Self-Feeding on the Washington Pacific Crest Trail

One of the most common questions I would get when I was on my Pacific Crest Trail hike in the summer of 2017 was ‘what do you eat?’ Many people who did not know I was vegan asked me this question, but if I revealed that I was vegan, this question became even more likely to pop up.

Though it is possible to live off the land, there are two major problems a) time/energy invested in gathering food from the land is time/energy which is not devoted to moving forward and b) the lands surrounding the Pacific Crest Trail cannot produce nearly enough food to support all of the humans who are passing through. This is ignoring the issue that most hikers do not even know how to get enough food from the land, since if the problem were merely a lack of skills, skills could be acquired. Furthermore, there are often restrictions on gathering food on the land (for example, there is one section of the Washington PCT where only the local indigenous people are permitted to pick berries). Therefore, hikers need to carry all of the food they need to sustain themselves.

Okay, so practically all food needs to be packed. The next question is: mail drop, or buy in town? I had been advised that food options were limited at all of the resupply points in Washington, so I arranged a mail drop for every town. For my training hike in the CA-R section of the PCT, I was coming almost straight from home, so I just brought the food with me to Seiad Valley. What about my first Washington segment, between Cascade Locks (OR) and Trout Lake (WA)? At the Ashland Food Coop, I bought a lot of trail food, and then supplemented it with a few things I picked up at a Trader Joe’s in Portland.

That’s not to say that I only ate mail-dropped food after I left Trout Lake. I deliberately put at little less food than I needed in each food package because I knew I would be able to supplement my food supply at each town, and I wanted a little flexibility in my trail food options. I also took advantage of the hiker boxes, sometimes picking up weird food items which added variety to my diet, or sometimes just adding free food. When I was at the Dinsmores, there was no way to buy food (without getting a ride to another town), but the hiker box had all of the food I needed, and there were tons of ripe blackberries on the bushes to satisfy my craving for fresh fruit.

Yep, fresh fruit was the #1 food I craved in southern Washington. For obvious reasons, it hard to take fresh fruit for more than a day on a 5-7 day hike between towns. That meant that, when I did reach a town, one of the first things I did was get fruit. When I arrived in White Pass, and I saw that they had a few fresh oranges, I told the woman behind the counter “I am buying all of those orange right now, whatever the price.”

However, in central and northern Washington, it was prime berry-picking season, and those berries really took care of my fruit cravings on trail. They were delicious, and no doubt very good for my health. It was also a great excuse to stop hiking on a steep uphill section. I eventually became a huckleberry connoisseur, able to judge how good a huckleberry would taste based on looking at it. The most delicious huckleberries were along Agnes Creek, though that might have been because I was there at the right time.

Mmmm … tasty wild huckleberries.

That still leaves the question of what I ate (aside from berries). When I was planning my trip, I was aware of the problem of hikers getting tired of their food, and not being able to stand the food in their maildrops. I tried to prevent this problem by putting different types of food in each resupply box. Another principle I had was to never send regular Clif Bars. A lot of hikers complained that they ate so many Clif bars that they never wanted to eat any ever again. I also knew that Clif bars were more likely to be available in the Washington towns than most other kinds of trail foods, so that was one particular food I did not want to risk becoming sick of (this was the right choice; I did in fact buy some Clif bars in the towns of Washington, and I managed to not get sick of them).

My favorite resupply box was the box I sent to Trout Lake. It was full of superfood Larabars (which were different from the ordinary Larabars I had bought on sale in Ashland), Indian dal mix, coconut dessert things (coconut + sugar = lots of calories), ProBar energy chews, and good stuff like that. I still has nutritional yeast left over from my resupply in Ashland/Portland, so I was doing okay with protein too. Later on, I almost wished I had a repeat of my ‘Trout Lake Box’ – I say almost because, if all of my food drops had been the same, I might have gotten tired of the food, and then it would have been much less tasty.

At this point, you might have already figured out that I went stoveless AND I was not using campfires for cooking. I did consider bringing a stove – I have used a backpacking stove in Taiwan and Japan – but what ultimately convinced me to go stoveless was that I did not want to deal with the logistics of stove fuel. I have no regrets, and I think all of my PCT section hikes will be stoveless, because I did not miss hot meals at all (it may have helped that it was a very warm summer by Washington standards).

My resupply box in White Pass had my first set of freeze-dried dehydrated meals (actually not – I had picked up a few dehydrated meals in Ashland because they were relatively cheap and different from the ones I knew I had in my resupply boxes), along with some Clif Builder bars (not the regular Clif bars). I also supplemented it with some food from White Pass. How did I prepare them without hot water? COLD SOAK FOR THE WIN! I found that 1-2 hours of soaking was enough for just about any dehydrated meal, but leaving it to soak overnight was the best.

By far the most popular brand of dehydrated meals specifically for outdoor activity is Mountain House. However, they have almost no vegan options. I guess they don’t want money from vegan people. So I sent a lot of meals from the second most popular brand, Backpacker’s Pantry, which has lots of vegan options. Even though Backpacker’s Pantry is the #2 brand, I found that a lot of outdoor people have never heard of it. Huh. But my White Pass resupply had some dehydrated meals from an obscure business – Camp Chow. They were expensive, but I figured it would change things up.

I LOVED the veggie gumbo from Camp Chow – it’s expensive, but so good. I HATED the chili. In fact, their chili gave me indigestion so bad that it interfered with my hiking, I vomited, and I gave away my other package chili as fast as I could.

