Here we go again (apparently I’m hiking the Arizona Trail?)

When I arrived in Cascade Locks last summer, officially marking the end of my hike of the Oregon section of the PCT, the only thing I could say for certain was, “Never again. Never, ever, ever again.”

The 26 days I spent on my first long-distance hike were the hardest and most miserable of my life. I cried almost every single day, and I have never felt more fragile and insecure and deeply uncomfortable than I did over the course of those 460 miles. I felt proud of myself for finishing, yes, but as I took those final few steps up to the Bridge of the Gods I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that long-distance backpacking was a one-and-done experience for me.

It was just so hard.

But here’s the thing about hard things: they change us. As miserable as I was all throughout my first long hike, I also felt alive and awake in a way that I have come to crave.

And so, over the winter, my conviction of “never again” soon became “well, maaaaybe one more time,” and I am now less than a week from setting out to solo-hike the 800-mile Arizona Trail. Is this a good idea? Who knows. I guess we’ll find out!

Over the past month, as I’ve been doing final prep for this adventure, I’ve been thinking a lot about both my fears and my “why”, my reasons for doing this incredibly hard thing all over again.

So first, the fears.

I am afraid of the pain. Physically, I was in an unexpectedly brutal amount of discomfort last year, to the point that I couldn’t begin hiking each morning without first taking ibuprofen. My hopes of reaching peak hiking fitness before setting out for Arizona fell apart -first by being house-bound with some seasonal mood disorder episodes, and then by the rampant wildfires here in Oregon that created unsafe air quality for weeks on end. So no, I am not nearly as fit as I had hoped, and that makes me very nervous.

I am afraid of the solitude. I had never known true loneliness until I started solo-hiking. Last year’s trip helped me to realize that I am, in fact, an extrovert, and the moments of connection, laughter, and commiserating with other hikers are my favorite memories. The Arizona Trail is much less traveled than the Pacific Crest Trail, especially in the fall, and I have been warned that I’ll likely go multiple days without seeing or speaking with another person, which is something I have never experienced in my life. Being this isolated and alone will be entirely new for me, and I do not know what to expect.

I am afraid of the water scarcity. Water is hard to come by in the desert, and most hikers choose to do this trail in the spring, when the winter snowmelt makes for more plentiful water access. From my meticulous research, it’s likely that I’ll often go 20-30 miles between reliable water sources, and in some sections it’s even longer than that. This scares me. First, because rationing water was mentally exhausting the few times I had to do it last year, and I foresee a feeling of low-grade water-related anxiety for the duration of this hike. Secondly, water is heavy. I am already not nearly as fit as I would like to be, and once I add five days worth of food and 6+ liters of water to my pack it will weigh over 30 pounds. That will be my heaviest pack weight to date, and I’m scared that I won’t be able to handle it.

I am afraid of the harsh conditions, and of all the sharp/poisonous things. This is where my beginner status in the wilderness really shows, because I am intensely fearful of bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, scorpions, tarantulas, lightning storms, flash floods, hunters, and hard-to-navigate/heavily overgrown trail. I have researched these things, and I know that the only way to get more comfortable is through experience, and yet I hate that that’s true and, to be honest, I am just absolutely terrified.

I am afraid of my own weakness. I suppose I could have just shared this one fear with you and skipped everything else, because this is the most honest thing I can say as I head into this hike. I am afraid that I am not strong enough, tough enough, or resilient enough to do this. And the truth is that I might not be able to do it. There is a reason why such a high percentage of those who set out on thru-hikes do not end up completing them. Failure is a real possibility, and that scares me. How will I feel if I fail to finish this hike? What will other people think? Why, after 32 years on this earth, do I still fucking care what other people think?

So yes, I am afraid. I am afraid of lots of things. And I think that part of my desire to do this hike is because I am afraid, but I also know that the “why” behind this second attempt at a long-distance solo trek is more complicated than just a chance to face fears.

I want to do this because I feel stifled by the comfort of modern life. This is a privileged problem to have, but it’s the truth. I have recently realized that the opposite of courage isn’t fear, it’s comfort, and I want to be someone who regularly chooses courage over comfort in all areas of my life – in my work, my activism, my relationships, and my personal development. And as Annie Dillard says, “You can’t test courage cautiously,” so here I go.

