10/31/18

It’s 6am, October 31st, Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead just south of Tucson. The sun is beginning to rise over the Rincons, but the trailhead is still in shadow, blue and purple light on the sand, clinging to the nights cold. I stop to use the port-o-John and when I come out, another backpacker has appeared. He’s standing with his pack on, inspecting my Osprey where I left it next to the trail. “Hello! Which way are you going?” “South,” I say. “I’m going north,” he says. “Are you alone?”

 I make a judgment call. He’s a fellow backpacker, he’s already told me he’s hiking the opposite way. “For the moment.” I say. “A girl, alone!” He says. “A GIRL!!” He seems amused. Then he launches into a rant. “So many men are too scared to be solo. Men! And you’re out here and you’re a GIRL. I want to tell those guys, are you really men? This girl can do this by herself and a MAN can’t?” I’m annoyed. It’s 6am. I say something like, “people have different levels of familiarity with the outdoors, different comfort zones, I don’t think gender identity has much to do with it.” I see him roll his eyes at this.

Then he says, as if a bright idea just occurred to him, “say – I’ve already hiked this whole trail, in sections. If I were to change direction and hike south, could we hike together? We could team up, you wouldn’t be alone.” I say, forcefully but with a friendly note, “no, we couldn’t, sorry.” He instantly becomes bitter. His tone changes. “Oh no of course not. The young girl doesn’t want to hike with the old man.”

I choose my words carefully. The same delicate dance all women know well. Reject but make it seem out of your control. You’d LOVE to spend time with this man, you’d be honored! It’s just… you have a boyfriend, or, it’s not professional to give out your number at work, or, you have so much to do that day. So sorry!
Today, I say, “it’s nothing personal. I’m on a time crunch. I have to meet my older brother at the border in a few days.” The mention of a brother seems to quiet him. He’s silent for a moment. I glance over and realize his eyes are traveling up and down my body.
“Have you lost weight on this hike?”
I turn to leave, fed up with this conversation. “Nope,” I say while walking. “Too many pop tarts.” He’s still talking to me so I do a strange sideways shuffle to the trail. “I got a hernia from this trail, went to the hospital, it almost killed me!” “Glad you’re okay, man, have a good hike.” I say and now my back is turned to him. He’s still talking to me. “What’s your name?” “Phantom” I say. “No, your real name! I want to look you up!” I shake my head. “It’s Phantom” and I wave and leave.
For the next few miles, I turn to look behind me every few minutes. He doesn’t follow me, I don’t see him again.
Why am I writing this? Because some daft, lonely old guy annoyed me at a trailhead?
Nah.
That sentence is exactly what my brain automatically tries to do with encounters like this. Reclassify them. File them away as trifling, insignificant, harmless.
And I’ve written about this before, but I want to reassert that this type of attitude is indicative of a much larger set of shared value judgments about women and how they should behave, ie, patriarchal standards. My brain also tells me I should here insert placating remarks about how many kind and wonderful men I’ve met on this trail (which of course I have), how women are sometimes condescending (which of course they are), how when I decry the patriarchy I’m of course not talking about my male friends and family who of course would NEVER.
But having to police my language to assuage egos is, of course, part of the problem.
So this is just a brief holiday PSA from your friendly neighborhood Phantom, a quick reminder to my friends and followers that the spookiest thing in our culture remains white male privilege – which wears many disguises, but today masqueraded as a man who offered his company and perceived protection to a woman who asked for neither, and bristled with barely concealed resentment when she declined. I keep thinking about how he scoffed at the idea that men have become so soft that a woman could be braver than them.
It’s just such a disgusting idea of manhood, that in order to be a man you have to assert superiority over women at all times, in all things. This guy felt entitled to me. To my company, my attention, my space, my body – by the simple fact that he’s male and I’m female. Scary.
Stay safe out there, ghosts and ghouls. The patriarchy is sputtering its last, desperate breaths. I can’t wait til things like this are just a haunting memory of a less enlightened time. Vote on Tuesday.
Xo,
Phantom
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Mud

It’s Sunday evening. October 14th. I’ve been on this trail for 20 days, and there’s a new development: I have become mud.

