Day 9: Don’t quit on a bad day

22.7 miles
Crater Lake Mazama Village – PCT mile 1845.4
Total miles so far: 157.3

From the moment I wake up, all I can think about is water. I am about to enter a 29-mile dry stretch, and that requires carrying more water than I have ever carried. Spoiler alert: water is heavy.

I head out at 6:45am, looking for the Annie Springs Trail that will take me up to the Rim Village. That’s where I’ll connect with the Rim Trail Alternate, which isn’t technically part of the PCT, it’s an 11-mile route around the rim of Crater Lake that almost all hikers choose to walk instead. Because really, who wouldn’t choose that? I’ve never been to Crater Lake, but I’ve seen pictures and can’t imagine passing it up.

I find the Annie Springs Trail just as the shuttle drives by on the main road. The shuttle is filled with hikers, and I feel momentarily smug. No shuttle for me, fuckers! I am here to HIKE.

What’s that saying? Be careful what you wish for? Yeah. Because the rest of the hike up to the Rim Village is shockingly steep. And boring. And did I mention steep?! No wonder those other hikers skipped this section.

Crater Lake, though. It’s other-worldly. I get to the rim and I just stand there, bewildered. The water is an even deeper blue than I expected, filling up this collapsed volcanic crater in the middle of otherwise untouched ground, and I am reminded again that I am just one tiny human existing in a wild and unpredictable world. Crater Lake doesn’t care that my pack is too heavy. Crater Lake is beyond us all.

I walk along the rim for the next few hours, and it is so much more challenging than I expected. Why did I think the Rim Trail Alternate would be flat? It is not flat. The trail pitches up and down, over and over, with sections of soft, loose sand where I find it impossible to get my footing. My pack is filled with four days of food and five liters of water, and even with all that water I am still rationing because five liters is not enough for this long stretch and this hot day. There is a possibility of a stocked water cache this afternoon, but the reports are conflicting and everyone knows not to rely on a water cache. So I am rationing water, I am thirsty, the weight of my pack is cutting into my shoulders, pain is radiating down without pause, and this is all set against the backdrop of one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Gorgeous agony, that’s what I’m experiencing today.

As the Rim Trail winds around I find myself walking on the road, weaving through the construction that’s taking place here this week, as day hikers and drive-up sightseers stare at me from the windows of their cars. They are so clean, and they look at me with curiosity and, sometimes, with disgust.

I am raw and broken and I want to scream in all of their clean, comfortable, well-hydrated faces until they leave me alone. “JUST STOP LOOKING AT ME!” I wish I could bring myself to yell that. I wish I didn’t care so much about the approval of strangers. Will I ever get over this obsessive anxiety about being liked?

I sit on a rock ledge at one of the drive-up viewpoints, eating trail mix with my dusty hands and taking small sips of water. I’ve been hiking for five hours today but have only gone 10 miles. Maybe it’s the heat, or the heavy pack, or the fact that I’m on day 9 of the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life without a day off, but I just feel like I’m wading through quicksand. Everything is just so hard.

Eventually I stand up and ready myself for the next 3.5 miles that will take me away from the Crater Lake rim and back to the PCT, and I know for sure that an emotional meltdown is coming. I can feel it building up inside of me, this need to cry and scream and just absolutely lose it. And after about a mile, it happens.

I am still hiking, but I am sobbing, just uncontrollably sobbing. I can barely see the trail through my tears, and I am wailing and making sounds like a tortured animal. Of course, that’s exactly what I am – an animal who is torturing herself by hiking too many miles through the summer heat for no reason. I try to apply logic to my feelings, to understand what hurts and if anything specific needs my attention, but at this point I am all pain. It’s no longer discernible that my feet hurt and my shoulders hurt and my legs hurt, instead it’s as if all I know is hurt. I am 130 pounds of solid pain and nothing else, moving through the hot, dusty landscape one agonizing step at a time.

With a half mile to go until I rejoin the PCT I am able to stop crying, but only by imagining that the upcoming water cache is fully stocked. I fantasize about taking my pack off and drinking an entire liter of water, maybe even two liters of water, and refilling them with ease. I am having what could only be described as erotic daydreams about the water cache, and it’s in this mindset of make-believe that I get myself back to the PCT and over to the small parking lot with the bear locker where there might or might not be bottles of water.

I hesitate for a moment before approaching the bear locker, just to prolong the fantasy, until finally I can’t stand it anymore and I yank the doors open. WATER! There is water! Water water water. Thirteen gallon-size bottles of water, about a third of them still completely filled, and I start to cry again, this time with relief and gratitude for the kind trail angel who put these bottles of water here for me to drink.

“Are you okay?”

I hear a concerned voice behind me, and I turn around to see two women unloading the back of their SUV, pulling out camp chairs and coolers and setting up what looks to be, what must be, trail magic. Is this real? Is this even happening right now?

“Come sit down,” one of the women calls, all friendly smiles as she waves her hand toward a chair that she has just set up in the shade. “Would you like a sandwich or a soda?”

