By the time I reached Mammoth Lakes, California, where I created my last post, I had come to accept the fact that completing the trail in 100 days or less was no longer achievable, but I was still driven on finishing as quickly as I could. My pace had fallen behind schedule from time spent in town to resupply on food or wait out a storm in the Sierras, and “the pack” (the party-crazed majority of hikers that cling together in a wave of slow-moving cliques) had finally caught up to me. There were people passing me that I hadn’t seen since my first day, and while I hoped that I might finally find a hiking partner or a group with a similar pace, it did make me feel a bit defeated.
This feeling of melancholy didn’t spawn from a sense of competition; rather, it was the fact that despite all my planning and preparation, there was something keeping me from being a full-fledged fastpacker and catching up with some of the frontrunners. Since regaining my initial schedule was impossible, I thought that I might as well quit stressing myself over big daily mileage and stop to smell the flowers every once in a while. I hoped that shorter days would mean more time to sit on flower-strewn, high-alpine lakefronts, strumming sweet tunes on my raggedy guitar as I reveled in the glory that surrounded me. But it was my time spent in town that caused me to leave the trail.
While in Mammoth Lakes, I experienced the utmost hiker hunger and a weariness so pronounced it was as if I was feeling the cumulative effect of every long and grueling day all at once, so I splurged to satisfy my cravings and feeble desires. The town was swarming with thru-hikers that day, and I tagged along with a group of folks that I found amiable. I practically inhaled an entire large pizza by myself, then split a motel room with another hiker to save some dough. After cleaning our grimy clothes, we all went out to the bar that evening to be entertained by a mediocre old man jam band. Spending money on things like a bed or a beer seemed like fleeting pleasures in contrast to the joys I’ve had in the wilderness, but admittedly those worldly things can be hard to resist when there is a crowd of other (more financially sound) hikers enjoying them right in front of my tired and thirsty eyes. I had been paying for this trip all out of pocket rather than using PayPal to fundraise and accept donations, mainly so I could be self-sufficient and not feel so indebted to those who helped me, but all in vain. Lesson Learned- save more money and keep a tighter budget. To further complicate things, watching the old man jam band groove along to simple blues and rock songs like George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” made me miss playing music with other people so badly. My guitar has become a part of how I identify myself and I love it dearly, but being on the trail made me feel like I had stunted my progress musically- I didn’t seem to have many other people to learn from, or much time to practice for that matter. Unlike the coast to coast trek, walking and playing at the same time was not an option; usually by the time I would stop for the day and set up camp, I would be too exhausted to play for very long. The old people around me started feeling their beers and wine and collectively decided to hit the dance floor, so I snuck out quietly into the night. On the way back to the motel, I stopped at the grocery store to buy a pint of Half-Baked Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and was soon sitting cross-legged on top of the covers of my bed, staring at a blank television screen. As I scraped the last liquefied remnants of my dessert from the bottom of the cup with my plastic spoon, I deeply pondered the direction of my life. How much longer could I afford to live this way? Why couldn’t I just ration my food more judiciously and catch up to some of the faster hikers? I wondered where my favorite hiking buddies were- the ones I had summitted Whitney with. I fell asleep with my maps on my chest after studying what kind of challenges the next few days would bring, and slept so soundly that I didn’t even stir when the other hiker came back from the bar that night.
The next day, I decided to go to the library to work on Dudetrek.com- posting pictures and writing about the past 400+ miles- I had intended on spending the morning there and leaving in the afternoon, but got caught up in my work and ended up staying there all day. When I finally hit the trail the following morning, after another night in the motel, I felt fattened up with tons of energy and was refreshed by my brief break from the wilderness. Now I will surely be able to make huge miles, I thought. I caught the free bus that took me halfway up the mountain to the ski lodge, where ignorant tourists spent an inordinate amount of money for the promise of a “true” wilderness experience, when they were truly seeing the littered, and eroded tip of the iceberg at each trailhead. On the way up, I talked with some of the downhill mountain bike riders who were vacationing there for the weekend, each of us gawking at the inherent risks and challenges of each others’ sport. I was amazed at the boldness of their adrenaline-fueled sport and they were impressed with the apparent mental fortitude it takes to stay motivated when a goal is so far away. At this point on the trail, the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail split, providing an alternate route that rejoins with the PCT a few miles later. The JMT section has much more water, so I decided to follow that, but ended up taking a wrong turn within the first 3 or 4 miles. When I realized I had made a mistake, I was 1.5 trail miles off the JMT and .5 as-the-crow-flies miles from the PCT, but there was a gigantic, steep, and rocky mountain between me and the PCT. I could just turn around and do the 1.5 miles back to the JMT, but this could also be a great opportunity for me to practice my cross-country skills. I’ll just scramble over the mountain and probably save some time when I rejoin with the PCT. Easier said than done.
