Monday, November 14, 2011

PCT in Review (pt 1)

If anyone has been waiting anxiously to hear my post-op analysis on my trip, I apologize - the real world has been awfully busy lately. My main priority has been graduating on time, and that's kept the time for reflection down to a minimum. The first piece of my reflection is a summary of my trip in numbers. In doing this I realized two posts never went up while I was on the trail, so I've added those to the blog in the correct timeline.

I started hiking on May 18th, and finished hiking on August 16th, for a total of 91 days out in the woods. During that time I hiked a total of 1321 miles, including 1241 on trail and an additional 80 off-trail (up Mount Whitney, in and out Kearsarge Pass, to Yosemite Valley, etc). I took 19 zero days, of which 11 were for recovery from my stress fracture, and another three were to skip up to Crater Lake. That means I took 3 on trail zeros, which was about what I planned to do. I took an additional 7 'nero' days where I hiked 10 miles or less (3 were for my stress fracture recovery), and these were generally going into or out of town.

My overall average pace for the summer was 14.5 miles per day.
Excluding the time out for injuries, my average pace was 16.6 miles per day.
On the days that I hiked, my average pace was just about 20 miles per day.

One thing I didn't realize going in was how easy it is to give in to the temptation to cut a mile or two off of each day. When you're tired towards the evening and its starting to get darker, you may happen upon a great campsite. Many times I didn't have the mental fortitude to push past it and gave in to my desire to rest right there. Over a couple weeks that adds up and can really throw the schedule off in the long term. Offhand I can think of at least a half dozen times this happened, like at Fred Canyon Creek, just after Paradise Valley Cafe, after Mission Creek, and coming up to Baden Powell to name a few from the first three weeks.

Its actually a ton of fun seeing all the data for my whole hike. Looking back I can find places I made mistakes and how I would improve if I did it all over again (and yes, that idea is lurking in the back of my mind). I totally understand now when more experienced hikers talk about how hiking gets in your blood, I can say with absolute certainty I'll be getting back out there when I have the chance.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Grad School - Less Than 1 Month to Go!

So for those of you who followed me here on my PCT adventure, I'm giving you fair warning that I've transitioned back to 'real life' and I have a few disclaimers if you've only read my hiking posts

1) Things won't be quite so exciting, and I have no intention of updating daily (as evidenced by the last two months without a single post)
2) There won't be nearly so many scenic photos with each post
3) I still plan to write for my personal enjoyment and hope you enjoy reading the final product

As a quick update, I'm now fully immersed in my Master's program, and I'm just about a month away from graduation in December. I'm wrapping up my research project and beginning the process of writing my thesis. In fact, I've been frustrated with the writing process there, so I was inspired to come back here to post as a way to help the words start flowing.

A few reflections on this semester (and yes, I promise to write some reflections about my hiking at a later date) and how its been different than my undergraduate experience. For starters, I don't have the typical grad school schedule because I squeezed everything into less than a year, so I'm taking more classes than most would in my situation. I've been studying controls, railroads (ostensibly as prep for my job) and creativity. On top of that I've been doing research, which is a bottomless sinkhole of time. On multiple occasions I've walked into the computer lab around noon, not to leave until after midnight. The joys of computer modeling... I've developed a serious love-hate relationship with MATLAB, which has supplanted Excel in that role.

I've been most intrigued by the balance (or lack thereof) between classes and research. I used to split my time between different courses and requirements, but I've found that this year I need to take an all-or-nothing approach. Three days of hard core work on research followed by one day of frantically catching up on my classwork has become the norm. I think the root of that is the more involved nature of my research, and it isn't nearly as easy to turn that on or off. Once I start delving into the theory and derivations for some of this stuff, it seems like a terrible waste to work on other things once I'm on a roll. So my time management has been radically altered from the more balanced approach in undergrad.

The social aspects of this year have been interesting too. Many of my friends have graduated, pursuing gainful employment rather than continued studies. At first Champaign seemed empty and it was harder to get groups of friends together (if and when I had time to spare). But at the same time, it was good because it forced me to explore new areas of the campus that I hadn't seen before. The big one has been the Illini Swing Society, which has been a fun relief during the week. I've taken Lindy Hop lessons once a week and its been nice to have a scheduled break one night a week to get out and do something totally different from my daily work. It gives my left brain a break and focuses on right brain functions which I exercise much less frequently.

