My relationship to the trail has entered a new phase this past week; it is testing me. “So, you claim to love me so much”, it said, “but what about now? Do you still love me when both of your ankles are so swollen that every step sends shooting pain up to your mid-calf? Now that I have lined up both sides of the trail with Poison Oak so you cannot get through without touching it? Poison Oak not enough, how do you feel about the evil Poodle Dog Bush, chest high, unavoidable? What if I remove shade and raise the temperature to over 100 and cook your brains out? Scorpions? Tarantulas?” and I say “Yes, trail, yes. I still love you, unconditionally.”
And so it said “Good. Then I shall teach you to walk.”
I have spoken with thru-hikers whose hike this year isn’t their first. The painful swollen ankles and outrageously large blisters seem to be a common rite of passage. I’ve been hiking on painful ankles for two weeks now. At first I had a sprain, but now it’s definitely something else. I feel I have metal bars on the outside of each of my ankles that ram themselves into the bone with each step. A few days ago, as I wobbled down the trail in the cool morning air, I had a vision of Forest Gump with his legs in the metal walking apparatus. I feel the day the metal falls off, I too will soar and get my true speed. I’ve gotten only glimpses of it so far. The trail is teaching me how to walk: If I roll on the inside, the blisters hurt, if I roll on the outside, the ankles hurt, so for the first time in my life, I’m walking straight. I have also learned to propel myself with This and That, my trusty hiking poles (“This” and “That” are their names). Up until this week, I mainly used them to amuse my hands. My walk is now a full body workout and I appreciate the gained efficiency, especially since I have a feeling that this walking long-trails business isn’t just a passing fad. There is no way I’m doing the PCT and stopping there. I already know this. I love it too much, pain and all. Learning to walk properly and efficiently seems like an essential skill to acquire and I am grateful for the opportunity to get my walking gait tuned in early. Oh, the places I’ll go once I learn to walk …
Aside from learning to walk straight, I have also noticed subtle physical changes. I haven’t lost any weight. By now, men on the trail have dropped 10s of Lbs, but most of us women have either stayed even or gained a little. The main change is beneath my feet. I am developing pads, like below cat’s paws. I suspect I am slowly turning into an actual bobcat. That would also explain the ravid taste for packaged tuna (I’ll likely die of mercury poisoning before the end of the trail at this rate), the growing need for solitary roaming time (bobcats only get social when mating), the hightened sense of smell (I can spot ponderora pines and freshly showered day hikers hundred of feet before I see them) and the growing whiskers (I’ve plucked them). I have not acquired any more quirks than those I had originally, but those original ones are getting well ingrained. My friend Ana mentioned to me this morning, as I casually mentioned my cape, that I would have to give it up when I return to civilization. One more reason not to return to civilization.
In truth, the trail isn’t challenging me, of course. I am challenging myself. I just make up conversations with the trail in my head because I am hiking alone, have an overactive brain and have foolishly sent my ipod ahead in my bounce box. The trail is just a lovely ruban of dirt through some amazing landscape. It does not test or judge us. The magic and challenges are in us, thru-hikers. I have been hiking solo for almost a week now and it has brought me to meet delightful characters. I hiked an entire day with WillWay (“where there is a will, there is a way”). WillWay was spiritually wise beyond his late-twenties earth years. We fell in step naturally, talked excitedly all day and forgot about the miles. We did 24 miles that day, and that included several stops to jump in creeks, one brief stop at the hot springs, which were overrun with drunken weekenders (“Hey, you with the hat, come down here and play drinking games with us”, was my final incentive to move on). I only regretted not staying at the hot springs that night because trail news brought me the story of a man who claimed to have been a ball of energy in outer-space until some angels commanded him to take human form and come to earth to save us. I would have liked to meet him. I’ve never met an energy balls in human form before. Anyway, WillWay and I agreed that the trail doesn’t provide, life provides! The main difference is that people on the trail expect magic, so they are open to it. I liked WillWay, but he’s a fast one. He’s far ahead by now. I’m glad I got to walk with him for a day.
I also had the pleasure and great honor to hike with Billy Goat! Billy Goat is a trail legend. The PCT is his only address. He’s been hiking it every year for 10 years. He’s a 70 year old charmer full of enthusiasm and tall trail tales. Billy Goat told me that the trail changes thru-hikers in a way so deep and gradual that this change is imperceptible while it is taking place. Each step, each day, each mile, each encounter change us, and when we get to Manning Park, we are completely transformed in the eyes of the to the outside world. Maybe it is imperceptible to the inattentive, but I definitely feel gradually different – and I’m not talking about whiskers and padded paws. I feel more real, mostly, more me. Others I see become more accustomed to magic in daily life. I came with trust in the magic of life, so that part isn’t so obvious of a change for me.
You want to hear about trail magic? Oh man. There is so much trail magic, it’d take all of my library time to tell you those stories properly. How about this one? … I needed to get off my feet and ankles for a full day, but despite the trash-can-trail-fund money, I am always hesitant to spend a bunch of money on an hotel room. But here I am, staying at the Little Red Barn. A Trail Angel named Dolores, whom I have never met, owns this red barn remodeled into a small house with several bedrooms, which she graciously leaves open for all of us dirty, smelly hikers. It is better than the best hotel room I have stayed in. I have my own room upstairs, with a comfy bed, full kitchen, clean bathroom, absolutely free! When was the last time you stayed in some random person’s house for free? Trail Angels continue to amaze me. Also, the lady at the coffee shop this morning, gave me a second free delicious blended iced mocha. That was extremely generous, but My, am I bouncing off the walls right now! Bouncing Bobcat on caffeine. What could go wrong?
Oh, and speaking of sleeping arrangements. I slept ON the San Andreas fault a few nights ago. I saw a couple of tarantulas but was disappointed in the lack of movement on the fault. Cool rocks though. Metamorphism galore around there.
That’s all I have time for, so this is your weekly update, whoever is reading this – Hi! Thanks for stopping by, by the way. Bottom line: I survived the treacherous plants stretch, the desert heat, the drunken hot-springers and the swollen ankles. My spirits are high and I’m gobbling miles faster than I should given my physical condition. Santosha (contentment) fully activated. Oh yeah!
Quotes of the week.
Billy Goat: “I remember Wild Child. 10 years ago, yes. He hiked the long trail with my son”
Me: “What’s your son’s name?”
Billy Goat: “Son of Billy Goat”
Me: “What did you do before you walked the trail for a living”
Billy Goat: “Thought about it”
Hitchhiking ride in Big Bear City: “You know how groups have names, like a pride of lions or a gaggle of geese, you guys should be ‘an odor of thru-hikers'”
Me: “How did you learn so much about the formation of our solar system?”
Hiker: “I read a lot … and I eat mushrooms”