Aloneness & (In)Security

This is a submission to the October 2019 Carnival of Aros: “Aromanticism and Aloneness”

In this post, I am going to use a very specific definition of ‘aloneness’. The definition of ‘aloneness’ specifically for this post is: you think it’s unlikely that there is another living human being within a twenty minute walk of your current location.

Obviously, this is different from how the word ‘aloneness’ is generally used, which is why I needed to spell out right at the beginning what I mean by ‘aloneness’ in this post. In my experience, ‘you do not think there is another living human being within a twenty minute walk, within five miles, etc.’ brings a very different feeling of aloneness than anything which I experience within physical proximity to other people.

I’ve spent a night sleeping a ten minute walk away from the nearest human being (that I knew about), and I didn’t feel alone (at least not in the specific sense I’m discussing in this post), which is why I decided to set the limit at ‘twenty minute walk away’.

I’ve discussed the experience of being alone before in the post “Something about Bedsharing”. When I wrote that post, I still felt fairly insecure about sleeping alone. Not as insecure as that first night at Walami Cabin, but still somewhat insecure.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve had a lot more experience with sleeping alone, and I feel a lot more relaxed about it. I think it is because I’ve spent so many nights alone where nothing bad happened, so my subconscious figured out that sleeping alone does not mean I will be harmed in the night. Continue reading

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Sauntering to and down from Muir Pass

In the Evolution Basin

John Muir preferred the word ‘saunter’ over the word ‘hike’. Among long distance hikers, there is also a saying ‘it’s about the smiles, not the miles’. It is about a difference in focus – focusing on distance covered and speed vs. focus on the immediate environment.

I think this is Helen Lake, at the top of LeConte Canyon

When I hike, most of the time I combine both focuses. I keep track to some extent of how much distance I’ve covered and how much time I’ve spent, and how far I have left to go to the destination and how long it may take, but I also try to let in the environment around me (after all, that is the point of why I am out there, right?) I rarely go for speed, and almost never try to be faster than anyone else (I’m not good at racing).

Sometimes I tip more towards one side of the spectrum than the other.

Evolution Lake in the evening

Last month (September), I hiked the section of the Pacific Crest Trail / John Muir Trail running from Red’s Meadow to the junction of the Bubbs Creek Trail (about 120 miles / 190 km), and then hiked the Bubbs Creek Trail (about 13 miles / 20 km) to reach a road, for a total of about 133 miles / 210 km. I did not resupply. I also used a bear can (required) which limited how much food I could carry. Covering 133 miles / 210 km of John Muir Trail on a single bear can of food is tough, and requires maintaining a certain pace (lest one runs out of food). Continue reading

Smoke, Sickness, and Sore Feet to South Lake Tahoe, Part 2

At the end of the last part, I was in relatively bad physical shape, and had a lot of pressure on me to try to make it to town before my physical state became even worse. I was dealing with bad air, pain in my feet, and a cold. I was hoping that at least one of these problems would go away so that the other two problems would be easier to cope with. I had no control over the smoke, I could not make the cold go away no matter how much vitamin C I consumed, I could not fix my feet, but – wait a minute, didn’t I have painkillers in my first aid kit? Maybe they would make the pain in my feet go away, and then I would have solved at least on of my three problems.

Some long-distance hikers take ibuprofen on a regular basis so they can push their bodies past the point where they would otherwise feel too uncomfortable. They tend to call ibuprofen ‘vitamin I’ because they take it so regularly. Me? I have not taken an ibuprofen since I was 17 years old. Actually, that is the only time I recall ever using ibuprofen. I have nothing against hikers using ‘vitamin I’ frequently if that is how they want to hike, but for myself, I only want to push my body as far as it can go in an undrugged state, and I only want to pull out the drugs (other than caffeine) if I’m having problems beyond the ordinary problems of this type of hike.

At this point, I was definitely having more-than-ordinary problems.

There is morning light on the mountain which is a bit reddish with patches of snow, and in the bowl of the mountain there is a lake which is still in the shade and had a reflection of the mountain above.