Anyway, back to Backpacker’s Pantry. I took 5 different Backpacker’s Pantry Meals with me. My favorite to least favorite were:

1. Cuban Black Beans & Rice
2. Chana Masala
3. Kathmandu Curry
4. Mexican Cowboy Beans & Rice
5. Louisiana Red Beans & Rice

All of these meals were variations of legumes & rice, which works really well for me as cold soak dehydrated meals. Legumes + rice are a complete protein. I also never got tired of any of these, though on my current PCT hike, I’m only taking the top three (plus some dehydrated meals from an obscure business for variety, and a couple of Backpacker’s Pantry meals I haven’t tried before).

Though I generally liked my food (with the notable exception of that chili from Camp Chow), while I was hiking the PCT in Washington, I ate to live, I did not live to eat. A lot of hikers obsess about food on the trail. Me? I was obsessed with water, and to a lesser extent finding good campsites. Food was an afterthought. Eating was a chore I did because I knew if I did not eat, I would not have enough energy. Also, eating snacks was a good excuse to take a break, and would also lighten my pack, which were more compelling reasons to eat food than my own appetite.

This was pretty much how I ate until I reached Stehekin. In Stehekin, it all changed. That’s the topic of the next post.

Sewing a Tarp by Hand Is Like Walking across the Entire State of Washington on Foot

This is a picture of my tarp in my backyard during the seam-sealing.

When I started becoming concerned about the materials used in tents I eventually found myself falling into the blackhole which is known as ‘MYOG’ – Make Your Own Gear. I started working on a tarp, then quit that so I could make a quilt (which will get its own post), and after finishing the quilt went back to work on the tarp.

The thing is, at the time, I didn’t have a sewing machine (I happened to get a sewing machine just days after I finished the tarp, but oh well). So the tarp was sewn by hand.

Warning: sewing a tarp by hand TAKES FOREVER!!!!!!!!

To sew my tarp, I used the design described in The Ray-Way Tarp Book by Ray Jardine. Yep, it’s a Ray-Way tarp. I considered buying one of Ray Jardine’s tarp kits, but decided against it because a) it’s cheaper to buy the materials separately than to buy the kit and b) I wanted to use silpoly, and the kits come with silnylon.

Why silpoly? Because I made this tarp specifically with my Southern California PCT hike in mind. In Southern California, one often wants to take a siesta between 1 pm and 4 pm, yet it is sometimes difficult to find adequate shade. Thus, I want something which can provide shade, not just serve as a shelter from rain/snow (of course to use the tarp for shade I’d need a somewhat flat area which is free of thorny plants, but that is easier to find in the SoCal PCT than natural shade). Silnylon degrades relatively quickly when exposed to UV rays, so I would not want to leave it in the sun for hours. Silpoly degrades so slowly under UV exposure that it doesn’t matter, so it’s a much better material for a shade tarp. I know that the specific silpoly material I used is not the best for waterproofness, but I only need a tarp which can handle occasional rain/snow, not a tarp which can withstand several days of severe nonstop rain. Thus, silpoly wins.

Why the brown color? First of all, since it’s a dark color, it will provide more shade than a light color. Second, black stands out too much, whereas brown blends better into the scenery. Third, it does not look like a flower (unlike my palace which has orange panels that sometimes attract bees/hornets/hummingbirds). Finally, this color was on sale, so I saved a few dollars.

Did I mention that I sewed this by hand? I used backstitches for everything because the backstitch is the strongest of the hand-stitches. Maybe it’s even stronger than a machine straight stitch.

Another picture of my tarp in the backyard during the seam sealing.

What I found is that trying to sew a camping/backpacking tarp by hand is like trying to walk across the entire state of Washington by foot. First of all, using a sewing machine would have been way faster, just as pretty much any other common mode of transit (bike, train, bus, car, airplane, boat) would have been a much faster way to get from Oregon to British Columbia than travelling by foot. Sometimes, when sewing the tarp, I was overwhelmed by how much more sewing I had left ahead of me, just as at times I was overwhelmed by the idea of having to walk another 400 miles or whatever. Yet if you keep at it, one stitch at a time, or one step at a time, one will reach the goal. Just as I had to mentally break up my long walk across Washington into chunks (no, I’m not going all the way to Canada, I’m just going to that tiny town which is thirty miles ahead), I had to mentally break up the sewing into chunks (I’m just trying to sew this one seam, okay, not an entire tarp).

One advantage of making this tarp entirely by hand (well, okay, I didn’t make the materials by hand) is I will now be very skilled at repairing tarps (and tents, since the same skills I developed by making this tarp could also be used to repair a tent). I almost always carry a small sewing kit when I travel, which is all I need for a hand-sewn repair (unless it’s a repair which requires sealant, but the very small risk that I might need the sealant for a repair does not justify carrying it).

Of course, one major difference being going on a long walk and sewing a tarp is that sewing is a lot more monotonous. When I’m on a long walk, unless it’s a zero day, I’m somewhere different every day. Meanwhile, while sewing the tarp, I was sewing the same stitch over and over again, making the same type of seam, using the same materials. I would have been bored out of my mind – if I were not listening to interesting audio while I was sewing.

What did I listen to? A few different things. Sometimes I listened to a song or two (especially at the beginning of a sewing session), on Martin Luther King Jr. day I listened to a couple of MLK speeches, I listened to Bi Any Means Podcast #133: Atheism and Asexuality with Emily Karp, but mostly I binged on two podcasts – Sounds of the Trail and Trailside Radio. I managed to listen to the entire archive of both of those podcasts while I was sewing my tarp (and my quilt, but trust me, the quilt took a lot less time to sew), which gives you an idea of just how much time it takes to sew a tarp by hand. Those two podcasts were two of the best things I could have listened to during my sewing, since they talk a lot about what it is like to hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, and they reminded me why I was sewing my tarp.

