I’d just descended to return the way I had come. So I headed up the highway. After a couple of miles, a fellow stopped to offer me a ride. He moved his pack off the seat to make way for me. I tossed my pack in the back of the truck (well, pushed it up as far as I could and then tipped it over into the truck bed) and we took off. Turned out he’d been going in the opposite direction, on his way for a day of hiking when he saw me and took pity on me. (He said he turned around because he could tell I was at the end of my strength, but I think he was magicked into it.) He asked where I was going, and when I told him, he went silent as if he didn’t really want to drive that far, but the silence only lasted a second as he made the mental readjustment. It’s no wonder he didn’t want to drive me all the way back to my car. Not only would it give him a late start for his hike, but he’d end up where he started. Turned out my car was parked a block from his house.
Very nice fellow. He understood about the heavy pack. Apparently, he and the friends he goes on backpacking trips with are all about my age, and even though they are all lifelong hikers, they don’t do dry sections anymore because they can’t handle carrying all that water. (That made me feel not quite so weak and inept.)
Today, I am sore, but bewilderingly, I ache in places I’ve never even felt before. My knees didn’t hurt at all on the hike, but the muscles behind the knees are now sore. And my upper midriff is so stiff I had a hard time lifting myself out of a reclining position this morning.
So what does all this tell me? Not much. As I said, the whole experience bewildered me.
But it was an experience, which is what I wanted. And, although I wasn’t out there for as long as I’d planned, I did it! I spent a night on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Unfinished, Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.