Additionally, I've been trying to run more again this semester, with mixed results. For starters I've found out that hiking fitness and running fitness are not the same thing. I had to restart from lower mileage, so I'm working in the range of 4 mile runs at this point. Finding the time to get out there is a bigger challenge, but when I have been able to, its been quite refreshing. For me its all about getting out of the academic environment for an hour or two and physically challenging myself. I did a solid 5k with EWB a couple weeks ago and it was a ton of fun to run a race again. Sadly, they didn't have an award for the first place grad student, because I totally won in that category (did I mention I was the only grad student running?). I've struggled a bit with the cold weather lately, but at least I have the ARC track if it gets too nasty out.

I have to say I've thoroughly enjoyed my grad experience up to this point, and while the next month of thesis writing may shift my opinion to some extent, I am very glad I had the opportunity to add this to my college experience. I can't believe in just a few months I'll be starting a new phase of my life with the beginning of my rotational program in Erie, PA.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Day 92-93 (8/17-18) Homeward Bound

After a nice relaxing morning on sleeping in, showering, then going back to sleep (three things I never got to do on the trail), I repacked my gear and headed back towards the bus stop. Today had a strange feel to it. I had pretty much 12 hours to take a 10 mile bus ride, so I had to get used to the idea of having nothing to do. First stop, Taco Bell for a hearty dose of everything that I love about fast food. Also, unlimited refills on fountain drinks! Who needs to worry about rationing that last liter of water now? Just go back to fill up your 32oz cup again and keep on drinking. After lunch I paid a full $4.50 for the bus ride, and arrived in Dunsmuir around 1pm. Now I only had 11 hours to kill. Since my legs were already complaining about the amount of sitting and lack of exercise I went for a walk through the town, up main street on one side, then back through the ‘shopping district’ one street over. That took no more than an hour despite spending as much time as I could wandering and perusing everything.

Next stop was the post office, where I arranged to have my boxes from Etna shipped back home. That would save me the hassle of trying to do it from Deerfield. With all of my chores completed, the only thing left to do was head over to the burger joint for a blackberry malt. Did I mention its HOT around here? I’m used to hanging out in the mountains around 5-6,000 ft, and this town is probably closer to 2,000. Boy it makes a difference, and I was so glad for air conditioning on a day like this. I whiled away the time by catching up on some of my favorite online comic strips on my phone, then when that was done I wandered over to a thrift shop and picked up a pair of books for my flight. The first is Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and the second is Cradle by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee. I’m not sure which I’m looking forward to more, but I’ll start with Vonnegut since its shorter. Its been a few years since I’ve read a book for pleasure, so this should be a nice refresher. I headed back to the burger place for an ice cream cone and worked a little bit on my journals. I expected to feel very emotional right now, but it hasn’t really set in. I’m curious when that’ll happen and how it’ll hit me.

The Amtrak train as I got off in Sacramento
When the burger joint closed around 5 I decided I felt like pizza for dinner. They would be open until 10, so it would be the perfect place to hang out until I was getting closer to the midnight train. I ordered a ‘personal’ pan pizza, or rather, I personally ordered a large pan pizza, and proceeded to slowly work through the whole thing. I have to remind myself that I shouldn’t be eating like I’m out on the trail anymore, because I’ll quickly put on a ton of weight if I keep this up. For the next few days I think its okay though, as my body is probably going to be working overtime to finally fix and repair all the little things I’ve damaged and haven’t allowed to heal. The hours seemed to drag on despite the various distractions of my phone and book. Finally the restaurant was closing, so I walked a few blocks down to the train station. I settled into a nice chair and continued reading, though I was admittedly starting to get tired by this point. Plus, around 10:30 a woman and her daughter came in, the daughter immediately falling asleep on the bench, and then started snoring! If there is anything that makes a tired person super jealous, and extra tired, it is watching (or hearing) another person sleeping. I had to keep standing up and moving around to make sure I wouldn’t drift off. Finally it was near midnight and I decided to wait outside to watch for the train. I haven’t ridden Amtrak since early in my youth, so this was another new experience for me. Those of us without physical tickets were taken to the dining car where we checked in and paid, then were assigned a seat in the main car where we could sleep. Although the seats are more spacious than those on a plane, I had no success finding a comfortable position that didn’t involve jamming my knees into the upright tray table. I drifted off to sleep only to find myself scrunched up on the floor with my head against the seat. Somehow my unconscious self found the only comfortable (though very unconventional) way to sleep in this seat. I drifted back to sleep after setting my alarm for 6am.