However, after SEWING FOREVER, I did the seam sealing, and then my tarp was finally finished. Even though I did not quite follow the instructions (there was no way I was going to be able to do the seam sealing in a place without wind, for example), the sealing turned out okay. That said, if I ever make another tarp or a tent, I’m going to choose fabrics which are compatible with seam tape, since I think I’d rather iron on seam tape than mess with silicone sealant again.

The final weight (including guylines and seam sealing) is 15 oz. / 0.43 kg. Yes, I made it a 2-person tarp, because my experience with camping is that, even as a solo person, it’s better to use a 2-person shelter, and it’s only a few extra ounces.

Before taking this tarp out on a long trip, I wanted to test it. So I did. On the night of February 28, I went out to Point Reyes, hiked to Glen Camp, and spent the night there. It was perfect timing, since that was the rainiest night we’ve had all year so far, in was about 40-42 degrees F / 5 degrees Celsius, I was in a forest miles from the nearest parking lot (or house), and I was the only human at the campground, and I was WARM AND DRY HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!! There is something very satisfying about being in a shelter you made yourself, cloaked with a quilt you sewed yourself, on a cold and rainy night, and it being enough. That said, since I was in the forest and not at one of the ocean-side campgrounds, I did not have a problem with wind – that could have ruined my night.

Sadly, my camera malfunctioned, which is why I don’t have any photos of my tarp at Point Reyes. Oh well, I have the memories. And if you want a video of a different Ray-Way Tarp in the rain, there is this video.

This is what my tarp looks like from below, in my backyard (when I’m in the backcountry and not in my backyard, I’ll be more careful to pitch it in places where I won’t be disturbing tender green plants).

One of the various reasons I want to at least try using a tarp for a while is that a lot of people say that it changes one’s relationship with the environment. A tent seals one off from the environment, whereas a tarp lets the environment in. Tents hide you (and provide privacy!) while not letting you see what’s around you, whereas tarps do the opposite. Do not get me wrong, I like the sealing effect of tents, if I’ve been in the backcountry for days I like being able to withdraw into my own cocoon and and take a break from being ‘outside’. It can be an important psychological comfort. But I think I’m ready to live without that comfort, at least in areas which do not have bug problems. I definitely felt the effect of still having a decent view of the (dark) forest while I was under my tarp, and I’m glad I tested it on a night when I had the campground to myself and privacy was not an issue (it is very rare to be alone at local campgrounds, so on future local camping trips I will probably still use my Taiwanese tent).

While I was hiking back to the bus stop at Point Reyes, I met various people going the other way (including one guy who was going to stay overnight at Glen Camp). They noted that I had gone camping on a particularly rainy night, and I said that I did it to test my new ‘tent’. One conversation went like this:

Person: So you could return it if it didn’t work.
Me: Actually, I can’t return it because I made it.
Person: ???!!!!
Me: I mean, because I made it myself, I couldn’t read online reviews to find out whether or not it works in the rain. And there’s no warranty. Though I can repair it myself.
Person: Wow.

One of the park rangers asked me to email pictures because she had never even heard of anyone making their own camping shelter before. I ate lunch at the Kule Loklo, where I met another park ranger. She was also impressed that I had made my own tarp and was ‘self-reliant’. I replied that I wasn’t as self-reliant as the Miwok people had been before Europeans came, and the ranger replied ‘very few people in the modern world are as self-reliant as they were’.

At the time this post is scheduled for publication, I’m hopefully in the middle of my Southern California Pacific Crest Trail hike, with this very tarp. I probably will only deal with rain/snow for a few nights at most, and will be using this tarp for shade more than anything else, but who knows. Actually, I got a chance to test the tarp in a snowstorm and I am not hiking at the time this post is published.

This is also the 500th post published on this blog. Writing 500 blog posts definitely takes way more time than even sewing a tarp by hand, though at least I spread the blog-writing time out over years.

This is the first time I spent a night outdoors in the middle of a snowstorm

I started this trip. My first day on the trail, when I left Walker Pass, the weather was great for hiking.

A view near Walker Pass, March 16, 2018.

There were various small snow patches near the trail, which added character to the landscape (and also meant that I had an emergency water source). There were even a few places where there was snow on the trail, but only for very short segments.

This was one of the bigger snow patches I saw near the trail on the first day, though as you can see, the trail itself was clear.

In the middle of the day, I reached McIvers Cabin. I gathered water and ate lunch. I was the only human there.

McIvers Cabin on March 16, 2018

About two miles beyond McIvers Cabin, it was pretty much all pine forest until I reached my campsite, though I did get this one dramatic view into a desert valley.

Looking down a valley all the way into the desert on March 16, 2018.

I set up camp pleased with myself. I had a good day of hiking, and it seemed that my journey to Tehachapi (my first resupply) would be straightforward. But I did not want to overtax myself on the first day, and there were a few clouds in the distance which made me feel slightly uneasy. Furthermore, since I am new to using tarp shelters (yes, I am experimenting with using a tarp instead of a tent) I wanted extra time to set it up. Thus, I decided to set up camp a little earlier in the afternoon than I usually would.

And there is my camp, featuring my new tarp.

The next morning, my camp looked like this:

My camp on the morning of March 17, 2018.

It snowed several inches that night. In spite of the fact that I was using a tarp instead of a tent, and it was quite windy, I managed to stay dry and warm during the night. Actually, the snow helped with the wind problem – if you look at the right side of that photo, you can see that the snow piled up on that side as it slid off the roof of my tarp, and formed a little wall that blocked the wind.

Here is another view of my camp (you can find my tarp on the bottom-right).

Oh, and remember that desert valley? This is what it looked like in the morning.

The valley which looked so dry the previous day is now blanketed with snow.