I’m lying in my tent beneath a huge, gnarled Juniper tree. I feel like my body is sinking. It took me an hour of stumbling through the thick mud in the dark to find a spot where I didn’t immediately sink when I put my foot down on the surface, but even this spot, high ground under a tree with strong, thick roots, is tenuous.
Since I left Flagstaff, this trail has been mud. I wish I was being melodramatic, I really do. I wish I was hyperbolizing what the last 150 miles have been like. I’m not.
I stayed in Flag for two MORE days after I wrote. I ended up taking three zero days there, not out of choice, but because a winter storm blew in right on Rosa’s heels and blanketed the trail in snow. Temperatures dropped thirty degrees, and suddenly, I had to gear up for a winter hike.
I hadn’t brought a puffy jacket or hiking pants for the Arizona trail. Most Octobers are warm, and sunny, and clear. This is the wettest October. I ran into Patches, Ski Patrol, Baby Wheels and Beekeeper a few miles ago, all huddled around a small campfire near the trailhead and they told me it was the wettest October. The wettest… ever? The wettest in the last decade? They didn’t know. Just, simply, the wettest.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s the wettest ever. For the last 150 miles, the dirt that makes up the AZT has ceased to become dirt. Its chemical makeup has changed, the definitions of “trail” or “ground” or “soil” no longer really apply to this sludge, consistency of peanut butter, a viscosity more like a tray of undercooked brownies than what I’ve come to recognize in all my years of walking as the feeling of Earth under my feet.
This constant slipping and sliding and sinking, of hopping from one side of the mud to another to avoid puddles, or jumping to stay on top of clumps of grass or sharp boulders – is exhausting. I’m developing different muscles in my legs, I think the same ones we use to ski or surf. The ones that feel for tremors in the surface below, instability, and adjust balance to try to stay upright. I don’t always stay upright.
The backs of my legs and calves are covered with a half-inch of dried mud, up to my knees. My socks are caked, and my shoes – oh my goodness, my shoes. They’ve gone from purple to brown. Mud has sunk in to every fiber and every stitch. They’re mud shoes now.
I’ve mostly given up on trying to keep mud off of my things. I notice mud on the mouth of my water bottle and drink from it anyway. My muddy feet go straight in my sleeping socks. My muddy hands touch my phone, my toothbrush, my food. A cookie with a sprinkle of mud goes straight into my mouth.
A few places, notably, had hard ground. The Highline Trail on the Mogollon Rim was a blessed ten miles of solidity. A few stretches of mileage in thick forest seem to have protected the ground from the onslaught of water. But most is mud.
The frustrating thing about the last 150 miles is that the trail has been FLAT. It should have been easy to walk, easy to cover miles, easy and lovely and warm. But it’s been cold, and wet, and the trail is harder and more frustrating to slog through than dozens of big climbs and descents on a solid trail.
You know the scene in Homeward Bound where Shadow falls into the pit, and can’t get out, because the mud is too slippery? I feel that scene on a visceral level now. The way the mud frustrates him. The way mud clings to Chance’s face and Sassy’s long fur. That squelch, sound, smell of mud that I long associated with that scene have become a daily reality.
I don’t mean to complain so much as to describe the trail conditions as accurately as I can. The mud isn’t impossible to walk in. It’s certainly not pedestrian-friendly, but it isn’t making the trail impassible. What it IS doing is building up a slow, simmering resentment in me for something I have no control over. I feel completely helpless. I keep slipping, my shoes have gotten stuck and come completely off of my feet a few times. I yell at the trail “IT DOESNT HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS!!” But it is like this, so it does have to be like this.
Thick, sharp Manzanitas and heavy, hard to close barbed wire gates are wreaking havoc on my legs. Beneath the caked mud is caked blood, covering long, deep scratches. I could wear rain pants while I walk, I could be more careful with barbed wire, but I’m clinging to the pain I have control over. Three hikers are just behind me, having a campfire, telling jokes – but I went off to camp alone and left them, hiking in the dark in order to choose my own misery. I can’t stop the rain, I can’t harden the ground. But I can choose whether or not to let my legs get cut up.
And I can choose to be alone, and it seems like I have. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last week thinking about solitude. How over and over, I choose to be alone. The Earth is softening up to swallow me, and I want to let it. I feel like I’m souring, curdling, like the rain is changing my chemical makeup into something less solid, more vague and soon I’ll dissolve into my own loneliness. I’ve spent so much time in the last few years with myself. Getting to know how I process and react to all these different stimuli and emotions, completely organically, out of reach of how society has taught me to behave. When I turn the camera on my phone to take a selfie, I see a face that surprises me. I remembered the face of a much younger girl. Do I have crow’s feet now? Is my jaw harder, more angular now? Does my mouth draw downward now, without the pressure to smile, relaxing into a grimace when I’m at rest instead of a pleasant, demure expression?
Maybe it’s all in my head. I learn from the SoBo boys that a man leading a group of section hikers, who I stopped and talked to for awhile, later described me to them as a “very young girl.” Didn’t he see the wrinkles?  Couldn’t he tell that I’m OLD now?
I hike past dark every night, because I can’t get myself to wake up in the pre-dawn and there are only so many hours of sun this time of year. It’s vacation, dangit. One night, I’m ascending a small hill and there are snow drifts all over the trail. The snow has been there for two days, but mine are the first tracks in it. I round a corner and find myself at the edge of a huge, snow-covered clearing, and I’m momentarily awed. I turn off my headlamp and my eyes adjust to see thousands of glittering stars, the half-moon shines off the snow so brightly that it looks like a lake, dotted around the edges with tall, dark pines. An icy wind gusts through the clearing and I move on.
I see elk. So, so many elk. A magnificent, dignified male elk with huge antlers is grazing and I call out “hey Flufferbutt!” He runs away, indignant.
I see a flock of wild turkeys. They scatter, gobbling loudly. I follow them for a little while, yelling after them, “don’t you want to be my friends??”
Pine is a respite, a haven. I woke up one morning and squeezed water from a stock tank through my filter into my pot to make coffee, and noticed a squirming tadpole in the bottle. Morale was low, I needed pancakes. I hitchhiked to Pine 30 miles too soon with a woman who works as an occupational therapist. She drove slowly down the winding mountain road to Pine and told me stories of people she’d helped rehabilitate. “You do great work,” I tell her, “important work.” She agrees.
I went to a diner and ordered a massive breakfast, then texted my friend Andrea. She came and picked me up, and we went back to her and George’s cabin. I met one of their daughters and two of their grandchildren. I unsubtly tried to impress on 9-year old Jocelyn that living outdoors is empowering, cool, fun, girls can totally do it!
We went to dinner at a beautiful, hip pizza restaurant, ate, drank beer and laughed with the rest of the locals. Early the next morning, they drove me back to the trail and I trudged up again, onto the Mogollon Rim, still slipping in mud. Four hikers had passed me while I was in Pine, and I caught them that night. We sat around a fire and talked until 10pm. The next morning, I dilly-dallied about instead of hustling the eight miles back to the Pine trailhead, and so when the skies opened up again, I got soaked before reaching town.
I walked into That Brewery dripping. Sat in a corner, ate a burger. It was a Saturday and they were busy. I felt bad, and cold, and wet. Andrea picked me up again, and I dried out back at their cabin. Last night, we went to a tavern and watched George play in his rock cover band. We danced with a group of preschool teachers in Pine for a ladies’ weekend. In the photo one of them snapped of Andrea and I on the dance floor, our faces are both red from perspiration, smiling hugely.
This morning, pumpkin pancakes and back to the trail. Intense gratitude, serendipity, caffeine high. The first five miles were beautiful. Then mud.
I took a break with the SoBo boys just before sunset and drank a Coors with them, by their fire. I may see them again, but the trail can be mysterious. I may not. I made ramen tonight, and burnt my tongue trying to eat it too soon, so it didn’t taste like anything at all. Why.
I’ve been wondering “why” all night tonight.  I keep daydreaming about moving to LA and interviewing for jobs. Maybe they won’t ask me about my hikes, but, considering the spottiness of the last few years on my resume, I’ll probably bring them up myself to try to sound better. In my daydreams, I’m trying to explain to the interviewer why I’ve spent most of the last three years climbing up and down mountains in the middle of nowhere for no reason. My answers swing violently back and forth on a pendulum from, “so I could have an adventure, do something extraordinary, live a life worth living!” to “because walking seemed easier than being vulnerable and sincerely eager in a career, in a job, in a relationship.”
There’s a not small part of me that wants to quit this hike. I keep saying “the next section will be better, warmer, drier!” And over and over the next section is, somehow, worse.
I’m more afraid of moving to Los Angeles than I am of finishing the Arizona Trail. I’m more sure of my ability to hike the AZT than I am of my ability to pursue and obtain meaningful work.
Right now, with rain hammering the roof of my tent under a Juniper in the Mazatzal Wilderness, I’m not sure of my ability to do anything. Definitely not pick a good campsite. I will almost certainly sink into the mud before morning.
Xoxo
Phantom