Dick Lake in the morning

The thing is, I tend to forget that I’m carrying painkillers at all. Even during my miserable date when my feet hurt like hell, it did not occur to me that I could use my painkillers. Since I could not even remember that I am painkillers even when I was in a lot of pain, do you think I’m the kind of hiker who checks her first aid kit before every hike to make sure my medications haven’t expired. HA HA, NOPE! And naturally, ~all of my painkillers were expired~.

However, my acetaminophen pills hand only expired a few months earlier. I figured it was safe to take them, and at worst, it would simply be ineffective, in which case I would be no worse off than before.

It took about twenty minutes for me to feel the difference, but I swear, the expired acetaminophen pills really helped. My feet were still in pain, but it was about 50% less pain, which was a relief. Though the acetaminophen pills did not increase my energy levels (and energy drain was the worst symptom of my cold), it took the edge off some of my other cold symptoms, and that was also nice. I don’t care if it was just a placebo effect, when you are suffering you will gratefully accept a placebo effect if it makes you feel better.

[And if you’re wondering, yes, I’ve replaced all of my medications in my first aid kit, and it is going to be a while before they expire again]

Dick Lake and Lake Fontanallis as seen from near Dick Pass. See that layer of smoke in the air?

The smoke was still worse than I would like, but an improvement over the previous day.

I had not ‘solved’ any of my three big problems, but my three big problems were less bad than they had been the day before. It was time to take advantage of this amelioration to haul myself to a road and get to town.

The first leg was the uphill hike to Dick Pass, which was my biggest uphill of the day. At least I got it out of the way first. Normally I wouldn’t consider it a big deal, but in my condition, I was concerned. It turned out to be not as bad as I expected, and I think that may have been because of the acetaminophen.

A view near Dick Pass.

After Dick Pass, it was mostly downhill.

And I saw some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen on the Pacific Crest Trail. The Desolation wilderness is gorgeous.

In the background is a rust colored mountain with little patches of snow, and below is a dark blue lake surrounded by greenery.

Susie Lake

The lakes were some of the loveliest lakes I’ve seen on the PCT (and I’ve seen some very lovely lakes).

There were also plenty of lovely old growth trees, shaped by the harsh conditions of Desolation Wilderness.

A blue Lake, with granite mountains is the background covered by ribbons of snow.

Heather Lake

Beautiful scenery is not ~quite~ the reason I hike the PCT, but it is always a great morale boost, and I really needed the morale boost this day.

When I got down to the two Echo Lakes, the smoke was a lot worse, but I also knew that I was getting close to a road. I would have liked to go all the way to the highway, but by the time I got to the parking lot at the resort, it was already 6pm, and I was tired (and sick). Luckily, I was able to get a ride in about 10 minutes from nice women from Oregon/North Carolina. Another PCT hiker rode in the same car – he is the first person I ever met who is a Zoroastrian (well, maybe I’ve met other Zoroastrians without knowing they were Zoroastrians). Even though they had a dinner reservation, and the hostel in South Lake Tahoe was a detour for them, they drove us all the way to the hostel (which was great for us, because South Lake Tahoe is a very spread out town).

This is a photo of my foot at the hostel (after I took a shower and washed off the dirt). Those aren’t blisters, my skin simply peeled off, exposing the inner, sensitive layers. When the red parts touched something with any amount of pressure, there was a burning sensation.

There were a lot of PCT hikers at the hostel. Since this was in early August, I knew the NOBO thru-hikers there were not going to make it to Canada without a lot of skipping. Most of them also realized this, though a few of them still had delusions of dramatically increasing their pace so they could reach Canada that year without skipping miles. There are some amazingly fast thru-hikers, but if they were those amazingly fast thru-hikers, they would have reached South Lake Tahoe long before early August on a NOBO thru-hike. I enjoyed very much hanging out with the other PCT hikers, since I knew this was going to be my last direct contact with the PCT community in a while.

The next day, I returned home. My hike ended a lot sooner than planned, but I still covered more than 400 miles, and had a lot of memorable experiences, so I consider it to have been an overall successful trip.