When I saw the valley, I knew it was time to get off trail. The snow had clearly fallen at an elevation much lower than my own, which meant that the entire trail, even the lower part, was probably covered with several inches of snow. That could mess up navigation. Even if I could figure out where the trail was 97% of the time, that 3% where I could not figure out the trail might be enough to get me in serious trouble.

The trail, covered with snow.

I was actually surprised how easy it was to find the trail in the snow. It was usually obvious just from the shape of the ground, and where it was not obvious, I could find the trail by looking at the trees. Trees which had branches that had been cut off with a saw were next to the trail, so I kept my eye out for evidence of saw-work to keep myself on track. That only works in a forest – and if I had continued moving south, instead of backtracking, I would have left the forest, and there was no guarantee that I would have been able to consistently find the trail without the evidence of tree-trimming.

Besides, hiking in the snow, even if it’s only a few inches deep, is tiring. I had microspikes, which are helpful in hard old snow, but not helpful in soft new snow. Snowshoes would have been helpful, but I didn’t have snowshoes.

Oh, and did you notice the cacti in the snow?

This is a closeup of the previous picture, featuring cacti in the snow.

I did not find any human footprints aside from my own, but I found plenty of nonhuman prints. The deer seemed to have been quite active that night. I also found some prints I could not identify (though I am certain they were not bear prints since they are still in hibernation – indeed, one of the reasons I was hiking so early in the season was so that I would not worry about bears taking my food).

My plan was to go all the way back to Walker Pass, which had an official campground and a highway, and camp there until I could get a ride out. I knew Walker Pass would probably be covered with snow, but the campground had an outhouse where I could sleep if I were desperate, I had more than enough food, and I knew a bus would be coming in two days if I failed to hitchhike.

When I got back to McIvers Cabin (which was halfway between my campsite and Walker Pass), I found this.

Off-highway vehicles at McIvers’ Cabin on March 17, 2018

March 16 was a Friday, which is why I was the only person at McIvers cabin. But March 17 was a Saturday, which meant all of the OHV people had come out to play.

Instead of hiking all the way back to Walker Pass and its snow-covered campground, I hitchhiked on an OHV. It is the first time in my life I have ever been in an OHV. It was like a rollercoaster, except it was a rollercoaster which was passing through a snow-covered desert. It was only in the very last leg of the ride that we finally got out of the snow, and into the open desert, specifically the Dove Springs Open Area.

An RV in the Dove Springs Open Area, with the desert in the background.

I thought the desert would be warm, but nope, it was only slightly warmer than the mountains. The main difference was that there was no snow.

From Dove Springs Open Area, a park ranger gave me a ride to Jawbone Station. He approved of my decision to get off trail. He seemed to have a lot of experience with this section of the PCT. From Jawbone Station, I got a ride to Mojave, California, which was also really cold, but has motels, as well as public transit going all the way back to San Francisco.

So yes, I am back in San Francisco right now. Does that mean I’ve given up on my grand hike of the Southern California Pacific Crest Trail? HECK NO! This is just a strategic withdrawal. My appetite has been whetted, I am totally going back to SoCal when the weather is more favorable.

Meanwhile, I have already had a fascinating adventure. This was much more memorable than if the hike had gone according to plan. I can now say that that I have spent a night outside in a winter snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada mountains (it was the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada and almost in spring, but technically still in the Sierra Nevada and in winter). Also, I got an excellent ride in an OHV in a dramatic snow-to-desert landscape. I am attracted to the Pacific Crest Trail because it fosters experiences like this, and I would rather have things happen like this than have a hike where everything goes according to plan yet I’m bored.

Camellia Dye

I got a bunch of pieces of linen cloth which look like this:

a square piece of linen cloth

Well, not quite. Because of the lighting, the cloth in the above picture looks slightly orange-pink, but in fact (at the time I took the picture) it was bright white.

I had recently be readings about natural dyes. Most dyes used in the United States these days are synthetic, and many are toxic or have a negative impact on the environment. Meanwhile, if one has a source of clean water and a way to boil water, using natural dyes is surprisingly easy.

I decided to try a camellia dye because it seemed very straightforward. There are many camellias blooming in my neighborhood at this time of year. It would have been cool to take camellias from my next-door neighbors, but unfortunately their bush is barely blooming at this time.

Instead, I went further from my home to a camellia bush which was in full bloom, and I took some flowers. Did I ask permission? No. But I specifically picked the flowers which were beginning to wilt and left the immature flowers and flowers at their prime alone. I daresay the camellia bush looked nicer after I removed the post-prime flowers. No, I wasn’t stealing camellia flowers, I was spontaneously volunteering to groom their camellia bush to make it look nicer (until the next set of flowers starts to wilt).

I pulled apart the petals in a pot, filled the pot with water, added salt, and started boiling. Meanwhile, I soaked the linen cloth in a solution of 4 parts water and 1 part vinegar. This went on for an hour.

After I finished boiling the camellia petals, I added some fresh-squeezed lemon juice, strained out the camellia petals, rinsed the linen cloth from the vinegar solution, and put the linen cloth in the camellia ‘dye bath’. I put it to a slow boil (i.e. instead of putting the fire at full blast, I kept the fire low and it let it boil gradually, though since the dye bath was pretty warm it did not take long). I then let it simmer for about an hour, and then let it sit in the pot for a second hour. After all that was done, I took out the linen cloth, and rinsed it with cold water.

This is what the result looks like:

a pink-red square piece of linen cloth

It came out darker and redder than I was expecting (I was expecting a pink color), but that’s fine. This is so cool that I will probably end up dying more pieces of cloth just to see what colors I can get.

This technique is supposed to work for most natural fibers (linen, cotton, silk, wool, etc.) but will not work for synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, etc.)