Another driving motivation for me is that I love the simplicity of hiking, the fact that life is drilled down into its most essential components: walk from point A to point B, find water, don’t die. There is something immensely powerful about having that kind of singular sense of purpose.

And then, of course, there is the age-old curiosity about the world and desire to explore. What’s out there in the wilds of Arizona? How does it feel to walk amongst cacti all day every day? What will it be like to stand at the bottom of the Grand Canyon? I can’t wait to find out.

But overall, I don’t know what to expect from this hike. It’s not my first time anymore, but there are still so many unknowns. Will I be as miserable as last year? If I am able to finish, will I finally feel tough and self-sufficient? Will I care less about fitting in and being liked? Will I be strong enough not to need validation?

I suppose we’re about to find out, huh?

Along the way I’ll be posting to Instagram, telling honest stories of the experience in real time whenever I have cell reception, and then when I get home I’ll take all of my notes and photos and turn them into blog posts for you.

Until then, here are two quotes I’m keeping with me throughout this journey:

“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don’t.”
— Stephen King

“Here’s the truth about telling stories with your life. It’s going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you’re not going to want to do it. People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. Joy costs pain.”
— Donald Miller

What I’m eating on the Arizona Trail

A lot of people have been asking me why I’m hiking the Arizona Trail this fall.

It’s a fair question, especially given how miserable I was all throughout my hike last year, and I should probably come up with a good, concise answer.

In the meantime though, when people ask me why I’m doing this hike, I tell them that I’m doing it for the snacks. Because really, no snacks are as delicious as the snacks one eats after a 20+ mile day of hiking. Is there anything better than sitting in the dirt, utterly worn out, and eating peanut-butter-filled pretzels while you watch the sun set over the mountains? Seriously, those will be the best fucking pretzels of your entire life, I assure you.

And with only a little over a week to go until I start my hike (ah!), I’ve been scrambling to finish packing up my resupply boxes. Below, you’ll find a breakdown of all the food that I’ll be eating for the next 6+ weeks. Feel free to take bets on which things I’ll get sick of first!

Bars

Picky Bars
Real talk: Picky Bars are literally the only thing I didn’t get tired of eating on my hike last year. I ate 1-2 every day, and still wanted to eat them when I got home. So last week I walked into Picky HQ here in Bend and was like, “Yep, I’ll need 90 bars” because you best believe I’m bringing enough for two per day.

Disclaimer: I received a discount on my order, which is funny because of everything on this list Picky Bars are the one thing I’d pay double to be able to eat on trail. Shhh, don’t tell the Picky people.

 

Navitas Organics Superfood Bars
Can I be honest? 99% of the time I really don’t like energy bars that aren’t Picky Bars. I did a huge taste-test of different bars for this upcoming hike, and they were all just… not very good. The only ones that I liked enough to bring with me were these, mostly because they’re so different from Picky Bars that I’m not constantly comparing them. They’re sort of light and airy, and yet crunchy and filled with nutrient-dense ingredients. I’m trying not to have a dumpster fire diet on this hike, and I’m thrilled that I found these bars.

Nuts

Navitas Organics
I am not bringing trail mix this year. Hiker blasphemy, I know. But the thought of it just sort of makes me want to throw up, so I’ve been searching for an alternative. Can we talk about these Cacao Hemp Almonds for a second? Because they are magic. I cannot stop eating them! I had to order more last week because I ate a bunch of the ones that were supposed to go in my resupply boxes. Oops? I’m also bringing the Coconut Hemp Pumpkin Seeds. Delicious nutrition forever!

Protein Powder

Vega
Okay wait, I lied before when I said that Picky Bars were the only thing I didn’t get sick of on last year’s hike, because there was never a day when I didn’t want to drink my little chocolate Vega protein shake. They have a few kinds of protein powder, but I prefer the Chocolate Protein & Greens one. Just mix with water and you’re good to go.

 

Dried Fruit

I cannot overstate how much I craved fruit last year. Every day, no matter what, I fantasized about eating fruit. I was undecided about bringing dried fruit this time around, mostly because it’s expensive without being calorie-dense, but screw it, this is my fancy hiking food indulgence.

Peeled Snacks Organic Dried Apple

Pressed by KIND Fruit Bars

Granola

This is my only real culinary question mark. I love granola, and in an effort to bring food that I actually like and also try to pack in a bunch of nutrients wherever possible, I’ve made myself special little granola bags that contain a mix of Trader Joe’s granolas, Navitas Organics Chia Powder, flaxseed meal, dried coconut milk powder, and freeze-dried fruit. All I need to do is add water and I have a meal in a bag.

