PCT Day 5: The Journey is the Reward

The sun warmed my skin in the frigid morning air. Sitting on a granite rock, watching the gentle waters of Lyell Creek roll by, I polished off my granola baggie breakfast. So happy to have this long-handled titanium spoon. It made eating out of Ziplocs a whole lot less messy.

Returning to camp, the Germans had packed up and were heading out. Lara Croft said goodbye, explaining that her friends wanted to get a signal for the European Football Championships because their team was playing. The camp emptied out.

Well, at least it’d be easier to find a place to pee.

The girls didn’t come out of their tents until everyone had gone. As a parent, I must say, I approved of their discreet ways. They weren’t party hikers in the least. They camped alone whenever possible, but in groups, they nestled in along the edges to preserve as much privacy as possible.

Every day I spent with Fish Nugget and Squarepants, I realized more and more how capable they’d become. They’d spent two months hiking the PCT. They walked 937 miles through mountains, desert, winds, rain, sun and snow. They slept outside every night, wherever they could find a secluded spot, even under freeway passes.

Yeah, that one kind of freaked me out.

But these girls had skills and confidence. Confidence I didn’t have. Like if the shit hit the fan, and the world went Mad Max, they could throw on their packs and be out the door, stealth surviving all over the place. It was truly inspiring to be with them.

Lyell Creek Morning
My breakfast view in Lyell Canyon. It was chilly out, and that water was a lot deeper than it looks.
Trail to Tuolumne
Another perfect day for hiking, I wonder if that’s Lembert Dome in the distance.
Blister Rest Stop
Had to stop here, take off my shoe, pop the little pinky blister, then dress it with a bandage. It felt a little better afterward, though still sore with every step. Must make friends with pain.

Today’s plan was to hike separately. We’d meet up at the bridge at the Tuolumne junction, then hike to the store together. It would be an easy, level, 5.5-mile hike. We all had to stop for resupply boxes, but the girls weren’t sure if they wanted to stay overnight or go on another 6.5 miles to Glen Aulin.

I voted for staying overnight in the backpacker camp. After four and a half days in the wilderness, I couldn’t wait for restaurant meals, beer, internet and the chance to relax and rest my feet.

The girls said they were on a budget and couldn’t afford campground fees.

I said, no problem, I’d pay for it. Or they could still hike on ahead if they wanted. Secretly, of course, I hoped they’d stick around, but truly, it was up to them. I resolved to be cool with whatever they decided, hike your own hike and all that.

Though I left earlier, they soon caught up. We leapfrogged each other all the way to the bridge. My body seemed to be finally adjusting to hiking life. Despite the ever-present, low-level foot, shoulder and hip pain, I felt pretty good. On any given day, the first few miles would be easy, but the last few, not so much.

Leukotape did wonders for preventing blisters, another must-have for future trips.

I simply taped my heels and any other hot spot to minimize friction. My two-sock system also helped, with Injinji toe socks underneath and Darn Toughs on top. But today, I finally developed a tiny blister on the bottom of my pinky toe, of all places. I had taken too long to tape over a little hot spot before it became an issue. Still, not bad for five days on the trail.

The girls waited for me at the bridge. We hiked the rest of the way in together, chatting the whole time. And this time, I did a much better job keeping up.

Lyell Canyon Deer
I finally saw a deer in Lyell Canyon! It’s that brown thing in the distance. Okay, so I’m no wildlife photographer.
And I finally got a marmot picture! See it? It’s the blob in the middle that looks like a tree stump.
Looking Toward Donahue Pass
Looking up Lyell Creek toward Donahue Pass, where we’d just come from. A beautiful spot to rest.

Being the only mom out there, I got to give mom lectures.

One of them was my man-test theory. I told them that if they were ever serious about a guy, they needed to take him out for at least three days in the wilderness. By the third day, I guaranteed, he would be his true self, whatever that was, because there’s nothing like backpacking for stripping away pretense.

This worked for me with The Hubby. We refer to it as The Hell Hike. It was the only time I ever hiked without a topographical map, a grave error I’ll never repeat.

For his first backpack trip ever, back when we were dating, I’d planned a long weekend hike from Tuolumne Meadows to White Wolf through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. I looked at the soft-hued, airbrushed national park map and figured, hey, it follows a river, it must be mostly downhill, right?

