Researching the PCT

I had an interesting realization this morning — my dream of a long, long, long walk doesn’t necessarily mean a thru-hike. (Well, the realization was interesting to me, anyway.)

In hiking jargon, a thru hike is from end to end, from the beginning of the trail to the end of the trail, though it doesn’t have to be done that way. Because of the immense throng attempting thru-hikes on the iconic trails, the starting point can be insanely packed, so some people are splitting the trail in sections, maybe beginning in the middle, going to the end, and then getting a ride back to the start of the trail, and hiking to the middle where they began. Apparently, as long as you finish the trail in a year, it’s considered a thru-hike.

It sounds good — taking a year to hike the trail. But there isn’t really a full year for the hike when you consider the heat of the desert in summer, the late snow packs and early snows in the high country, streams swollen with melt-off, fires, and a thousand other weather related issues. The hiking season is usually six months, which means a lot of miles per day when you’re talking about a total distance of 2,650 miles.

It would be nice if I could do a thru hike, but I’m not an athlete, and I have no aspirations to be one. I am a saunterer, off to see what I can see, out to be what I can be. If I get strong enough to walk a lot of miles, that’s fine, but I’m satisfied with five to seven miles a day. Which means approximately 442 days for me to do the entire Pacific Crest Trail. I bet taking it slow and easy, and not having to push through heavy weather or harsh aches and pains would make the trail a lot more like a walk in the park than an endurance test.

One other realization that showed up this morning, and a big change from other times I thought of doing the trail, is that the logical place for me to start would be at the beginning. The southern part of the trail is desert. Hmmm. Desert? Aren’t I getting myself acclimated to hiking in the desert?

Whenever I’ve thought of doing a long distance hike on the PCT, I thought about starting after the desert — the desert section frightens me because of the need to carry extra water. But now that I have gotten to like the desert so much, hiking the desert section sounds wonderful. Well, except for the water situation. Perhaps it would work if I hiked the desert section in the fall, though by then, some of the seasonal water sources will have been turned off.

If the desert sections were simply desert, that would be a perfect long-distance hike for winter because although water would still be a problem, there wouldn’t be as great a need for hydration as in the heat of the summer. But those desert sections contain mountains, too, which means snow.

How do I know all this? Oh, the internet is a wondrous thing! I spend way too much time reading articles about the trail, about gear, about survival, about the various dangers and wonders.

It could be that because of all this research, I will have mentally spent so much on the trail that my mind will believe I have already hiked it. Then it will stop urging me to go adventuring, and I can stay inside with my feet up, reading about those people with blisters and swollen feet and worn-out shoes who actually are hiking the trail.

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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.

Mentors!

It’s hard for me to escape the status quo of my life, to be spontaneous and just take off, so when I accepted an invitation from my sister in Seattle to visit her around mother’s day to make candy turtles in our mother’s honor, I immediately began making plans for what I will do once I have escaped my bonds. Camping. Sauntering. Visiting friends.

As if that weren’t enough to pile into one short month, I also thought it would be a good time to try my hand at dispersed camping or a short pack backing trip, something that would take me out of the relative comfort and safety of a national park campground and put me alone in the wilderness for a night or two. (Which is why I’ve been wandering around the neighborhood carrying fifteen pounds on my back — I need to get used to carrying a pack.)

I couldn’t even begin to guess where to start in my search for an appropriate beginners backpacking trip, but apparently, both my sister and her husband are experienced wilderness campers, so when I mentioned my problem to my sister, the two of them volunteered to help me plan a multi-day saunter during my stay. Not only that, they will know where I am, and if I don’t wander out of the wilderness in a reasonable length of time, they will be able to send rescuers or come look for me themselves.

When I spent those months in northern California a couple of years ago, my friend would drop me off at a trailhead and pick me up at the other end. Although there was always a moment of trepidation before I took that first step onto the trail, the nervousness didn’t last long, partly because I knew she had my back.

I’m sure the same thing will hold true this May — that awful realization I was on my own, then the fullness of the experience and the comfort of knowing that someone was waiting to hear how things went.

I have so many questions that need answering before setting out, but I am thrilled to actually have someone (two someones!) who can help me figure out the right trail for me, places to camp, where to look for water and how to use my water purifier, what weather to expect, and oh, so many other things! (And help me adjust my backpacking straps. Every time I add more weight to the pack, the straps need adjusting, but I can’t adjust them because of all the weight.)

I could, of course, do what I have always done — research, make the most informed decisions possible, and then hope for the best, but it will be so much better to know, rather than guess. And this is such an important step for me. It might kill the whole idea of an epic hike or it might stoke the desire even more. Either way, it will be nice to know that with the help of my mentors, I will be giving the project my best shot.

***

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.

Impossible Dreams

Quixotic means capricious, foolishly impractical, rash to the point of absurdity. But it can also mean (more because of the musical Man of La Mancha than because of the original Don Quixote story) dreaming impossible dreams.

Who hasn’t listened to the song “The Impossible Dream” and not got caught up in the romance of those powerful words? I certainly get caught up and did again today when a friend posted Jim Nabors’ version on Facebook. As I listened, I wondered what it would be like to have such a dream, wondered if I should go out and get myself one, then I realized I already have an impossible dream. Maybe even two.

(I say maybe two because one of the dreams has to do with selling enough books to make a living, and though it is highly improbable as things stand now, who’s to say if it will always be impossible?)