Will I wind up hating this? Will it be too messy? Will the coconut milk powder get weird and clumpy over time? I guess I’ll find out!

 

Nut Butter Sandwiches

Naturally More
I’ve really been enjoying this brand of nut butter, and love that it contains flax and probiotics as well. Bonus nutrients! Not to mention the nice little squeezy packages.

Sandwich Thins
If I never again eat another tortilla with nut butter it will be too soon. I was only on trail for 26 days last year, but by the end of it I couldn’t even think about tortillas with nut butter. Bleck. So this year I’m trying something that’s still lightweight but is more bread-like.

Salty Things

I love salty, crunchy snacks. Will I still love them as much while hiking in the hot, dry desert? Hopefully! Here’s what I’m bringing:

Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter Filled Pretzels

Maya Kaimal Naan Chips 
I never want to not be eating these. When I eat the first chip I already feel sad that at some point the bag will be empty.

Trader Joe’s Zesty Nacho Kale Chips
How do these only have an average rating of 3-stars?? They are 5-star all the way.

Weird Cold-Soaked Bean Dinner (Yum!)

This will be my second year without a stove, and I’m curious to see if I’ll want one the longer I’m out on trail. For now though, I have my screw-top container in which to cold-soak the following items, plus homemade taco seasoning and nutritional yeast.

Dehydrated Refried Beans  // Spinach & Peas // Olive Oil
Juanitas Tortilla Chips (Why do other brands even exist? All hail Juanitas.)

 

Sweet Treats

Trader Joe’s Scandinavian Swimmers Gummy Candy
How are these so good? How how howwwwww. I’m also completely delighted by their unapologetic rip-off of the Swedish Fish branding.

Chocolate
I’m a little concerned about having a food bag that is entirely covered in melted chocolate, but let’s be honest, it’s worth the risk.

Electrolytes 

I plan to do a lot of sweating during an 800-mile desert hike. I’m bringing both Tri-Berry Nuun and caffeinated Wildberry Nuun.

I’m also bringing S-Caps, which I’ve never used but have had recommended to me by three different people. Worth a shot!

 

 

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means that I might receive a percentage of any product you purchase using the links above. You’ll pay the same price you would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support my ongoing goal to provide real, honest stories about being a beginner in the wilderness. Thanks for your support!

And now, rest

I am back home now.

There is a toilet and a bed and a shower. There are fluffy clean towels. Towels!

I can cuddle my cats and my husband whenever I want and as much as I want. I can wrap myself in a soft blanket and drink hot tea while watching Netflix. Netflix, oh my god. What even is this luxury??

This is little Milo and I cannot stop cuddling him

It feels good and right to be back home, but I also feel sad. There is so much I still need to process from my hike, and I see a lot of existential journaling in the near future.

This hike brought up so many questions for me, questions like: What does it mean to live a bold and courageous life? How do our beliefs about ourselves keep us trapped? How do we change when change is hard? How can I leave the world better than I found it? Where can I have the most impact and do the most good? Where am I still seeking outside validation, and how can I let that go?

Like I said, I see a lot of existential journaling in my future.

In the meantime, I’ve made a little directory of all the blog posts from my hike, which you can find by clicking the “Oregon PCT 2016” tab up in the navigation.

You’ll also find links in the navigation to my gear list and to the resources I used and loved while preparing for my hike. I hope it’s helpful!

And now I need to get back to the business of napping, which is serious business in these first few post-hike days. Napping and eating. So much eating.

Day 26: Holy shit, I did it. I DID IT!

10.7 miles
Eagle Creek Alternate mile 4.8 – Cascade Locks
Total miles so far: 459.7

I sleep well down here on the Eagle Creek Trail. It’s not nearly as cold at the lower elevation, with the warm damp air, and I’m wonderfully cozy in my sleeping bag.

As I pack everything away I can’t believe that I’m doing it for the last time. I will be in my own bed tonight! What will that even be like?

I grab my little shovel and walk into the woods to dig my final cathole. No more digging holes in which to poop! No more dirty toilet paper to hike out with! If there’s one thing I will not miss about this hike, it’s the bathroom situation.

