By Anna “Bug” Herby – submitted to us via the form at the bottom of this page. Visit her blog at nourishingjourneypct.com
A gift of the trail is that it allows you to truly experience the full spectrum of human emotion, sometimes all in one day. A moment of frustration and despair is seamlessly followed by peace and beauty. I experienced this phenomenon in its fullness on my walk into Idyllwild on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Arriving at Idyllwild was a pivotal moment in my thru-hike. It’s a small mountain haven where I’d worked years ago for two summers as an arts camp counselor. It was a magical place in my memory. My days were full of creative freedom, mountain adventures, long hours of daylight and fancy glasses of wine, all shared with friends I would remember forever.
I’d been looking forward to arriving at Idyllwild since my very first day on the trail. I wondered who I would be by the time I got there – a changed person? A thru-hiker? Would we even get that far?
On an early morning in November, I steadily ascended the last big climb of our thru-hike – Mount San Jacinto. This climb was one of the primary reasons Mud, my hiking partner, hadn’t joined me on this section. It was a 20-mile waterless stretch and 8,000 feet of elevation gain. I’d been hearing about this mountain since he’d struggled up it in the April heat during his flip-flop seven months earlier. He’d already completed these Southern California miles. Now it was my turn.
I approached it with a cheerful focus. I’d been on my own for the past few days with tunnel vision. My daily miles were carefully planned and flawlessly executed as I made the most of every short sunlight hour. Now I was closer than ever and nothing could stand in my way. I hiked through dawn as the sun rose, the birds began to chirp and small creatures rustled like invisible ninjas in the prickly bushes. Slow and steady, two miles became four and soon five; only 15 more miles of climbing; only 21 more today.
My cheerfulness turned to frustration as the air grew warmer. The trail became a maze of overgrown brush, relentlessly scratching my arms and legs, catching loose ends on my pack, rendering my trekking poles useless and pushing against my forward progress. I could barely see past the branches to the trail below my feet.
Mud’s words rang in my head: “I just plowed through it like a moose. That mountain kicked my ass.”
I looked for ways around, but the only way out was through. So, like a moose, I plowed through. As the prickly tunnels began to subside, the wind picked up on the exposed mountainside and added to my upward struggle. The challenges were constant, but I was tackling them.
Then suddenly the unforgiving desert became a gentle forest. The path was clear and open; pine trees surrounded me. The landscape was deeply familiar and comforting. My frustration melted away as happy memories of summertime with friends flooded my mind. I’d been in this wilderness before! We’d walked past rocks just like these. We’d climbed Tahquitz Peak and Suicide rock and we’d found a waterfall! For the first time in days I felt that I wasn’t alone. Old friends walked with me through this forest. Despite not having spoken with them for years, I felt exceedingly grateful for their role in my life. I felt their presence through the rocks, trees and pine needles. I forgot how many miles I had left to walk and lived a different world for just a few moments.
I basked in the comfort of this landscape until the novelty wore off and hunger set in. Hunger was a constant and familiar companion on this journey. Sometimes I could tolerate it; eat a bar and move on. Other times it overcame me and broke me down. My desperation for a meal was too much to handle. Today, the battle was with flavor fatigue. I’d been eating the same bars and snacks for four months and could handle no more. The thought of putting a ProBar in my mouth made me nauseous. While my conscious brain forced me to swallow as much food as possible, there’s an involuntary swallowing reflex that is necessary to truly get food down your throat. This was the part I struggled with. My body rejected the food I gave it.
I sat under a shady tree, defeated and hungry. I had no choice but to eat the only thing left I could tolerate – chocolate. I smothered it in almond butter, devoured every piece in my food bag and wished I had more. I hoped it would keep me full for at least an hour. It didn’t.
As I battled my hunger, the wind picked up and the terrain became jagged. I climbed over and around boulders, my steps uneven as rocks moved unpredictably underfoot. My patience grew thin, my legs and mind weary. I’d been climbing for eight hours and the thought of reaching the top still seemed as distant as ever. The constant force of the wind was one of my archenemies on the trail. I dreaded and hated wind more than anything, and here it was, teamed up with rocks and overwhelming hunger. I was sure that they were all out to get me, to strip away everything I thought I knew about myself and leave me cold, raw and alone atop this mountain.
I struggled to keep my balance as I made my way up the trail, sure I would never get there and simultaneously certain that I wouldn’t stop until I did. Then something changed. The constant resistance I’d faced all day was suddenly gone. Walking became unexpectedly easier. Downhill! My first steps walking down after 20 miles of up were like floating on a magical cloud. My bones felt light and strong, my muscles capable once again. A warmth spread throughout my body as the wind subsided in the protection of the pine trees. The howling in my ears and dissonance in my mind was replaced by divine silence. The forest was magnificent in its stillness. Just as the wind and rocks had been my enemies, the trees were my friends, smiling down on me as my muscles relaxed into the rhythm of the path. I checked my maps with disbelief, but it was true – I had reached the top. It was downhill to Idyllwild. At last!
Mud met me on the trail into town at dusk, just a few miles from Idyllwild. He was standing in an outcropping of trees, making a time-lapse video of the sunset. The image of him comforted me – his long, overgrown beard and lopsided shorts-and-winter-hat outfit. His skinny legs were exposed to the cool evening air while the rest of his body was bundled and warm. He carried my pack and we chatted effortlessly for the last two and a half miles of the epic day. We made our way into town to find the largest of cheese-less pizzas loaded with vegetables and a warm hotel bed. As the sun set, the dramatic and complex landscapes, both inner and outer, faded into darkness. All that remained at the end of this day, and every day, were the essentials of human life – eating, sleeping, and my best friend beside me.