Ever since I first heard of the long national trails like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, I wished I could do such a hike. The first time I was young (well, younger), but had little experience hiking, no experience backpacking or camping, no money to support such a dream, and no fitness for it either. What I had was a very ill life mate/soul mate, whose death, I knew, would devastate me. I thought one way of dealing with my grief would be just to take off down (or up) such a trail and let my life run its course.

That particular time, he got better, but the idea of walking into oblivion remained in the back of head. Years later, when he got ill for the last time, I was too shattered to follow through on such a ridiculous idea. And anyway, my nonagenarian father needed someone to stay with him. But when my father got bad, and knowing I would soon be ousted from the house, I again resurrected the dream, but researching what it would take to do such a hike made me realize the impossibility of my ever undertaking such a project.

Instead, I went on a five-month cross-country trip in my ancient VW, but still, the idea of an epic hike keeps coming back. I do know why such a rashly romantic idea, such an impossible dream, keeps recurring. Partly, it’s the desire to run away (it was strongest when I was housebound because of my arm). Partly, it’s the desire to run toward something (it’s also strong when I am out hiking in the desert by myself.) And partly, well . . . what an incredible adventure!

I have often felt foolish to still be thinking of such an impossible thing because I am so not fit physically for such an escapade. I can hike for a couple of hours, can even set up camp (I have learned that much!), but carrying a heavy backpack is beyond me. (What is considered ultralightweight for others is immensely heavy for me. I remember when I hiked in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I used my backpack for emergency supplies and extra water in case I got lost, and it felt oh, so heavy. And yet, when I met a fellow along the trail who offered to carry it for me, he picked it up with one finger as if weighed nothing.)

Periodically I think about how to offset the problems that would arise. For example, I did one day hike on the PCT where the trail was eroded, I had to take a very long and unsteady step on a narrow ledge to get past the erosion. A backpack would probably have pulled me over. But what if I could find someone who would be willing to carry the pack for me, sort of like a Sherpa? That’s no more impossible than the rest of the dream.

I also periodically research how to get in shape for such a thru hike, but the exercises they suggest are totally beyond me. Use a park bench for stair-stepping? Uh, no. A curb, sometimes, is too high! But I do go hiking to stretch my ability. I walk wherever I can. I take dance classes for strength and balance.

And I collect items that would be necessary, such as hiking clothes and lightweight camping gear.

Foolish. Quixotic.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

Maybe I will be better for this. Maybe the world will be better for this: that no matter how hopeless, no matter how far, one woman still strove to reach an unreachable star.

***
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.

Letting the Day Fill Me

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels 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.”)

***

When I woke this morning, it struck me I had nothing to do — no dance classes, no computer to work with or play on, no obligations — and I wondered how I would fill the empty day stretching in front of me.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a matter of my filling the day but of the day filling me. And what a day!

I started out with a walk to Lake Earl at the end of the street. I was disappointed there was no way around the lake so I came back and checked in with my friend. The mile and a half round trip walk had barely whetted my appetite, so she drove me to a nearby nature trail, The Lake Earl Coastal Trail, and dropped me off.

And oh my. Only a few steps into the trail told me the truth: I wasn’t in the desert any more. Ferns, moss, towering tree canopy, plants with immense leaves made me feel as if I were in the forest primeval. I had to keep stopping to take in the sounds, the smells, the wonder of it all.

I’ve been talking for years now about doing some sort of through hike, but I realized today I couldn’t do it. Even if I had the necessary skills, even if I were physically capable of carrying a heavy pack for all those months, the truth is, I wouldn’t finish. Instead of eating up the miles, I would pause to take photos, to take in the ambiance, to be. And that I can do anywhere, even on a mile-and-a-half nature trail, even on the mile trip along the road back to where I am staying.

If that weren’t enough activity for one day, we went to the beach. I saw pelicans flying, and I walked a bit on the California Coastal Trail. To be honest, it’s more of a designation than a trail, but still, I was there. More importantly, I was “here” when I was there.

Being here now, not thinking of the past, not thinking of what is to come. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

The Transition Between Today and Tomorrow

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels 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.”)

***

I’m still camping out on the couch in a friend’s house. I’ve been without a car for more than five weeks, without a house for two, but my friends have been kind to me, not just giving me a place to stay but ferrying me to dance class.

I seem to be always in transition. At my father’s house, I was in transition between my shared life with Jeff and my solitary future, between grief and renewal. Now I’m in transition between . . . I’m not sure exactly. Maybe between a settled life and an unsettled one. Or maybe just between today and all my tomorrows.

The strangest feeling about my life right now is that I’m not blogging every day. Blogging was a daily exercise for almost four years, but now I’m back to the way I started, just posting as time, inspiration, and need permits. For years I needed to write in order to make sense of all the trauma going on in my life, but at the moment I’m just flowing with the stream of chance and change.

Big changes will be coming, but for now life is uncomplicated. There are no decisions to be made because I couldn’t follow through anyway since I have obligations for the next month.

I’m still dreaming of an epic walk, though, and the reality is coming clearer. A friend who has been urging me to thru-hike so she could experience it vicariously has made the commitment to do a thru-hike herself. In 2017, she will be hiking the Appalachian Trail, and she invited me to join her group. I said yes, of course, though it’s so far in the future, there’s no way of knowing if any of us will be around to do it.

(She chose the Appalachian Trail instead of the Pacific Crest Trail because of the availability of water and the marginally easier terrain.)

I hope you are doing well in your own transition between today and tomorrow.