The first day to California Falls via Glen Aulin went pretty well. The Hubby trudged behind me for seven miles with minimal complaining, though he seemed oddly unimpressed by the scenery.

The second day went straight to hell.

All downhill following a river? No way! Try 13.5 miles up and down and up and down rocky trails with poisonous snakes in the blazing hot sun all day long. The Hubby followed, his feet blistered and his body stressed. I recall some complaining, but not much. He was too fatigued to get serious about it.

He kept asking me when we’d be there. I’d look at my airbrushed map for clues, misread vague curves, and assure him that it must be just around the bend. Always around the next bend. Oh, not that one? It must be the next one. God, I wish I had a real map. We didn’t arrive at Pate Valley until well after dark.

If the second day was hell, the third day was Dante’s Inferno.

I knew we’d have a bit of uphill back to White Wolf, even from looking at the airbrushed map. But, I had… No. Idea. The trail went up. And up. And up, and up and up and up. We kept thinking we were near the top, only to discover another thousand feet of mountain. All. Day. Long.

Even I was dying, but we had to go on because we both had work the next day. Thank God for Vicodin because that’s literally the only thing that got him up that mountain. We climbed 3575 feet in eight miles, the hardest thing I’d ever done.

At the top, we collapsed. We could not walk another inch but still had a mile and a half to go. I spotted a park ranger with a truck, ran over with every last ounce of strength and begged him to drive us back to White Wolf. He said he wasn’t allowed. I launched into our sad tale of struggling up from Pate Valley and got all super pleady on him.

He took pity on us and said okay as long as we laid down in the back so no one would see. We thanked him profusely, a total lifesaver.

I’m amazed The Hubby didn’t dump me after that trip.

So what did I learn about him? I learned that when the going gets tough, he’ll soldier right through, just bring painkillers. I also learned that he’ll follow me to the ends of the earth, and even if everything goes horribly, horribly wrong, he’ll still love me and stay with me. His loyalty is absolute.

Squarepants by Creek
Squarepants resting by Lyell Creek. She had an uncanny knack for finding rest stops with amazing views.
Filtering Water in Lyell Creek
Fish Nugget kept using my filter because her Sawyer Mini was too small, so I sometimes made her filter my water in return. Meanwhile, my feet become one with the grass. They never want to leave.
Chillin Like Villians
My girls, chilling by the creek. They walked at a good pace but loved taking long breaks.

The girls seemed to appreciate my little mom-wisdom, or so I’d like to think.

They shared similar stories of hiking with others, discovering truth on the trail. Bit by bit, I was learning more about their journey, who they met, what they observed and funny, random things that had happened along the way.

By late morning, we had arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows store. It was a real zoo, with tourists and hikers everywhere. The PCT crowd had totally taken over the picnic area in front, their packs exploded all over the tables.

The girls saw hikers they knew and spent time catching up. Some of them they hadn’t seen since Mount Laguna. I ran into Manny again and asked him where the power was, because I knew he’d know, which of course he did. Still kind of a fangirl, semi-intimidated by their hardcore hiking demeanor, I did not go over and mix in.

I bought the girls lunch, got a beer (mmmm, beer) and the three of us hung out on the forest sidelines, people-watching for a while. It felt so good to lounge. Moving hurt.

There’s something magical about Yosemite in the summertime.

Maybe because as a kid, I loved it there. My family visited annually, most often for day trips, but sometimes we camped or backpacked. Those backcountry trips were amazing. Enchanted by the High Sierra scenery, I always left wanting more.

And of course, the valley was unparalleled. I had this paper doll set, and I used to fantasize that Dad had a job as a park ranger, and that we lived in one of those cabins on the edge of Ahwahnee Meadow beneath towering walls of North Dome. I dressed my doll in cute outfits for her various valley adventures, pretending she kept a horse at the stable and rode into the backcountry with friends. What a life that would have been!

As an adult, my Yosemite addiction continued, taking friends into the backcountry and later our children for multi-night stays in Curry Village, now named something else. My favorite thing to do was get a margarita, sit in a rocking chair and watch the kids chase squirrels. That same bartender was there for something like 25 years.

It was fun to see families at Tuolumne Meadows, enjoying similar pursuits.

Two Guys on Trail
Two backpackers on the trail, coming out of Tuolumne Meadows.
Peaceful Lyell Creek
Another beautiful idyllic river-meadow scene in Lyell Canyon, Yosemite National Park.
The Trail Behind Me
A more typical trail view, looking behind. A few seconds later, Fish Nugget and Squarepants appeared.

