37 miles in 48 Hours

FAIL: to fall short; to leave undone

Here are my trail journal entries from the past few days:

PCT Day One: 11 miles

Our trip began with Husband driving my brother Monte and me to Bridge of the Gods, a toll bridge that crosses the Columbia River.  The toll is one dollar for cars and 50 cents for pedestrians.  Should you choose to fork over your 50 cents for the privilege of a walk across the mighty Columbia, your toll doesn’t even buy you a shoulder.  You just walk in the car lane.  Quickly and carefully, I assume.  We chose the lower risk and cheaper alternative and stayed in the car – three for the price of two.

The trailhead sign announced that it was 507 miles to Canada.  Canada being listed on the trail sign with other destinations cracked me up.  You can hike to a lake, a mountain, or another country.  All choices are equally valid.

My brother and I didn’t start hiking until 11am.  It was late and hot but we managed to make it approximately 11 miles before stopping to eat dinner and make camp.

Along the way, we passed lots of day hikers, trail runners, a scout troop, and a retired couple that was adding an 80 mile Washington PCT segment to the 500 miles they had already done in California this year.

We also passed a solo hiker doing a short segment of the PCT who had decided to give himself a trail name.  He introduced himself as “Gadget Guy” and seemed to view his 55 pound pack as a source of pride rather than foolishness.  He had a solar panel on his backpack to recharge the batteries necessary to keep his iPod and GPS running.  We passed Gadget Guy in the afternoon while he was resting.  He was part way through his second day on the trail and had managed to hike only as far as we’d hiked in an afternoon.  If that isn’t a plug for the ultra light approach to backpacking, I don’t know what is.

I ate a belly full of Stovetop Stuffing for dinner and found and a tent spot with a peek-a-boo view of Mt. Adams.  It looks far away, but we’ll be hiking around the base in just a few more days.

I am looking forward to my fleece-lined stuff sack pillow.

Today’s highlights include great views of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams and watching Monte tell Gadget Guy with a straight face that he lost his foot in a bear attack.  Today’s lowlight was trailside nettles that managed to sting my hand, arm and legs before I realized what was happening.

PCT Day Two: 20 miles

– Morning –

Last night it felt like I slept with the light on because the moon was so full.  I didn’t sleep as well as I would have liked because I did that thing I sometimes do when camping or backpacking – needing to go to the bathroom but not wanting to be troubled to remove myself from my cozy sleeping bag, unzip the tent, and travel the six feet required for relief.  My brain and bladder debated for hours until I finally relented.  Finally, I was able to sleep in more than twenty minute stretches.

I woke at first light and was dressed and out of my tent in time to see the first peek of the sun above the distant hills.  My tent was perfectly placed.  From my spot on the ridge, I could see the sun rise then turn and watch the moon set.  Within minutes, the night had turned to day and I got to witness the smooth transformation.

I draped my tent over some bushes in the sunlight, attempting to dry the morning dew and avoid the extra pack weight of a wet tent.  I went to wake Monte, but he looked so cozy and I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  He hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours in the days preceding this trip, so I decided to let him sleep.

But soon we’ll need to hike down the trail because we are both nearly out of water and the next reliable source is eight miles away.

– Evening –

We didn’t see Gadget Guy all day, despite pounding the trail for twenty miles.  We’re betting he turned off at some point, but we could be wrong.

I enjoyed the first 13-14 miles of hiking, but it stopped begin fun at about the 15 mile mark.  It started getting unpleasant around 17 miles and became absolutely torturous at 18.

The last two miles, there was a war of voices in my head: one argued on behalf of my aching feet for longer strides so that my feet wouldn’t have to hit the ground so many times.  The other argued on behalf of the chaffed areas everywhere my quick-dry underwear touched my thighs for short strides to avoid rubbing the raw skin.  In the end, I alternated between shuffling down the trail like an old woman and moving with long bow-legged strides and a wince.

I arrived at camp a few minutes behind Monte and found him in the creek, fully clothed, lying face down in the shallow water.  I stripped down to essentials and hopped in too.  My feet hurt too badly to brave bare feet on rocks, so I wore my shoes and socks right into the water.

Monte warned me with sincere concern, “If you put your head under, you might not have the energy to lift it again.”  Apparently, a few minutes before he’d had trouble convincing his muscles to lift his head back out of the water for oxygen.  We were both exhausted.

Refreshed ever-so-slightly by the cold water, we set up camp and cooked dinner.

I force-fed myself a box of mushroom couscous.  Exhaustion trumped appetite, but I knew I needed the calories so I kept shoveling sporkfulls into my mouth.

I crawled into the tent, swallowed some Advil and passed out.

PCT Day Three: 6 miles

Both Monte and I were moving slow this morning.