We arrived in Sacramento 45 minutes early, before my alarm went off, and I was fortunate to have my seat-mate shake me awake. I would hope that the conductor would’ve made rounds to wake people up, but this worked out well. I couldn’t believe how early we were, and made my way out and into the train station. There I indulged in a huge cup of coffee and a muffin to try to shake off the cobwebs from a short night’s sleep. I hung out for a bit, gathering my bearings before looking for a cab to the airport. It was going to be $35 to go just 11 miles to the airport, compared to $60 to take the train 200 miles to get here. I was a bit frustrated, but lacking other options I hopped in and 15 minutes later was standing outside the airport. 

My flight home!
Security at the airport was no problem, and I was able to get a heavy garbage bag to protect my pack from having the straps torn off. From that point on, it was just a waiting game, spending my time alternating between catching up with the real world on my phone and reading my book. I had a short layover in Phoenix, and then I rocketed back east to Chicago and home. I picked up my bag and walked outside the terminal where I met my dad. It was good to see him and I really just can’t believe its already over. At home I got to see my mom for the first time in three months (she couldn’t come visit this summer since she’s been working a new job), and we all got to talk a bunch while I proceeded to devour anything set in front of me. It’s good to be home, though that will be short lived as grad school resumes in just 3 days!

In the course of 8 hours I travelled more than the distance I walked this entire summer, but I think the last three months have given me a much better perspective on things. Sometimes its the miles that matter, but in my case, I see the most important part as the way you cover those miles. I’ve met dozens and dozens of amazing people out on the trail, experienced some of the most wonderful parts of the country, and had a great chance to step back from the rush of daily life to live fully in the moment. No, I didn’t make it all 2,600 miles to Canada this year, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Miles Today: ~2 around town
Trip Mileage: 1318

*Note - I think part of my delay in posting the last few entries has been a desire not to admit that this amazing trip is actually over. With this post I’m finally closing out the narrative of my experiences, though I’ve been working on a few reflective posts to talk about how this trip affected me and where I go from here. Thanks for sticking with me this summer, and I hope you enjoyed reading these posts as much as I enjoyed writing them! - Brian

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Day 91 (8/16) Moving Quick (Or At Least Trying To)

After my late night yesterday I had no desire for an early morning today. Nonetheless, I forced myself to get up and moving because time was of the essence. I still had another 55 miles to go, and I needed to finish by tomorrow evening. Not unreachable, but definitely moving faster than the last few days. The first thing I noticed was that the pain in my foot had not abated overnight, and it was only by walking gingerly that I could avoid a return of the piercing sensation in my sole. Progress was slower that I would’ve liked, but I pushed myself ahead of a 2.5 mph pace, which was more than enough to get me to the finish line in time for the train.

Gorgeous lake with Mt. Shasta
I spent less time today admiring the scenery than I would’ve liked, as I was busy keeping a watchful eye on the ground underfoot, deftly avoiding stepping on anything that might cause discomfort. A couple hours into the morning I ran into a pair of gentlemen who were happy to chat for a bit. I was happy to rest my feet, so I was more than willing to chat as well. We got to talking about my experiences earlier on the trail and how I had been injured in the Sierras. A funny expression came over John’s face as he exclaimed “I’ve read about you on the PCT-L!”. For those who aren’t familiar, this is the listserv for any PCT related discussions, and apparently someone had heard my story and relayed it in this online forum. What a small world. I promised I’d try to dig up that post to add my own two cents to the story of my experience out there. After bidding them farewell, I very soon ran into Crasher and her parents who had joined her for a short section on the trail. She’s one of the few solo women I’ve met out here, and I don’t really understand why that isn’t more common. I’m familiar with family concerns about safety and so forth, but once you get out here its easy enough to pair up with other people during the sketchy sections while still maintaining an independent hiking pace and style. I think it would drive me crazy to be tied to a hiker partner for the whole trip like some people are. Just another 20 minutes down the trail I ran into ANOTHER set of hikers, and I was starting to think I was coming up on a pretty sizable pack. I only chatted with these two for a short while as I was feeling an urge to start making miles and though I enjoy talking, I could feel the clock ticking in the back of my mind.

