Day 10: Gradual forward progress

13.9 miles
PCT mile 1845.4 – PCT mile 1859.3
Total miles so far: 171.2

When I wake up, I know one thing for sure: I am not going to quit the trail today.

I will hike as slowly as I need to, take as many breaks as I want, stop as early in the day as necessary, but I will not quit. Not now, not like this, not on the side of a highway because I had one really tough day.

“I am just on a leisurely day hike,” I tell myself.

I pack things up slowly, taking time to drink water and eat my favorite flavor Picky Bar for breakfast. It’s a lazy morning, and I don’t start hiking until after 7:30am. “Just a day hike,” I repeat. “Just a calm and easy day hike.”

I’ve gone less than a half mile when I reach another water cache, where a hiker named Doug is sitting, making coffee, and waiting for his daughter who camped about nine miles back, where the beagle fundraiser trail angels were, in one of the only spots within Crater Lake National Park where camping is allowed.

I sit and chat with Doug for about twenty minutes, mixing chocolate protein powder into one of my water bottles. What’s the rush? I have all the time in the world, right? This is my new attitude, and I am fully committed to it. And plus, the elevation profile of my map tells me that I’ll be climbing uphill for most of the day, and I’m in no hurry to get started with that.

Gradual forward progress, that’s my mantra as I finally get back on trail, and it’s a good mantra because it’s true. Even though I am hiking slowly today, I am still making progress. I climb up to Mount Thielsen Junction and have just enough cell reception to call Paul, who assures me that it’s okay to slow down. I tell him that my initial plan for this hike was too ambitious, and that I need to back off a little bit. Is it okay for me to arrive at Elk Lake, where we planned to meet, a day later?

“Of course, my love. Of course.”

Is he disappointed in me for being slow?

“Never.”

This one conversation sets me free. Why have I been pushing myself so hard to stick to an entirely arbitrary schedule? I take a few deep, relieved breaths and am able to enjoy the views for the next hour as I hike down toward Thielsen Creek, which will be the first natural water source I’ve seen in over 29 miles.

I hear the creek before I see it, loud and powerful, and it is such a welcome sound. I drop my pack on the grassy bank and head downstream to wash my feet and my socks, my face and my legs, in this perfectly ice-cold rushing water.

I spend an hour here, filtering water, drinking as much as I want, eating chocolatey trail mix and salty roasted chickpeas, utterly content.

When I hike away from the creek it’s back to an uphill slog, up up up to a small sign that marks the high point of the PCT in Oregon, 7,560 ft. It’s 1:30pm, and I find some shade in which to stretch, rest, and eat. My outer shin on my right leg is acting up, hot and angry from the slanted angle of the trail these past few miles that forced me to hike with my right foot in an unnatural position.

Long distance hiking: as soon as one source of discomfort eases up, another one appears.

I’m eating a tortilla with nut butter when three southbound hikers come around the bend and join me. I ask about the section of trail that they just covered, the section that’s ahead of me, and they agree that the flat area that’s one mile from here is the best camp spot for a long while.

I think this over while I eat. One more mile would make this a 13.9 mile day, and it would mean finishing around 3pm. I said I wanted to take it easy today, didn’t I? So I thank them for their advice, pack up, and head one final mile down the trail.

When I get to the campsite, I’m elated. It’s beautiful, a big flat area with 180 degrees of sweeping views. Even better, there’s cell reception! So after setting up my tent I am able to just be horizontal on the firm ground, my legs elevated up on a fallen log, making phone calls and checking Instagram to my heart’s content.

In the meantime, my little screw top container (the one I use to cold-soak my dehydrated beans and veggies) is filled with water and sitting in the warm sun, which means that my dinner will actually be an appetizing temperature tonight. I’m quite happy without a stove, and with my beans and veggies and chips each night, but I’ve found that the meal is infinitely more delicious when the water has a chance to warm up a bit in the sun before soaking with the food.

As afternoon turns into evening I’m joined by three kind thru-hikers, and I convince them to camp with me for the night. So now not only have I spent hours resting, talking to my friends and family and eating a satisfying meal, but I won’t even have to camp alone. This is good, so good. And to think I almost quit the trail last night!

Warm in my sleeping bag as the sky grows dark, I decide that tomorrow will be a really good day. I will be a strong hiker and a friendly person and I. Will. Have. Fun.