Last year I summited Mt. Whitney on Father’s Day and climbed up and over Forester Pass on my dad’s birthday. If I wasn’t already thinking about Dad, my encounters with three separate fathers-with-daughters hiking the JMT seemed to say “Hey Girl, who taught you to backpack? Way back, when your little legs were strong enough to carry only a sleeping bag and some snacks, who led the way into the Montana mountains in the summertime? That’s right, your pops.”
When I exited for resupply in Bishop, I wrote my dad a letter telling him that, before life gets in the way, we needed to go for a good long walk in the woods together. So we agreed to hike the John Muir Trail.
After scattered phone conversations and broken email chains, criss-crossing lists of gear and food and to-dos, today we walked side by side, weaving through the aisles of Costco, inspecting nutritional information and debating between granola bars (though I’ve learned that they’re all pretty bad after a while). Afterwards we heaped the food onto the dining room table to examine, divide and ziploc.
In some ways this hike will resemble the summer backpacks of my childhood. In most ways it will be very different. This time around, I hope to be more of the guide, to share a bit of what I’ve learned since then.
Remember that time that you hiked to meet me at the Northern Terminus? This is my thank you for that, and my thank you for engraining in me a love for the wild.
We got to talking about time travel, rewinding to save the day or walk with dinosaurs. Wondering about technicalities, and, if time travel is really possible, wouldn’t we have seen or heard of future-folks roaming around in this time?
Hiking from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and time traveling are likely not very similar experiences. However, traveling to those places untouched and unaltered, we glimpse now what was back then. The layers of the landscape mark years by the tens of thousands, a time frame we strain to understand.
The Grand Canyon is the river’s masterpiece, its portfolio from the last six million years. At the deepest point, six thousand feet below the rim, the exposed rock is 2,000 million years old.
We haven’t planned ahead so we have no idea whether or not we will get a permit to stay in the canyon. We’re lucky- there have been cancellations and we leave the backcountry permitting office with a reservation at Bright Angel Campground for the following night.
My cousin and her friends are staying in Mather Campground at one of 300 sites spread across a maze of culdesacs. We spend the afternoon with a frisbee and a few beers at the close-to-empty campground. Elk laze in the shade nearby.
Yavapai Point for sunset. From the white rocks we can see the switchbacks leading from the canyon floor to Bright Angel Trailhead.
Morning of. Wake up, make coffee, eat breakfast, organize food for the next 36 hours, pack backpacks, snag neighbor to give Old Faithful a jump, arrive at the South Kaibab Trailhead at 11am.
A 7 mile, 4,780 foot drop to Phantom Ranch.
Rim temp: 72° Phantom Ranch temp: 94°
The bottom of the Grand Canyon can be accessed in a variety of ways. You can hike, carrying your own food, water, shelter, etc. You can hike, carrying water and a change of clothes, and stay in the cabins at Phantom Ranch. You can take a boat. You can ride a mule. Though we pass a string of mule-riding guests looking happy enough, my ego would never go for that.
The first mile and a half is congested, people clogging the destination photo-opps. Past that, the numbers dwindle and the rim of the canyon slips from our sights, a series of false summits plaguing the upward-hiker. The trail alternates between steep, two way trails and conveniently placed plateaus where the rest stops are located. As our elevation drops, the temperature increases. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is harsh, the shade is sparse.
We’re gaining on another hiker. He stands out with a mangled bike strapped to his back. As decrepit as a hermit crab, he is hunched and moving slowly. We catch up to him as he breaks and I let go my flood of questions
His name: Elliot DuMont
Trail name: Bike On
Purpose: Arizona Trail 750, Mexico to Utah, longest single-track bike race in the world, mandatory 24 mile portage across the Grand Canyon, began April 11 at 7am. Destination: the border of Arizona and Utah. He’s hoping to be there in the next 48 hours. Jargon: hike-a-bike (to push one’s bike while walking alongside); bikepacking (to disassemble, strap and carry a bike on one’s back)
He tells us his back is killing him, yet his smile is fixed. He’s got the look of accomplishment, determination, hilarity. “I’m enjoying the celebrity”, he says when I appologize for all the questions.
We catch our first glimpse of the Colorado River about four miles in. Shortly thereafter we take a bathroom break at Tip Off. A thermometer hanging on the wall of the outhouse reads 100° F, 40° C.
Down, down, down, we pass a few hikers in the last miles, faint and red-faced in the shade. The sun takes its toll. Down, down, down, through the tunnel, over the bridge, onto the beach and into the water. It’s 3:30pm. The water is clear and cold. Strained through the Glen Canyon Dam from the bottom of Lake Powell, the usual sediment has been filtered out leaving the water the same green as the Little Mermaid’s tail. We can only sit for a moment before our bones start to ache. After the initial plunge, I wade in just long enough to rinse my socks, relishing in the return to those old hiking rituals.