Hands sanitized and pack on my back, it’s time to hike. The trail is easy, dirt and rocks, one waterfall after another, and I pass each one in anticipation of the one waterfall I’ve been waiting for this entire hike: Tunnel Falls.

Finally I reach it, this tunnel that has been carved out behind a thundering waterfall, and I am lucky enough to have it entirely to myself. Sunday morning in the church of nature, indeed.

Look at that little tunnel!

With three miles to go I finally have phone reception, and I call Paul. He’s disappointed that he won’t be there to greet me when I finish, but I promise him that it’s okay. There’s actually something fitting about finishing this thing by myself.

I know I’m getting close to the trailhead when I start to cross paths with squeaky clean day hikers in their brightly colored clothing, and the scent of their detergent and soap overwhelms me after so many days in the wilderness. I’ve never noticed it before, but man-made cleanliness has a very distinct smell. It’s not unpleasant – surely I’m the one giving off the unpleasant smell – but it’s powerful nonetheless.

The Eagle Creek Trail ends at a parking lot, and from here I follow the directions I ripped out of my guidebook before leaving home. I walk to the end of the parking lot, stop at the pit toilet, and follow the paved road down to the campground. At the edge of the campground I find a sign for the Gorge Trail, which I follow until it runs into a paved bike path onto which I am to turn right and continue on for two miles. That’s it, just two more miles to go.

I am back in civilization now, surrounded by cars and highways and power lines and buildings, and all of the sudden I cannot stand being alone. Not now, not right now.

So I call my mother, my sweet mother who has been going out of her mind with fear this past month, and the relief in her voice is profound when I tell her that I am just two miles from being done. We talk for about twenty minutes, and I try to answer her question about why anyone would want to do this. Why would you choose suffering when you don’t have to? How is it possible to enjoy something that feels absolutely awful while you’re doing it?

I tell her that I did not do this hike for fun, and in sharing this I also try to explain the difference I see between fun and joy. Fun is going to a party, to the movies, or eating ice cream with a friend. Fun is wonderful and necessary, but it is fleeting. Joy – deep, lasting joy – has only ever come to me through doing something hard, something I cared about and had to work for.

I’ve heard it said that a good story is one in which a character wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it. And isn’t this also what makes a good life?

I wanted to walk from the California/Oregon border to the Oregon/Washington border, and there were obstacles every single day. Blisters and pain, thirst and exhaustion, bears and rattlesnakes, insecurity, terror, loneliness, and doubt. But in just one more mile I will be standing at the Bridge of the Gods and I will have done it, I will have hiked 460 miles. Me, the girl who grew up in Manhattan and who had never been camping a night in her life until this summer. It might not have been all that much fun while I was doing it, but the joy I feel at this accomplishment can never be taken away.

My mother and I say goodbye with half a mile to go, because it turns out that I do want to finish this thing alone.

The bike path runs parallel to a main road at this point, and cars rush by on my right, filled with passengers who have no idea what this moment feels like for me. Finally, I can see the bridge in the distance and I start to cry. I am hiking faster and faster, almost running, and when I reach the sign that says, “Welcome to Historic Cascade Locks” I collapse on the grass beneath it and sob.

I did it.

Against all odds, despite every single obstacle, I did it.

I really actually did it.

Day 25: Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

23.4 miles
PCT mile 2106.5 – Eagle Creek Alternate mile 4.8
Total miles so far: 449

Another night, another relatively sleepless experience. I am so tired. I am just so tired.

My emotions are all over the place as I pack my things away. This is it, this is my last full day on trail. Tomorrow I will arrive in Cascade Locks, and I will be done. Am I excited to be done? I’m not sure. This hike has been awful, but it’s been amazing too. I feel like I spent the majority of every day in pain, crying, questioning, and having my ego shredded. But did I get what I came for? Do I have any more clarity about who I am and what I’m doing than before I left?

I think about this as I start hiking the 1,500 foot climb that begins just beyond my campsite. The morning is cool and lightly foggy, and the endorphins of hiking uphill are enough to halt my melancholy thought spiral.

At the top of the climb I put my headphones in, and as I hike up and down, up and down through the woods and along ridges I listen to the final chapters of Twilight. The book is ending, this hike is ending – what does it all mean?

I take two short breaks throughout the morning, once to filter water and once to eat a jam-filled tortilla, but I’m too restless to sit still for long. Cascade Locks is calling and I must go.

