Wander Woman

When I was on my recent overnight hike (I can’t really call it a backpacking trip, though technically I suppose it was since I did carry a backpack, and I did spend the night in the wilderness), I got so absolutely wiped out I could not take another step.

Although I’d planned to spend three nights on the trail, I managed only one night. I can’t feel bad about that — I did get to sleep alone far from civilization, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. And though I gave up, I didn’t give up. I mean I did halt my trek, but not because I couldn’t handle it mentally or emotionally. My body simply stopped working, and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it.

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Because of this experience, I figured the impossible truly is impossible, and I was too tired when I returned to care other than feeling a brief sadness for the death of a dream. The dream originally was to hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail, but I’ve been whittling away at the dream, downsizing it to fit new realities as I discovered them (or as they discovered me). So, if the dream came down to that one night on the trail, well, that’s better than no night.

But here I am, already planning the next backpacking venture, trying to utilize what I learned on this first trek to make a second overnight trip feasible.

The section I want to do is only about eleven or twelve miles long, which just a couple of weeks ago I laughingly thought was too short, but it turns out that the last eight or more miles have to be done in one day because no dispersed camping is allowed in that area, and considering that I can only do about three miles a day, it’s just too much for me. But . . . I can do the first few miles, and if I turn around and head back the way I came, it would make for a respectable overnight trek.

I’ve done most of this section as a day hike, and don’t remember it being particularly difficult despite its uphill nature, but then, I wasn’t carrying much of anything except a small bottle of water and a few nuts for a snack.

(I bought a guide book to the Southern California section of the Pacific Crest Trail, and it’s been fun going through the book and piecing together all the day hikes I’ve done. At the time of the hikes, we carpooled and I never had any idea where I was. Carrying a heavy pack must make a vast difference. Those four miles on my overnight trek were almost impossible, and yet the day hikes I did were all about three or four miles, and I don’t remember any of them being inordinately difficult or exhausting.

One impetus to do this particular hike is that a massive development (16,000 houses, ten schools, two major shopping centers) will soon be built on an erstwhile ranch within sight of the Pacific Crest Trail. Not only will the site be an unsightly sight for hikers, but its 48,000 residents will certainly have an impact on the trail.

For sure, though, I will have to do a lot more backpacking practice to get strong enough. When you are walking on the side of a mountain, with slopes above and below, there are few places to stop and relax, so there really is not much to do on the trail except walk, pause to take in the views, and walk some more. And then there is the problem of carrying all that water, but since the section of the trail I want to do is easily accessible, I might be able to stash some water ahead of time so I don’t have to carry it all.

I also have to figure out what to do about food. I brought plenty, but although I did snack along the way, I could not force myself to eat more than a few bites at the end of the day. Part of the problem, I think, was no place and no way to sit except cross-legged, and that’s hard to do for any length of time. I’ve been researching backpacking chairs, but I’m not sure they are worth their weight, especially since weight is such an issue with me.

And I need to find a way to keep insects from me. I’d sprayed my pants with the insect repellent permethrin, but I still got a couple of sharp stings — from wasps, I think. And nothing kept away the gnats.

So, lots to think about (and do!) if I want to continue being a wander woman.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

Why Do You Want to Do This?

In response to my post, Date With a Driveway, a reader very respectfully asked, “Why do you want to do this?”

If by “this” she means the short backpacking trip I’ve planned for the coming weekend, the answer is easy: I need to know if I can do it. There is no dance class on Thursday, so I will have a few days up in the hills (including a punishing hike up to the Pacific Crest Trail) to see what I can do. There is a campground close to the connecting trail, so that if those three uphill miles are all I can do that first day, I’ll have a place to hang out and recuperate. And shortly beyond that, there is another campground if I am too exhausted to hike very far. Besides which, it’s a fairly well-traveled part of the PCT so that I won’t be completely isolated my first time out.

If by “this” she means hiking the Pacific Crest Trail itself, that’s a more complicated question, though oddly, one I haven’t asked myself recently. It’s just something that’s been in and out of my head for a long time.

Many years ago, when Jeff first got really sick and I realized how devastating his death would be for me, I read about the Pacific Crest Trail and I figured hiking the whole thing would be a great way to lose myself after he was gone. After he died, I was too busy and too distraught (such a mild word for the tsunamis of grief I experienced!) to think of anything at all.

During those first months (and years!) of grief, I used to walk for hours in the desert. I always had to make sure I had enough energy to get back to the house, and so I wondered what it would be like to walk and just keep on walking without having to return to the starting place. It seemed as if it would be so freeing — just walking forever without a thought in my head or a care of any kind except to walk. And oh, did I want that freedom!

Then one day, I went on a search for the San Andreas Fault, and came across a marker for the Pacific Crest Trail.

I took a few steps up the trail, in awe at being on such a legendary path. It surprised me that the trail was so far inland — somehow, never before having been to any Pacific coast state, I figured any such long distance trail would follow the coastline. (The California Coast Trail is something completely different, and isn’t really a trail so much as an partially connected bunch of trails, paths, sidewalks, beaches and boardwalks with very few places to camp.)

