Monday, August 11, 2014


In Idyllwild, many moons and miles ago, I found that most hikers, newbies and veterans alike, jumped from Paradise Cafe to town completely avoiding the detour and road walk. One hiker paraphrased the waitress at the cafe as saying, "You stand out there with your thumb out and 15 minutes later you got yourself a hitch to Idyllwild. That's what all of you guys do!" Another said he 'did what everyone else was doing' and hitched into town under confusion. To me, it was obvious: walk the walk. The term and definition of 'thru hike' is an ambiguous one. It seems the definition has changed from the traditional sense of the word to a free-form meaning from a newer generation. The hikers I spoke to gave me the impression they would not have made that same 'hitch' decision if they had other information and/or knowledge. Already, within 150m of trail, hikers were faced with a dilemma. 

I'm not a purist and I feel there are not many more of them. But I don't look at them any differently than someone who flips, skips, or whatever. I do not think there is a right way or a wrong way; only my own way. I used to separate 'thrus' and 'skippers' in different lights, as if one was better than the other. Even farther apart were the section hikers. I recognize the experience, or the miles, one has, and the conviction and integrity one exhibits during a connective hike. What I do hold against hikers is not being up-front about one's hike and the blatant disrespect of the trail.

Before this thru hike I considered a 'thru' one who walks steps continuously, a connection along the particular long distance trail within a set time frame. I still do. I have pondered the term 'thru hike' deeply and often on this year's hike. The main reason is not to reformulate my own definition. I've witnessed Bearclaw develop her own through her own experience, my influence and experience, others' actions, and the environmental concerns, namely fires. I have felt a bigger sense of responsibility as a thru-hiker in helping her develop her own. I want her to gather her own convictions and beliefs while instilling an ethic from my perspective, which I believe is held within the same light as reputable and esteemed thru-hikers. 

Why have I pondered this term often? Because people are out here doing all types of stuff: skipping, flipping, lying, hiking a complete thru, etc. And there has been fires. Major fires at that. They've occurred in inopportune places with a huge number of hikers affected. I'm not the only one this year with questions. I imagine it is even tougher as a first-timer. Believe you, me, there are a vast number of new hikers to the small thru-hiking community and most are looking for guidance. In fact, this year I've given more advice on the term thru-hike in regards to what the hiker is doing. Almost everyone is afraid what other hikers will say about them. It's like they're never concerned about what they're doing, however, the result of their actions in others' eyes matter.

The obvious question occurs: how many hikers are actually 'thru-hiking' the PCT this year? The Appalachian Trail Conference defines an AT thru-hike as having completed the entire trail in one calendar year. The PCTA holds a thru hike as completing every single mile in a single season. Does 'thru-hiking' imply connectivity in one fail swoop? ALDHA West recognizes a Triple Crown hiker as a deserving recipient who has hiked all the Big 3 major U.S. trails in no specific time frame, 3 years or 30 years, whether thru-hiking or flipping, no matter the age, color, or gender. The recognition is based on the honor system and I highly doubt they would accept a hiker who has skipped yet claims a 'thru-hike.'

This year is not the exception that hikers have chosen to piece together the trail their own way. Sometimes the year chooses the path for you. In 2011 I 'thru-hiked' the PCT. Skipping and flipping were rampant because of the tremendous amount of snow in the Sierra Nevada. I remember getting to Kennedy Meadows and about 150 hikers were waiting for the snow to melt. Some had already jumped ahead with intentions of completing the Sierra Nevada later (flipping) in the season, while others quit or skipped ahead with no intentions of completing what they missed. This year I've looked back at 2011 trail register entries and cringe at what I wrote. In fact, I've only read about 3 because I know the rest are in the same light. I made a point to write that I was an 'every-stepper.' The phrase was like a badge of honor back then but as I reread the entries I felt ashamed and embarrassed. Arrogant actually. I don't think I've a right to gloat about my hike compared to someone else. On each of my thru-hikes I developed a deeper sense of place and philosophy of trail life, a higher ethic and standard. My ethic transpires into my 'normal' life. I hold my working life the way I hold my hiking life because of my hiking life.