As morning turns to afternoon I find myself hiking into the wind along the edge of yet another rocky ridge, unable to untangle myself from the endless questions that are swirling in my mind. All of the sudden, when I reach what seems to be the exact midpoint of this particular ridge, the wind stops. It’s been whipping around me for hours, and just like that, the air is utterly still. I stop and look out at the mountains and trees and land below me, stretching out in every direction, and out of nowhere I remember a line from one of Mary Oliver’s poems, which I have not read since college, where she says, “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”

Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

As I stand there on the edge of the ridge, I know that this is the truest question I could ever ask myself. Because of course the answer is yes, I am breathing just a little and calling it a life.

I have everything I need, I am safe and loved and free, but I am holding myself back. I am not fully open to myself, to others, to the world. I am not fully alive. I am on the sidelines. I am comfortable. I am breathing just a little, and calling it a life.

This hike, these past 25 days, this is the first time I have ever truly felt alive.

It has been unbearably miserable, more miserable than not, but I have felt alive. Which is why as happy as I am to go home tomorrow, I am also afraid of going home. Home is comfort. Home is where I have always been quick to take the easy path, the path of least resistance, to only be partially engaged in my life. It feels like I am having a moment of clarity right here, some kind of epiphany, but will it be enough to keep me awake once I get off the trail?

I hope so. I really hope so.

At 3pm I reach the Eagle Creek Trail Junction. This is where I had planned to camp for the night, but I am here much earlier than I expected. Checking my phone I see a text from Tux – they’re in Cascade Locks! Dragon and Neon are hiking out tonight or tomorrow morning, but Tux is staying until tomorrow afternoon to meet up with a friend. He might still be there when I arrive!

Armed with this new information I decide to hike on. I wander through the picnic tables to try and find the Indian Spring Trail, which will lead me down to the Eagle Creek Trail, an alternate to the PCT that goes directly into Cascade Locks and is apparently too beautiful to miss.

Almost immediately I regret my decision to take this route. The Indian Springs Trail is some kind of downhill rocky hell. It’s so steep that I find myself unsure of where to position my feet with every step, and I stop every few minutes to yell and curse. Of all the different types of hiking, I am worst at steep downhill hiking, and it’s only the fact that I can’t bear the thought of turning around and backtracking even a single step that prevents me from returning to the PCT.

When I finally reach the Eagle Creek Trail intersection the terrain flattens out, but I’m unsure which way to go. Left? Right? The GPS function on my phone’s map is wonky right now, so I pull out my paper maps and make my best semi-educated guess. I take a left at the fork; I think the trail goes this way?

For the next few miles I hike along a thin strip of trail with a feeling of mild panic. Will I be able to find a campsite? There is only vertical rock on one side of me and a steep drop-off on the other. Will that change soon? How long will I have to hike before I find a place to sleep? And what about water, will I find water on this alternate trail?

In the back of my mind I know that I will find water and a campsite – the map indicates an abundance of both – but I am too tired to be rational right now. I am just too tired.

A mile later the trail intersects with a small waterfall, and I collect one liter, just in case this is the only water I find before there’s a flat spot to camp. This is one of those days where everything is fine until it’s not, and I cannot express how DONE I suddenly am with hiking right now. No more hiking. I hate hiking. Done done done.

I pass one possible tentsite, but it’s well below the trail and the climb down looks pretty sketchy. I am too tired for sketchy climbs. The next flat area is already taken by two people who are cuddling and cooking dinner, and I don’t want to intrude, so I keep going. Am I ever going to be able to stop hiking? Is this the trail’s final test for me? Fuck, man.

Eventually I do find a place to camp, a big flat area with room for at least six tents, right by Eagle Creek. There’s one other woman there, who only speaks French, and she is sitting by the campfire she’s built, eating noodles and drying some wet clothing.

This woman and I exist in amicable silence as we do our evening chores, and I can’t believe that I hiked over 23 miles today. That was unexpected! It means I’ll be finished much earlier than I planned tomorrow, and that I’ll arrive in Cascade Locks before Paul gets there to pick me up, but that’s okay. Maybe I’ll see Tux! And please, it’s not like I’m going to complain about getting to sit on a bench for a few hours. Sitting down for that long sounds orgasmic right now.

And so, filled with thoughts of tomorrow, of sitting down, of Paul, and of finally being done with this hike, I climb into my tent for the very last time. This is it, I tell myself. Just 11 miles to go.