Day 2: Thirst vs Rattlesnake

22.1 miles
Grouse Gap Shelter to PCT mile 1727.6
Total miles so far: 39.1

I am awake all night. Again.

The wind is whipping around my tent, for hours and hours, and it brings with it a continuous soundtrack of rustling noises that I am convinced are not just the sound of wind but also the sound of big terrifying creatures who have come to eat my face.

I know that this is not logical and that my tent is not surrounded by a menagerie of wild beasts all night long, but when you are new to camping and you are laying on the ground in a flimsy nylon envelope in the middle of nowhere and you are all alone, every single sound is the scariest sound you’ve ever heard.

You’re fine, I tell myself. You’re safe. It’s just the wind.

And yet, I do not sleep. Not one minute. Not one.

At 4:30am my entire pelvic area erupts in cramps. My gynecologist and I are pretty sure that I have endometriosis, and the cramps I get during the first few days of my period can be debilitating in their intensity. I swallow down some ibuprofen, curl up into a little ball, and wait for the worst of the pain to pass. If there’s one thing I don’t have the energy to deal with during this already super challenging adventure, it’s endometriosis.

Eventually the drugs kick in, and by 6:45am I am back on trail, in search of water and feeling nervously optimistic about what this day will bring. I made it through my first full day and night, so that’s something, right? It’s a small victory, but sometimes small victories are everything.

The trail this morning is a thin ribbon of dark wet earth, winding between tall grass that climbs uphill on one side and slopes downhill on the other. In the distance I see black shapes that look like cows, and I wonder if the trail will take me to where they’re grazing.

30 minutes later, I have my answer. I am stopped, the trail ahead entirely blocked by cows. They are everywhere, at least 20 of them, and they are huge. Have you ever stood at arms length from 20 cows, all by yourself, with no idea what would set them off and make them charge at you? Do cows even do that? Do they charge? My stare is fixed warily on the couple of them that have large, sharp horns. Eventually I look down at the ground and see water running across the trail, seeping from a small spot in the grass, and I realize that the cows are here for the same reason that I am here – it’s the only water source for miles.

Great, I think. Now, not only do I need to somehow get around this herd of very large animals, but I first need to squat down on the ground amongst them and fill up my empty water bottles, all without getting kicked in the head.

I start speaking in what I hope is a soothing voice as I slowly inch forward. “Hello, friendly cows! I am not here to hurt you. I am just thirsty, like you. Will you please share your water with me? I don’t need much!”

Crouching down to the seeping spring with my empty water collection bag, I continue babbling in this semi-incoherent way until I have enough water to get me through the next stretch of hiking.

I stand up carefully, twenty pairs of cow eyes watching me, and I debate the best way to get these animals to move aside a few inches so that I can squeeze by and continue on my way.

And then I remember the bell. The bell!

I reach into my hipbelt pocket and pull out the small bear bell that was an impulse purchase at REI. This bell is not very loud, and I am under no false belief that it would actually do anything to protect me from a bear, but I quickly find that having it in my hand, shaking it back and forth, listening to the light chiming sound over and over, is soothing. It’s a sort of talisman, and I ring the bell with one hand, hold my trekking poles in the other hand, walk forward, and in this way I am able to move ahead, passing one cow at a time, and get myself safely to the other side of the herd.

I speed walk down the trail after that, until I’ve rounded a corner, out of sight, and I can finally stop to filter the water I’ve collected. Putting the bell back in my pocket, I decide that I am grateful for this silly item that makes simple music and, for some reason, helps me feel less alone. This bell, I tell myself, will get me all the way to Washington. Just a girl and her bell, hiking 460 miles through the forest, making friends with cows.

The rest of the morning is uneventful. I fill my water bottles at a small faucet I pass, and sit at a picnic table nearby to rinse the socks I wore yesterday. With two pairs of socks, my plan is to rinse the pair from the day before, strap them to the outside of my pack, and let them dry for the next day. They won’t actually be clean, of course, but what is “clean” anyway, on a month-long backpacking trip?

As the sun heats up and it creeps toward noon, the trail dumps me out on a paved road that goes under I-5. Cars and trucks are barreling by and even after just a day and a half in the woods this feels disorienting. They’re driving so fast! And after a half mile of road walking it’s a relief to get back to the quiet peace of the trail.

12 miles covered so far, and it’s time for a lunch break. I cross a bridge over a dry creek and find, on the other side, a flat patch of ground tucked in the shade, out of sight from the trail. The most perfect little lunch spot there ever was!

I spread out my ground sheet, remove my shoes and socks, and lay with my back on the hard ground, so grateful to be in the shade and to be still. I spend the next hour and a half eating tortillas smothered in nut butter, rehydrating, and luxuriating in the glory of being horizontal. I pull out my external battery for the first time and marvel at how it charges my iPhone from 28% to 83% in under an hour. Technological sorcery!

It’s a struggle to resume hiking after lunch. Laying down is just so nice, and it is now 1:30pm, the hottest part of the day, and I have 8 more miles to do, most of them uphill. Oh well, time to hike.

I drain the last of my water bottle with a mile to go. I didn’t bring enough water, I’ve been rationing for over an hour, and I’m thirsty. The final mile until I reach the next water source, which will also be my campsite for the night, seems impossibly long.

I finally reach it, the little clearing in which there is supposed to be a small piped spring, and the first thing I see is a group of four hikers, all peering down at the water source.

“Careful,” one of them says. “There’s a huge rattlesnake coiled up right next to the water.”

I take a step closer until I can see it and he’s right, it is a rattlesnake, and it is BIG.

Fuck.

I am out of water, and I have just hiked 20 miles, the longest hiking day of my entire life. I used what felt like all the energy and willpower in the world to get myself to this spot, but I know there is no way I can camp here. I’ve been having enough trouble sleeping as it is, and knowing there’s a rattlesnake nearby? Nope. No way. Hard pass. That water is all yours, dude.

We all decide that it’s too dangerous to fill up our water bottles here, so the only option is to keep hiking. The map shows another water source in a little over two miles, and I have no choice but to fall in line behind these other hikers and do what feels like a dehydrated death march.

When we finally (finally!) reach the water, there are at least 15 other hikers already there, setting up their shelters on small patches of flat ground, and I suddenly feel an overwhelming sense of panic. What if there isn’t a spot for me to camp? I know that I cannot walk one more step. I must camp here. So before filling my water, before eating, before speaking to anyone, before anything else, I desperately seek out a place to put my stuff down. There is one small area left, and it’s not quite flat, situated as it is on a slight downward slope, but it’s better than nothing and I throw my pack to the ground and claim it as my own. 

I feel a great sense of relief as I sit down in the dirt next to my pack. The day is over. The cows are behind me and the rattlesnake is behind me and dehydration is behind me. There is water here. The sunset is incomprehensibly beautiful. I did it.

Finally, I can rest.