Flagstaff Forever

October 5th

Flagstaff, Arizona
205 miles, about 25%, into the Arizona Trail and it feels like I just started. I’m back in Flag, where I ran a trail marathon just three short weeks ago. This trail is gonna be too short.
I love this town. I love the friendliness, the outdoor community, how the whole city seems to take pride in its local businesses. The Aspens on Mt. Humphreys have just started to turn, and it’s a perfect time to be back here.
Guess I’ll start where I left off.
Mr. Peanutbutter and I left the North Rim in the mid-afternoon and hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was a hot day, and I took advantage of the streams on the way down by dunking myself in them and washing off some of the red dirt. I’d never hiked North Kaibab before, and I loved how different the scenery is from the South Rim. Huge boulders hang low over the thin trail, carved and dynamited into the side of the canyon. Slickrock and mud, mule poop, lots of other people.
So many other people.
The Grand Canyon is one of those places that makes a thru-hiker feel invincible, powerful, unstoppable – comparatively. I bounced down the canyon and met MPB at the bottom. We got lemonade and Tecate at the Canteen, and walked a half-mile to a beach on the Colorado River and swam lazily in the freezing water as the sun began to set.
We had a site at Bright Angel Campground. It was hot at the bottom of the canyon, and we both cowboy camped until I woke up paranoid that I was being bit at around midnight and set up my tent. A ring-tailed cat snuck into our site and climbed over MPB. We both turned on our headlamps and saw its round, glowing eyes reflected back at us. It had zero fear, and sauntered back to its tree while we watched.
The next morning, MPB got up and left before I did. I hiked the Bright Angel trail out of the canyon instead of South Kaibab, and met MPB at the top at the grocery store where we resupplied and split an entire large pizza. A South Rim employee watched us in wonder as we devoured it.
MPB convinced me to spend the night in Tusayan, so we headed that way, checked into a room that was miraculously available on a busy weekend, and we lazed about, watching Tarzan and the Lion King and washing our socks in the sink. MPB got me a Pumpkin Spice Latte.
The next morning, MPB got himself out of the hotel three hours before I did (obviously) so I hiked alone for a couple days before I caught him again. The trail from Tusayan to Flagstaff is FLAT. Like, very flat. Just old Jeep roads and cows. Water was, once again, bad.
One night, by the Russell Tank, I was kept up all night by bugling elk. You haven’t had a rough nights sleep until you’ve slept between bugling elk. I had vivid nightmares about the elk, one on either side of my tent, suddenly deciding they couldn’t be apart any longer and furiously running toward each other and crashing right on top of me.
Then the storm came. Hurricane Rosa blew in and sprinkled on me periodically on Monday. By Monday night, it was pouring by the mountains. I night-hiked toward the low, ominous clouds. I think I’ll remember that night hike for a long time. Storm clouds blotted out pieces of the sky, like patchwork, and blue twilight shot through the clouds and pooled onto the wide dirt road. MPB was at the trailhead and we discussed the coming storm. He had service – we saw the forecast for Tuesday – so when we woke up Tuesday morning to pools of water around our tents and more rain, we walked the road to the highway and hitched to Flag to wait it out.
We got a hitch from a couple from Toronto, who took pity on us. Hitchhikers in the rain must look just miserable. In town, we got a big diner breakfast and then split for the night. He stayed with a friend, I got a cheap motel and spread all my wet things around the room and cranked the heater.
I had an unproductive day and night. Reality TV and Chinese food in bed.
The next morning, I hitched out with a couple of trail angels who were about to head to Kanab to start their own SoBo hike. MPB headed off to Arcosanti to see a friend for the weekend, so I’m flying solo again.
I covered the 40 miles to Flagstaff (again), getting periodically rained on. The temperature has dropped a ton since the big storm front. This weekend promises more rain. In fact, today, the day I’m in town, is the nicest and warmest and sunniest day in the forecast for the next five days.
Figures.
Being alone on trail again is a lot stranger now, after my first real trail fam experience on the CDT. I take too many breaks and check my phone for LTE too often, desperate for human contact.
I hope that stops soon. I’ll get used to being solo again. Right?
A couple days ago, I ran into two hunters in an ATV near Snowbowl. A mustached man shook my hand and said, “you’re one hell of a woman. You’ve got more balls than most men. It’s brave of you to be out here.” I’m always a little grouchy at the insinuation that it’s somehow braver or scarier to be a woman on trail than a man. Of course it probably IS, just because random acts of violence are much more likely to happen to women than men, but the basics of thru-hiking are walking, eating and sleeping … and how is any of that harder to do if you’re female?
Statistically, one of the most dangerous and high-risk behaviors a young woman can engage in is to be in a romantic relationship with a young man. But I’ll leave that thread for another time. Suffice it to say, I usually feel pretty safe when I’m solo in the backcountry.
Back in Flagstaff, staying the night with a friend of MPB’s I met a few days ago, who is a river guide on the Colorado. My plan for today is to take care of some town chores (resupply & laundry) and also go to the library and update my resume and start sending it out. The whole “moving to LA” thing is getting a lot more real. The more miles I finish, the closer I am.
I had a moment in the last section when I was filtering water from a cow tank that I just kind of thought, “how did I get here??” The water was chocolate brown and I’d fallen half into the mud while getting it. My left leg and palm were coated in sticky mud, and I took my shirt off to filter the water through the cotton to get the chunkies out before subjecting my Sawyer to it.
It’s raining and windy, I’m standing in a sports bra, covered in mud, trying to squeeze drinkable water into a plastic bottle and there’s an old cow skull leering at me from empty eye sockets in the middle of nowhere and I’m like – how did I get here?
I know how I got there, I walked from the Stateline campground in Utah to that spot. But in imagining my life, I never could’ve imagined myself here. Age 26. Muddy and shirtless in the rain in the desolate cow country of Northern Arizona.
I was listening to This American Life all day yesterday, an episode where contributors were talking about the stories they like to tell from their childhoods that act as exposition for what they do now. I can see traces of Phantom in my childhood. I remember standing outside alone during a family vacation in Colorado, stubbornly waiting for hummingbirds.
I remember pressing my face against the window of the van while driving at night down i10 in California, gazing at the mountains above the interstate and inventing an elaborate fantasy where I was the mysterious “the girl of the mountains,” revered and feared by the townspeople down below.
I remember an obsession with going outside to watch the sunset every night one summer, all alone, from the side of my childhood house.
But of course I’m just cherry-picking to fit a narrative. I did plenty of things as a kid that weren’t “go outside by yourself and be contemplative.”
We all write our stories to make some kind of narrative sense, don’t we? That’s what storytellers do. And everyone is a storyteller.
We’re all just trying to write a good yarn.
Happy trails.
Phantom