About a month after I tried out camellia dye, I then tried lavender-rose dye. The process is the same, I just used lavender and rose petals instead of camellia petals. Whereas with the camellia dye I used store-bought lemon, this time I only used plant ingredients which grew in my neighborhood – the lavenders (there is a ton of lavender in my neighborhood), the roses (I used the type of rose which is practically a weed around here, not the type grown for aesthetics), and even the lemon (not as many lemons as lavenders and roses in my neighborhood, but I knew where I could get a local lemon). Here is the result:

A piece of cloth dyed with lavender – rose – lemon.

I wonder why the dye recipes say to use lavender and rose TOGETHER and not separately. Do the chemical compounds in lavender and rose react to each other in a way which creates the dye? I guess if I wanted to find out, I could always try to dye cloth only with lavender-lemon or only with rose-lemon.

I liked walking 500+ miles so much that I’m doing it again.

It probably surprises nobody who has been reading this blog in the past year that I am planning to go do another long trip on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

This spring, I plan to walk approximately 550 miles from Walker Pass to Warner Springs/Barrel Spring (I am undecided on whether I will end in Warner Springs or Barrel Spring, but they are only about 10 miles apart from each other, but I definitely intend to end my hike in a place called ‘Spring(s)’ this spring). Walker Pass is technically in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and is the southernmost road crossing of the Sierra, and is in Kern County. Barrel Spring is where I started my hike last spring, and is in San Diego county.

Last year was an exceptionally wet year in Southern California. When I was in Campo, one of the locals commented that they had never seen Campo Creek still flowing at the end of April before (it was flowing quite well, in fact). There was also a snowstorm in early May last year. By contrast, this looks like it’s going to be a drought year, though even in drought years it can snow in May (i.e. it is very possible that I will encounter a snowstorm).

Some things will make this hike different from both my hike last year in San Diego and my 500+ mile hike through Washington:

– Off-peak season – so far, I have only hiked the PCT during peak hiking season. However, because I am going southbound, and I am starting at the gateway to the Sierra, for the first couple weeks I will be hiking during the off-season. For example, I estimate it will take me about 6 days to walk from Walker Pass to Tehachapi Pass (my first resupply point). This is a section of the PCT which is unpopular with anyone who is not trying to hike at least a large portion of the PCT, and I will be there before the thru-hikers are there. Since somebody has been updating the PCT Water Report this year, there are a few people out there, but I might not see them. Maybe I will run into the very few people who hike this trail before the thru-hiker tsunami, or maybe I will not see a single person other than myself for five days. If I run into other people, that would be awesome (assuming they do not have harmful intentions). If I go five days without seeing another human – that will be tough for me psychologically.

Though I am most concerned about the psychological impact of not seeing any people, there is also the practical aspect that I will be cut off from the hiker grapevine. The hiker grapevine is an amazing (albeit unreliable) source of useful information, but without other hikers, there is no grapevine. On the other hand, once I get far enough south to meet the northbound thru-hikers, I will receive an abundance of information, just as I did last year.

Then again, I underestimated how many hikers I was going to run into in Washington, so I may be underestimating again. If so, great.

– Water – did I mention that this is looking like a drought year? Also, Walker Pass to Tehachapi Pass is the driest section on the entire PCT. It contains the infamous 40+ mile stretch between reliable water sources (and that is no doubt one reason this section is so unpopular). I’m hoping there will be some unreliable water sources (though, of course, I’m not going to rely on them), and that the temperatures will be lower (because I am starting in Walker Pass, and thus getting there earlier), but even with some unreliable water sources and milder temperatures, it’s going to be rough. So far, the longest waterless stretch I’ve hiked on the PCT was 14 (downhill) miles.

(grumbling: I keep reading things like ‘ZOMG, hikers in the 70s and 80s managed to hike the PCT without water caches/water reports/blah blah blah, and they did just fine, hikers today are so spoiled.’ Yes, but in the 70s and 80s, the trail was not complete, and the ~temporary~ PCT between Tehachapi Pass and Walker Pass went through an area which had more water sources than what became the permanent PCT. The trail planners must have had a compelling reason to route the permanent PCT through such a dry area, though I don’t know what that reason is).

– Snow. One of the things which is harder about hiking the Southern California PCT (compared to the Sierra PCT, the Oregon PCT, or the Washington PCT) is that one day you could be hiking on a hot day through a waterless stretch in the desert, and the next day you could be freezing your ass off as you exhaust yourself slowly making way through some @$#@$^# snow (the Northern California PCT can also be challenging like this). Even a section hiker myself has trouble timing my trip because of this problem (given that I don’t want to do short sections). By choosing the time I did, I was making a bet that this would be a low snow year, and it looks like I’m winning my bet.

That said, there are a few areas where I am worried that I may run into snow on trail. I have chosen to take microspikes (which I have never used before, but whatever) but I am not going to take GPS. If I can’t figure it out with a map and compass, I’ll turn around. There are some infamous problem areas (I’m looking at you, Mt. Baden-Powell and Fuller Ridge) where I will take alternate routes if the snow is impeding my travel.

When I am out there (which is not quite yet), this blog will continue to update with scheduled posts I wrote in advance, but I will be very slow to respond to comments.

I’m not sure what will happen during this hike, but I doubt it will be boring. Okay, maybe I will be a little bored after seeing endless chaparral, but I will probably be too exhausted to be bored by anything.

‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction, Part 2

Read Part 1, where I mostly talk about my own name (and my father’s name). In this part, I mostly talk about fiction.

Last year I read Silappatikaram. Remembering that name would be an effort for me, which is why I looked it up on the internet instead of recalling it from memory. When I talk about it face-to-face, since I don’t remember the name, I instead use the English title Tale of the Anklet, which I remember easily. And it’s not just the title. Though I learned to recognize the names of the major characters, I don’t recall them, and I was only able to keep track of the place names because of a useful map that comes with the translation.