The CDT altered my standard even more so than the PCT when you're free to choose the route based on your mood, stressors, weather, scenery, experience level, alternates, towns, etc. The PCT is a 'cookie-cutter' route confined within the constrains that everyone walks the same path with the same beginning and ending points. On the CDT YOU define YOUR thru-hike. My Vagabond Loop took my ethic even a mile further. I created a connection between 3 established routes, thru-hiking the HDT, GET and AZT, paving my own damn way while looping around the Southwest. I focused on connectivity, scenic attraction, and a challenging aspect in defining my route. Most importantly, I used my 'thru-hike' ethic. So, on the PCT this year what has mattered to me most is connection and how it solely effects Bearclaw and I. 

Like I said, the decision to flip and skip has been popular this year. Each one with a different reason: skill, illness, plain laziness, apathy, group-think. But mainly fire. From closures down in SoCal, to NorCal, and a vast stretch in Oregon, this PCT season has proven tough to walk the whole actual PCT, although you can still connect your steps via road alternates around the fire closures. Some hikers refuse to walk a road whether dirt or paved. So, does a closure make it free to skip a section? I've seen others who walked the alternate. What is clear to me is the difference in goals and the definition of 'thru-hike.' I believe that if an alternate is provided it is part of the journey and the PCT for that season. There lies a difference between someone blatantly skipping an alternate and a hiker who gets information later or someone who flips the section. To me, a flipper has the intention and will follow through on that particular alternate. A skipper doesn't. But that is not the only problem. One hiker told me as he left a re-supply point before a major fire closure the alternate changed 4 different times, so when he got to the trail head of the alternate he did not know where to go. He decided to hitch because he felt he did not know where to go. I do not blame him at all. The way a hiker receives information has a definite effect on determining a thru-hike.

There are ways to avoid such closures as well. I am not cutting everyone scott-free on how the season plays out for them. I can say the ones who are done already and have a complete 'thru-hike' prepared the most, took the utmost concern on logistics, had weather awareness, had clearer goals, got lucky, and stayed healthy. I might also add, they stayed away from a group. To hike the PCT, or any other long distant trail, weather windows play a major part in completing the trail consecutively. Fire has been a huge concern this year, even early on in the season, especially coming off 3 drought years. Out here in the West, fire season needs to be watched just as importantly as the snows up North in the Cascades. From most hikers I talked to fire was not a concern. Most people dilly-dallied with groups soaking up the good times. Only a few handled their business. There were some, including ourselves, that had different circumstances. Above all, I noticed the group-think mentality shift and influence hiker's decisions. The best quote I read in any register was of a couple who broke away from a big group: 'make haste, not friends.' And to my knowledge, they made it through without any fire detour.

We flipped. From Willamette Pass to Cascade Locks. We had our reasons (getting married, flight issues, Giardia, among others) and they make sense to us and with our timing. Also, in no way was the decision influenced by anyone else. I always thought if I did something like a flip it would be of a natural disaster of something crazy and/or a death. I can now say I'd add circumstances. Each thru-hike is different and circumstances arise one may never foresee.

PCT hikers leave at different times, have different goals, take different steps using different gear, yet the individual's 'path' leads to the same place. It should be the experience that matters. Yet I find this topic an interesting one. I find that blame needs not always be placed on the hikers themselves. I feel some snobbery is being exhibited by some 'old-timers.' Change is hard to swallow and within this new age upon us many are finding it even more challenging to relate to hikers who may do things differently. Social media relates the expressions of nearly the whole planet, books and movies are coming out and exposing an otherwise little known community, hikers and runners are breaking records, gear is getting more technological, smarter, and lighter, and a younger bunch are infiltrating the trails and blogospheres. What gets to me is the lack of mentoring and programs that can have a positive influence on the newer hikers. Bearclaw mentions to me all the time the need for Leave No trace kiosks at every trail head. To a lot of newcomers definitions may be unclear and, to the contrary, their intentions may be unclear to the veterans. Am I alone in seeing a need that needs to be filled? Would this help with switchback cutting, leaving water caches clean, hiker etiquette, etc.? Most of the snobbery I have seen is in the social media realm. Time after time, people are calling out people in social forums. I've been guilty of it too in calling out the filth and trash hikers have left. I would love to see the PCTA have more mentoring programs for aspiring thru-hikers like MyYAMAadventure led by qualified and experienced thru-hikers with a reputable background. I know for a fact that most of the reputable thru-hiking community would volunteer to help. I believe that past thru-hikers would want the best experience for aspiring thru-hikers, as well as preserving our history and care of the land.