Positive ID!
Well, as it was, I would only make it 10 feet down the trail after saying goodbye to this pair before I knew I was in for a long break. Up ahead on the trail there was none other than Positive ID, still wearing that same orange soccer jersey with the company logo ‘Bimbo’ on the front. He’s lucky that didn’t become his trail name! It was a happy reunion, and we shared stories of everything that had happened since we parted way back at Kearsarge Pass. He had taken a week off to visit friends in San Francisco, so he had dropped behind many of the people who were with us at Independence. Nonetheless, over the next month he steadily progressed northward and caught up to every single one of them except for Drop Dead who I had seen a few days prior. Pretty impressive if you ask me. I’m awed by the fact that in the early parts of my trip I spent a good amount of time hiking with two guys (Noah and Positive ID) who have been able to consistently power through the miles and keep up a backbreaking pace for three months straight - a pace that sidelined me for a few weeks when my body decided enough was enough! It was really amazing to get to see him one last time, and I wished him the best on the last 1,000 miles of his trek. Watching him hike away really made it sink in that this was the end of my journey; I was coming down to the final day, and boy what a ride it had been. A crazy mix of emotions bubbled up inside me, as my mind raced to replay a highlight reel of my experiences out here. I was overcome with the magnitude of what I’ve done so far, and the magnitude of what I’ll be leaving unfinished.

The rest of the day moved on as a blur as I charged ahead, trying my best to make up time and close the distance to Castella where I could finally stop, finally rest, finally call it quits. Somewhere in the next few hours I started limping as my foot became raw again and the rocks underfoot continued to mercilessly wear away at the practically unprotected flesh. I’d been counting on solid progress all day, but at 4pm I had only covered 16 miles when I reached a remote trailhead. My trail maps don’t make note of any towns down the road, and it wasn’t even listed in the guidebook, so I wasn’t expecting it too be much. But, at this point I was facing a harsh reality - my feet were no longer in decent walking condition. In normal circumstances I would’ve stopped days ago to soak and rest them, giving them a chance to recover and heal properly. But I’d booked my travel already, and that put me in a bind. Slowing down would’ve helped my feet heal and let me walk faster, but I didn’t want to lose the time needed for rest. Well, that series of decisions left me here, 39 miles from my train, with just about 28 hours to get there. For once my extreme optimism in my abilities was tempered by a sobering dose of reality. I might be able to make it, but I’d have to hike through most of the night, and it would absolutely destroy my feet. As much as a macho part of me wanted to just stand back up and push onward, logic prevailed. I started laying out my options. This was the last road before Castella, so if I wanted to bail, this was the time. There was a parking lot with a few cars, but who knows when they would be back. I decided to give it an hour as I ate some food and elevated my poor feet. Only 15 minutes later a car drove up, and I went over to talk to the driver after he parked. He was going backpacking out here for a few days, and was quite helpful. He showed me the road map of where this road led, and which towns were nearby. He also mentioned there was good cell service just down the hill. I began formulating a plan. It was 10 miles down the road to town, and then another 30 to Dunsmuir where I would catch my train. If I hiked partway down tonight I could get to town in the morning, then either hitch or find a bus or taxi to get me to the train station. I put in a call home to my Dad and discussed the plan, and he agreed that this was the most sensible idea. Part of me just wanted to make sure that I was acting rationally and wasn’t missing anything as I decided to deviate from the original plan. I was surprisingly unconcerned about missing those last 39 miles into Castella. Sure, I’d wanted to visit Castle Crags state park, and hit my official 1332 mile midpoint of the trail. A certain calm had settled over me, and as I started walking down the road, I was actually smiling about the situation. Well, my smile turned into a full, uncontrollable grin less than two miles later when a sedan pulled alongside me and offered me a ride. Not just that, but she was going all the way to Mt. Shasta, which was 10 miles from Dunsmuir, and had a bus that ran there every hour. It was so perfect I could’ve cried.

I talked to my impromptu trail angel for the whole ride, and it was cool to hear her story. She hadn’t done much hiking ever since spending a few years as a backcountry forest ranger during her 20’s, but had just recently decided to try it out again. She said my story inspired her to stick with it and make this a greater priority in her life. Then, she wouldn’t even take any cash for the ride, and I was totally floored that someone would drive me nearly 30 miles just out of the goodness of her heart. What a perfect experience to end this magical trip. She dropped me right at the main hotel in Mt Shasta, and gave me directions to the bus stop and convenience store before heading on her way. Wow, I just couldn’t believe how well that had turned out. Just two hours ago I had been weighing my options at the trail, and somehow in that time I had been speedily whisked away off the trail and into the comfort of city life.