Everyone knows that John Wesley Powell led the first expedition down the Colorado River in 1869. Along the way, the explorers camped on the beach of what is now Phantom Ranch. At the turn of the 20th century, the place began its evolution into a tourist destination. A hunting trip brought President Theodore Roosevelt to the ranch in 1913, helping the Grand Canyon attain national park status in 1919. During the Great Depression the CCC was employed to make improvements to the ranch and access trails.
Dark brown Park Service buildings appear amidst the cacti and cottonwoods. The trail follows Bright Angel Creek and a string of campsites appears on either side of the trail. We walk the gauntlet, eyeing the set-ups of our fellow campers. Backpacks hang from metal racks and metal boxes for food storage sit on picnic tables to keep the squirrels away. At this point, we’ve seen the sign repeatedly (squirrels = fleas = plague = no touching, emphasized by a picture of a hand with a nasty squirrel bite) and take their warnings seriously.
We drop our gear at the far end of the lineup and head to the canteen/restaurant for water, 5 minutes further on the opposite side of the creek. The canteen serves beverages of all sorts and a few snacks, but dinner is limited to those with reservations made ahead of time, extinguishing our fantasies of burgers on the canyon bottom.
A pipe has burst. The ranger talks it down, a frequent occurence due to the high pressure and old pipes that transport the water across the Canyon. It’s happened three times over the past three weeks. We learn that all water on the South Rim comes from one source: Roaring Springs, located on the North Rim. Despite the burst pipe, drinking water is still available, but we have to flush the toilets with buckets of creek water.
Our friend Bike On is inside refueling, a couple cans of soda and bags of snacks laid out on the table in front of him. After a quick rest he’ll continue his journey up the North Rim.
The mules are housed between the campsite and the canteen, ten or so swishing their tails in the corral. The handlers tell me that the outfit has 140-some mules that hike the canyon and 60-some mules that stay up at the rim. The animals make the trip down and back, then rest for two or three days up top. “They get more days off than us!”
It’s serene in this little green canyon. The various types visiting are similar enough to get along and diverse enough to mimic a community. Unlike the typical resort, the range of cost to access this place, physical and monetary, keeps the clientele interesting.
A park ranger accompanied by a volunteer makes the rounds, checking permits, informing us of the spawning fish and proper use of headlamps. At dinner the gas runs out and I make a trade with the neighbors: two packets of hot chocolate in exchange for access to their fuel canister.
It’s still hot. Even as the sun sinks, the heat persists. We take a walk back to the river before we lose all light. In the dusk we see the cacti on the verge of a massive bloom. We sit and talk on the rocks, watching bats whoosh over our heads until the dark envelops all of it. We find our way back to camp, weaving through whispers and bobbing lights of other campers. The heat keeps us on top of our bags for most of the night and the starlight is incredible.
My eyes open at 5:20am and we’re on trail by 6:30. After yesterday’s heat we don’t want to push our luck.
We finish the five miles to Indian Garden and water by 9:30. Though we’re half-way, we’ve got a 3,000 foot grunt ahead of us. Luckily the weather is mild, the sun filtering through clouds and the temperature dropping as we make our way up. We leap-frog with another family coming from Bright Angel and make friends with Payton, a fifth-grader from Oregon. The trail’s grade forces us to break every mile or so but the 70° air assures us that there is no need to rush.
We reach the rim at noon, racing another new friend and fifth-grader Rhiannon the last mile or so, finding that we can’t compete with the energy of eleven-year-olds. Payton is also waiting at the top with a smirk on his face.
18 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain. We revel in our accomplishment, pigging out next to the snack bar amidst cleaned-and-pressed tourists. Another delightful hiking ritual, dirty and smelly, downing town-food with audible joy.
The Grand Canyon is such a celebrity-landmark and it feels like a great accomplishment to have hiked to the bottom and back. The beauty we see is delicate, a continuous transformation by the tiniest forces, building up and tearing down, grains of sand and drops of water that weather, sculpt and carve. A great work of art, perfect and balanced. And though we leave wanting more, I am glad that only a sliver of this place is accessible to us so that we can appreciate without entirely disrupting. Let the artist work.
Day 106, between Miles 1440 & 1470
I’ve had some sort of break through today. Walking I feel energized and relaxed, peaceful and mindful. The clouds in my head are dissipating.
Ran into a group of 3 men, about my dad’s age. Stopped and chatted and they made me an espresso in the middle of the woods.
