Up early to beat the heat, the girls headed down the trail. Fish Nugget wasn’t doing so well in the 80-90 degree weather and hoped to avoid another all-day headache. I left soon after at 7:03 am, a new record for me.
The cool morning air felt fantastic. Walking alongside beautiful Fontanillis Lake, I worked out my usual morning aches and pains, which subsided into the background as I relished the scenery around me.
I caught up with the girls, and we walked together for a bit past Middle Velma Lake, where I’d camped with Fish Nugget when she was a kid. Afterwards, the trail turned uphill into forest, where we lost track of Squarepants, who dropped behind.
After climbing uphill for a mile, we stopped at the Meeks Bay junction for a rest. Fish Nugget rummaged through her pack, realizing, to her horror, that she’d lost the little peace book Squarepants had given her, filled with pressed wildflowers from the trip.
She started to get a little panicky.
I said, calm down and think. When’s the last time you saw it?
She said, not too long ago. I put another flower in it just this morning.
I said, maybe it fell out of your pack on the trail. Do you want to go back and look for it? I’ll watch your pack while you do.
While we were debating, an older gentleman came by. He was the same guy we’d seen approaching Dick’s Lake last night, when we were too tired to talk.
We roped him into our conversation, and it turned out he’d seen the book on a rock about 15 minutes back down the trail. He was so cute, he actually apologized for not picking it up. But he wasn’t sure who owned it, so he left it there not knowing the situation.
We chatted for a few more minutes as Fish Nugget ran back down the trail.
He was section hiking from South Lake Tahoe to Truckee, doing about 10 miles a day, sometimes more if he felt like it. I said we were, too, and wished him well, as he continued up the trail. I thought we might see him again, but we never did.
Sitting on a log waiting for Fish Nugget, I agonized like mothers do. Why was she always losing things? And why did I get so wound up about her losing things—it made me nuts! I hoped she’d find the book, though, because it meant so much to her.
We hadn’t seen Squarepants all morning and wondered where she was. Fish Nugget said she probably stopped to poo. She was stealthy like that.
We later found her up the hill—somehow she’d gotten ahead!
After the first climb, the rest of day consisted of gentle ups and downs through a relatively boring forest. The only views we saw were occasional peeks of the mountains to the west. I complained about the tedium.
Fish Nugget said it was better to look at than the desert, which put it in perspective. I don’t know how she got through the Mojave. Amazing mountain scenery is the only thing that keeps me going through all this pain. That, and survival.
We hiked separately for a while.
At the junction to Ridge Lake, I stopped to wait for the girls. Two young guys sat in the middle of the trail, playing chess. They were sitting on some fairly comfy-looking trail pads with back support, like backpacker chairs.
They seemed super chill but had too many creature comforts to be through-hikers.
Nearby was the site of the infamous all-night bear raid.
When Fish Nugget was a kid, I brought her out here on a backpacking trip. I think it was her first trip, just the two of us, because her dad and sister are essentially hotel people. They need hot showers, flush toilets and porters to carry baggage.
I had planned a leisurely, five-day loop from Meeks Bay to Middle Velma Lake and back via Rubicon Lake—nothing strenuous, because I wanted her to have fun. Our first day in, we got to Ridge Lake a lot earlier than anticipated, and because we both felt good, we thought we’d press further to the PCT junction and camp there.
Hiking with friends is one thing, but hiking with your school-aged daughter is quite another. It’s akin to hiking alone because you’re the adult, solely responsible for what goes right and what goes wrong.
As it was early in the season, the trail we were following had hardly been used. It was overgrown with grass and difficult to find. I worried about getting lost, but worked to stay positive, turning it into a trail-finding lesson for her.
Oh, the mosquitoes! They were merciless that year.
We made it to the junction around sunset and camped nearby. After dinner we stashed the bear can in a safe spot down the hill. But all the food wouldn’t fit, so we put the surplus in a nylon bag.
There weren’t any good trees for double-hanging, so I did the best I could, stringing up our one bag from a not-very-high branch on a Sequoia tree. At least the raccoons wouldn’t get it. We went to bed and fell asleep.
I awoke in the middle of the night, hearing noises, like sniffing all around us. I saw the outline of some giant thing that looked like a bear, walking by the tent. More sniffing. Then rocks kicked about.