There is nothing objectively difficult about a title like Silappatikaram or the names of the characters, it’s only difficult for people (like me) who are ignorant of Tamil culture. I’m not used to the sounds of Tami, nor do I have many mental associations with Tamil names, thus I do not have enough mental glue to get those names to stick in my mind. By contrast, I can remember ‘Tale of the Anklet’ easily because that is in English. If the main characters had been called ‘Glen’ and ‘Patricia’ or ‘Tzvi’ and ‘Anat’ I would have remembered those names easily because I have a lot of mental associations which would help those names stick (I have cousins with those names). Of course, when I am interacting with Tamil people, I try to remember their names and pronounce them correctly.

A statue of Kannagi, one of the protagonists of Silappatikaram, holding the anklet in her hand. Photo by Balamurugan Srinivasan – originally posted to Flickr as Statue of Kannagi, CC BY 2.0, Link

Now let’s talk about wuxia in English translation.

About two weeks ago, Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Is Born was officially published in English. You can read more about it in this surprisingly good article or in this article (I noticed that, even though the caption mentions Guo Jing, they use a picture that shows Mu Nianci and Yang Kang, not Guo Jing). One aspect of this translation which is controversial is that while some names, such as ‘Guo Jing’, are simply transliterated, other names, such as ‘Lotus Huang’, are translated (and have the name order flipped around).

Deathblade comments on this issue in this video. I recommend listening to the entire video, but if you can’t/don’t want to, here is a summary of his main points:

  • English speakers who are already familiar with wuxia already know the Chinese names of the characters, and assigning weird English names to the characters will alienate them and discourage them from buying the book
  • Translating Chinese names (such as Mao Zedong) into English goes against conventional translation standards; likewise names such as ‘George Bush’ and ‘Paul Newman’ are typically transliterated, not translated, into Chinese
  • This translation is inconsistent; some names are translated, some names are transliterated
  • Names are NAMES, not the sum of the meaning of the characters
  • Translating the names will not help draw any new readers


I agree with a lot of what Deathblade says in this video. I agree that ‘Lotus Huang’ specifically is a bad choice and that ‘Huang Rong’ would be much better. If I were working on an official translation of the Condor trilogy, I would translate Xiaolongnü’s name as ‘Dragon Maiden’ but use Mandarin transliterations for the names of all other major characters. (Why make an exception for Xiaolongnü? Because that is an unusual name in Chinese, and translating it into English as ‘Dragon Maiden’ would be a way to convey that her name is unusual). However, I disagree with his final point, that translating names does not help new readers.

A topic that sometimes comes up in English language discussions of wuxia is how to make it more accessible to English speakers who do not know much about Chinese culture. It is noted that many English speakers have trouble remembering Chinese names, so sometimes it is suggested that assigning the characters English names would make these stories more accessible.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that giving wuxia characters English names does help. I was one time describing the story of a Jin Yong novel, but instead of using the characters’ original Chinese names, I assigned the characters names from sources such as Harry Potter and Star Trek. This made it much easier for my audience to keep track of the characters and the plot, and overall improved communication (I also had a lot of fun giving the Jin Yong characters names from English-language pop culture). Though this approach is good for informal purposes, it is inappropriate for an official translation.

The reason so many English speakers have trouble remembering Chinese names is the same reason I have trouble remembering Tamil names; lack of familiarity. I myself find it much harder to remember a Chinese name if I only know it from transliteration than if I know the Chinese characters. That is because Chinese characters function as mental glue to help a name stick in my mind.

It’s also worth pointing out that all Jin Yong characters have both a Mandarin name and a Cantonese name. For example, ‘Huang Rong’ (Mandarin) is also ‘Wong Yung’ (Cantonese), and there are many fans who feel that the Cantonese names are the ‘real’ names. They have even more names in other Chinese languages – for example, Huang Rong is ‘Oey Yong’ in Hokkien and ‘Waon Yon’ in Shanghainese.

Here is a chart showing the names of the characters in Mandarin, Cantonese (using a different romanization scheme), and Hokkien.

One could research every character, guess their native language, and then transliterate their names based on that language. Huang Rong’s native language is most likely the Ningbo dialect, which is closely related to Shanghainese. I can’t find an online Ningbo dictionary, so I am guessing that her Shanghainese name ‘Waon Yon’ is closest to how someone from her native region would pronounce her name.

One could argue that, since these novels were originally published in Hong Kong at a time when most Hong Kongers did not understand Mandarin, the Cantonese names are most appropriate. Also, some of the existing English translations, including the only English-language dub of any TV adaptation of the trilogy, uses Cantonese names, not Mandarin names. Finally, English speakers tend to find Cantonese names easier to pronounce than Mandarin names, which may very well be why they chose the Cantonese names for that English-language dub. Or, you could reconstruct the pronunciation of Ancient Chinese or Middle Chinese and base the character names on that (actually, to be honest, Huang Rong’s native language might be closer to Middle Chinese than modern Ningbo-Chinese).

Additionally, in the Condor Trilogy, one protagonist is named 郭靖 and another is named 楊過. That isn’t a problem at all if one is reading in Chinese, since those are two obviously different names. However, the Mandarin pinyin of those names are Guō​ Jìng​ and Yáng​ Guò​ – which are also easy to tell apart if one notices that ‘Guō​’ and ‘Guò’ are pronounced with different tones. But without the tone markers, it gets confusing – and I’ve seen people mix up ‘Guo Jing’ and ‘Yang Guo’. However, their Cantonese names – Kwok Ching and Yeung Kuo – are also easy to tell apart, so this is an advantage of using their Cantonese names in English translation.