In the end, I think one's honesty and realness to oneself and what their goals are factor into their own definition. But the consensus of an overall term is too general with too many personalities. The journey is long and arduous and ultimately wears on people. It's like work, a job. They're ones who take short cuts, ones who work overtime, ones who do what is supposed to be done, etc., yet they are all just workers. Some get paid more than others, some do just enough to get by. This may be a reach on a metaphor but I kind of see a connection.

This community we're in is always evolving, especially the more miles one walks. The number of thru-hikers will continue to grow. If a solid, well-defined definition cannot be determined then let hikers be hikers, solely hikers. Rather than bash people, let's help them, empower them to be more responsible ambassadors for the trail community. Like I said, my own ethics have changed and this particular thru-hike has shone me a different light, one that opened a new perspective, a better viewpoint.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Goat Rocks IV

Goat Rocks III

Goat Rocks II

Honeymoon in Goat Rocks

On July 27th we got hitched on the slopes of Mt. Hood among the purple mountain lupine along the PCT. Since then, my family has grown. We just finished up hiking in the glow of Mt. Adams and the splendor of Goat Rocks. Bearclaw said at one point, "I feel like we're on vacation." I thought to myself, "Nope. Just our honeymoon."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Same-new Trail: Home

The misty fog weaved its way through the gnarled trees as the storm gave us a reprieve from the frigid rain. Although the hiking was cold, cold like a winter's stone, we were able to march along a wet trail and somehow find laughter in the storm. The Oregon high point came into view and the gray, heavy clouds blanketed the dank, yellow meadows. I found her at the sign post of the high point with her pants down. I shook my head with a huge grin on my face. I could see how much more hardened she had become. An hour or two ago, we hunkered down atop a hump of tree roots, the white pines towering above us providing rain protection. The YAMA Terraform tarp sheltered us from any more sinking cold and wetness. She said her hands were frozen. I kept quiet though I knew how cold the cold was, how it burrowed into your bones. Now she is posing humorously, oblivious to the cold. I thought how this day may be one of my favorites on trail.

We briskly hiked on in the rain trying to keep our generated heat alive. The storm was not a usual summer storm. The temperatures dipped down into the 40s and the rain just would not go away. We set up a damp camp at 5pm to sleep off the day and the storm. She laid down with the book Siddhartha and I stared under the tarp at the soggy pine cones. I memorized the setting from my lying position: the moss, the cones, the sticks, the bark, the mist. Time surprisingly went quickly and I would alternate sides to lay on. I frequently looked over at her and, at one point, I thought: If I could hang in a cramped environment with this woman for 15 freezing hours, then we can get through anything.

The thought of how different the same trail can be in different years floated through my mind. Earlier that soggy day, we filled up on water at Thielson Creek. Rain pelted our backs and the water tasted much colder than I thought it would. In 2011, I hiked from the Crater Lake lodge all-the-waterless-way to Thielson Creek only to find it frozen over with a 15ft snow field. I was there at the creek 3 years earlier but 2 weeks later in the summer. Yet as I ponder the differences of the trail I find that that does not matter. It is the difference, or I should say growth, in myself that matters the most. I again look over at her, curled up in her dry bag reading Siddhartha and I see all my experiences cumulative in her eyes. Within her almond brown eyes, I see growth.

Earlier in this thru-hike, I kept gauging my experience from my past thru-hike in 2011. The noticeable differences in water levels and the snow. Obviously, the snow. I trundled along the same footpath 3 years previous and though everything seemed so familiar things were different; I was different. I felt it unfair to let my past trail experience interfere with Bearclaw's first one, especially one that we are having together. Yet I couldn't escape the past of one where I felt it all began. I often thought: Why does one re-hike something they already know? Why does Lint, or Bink, keep doing what he does when there is other trails out there? What is the allure of doing something twice, or three times?