Smoke, Sickness, and Sore Feet to South Lake Tahoe, Part 1

A photo of Truckee’s historic district, near the train station.

I was in Truckee. I had just returned from Utah. I intended to return to the Pacific Crest Trail.

And the air quality was worse than I had hoped for. It was worse than when I had left Truckee to go to Utah.

Furthermore, something weird was happening to my feet. It wasn’t blisters, but it was leaving my feet a little sore. Furthermore, it started happening to me when I was off-trail, not when I was hiking. I figured it was probably nothing, and would go away if I ignored it.

I then asked myself – do I return to the trail, and hope the air will get better, or do I return to San Francisco.

I had missed the train to San Francisco, or rather, the train which dropped me off at Truckee was the train to San Francisco (in fact, it was the same train line I used to get from Chicago to San Francisco). I still had the option of taking a bus that evening to San Francisco.

I had a couple hours in Truckee to ponder whether I would go to the trail or I would go home.

A hiker I encountered in Truckee said ‘Do it! Go back to the trail! So what if you have to breathe smoke for a few days?’

I finally did decide to go back to Donner Pass to get back on the trail, mainly because I was psychologically prepared for returning to the trail. I was not psychologically prepared to go home so soon.

This is a photo taken near Roller Pass, and the campsite I slept at when I got back on the trail from Truckee/Donner Pass. Roller Pass was where the mid-19th century immigrant parties crossed the Sierra Mountains. The infamous Donner Party planned to go to Roller Pass, but because of a navigational error, they ended up in Donner Pass instead, which is part of why they had such a tragic fate. Even though Roller Pass was the better route for a group travelling with oxen and wagons, nowadays the highway, freeway, and train tracks all go via Donner Pass, whereas Roller Pass is only accessible by dirt trails.

As soon as I returned to the PCT, the air quality got better. I got to camp a little later than I would have liked, and it was windy, but it was okay.

The next day was good. The air was better. There was good scenery. I passed by Squaw Valley and the Granite Chief Wilderness. My feet were okay. I told myself I had done the right thing by returning to the trail.

The air got worse in the evening, but I hoped that was temporary.

The next day, I woke up with a sore throat. My first thought was that maybe the air was so bad that it had triggered the sore throat. Later, it occurred to me that I might have a cold, but I was not sure.

And the air was awful.

And my feet hurt, far more than the previous day. In fact, my feet hurt more than they have every hurt in all of my hikes. Every step was painful.

All of the smoke in the air was changing the color of sunlight.

It sucked. It became clear that I really had a cold, though I’m sure the bad air did not help. And my feet hurt. And the air was bad. And there were not many nice views. And even the water sources were worse than what I was used to dealing with in Northern California (and even worse than average for water sources on the PCT in Southern California). I was going slower than usual, and I was getting tired faster than usual. The cold was really draining my physical energy! I was thinking a lot about how much I wanted to get to a town, and regretting my decision to return to the trail at Donner Pass.

What finally improved my mood, at the end of the day, was seeing Lake Fontainallis.

A big clear lake with bare granite mountains with a little snow behind the lake.

Lake Fontainallis

Seeing that lake was the best thing that happened to me that day, because it was so beautiful that it shook me out of my suffering.

And it was only a mile from my campsite. At my campsite, I stopped hiking, and after I set up camp, I lay down, and stopped putting pressure on my sore feet.

I camped near Dick Lake, which was about a mile away from Lake Fontainallis.

I hoped I could get into town the next day. But I still had about 20 miles of hiking to get to the next road. And I had to hike those miles while I had a cold that was draining my energy, with feet that felt pain whenever I put them on the ground. And who knew what the air would be like? And when I got to the road, how difficult would it be to get a ride?

To be continued…

Town Shock

I recently hitchhiked from Donner Pass to the town of Truckee (a distance a bit less than 10 miles / 15 km). The guy who gave me a ride has lived in Truckee most of his life. He commented that when he moved to Truckee as a kid it was still a small town of about 6000 people.

“You know how big the towns I’ve been in lately are?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“The last town I was in, Sierra City, has an official population of 221.”