North Kaibab

September 28

Day 5
I’ve made it to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. In a bit, I’ll be descending down to the bottom. I decided to split my Grand Canyon itinerary into two days, just to make it a little easier on my feet, and to enjoy the amenities of the National Park for a bit longer.
The first four days of this trail have mostly wandered in and out of Ponderosa lowlands along the Kaibab Plateau. A long burn area left me exposed and sunburned, having to duck into new growth Aspen groves for shade. The weather has been perfect. Temperate, mild blue sky days and clear nights.
A fire closure near the East Rim of the Grand Canyon sent me on a Forest Road walk around the perimeter of the fire. I felt the fire before I saw it. My throat always can tell when fires are near. I climbed a fire watch tower near the North Rim where Ed Abbey used to man the post. I got almost all the way to the top, before turning around. I’m somehow still scared of heights.
I’ve been hiking with a first time thru-hiker who still doesn’t have a trail name. I knew he was ahead of me by his prints, and when I caught him I said “oh, you’re the Altras!” and he was taken aback. I forgot it’s not normal to be able to track people by their highly-specific trail runner prints.
Falling back into the routines of a hike has been natural, seamless. Getting back on the single-track feels so normal. Sometimes, when I think back on the last few years, I think I’ve just been walking and not learning anything. I don’t realize how much knowledge I’ve been accruing.
Until I get out here and realize how many questions from a newcomer I can answer confidently, from either firsthand experience or anecdotal evidence. About gear, weather, water, trail etiquette. I realize how many trees I know, how many tracks I recognize, how much I understand about how the park service works.
It’s wild.
The water out here is as bad as everyone says. I didn’t pass a single natural source on the Kaibab Plateau. My water came from caches, animal tanks, cement troughs, and a manmade lake filled with algae that clogged my filter immediately.
So far, the AZT has been simply beautiful. I’m bracing myself for it to be hard, but, right now it’s perfect in every way. Company when I want it, solitude when I crave it. Warm weather and hot coffee and an overarching feeling of giddy gratefulness.
I watched a full, bright orange moon come up over the east rim of the Grand Canyon in a secluded campsite so close to the fire that it had been completely abandoned by tourists.
In disbelief, “is that the freaking MOON???” It looked too big, too orange. I thought I was seeing glow from the wildfires. Maybe it was a little of both.
My new trail friend Felipe is fresh back from the Peace Corps in Senegal and we’ve been talking a lot about what it means to give back. What it looks like to be a good person within the problematic economic and political structures that surround us.
He says I’m a social optimist, because I think things are getting better. I believe that growing up with the internet has made us more discerning, more rational, more empathetic to fellow humans from different races and creeds. More informed about the far-flung consequences of our actions.
I definitely wasn’t an optimist in college, so maybe that’s a direct effect of long distance hiking on my life. It’s made me more hopeful and more grateful.
I wake up every day and I’m grateful for things like the sun, and instant coffee, and a clean pair of socks.
If nothing else, four years of thru-hiking has been worth it because of that feeling.
I’m moving to LA after the trail to chase my fortune and passion (ugh) in the film world, but if it doesn’t work, I’m gonna move to a National Park and be a ranger. Write novels in a cabin, watch fires from a tower, run in the woods.
Either way, I’ll probably be happy as long as the sun is out.
Happy trails,
Phantom

In Motion, At Rest

Sunday, September 23rd

Since I last wrote, I’ve been at rest.

For a thru-hiker, Real Life is just one long zero day.

Between trails, between movement, between decisions – we rest. Or, at least we try. Some of us are better at it than others.

I last wrote in this blog in November of 2017. I finished my Continental Divide Trail journal by writing a post on my phone on the train from the Denver Airport to Union Station. I thought I was going to spend the winter in Vail, Colorado working on the lifts and hanging with Beans and writing and reading books and skiing on my days off. Vail turned out to be a brief, miserable interlude – the first of several moves between moves. I lasted less than a month working for Vail Resorts. It was an objectively evil corporation and a terrible job in a cold, dark town on the side of a loud highway. The tall mountains were suffocating. The cold stung. A man I worked with threatened me, scared me, made me feel small. I left.

I bought a car and moved to San Diego. I drove straight to the ocean on my first day in town and tracked sand into my car’s brand-new interior. It’s still stuck in the cracks of my front seat. I moved into in a sunny room at my brother and sister’s home on a hill. It was beautiful, temperate, bright. I worked at a bar downtown where the customers only cared about off-track betting on horse races. Old, hunched men drank cokes and ticked boxes on their programs. My sister and I jogged in slow circles around Mission Bay. Nothing was wrong, but everything was wrong. I was scared of all the other cars in the Sprouts parking lot. I did Whole 30 and became lactose intolerant. I broke Whole 30 by eating an entire sleeve of cookies in my car outside a movie theatre on a Friday night. I left.