The trail provides.
Day 112, Mile ???
Walked 23 miles.
Red rocks, ridge-walking. White rock islands in a sea of green forest.
22 miles till Etna.
Day 116, Mile 1630
First south-bounder sighting!
Less than 70 miles left in Cali.
Being asked often if I’m “on schedule” and I say “what schedule?” and they start talking about finishing and snow in Washington.
Time goes so slowly out here, yet it’s already mid-August. Oregon should take 3ish weeks…mid-September. Then 4ish for Washington…mid-October. As much as I try and calculate the future or conceptualize “finishing”, today’s steps are challenging enough.
Day 117, Mile 1662
Arrived in Seiad Valley after a 6.4 mile road walk lined with blackberries ripe and glowing in the morning sun.
Ate an epic waffle sandwich, drank an epic amount of coffee, downed an epic glass of milk.
Hung out and took showers at the RV park. 30 and I played badminton under the trees, listening to Old Crow Medicine Show and drinking Rolling Rock.
Made it after dark to the spring 6 miles out and up from town.
The clouds are moving and it makes it look like the moon is moving. We get to Oregon tomorrow or early the next day.
Today was Friday.
Day 123, Mile 1725
Back on trail after 3 sick-days in Ashland. Fever, headache, muscle-ache, the whole shebang. Hadn’t zeroed since Tahoe and it took it’s toll. On top of that, got the x-ray and 30’s foot is officially broken. So we’re taking care of eachother.
Smoke is rolling in from the forest fires in Northern Cali.
Day 124, Mile 1748
Late start today but still managed 23 miles. Flat, cool, relatively smoke-free. Trying for a 30 tomorrow.
Was in some sort of mood all day and was giving 30 earfuls about all sorts of nonsense.
Found a toad on the trail- had to pick it up just like I would’ve as a kid.
Day 125, Mile ????
4-Month Anniversary On Trail!
Celebrated with a short day. 18 miles.
Started the day with a hornet-bite on my right butt-cheek. Hurt like a mother.
Spent much of the day dreaming up crazy plans for post-hike.
Day 127, Mile 1810
Woke up cold and wet from yesterday’s rainstorms.
A postcard and bracelet from Hot Tub waiting for me at Christi Spring. Made me laugh and cry.
We’ll arrive at Crater Lake tomorrow evening.
Day 133, Mile ????
Camped under the stars at Bobby Lake. We got in at dark so I don’t know what to expect, but I’m sure it will be beautiful.
Last day/evening/night of being 23. I hope 24 is adventurous, satisfied, motivated, spontaneous, playful, loving.
Day 134, Mile ????
Slept straight through sunrise. Steam is rolling off the lake’s glassy surface and there are dragon flies and ducks. And the yellow jackets are out, feisty and buzzing though it’s still early.
I was a morning-baby and, 24 years ago, my parents were holding me, fresh and new. Mama didn’t know I was going to be a girl and in the home video of that dark, hectic, hospital room, you can hear the words “It’s a girl!” from the doctor and she repeats his words over and over with such joy.
23 was the first adult year I spent out of school. I baked bread. I lived with Lacy and Lily. I hiked and skiid and cooked, biked, played kickball, listened to music, had great house-parties, made new friends, kept old friends. Bolt died and Debbie’s cancer got worse.
I planned my trip on the PCT and walked 1800 miles.
My friend Julie asked me yesterday how I typically celebrated my birthday, triggering a flood of memories from past celebrations- family dinners, 20 people around the table, unimaginable amounts of pasta, bread and wine being consumed; the themed parties of my childhood (deep-sea, soccer, jungle, etc.), party favors, jump-roping, squealing and screaming; the celebrations of my 20s starting dance parties in the bar.
Today is an exceptionally quiet, subtle, sober take on my birthday. Just me and 30 Pack, waking on the shore of a lake, drinking instant coffee+hot cocoa in the sun, reading cards from my family. You ain’t got nothing but time.
And time ain’t got nothing on you.
Day 139, Mile 2000ish
Hit mile 2000 today.
Day 147, Mile 2142
Last day on trail in OR and hoping it doesn’t rain on us.
Taking the Eagle Creek alternate past Tunnel Falls. About 13 out from Cascade Locks.
Excited for a bed- haven’t had one in 450 miles.
Day 150, Mile ????
Made camp, real camp, with fire and spring water, dinner and hot cocoa.
Did 22 today. New shoes’ve got my feet hurting.
Coming up on a full moon again.
Day 152, Mile 2,300ish
Made it to Trout Lake alright. The town is more or less a general store and a gas station- my favorite kind of stop.