The original Black Bear diner with Mt. Shasta
Of course, every fairy tale has a few rough spots. In this case, it was the fact that for some reason this hotel, and the rest of the downtown hotels were fully booked on a Tuesday evening. I ended up walking a full mile out to a hotel with one room left - a massive queen suite that was more luxury than I’ve seen in years. The lady at the desk was super nice and gave me a pretty reasonable rate considering how nice the room was and the fact that I had almost no other choice for lodging. My first priority was a shower, followed by another shower, and then dinner. I walked back a ways to the Black Bear Diner, where I ordered a massive Tri-Tip dinner, a salad, and a malt, and proceeded to make each one of them disappear. Finally feeling satisfied I made my way back to the hotel where I indulged in a little bit of TV, watching a couple episodes of Top Shot before collapsing into the all too plush queen bed. After months of sleeping on a thin foam pad, or occasionally a cot or cheap bed, this was beyond anything I could have dreamed of. My body didn’t know how to react, and I struggled to fall asleep. For a moment I was tempted to pull out my mat and sleep on the floor, but that seemed like an awful waste of a fantastic hotel room. In the end I did drift away to sleep, thankful that for the first time since May 18th there were no more miles to walk tomorrow.

Miles Today: 16 (+3)
Trip Mileage: 1318
PCT Mile Marker: 1545

Monday, September 5, 2011

Day 90 (8/15) Making Up Lost Time

Yesterday I gave in to the pain in my feet and settled for a 19 mile day. Today, I need to cover my full mileage, plus make up for some of yesterday’s. Quite a challenge indeed, considering that things definitely didn’t fully recover overnight. But starting out, as always, I was upbeat and cheerful, looking forward to another great day of hiking. Just two miles in to the morning I started hearing a quite unusual sound, at least unusual for the middle of the wilderness. I could hear a chainsaw whining up ahead, and then it would fade away, followed by the crashing noise of a tree falling to the earth. This carried on for quite awhile as I approached the highway, where I found they were doing maintenance work along the side. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone with a chainsaw in the whole time I’ve been out here, as in National Wilderness areas they are forbidden and trail crews must use the more primitive two-man saws when clearing trees.

The distant Trinity Alps
In the same area I ran into a northbound section hiker (aka not doing the full 2,600 miles this year) who was an engineering professor from Rochester. We chatted for a bit about our shared field, and then exchanged the usual trail reports about what we’d recently walked through. Amazingly, he wasn’t the most interesting person I met today. A few hours later at a trail junction I ran into an older gentleman taking a short break. He’s a 70+ CEO of a robotic automation company, and every summer takes a couple one week trips out hiking. He was a blast to talk to, and it helped reinforce in my mind that I haven’t totally lost my edge for when I go back to school. Plus, I was just astounded at the fact that he was still going that strong at his age - carrying what appeared to be approx 70 pounds of gear, and doing fine. The last time I carried that much weight I was soon sidelined for two weeks... I think I’ve learned my lesson, but clearly here is an example of someone who has experienced no ill consequences of the added load.

Two gorgeous lakes south of the PCT in the Trinity Alps
The trail today was nice and smooth for a change, so I didn’t experience nearly so many painful encounters with sharp rocks underfoot. Miles drifted past, and I entered, and then exited the Trinity Alps Wilderness. I have to say, for all the hype about this section, I was somewhat unimpressed. We just touch a corner of this wilderness area, and the coolest parts looked like they were about 10-15 miles away. I’d love to get a chance to come back and check out the Trinity Alps during another trip, but for now I just got a distant view of them. On the other hand, the section I was walking through was amazing for the number of scenic lakes I passed. First there would be one on the left, then the right, then the left, and the beautiful vistas just kept coming. I remembered Sourdough saying that this was the best spot to camp, and I now understood what he meant, but unfortunately I still had plenty of miles to make this afternoon.

The trail and two PCT markers on a post
I started running into foot trouble again right around 21 miles for the day, as I came near to Highway 3. This
was an old stage coach road that had been abandoned for years after the railroad came through, only the later be returned to use when they started building the highway system. I stopped at the campground there for dinner, and though I was finished with dinner in under 20 minutes, I delayed and delayed as I was un-enthused about the idea of getting back on my feet. After a full hour there, much of it spent lying down with my feet propped up in the air, I finally roused myself for another forward push. The break had done nothing to remedy my foot situation, and the raw spot on my right foot was persistently reminding me that I’d been mistreating it and should give it time to heal. Sadly, I had no time for that luxury, as my train and plane were already booked. From the highway I had 60 miles to go, and I was giving myself only two more days to do it. If I could put in another few tonight, it would be doable, but definitely unpleasant. And if my feet didn’t fix themselves, it would be darn nearly impossible. With that motivation I decided to do some night-hiking. The miles are the most important thing right now, and I’m running short on hours to do them.