I drove back to Phoenix and worked on a few commercials that refilled my financial coffers, so I very responsibly immediately took a month off. I spent the month of March driving. I drove to L.A., Salt Lake City, Ohio, New Orleans, Texas, New Mexico. I got a speeding ticket in Nebraska. I slept in my car on the sides of interstates with idling semitrucks rumbling a white noise lullaby. I drank coffee sitting on my hood and watching mist  burn off of the Mississippi. I almost slid off the road during a snowstorm in Wyoming. A boy with brown eyes promised me a lot, but didn’t mean much of it. I watched the sun rise at a hospital in New Orleans after getting stitches in my head. I saw Animal Collective in a junkyard-cum-sculpture garden. I hugged my younger brother a lot.

I drove back to Phoenix.

In April, I got a job in Tempe, Arizona at an Irish bar. From April to September, I worked at an Irish bar and and an English bar, intermittently doing production design on commercials and a feature film. It got hot. Really hot. I went backpacking on the Mogollon Rim and did trail magic for Arizona Trail northbounders. I turned 26. I worked at a soccer bar during the World Cup. I lived, and worked, and rested, and waited.

I ran a marathon in Flagstaff last Saturday. I slept in my car on BLM land near Lake Mary for a week beforehand, but didn’t acclimate much to the elevation. I finished, they gave me a medal. I don’t know what to do with said medal.

Tomorrow I leave for the Arizona Trail. Somehow, I can condense the last almost-year (YEAR!!) of my life into a few paragraphs – as though it went in fast-motion. A heroic montage of the build-up, the exposition, to the part that we’re all here for. The part that matters!

When I left Arizona for the first time to move to Connecticut for college, I remember having this thought in the plane – somewhere over flyover country – that what I was about to experience was so far from anything I could imagine that I might as well cease to exist until the next time I was in Arizona, at Thanksgiving. I’ve come to feel that way about time between hikes. Like it’s this time where I might as well cease to exist, because the part I’m really here for is the part where I’m on trail. And this is a SUPER WRONG AND UNHEALTHY way to feel! But I haven’t fixed it yet, despite acknowledging its existence. 

So one of my main goals for this trail is to try to hate it.

I don’t mean that. I love trails more than anything I’ve ever done. But I can’t get around the fact that, and I tell this to everyone that asks me about it, thru-hiking low-key ruins your life.

It rips you open like you’ve got a rusty zipper down your spine, and turns you inside out, spilling your innards out into nature. It tosses your goals, dreams, ambitions, feelings, crushes, embarrassments, successes, failures – into a vat of cowpoopwater in the middle of nowhere and leaves them there. Everything you thought you ever cared about shrivels under the cold gaze of the Milky Way. It’s like you watch your college degree incinerate next to you while you’re drying your tent and eating lunch at high noon. All the emotional bulwarks you’ve built up around yourself to survive are stripped down, and you’re left exposed, naked, vulnerable to the elements. Look up at the night sky and repeat after me: “I’m a worm.”

It’s also worth stating that loving thru-hiking makes you ~that person~ who is insufferable at parties and other social gatherings because of the whole one-note personality thing. 

A guy at the pub tonight overheard me talking to a friend about the trail and he had a lot of questions. It was mostly the usual run-around (“WHAT ABOUT BEARS??!”) but then he asked me what I get for doing it. Do I get paid to do this? Is it like, my job?

I just started laughing.

I’m starting the Arizona Trail tomorrow. It’s an 800 mile single-track trek from Utah to Mexico. I’m hiking from north to south, following the butterfly migrations, as always. I’ve checked my to-do list a dozen times. Everything is crossed off, but, of course, there are bound to be a dozen things I forgot to put on my to-do list.

I’m as ready as I’ve ever been for a hike. I’m hiking through my home state, so I guess I feel this weird kind of confidence about it. Yesterday was the first time I felt that pit of anxiety and nerves in my stomach that I’ve grown to recognize as the main harbinger of forthcoming adventure.

I’m driving to Utah in a few hours so I should go to sleep. But I’m excited to write again, and I’m excited to hike again, and I’m excited for this! to finally be the trail! that puts to rest all my insecurities! and existential crises! and fixes all my problems and allows me to quit this time-consuming, financially parasitic hobby once and for all!!!!

I’m giddy like a kid on Christmas Eve.

I keep thinking about the full moon in the desert. Those big, bold Arizona sunsets. Red rocks and canyons. The GRAND canyon. Bad water sources and new potential friends and strong, sweet-smelling winds and bright stars and Aspens and climbing tall mountains in the middle of nowhere for no reason and all of the beautiful things that are so far outside of my experience as to be still, as of yet, unfathomable.

Xo,

Laura

ps – i also, in the last year, wrote/directed/released a three episode pilot of a narrative podcast about thru-hiking, loneliness, paranoia, family and fear called MONARCH that is available at monarchcast.com, if you are so inclined. it’s blurrily at least a little bit autobiographical-ish and i’m gonna finish it early next year

pps thanks for reading

Postscript

11/19

I have a scab on my left palm that’s just about to peel off. It’s from tripping over a tree root on a switchback a couple of weeks ago, on what used to be a very normal evening for me. I was walking into twilight and delaying the inevitable stop to pull my headlamp out of pack, pushing my luck as the ambient light deepened. But this time it got a little too dark and I tripped a little too hard and actually fell, catching my weight on a rock under my left hand. A cow witnessed my fall and I swear its startled mooing sounded like laughter.

Once the scab is gone, there won’t really be any physical marks left of my hike. Other than a rapidly fading sock tan, I look pretty much the same as I did when I left back in June. While some people (mostly men) tend to lose large amounts of weight on thru-hikes, I’ve ended every major thru-hike without much weight fluctuation. I’m a little thicker, if anything. More muscle, less fat. Nothing really jiggles anymore, I notice bulk in my legs, but that’s not an obvious difference from afar.

It’s a minor source of frustration to me to not outwardly reflect the changes of something that was such a mental, emotional AND physical journey. But I know it wouldn’t really matter if I did look different. It still wouldn’t be enough to explain the subtleties of readjusting to post-trail life.