400 miles from Canada…how the hell did that happen!? For all the work it took, all the fear and anticipation I felt before I got here, it all seems easier in retrospect.
Day 129, Mile ????
Cold and damp. Days are getting shorter and we’re slowing to 20 miles per day in order to sleep-in in the morning and have a fire at night. Anyway, why rush through the best thing I’ve ever done for myself?
Should be to Snoqualmie by Sunday evening.
Day 162, Mile 2,402
Off trail for a few days to avoid super rain/wind/snow.
Weathered 3 days of continuous rain. Set a record on our way in to Snoqualmie- 20 miles in 7 hours. Arrived at the pass soaked to the bone.
Prepared to modify and continue on after the weather clears. Need to boost our trashbag/ziploc reinforcements.
Over 150 days since leaving the border.
Approximately 750,000 calories devoted to walking.
150 cat holes.
Day 165, Mile ????
Elizabeth has joined us, a whole new dynamic. Gives me and 30 a break from one another.
Cold and wet, but we’re in good spirits.
Tired. The cold makes me tired.
Day 169, Mile ????
Spent two nights in Cle Elum and bought snow shoes.
Back in the woods, in the tent, eating chocolate bars and cheese, making sandwiches for tomorrow.
Feeling content and at home, despite the weather. Hearing about people calling it quits and being asked when we will. We haven’t reached our limits yet.
Day 172, Mile 2,472
We made it to Steven’s Pass. First group to make it from Snoqualmie since the snow hit.
Eating pie at the Baring Store/Restaurant. Read an article in the Seattle Times about PCT hikers finishing the trail with a 100-plus mile road walk to Canada. The Wenatchee newspaper shows a picture of Hippie and New Orleans walking on the highway.
The words are circulating: “hiking season is over”. Very discouraging. It seems that then entire hiking community is throwing in the towel. The excitement and optimism that keeps us all going has been extinguished, replaced by doubt, fear, even criticism towards those of us who choose to keep trying. Facebook is the worst, a petri-dish of fear-feeding-fear.
The conditions haven’t worsened, but a few hikers got stranded in the mountains and had to be retrieved by the local SAR.
No one has made it the 120 miles from here to Rainey Pass since the snow hit. Several groups have attempted and turned around. We know the risks of going back into the mountains, and we’re doing everything we can to prepare- exit strategies, new gear, extra food.
Day 173, Mile 2,482
Camped 10 miles in.
Seven of us left from Steven’s Pass this morning. Me and 30, old friends- Hot Tub, Sweet Tooth, Elizabeth, and new friends- Luna, Werewolf and their dog, Supdog.
Snowshoes, gaiters, rain pants and coats, 3 pair gloves, 4 pair socks, 2 pair long underwear, fire starters, hats, extra batteries, etc. etc.
We’ve got a two week weather-window, food for eleven days and are expecting between 10 and 15 miles/day.
Day 174, Mile ????
Climbed over 3,000 feet, wore snow shoes for the first time, animal tracks everywhere, camping on packed snow, cold feet, no campfire.
Day 175, Mile ????
Day threee of the Expedition.
Becoming more competant in snowshoes, but still exhausting. The mountains look beautiful and intimidating all covered in snow.
This long trail has transformed so many times.
90 miles to Rainey Pass.
Day 176, Mile 2520
Elizabeth exited. The snowy slopes were too much. I thought we had seen the worst of it yesterday, and told her as much, but I’m glad she didn’t believe me because today was much worse.
The 1.8 miles from White Pass to Red Pass took us 2.5 hours. The steepest, sketchiest shit I’ve ever done. Combined with maneuvering in snowshoes, it was the most stressful 2+ hours my body has ever endured.
After a long break at the pass, we cruised down the back side, plodding through the powder, the freedom of an open snow-field after those excruciating hours.
Three more big climbs before we’re through this. Weather is looking good.
In camp, safe, happy and warm.
Day 177, Mile ???
6:15 Alarm goes off, turned off, doze
6:30 motivate to make coffee, first few sips provide motivation to make oatmeal
6:45 Make first exit to pee.
Day 178, Mile 2546.7
Day Six of the Expedition.
Slept on snow but stayed warm. Did 13 miles today, 4000 feet of descent and 5800 up. We’re getting good at this whole winter camping thing- drying shit out in the sun at lunch, making fires to dry out shit at night.
We have one big climb tomorrow, Cloudy Pass, then we’re headed downhill to Rainey Pass and hotels and hot showers.
Day 179, Mile ???
The snow is disappearing quickly.
Hot Tub and Sweettooth got a fire going this morning to help us motivate to get up and out of camp.