I’ve tried a number of tricks in the past to extend my hiking hours without losing the ability to walk quickly. One strategy was to continue wearing sunglasses past dusk so that my eyes adjust more rapidly to the dark conditions, and when I tried that I could usually go an extra 30 minutes before needing a light. Tonight I decided I would be going well into dark anyway, so I did away with the gimmicks and went straight to the headlamp. Yesterday moonlight had been around 10:30, so I would have probably about 2 hours of solid darkness where that headlamp would be critical.

One of the curious deer just down the hill from me
Around dusk I spotted two deer on the trail, and it was only moments before they saw me and took off down
the hill. To my surprise as I came closer though, they had only gone a few dozen feet and then waited to see me pass. It was the perfect opportunity for a great photo, and I was amazed how well my camera did in the low light conditions. Unfortunately though, it has just started having its first problem of the trip. The zoom slider is sticking and makes it much harder to frame photos just how you want. I figure when I get home I can pop it open and clean out whatever got into that mechanism. I’m just amazed how well it has held up all trip, especially considering the dirty dusty conditions I’ve come through.

As night fell I flicked on my light and continued my southbound journey. By necessity when hiking by headlamp you have to slow down as you don’t have much ability to look ahead to see what you may have to avoid. Plus, objects on the ground don’t stand out nearly so well, so each step must be taken more carefully. Twice I looked up and saw the glow of eyes on the trail. Its an eerie feeling to know that some other creature is out there, but all you can see is a pair of eyes. Every time I hoped and prayed it was a deer, and banging together my poles confirmed my suspicion in both cases when the animal bounded off into the brush. Phew, I don’t ever want another experience like waking up to that bear nearby last week. I made about 5 miles by 10:30 as the full moon started to come up. Rather than helping, it was actually making things more difficult for me. There was moderate tree cover along the trail, so only slivers of light would shine through, dazzling me and washing out the rest of the landscape. I decided that it was getting to be late enough, and I didn’t want to have a late start tomorrow, so I found a nice shaded (from the moon) spot and laid out my gear. All I cared about was giving my body a chance to fix my feet. Like I mentioned before, if I had control of these minute responses within my body, this would’ve been resolved a long time ago. As it stands though, I just have to hope that this expanding raw spot on the bottom of my foot finally toughens up as there are 55 miles to go, and just 48 hours to hike them.

Miles Today: 26
Trip Mileage: 1299
PCT Mile Marker: 1561

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Day 89 (8/14) The Final Push

Today is Sunday. My last day of hiking will be Wednesday. Its surreal, and I’m really not sure if I’m ready for this hike to end. It hadn’t really set in until now, when I’m on the final leg of this summer journey. I lay in my sleeping bag reflecting on everything I’ve experienced, drifting back to sleep for a short while before finally getting up and moving. I was super excited about my food today since I had packed some treats coming out of town. Breakfast was nothing special, but after that I had some great snacks. Three apples, a big pack of pepperoni and a block of cheese to keep me energized throughout the day.

I didn’t make it far this morning before I was in for a surprise. I came around a curve and right in front of me was a massive snow drift, obliterating the trail and extending for hundreds of feet.
I'm STILL finding snow in mid-August!
And as I surveyed it to find my best way across, here comes a northbound hiker, Happy Whale, working his way up to Etna for a nice day off. I on the other hand had a full day ahead, so I didn’t spend too much time chatting. Its currently August 14th in CALIFORNIA, and I’m still coming across snow. What a crazy year. After making my way across, I tried to pick up the pace and start making some miles. My feet held up pretty well through the first 5 miles when I took a break for an apple. What a fantastic thing to bring out for the first day from town. I’m glad I did this on the final section, otherwise I might’ve tried carrying out perishable treats like this every time I left town, and I didn’t need the extra weight. One big highlight of the morning was a closer view of Mt. Shasta. I first saw this mountain from a lookout at the Crater Lake rim, and now after two weeks of hiking I’m due west of it. For the next few days I’ll be curving back east, coming to finish just south of it in Castle Crags state park. This is one of the curious sections that goes every direction as it weaves around mountains and valleys, so that while I’ll hike 100 miles on trail, it would take only 60 miles by road, and 40 miles as the crow flies.
I'm closing in on Mt. Shasta, my final destination this summer