I held my breath, thankful that we didn’t have any food or toiletries in the tent. Frozen in terror, I thought, what have I done, bringing my little girl out here? No one around for miles, we could be mauled to death in an instant, and who would know?
I begged God to please spare our lives and promised to do anything.
The bear moved away and went for the food bag in the tree, maybe 40 feet down the hill. I heard him bat it around, followed by this awful scraping noise that sounded like claws ripping into nylon and plastic. And crunching, lots of crunching.
I woke my little Fish Nugget and whispered, don’t freak out, but there’s a bear outside breaking into our food. To her credit, she didn’t freak out.
She said, what do we do?
I said, I think we should make a bunch of noise and try to scare it away.
So we whooped and hollered and yelled at the bear. I blew my whistle several times, wondering if anyone was out there to hear it and what they’d think if they did.
The bear stopped. After a brief pause, it went downhill to roll the bear can around for a bit, but to no avail. I worried the bear might somehow roll it down the mountain, even though I’d been careful to put it in a small depression.
Giving up on the can, the bear came back up to the nylon food bag and started ripping at it some more. Yelling, shouting, whistling—nothing seemed to stop it. Finally I told Fish Nugget to go back to sleep and that I’d keep watch.
The sound of ripping nylon and plastic went on all night long. What a mess it would be to clean up in the morning! I imagined bits of garbage strewn everywhere. Certain it would take hours, I nodded in and out of fretful sleep.
Dawn couldn’t come fast enough. I had never been so grateful to see to the light of day. I dreaded the mess ahead and worried that the bear might still be lurking about, though it sounded like it had been gorging for hours.
Emerging from the tent, my mouth fell open.
The bag was still hanging, completely intact! I couldn’t believe it. This obviously wasn’t some sophisticated Yosemite bear, more like its dumb country cousin.
I made a lot of noise heading over, clanging around to make sure the bear was gone. I saw it lumbering down the hill. Fearing it might come back, we broke camp and got the hell out of there ASAP, practically running down the trail.
A narrow escape, I vowed never to go anywhere in the Sierra without full bear can coverage again. This is why the three of us still carried them today, even though most PCT hikers had dumped theirs at Sonora Pass. Better safe than sorry.
Plus, I promised God.
Spreading my Zrest in some grass in the shade, I napped for a while to wait out the heat. Water had been a concern today, as known sources had been running dry. I was glad we’d stocked up at Phipps Creek, even though it looked skanky.
Quite a few hikers passed by, as I lay semi-snoozing. I sat back up and pulled out a baggie of trail mix to munch on.
The two guys who had been playing chess finished their game, folded up their chairs and perched themselves on a nearby log for lunch. Afterwards they strung up some awesome-looking backpacking hammocks to read and relax.
I regretted ditching my little cheapie hammock in South Lake Tahoe.
Naturally, I had to go over and check these things out, as I’d been looking at hammock systems online. I chatted with them for a bit, and one even let me crawl into his hammock to try it out. It had a full bug net with an innovative bottom-entry design.
I found it much easier to get in and get comfortable than I thought it would be. I had tried hammock backpacking once before with my makeshift setup, but I slept cold, because the sleeping bag mashed up against the bottom of the hammock lost all warmth. I endured chilly breezes under my butt all night long, not fun.
The newer systems have optional insulating inserts to protect against cold, so they’re tempting to try. But the weight adds up, you have to find the right trees, and it looks hard to change your clothes in there, so I hesitate to invest in a whole new setup. But it sure felt better than the cold, hard, unforgiving earth.
Fish Nugget and Squarepants finally caught up and had lots to tell me, so we moved further down the trail to let the hammock boys have a little peace and quiet for their afternoon nap.
Fish Nugget felt overheated, so we soon stopped for another long rest.
Pausing for two, big rest stops made the last three miles much easier, but I still had to stop every 40 minutes to sit on something to relieve ongoing shoulder pain. My feet were feeling it, too. I gave up on hiker legs.
Back in town, people asked me: What do you think about all day out there?
The funning thing is, for the first two weeks, I thought mostly about logistics and pain: What’s pinching my back, is that a blister forming, should I stop now or later, where’s the next water, how can fix this annoying strap, I forgot to rehydrate my food, where am I, where are the girls, don’t trip on that rock, oh God my feet hurt, are we there yet, that’s a great picture, where’s my phone, where are my hiker legs, where’s the Advil, where’s the trail, don’t forget to put snacks someplace I can reach them, why am I so slow, is that a rock in my shoe, who are those people ahead, oh look a squirrel, these views are amazing, I need a rock to sit on, where are my tent stakes, and so on.
