I’m going back to Section J. The plans are set, the time taken off work, the necessary gear inventoried and grocery lists made. Here I am, a year later, going back to finish what I started. Things feel very different than they did last year. There’s none of the fluttering, panicked excitement of last year. I have a quieter sort of anticipation this time around. And I’m not afraid of sleeping alone in the wilderness anymore.
I’ve logged a lot of hours sleeping in tents in the last year, including eight nights alone. Four of those nights were spent this July, along the PCT in Oregon. It’s been such a high snowpack this year that I picked a route primarily because it was at low elevation. It meant that I was on a section of trail below the timberline with not a whole lot to recommend it except the endless quiet woods. I love a good walk through the woods, and being out of the sun makes for a pleasant hike, but it’s not exactly a big draw for hikers when there are alpine meadows and sweeping views to be had elsewhere. Which meant that this was the most solitary hike I have ever been on. I was far more alone than I expected and perhaps more than I was prepared for. My first day, a friend dropped me off and I didn’t see a single person the rest of the day. I made camp alone on a ridge with the awareness that I was probably the only human for miles in any direction. I got into my bivy sack, hiding from the bugs, and realized I had never felt so alone. Not another soul for miles. Not even my dopey labrador Ned for company.
Every solo trip I take, the first night is the worst. On that first night I always decide that I’m not going to do this any more, that I’m not going to take any more backbacking trips along. I lie awake, convinced that every rustle of the wind is a bear, that every noise signals my impending death. But every time I wake up the next morning to the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever experienced. I wake up feeling more alive than at any other moment in my life. There is no other way that I know to reach that feeling. It is worth every risk, worth every second of fear that precedes it.
The trick to sleeping in the wild is, for me, twofold. First, simply hike so many miles that day that I am too tired to care. Impending death you say? Do I get to sleep first? It’s very effective. The second trick is to just give up on my own survival! I cover my head with my sleeping bag, stop listening, and tell myself not to concern myself with anything outside of my tarp shelter. There could be bears wandering my camp, right outside, but I do not care. Until the moment when they literally come inside of my shelter and attack me, I will leave them to their nighttime doings. If that moment comes, I will respond, but not a second before that.
I sleep like a baby now.
And it’s a good experience for me, letting go for a few hours. Giving up the need to control everything. Lying awake listening feels like an attempt to control the uncontrollable. I’m sure the scattered bears of the Pacific Northwest have very little interest in approaching my tent. If the fancy ever took them, then whether I am sleeping or lying awake listening really doesn’t matter. So I let go. I accept that I am mortal and that no amount of vigilance or avoidance of risk will change that. There is no perfect safety in this world.
So I’ve learned a few things since my last attempt at Section J. I’m packing lighter. I look now at my gear photo from last year and cringe a bit. Who needs that much wool for eighty degree weather? This is why we have down jackets! Bearspray, extra fuel canister, all unnecessary extra weight. I’ve also saved over a pound by switching from a tent to a tarp shelter and bivy sac. It’s a great three season option, especially in the northwest where the weather is pretty reliable. I wish I had weighed my pack last year. I think it would have been pretty shocking to any experienced distance hiker. I mean, it wasn’t quite pre-PCT-Cheryl-Strayed bad, but still.
I also made bad food choices and therefore didn’t eat enough and therefore felt terrible for a significant portion of the trip. Turns out I hate sugar while hiking so all that candy was dead weight. This year I discovered dehydrated hummus and rediscovered naan (the ultimate dry hiking food). I’ve found I need to eat a big meal in the morning, so now I live by the Mountain House scrambled eggs with bacon. Seriously, hot breakfast is the new hot dinner. For me anyway. At the end of a long day I’m too tired to eat enough. Turns out all I want then is beer, the worst weight/calorie ratio possible except maybe celery. I’ve learned what I’ll actually eat on the trail: cured salami, hummus, naan, olive chips and the mint chocolate Cliff bars which are the only sugar I bring. The olive chips were really annoying to pack though, because I always put them on the very top so they wouldn’t get smashed which meant they were in the way any time I wanted to get anything out of my pack. I think this time I’ll just resign myself to chip dust sprinkled on my hummus…
Last year I had to cut out of Section J a day early for Ned and so, this year, he is not invited. Sorry Ned.
The trail is too steep and rocky for his feet and I don’t want to worry about him overheating when I’m trying to do a seventeen mile day. There are some hikes where a dog is better left at home. I’m also giving myself an extra day, six instead of five. It was a hard choice to make. There’s still a part of my brain that tells me this is failure, that I set out to do this in five days, but I try to tell that part of my head to shut the fuck up. I say that lovingly. That’s the part of my personality that challenges me to do more, but it sometimes needs to chill out. There’s more to hiking than miles in a day. I want time to reflect, to breathe. I’m learning to respect my limits, to take care of myself. It’s been a difficult lesson, but one that I needed. School of life, right?
I’ve learned a few things. I’ve gotten rid of some unnecessary baggage. I’m made some tough choices that will, hopefully, make my trip a little better. This is all starting to feel like a big life metaphor. It is, I guess. I’m not just going back to Section J. I’m going forward too.