“Oh.”

“And before that, the last town I had been was Belden. Care to guess the population?”

“No. What’s the population of that town?”

“Officially, the population is 22, though I don’t think that includes the seasonal workers who only live there for a few months per year.”

“Oh wow.”

“Since I left San Francisco, the biggest town I’ve been in was Etna, which has a whopping population of 800 people.”

“Okay, I take that back, compared to the towns you’ve been in lately, Truckee is huge. I think we now have about 15,000 people.”

Technically, between San Francisco and Etna, I did transfer in two towns – Dunsmuir and Yreka – which have a population of over a thousand people (I think Yreka has about 7000 people) but since I was just there for bus transfers I feel they don’t count. Some of the people in Etna tried to persuade me to leave San Francisco and move to Etna but they failed. Since I left Etna and started my hike, the towns I’ve stopped at have been Castella (population: 240), Cassel (population: 207), Old Station (population: 51), Belden (population: 22), and Sierra City (population: 221). Thus, Truckee is by far the most populated place I’ve been in for weeks.

Believe it or not, all of these towns have post offices. Post offices are part of the life blood of these tiny towns. They are also one of the most important stops for hikers (though I try to avoid using post offices on the PCT – I prefer to use UPS to deliver my packages to a local business instead). Even Belden has a post office.

It’s a bit of a shock. Truckee has supermarkets. Plural. Truckee has more restaurants than I can count on one hand. Truckee has gas stations, plural (Castella, Old Station, and Sierra City each have a single gas station; Cassel does not have a gas station; Belden does not have a gas station and it’s a 50 mile / 80 kilometer drive to the nearest gas station). Truckee has a post office with more than two employees. Heck, Truckee has post offices, plural (amazing). Truckee has public transportation (well, so does Etna, but Etna has a population over 500 people). Truckee is really sprawled out (well, so is Belden – even though Belden officially only has 22 people, it is miles long because it is in a canyon where the few patches of land flat enough for buildings are not all in the same place). Most of all, it is possible to be really anonymous in Truckee in a way it’s not possible in a town with less than 500 people. Even though I was just a visitor passing through these tiny towns, both the locals and other PCT hikers could instantly peg me as a PCT hiker, and that gave me some designated place in the town’s social system. Meanwhile, in Truckee, people hardly notice me at all unless I give them a reason to notice me.

I don’t just hike the Pacific Crest Trail for the trail itself – I also hike it because it allows me to experience these towns I would have never heard of otherwise, let alone visited. And it gives me a chance to get to know really tiny towns in rural California. I spent two nights in Belden – spending that much time in a town with so few people was a novel experience. I also spent two nights in Cassel.

But at the time I’m writing this post, I’m in Truckee, which is a gigantic town (yes, I know I grew up in San Francisco, which has way more people than Truckee, but still, it’s been weeks since I’ve been around so many people, so I feel that Truckee is HUGE).

Truckee has internet which is not slow.

I have yet to visit a trail town on the PCT which I did not like. I like Truckee too. Each town, tiny or not so tiny, has its own distinct atmosphere and its positives (as well as its negatives, but I tend to find more positives than negatives).

And I’m actually stopping my hike for a week so I can do something which is not hiking. And it’s going to involve going to towns which have a population even bigger than Truckee. I guess Truckee is helping me adjust to dealing with bigger towns again.

I’m hiking a few hundred miles again, in the mountains, whatever.

Last year was my first hundred-mile (160 km) hike, and it seemed like a big deal at the time. But by now that I have done two continuous 400+ mile hikes, it no longer feels like such a big deal.

And I’m doing it again.

Right now, I have a permit to go from Etna, California, to Tuolumne Meadows, California. That is more than 600 miles. I would like to go further south, but in order to do so (legally) I would need to get a John Muir Trail permit at Tuolumne Meadows, which may or may not happen. And a John Muir Trail permit would only get me as far as Mount Whitney, and while when I was planning this trip I was hoping to get as far as Walker Pass … in some ways, it would be better to end at Mount Whitney (it is much more epic/symbolic than Walker Pass) and in some ways it would be better to end at Walker Pass (public transportation), but right now I’m leaning towards ending at Mount Whitney.