After a while, I got restless. With all these people milling about, I worried that the backpacker’s camp might fill up, so I told the girls I was going to find out what the deal was. They hadn’t yet decided whether to stay overnight or hike on, but they agreed to watch my pack.

I went into the store, asked around and found out I had to walk down the street another mile to inquire at the ranger office. Ugh. My feet protested, but at least they were unencumbered by weight. The ranger gave me and another thru-hiker the scoop. You just hiked in, picked a spot and self-registered for $6. There was a one-night limit.

I reported back to the girls, who by then had decided to stay. Yay! I told them I was going walk over, set up camp and register them. Still lollygagging about, they said great, they’d join me later.

Squarepants said, you know how we are. Find a spot along the edges.

Which is exactly what I did. Once I got set up and organized, I felt much better, like I could finally relax now that I had a home for the night. I even worked in some hammock time, snoozing, writing and studying the maps for the section ahead. I love maps, so full of possibilities.

Later I went back to the store to pick up my resupply and charge my phone. The postal guys were super helpful in back, getting my box for me even with the window closed.

The charging situation was rather comical, I should have taken a picture. On top of a stack of boxes by the front door, the store had kindly provided a single power strip, which was stuffed to the max with every kind of device imaginable. I had to lurk around for a while before somebody finally pulled out a phone. I swooped right in with mine just in the nick of time. I wished I’d bought a double USB Charger, so that I could charge the extra battery and phone all at once. Oh well, next time.

Turns out, there was no internet or cell service at Tuolumne.

So I used a payphone to make a credit card call to The Hubby. I had no idea how much it would cost, which worried me a little. I mean, for all I knew, it could be a $100 phone call. The Hubby was so happy to hear from me, he said he didn’t care how much it cost. Awww, so sweet. We talked for half an hour.

Afterward I checked on my cell phone, which had a long way to go. So I bought some Dibs and went outside to people-watch. I gotta say, this eating whatever I want thing is awesome.

Squarepants Dancing
I turned around to take a picture and caught Squarepants in her headphones, busting out dance moves. She’s the one on the right with her arms out. Too bad it wasn’t video!
Dance Moves Behind
Fish Nugget had no idea what was going on behind her, as Squarepants gets jiggy with it.
Did you see that?
Squarepants said, did you see that? Fish Nugget was like, what? We all shared a good laugh.

I saw Snowbird, the Czech blogger who randomly took a picture of Fish Nugget and Squarepants early on the trail. This was the catalyst for my PCT blog stalking that later became borderline obsessive. I also saw Artist Blogger Chick and her sidekick, along with Lara Croft and the Germans. It really was a community out here.

I also saw Matador and said hello. One of my favorite bloggers from the PCT Class of 2016, her descriptive prose is astounding. The sights, the sounds, the smells—reading her posts, it’s like you’re there. As a writer, I struggle with this. I can do action, I can do dialogue, but description makes me want to slit my wrists.

Matador’s mom, Mamabear, was a frequent commenter on her blog.

Clearly a kindred spirit, I reached out to her online, and we ended up having a conversation in the Women of PCT Facebook group. She convinced her daughter to let her come out and join her for 220 miles in the High Sierra. When I saw how excited Mamabear was to be jumping into the fray, it lit a fire under my you-know-what and propelled me toward my own dream of hiking the PCT with my baby girl.

I was thrilled to discover that Matador and Mamabear were in Mammoth at the same time we were. So I made contact, met them at the village, and ended up having cucumber martinis with Mamabear and her hiker friend, Tater Tots, at 53 Kitchen.

They told me tales of the trail, the people, the scenery, the snow, the pain—Mamabear lost four toenails along the way, yikes! But she and Matador did more than one 20+ mile day in the High Sierra, including 23 miles one day looking for the hot springs near Vermillion Valley. That’s insane for those mountains. Even Tater Tots was in awe.

Tater Tots turned out to be a friend of Hollywood, my favorite blogger of the season, who at the time was probably a couple weeks ahead. Tater was the first Brit I met and queried about Brexit. She was totally against it, horrified really, except for that part about Brussels telling locals what they can and can’t do in their own backyards.

When I asked her what possessed her to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, she said she wanted to see America.