There was some prep work to do before getting on the trail.  I needed to doctor my blistered feet before slipping them inside the wet socks and shoes I wore into the creek last night.  Blistered feet hurt; blistered feet with prune wrinkled toes don’t feel any better.

The worst part, by far, was the chaffing in my…um…underwear region.  Unbelievably painful.

I waddled down the trail commando and bow-legged for a mile or so and then decided to try some lotion to lessen the friction and ease the discomfort.

Holy mother of burning!  That made it exponentially worse!  Apparently, the skin in places I couldn’t see was actually broken open and not pleased with whatever chemicals were in my sun lotion.

With tears streaming and teeth clenched, I waddled another mile or so waiting for the endorphins to kick in.

We ate breakfast on a bridge over Wind River and then completed the journey to Panther Creek Campground.  We pitched tents in the campground, reviewed the maps and potential “bail out” points (it was clear that the 20 miles per day required to reach our planned destination wasn’t going to happen) and took naps.

My sleep was troubled.  Should I bail now or keep going? Could I waddle another 40 miles to the next bail out point?  Did I want to?

The biggest question was: Why was I hiking?  The closest I could come to an answer was: To spend time with my brother and get a taste of what through hiking the PCT would feel like.

So, I considered the 37 lovely miles we’d shared and realized that from a sibling time standpoint, I was satisfied.  I could have enjoyed more, but I had had enough to make the trip worthwhile.

From a through hike experience perspective, I had also learned a lot.  As I pondered whether to bail out or press on, I decided to try to write about our morning and the choice ahead.

I reached in my backpack and found my pen busted.  The outer casing had snapped in two pieces, so the click top only pushed the loose plastic around, it didn’t pop the ink out (eventually, I would find the inner ink stick core still intact and write my notes with the skewer thin piece).  But, it seemed like a sign.  I’m willing to be miserable if I get a good story out of it, but to be miserable without the ability to capture the experience on paper to share with others later…what’s the point of that?

I emerged from my tent convinced of several things:

  1.  My flesh eating underwear was going to make hiking five more days miserable.
  2. The best scenery was still to come.
  3. Husband would probably rather pick me up at a campground he can find easily on a map today than some numbered logging road in the wilderness tomorrow.
  4. I don’t have enough demons chasing me to be a through hiker.

So, I broke the news to my brother and sent Husband this message on the GPS device:

“Come get meat Panther Creek Campground.”

I hoped he could figure out to come get me [space] at Panther Creek Campground.  If not, I hoped he was feeling like a carnivore in need of a long drive.

A few hours later, Husband confirmed that he was on his way.  For better or worse, in sickness and in health, when a spouse does something you knew was insane and you have to drive four hours to rescue them, to love and to cherish…

Monte decided to continue hiking alone.  He couldn’t stomach driving twelve miles by car back to the place we started on foot 37 miles ago (the trail designers valued experience over efficiency, apparently).

After a long day of waiting and a long drive home, I finally crawled into bed at 1:30 in the morning and slept the sleep of the satisfied.

PCT: Epilogue

It was weird to try to answer Husband’s question about why I stopped.  I think it boils down to: my underwear.  My feet were tired, but not deal-breaking tired.  My back was stiff, but not deal-breaking stiff.  But, the pain from my flesh eating underwear was what made walking unbearable.  I confess, I could have never predicted that would be what made it seem impossible to go on.

37 miles in 48 hours was technically a failure.  I didn’t reach my stated goal.  But, in the end, I think I found what I was looking for: a few days outside, with my brother, challenging our bodies.

My brother’s most recent text messages confirm that my choice to turn back was a good one:

“Bugs unreal.  Have mom pick up in Stevenson.”

After pushing on for two more days, my brother is now backtracking to be picked up right back where we started.

Bummer.

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8 thoughts on “37 miles in 48 Hours

  1. Having recently finished Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, I found myself dreaming about embarking on an equally challenging adventure. Your account of the trip makes me question a mama’s sanity in setting such goals. Do remember, though, sometimes it’s not the destination but instead the journey that gives meaning to a trip.

  2. What wonderful descriptions! I’ve done enough hiking and camping in my life to understand a bit of what you went through, though not quite to that level. Good for you for sticking it out as long as you did!

    1. Thanks! It was mostly joyful with a side of discomfort. My brother’s most recent note was comforting: “You didn’t miss anything but suffering.” I’m glad I called it quits when I did.

  3. This is amazing. I have complete respect for backpackers because it’s not something that comes naturally. And the ability to realize you were done is an even bigger accomplishment in my opinion.

    1. Backpacking for a couple days feels natural and soul filling, but I don’t think I have the through-hiker gene. Being willing to stop when things stop being fun is new for me. I’m taking it as a sign of personal growth.

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