For those of you who are not familiar with California geography, I’m going to spell it out – I am finally going to be hiking in the Sierra Nevada.

You see, I grew up in California, and backpacking/hiking has somehow become one my major hobbies, yet I have never hiked in the Sierra Nevada before (unlike you count my aborted hike at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada. Even though I know a zillion people get excited about hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, for some reason, I am strangely chill about it. Maybe it is because I grew up within a few hours drive of the Sierra Nevada (even if I rarely visited), maybe the fact that everyone else gets so excited makes it harder for me to get excited, I don’t know. But I think it is a good thing not to try to get my expectations too high.

Since I am planning to hike 600-900 miles (depending on permits/itinerary), I think I will want a break. The most logical place to take a break would be Donner Pass, because that has the best transit connections. I could just return to San Francisco for my break, or I could simply go somewhere else. Right now, I am leaning towards visited Utah for a few days to break up my hike, since taking a train from the Donner Pass area to Salt Lake City would be fairly straightforward.

I was almost hoping I could complete all parts of the Pacific Crest Trail I have yet to hike this year. It now looks like that is not going to happen, and I’m okay with that. I’ve already done a good chunk of the PCT this year, and if I complete this chunk, then I will have hiked most of the California PCT, leaving only a few small bits of the California PCT and the Oregon PCT for me to hike next year.

What this means for this blog is that I have a whole bunch of canned posts coming up, so this blog will continue to update on a weekly basis while I am away from the internet. However, I will probably be very slow to respond to comments during the next few months.

Cold and Windy Spring in California

Cacti, in snow. I’ve posted this image before, but I’m posting it again because it is such a great symbol of my long hike in Southern California.

Going into my southern California hike, I was expecting to have problems with heat. After all, it got pretty warm during my week-long hike on the southern California Pacific Crest Trail last year – one day it got over 100 ºF (38 ºC). I was also concerned about finding shade, which is one of the reasons I went with a tarp which could be used for shade.

Yeah, there were a few brief times when the heat was uncomfortable (the warmest I ever got was on the lower part of my hike up San Jacinto), and a few stretches where shade was hard to come by (also on the ascent San Jacinto, actually) but it was cold temperatures and wind which gave me a lot more trouble during my hike.

The most extreme example of problems with cold weather was on the very first night, which I wrote about before. Thankfully, that did not repeat itself.

However, it also snowed on me while I was hiking through the San Bernardino mountains. Yes, it snowed on me while I was hiking in Southern California, in April. I even did a cowboy camp in the snow, which actually is not as bad as it sounds, especially since it got much warmer in the middle of the night.

Normally, hikers take a midday break in the shade. We were taking a midday break in the sun because it was ~that cold~ (and I am impressed that this guy had bare legs, because I never took my puffy jacket off at all this day). We were happy to see the sun come out, because it had been snowing an hour earlier.

Heck, I have calculated that I have spent more time in SNOWY weather in my PCT hikes in Southern California than I have in RAINY weather in my PCT hike of the entire state of Washington. For that matter, it was definitely colder on this Southern California hike than on my Washington hike – I never had a problem with any kind of cold night in Washington like I did in some parts of Southern California, and I definitely had more problems with heat in Washington. Heck, I experienced more rain during my two days in Texas than I did on my 30+ day hike through the Washington Cascades. I know that I did my Washington PCT hike during an unusual summer, but even so, whenever someone talks about how rainy Washington is, or how hot Southern California is, or how dry Central Texas is, I am going to be tempted to roll my eyes.

This was one of the water sources in the San Bernardino mountains. And yes, those are icicles.

And while I was going through part of Los Angeles county which was away from the coast and near the MOJAVE FREAKIN’ DESERT, a ‘marine layer’ came in a blanketed the mountain valleys with fog. First of all, it made the air surprisingly cold (though not quite as cold as what I later experienced in the San Bernardino mountains), some hikers got caught in rain (though I got lucky and pitched camp just outside the area which got rained on) and also, it was exactly was I was not expecting, especially since I had just come out of the Mojave desert.