The weather today was absolutely perfect, though it was another slightly nerve-wracking one. There was a ton of cloud cover which gave me a reprieve from the heat and cut down my need for water since I wasn’t sweating nearly so much. I did sweat the fact that there were some massive clouds overhead, and some of them were in fact grey and menacing looking. But, to my great relief, none ever took the next step of dropping rain or shooting lightning. The most curious thing was that all of these clouds from the north to the south all came together around Mt. Shasta, and I would surmise that it plays a major factor in the local weather. No thunder or lightning came from the clouds over there either, so I guess conditions aren’t quite ripe for a storm just yet. Hopefully it stays that way through Wednesday, after which I don’t really care what happens.
Russian Wilderness Sign w/ Hammer & Sickle
My hike today brought me through the Russian Wilderness, one of the original wilderness areas set aside by Congress when they created the national park system. I really enjoy how stark and rugged it is, as opposed to some of the gentler more rolling hills I saw around the Ashland area. I did get a good laugh at the wilderness boundary sign where a hiker had made a hammer and sickle out of rocks next to the trail. We only spend a dozen miles in the wilderness itself, but this whole area is really cool. Coming from the Marble Mountains before Etna, to this, and then I’ve heard the Trinity Alps are another great spot just ahead.

Throughout the day I came to realize that my feet, having recovered somewhat, were not yet ready for a big push. My heels have mostly repaired themselves, but the ball of my right foot is still very tender and hasn’t yet formed the protective layer I need. I’m always amazed by how well we can control technology and everything else, but for our own bodies, so many things happen automatically and are beyond our control. I can’t just command my body to build up leg muscles, or lose weight, so instead we’ve learned how to indirectly cause those things to happen by learning which actions produce the desired results. If we want to build muscle, we exercise those muscles and our body reacts by building muscle. If we want to lose weight, we have to change our lifestyle to burn more calories than we consume. But those are very crude ways of achieving the actual goal. The brain controls all body function, and yet the conscious part isn’t able to communicate with the unconscious part to achieve the desired result. In my case right now, all I wish is that I could somehow convince my body to put callouses over the raw spot on my foot immediately, rather than waiting a few days or weeks until it gets around to it. In fact, I wish I could’ve told my body to do that days ago before this turned into a big problem for me. Funny how it doesn’t quite work that way. (*Fittingly, just before I was to post this I saw a comic strip that highlights this very point.

As it was, my feet kept my pace down all afternoon, and by the early evening it was clear that I wouldn’t be hitting my 25 mile goal for the day. If things shaped up, I could probably do 30 tomorrow to get myself back on track. If not, I would hit that road sometime tomorrow and could call it quits from there. I really don’t want to do that, but I’m even less excited about the idea of missing my train & plane, paying fees to rebook those travel plans, and getting home a day or two later. This last section is shaping up to be a little more of a physical challenge rather than a nice easy coast to the finish, but at the same time its fun to push myself, and I look forward to my day tomorrow to see if I can push myself and make up some miles from today.

Forested Valley in the Russian Wilderness

Miles Today: 19
Trip Mileage: 1273
PCT Mile Marker: 1587

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Day 88 (8/13) Making it Work

I had only two goals for today: letting my feet recover, and making up for missing the post office yesterday. So I started out with a shower then used one of the loaner bikes here to go over to a nice diner for breakfast with Goodness and Zm. Like in every town the goal was to make up for my caloric deficit on trail, so I pretty much ate for two. I think the strangest part was having endless coffee, since I haven’t had any for probably about a month. After breakfast we had spotted a bakery, but unfortunately they were redoing the interior this weekend so they were closed. You can imagine how crushing that was... To lift my spirits I made my way over to the old fashioned soda fountain where I enjoyed a nice cold malt. It was neat to see how they made another couple’s root beer floats - they have the pop syrup and then manually add the right amount of carbonated soda water. Definitely something I didn’t expect to see when I came out here.

After taking care of my immediate need for food, I had to figure out what to do about my food for the last leg of the trip. From Etna I’ll be hiking to Castella, exactly 100 miles away. That’s going to take just about 4 days, and then I’ll be on my way home. I had maybe a day worth of stuff leftover from the last leg, which leaves me about 3 days short. The post office here doesn’t have Saturday hours, so if I wanted my box I’d have to wait until Monday. That just wasn’t going to work, because that means I don’t get home to Chicago until Saturday, and school starts on Monday. No dice. Actually, around noon I found out I was wrong, and for PCT hikers if you knock on the back door between 9 and 10am on Saturday they are there sorting mail and will let you pick up your package. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out until noon, at which point that opportunity was long gone. I just had to laugh at my unlucky streak with this particular post office. Fortunately for me there is a Ray’s Food Place in Etna, and it was a decent sized grocery store with more than enough options for food. This would be the first time all trip I try to resupply on trail, so it was a little bit different.