About 35 miles from Hwy 20/Rainey Pass. Two more days till we hit town.
Dry and happy, though fatigue is setting in. Still good on food.
Day 180, Mile ???
Day Eight of the Expedition
15 miles of dirt. Took our time getting to High Bridge where, generally, you could catch a shuttle to Stehekin. But all that is closed now.
We’re all tired after this long stretch. But tomorrow is town.
We did it. We made it.
***The conditions only got better along the 70 miles from Rainey Pass to the Canadian Border.
I reached the Northern Terminus of the PCT on the morning of October 26. I finished with a handful of my closest friends from the previous six months. It was the most surreal moment of my life.
One week off trail.
Picking at my callouses in the bathtub. Developed over six months, layers upon layers of hardened skin. My big toe on my right food tingles more than it feels.
I’ve heard that, after doing any one thing for a thousand hours, you become proficient at that thing. At an average pace of 2.5 miles per hour, walking 2668 miles would require 1067.2 hours. 133.4 days of walking, 8 hour shifts each day. My walking-hours were spread over a period of 186 days and, after all that, I can say I’ve become a proficient walker.
I spent my summer zigzagging up and over mountains with my head in the clouds. To stay afloat, I broke it down, from months and thousands of miles, to days, minutes, sunrises, sunsets, water sources, lunches, snack breaks. Broke it down to climbing and falling. Now I understand. The balance and repetition, the congruence of the trail.
We made it! From Montana to the Gulf of Mexico, how sweet it is! Here is a jumbled look at the last few weeks as we’ve roamed the giant state of Texas. We’ve been so lucky to see all these beautiful things, even more so to visit so many good friends along the way. It seems that everywhere we’ve been, we are met with open arms.
Now, onward to Big Bend National Park! Yeeehaw!
View from the pier
Big dead fish
Mili out to sea
Little sea birdies, all in a line.
Beautiful Cousin Michelle and darling son Jesse
Iced over, Katy TX. We’ve dragged the cold from MT to TX. Sorry folks!
We’ve reached the Gulf of Mexico! South Padre Island, TX
Down Town San Antonio, TX
Courthouse, San Antonio
The Esquire. Dern Hipsters…
….but they make a dern good Old Fashioned
Alone in a sea of buildings.
Day hike, Hill Country State Natural Area, TX
30 Pack, Rampage and Moose. Hill Country State Natural Area, TX.
We spend a day in Lander, take a hike up Sinks Canyon to see the frozen falls, eat enormous burgers at the Lander Bar. Alongside the local cowboys, we watch Olympic figure skating and cringe as Sean White takes fourth.
It’s windy as Hell as we head South on Hwy 287. The road is closed to “light weight vehicles” and the rest stops are full of semis, waiting it out.
After a night in Laramie, we cross into Colorful Colorado at 11:03 am. The odometer reads 1053.
In Denver, we stay with Karlie. We’ve known each other since middle school and she’s letting us stay as long as we’d like.
On Valentine’s Day we drive to Rocky Mountain National Park. A sign reads “In case of flood climb to safety”. We see sunken houses, boarded windows, bull dozers and trees with exposed, bare roots. We learn that 18 inches of rain fell between September 11 and 13 of last year. The park had to be evacuated and the eastern entrances were inaccessible due to the devastation of the flood.
Herds of elk graze beneath towering mountains. It’s 36° and snowing lightly. We’ve got the park to ourselves. We cook ribeye steaks for dinner and make a nest in the back of the car, drinking wine and playing chess.
In the morning, it’s too windy to make coffee or cook bacon. We pack up the car and drive out of the park as a stream of cars enter.
We pull away from Missoula at -7°.
The long way, Hwy 278, stretches across the beautiful Big Hole Valley. The cold has turned Wisdom and Jackson into ghost towns. We see three moose and a herd of antelope. Otherwise it’s just us and the cows.
Three nights in Dillon with my aunt and uncle. Yellow fields, blue mountains, endless sky. A night in Bozeman with our friend Layla. The temp is up to 27°.
The highway takes us through Fromberg, MT. A few buildings, a glimpse of a postman and a police car, and we’re back up to 60mph. Scattered antelope, cottonwoods crowding the frozen creek beds, snow-shrouded hay bales. So many bales, sitting, waiting to be reintegrated.
Just past the Wyoming border, a four-point buck grazes on the side of the guard rail. We stop in Thermopolis, home of the world’s largest hot mineral springs. We soak at the bath house and drive through the bison viewing area. We see only their tracks amidst the red rocks emerging from the snow, and a rabbit.
We arrive in Lander just after dark.