But once I got my systems down, then my mind could wander. I thought about my parents and my childhood and my first memories of backpacking in Yosemite amidst a sea of hippies. I thought about relatives I never see, the stories my dad told, about people dear to me who passed on. I pondered my husband, my kids, old friends and new ones. I thought about the partner who dumped me and the broker who fired me (on my birthday) then died a few months later. I thought about past careers, past coworkers and old bosses, wondering what their stock options and houses were worth now. I thought about my successes and failures, high points and low points and lessons learned along the way.
Most of all, I marveled at the glorious views around me at every turn, with the deepest of gratitude.
On the cusp of turning 50, my kids out of the nest, I wondered what I should be doing with the rest of my life. I had hoped the trail would tell me, but so far—nada.
Fish Nugget knew I was groping for answers, so she let me borrow her phone to listen to a podcast. It was a fantastic interview with author Elizabeth Gilbert about choosing curiosity over fear, a perfect distraction from my boredom and pain. I walked faster, my mind occupied, making a note to load up on podcasts for my next trip.
She talked about societal pressures to be great, to be a genius, and how childhood creativity is lost to such worries, as we try to live up to expectations. She argued against the cliché to follow your passions, instead encouraging people to follow their curiosities, calling them friends who teach us how to become ourselves.
Growing up on a Christmas tree farm, she and her sister were taught to do boring things, pointing out that creative life has many boring, tedious tasks. Like writing a book. Or hiking a trail. You toil for hours through the pain, and it’s hard. But then there’s a breakthrough: the words spill out or a stunning view emerges.
Everything that’s interesting is 90% boring. We’re just addicted to the good part.
Marriage is another good example. There are things you do and places you go that you wouldn’t have done without being together. Raising children, especially, is tedious, difficult, painful and joyous. But you stick it through and end up with these wonderful creations.
She encouraged us to stay with our projects till the moment of transformation, because interesting things happen in boring frameworks. Motion plays a critical part: did you do something today toward that goal? Then good. Was it the best thing? Who cares? Doesn’t matter, just keep going.
You work like a farmer toward a whole lot of nothing. Then, there’s this moment of fairy dust. You’re in flow, where the creativity is going through you, not coming from you. The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you. Have faith.
I finished the podcast, pulled out my earplugs and turned off the phone. I kept walking down the dusty trail, filtering my thoughts through her message.
What would I do if the hubby weren’t around? No doubt, I would choose a wandering life. I’d housesit, travel, hike and write. I don’t know why, but it’s what I’m drawn to.
Somehow I’d have to pay for all that, so I pondered what to do for money.
I’ve engaged in many ventures, but none stick for more than a few years. One thing I’d been good at that paid really well was selling real estate, but I’d also burnt out on it, twice, and it was a tough one for travel. Still, I loved the industry and the people in it.
Should I start a business writing real estate newsletters for agents? Or do marketing for brokers? Or be somebody’s assistant? Should I sell it again? God, no. Not that.
The trail gave no answers, so I defaulted back to my book. It’s half-written, a novel about first time homebuyers trying to purchase a house in Reno and all the crazy characters they meet—agents, brokers, sellers and buyers. They end up at Burning Man to save the deal, so it’s that kind of thing, a total romp.
Before the trip, I’d hit a creative wall. But after listening to Elizabeth, I guess the only thing to do is to push right through it. Sit down, do the work, every day, even if the results seem crappy.
So now I knew the meaning of life—just keep going.
The girls and I arrived at Richardson Lake a little after 5:00 pm, an 11-mile day. This getting-up-early plan was definitely the way to go in the heat—busting out major miles in the morning, taking it easy the rest of day and still getting to camp at a reasonable hour.
I set up my tent, soaked my feet and watched the crawdads in the water. I enjoyed another nice meal out of a plastic baggie with my special addition of olive oil and parmesan cheese. Reveling in the absence of mosquitoes, Fish Nugget made me tea.
After a lovely sunset, I crawled into my tent and collapsed.
I needed rest to keep going.