The rain comes down harder on the cuben fiber tarp. I take my gloves off and feel my sleeping bag. Our breaths are thick enough to condensate moisture on our sleeping bags. I lay down as close to the earth as possible to avoid any rubbing against the side walls of the tarp. My left hip becomes numb enough for me to turn away from her and avert my eyes back to the scene that I've committed to memory. The lime green moss, the burly, brown-black pine cones, the dank, rubbery sticks, the thick, gray and interwoven bark, the enveloping mist; every thing sinks down on us in our tight quarters. I turn back towards her, facing her, watching her eyes pace side-to-side in her book scanning the words of Hesse. I ask her: What word are you reading right now? She says, "and." I sneak a peek at a page and find the word 'emptiness.' A noun descriptively discreet, for the soggy air is suppressing, squeezing down upon us in our space yet we fill the 'emptiness' with each other, our spirits.

Often enough on trail she tells me that her trekking poles poke and jab at the slivers and talus of rock littered and strewn about on trail. That the rock detritus are remnants of past hikers' lives. The remnants are guilty memories, lies, problems, the dealings of our issues from our past. Sometimes they are good experiences, but mostly they are the coming to terms, an understanding, of events and of self of years and moments prior. The talus is like skin shaven and shed; with each step on trail we grow through erosion.

I hike to re-hike, to un-forget each and every trail I have ever hiked. And I hike to be with Bearclaw, which is a new path, a new trail of a constructed  synergy pioneered by us. I had a dream the other night. I was following a trail using old photos from someone else's experience. The photos were the maps navigating the memories of one's being that remembered the trail from their eyes. I would look at the old photos, scoffed at the edges and the images blurred. The maps felt to be from the 1970s. I would hold them up in the landscape in front of me and see new growth of life, trees and shrubs, above a barely noticeable eroding land, creek beds and bluffs. Occasionally a map, or photo, would contain an image of a dog. Each one different and though they were missing from my 'now' landscape I could read the thread that held us all together through those images of the dog that led me forward along the path. In essence, I was never lost. The images told me a lot about the person who had once hiked this trail. The landscape told me a lot of the person, as well as the place. After all, amassed through each step we hike is a sense of place that connects us all interwoven in the metaphysical trail of existence.

Some places, or sections, on the PCT hold more value. Other sections create a block and my memory desists in creating an image I remember. I feel some sections charm there way into our personalities and make us more comfortable while some force us to deal with fears and a darkness hidden in the crevices of our being. I think that is why when I move through a particular area I say "I remember" or "there was" or I simply smile. I may feel calm, agitated, or warrior-like. Even if the trail is well-marked and easy to follow I still choose the way forward. A trail is a parallel universe to what we are dealing with inside. Though the landscape and names of places look the same it is what is inside us that has evolved. Then, a new-same trail appears.

Back in our cramped soggy space I feel at home though I'm stiff as hell and cramped and wet. A patience takes hold and I close my eyes, still staring at the soaked brown-black pine cone. I turn back over on my other hip and open my eyes at Bearclaw. She keeps reading. The air is silent, for the rain has calmed and the pelting of the tarp has ended. I doze into a half-awake, half-asleep slumber. This is my home. I'll always be re-hiking a new-same trail, walking forward as I evolve. 


Home. Always has been.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Unseen

The pitter-patter of thought, the rambles of a maniac; tiresome. The numbness, the clogged mind, are causing sluggishness. How much do I want to reveal without giving away to much details? But I must find a way for expression, venting. I must have a ramble session...

She looks back at me and tells me how bad or weird she is feeling. I've trained myself not to say much anymore though I still keep a tab on things in my head. How do I manage the pace of the day, her health, my ticker, and all the while making progress to Canada? It's a tough, tricky decision, none that many go through. There's many aspects I feel I've been doing and noticing from my perspective, from my line of sight, that may be lacking from her perspective, from her line of sight. I am listening but am I really absorbing what is so earnestly translated to me?

