California/Oregon border to Grouse Gap Shelter
I don’t sleep all night. Not once. Not even for a second.
This isn’t a surprise; I was awake all night throughout both nights of the test trip I took last month in preparation for this hike. But still, it’s frustrating to toss and turn for hours in the middle of nowhere.
Each time I change positions my little inflatable air mattress makes a crackly noise that sounds to me like a thunderclap in the otherwise silent night. Does Paul hear it? Do the other four hikers hear it? Am I keeping everyone awake? Are they all laying in their sleeping bags, rolling their eyes, wishing the noob would just settle down already?
I wish I could. Believe me, I wish.
So I don’t sleep, but eventually the sky begins to lighten and I chance a look at my phone to check the time. If it’s later than 5am, I’ll get up. If not, I won’t.
Paul hears me moving around and looks over from his tent to mine with an expression that says, “I’m so excited for you but also I will miss you every day.”
I start to cry as I pack up my sleeping bag and tent, flailing as I attempt to put everything in the best possible spot in my pack. Where should everything go? I don’t know anything, I think. What am I even doing out here?
“It’s only your first morning,” Paul says. “You’ll get a system and a routine down in a few days. Be patient, sweetheart.”
Oh the glorious comfort of being with the person who can read your mind and soothe your fears. Why am I doing this again? Why am I spending a month in the wilderness without my person?
Eventually all our things are packed away, and it’s time to begin. Our campsite is 0.3 miles north of the California/Oregon border, and Paul walks south with me so that I can make my hike a true border-to-border attempt.
There’s a small sign at the border, a simple piece of wood nailed to a tree that reads “Oregon / California”, in front of which I pose for a nervous first-day-of-school type photo, sign the trail register, and then we head back the way we came.
At the car, Paul cries and I cry.
“I’ll check in as often as I can,” I say.
“Be safe please; you’re my everything,” he replies.
Paul drives off down the forest road and I look at the trail that stretches out ahead of me. The moment has arrived when I am all alone and there is nothing left to do but hike, so I do.
The first hour inside my mind sounds like this:
Oh my god, I’m really out here. This is finally happening. Am I going to die? I hope I’m not going to die. Will I make any friends? Am I prepared? Of course I’m not prepared – I don’t know anything! I grew up in Manhattan! Is this a mistake? I hope this isn’t a mistake. Oh look, a tiny chipmunk! I am in the woods with the tiny scurrying chipmunks and all the other creatures seen and unseen. What will it take to become one of them, a wild animal who acts on instinct and isn’t obsessed with the internet and doesn’t second-guess every thought/action/decision? Is that why I’m out here? Why am I out here? Why does anyone do anything?
And so it goes, hiking and ruminating until I can no longer ignore that familiar feeling in my gut and am forced to finally do the thing I’ve been nervous about for months: I poop in the woods.
Getting back on trail the only think I can think is, “Well, I’m a real hiker now!” Who knew that pooping could bring you such a feeling of pride? Maybe this hike will be okay after all. Maybe I’ll be okay.
15 minutes later I get my period. Because OF COURSE THIS IS WHAT WOULD HAPPEN. And yet the only option is to deal with it and to keep hiking, so I deal with it and I keep hiking.
At 9:45am I stop for my first break of the day. I feel like I’ve been rushing. Why am I rushing? Why does everything feel to me like an overwhelmingly urgent to-do list that must get completed NOW, RIGHT NOW? Even out here, in a world without schedules and clocks and to-do list apps, I am still overwhelmed with the need to be productive, to be busy, to do and accomplish, to prove my worth. Oh well, I think. It’s still just the first day.
So I sit down and take my break, relaxing on a big rock overlooking a valley filled with trees that climb up onto the slopes of every mountain in the distance and I remind myself that the miles I need to cover each day are miles that I can do slowly. I have literally nothing else to do for the next 460 miles except keep hiking and stay alive. Hike, find water, eat, poop in the woods, find shelter, don’t get eaten by a bear, repeat.
The day heats up as I alternate between shaded forests and gorgeously exposed ridge walks that hug the sides of mountains and give me an 18-inch wide dirt path on which to put one foot after the other. This is my home now, I think. This 18-inch wide path that stretches for thousands of miles. This path will keep me safe.
At noon I find a flowing stream and stop to filter water, have lunch, and rest. I have hiked 12.5 miles, and soon I’m joined by two of the hikers I shared a campsite with last night. I’m grateful for the chance to make a better first (well, second) impression, now that I am slightly less insane with anxiety.
Our first topic of conversation, of course, is mileage. Earlier today when I had officially hiked 10 miles, I reached a collection of rocks and sticks formed into the numbers 1700. 1700 miles from Mexico, from the Southern terminus of the trail where these two hikers first began. 1700!
They tell me about the desert, about the deep snow and waist-high river crossings in the High Sierra, and about how good it feels to finally be in Oregon. They anxiously await the chance to hitch a ride into Bend later this month. “The beer!” they say longingly. “The beer.”
We eat our lunch and watch together as an older couple hikes by, completely naked. Naked, but with packs on their backs. What even is this world I’ve stumbled into?
My new friends get up to leave and I’m pretty sure that I won’t see them again, since they’re doing 25-30 mile days and I am… not.
“Wait!” I say. “Can you give me any advice?”
“Take care of your feet,” they both say immediately. “Stretch a lot. And don’t overdo it the first few days.”
And with a wave and a smile, they’re gone, trekking poles clacking away up the trail ahead.
I procrastinate a bit longer on my lunch break – it just feels so good to sit down. I’ve looked ahead at the map, and I know that once I stand up and heave my pack on again that I’ll be hiking uphill for the next four miles. How long does it take to get used to hiking with 25 pounds on your back? I guess we’ll see.
Over the next four miles, shit gets real. It’s just up, up, up. Forever up. Not steep, but endless, in the beating sun during the hottest part of the day. My feet protest and my shoulders protest and my cramping, menstruating uterus is like, “Hey! Remember me!” and I remind myself of something my friend Lauren once said, that it is a privilege to be able to choose one’s suffering, and I certainly chose to do this.
By the time I have hiked 17 total miles, I’ve arrived at Grouse Gap Shelter, a two-walled structure with a concrete floor and an adjacent outhouse that is filled with more flies than I have ever seen in one place in my entire life. But seeing as how it’s basically just a hole in the ground filled with human waste, baking in the hot summer sun, where else would the flies want to be?
Immediately I collapse on the ground, shoes and socks off, legs up one of the concrete walls, and I watch the little critters scurry around the shelter, eating big food crumbs among the trash left from past hikers who certainly didn’t abide by “leave no trace” principles. I examine my two blisters, one on each foot, and even though it’s only 3:10pm I know that I am not hiking a single mile more today. Didn’t my lunch buddies the thru-hikers tell me not to overdo it on Day 1?
So I don’t.
Instead, I stretch. I do a little yoga, wash my hands, legs, and feet the best I can, look ahead at tomorrow’s miles and potential water stops, eat snacks, find a place to pitch my tent near the shelter (I do not want to sleep on the concrete floor with critters running all over me), eat my cold-soaked dinner of freeze-dried refried beans, dried spinach and peas, tortilla chips, and olive oil, and crawl into my sleeping bag after the sun sets, whispering a quiet prayer that I am somehow able to avoid another sleepless night.