Day 11: The emotional hell-storm finally lifts and hiking is gooooood

24.5 miles
PCT mile 1859.3 – PCT mile 1882.8 (+ 1 extra mile on side trails for water)
Total miles so far: 195.7

The sunrise this morning is a pastel watercolor wonderland, as if you took buckets of bright blue and pink and purple paint and just threw them at the sky. I can’t stop looking up as I pack my things away, and the powerful elixir of nature’s beauty + wonderful sleep has me feeling PUMPED to hike.

I spend the morning charging down the trail through the forest, and I feel like I’m a wild animal and that I can just walk forever. My foot pain is hardly noticeable right now, my snacks are delicious, the temperature is perfect, and the internal hell-storm of the past four days has finally lifted.

“Thank you!” I sing out to God and the universe and the trees and the tiny chipmunks scurrying in front of me on the trail. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I reach Six Horse Junction at 10am, check my maps, and realize that a seemingly miraculous thing has happened. I have hiked 10 miles by 10am! This is a hiker milestone – 10 by 10 – one I never thought I’d reach, and the emotional orgasm that is this day hits a new peak.

I drop my pack at the trail junction, grab my water filtering supplies, and run down the steep side trail to the spring. Running! It feels so good to run! I pass a stagnant pond and climb over and through some trees to find the cold, clear flow of water coming down over the rocks. There are two hikers there with me, Indie and Nana, and I am finally able to be the friendly, fun hiker I’ve been too exhausted to be this entire trip. I am Tinkerbell, and I am no longer miserable to be around!

Back up at the junction I filter the water I’ve collected and talk to all the hikers who come by. We’re joined by a trail maintenance crew, on a break from sawing through downed trees and clearing the trail, and I am in awe of these strong people and their big tools, hiking out here to do tough manual labor to ensure the trail stays safe and passable for the rest of us. Maybe that’s something I could get involved with after this hike? Maybe I could be a tough trail worker, too!

After an hour I move on, fueled by cold water and the badassery of trail workers, and a little after 11:30am I cross paths with a woman who is headed southbound with her horse. She stops to chat with me, and she tells me that there’s really good trail magic at Windigo Pass, 5 miles up the trail. “Just wait,” she says with a smile. “You’ll see.”

My foot pain has returned, but I’m distracted by the fantasies of the trail magic. What even is Windigo Pass, and what will I find when I arrive?

I take a quick break to stretch and rub my feet when I’m about halfway there, and as I get closer and closer I can’t stop checking my maps. Only a mile to go! Half a mile! A quarter mile! And then the trail drops me onto the dirt road that is Windigo Pass and it is everything I imagined and more.

A large canopy tent has been set up, with chairs occupied by happy hikers who cheer when I walk up. They are drinking beer from the large coolers and eating burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches that are being made-to-order on a grill under the tent.

The person responsible for this magical magic ushers me to a chair of my own, hands me a stack of wet wipes to clean my hands and face (the glory!) and insists on making me something even though I am vegan and have already enthusiastically insisted that a chair and a cold drink is plenty. But she won’t take “no” for an answer, and soon I am handed a giant salad with raspberry vinaigrette, along with an apple, and I wonder for a moment if my life will ever, ever get better than it is in this moment – enveloped as I am in the kindness of these strangers and their incredible salad, high on the simple yet exquisite pleasure of sitting in a chair and having clean hands.

Better still, Indie and Nana are there, and we spend the next two hours sharing stories and laughing. They tell me about their worldwide travels together, about all of their different tattoos, and about everything they’ve seen so far on their thru-hike.

Bonding with these two hikers for even a few hours gives me a glimpse at what I’m missing – the trail community that exists when you are doing the same hike at the same time and at the same pace as other people. Had I started down in Campo in the spring with the other thru-hikers, I would truly be a part of something in a way that just isn’t possible now. I am too new, too slow, too sore, essentially experiencing alone what these same folks went through together back in April. I am a hiker, yes, and everyone is kind to me, but it’s almost more lonely to have these fleeting interactions than if I were truly out here all alone. It feels strange and isolating to be doing something alongside other people, and yet to not be doing the same thing at all.

I think about this as I eventually tear myself away from the trail magic vortex of wonder and plenty, hiking uphill in the late afternoon sun, and I wonder if I’ll ever attempt a thru-hike of my own. I am only on day 11 and this has already been overwhelmingly difficult for me. Could I really make it through a five month hike? Would I even want to? Is that what it would take to find what I’m looking for? What am I looking for?

My last water stop of the day is a shallow, stagnant pond, and it takes me many attempts to collect enough water for the night. I’ll be dry camping again, because I know there’s no way I can hike all the way to Summit Lake, where Indie and Nana are camping, and the rest of the day takes on a melancholy vibe as I am, once again, alone, lagging behind new friends that I will never be able to catch.

At 6pm I have hiked 24.5 miles, the most I have ever hiked in my life, and I stop in a small clearing of dark earth off to the side of the trail. Mosquitos buzz around me as I work to get my tent up, and I spend what’s left of the daylight in my tent, eating and trying not to let my imagination get too carried away with thoughts of spending another night all by myself in the woods.

As the sun sets the temperature drops, and I put on my fleece hat and snuggle into my sleeping bag. Sometime tomorrow morning I will have hiked 200 miles. What does that even mean?