You don't asks anymore why I walk the distance. Maybe, you don't ask, because you haven’t done it. Maybe you imagine sleeping on the ground (I sleep in a hammock, which may sound even more uncomfortable), maybe you imagine carrying weight and sweating, and tell me it is not for you.
Can you imagine the feeling of endlessness stretching out in front of you, the new sights around the bend, over the pass, like a life unknown? All you have to do is step into it, put one foot in front of the other. Do you refuse to start your day because you don’t know where it leads? Of course not, and yes, you do try to control what happens by scheduling, planning events. All I try to plan on the trail is the uphill part in the early part of the day.
It is that clear simplicity of not knowing what is to come, putting one foot in front of the other, that draws me to the long trail. When I put the pack on my back with the minimal belongings that will give me comfort and keep me alive, and take my first fifty steps, my heart opens, my breath becomes a sigh of relief. I am free, the trail is pushing me forward to an ever expanding mix of trees, rocks and sky.
In the cool freshness of the early morning, my energy full and anticipatory, I am like a child, boundless, inquisitive, a butterfly moving from delightful aroma to delightful sight. In the late afternoon, my limbs moving out of sheer habit, my heart melancholic with the drawing near of the end of the day, the need to rest, the bother of setting up camp for the night, I am an old woman burdened by the physicality of living. Each day on the trail I am born new and I reach the end of a life. Each day I experience the powerful cycle of living and dying in a visceral way, as it courses through my body, leaving me to ponder life’s purpose.
Walking the trail, is living life in a nutshell, devoid of the trappings of making money, acquiring things, and finding pleasurable entertainment. The purity of living that the trail provides is magnetic, honest and invigorating. For the young ones on the trail, the ones who go fast, who eat the miles by the twenties and thirties a day, the trail is a goal to seeing the end. The few mid-lifers on the trail are there to reset their life, drop out of the rat race they were in, find a new take on things. For me, the old one on the trail, it is an opportunity to live once more, to stretch the time to the end out a bit. I don’t want to see the end, I don’t need to reset my life. I want to enjoy the last stretch of living.
The PCT is a long trail, 2600 miles long. Life can be long. I have been picking the sections that call to me, like life called me to different places, different careers. I don’t know how long I will be walking the trail, I don’t know if I will walk all 2600 miles. Life doesn’t tell you how long you have and how far you’ll go. For now I walk, without hurry to finish, letting the days on the trail gather me up and expand my awareness into the expanse of nature, the vastness of terrain, the wildness of things.
I get a little glimpse of eternity, and I become a little more adept at letting myself slide into the great unknown. From the moment we are born we are on our way to our death. Not that we think so, not that we want that. I believe that when I walk the trail I am a little more conscious of the arc of life and hope that my transition into the other realm will be eased. Maybe, walking the trail is a way to learn to walk to my death with lightness of heart.
“The impulse to create begins – often terribly and fearfully – in a tunnel of silence," Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible.
Day 8 -13 in the Southern part of the Northern Cascades, WA
A zero day in a town has broken the coveted inner silence of the first week of the hike. I can taste the end of hiking. This is what I will be going back to, comfort, a roof over my head.
Re-entry to the trail a day later, puts me back into the “tunnel of silence” as Adrienne Rich calls it, the spaciousness of open sky and endless tree cover, towering Mt Adams in my periphery for days. I bathe at Lava springs, icy cold water gushing out of a porous wall. The water is like the earth’s blood, pure. It feeds all its organs and limbs splayed out to support my steps, to give me vision, to allow spirit to come to me.
Company on the trail cuts down on the inner silence. Company shares the temporary misery of bug bites. This hike is becoming a journey of balance between work and play, activity and being.
The afternoons are a pause in the practice of becoming. Doing nothing is hard, even when there is nothing to do. I sit in the meadow, and let the view penetrate me, the sound of birds wash my ears, the smell of wild flowers lift my palate. The subalpine fir branches are dancing up and down in the wind. It takes awhile before I notice the upright cones at the tops, reaching.
During an early morning swim at Sheep lake I watch the mosquitos dance on the water like ice skaters, twirling around each other until they “cluster” as if holding hands raised up to the sky.
Nature’s abundance lets me walk through meadow after meadow covered with sweet smelling purple lupine, where bees live their short intoxicated lives, drinking the nectar for a world that wants to diversify, and propagate endlessly. Bistort, the white candle-like flower among the lupine, offers its tender soft blossoms like young women’s skin, fuzzy stamen reaching out for the ignorant fertilizing insect.
I enter the Goat Rocks wilderness, with its high passes and rocky crags. It is the starkness of the barren, rocky trail that gives me the feeling of entering the unknown - a going home to places long past. My soul must be living above tree line, where things are stark, clear, endless. Crossing the glacier, walking the knife edge ridge for two miles is an experience of focus and elevation. The winds pull on my body, expose a need to hold on, have everything tied down on the pack. There is no room for losing balance. This is what mountain climbers must feel holding on to the last pieces of earth, high up. If you let go, you fall to your death- an instant entry into the other realm. The images light up my brain. I was there, I was in the open realm and looked down, way down.
The return to slopes with glacier melt washing down the gravel and rocks is a return to reality of being earth bound, feet on the ground, a return to walking, thinking, setting up camp and spending one more night under the trees and the stars. The moon, full, when I started the journey, is a sliver in the sky as I wake to the last day of the tunnel of natural silence.
Hiking out of the Columbia Gorge on the hottest day of the decade is a surefire way to catapult one into a different consciousness. Even the mind gets wrung out as sweat pours and pours. the old hiking patterns left behind we stop every half-hour and wear short shorts to stay cool. On day two we enter a hot magical moist, mossy forest. We climb and descend for days, have siestas at cold creeks Mediterranean style.
The body and mind fall into a simple rhythm of walk, eat, sleep, walk, in the green light of Devil's claw's canopies and Woodwardia ferns. Huckleberries, salmon berries, a delight on parched tongues. Silky lake water washes away the sour sweat, letting my body drift under heaven blue sky.
Time is measured by a slowed awareness expanding into nature. Maybe this is what dying is like, a slow expansion into another consciousness. For now I have left my other world behind and I will climb higher, skirting the snowy shoulder of Mt Adams.