Cool, she’ll see it in a way that most Americans never will.

I had enjoyed meeting them both. An inspiring way to kick off my own PCT adventure, they were very encouraging. It’s incredible how nice total strangers can be.

People Watching in Tuolumne
People-watching at the edge of the store parking lot in Tuolumne Meadows, lounging on the ground, as usual.
Eating Real Food
Fish Nugget sneaks another selfie as I bliss out on real food and beer in the background. Civilization is amazing!
Squarepants Chillin
Squarepants regarding Fish Nugget with suspicion, as well she should.

With so many people buzzing around the Tuolumne Meadows store, there weren’t any places to sit. So I moved to the edge of the parking lot and sat on one of the large boulders out front, eating my Dibs. Mmmmm, frozen food products, what a treat.

Sitting there, I got into an interesting conversation with this guy named Ron.

He started talking about chemtrails, which I understood this to be a theory that scientists were experimenting with chemicals in the sky to try and alter weather patterns. As something I’d heard about but never explored, I was interested to hear what he had to say.

Ron pointed up to the sky. Above us, two planes, way up high, were laying contrails on and off, parallel to each other in a distinct pattern heading west. Wow, never saw that before! He said he works in the park and sees it all the time. He’s concerned about what they’re messing with up there, because you know, it’s our air.

He said most people don’t want to hear anything about it because they’re too busy in their phones doing whatever, so he seemed genuinely appreciative that we even had the conversation. I made a note to google it later. I do miss the internet.

By the time the store closed, my phone had been there six hours and had only charged to 90%. At some point, someone had traded out my charger for their double USB so that they could charge too. I wondered if that slowed mine down. I decided the girls and I needed to get all our phones, batteries and GPS devices to that store the moment it opened tomorrow to have any hope of charging before we left for the next leg of our journey, an eight-day stretch.

It reminded me of living in Puerto Rico, where to get stuff done you gotta be there when they open.

The girls and I decided to skip dinner at the restaurant, opting instead for a big breakfast in the morning. I brought them back some food from the store, and we had a casual meal together in camp. Squarepants had totally organized her resupply and was ready to go tomorrow. Fish Nugget hadn’t even begun and said she’d do it in the morning, shoving her two boxes into the bear locker for the night.

Yes, why do something now when you can do it last minute later?

Yosemite Campfire Program
Campfire program just down the hill from us. The audience started small and got bigger as it got darker.
Warming up the audience
Our hostess, teaching us a campfire song to get the show rolling. People got into it, totally campy.
Watching the Show
The girls watching the show. I was just thrilled to be sitting on actual furniture.

Just down the hill from our camp, one of the park rangers was hosting a campfire program. I kind of harangued the girls into going, telling them they could leave if they thought it was dumb. Personally I’m a sucker for ranger shows. We bundled up in our warm clothes, brought hot tea, and sat down in the second row.

The ranger lady was soft-spoken, a gentle soul, probably about my age. First she made us sing songs, which was goofy, but fun. Then she had us yell for more people, then more songs. The audience started small and gradually grew.

She went around asking people where they were from, if they’d been here before and what they’d done that day. When she got to the girls, they talked about the PCT. People were impressed that the two of them had walked all the way from Mexico.

The ranger had actually grown up in Yosemite, living my paper doll dream.

Her family had owned a ranch in Tuolumne Meadows for generations before turning it over to the park service. She had spent most of her life in the park and knew how lucky she was. She then segued into the main part of the program, a chautauqua about the history of Mono Lake as told by Coyote. It was a captivating performance.

I didn’t expect Fish Nugget and Squarepants to stay through the whole thing, but they did. Afterward, they got into a good conversation with a lady sitting next to us about whether or not to finish the trail.

Both were at a flex point. They’d pushed hard to come this far, and they’d been at it for a long time. They wondered if they should push to finish. What would people say if they didn’t? Summed up, this is what the lady said:

Listen to your bodies. There’s no pressure to finish. Enjoy the journey.

30 Days on the PCT
Day 5: July 7, mile 942

PCT Day 5: The Journey is the Reward—Adjusting to Life on the PCT
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PCT Day 5: The Journey is the Reward—Adjusting to Life on the PCT
In 2016 I hiked for 30 days on the PCT with my daughter and her friend. After a rough, slow start, this was the day I hit my stride and eased into hiker culture at Tuolumne Meadows.
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