Hills covered with chaparral with a blue sky and a valley filled with fog.

When I saw this in Los Angeles county, I was wondering if I had accidently walked all the way back to the San Francisco Bay Area.

And on top of all that, there was the wind.

Sometimes, the wind was nice, or scary, or nice and scary at the same time.

The day I descended from Inspiration Point (near Wrightwood) to Swarthout Canyon (near Cajon Pass) was extremely windy. On the one hand, this was nice, because east of the turnoff to Mount San Antonio there was little shade, but the wind kept me cool. On the other hand, some parts of the trail was in bad shape, and by ‘bad shape’ I mean that the trail was eroding and if I slid off the eroding trail I might have fallen down a long way, and the wind forcefully shoving against my body really did not help.

Going down to Cajon Pass. I know a lot of hikers hate the segment between Cajon Pass and Wrightwood, but it was one of the highlights of the trail for me. It definitely helped that I was going mostly downhill and I did not hike this on a hot day.

And the wind was still blowing really strong that night. All the other hikers I met were desperately looking for a sheltered spot, but there were no sheltered campsites, the only fully protected place to sleep was the Best Western Inn in Cajon Pass and a) that was too far for me to reach unless I wanted to push my body very hard and b) it cost more than I wanted to pay. I know that a lot of hikers spend the night in Swarthout Canyon because it is in a convenient location just five miles from Cajon Pass, but the night I was there I was the only hiker, and it was damn windy. Fortunately, I found the single most protected place near the trail within the canyon. It was a bush which blocked about half of the wind. I literally slept under the bush.

This is the wonderful bush which sheltered me from the wind in Swarthout Canyon.

The worst wind was the day I arrived in Big Bear Lake. It as not so bad when I was hiking, since I was not going through any particularly steep or eroded areas, except for the spot which had the whirling dust storms. But when I got to the highway, there was no shelter from the fierce wind, so I had to wait in the wind and practically shout at the other hikers when I was talking to them (but I was lucky to have a guaranteed ride instead of hitchhiking, so I don’t want to complain).

Here is some dead cactus I saw on that very windy morning.

Once I was in town, even though it was a sunny day, nobody wanted to be outside until they absolutely had to go out because the wind was that bad. In the evening, it was so windy that it was physically difficult just to walk down the street to get dinner. I was very happy to be sleeping inside a building with four walls that night – though I was lucky to get a space in the hostel, since that day a lot of hikers decided they would rather extend their stay another night rather than hike (or camp) in such harsh conditions. The next morning, somebody said that, in TOWN (not on the trail, which is higher up in the mountains), the wind had gotten to be as much as 100 mph (160 kph), and the temperature had gone as low as 21 ºF (-6 ºC). I later met a hiker who had camped out that night, and the wind had damaged her tent. Other hikers did not dare pitch their tents that night, but that meant that they had to endure the cold and windy night without a tent to protect them.

On the plus side, due to the cold temperatures and abundance of March snowstorms, I happened to pass through the Angeles National Forest at a time when the forest rangers were actually permitting campfires. The locals tell me that the forest rangers almost never permit campfires. I did not have a fire permit, but on the coldest night I was in the Angeles Forest, I happened to camp with some hikers who did have the fire permit, so they started a totally legal campfire. I enjoyed the warmth.

It was not just a cold spring in southern California, it was also a colder-than-average late spring up in the San Francisco Bay Area as well. Normally, it is difficult to grow carrots in San Francisco, but this spring, the local garden where I volunteer had the largest crop of carrots ever because the weather had been so cold. And it’s not just San Francisco – the local farmers’ markets are overflowing with carrots because vegetable farmers all over northern California have had a great carrot harvest due to the low spring temperatures.

I suppose the lesson here is that I should never trust the ‘reputation’ a particular region has when it comes to weather. If I had known the weather was going to be like this, I probably would have chose gear less suited for sun/heat and more suited for cold. But I guess unexpected weather makes life more interesting, and my gear worked well enough anyway.