Like when I see a water faucet indoors and my instinct hurries to remind me to fill up my bottles with potable water. Or seeing my external battery sitting on the nightstand at my parents’ house and itching to plug it in, juice it up for the next stretch.

Like sitting cross-legged on a concrete sidewalk during a night film shoot with my friends and glancing up, out of habit, and being momentarily startled to see the brown haze of Phoenix light pollution instead of the Milky Way.

Or getting ready to go somewhere and seeing on Google maps that I’m 8 miles away and my brain saying, “okay, I’ll be there in about two and a half hours” before I remember that 8 miles translates to 10 minutes in a car.

Or pulling into a gas station and briefly forgetting that I’m there to get gas, not buy Pop-Tarts and chips to supplement my resupply and use one more actual toilet before heading back out to the wild.

Or sitting on the grass at a country western concert with my sisters and hugging my knees to my chest, suddenly feeling the absence of having a pack to lean against.

Obviously I’ve spent the vast majority of my life living in cities with running water and temperature-controlled environments so the reverse culture shock of reentering civilization doesn’t last that long. What takes awhile is processing other takeaways from the trail. I’ve noticed myself fall silent and somber a few times since I’ve been back. Surrounded by family, friends, conversation and laughter, I’m inexplicably sad – aching for crickets, and wind, and stars.

I’ve talked about the trail a lot since I came home. I’ve got my short list of popular anecdotes decently honed. People like hearing about the Grizzly bear, the wolf, the moose, the eclipse, falling in a river in Yellowstone, hiking 89 miles in the Basin and bailing out of winter conditions in Colorado. These are colorful details and fun stories to tell, but I find myself wishing I could explain the trail the way I actually experienced it.

Like how every morning I’d wake up and have to breathe on my hands for awhile to get them to warm up enough to tie my shoes. Or how my red wool hat always slipped down into my eyes when I’d lean over to pull my tent stakes out of the ground. Or what it was like to come around a corner near noon and see the boys sitting beside the trail, cutting off hunks of summer sausage with the flat ends of their spoons and spreading cream cheese on bagels and to happily drop my pack and join them for lunch.

The countless streams and lakes and forest preserves. The endless deserts, sage and juniper – grasshoppers that would sometimes fly in a crooked, drunken line right smack into my legs or arms. The jeep roads and single tracks winding off into the hills. Sunrises and sunsets, measuring time by the progress of the sun across the sky. Lying in my tent at night and looking at my maps for the next day, making plans based on water, elevation profiles, likely camp spots, distance left to town, etc. So much of life on trail is routines and habits, beautiful and exciting in their own way but hard to explain over brunch.

My mom picked me up from the border of Mexico and New Mexico near Columbus on November 9th. The end of the CDT was fittingly strange, and kind of miserable, and anti-climactic. I cowboy camped on the side of highway 11 on my last night on trail and listened to the rumble of semis all night long. The last day to the border was hot, the smell and sight of roadkill the only sign that I was near wilderness. Coyotes yipped in the distance and a few cars honked at me. I walked into Mexico with my pack on, went to a restaurant, sat down and ordered a quesadilla. My server asked me where I walked from. I told him. He asked where I was going next and I said home. He said – so this is the end? You walked from Canada to Mexico to get a quesadilla?

That’s not why, I said. But I realized, well, technically that’s exactly what I had done. I walked from Canada to Mexico to eat a quesadilla. My server bought me a beer and a shot of tequila. It was 9am.

I’m in Denver now, on my way to the bus station. I decided to do the ski bum thing in Vail, Colorado for the winter this year. Partially because I’ve always wanted to do a ski town winter, partially because I didn’t know what else to do. I spent a week in Phoenix cuddling my nieces and nephew, eating and watching Netflix on my parents’ couch, lounging at the George and Dragon patio, being generally overwhelmed and disoriented and distracted.

I wish I had had a little more time to be still before making this move, but I didn’t. And it’s probably for the best to throw myself into something completely new. I have a small tattoo of an ambiguous mountain range on my left ankle, my memorial to this crazy thru-hike thing I’ve been doing. As soon as this scab falls off, that tattoo will once again be all I have to physically remind me that I’m a thru-hiker. That I’ve slept on the sides of hundreds of mountains and I’ve walked 5,500 miles and lived to tell the tales.

And it’s good to have that jolt to remind me that I’M different. Not because of permanent ink on my foot, but because those miles have changed everything about me. They’ve come to define me. While catching up with a friend who’s back in New York City the other day, she asked me if I thought trail Laura had taken over real life Laura. Honestly, I think the two have simply merged. Making one Super Laura/Phantom Being who can crush both miles and a little black dress, who writes and makes movies and isn’t quite as scared of creating anymore.

Speaking of, I’m writing a psychological horror podcast over the winter, so, stay tuned for that if you want to hear a (somewhat) fictionalized account of the trail. I’ve been writing it in my head for a couple of years now, and I’m finally committing to sitting down and making it happen. There, I said it. Now I have to do it.

It feels fitting to end this blog whilst riding backwards on a train in Colorado. I’m going back to a state I’ve walked through twice but never really known. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to know more intimately, a lifestyle I’ve always envied. When I stepped out into cold air between the airport and the train station, I think it kind of woke me up.

The biggest lesson from this trail is the same one from the PCT, the CT, and pretty much every other time I’ve traveled or explored somewhere different, somewhere that has put into stark imagery for me the wealth of love and support I grew up in, the education I received. I’m so unbelievably lucky to have the ability to do the things I do and make the decisions I make. I have a position of privilege that I need to start using to be better. Thru-hiking is selfish. Hanging out and skiing in Vail all winter is selfish. But I can maybe do some small unselfish things while I work up to a more stable life.

One way to manifest how grateful I am is literally the most cliche thing I could say, but I want to try to be kinder and more patient. To steer away from the cynicism I know creeps into me when I’m in the service industry for a long time. To breathe and respect other people’s battles. To applaud others’ passions and encourage and cultivate earnestness in myself and others. To be #nochill, just like my boo, the CDT.

Another is to be braver and louder in speaking out against injustices. And not just the ones that directly affect me, like sexism, but the many, many social injustices plaguing America today. These things matter. My privilege allows me to run and hide in the woods whenever I want but so many people don’t have that opportunity. I need to pay more attention, to listen to other people and do what I can to help.

