March 22, 2018
The next morning Judy put out a delicious breakfast spread and coffee, and we all ate our fill before piling into their two cars and heading south toward the Mexican border. The drive was a little nerve-wracking for me. I rode up front with John and the German couple rode silently in the back. Were these other experienced hikers somehow MORE nervous than I was? Had I said something rude when I first walked in the door last night and had they all decided they didn’t like me? I’ll never know. It was an awkward evening and drive to the trailhead.
John was very friendly, though. We chatted along the way. I mentioned that I knew the soon-to-be-named River who had also stayed with them more than a week ago, and John remembered her fondly. “She’s a tough young lady. She’ll make it all the way to Canada for sure.”
I waited for him to say something similar about me, but he never did. At the time, it shook me, but looking back now I am not surprised in the slightest. I’m sure they all doubted I’d make it. I was overweight, overpacked, and obviously too stubborn to admit to either of these facts. Ah, well…
John and Judy took individual photos of each of us at the monument, then a group photo, and then we bid them farewell and walked the short distance to a spot where we could touch the wall that separated Mexico from the US. I reached my fingers through a gap in the ramshackle wall, took a deep breath, and took my first step north toward Canada.
When Lee and I had chatted on Facebook prior to meeting in person, it sounded like he and his wife planned to hike about 8-10 miles the first day as a kind of warm-up and he said I was welcome to stick with them, which sounded perfect to me. When we got to the Southern Terminus, though, it was made clear to me that all four of my starting companions (I don’t call them that now) planned to hike all 15 miles to Hauser Canyon, and they planned to get there as fast as possible to beat the rain that was forecast to start around 3pm.
Keeping up with the couples quickly became a chore, unprepared as I was physically for a 15-mile day. These people were younger, faster, more experienced. They took five-minute snack and water breaks and were lacing up their shoes and throwing on their packs before I’d even finished my granola bar! Some didn’t take their shoes off at all. Weren’t we supposed to un-shoe at break time?
We stopped for water at Hauser Creek, and the first person to fill their bottles was already setting off down the trail. Not wanting to be left behind, I bushwhacked a little downstream and filled my bottles hastily, without removing my pack, and set off after the others. I don’t know why I did this. It didn’t occur to me that it was perfectly alright, normal and probably expected, in fact, to let distance grow between hikers and just meet up at the intended camping spot. I couldn’t remember what I’d read about how closely people stuck together on trail, but the four people in front of me were in a pretty close line, so I brought up the rear and kept my distance equal to all of theirs. I took my cues from their perceived experience and acted accordingly.
With 5 miles still to go before Hauser Canyon, I thought my legs were going to give out at any moment. Every step was a challenge. I’d used a website called Craig’s PCT Planner to plot out my trip and I think I plotted my average daily starting mileage at 1.75 for the first week or so. To be hauling it at 2.5 straight out of the gate with my overweight pack was just too much because I was just so disgustingly out of shape. But I kept going. None of our breaks had been long enough for me to properly examine my feet for blisters even though I could feel them forming with each step, so I just decided to toughen up and deal with them when we made camp.
The downhill trek into the canyon was super sketchy and steep (in my limited experience), and by the time we reached the bottom I was done. It was 3:30pm. I was so relieved to finally be there that I almost collapsed before I could pick a spot to set up my tent. Why did we push so hard on the first day? Well, I know that to the avid and experienced hiker, a 15.5-mile day in 7 hours is not considered “pushing it” by any stretch. But when you’re just coming out of hibernation mode and all you’ve done to prepare is hike a few miles on easy terrain, do some squats, planks, lunges and so forth every day, and put on 15 lbs since November, 15 miles of steep climbs and descents is a LOT. We were pushing to get to camp before it started raining, but there was no need. It sprinkled on and off from noon on, but no major rainfall came until about 6:30pm. Oh well, at least we made it. I mean, at least I made it. I honestly questioned whether I would or not. Everything hurt.
We each claimed our tent spots and got set up for the night, then Lee and Sarah invited me to eat dinner with them and they shared some whiskey with me that they’d packed in, bless them. The coldness I’d sense the night before had obviously just been in my head, or heightened nerves about starting the hike, or whatever. Lee and Sarah were both super friendly that evening. I thanked them for the whiskey, and for letting me tag along with them on that first day, but that tomorrow we’d be parting ways. I planned to slow my pace significantly and, given how well they’d handled this first day, I doubted I’d see them again as they shot off up the trail tomorrow. They laughed at my prediction, said they understood, and encouraged me to do what was right for my body and said it was pretty awesome that I’d even managed 15 miles on my first day. They seemed impressed. I should have been flattered, but instead, I was concerned. I was in a lot of pain and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to move my legs in the morning, but I didn’t tell them that.
I was still nervous about hiking alone (Disclaimer: I didn’t camp alone until just before Kennedy Meadows. You’re never really alone in the desert on the PCT), but I needed to let my body get accustomed to this new lifestyle. I’d rather camp alone than blow out my knees or damage my ankles trying to keep up with other people. I wasn’t racing.
Back in my tent, I surveyed the damage. One big blister on my heel, a few more forming in other places, my knees were in a constant state of agony, I definitely had butt chafe and the rumors were correct – it is, without question, the worst. And to top it all off, I could feel the beginnings of a UTI coming on. I wasn’t surprised, but it was still a(nother) royal pain in my ass (Ok, not TECHNICALLY in my ass, but the opportunity for wordplay was there and I couldn’t resist, OK?). When I get stressed, I forget to drink enough water, and I’d been stressed for weeks. Fortunately, I’d had the good sense to pack some antibiotics with me for just such an event.
While I tended my wounds and readied for bed, I could hear the canyon filling with other hikers. As the sky grew dark and the rain grew heavier, I lay on my inflatable sleeping mat under my down sleeping quilt and listened to the rain beat against my tent, to the sounds of strangers talking and laughing as they set up their tents, to discussion of ramen flavors and instant mashed potatoes, and to the constant smack of a hand against an arm or a leg, signaling the death of at least one mosquito. My stomach was tight with anxiety and excitement. I was here. I was finally here. My first night on the PCT! My whole body hurt, but I lay there smiling like an idiot.
Later, when the camp had begun to quiet down, I could hear someone in the not-to-far distance dry-heaving into the brush. I’m meet him later and we would see each other along the trail until Kennedy Meadows.
Only 4.5 miles to Lake Morena, where I’d heard there were showers to be had for a small fee. I pretty much already decided that if my legs could even carry me that far tomorrow, I was going to stay the night at the campground. I was feeling incredibly lazy, but also like I’d earned it. This was not a race.
I slept very soundly that first night.