“What brought you out here?” It’s a common question you hear from other hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and one for which I could never muster up an adequate response. No matter how often I turned that question around in my mind, the most I could come up with was: “I really enjoy hiking and I wanted to take it to the next level.” And that’s exactly what I did. And then some.
I’d only been backpacking a few times before I set out on the trail, and those trips had primarily been quick one-nighters. In short, I was a woman with little hands-on experience in the world of long distance hiking. So when I dove head-first into the unknown and embarked on my 30-day trek across Oregon, I had a naive vision of what to expect. Unsurprisingly, I was very wrong about most of my expectations.
I set out on July 26th just south of Ashland; almost immediately, I started questioning my purpose and my sanity. The mounting feelings of physical exhaustion kicked in just a few short hours after I heaved my heavy 45-pound backpack onto my shoulders and teetered slowly up the trail. I expected that. I knew I wasn’t in peak physical condition, despite my marathon training and the long hikes I’d done leading up to it. I realized nothing could completely prepare me for the daily life of long-distance hiking. But I also knew I’d made a commitment to myself and I wasn’t going to give up, despite the physical discomfort.
After a long first day hiking 18 miles, I was elated as I set up my tent in some tall dry grass and strung my hammock between two trees.
The first few days were filled with both awe and anguish as my body and feet adjusted to the sustained hours and weighty pack. I met some friendly people on the trail immediately, but spent most of my hours alone, taking in the landscape and making note of the wildlife, including flocks of pheasants, herds of bounding deer and hundreds of butterflies. After a long first day hiking 18 miles, I was elated as I set up my tent in some tall, dry grass and strung my hammock between two trees. I cooked a hearty dehydrated dinner, scarfed it down and settled into my tent just as the sun dropped behind the trees. That’s when the fear first set in, and it didn’t leave my side for the next 3 days. I’d never camped alone before, and the forest sounds sparked my very vivid imagination and kept me awake the entire night. I soon discovered the sharp-toothed, snarling animals I pictured sniffing around outside my tent were merely mice searching for my food bag. But that didn’t hush the fears. I decided the best way for me to get a good night’s sleep was to make it to Fish Lake, my first established campground and food re-supply station.
I hustled the next couple of days to make it to camp as quickly as possible, trekking stubbornly in 100-degree weather over lava fields and through dry forest landscapes, finally arriving safely one day ahead of schedule. I’m thankful I arrived one day early, because that’s when I met an energetic woman named Angelina from Seattle that would become my hiking partner and close friend for much of the rest of the trail.
The next three days were some of the most eventful on the trail, as summer storms followed us north toward Crater Lake.
The next three days were some of the most eventful on the trail, as summer storms followed us north toward Crater Lake. It seemed like mother nature was on a very specific schedule those days: the clock would strike 2:00 p.m. and suddenly a muted thunderclap could be heard in the distance and the skies darkened overhead. On the most dramatic day, we were lunching happily at a beautiful little pond surrounded by rocky cliffs at the northern end of the Sky Lakes Wilderness. Not a cloud was in sight when the torrential rains hit and we rushed to gather our scattered belongings that were drying out from the previous night’s downpour. Angelina marched ahead as I lagged behind a bit, finishing my tortillas and peanut butter. When I finally had everything neatly arranged in my pack and hoisted it on my back the clouds were looking menacing. I hustled up the trail, pausing to take photos of the mounting storm because it was so beautiful as it chased me along the ridge. Finally I realized it was nearly overhead and I was out in the open. I ran the switchbacks down the hillside with my backpack bouncing along the way, occasionally tipping me off balance. With the help of my trekking poles I managed to make it to tree cover and spot Angelina huddled under her umbrella. We dropped our packs on the trail and ducked under the tiny silver umbrella for an hour and a half waiting for the thunder to fade. As the side of the mountain became a river of flowing mud and rocks, we couldn’t help but recognize the comedy of the situation. Here it was, August in Southern Oregon, and we were wet and freezing cold.
When the clouds moved past us and we were finally able to stretch out of our huddled positions, we went to inspect the backpacks and were greeted with an unfortunate realization. While we were hiding from the storm, the newly formed rivers were filling our backpacks with thick, brown, icy water. I felt defeated. My pack was 10 pounds heavier and most of my belongings were soaked through. As we set up our tents on a tilted make-shift campsite that night, I listened to the next storm rolling in and really wondered if I was going to make it to the end. I wondered if I had enough strength to endure the more difficult times; the wet socks and underwear, the sleepless nights, the cold, damp tent. I wasn’t sure I had it in me. And as I pulled on my wet socks, I felt a wave of homesickness wash over me. I longed for the comfort of my own bed, a movie, popcorn, warmth.
I clutched those images tightly as we hiked the last 20 miles to Crater Lake National Park the next day, dreaming of the rest days and spectacular views of one of my favorite places in all of Oregon that lie ahead of me.
Editor’s note: This is part one in a four-part series about Brooke’s journey on the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail during the summer of 2014. Read part two or check out these ideas for exploring the Pacific Crest Trail for yourself.