It was precarious, crossing huge loose boulder fields and getting thrashed by manzanitas at an angle that was difficult to climb up, and impossible to climb down. It took me hours to finally reach what I thought was the top, but I discovered that there was a high cliff face separating me from the PCT. I searched for a place that I might be able to go around or through the wall, but there was none. I even began climbing straight up for a short distance, thinking that no matter how dangerous it was without ropes and with 35+ pounds on my back, going up is always easier than going down.
But it was futile. There was no way I was going to get over this thing, so I had to hug the wall and sidestep all the way around the curving edge until I was led to the headwaters of a stream that brought me back down to the point where I initially discovered that I was off the trail. After hours of trying at this mountain, I was defeated and decided to just turn around and hike the 1.5 miles back to the JMT and continue on the path I should have taken all along. It was another demoralizing blow to my confidence and I stopped an hour earlier than usual that night so I could play the blues for a while.
As I entered Yosemite National Park a day or two later, I was so discouraged from being behind schedule, running out of money, not playing music very often, and seeing how the beauty of these environments was being exploited and abused for the sake of tourism- that I grew indifferent about the landscapes around me, as if I had seen it all before and it wasn’t really so remote after all.
So I gave myself an ultimatum: 3 more days. If by the end of 3 days my spirits didn’t pick up and I could find a viable way to make enough money to complete the trail, then I’d make the call to leave. I recalled times from my coast to coast trek when things were really tough and I had to convince myself to just make it through the next hour, and I always managed to pull through and things got better every time- but this felt different. It wasn’t external factors like weather or lack of scenery that were dictating how much fun I was having- it seemed that my gloominess was coming from within. I knew that South Lake Tahoe was getting close and some close family friends had offered to meet up with me there anyway, so that seemed to be a good opportunity to leave if that’s what I chose to do. Ultimately, I couldn’t even make it that far before I decided I had had enough. Those 3 days were some of my ugliest moments. The mosquitoes were absolutely everywhere and seemed to have a vendetta against humans. I didn’t have any DEET or a head-net at all. They just chewed me up all day. It drove me insane and I felt bitter and incapable of gaining pleasure from the otherwise breathtaking scenery. I knew that I was going to quit at the next possible opportunity, so when I made it up and over Sonora Pass, passing the 1,000 mile mark, I decided it was the perfect chance to hitch out from there.
Now I am living in Portland, Oregon, where I’ve decided to take on a brand new adventure- living independently, and working in the heart of the city. It’s been 2 months since I left the trail and my life has gone by in the blink of an eye since then. I stayed with those family friends at their home in Reno (thanks again, Cromers!), spent every waking hour searching through ads on craigslist for apartments and roomshares, sent dozens of copies of my resumé to potential employers, set up plans with a few friends to let me sleep on their couch/floor for a few nights during my transition, and read up on the quirky culture of the City of Roses. A nearly empty bus took me to Sacramento in the evening on June 13th, then I caught a train in the middle of the night towards Portland. After landing a job at the North Face in the “Pearl District” which lies on the north side of downtown not far from where the Willamette river flows northward right through the city towards the mighty Columbia River, a serious stroke of luck allowed me to rent a house south of the city to myself for the month of July. The job is sweet and the transition was effortless, particularly because I had worked at The North Face while living in Maryland, and not only was the rental house in a great location, but it gave me somewhere to live while looking for something more permanent . I am now settled into a new house, and I have gained a renewed sense of motivation to achieve my next most important goals. Even though I am living a sedentary life for now, that does not mean that my nomadic life a thing of the past. In fact, this could be a great opportunity for me to make some money, improve my blog, and promote Dudetrek.com, in hopes that I could someday make a living doing that which I love to do most- trekking, dude! Be sure to check out the last few photos here