I’m still crying when I get over to the chair, trying to pull myself together, and I fill these kind women in on the hellacious day I’ve had so far. “You don’t understand how much of a miracle it is that you are here at this exact spot at this exact moment,” I tell them over and over again. They are waiting for a specific hiker to come through, and one of these women is said hiker’s wife and the other is her mother, and they tell me about the fundraiser that this hiker is doing for dog rescue – beagles in particular. It is so wonderful to hear about a non-hiking related topic. “Tell me all about the beagle fundraiser,” I beg. “Tell me everything.”

And for the next two hours, I just sit there. I sit in that chair, shoes and socks off to rest my feet, drinking all the water I want, plus an orange soda, and eating the apple I was given after I politely passed on a tuna fish sandwich, on account of being vegan. Other hikers arrive, and we all donate money to the beagle fundraiser, and eventually I put my socks and shoes back on and head to the trail.

Almost immediately, the pain is back. I realize that the two-hour break wasn’t a rejuvenation so much as simply a pause in the intensity of the pain, and that I am just completely wrecked. Are my shoes too small? Do I need a day off? Why can’t I seem to toughen up already? I am zombie hiking now, hiking past the point where it feels like I’m even a person who is alive in the world, and I more or less black out for the next four miles.

Finally, I can’t take it anymore. I sit on a log on the side of the trail and I am convinced, truly convinced, that I am unable to hike even one more step. But I know I can’t stay here, not when it is just the thin strip of trail and clusters of downed trees as far as the eye can see with nowhere to squeeze my tent. I tell myself that I will go one more mile – just one mile – and that the next flat spot I find after that will be it for the day.

I am slower than slow, and this one mile on completely flat terrain takes me 30 minutes. But then I see a flat spot to the right of the trail and I am done, finally finally done, and I set up my tent, change into my sleep clothes, and eat my cold-soaked dinner of dehydrated refried beans and vegetables, covered with olive oil and crushed tortilla chips.

It’s about 6:45pm when another hiker walks by, an older man who waves hello and then stops to say,  “I hope you don’t get caught camping here!”

I get out of my tent. “What do you mean?”

“You’re still within the boundaries of Crater Lake National Park. You need a special permit to camp within the park, and even then you need to make sure you aren’t within one mile in any direction of a forest road.”

I stare at him. No. No no no no. This cannot be happening.

As he hikes away I pull out my maps. I was too exhausted to look at them closely before, but he is absolutely right. I cannot camp here without risking a huge fine, and there is no way I will be able to sleep knowing that I am camped illegally. I look at the map again; it’s 4.2 miles to the highway that marks the border of the National Park, and on the other side of the highway the trail is back on public forest land where camping is allowed.

“Fuuuuck!” I yell.

And then I do the only thing I can do – I put away my sleeping bag and sleeping pad, change back into my sweaty hiking outfit, take down my tent, pack everything up, and start hiking. It is 7pm.

For the next four miles I do two things: I rage hike, and I decide to quit this trail.

I am just… done. I am empty, and I cannot do this for even one more day. I’ve looked at the map, and I know that the highway I am headed toward will allow me to hitch a ride to Diamond Lake. There’s a resort there, and I will hitch a ride tonight, pay for the nicest room they have with my credit card, and have Paul come and pick me up in the morning. I am not debating this plan, I am absolutely certain that this is what I will do. This plan, and my rage, are the only things that fuel me as I hike on into the night.

I reach the highway at 8:15pm (apparently rage hiking makes one move abnormally fast?) and meet two thru-hikers who are dancing on the side of the road. Dancing, while I am filled with white-hot rage that could burn them to the ground.

“We are the Highway 138 Welcoming Committee!” they shout. “We greet every car that drives by with a little dance, and now we can greet you. Hello, hiker! There is a water cache in the bushes over there and plenty of places to camp!”

They wiggle around, filthy as only thru-hikers can be, and I laugh in spite of myself. Am I the only person out here who isn’t having a good time? Who are these hikers with their endless reserves of positive energy?

I think about this as I fill up at the water cache, and the first crack forms in my plan to quit the trail. It’s getting late, do I want to hitchhike alone at night? My mother would certainly not be impressed with that idea. I could just camp here and hitch out in the morning, right? What’s that saying I came across in my pre-hike research – don’t quit on a bad day? That seems like good advice.

So I leave the highway behind and walk a quarter mile down the trail, where I find Hollywood and Boo Boo, who I met at the beagle fundraiser trail magic this afternoon. They are lovely women, they invite me to camp with them and I am too tired for anything else, so I do.

I finally crawl into my sleeping bag as the last of the sunlight leaves the sky, and I truly do not know how I did what I just did.

A day of hiking so tough that I had a full-on sobbing emotional meltdown, that moment of sitting on the side of the trail convinced that I couldn’t walk one more step, somehow making it another mile, setting up camp only to have to pack up and hike four more miles, making this my highest mileage day ever with my heaviest pack ever and the first time I’ve hiked past 6pm, not getting to camp until almost 8:30, my entire body on fire.

My feet and calves throb uncontrollably and my heart pounds with adrenaline and the remnants of my rage. I am beyond exhaustion, in some new state of depletion that I didn’t know existed, but I have now seen a glimpse of what I always believed to be true: that we are capable of so much more than we can imagine, and that we can keep going, keep enduring, long past the point where we think we need to stop.

And isn’t that why I’m out here? Isn’t that the whole point?