You know how I said that, if I were doing an official translation, I would use the Mandarin names? I change my mind. Now that I’ve thought it through, I think using Cantonese names is better, though I still consider Mandarin names to be an acceptable choice (and I will continue to use Mandarin names on this blog).

Likewise, the Japanese translations give all of the characters Japanese names – Huang Rong’s Japanese name is Kō​ Yō​. In Korean, her name is Hwang Yong. In Vietnamese, her name is Hoàng Dung. In Indonesian, her name is Oey Yong (same as Hokkien). In Farsi, her name is Ryang Rong. In Burmese, her name is Hun Yôn. In fact, the only official translations which I could find which use the Mandarin names are the Thai translation and the (awful) French translation. I admit that I didn’t check every translation – for example, I could not find her Hindi name or her Khmer name, even though I know those translations exist.

This photo from the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes shows the character named (in alphabetical order) Hoàng Dung / Huang Rong / Hun Yôn / Hwang Yong / Kō​ Yō​ / Lotus Huang / Oey Yong / Ryang Rong / Waon Yon / Wong Yung

In short, the Mandarin names of Jin Yong characters are not their One True Names.

(Though I tend to use Huang Rong’s Mandarin name because I don’t know Cantonese).

However, one could argue (heck, I would argue) that using any of the Chinese names, even if they are not Mandarin, are better than creating an English name because all Chinese names, not just the Mandarin ones, are derived from Chinese culture. And while there are a lot of non-Chinese languages that have their own unique name for this character, they are for the most part modifications to make the name easier to pronounce rather than translations of the name’s meaning.

I think the very best argument against translating the names and using Chinese transliterations (whether from Mandarin or another form of Chinese) is an argument that Deathblade does not bring up at all. It’s the argument which is made in the essay “Let’s Talk about Characters with Difficult Names”. The heart of the argument is here:

As someone with a non-English name and made a conscious decision to not change my name, seeing these names mean a lot to me and gives me hope that, one day, an individual’s name will no longer be an ‘indicator’ of a person’s character, ability, or degree of belonging.

I want to see characters in books, especially young adult literature, with names like Vân Uoc and Agnieszka and Li Jing and Reshma and Kamala. We need to create spaces that are accepting of name diversity.

And there is a comment on that essay/blog post which goes like this:

When it comes to book, I always get incredibly excited every time I see an Asian or Muslim sounding name, even if it’s not Indonesian names. Just because they’re so rare, you know?hahaha I’m slightly annoyed sometimes that weird high fantasy names are more appreciated than the non Caucasian names because fantasy names aren’t real. Our names are real. Anyway, great post! 😀

In other words, name diversity – including names from real non-European cultures – is good because it helps readers who have non-European names, whether it helps them see themselves in fiction, or it teaches their peers to treat their names with more respect. In my opinion, this is more important than pleasing the existing English-language wuxia fanbase (though there is a lot of overlap between current English-language wuxia fans AND people with non-European names), especially since this translation can be particularly beneficial for readers in the Chinese diaspora who want more representation of themselves in novels but do not know enough Chinese to read the original books (there is some discussion of this on this comment thread).

There is not enough name diversity in English language popular fiction right now. And one of the most obvious opportunities for increasing name diversity is translating a work of fiction where the characters ~already~ have non-European names. If some of the names are being translated rather than transliterated into English, what message does that send to people who are socially penalized for having non-European names?

Since I have more thoughts on ‘unusual’ names in life and fiction, I may write a Part 3 at some point, but not in the near future.

‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction: Part 1

I wrote this post (part 1) in December 2017, and then never got around to writing part 2, leaving this draft to gather dust in the unpublished corner of this blog. Since this is relevant to a discussion that occurred last week, I decided to blow the dust off this draft and post it.

I read the thought-provoking essay “Let’s Talk about Characters with Difficult Names”. I want to write my own reflection on characters who have ‘difficult’ names. But first, as a preface, I want to talk about my own life experience.

First of all, my name is Sara. Legally, ‘Sara’ is my middle name, which means that it appears on some of my official documents, and not on others. It is a biblical name, which means it’s common in any society where Abrahamic religions are widespread. I do use the spelling which is less common in the United States (the more common spelling is ‘Sarah’). I also do not use the common American pronunciation – I use the ‘a’ as in ‘father’, not the ‘a’ as in ‘care’. It has proven useful in my life that I use a less common pronunciation and spelling because it allows for disambiguation from people who use the more common American spelling/pronunciation.


If you were to ask me what is the ‘correct’ way to pronounce my name, my answer would be ‘modern Hebrew pronunciation’. The modern Hebrew ‘r’ sound is different from the American English ‘r’ sound (the modern Hebrew ‘r’ sounds like the French ‘r’). However, I don’t expect the people around me to pronounce the ‘r’ correctly, and I will straight up tell them that it’s okay for them to use the American English ‘r’. Heck, when I introduce myself, I usually use the American English ‘r’ to simplify my interactions. In other words, even ~I~ usually do not use what I consider to be the ‘correct’ pronunciation of my name.

I do not want to reveal my legal first name here. However, even before I went to Taiwan, I sometimes chose to introduce myself as ‘Sara’ rather than use my legal first name. This sometimes led to situations where people knew me as ‘Sara’, then they found out my legal first name, and they say things like “hey, ‘Sara’ is not your real name!” (Of course ‘Sara’ is my real name. Though I would not say that a name has to be on a birth certificate to be ‘real’ it is also true that ‘Sara’ appears on my birth certificate).

In Taiwan, I at first introduced myself using my legal first name, since I wanted to conform to what is written on my legal documents. However, my employer in Taiwan asked me to use ‘Sara’ instead of my legal first name because it is easier for Taiwanese people to pronounce. Since I was already used to be addressed as ‘Sara’ I did not have a problem with this, so at my workplace in Taiwan everyone addressed me as ‘Sara’.

