Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mount San Jacinto, 7 July 2012: Part II

Back at camp and ravenous, I cooked up some tacos. I made a small fire and read for a while, but I was tired and wanted a good rest in anticipation of the next day's walk. Unfortunately, said anticipation led to insomnia. I read for a long time and then sat awake for most the night just thinking about stuff. I slept a little bit and woke at seven. I'd hoped to be at the trailhead by then. I quickly dressed and got my gear together. To save time, I used my ten-inch iron skillet to cook my whole breakfast at once instead of my six-inch iron skillet to cook my sausage, eggs, and corn bread in stages. Big mistake. My stove is rad, but I now know that it doesn't evenly heat up a ten-inch iron skillet on a cold mountain morning. When everything was finally scrambled together and cooked through, I traded bites with lacing up my boots. I was finally at the trailhead by eight. The lot at Humber Park was mostly full already. As I pulled in, I stared in awe up at the noble face of Lily Rock, what is commonly known as Tahquitz Rock. I greeted a climber who was sorting gear and realized he was getting ready to ascend that thing. Crazy.

A group of four hikers was chatting and gearing up a few cars down from mine. They were close to ready to get going, and I worried that, if I didn't hurry, I'd be walking with these folks for the next three hours. Before I could finish getting myself situated, they were off. And soon I was too. Luckily, two of them stopped to take pictures only two switchbacks in. I was able to pass them and make a good bit of headway before I was stopped cold in my tracks. An opening in the trees revealed a breathtaking view of Tahquitz Rock, Suicide Rock, and all of Idyllwild and its surround. The pale blue sky reached up and up, and the newly waning moon hung there like a white stamp on the morning sky. I had no idea I'd climbed so high already.

And so it went. With every turn, I found beautiful scenery and wide vistas. Closer in, I found springs, birds, and an surprisingly large variety of flora. When I finished the Devil's Slide Trail and arrived at Saddle Junction, I felt something that I'm not sure I can adequately describe. The junction lies at the crossing of at least two trails. It's a wide open space surrounded by tall pines. Low granite rocks dot the clearing, which is covered in a carpet of pine needles. Even though a few folks stood around chatting, there seemed to be a church-like hush to the place. I wanted to stay there for a few minutes, but I didn't want to get into conversation with the other hikers. I wasn't ready to talk to anyone yet. So I looked for the PCT badge and continued on toward the summit of Mount San Jacinto. It wasn't long before the other hikers' voices were engulfed by the silence, and I was alone on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I'd only learned of the PCT several months, maybe a year before setting foot on it. When I heard that there was such a thing as a hiking trail that stretched 2,663 miles between the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, my imagination took flight. It wasn't long before I heard the author Cheryl Strayed interviewed on the radio. In her early twenties, following the death of her mother and a harrowing divorce, she walked the PCT on a whim. It wasn't until this year that she published her memoir of the walk, Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a straightforward, touching, and often funny account of a young woman's struggle to find out why life can be so hard and to figure out how to live it better. I went right out an bought it, of course, and read it in a couple of days. Aside from offering a glimpse of what it is like to walk the PCT alone, the best part about the book is that Strayed does not paint her walk as a journey to enlightenment. Though she does describe epiphanic moments, she doesn't exactly find what she is looking for. Many of the questions she had when setting out remained unanswered at the end. But the walk gave her more tools to use for doing life.

While I've only completed a handful of modest hikes, and haven't yet even been out longer than a day, I find that this is also my experience. Walking long distances, especially alone, is helping me to become better at life. Until I took up taking walks like this, I'd never found anything that put me so extremely into the center of my life while also locating me in a very specific present that acknowledges the abstract span of time and space. As I walked this stretch of the PCT along the side of Mount San Jacinto, I felt that I'd arrived someplace where I was supposed to be. In the feel of the sandy path beneath my feet, in the sound of the wind in the tall pine trees, in the hard surfaces of the ancient rocks, in the musky smell of the mid-summer mountain air; all of nature around me told the story not only of creation but of the walkers who had passed through there before me. We are all seekers. I'm pretty sure that most of us don't really know exactly what we are looking for, but that's kind of the point, too. It's something so intangible, so simultaneously fundamental and transient, that perhaps it is beyond words.

I was suddenly very hungry. I didn't want to stop, but I needed to eat. I pulled out some almonds, apricots, and chocolate. I walked on, the sound of my teeth crunching nuts layered atop all of the other noises: my feet grinding in the dirt, shorts swishing with every step, my pack's nylon crinkling, water sloshing in my dromedary bag. And then another sound. It eased in, and I wasn't startled until I identified the sound as quickly paced footsteps coming up behind me. Right then, I spotted a hiker coming around the bend in front of me. I turned around and saw the trail runner who was fast approaching from behind and stepped up off the narrow path. As he passed, so did the hiker making his way back down the mountain. I realized then that I hadn't seen anyone in about an hour. How strange and wonderful to have this coincidental crossing of three paths on the side of a mountain. I walked on, eating my chocolate with an appetite for pure energy.

After a while, I rounded a bend into a new landscape. The thick groves of trees gave way to what I suppose I can call a talus field. But rather than scree or even small boulders, this cove was surrounded by and made up of tremendous rocks in the shape of an amphitheater. The path wound around huge rocks and was soon thick with pines again. My next surprise wasn't far ahead, though. Like crossing a threshold from one room to another, with one step, I was in a Hobbit's theater, and with the next, I was in a lush meadow of ferns. By then, the sun was high. The bright green field was dazzling, but looking out ahead, I saw that there was no tree cover in sight. The ferns gave way to low shrubs that had grown sharp, thin branches that poked out into the overgrown single track trail. With every step, my legs were scratched with these tiny razors. I was hot, and I was starting to feel the altitude. My heart was beating rapidly, my breath was becoming labored, and my hands felt tingly. A bevy of boy scouts heading down the hill assured me that Wellman Divide was "just a couple more switchbacks" up the hill. This news had me set off again at a quicker pace, but it wasn't long before I was forced to slow down significantly. I could feel the pounding of my pulse in my head. I was hot, and my whole body was experiencing a low-grade, all-over kind of pain. The character of my breathing had changed in a way that was slightly alarming. So instead of appreciating the beautiful scenery of Wellman Cienega, I turned inward, walking more slowly and deliberately, monitoring my physical response to the environment and the effort.

Continued in Part III
Back to Part I

No comments: