Fruitful Darkness

How did it get to be the third day of August already? I left the town of Mt. Shasta a week ago, reluctantly. My feet and my right ankle were still very painful, and it was 105 degrees out when we got back on trail. Needless to say, I did NOT feel motivated to hike. This was a new feeling for me. It wasn’t good. Over the course of the next few days past Shasta, I resolved to hike slowly and do less miles in order to give my ankle time to heal. The first full day after Shasta, we hiked a mere 20 miles, and it took me about 14 hours, ouch! To make matters worse, it was a completely exposed ridge walk and climb all day long, in the heat, double ouch! I came hobbling into camp at about 8:45pm, everyone else was already there and set up, had their dinners, I was starving! My feet hurt so bad, and that was after taking an hour long break at a roadside where some really nice folks had a cooler with ice and I iced my foot. After that we only had 5 more miles of basically flat trail to go, and by the third mile, I was in excruciating pain. What gives? I gingerly walked along, wondering what was going to become of me? I started sinking into a dark place. When I got to camp, Emerson (my 9 year old hiking buddy), also known as Boone, asked me if I wanted to go for a swim in the lake. It was basically dusk, I was feeling “hangry” and all I felt like I could handle was literally laying down flat on the ground. However, I decided to swim. My body was itchy and I had developed some chafing for the first time on the trail, from all the salty sweat. It was raw in places I can’t describe. It’s hard, too, to turn down a little person’s enthusiastic request to swim. I therefore pushed myself to get my camp set up first and then make my way down to the lake and just walked right into the water, melting into the soothing liquid, letting it’s chill take my breath away for moments and then feeling the coolness all over my body, taking away the pain. I swam. I washed my body off. I got out in the dark and dried off, feeling like I had made the right decision. It was good. Even in challenging times, good things happen.

Still, I was surrounded by beauty. Still, I was sleeping under the stars, in deep dark silence. I hoped the rest would soothe my feet. Tomorrow was going to be another new day on the trail.

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I started out fairly late the next morning, taking it slow, knowing it was going to be another long, hot day. The first 5 miles of the morning were painful. My feet felt inflamed maximally. I was tired. I wanted more coffee. I was already hot at 9:00am. I kept thinking, how am I going to make it another 1100 miles like this? Should I have taken more time off at Shasta? Should I take a week off now? If I take a whole week off, I will never make it to Canada before the snow comes. If I can’t make it to Canada, then what? I will die probably. If I keep walking like this, I might die too. What a conundrum. I started imagining what it would mean not to finish this hike this year. Deep sadness. I started to fantasize about what else I could do with the rest of my Summer. I could travel to Europe and see my best friend. I could catch the first flight to Thailand. I could go back to Southern California and see my friends. I could go to Tahoe, go “home” and start working early. The thing is, in all those situations, I envisioned myself doing something active, such as hiking, running, Taekwondo. So, getting off trail would not solve my problem, and clearly I want to keep moving. Yes, keep moving, just keep walking.

By about 10:00am, I needed a break and I came around the corner to a lake just off the trail. I wanted to swim, but once again, all I could seem to do was lay down flat on the ground under the shade of a beautiful tree.

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It is just amazing, how therapeutic laying flat on the ground can be. I fell instantly into a light slumber for just a few minutes, maybe 10, when Boone and Mama Lion came walking up. Yay, time to swim! I decided to join Boone again in the water, and we found a floating log that we tried to make into a “surfboard” and we had fun splashing around. The water was wonderful, weightless, seamless, a liquid soothing balm. I did not care how long we were there, how late in the day it was getting, how many miles we had not done so far. When did it become about all that? I realized at a certain point that morning, that I could not plan for a month from now. I really could only take it day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. And isn’t that what I wanted all along anyways? What about that quote “honor the space between no longer and not yet”? Why was I so focused on making it to Canada? I fixed myself a snack and a cup of coffee and sat in the sun after my swim. The breeze picked up and I had goose bumps, wow, I was actually feeling chilled. How lovely.

The entire combination of resting, swimming, snacking and coffee made me feel refreshed. I got back on trail and within minutes ran into some weekend backpackers and day hikers whom I took the time to stop and chat with. Perspective. These friendly folks were so inquisitive about my hike, and so impressed with the greater task I was taking on. That’s right, yes, I am walking 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada, what part of that did I think was going to be easy? The day hikers encouraged me, and this lifted my spirits too. I made it through the next few miles with a lot less pain, both physically and emotionally. By about 1:00, I came to a road crossing where there was a parking lot and the trailhead where all those weekend hikers were starting off from. As I descended to the trailhead, I saw the ephemeral blue plastic plate with those oh so wonderful words “Coppertone is here”!

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Oh my God, yes! I practically ran over to the shaded area where this most amazing Trail Angel was set up and I went right up to him and hugged him. It wasn’t about the ice cream he gave out, or the bananas and other treats, it was just the fact that he was there. He was there for US! Who does this? Who are these people who just go from place to place, setting up a place for hikers to get shade, water and treats? Why do these people care? It’s astounding. We have now seen Coppertone four times! We sat in the shade, eating, and resting some more, enjoying company and the moment once again. Trail magic is one of those things that you can never expect, but once you’ve had it, every time you reach a trailhead, parking lot, road, dirt road, or any kind of intersection where a car can travel to, you hope for it, secretly, selfishly, you hope that someone is there waiting for you.

The rest of this day went fairly well, albeit slow. By 8:45pm I was arriving in camp, purely exhausted, once again limping in pain, hangry, and it was getting dark. But I made it. 21 miles down. Prince, Mama Lion, Boone and I found a good spot to pitch our tents, and Boone decided he wanted to “Cowboy” camp. I mentioned that I could see the Milky Way really clearly a couple nights ago, and Boone asked “what’s the Milky Way?” to which Mama Lion answered “It’s a galaxy, it’s where we live”. Perspective again.