I never legally adopted a Chinese name in Taiwan. I have known Americans who did need to legally adopt a Chinese name in order to get something, and if I had decided to settle in Taiwan permanently, I would have probably needed to adopt a legal Chinese name as well. I do have an informal Chinese name, and that is the name I would have used if I ever need a legally recognized Chinese name. I personally never had a problem with this system, and I would have been willing to legally adopt a Chinese name if were necessary. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. However, even though it was never a problem for me, it has been a problem for other people (such as the indigenous people of Taiwan).

Outside of the workplace, how did Taiwanese people address me? I let them choose. If they wanted to call me ‘Sara’ I let them do that. If they wanted to call me ‘Shālā’ (that is the Sinicized form of ‘Sara’) I let them do that. If they wanted to call me by my informal Chinese name, I let them do that too.

Now, my family name…

I have a fairly unique family name. It is so unique that, the first time I ever put my name in a search engine (this was probably around the year 2000) one of the top hits was a fantasy story that someone posted online. That story is long gone from the internet, so now one of the top hits is Wookiepedia – because there is an obscure Star Wars character who shares my name. Yep, I have one of those ‘weird’ names that appear in fantasy & science fiction but not so much in real life (unless you are me, or one of my relatives who shares the same name).

Star Wars – the only major media franchise in the world where characters have family names like my family name.

How did I get such an obscure family name? Well, to begin with, it was an uncommon family name. Then my family immigrated to another country and adapted the name to fit the local language, and then my mom immigrated to the United States and adapted the name again. Hence the unique spelling and pronunciation. While I suppose there is now a ‘correct’ way to spell my family name since it’s now consistent across all of my documents (that was not always the case – when I was very young, my family name was spelled one way in certain documents and spelled differently in different documents), there have been so many pronunciation changes within the last three generations that I don’t think there is a ‘correct’ way to pronounce my last name. Therefore, as long as the consonants are correct (the consonants never changed) nobody is ever going to ‘mispronounce’ it.

To better explain what I mean, I am going to use a hypothetical example. Let’s say an English guy with the family name ‘Smith’ immigrated to a Chinese speaking society. He Sinicized his name to Sīmì​ (斯密) so that it could be written in Chinese characters and was easy for Chinese speakers to pronounce. He had children, and they grew up with the name ‘Sī​mì​’ because Chinese was their primary language. Let’s say there was another generation, and a person from this later generation immigrated to North America. Because they grew up with the name ‘Sī​mì​’ they use that name instead of ‘Smith’ in their immigration documents.

Yeah, that’s what happened to my family name.

While I do not want to reveal my family name, I will say this. The way it was written and spelled three generations ago could pass for a German name (I’m not sure if my current spelling and pronunciation would pass as German). How do I know? There was a branch of my family who lived in Germany during the Nazi regime, and they survived by hiding their Jewish heritage and passing as ‘Aryan’ Germans. Though they did not change their name, they succeeded, which means it is a name that did not make the Nazis suspicious. However, while that form of the name is more common than my form of the name, it’s still rare, even in Germany and Austria (and in Jewish communities). It’s so rare that we were able to re-establish contact with that branch of the family BECAUSE our names were so similar – the odds are fairly high that anyone with a family name that is even SIMILAR to my family name is some kind of relative.

Then there is my father’s family name.

My father does not like his last name. He does not hate it enough to go through the hassle of a legal name change, but he was determined to never pass on his last name to anyone else. He had an agreement with my mother that, if they had a daughter, she would take her family name, not his. I am their daughter, so that is why I have her family name. However, if they had a son, they agreed that their son would take … his mother’s maiden name. If he were to decide that it was worth changing his legal name, after all, I know he would choose to use his mother’s maiden family name.

I don’t know exactly why my father dislikes his name so much. His response is usually ‘I don’t like it because I don’t like it’. But I have a speculation.

His family name is German in origin. It has been partially Anglicised. The partial Anglicization makes it easier for American English speakers to pronounce it, but it is still an obviously non-Anglo name. Weirdly, it now can pass for a Swedish name, which is why some people mistake my father for being Swedish-American (as far as I know, there is no Swedish ancestry in my family).

In the 19th century and early 20th century, German Americans experienced a lot of prejudice. They were more privileged than Italian Americans but less privileged than French Americans. During World War I there were laws passed against using the German language (for example, some states banned the use of German in school), the Red Cross banned anyone with a German family name from joining, newsstands and advertisers boycotted German-language newspapers, which caused the collapse of the German language press (before World War I, German was the second most printed language in the United States), things like that. The ‘choice’ offered German-Americans was basically ‘assimilate into Anglo-American culture, and we’ll let you have white privilege, otherwise we’ll punish you.’ That is why even though more Americans claim German ancestry than ancestry from any other ethnic group (including ‘English’ and ‘Irish’) one hears little about German-Americans these days.

My father’s family had never tried to hide or expressed shame about its German origin (and unlike many German-American families, my father’s family did not adopt an Anglo name), but … I don’t know.

My father’s mother was not German-American, and her maiden name was an Anglicized Scottish name. It is considered to be very ‘normal’ and ‘easy to pronounce’ for Americans. Maybe that’s why my father wishes that he had his mother’s maiden name instead of his father’s.

Anyway, that’s enough about me and my names and my family. In the next part, I’ll talk about names in fiction.

And that is the end of what I wrote in December 2017. Part 2 was written in response to a discussion that has been happening online in the English-language wuxia fandom recently and will be posted here in a few days, and yes, it is about ‘difficult’ names in fiction.