First of all, since I have a full selection of whatever I want from here, I decided to mix things up a little bit. I picked up a half pound of cheese for the first day out of town, along with some pepperoni and summer sausage. Then I picked up three apples as a first day treat, before finally getting the standard fare of pasta and instant potatoes. I think there have only been 2 or 3 nights all trip (88 days - nights in town) that I haven’t eaten instant mashed potatoes on trail. And somehow I’m still not sick of them. Same thing goes for Snickers bars, and despite everyone’s warnings that I would come hate them as the trip progressed, I still enjoy that gooey caramel mess (they ALWAYS get crushed in my pack). Loaded up with $50 of food, I headed back to the hostel to finish the rest of my chores. My clothes hadn’t had a real wash since Crater Lake, so after two weeks, they were bad news. Fortunately there was a washer and dryer I could use for $3, so I piled them all in and went about planning my trip back to Chicago. I figure I can hike this section in four days, and then theres a midnight train from Dunsmuir (5 miles from the trail) to Sacramento, where I can catch a flight home the next day. Leaving tomorrow that puts me on the train Wednesday night and home on Thursday. Sounds like a good plan to me. I did realize though that I’d have to cut my hiking short on Wednesday if I wanted to hitch to Dunsmuir, and I’d lose some time tomorrow morning hitching up to the trailhead. Losing a few hours on both ends made it a little tighter, and I started to wonder if I shouldn’t just give myself another day. Then I realized I could get out there tonight, just hike up a mile and get a full day tomorrow. I decided to go with that plan because I really did want to get home as early as possible so I’d have a few days to re-acclimate to the world before being thrust back into grad school, research and classes.

I went ahead and booked the flight, then while trying to book the train I found out I needed to have my Amtrak ticket mailed to me. But I wasn’t going to have a way to pick it up... I called Amtrak and they said if I booked less then 3 days in advance I could get a boarding code and pay on the train. Okay, so now I had to call from the middle of the wilderness to book my seat on the train. Fantastic. I called home and arranged a backup plan with my Dad so that if he didn’t hear from me by Monday evening he’d book it for me. My only concern through all this was my feet. I struggled mightily yesterday with some blister issues, and it wasn’t clear that a single day had been enough to heal everything. I was still walking gingerly, and that wasn’t over rocks and uneven terrain, so in the back of my mind I had a slight concern. I looked at the map and spotted an early exit just 40 miles from here, so if I couldn’t make my miles I could bail and hitch to the train station from there. With that everything was settled and my mind was at ease, so I packed up my gear and went down to the local brewery for a quick dinner before heading out.

The Etna Brewery was FANTASTIC. There is no doubt in my mind that if I wasn’t concerned about my timing for the trip home, I would’ve hung out here all evening with the other hikers enjoying all of the great beers they make here. As it was I had to cut myself off at two, after savoring both their stout and a porter. What a wonderful last town stop, more than making up for the mess I made of my resupply at the post office. I made quick work of a burger and salad (once again two normal meals), then went back to the hostel where I called Keith for a ride to the trail. I apologized for the mixup last night (he came right away, waited for 20 minutes then left, and I got there about 40 minutes later...). We chatted on the ride up, and it turns out he’s a 85 year old guy who’s done just about everything imaginable. I think he said he’s held 62 jobs during his lifetime. Now he’s retired and living out here he enjoys meeting the hikers and helping them get to and from the trail. For the 20 mile round trip he only asked for $5, which was pretty amazing considering what a steep and winding road it was.

Sunset from the trailhead right after being dropped off
We arrived at the top around 8:15, and there was another hiker waiting for a ride, so it worked out perfectly for all. I can definitely tell the days are getting shorter because I witnessed a fantastic sunset around 8:30 and shortly thereafter it was getting dark enough I started considering breaking out my headlamp. Instead I decided that I didn’t need to push too hard tonight and that my half mile was plenty. I’d be up bright and early tomorrow for a full day, and that was all that mattered.

Miles Today: ~0
Trip Mileage: 1254
PCT Mile Marker: 1606