Everyone has a story. This blog detailed a portion of mine, but I’m ready to focus on someone else’s for awhile. To give back a little bit of what I’ve been given.

To listen more and talk less.

Thanks again for reading. Happy Thanksgiving.

Laura

 

 

 

Penultimate

I’m in a motel in Deming, New Mexico. I’m 55 trail miles away from the border of the United States and Mexico, 35 miles as the crow flies and I am, in the most basic, trite, sappy, emotional way imaginable, wrecked.

I’ve been hiking with five boys for four months. I haven’t had too many quiet, lonely moments where I stand and look across some sweeping vista and imagine myself a protagonist in an adventure/coming-of-age film or whatever I used to do when I hiked solo. But I parted ways from the crew today, appropriately in a motel parking lot, and the force of solitude hit me like a freakin hurricane. I walked from a Sonic Drive-In to a Comfort Inn and a dog barked at me, a breeze lifted the ends of my hair and the tears I told everyone I definitely wasn’t gonna cry came unbidden to my eyes and leaked out onto the Deming sidewalk.

I left off this blog in Grants, NM. I named my post “The Last Zero” but I think I knew, even then, that it wouldn’t be. Grants to Pie Town was all a road walk. 60ish miles on asphalt and dirt forest service roads, through the El Malpais State Park but somehow not connecting to any of the dozens of trail systems nearby. Sigh. Classic CDT.

The first night out, I left Grants solo, a little late, and night hiked for a couple of hours under the bright, waxing moon. It was a perfect night to walk alone. Around 9pm a pickup truck slowed down when it saw my headlamp, passed me, turned around and came back to me. I clutched my bear spray and an elderly man rolled down the window and asked me if I was okay. I was.

I camped past the boys that night, alone in a closed campground. All the campgrounds are off-season these days. No fee, spigots turned off. Gates closed, only allowing pedestrian access – perfect for me. I ate cheese and crackers and hard salami and fancied it a backcountry charcuterie. I got out late, and caught the boys on their lunch break. We rested from the sun in the shade of a shrub on the side of an asphalt road. Later that day, we passed a bloated elk corpse. As I walked by it, a truck pulled up and three men got out. They were removing it from the road. “Want a snack for the road, missy?” One called out, gesturing at the elk. I gave a weird shudder laugh and kept going. A few moments later, the truck passed me, dragging the body behind it. I watched it bounce down the road in horror. It’s just a body, just meat, I tell myself. Nut up, Phantom.

I camped with the crew that night after a 31 mile day. We slept near a solar well and cattle trough. We cowboyed. It was Cheesebeard’s birthday the next morning and we roadwalked to Pie Town. We stopped for water at a trail angel’s house along the road. An elderly couple, their house looked like a rummage shop built into a garage. They wanted to talk all day, but we had Town on our minds.

By the time we got to Pie Town, we were hot, hungry, thirsty and sore from the pavement. The Toaster House in Pie Town is infamous on the CDT, it’s fame has even spread to the other major trails. Nita, a trail angel, allows the Toaster House to be a hiker haven. No one lives there, but many, many people pass through. Our crew stayed two nights and a day. The first night, OilCan and I stayed up late talking to a British couple who are bicycling from Alaska to Argentina. We swapped stories and marveled at how much of the journey they still have left. The next night, Hummingbird, Merlin, Red Bass, Scratch and Magpie all stayed at the house as well. Two Bad Dogs, an older couple of Triple Crowners, magicked is all with beer and burgers. We had a cookout and a proper party at the house. When night fell, along with the outdoor temps, we all moved inside and played music on a BlueTooth speaker. Brandon did magic tricks. We all told OilCan (who is starting college in January), speaking with the wisdom and importance of our advanced years, that this was kiiind of like a college party. Everyone always ends up hanging out in the kitchen.

We ate the famous Pie Town pie at the Pi O Neer Cafe, and we met Nita there. She was kind and lovely. Pie town was the most hiker-friendly place I’d ever been, and we all hiked out that next afternoon a little regretfully. A cow stared me down in the road. It was bright and hot. Another truck pulled over for me and a man offered me a beer, but I didn’t like the way he looked at me so I refused politely. “My group is just up the road, there are SO many of us,” I said. The man had simply driven by all the boys, me he stopped for (PS – if you’re tired of reading me talking about stuff like this, imagine how tired I am of dealing with it). We all camped that night near a huge water tank filled with goldfish, a broken down yellow school bus nearby. Magpie talked about space and we all listened in a trance. Black holes, dark matter, satellites, space-time.

And then, suddenly, unceremoniously, we were in the Gila River Canyon. I knew the Gila was supposed to be special going in, but it absolutely blew my mind. Walking between steep, high, dramatic canyon walls, following a mighty river. It was hard hiking. Wild, untamed. It felt like every plant had spikes, like every patch of mud was slippery and sticky. We fought through thick brush and crossed the river quite literally hundreds of times. I stood in the middle of the river at dusk and watched in a stupor as a full moon rose between the canyon walls.

We slept by a lake and had a fire. I broke twigs and threw them in the flames absent-mindedly, sitting cross-legged with these boys I’ve come to love. We all inspected the scratches and cuts on our legs and arms from the canyon. I’ve travelled enough to know I probably won’t see them again. We pass around a bottle of Yukon Jack whiskey and don’t talk about it.

We hike all day on Halloween. It’s GilaWeen, we say. It’s a beautiful, cold day. The freezing river numbs our feet. I get separated in the early afternoon and listen to a horror podcast while I walk. I get two miles off-trail somehow, before I notice, and bushwack back to the trail while listening to legend of vampires and werewolves. I catch the boys at camp after dark, more than a little spooked. They’re all in their tents, but I cowboy. Pie and Cheesebeard joke that I’ll be pulled away in the night because I’m exposed. I sleep well anyway, the moon is a floodlight.

The next day, we hike to Doc Campbell’s post and eat homemade ice cream on picnic tables outside the store. There’s not much selection for starving hikers. Cheesebeard and I split a pack of hot dogs and eat them cold, sandwiched between slices of wheat bread. Pie, CB and I stop on our way in at the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. It’s a maze of rock walls and roofs built into natural caves in the side of the canyon.