I liked the idea of walking away from my life and my grief. Liked the idea of all the new experiences — perhaps even some sort of transcendental experience — such a long hike would bring, experiences that would buffer me from my now dead life and take me further into a new life. Liked the thought that maybe I wouldn’t be me at the end of all that, that maybe I would become strong and wise and able to handle growing old alone. Liked the idea of connecting with the universe. (Being disconnected from that one particular person left me feeling as if I had no connection to the earth or to anything, as if I were hovering uncomfortably to the side of life or even worse, eternally falling into the abyss.)

A couple of months after the San Andreas Fault hunt, I started walking in the evenings with a hiking group, and from that sprang a few day hikes on the PCT. It was during our evening walks that the topic of a thru hike first came up (thru hiking means hiking the whole thing from Mexico to Canada in one hiking season). Gradually I learned how difficult such an undertaking would be, not just the vast swaths of land one had to cover each day but also the lack of water in many places and the dearth of stores to buy food along the way. Every book/article/blog about hiking the PCT also talked about hitching a ride to this town or that, and the thought of hitching as much as anything else made the idea seem impossible.

So I gave up on the idea and instead went on a cross-country road trip.

A few months ago, I listened to the song, “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” Having an impossible dream seemed like such a wonderful thing, and then I realized I did have such a dream — to thru hike the PCT. (Such dreams seem to run in my family — though he never attempted it, I remember my father talking about wanting to walk up the coast of Portugal.)

So I started backpacking practice. I mean, a dream that goes nowhere, a dream that just sits in the back of your head seems like no dream at all. Thru hiking the PCT in a single season really is impossible for me. Multi-year thru hiking might also be impossible. But attempting any sort of hike on the trail seems worth taking a chance. It beats stagnation, right? Beats sitting alone in a rented room and reading about life. Beats fading away into loneliness and decrepitude.

And I still want the new experiences, want to see things up close at walking pace and not as they pass by outside my car window. I still want whatever changes such an experience will bring, especially physical and mental strength. I still want to walk away from my solitary life. I still want a deeper connection to . . . something. And I still want to be free.

An illusion? Perhaps.

An impossible dream? Probably.

And yet there the trail is. And here I am, at least for now. The twain must meet, wouldn’t you think?

On the other hand, all this could be bunk. It’s possible the whole PCT dream is my way of fleeing from the unthinkableness of the past decade and the even more unthinkableness of the coming decades.

Whatever . . .

I’m still heading out at the end of the week to see what I can see.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

Date With a Driveway

Yes, you read the title right — I do have a date with a driveway.

After being sick for so long, and then my road trip, I am in no shape to do any sort of long distance trekking, so I need to get back into backpacking practice. And what is the best backpacking practice? Backpacking!

Although I went out hiking this morning in the nearby desert, I probably shouldn’t have. It is already too hot. So I decided to go up in the mountains next weekend and see what happens.

One of the biggest problems I have with hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in bits and pieces is the parking situation. Most trail heads around here are off major roadways, and there is no way I will ever be comfortable leaving my car by the side of the road for even a couple of hours, let alone a couple of days!

Luckily, a trail angel who lives near the Pacific Crest Trail is letting me park in his driveway. It will be a long, hot, very steep climb up the connecting trail from his house to the PCT, but what the heck. If it takes me all day to hike those three miles, well, it takes me all day.

It’s good to have the date with the driveway because otherwise I would keep putting off that first backpacking trip, looking for the perfect time to get my feet wet. I’m using the “feet wet” idiom facetiously because there is not a single water source on the trail where I am planning on hiking, and zero chance of any precipitation. I’ll have to haul all my own water, and because I don’t know for sure how much I will need for those days (and because there are limits to how much I can carry), I will do what I’ve always done — when I’ve used half of what I brought, I’ll head back.

Oddly, I’m neither excited nor worried. It just seems like a natural extension of what I’ve been doing all along. I am taking precautions, though. I printed out topographical maps of those miles with trail notes of where things are, and I’ll download a PCT hiking app that will tell me where I am and where I am going, an app that supposedly works in airplane mode.

So, maps, emergency supplies, water, food, shelter.

What else do I need? Oh, yes — strength and endurance. Let’s hope I remember to pack those two items!

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.

There’s a Trail Up in Them Thar Hills

Although I had planned the trip to Seattle with great detail (only to have that entire plan go out the window even before I set wheels on the road), I didn’t have any plans at all for the return trip except for one — I wanted to take a look at the Pacific Crest Trail where it crossed a highway in Washington. As it turned out, there wasn’t much to see but a vague path covered in snow.

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Later, I checked out the trail in Oregon where the melting snows left behind a bit of a marsh. And mosquitoes. That was the only place on the whole trip where I was bitten. Badly. And it wasn’t even mosquito season! Other people who think of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail might fear bears or cougars, but it’s the swarms of Oregon mosquitoes that terrify me. I don’t know if there is enough mosquito repellent in the whole world to entice me to do the Oregon part of the trail, and yet, Oregon is so beautiful that it would be a shame not to experience more than the few steps I took on the Oregon PCT when I was there.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. I am still a long way from even thinking of walking the trail. Whatever strength I’d developed before catching a cold and then going on my trip is long gone, so I will have to start over, and considering the coming heat, I’m not sure how much backpacking practice I will be able to do this summer. Still, this impossible dream of mine remains, and I can feel the trail waiting for me, hiding somewhere up in these mountains. Eeek.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.