Three Fingered Jack
Ten Things I Learned While Long Distance Hiking
Posted 02 Feb 2020
On July the 5th, we set out to walk 455 miles from the California border to the Washington border, in thirty days. My daughter dropped us off on a forest road in the middle of nowhere, her little black Veloster leaving puffs of dust behind it as she drove off. Both of our stomachs flipped over and dropped to our knees as it disappeared, the sound of the tires crunching on gravel fading. I wanted to throw down my pack and run after her. Miles from civilization, we had no cell service and no choice, but to turn north and walk….and walk…and walk.
The first day we had a late start and went only 6.4 miles. The second day, we hiked 23. After 18 miles or so, with our full packs, conserving water and not yet acclimated, I stumbled after Kirk in a fog of pain and fatigue. We kept going because we planned to stay at Callahan’s that night, a lodge and restaurant close to where the PCT crosses I-5 at Ashland. By the time we made it to Callahan’s and set up our tent on the lawn in the hiker area, every muscle ached, I shivered, cold from the trauma my body had endured. I thought of Misha, at home without me, unable to understand that I would be back, and I sobbed. After a day and a half, I just wanted to go home. This was the most realistic place to do it, here a tenth of a mile from the freeway where cars sped north, traveling in mere hours the same distance that would take us over a month to walk.
In week one, we walked 128 miles, hitting the hundred-mile mark soon after entering mosquito territory. We couldn’t stop hiking long enough to celebrate. We were running through clouds of vicious and aggressive buzzing bugs that landed by the dozens on us if we even paused to rest. That first week, we had bruises and abrasions where the straps of our packs dug into our hips and shoulders. It took time and frustration to find the sweet spot where the pack could ride without making us bleed.
We gauged our progress on the miles covered in the day, but also on the landmarks as they swelled before us and then grew small again in our wake. First, we passed Mt. Ashland, topped with a giant white Doppler Radar that Kirk called God’s Golf Ball. Then we aimed for the iconic Pilot Rock jutting high on the horizon. At Fish Lake, we took a shower, did laundry, bought lots of food and snacks. Then we hiked over the left shoulder of the conical snow-capped Mt. McLoughlin.
Of course, the first week’s big goal was Crater Lake. There’s no camping in eye shot of the lake, but we spent several awed hours gazing into the pure, blue depths as we slowly made our way around the Rim. As we climbed Mt. Thielsen the day after Crater Lake, we looked back and saw the Caldera growing small in the distance. Two days after that, Thielsen was just a pointy spike on the horizon to our backs.
Every day something, usually several somethings, ached and throbbed. Utter exhaustion, frustration and anger predominated our moods most of the time. We had many shouting matches in the woods where we could go for hours or a couple days without seeing another living soul. We would fight and in the middle of it, one of us would stop and say something like, “Lean over and smell that flower for a picture!” and then we’d pick up where we left off.
We had a pretty good fight between Lemeti Meadows on the Warm Springs Reservation about how Kirk pronounced certain words, but this fight centered around the word wolf, which he calls a “woof”.
As an Air Force brat, he had grown up all over the country and I wondered how those different places influenced his language development and if he had heard wolf pronounced “woof” at a formative stage. This deeply insulted him. Our heated discussion kept growing in volume. I shouted at him that all I just wanted to know if someone had done a sociological study on this. He shouted back that I was calling him stupid. A hiker, a young single guy, rounded a corner just in front of us. I could see clearly written on his face, “This is why you don’t hike with your partner!” After that, we toned it down some.
We hiked for a little over a month loving and hating it in equal measure. Both of us had severe foot issues. Kirk had deep, burning blisters in the pads of both his feet. At first, we had moleskin, and when we ran out of that, we found a pair of Dr. Scholl’s foam inserts which we cut in elongated donut shapes to pad the area, taking pressure off the blisters. I had a mystery rash that forced me to hike in sandals for over a week, badly bruising the bottoms of my feet. My weight, combined with the weight of my pack, crushed the bruises with every step. At night sharp pains pulsed through them in a ceaseless rhythm. Three days from the end of the hike, something tore or broke in the top of my right foot. Now the pain is dulled by anecdotal distance.
As we pitched our tent for the last night on the ashy, burnt rim of the Benson Plateau, just before the long, deep descent to the Columbia River below, “a plunge equal to descending from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River,” according to our guidebook. (Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon by Eli Boschetto.) We lay down with mixed feelings. Tomorrow, this would end. We would get to shower, use a flush toilet, sleep in our own bed, eat real food. But we would also leave the peaceful seclusion of the deep woods and reenter the rat race of the cities below.
Around noon, the following day, we pushed across the Bridge of the Gods against a monumental head wind, these last steps ending our 34-day adventure. Six months later, absorbed in the day, I still get random flashes of the trail.
Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
We learned a lot about ourselves, our endurance, our character, the elasticity of our minds that will snap back into old habits despite the intense time out. I expected a great spiritual awakening or some sort of long-lasting, life-altering change. It wasn’t like that, but we did learn the following principles, which can be applied to life as well as backpacking:
It sucks to be so dirty that the dirt will not wash off.
Chicks, Dudes and Dogs can live on ramen.
Water is really heavy, but water is worth its weight in gold.
Every day is filled with hard climbs.
Every evening is filled with steep losses to get to water.
Don’t look too far in the future but take one day’s mileage at a time.
This too shall pass: the mosquitoes, the pain, the hunger. This too shall pass.
Look back at landmarks but look back only to gauge how far you have come.
Stay present and focused so you don’t fall in a hole.
Nothing is ever as important as we think it is.