It’s wild to imagine people living here. Eking out an existence among the scraggly rocks and sharp vegetation. I mentally chide myself for complaining about the difficulty of hiking in the Gila. I walk for leisure and eat granola bars that have been scientifically designed to give me energy and vitamins, with thousands of dollars of gear on my back. And no warring tribes are trying to kill me. Boo hoo, Phantom.

After Doc’s, we went right back into the Gila. This was the longest stretch out we’d had in a very long time, and I think we all felt the town itch. We took a long break in the golden afternoon sun and swam in the river, washing some of the dirt and mud and stink of the last 5 days off our bodies. We skipped rocks on the riverbank and I laid on my back on a stony shore and stared up at golden trees waving in the electric blue sky and wished the afternoon could last forever. Pie, Scratch and I got separated (because the Gila is wild and dense and hard to follow) but we found the crew a bit after dark. We forded the river in the deepening twilight one final time that night when we saw their headlamps in the distance, heard their howls and yelps echoed off the canyon walls.

We cowboyed in a tight circle, laughing and cooking a few feet away from each other. When I laid down my head that night, I stayed awake for hours watching the sky and listening to crickets chirp. Soak it in, Phantom.

The next day, we climbed out of the canyon for good. We stopped for lunch before the ascent, and I swam in the river one last time and waited for everyone to hike out so I could say goodbye to the wild, beautiful Gila on my own. I can’t wait to come back.

That night, OilCan, Scratch, Rusty and I camped on property that belongs to Doug the Hermit, a fascinating Roman Catholic man who has lived in the wilderness for 18 years. He goes to town once a year to stock up on provisions, otherwise, he works on an ATV road that he built and prays. He showed us his cabin and his garden. He was effusively friendly but not, he says, because he’s a hermit. He says he’s always been a people person.

The next morning, we are all unbelievably ready to be in town. We’re up before the sun and hiking by headlamp til sunrise. It’s a cold, frosty morning. The trail is frustrating, a roller-coaster, pointless ups and downs. I stop and sit on the side of the trail and glare at it. I’m trying to will myself to be in a good mood. To enjoy it. Just then, Pie and Cheesebeard come along and hiking with their company into town cheers me up. We book it to the Pizza Hut lunch buffet. Cherry tomatoes are the food of the gods, tbh.

We get a motel room in Silver City and drink Miller Lites and do laundry and buy new food. I’m savoring the rituals of town, our “town chores.” I know everyone so well now. I know what everyone prioritizes in town. These boys like to watch a lot of Impractical Jokers. I go over to the film crew room and watch a Polish Criterion collection film with them. We stand outside talking until 2am, then I head back to the hiker room and eat fried chicken and watch Jurassic Park with Rusty til we both pass out.

The next morning, we pack up and hike out again. 60 road miles to Lordsburg. Rusty and I walk together and talk about what’s next, our intimidating post-trail lives. We take a long, lazy break on the side of the highway and drink the beers we packed out. We end up cowboy camping as far off the road as we can manage, but we still sleep restlessly all night, cars and headlights zooming by.

The next morning is one of our warmest mornings yet. Daylight savings happened and we fell back. I felt like a go-getter leaving camp at 6:45am, but losing light at 5:30 is a definite drawback. We do miles quickly, listening to music, adjusted by now to flat road walking. We set up our cowboy camp just before sunset. I sit in my sleeping bag and cook rice and beans and watch a hawk swoop against the sky. Golden by the horizon, then deepening in a slow gradient to dark blue. Crickets again. I can’t believe it’s almost over. Keep it together, Phantom.

We wake up and hike to Lordsburg. I walk with Pie for the last 10 miles. We hop a barbed wire fence and talk about what brought us to the thru-hike, what we’ve loved about the CDT. We eat at Denny’s on the edge of town. I’m sunburned because Pie wouldn’t share his umbrella with me. I don’t deserve it, I guess, because I stubbornly refused my own umbrella back in Grants.

I wash my face in the Denny’s bathroom and a woman takes a step back from me. I won’t miss THAT part of the thru-hiking life. We meet up with the crew at the EconoLodge. We do our town chores, and drink Tecate. Brandon and Jordan ask me to do a final interview for the documentary and I agree, so we head out to a field and I lean against a tree at golden hour and decide to let them all know that I do care. I’ve loved my time with this crew, and I’ll miss them all immensely.

It’s not what I expected. I thought I’d be alone, but I haven’t been alone since the Bob Marshall Wilderness, roughly 2500 miles ago. I’ve had people to laugh with, cry with, curse with, drink with, barter and banter with. I’ve felt a lot of very human emotions toward these other humans. Frustration. Annoyance. Attraction. Friendship. Fondness. I’ve worn their clothes and drank their juice packets they didn’t want. I’ve heard their stories and imagined their lives. Well, their other lives.

I’m grateful for these things. For the humanity and community I found on the CDT. They changed me as a thru-hiker and shaped my thru-hike. No regrets, friends. thksforthemmrz.

I left them today because I’m doing an alternate to the border. It’s shorter and less remote. It’s logistically easier, and, I didn’t want to say goodbye at the border. I want to finish alone, so I can be however I want to be. It’s selfish to want to be alone for this, I think, but thru-hiking is inherently selfish so whatever.

We all stayed up late in the hotel room, film crew and hikers crammed in together. We listen to music and laugh and drink and when we finally go to bed, I barely sleep. I hate goodbyes and I hate finishing trails. Even the hard ones.

I’ve been addressing myself and introducing myself as Phantom pretty regularly since June. At Denny’s, Pie called me Laura and I thought, “oh, yeah.” I’m Laura again. He’s Paul. They’re Eddie, Josh, Eric, Trevor, Meg, Tessa.

Trails end, there’s a border coming up. I’ve pretty much run out of America. I’ll write something else when I’m done, but, since I’m here – thanks for following this journey, whoever you are. I’ve found a lot of peace in writing these posts. They’ve helped me sort feelings and contextualize experiences. I’m happy I’ll have something to look back on when the inevitable post-trail depression sets back in. I’ll be happy this record exists. Hope you are too.

The CDT. Huh.

Xoxo

Laura