Her weight is getting drastically low. Despite the dietary adjustments the same atrophy occurs. Her body is eating itself. I look at myself and I feel fat, lethargic and bloated; I'm not working hard enough. I hug her and feel bones. Is she melting away? Yet we have to get to Canada. Is my arrogance blinding me to her personal needs? I know I'm opening myself as a target. I know I may get blasted for this but I know what I'm doing out here. I obsessively rack my brain on trail constantly trying to figure out what's wrong. I sometimes want that extra 2 miles so bad that I say nothing in regards to her laments. Must I push her to her limits for the sake of my selfish contentment? Then, I'll think: she's beaten melanoma; she's beaten a horrific car accident; she's battled through a nasty divorce, separation from her oldest son; she's beaten everything that's ever been in front of her. Why would an extra few miles beat her?

Maybe her soul and spirit need to catch up. Maybe her feet are moving too fast. Her writer's block is a product of her stress and exhaustion. I now know it's not because of her refusal to put forth any more words on a particular situation. The scene is flying by too fast for her. The idyllic information is swiftly moving by in a forgetful manner. Through the Marble Mountain Wilderness, amongst beauty so scenic, I tell her I want to feel nothing. That my philosophy of the wilds is to feel nothing. I looked at a blazoned peach and orange sunrise stifled by the ending blackness of night and my heart felt nothing. I couldn't even manage a smirk. She tells me she wants to be a tree; I tell her I want to be a rock, not of one to endure rather an emotionless one. Her eyes crinkle at my coldness. Only then I melt. But I do not show her. How do I change my nature? My only offer of consolation is to go into Shasta City, Etna, then Ashland for a brief rest, for some time off.

In the motel room in Ashland, I just want to escape. I put in my earphones to listen to music though I'd rather drink. She tells me that I've never done this before. I plug in and though the meaning of the song eludes the situation I escape to a place, a vision, in my mind that draws me away from here, now. 

I've been staring out of windows lately looking at the faraway horizons of the mountains and trees. The contradiction lies in where I want to escape to is put off for the time being due to the lingering town stop and the unknown. We both want to be out there fiendishly, most desirably. I drift back to the pain of dropping out on the PCT due to salmonella. Stricken even before my start date, I still have a bit of tortuous residue lingering inside because I felt I failed, that something was psychologically wrong with me. How I don't want her to experience that, that feeling. Nevertheless, I do not want to be the influential demise of health. We're a team; I was hiking solo back then and I was ready to die for what I had dreamed for. What would I tell myself back then now? How can I make an objective decision when I believe in her so much? When I trust her so much? I take pride in my adventures in knowing my most important gear item is my head. To make sound, heady, and smart, rational decisions is of utmost importance. I know she trusts me to make them when I'm away from her on another adventure of some sort. Then why are things so fuzzy, so blurred when it is clear as crystal?

We've been re-hashing our goals. The hard part is what I 'see' and 'don't see' everyday. One second it is invisible, then the next vivid, like a bone popping out of the skin. I sure as hell do not want to see her get worse. I feel pent up and want to express things realistically without hurting her. I tell myself: This is a life decision and not a hiking decision.

The unseen fucks with your head and heart. I called it quits on the PCT only after I woke up lying on my back in the middle of the trail for the fourth time. The drastic 30 pound weight loss wasn't evident enough for me. If we leave Ashland and that happens to her I would never forgive myself. But the unseen. It melds in the mesh of reality. It lurks in the interstitial plasma of the heart, like a cobweb splayed up in the corner of a high, dimly lit ceiling.

I'm searching for an outlet, for the anxiety of not knowing is compressing my lungs. I cannot breath deeply right now, or exhale releasing the rigors of built up stress. The uncertainty is suffocating. She submitted test results for the unseen. But with systemic symptoms not going away nor with her condition worsening in a debilitating state I have a hard time believing what it potentially could be with her history. Also, I mean, for Christ sakes, she's still gutting out 30 miles per day. I've said it before and I'll say it again, ain't nobody stronger I've seen than my wife.

I've hesitated in sharing this ramble. However, I feel this is something I should share. As well as Bearclaw.  The trials, the endless tough decisions that need to be made, the strain in the body and mind, the sacrifice, the unending compromises, the grit and toughness exerted, and the boundless limits of endurance is something I want to share. I want the reader to get a glimpse of a thru-hiker, in particular in a mind of a speed hiker and an extremist. I want the reader to see the unseen.

The results came back with high levels of Giardia. Plans have been made, but with the uncertainty of what she is battling now having a name we feel more comforted in moving forward with those plans.