Then Prince declared that it was his four month trail anniersary that day and he was going to give a little Ukelele concert for the occasion. He played beautifully, and Boone requested his favorite song for which Prince got his trail name “Purple Rain”. As I lie there in my tent, writing in my journal, satiated from my dinner and happy to be horizontal, I realized that for the rest of my life, whenever I hear that song, it will always transport me back to the PCT. Then, suddenly, I had this realization, I am IN this. I was so focused in the past few months on hoping that this experience would not be over too quickly, feeling like time was flying by and the end would come too soon. Then, I got hit in the face with the possibility of the end coming right now, before I reached my goal, before I was ready to be done. Suddenly the days had became so long and difficult and painful. Suddenly I was in a dark place. I had been thinking as I walked about death. I felt sad. I miss my dearest companion who died this past November. Why is he dead? Is he with me on this journey? I hated the fact that someday I would loose my parents, that even I would someday take my final breath. And what is that transition anyway? Death? I had been looking around at my surroundings daily, observing the different stages of the life cycle. From a flower budding out, to dried up grasses, to a giant fallen tree decomposing to dust that is now beneath my feet in the forest, to a burned area black with soot, sullen, frozen. I realized in my deep trance state as I walked that To Live Is To Die.

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That night I had a dream. In my dream, I made it to Canada. I was at Monument 78, it was real, I placed both my hands on it, and I bowed my head, humbly. I started to cry a little, and then I stood up and looked around. I had done it, it was real. I contemplated this dream a lot throughout the next day and reminded myself I have a goal. I like goals. I like to have something to look forward to, and something to accomplish. I am an Aries, after all. I think a lot about Taekwondo on the trail, espcially when I’m on a tough climb, or when I am really tired or in pain and I just need to pass the time. It helps me a LOT. Becoming a Black Belt was surely not easy. But I persevered and I did it. I thought about the quote we have in our dojang “A black belt is not something you wear, a black belt is not something you earn, a black belt is something you become”. So, I asked myself this question: am I a thru-hiker? I think I am not a thru-hiker until I’ve made it all the way to Canada, a thru hiker is something you become, and right now I am in the process of becoming. I am IN it. I am also nearing an uphill battle at this point, going against the grain of time. I do not have a lot of time to make it there before the snow starts. Yet, what can I do? I’ve thought about flipping North to Canada and hiking the rest of the trail Southbound, so I could take my time and do fewer miles. Then again, I feel like that’s a cop out. I am not the only one going through thesr pains. I set off on this journey with the intention to hike from Mexico to Canada. I walked through the Sierra’s in the snow because I did not want to skip around. The continuity of a single line of trail from point to point is something that is important to me. That is what a thru-hike IS. I need to persevere. I am IN this, NOW. To Live Is To Die. Just keep walking. Hit the “continue” button, even when it’s dark.

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Later this same day, we came upon a crossing of Highway 3, where, lo and behold, what to our weary eyes and souls should appear? More trail magic! Trail Angels Steve and Steady, from Tulsa Oaklahoma, were there for us! Steady is a Triple Crowner (she has hiked the PCT, the Applachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail). They greeted us warmly and offered cold drinks. We sat on clean beach towels in the shade and chatted with them. Then they proceeded to pull magical things out from their truck. First, it was sweet pastry things, then five minutes later, it was chips. Another five minutes go by, and then Steve says “would you like some Cherry Pie”? and a happy Boone answers YES! Then another five minutes go by and they offer to take out trash for us, and as we are getting up to leave, they pull out a big container of candy. “Take as much as you like”. Again, such warmth and generousity. They spend their whole days doing this. Amazing!

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So, now here I am in Etna, CA at PCT mile 1597 and change. We arrived yesterday around noontime and easily got a hitch 10 miles into town by a friendly man who is a fire fighter for the Forest Service.

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Upon arriving in town, we were not able to find lodging at the local Motel, nor was there any more room at the Hiker Hut. It was nearly 100 degrees out, so we went to the Motel and just sat in the shade rummaging through the hiker bin. I found a whole bag of whole wheat tortillas! The woman who owns the Motel came out and started talking with us. She saw me rubbing my feet and asked me if I wanted to come inside and soak my feet. Had she read my mind? I had been fantasizing about a foot soak for the past three days, and here she was offering it up to me. The trail provides. Dream manifested! She was so kind, and brought us into her air conditioned home, plopped me on the couch in front of the TV where the movie The Hangover was playing, and made me an Epsom Salt foot soak. Seriously? How did this happen? Magic. Pure Magic. She even drove Prince to the Post Office to pick up a package, and later on found us a place to camp at the RV Park, and drove us there! Amazing! Now, comes the funny part. This woman had an amazing refridgerator magnet collection, and I mean amazing. This was the one that literally brought tears to my face:

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Last night we got situated in the RV park and got laundry, showers and resupply taken care of. I shopped at the local market for a picnic dinner, and we sat at an actual picnic table enjoying some hummus, fresh green salad, grapes, tomatoes, cheese and wine, followed by a great deep sleep. Life’s balance is restored.

This morning we got packed up and headed to the local bakery for a coffee and I got a chocolate coconut donut because they did not have chocolate croissants. Yes, I ate a donut. It sugared me up nice and good and Prince spend the next 20 minutes laughing.

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Weve now had breakfast too and it’s time to get back on trail. We just got offered a ride from the people at the table next to us the the diner where we sit right now. Let the Magic Continue. Let my darkness be fruitful.

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