PCT Day 7: Surrender

Last night around ten or eleven, a noisy group of PCT hikers rolled in. They camped right next to me on the restoration habitat, talking and laughing while they set up. Really? In this giant campground with zillions of empty spaces a few steps back, you had to bring your party right to my door?

I stuffed my earplugs in harder and tried to go back to sleep. If I’d been out hiking for just the weekend, I might have been more pissed. Imagine finally getting away from your real life for a precious few nights in the wilderness, only to be accosted by something like this. I was glad to have a whole month to find peace.

As usual I got up early the next morning to pee. The party from last night was already packing up, except for the one guy right outside my front door blocking my view of the creek. They seemed nice enough, though I confess I only fake-smiled when we made eye contact. They looked away. I went to the toilet.

The bathroom at Glen Aulin was amazing.

We’re talking absolute genius, a composting toilet with no smell and a solar powered heater and fan to keep the microorganisms below at the just he right temperature for breaking down human waste into garden compost. Every nasty pit toilet on the planet should be replaced with these, kudos to the park service for their ingenuity!

Back at camp, I sat on my bear can eating a granola baggie breakfast and watching the neighbor guy shuffle around his campsite two feet in front of me. Afterwards I brushed my teeth, right there, as he packed up his tent. When it collapsed, the stream came back into view. I smiled at him for real this time.

As camp emptied out, the girls took their time getting ready.

I gathered up my tent, bag and nanoblanket, spreading them on a big rock in the sun to dry. The nanoblanket seemed to work fine adding warmth, but the price was lots of condensation. It wasn’t as bad as the plastic space blanket but still significant. I’d been warm enough last night, so hopefully this solution would work for the duration.

Solar Composting Toilet
Clean, sustainable, solar composting toilet, one of the nicest no-flush systems I’ve ever seen.
Glen Aulin Sustainable Toilet
Information about Glen Aulin’s amazing backcountry solar composting toilet, go park service!
Meeting Mules
Fish Nugget and Squarepants meet the mules that carry everything in and out of Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp.

Despite my head start, we were all ready at about the same time. After one last visit to the super-cool-not-stinky composting toilet, we loaded up on water from an actual faucet (this place was luxe) and hit the trail, excited to see what lay ahead. For years I’d wanted to hike this part of Yosemite. 

On the way out, we ran into Snowman, who was legendary this season for going 13 days in the High Sierra without a resupply using just one bear can. He showed us how he did it: by filling the bottom of the can with oats and seeds, thrown in like a giant jar of oatmeal, with a few packaged grains on top for variety. Not sure I could eat that way, but definitely an efficient use of space.

We started out on a pleasant, woodsy stretch with granite domes towering above. I kept pace with Fish Nugget and Squarepants for a while, but soon they moved ahead. I stopped for pictures, spotted a young buck, paused for water, stopped to dig out snacks and sprayed myself with Deet.

Cancer be damned, I chose chemical protection with a side of sanity.

The trail became rocky and hard to follow in places, but I always managed to find the way. It was a game, really. Find the trail. I’d played it for years with Fish Nugget, as my dad played it with me.

But a heightened sense of aloneness weighed on me out here. We were now on an isolated stretch of trail well away from the tourist crowds we’d been with since leaving Mammoth. I took more care, making sure I was on the right path.

I walked for another half hour before having to stop again, this time for something completely different.

It was time to poo in the woods, my first of the entire trip.

My normal habit is to poo once every 2-3 days. When I travel, that can extend to every 4-5 days. I know that’s different than most people, but I think it’s great because I don’t have to hassle with all that discomfort and mess so often.

This trip, I managed to make it all the way to Tuolumne Meadows before I finally had to take a crap. Luckily it happened in the presence of a flush toilet, except that the flush part, um, didn’t work so well. This poo that I’d been amassing for five days was so big and so long, I mean, it must have been 15 inches, it actually didn’t flush. Not surprising, but totally embarrassing.

I looked around the bathroom for a plunger, but there was nothing, not even a stick to try and break up the situation. So I did the only humane thing I could think of. I exited the stall and reached over the top to hook the door closed from the outside. I knew that whatever poor ranger in charge of maintaining the bathroom would know what to do, and this way, other lady campers wouldn’t be subjected to the horror of a giant floating hiker poo.

But now, deep in the Yosemite wilderness, there was no place to go but outside.

Fish Nugget had a slight poo obsession and had told me plenty about it. She said the body was an amazing machine and that out here on the trail, poops came out perfect. She called them beautiful. I wasn’t sure how a poop could be beautiful, but I was about to find out.

Unable to further delay the inevitable, I went off trail in a rather rocky section, looking behind me to see what my exit point looked like so as not to get lost. I found a nice big tree with a lot of duff at the base, wriggled out of my pack, fumbled around for my shovel and quickly dug a cat hole as things were getting urgent.

Bridge to Cold Canyon
Crossing the bridge from Glen Aulin to one of the most remote wilderness areas of Yosemite National Park.
Following PCT Hiker Chicks
I kept up for a while, but Fish Nugget and Squarepants sailed ahead.
Boob Rocks
Look, boobie rocks!

Pants down, I squatted over the hole, not quite sure exactly how to line things up, fanning my butt to ward off mosquitoes. It only took a moment, passing all at once.

Not used to this pooping outdoors thing, I’d forgotten to grab toilet paper. Pants down, I hobbled to my pack, dug it out of the awkward brain pocket, and found a spare baggie for trash. Buns exposed to bugs, I alternately fanned my fanny while digging for bare necessities. After cleanup, I turned to see what I’d done.

Oh. My. God. It was huge, actually overflowing the 6-inch cat hole. Buttery brown, perfectly smooth, coiled nicely, Fish Nugget was right. It was beautiful.

You know that smiling poo emoji that’s all over the internet?

I never understood why the original artist picked that shape to depict poo because I’d never seen poo like that, until this moment. I had deposited a perfect poo. The flies cheered, swarming my poo like the rock star it was.

 

emojipoo

I considered taking a picture but thought that might be going too far. So I committed it to memory instead. Digging a bigger hole to completely bury it, I smoothed the duff on top, packed out the paper and returned the trail.

My pains accompanied me, chattering softly at first, then more incessantly as the morning wore on. Around eleven, I entered a meadow that I recognized from a horse pack trip I’d taken nine years earlier with Fish Nugget via Virginia Pass.

The wrangler said, you haven’t really lived until you’ve skated on a horse.

Ah, yes, the rock skating incident. We were on a day ride from base camp, heading up to Miller Lake for a picnic. Part of the trail crossed an expanse of gently sloping granite rocks, polished smooth by the forces of nature.

I can’t remember my horse’s name, it was something mundane, but he was a sturdy, gray appaloosa with a pleasant disposition, who seemed reasonably sure-footed on incredibly rocky trails where it was hard to believe actual horses could walk.

Crossing this expanse of granite, he lost his footing. All four legs scrambled at once, desperately seeking a place to land, like Wile E Coyote off the edge of the cliff.

Time stood still.

If this horse went down, he would surely crush my right leg. And quite possibly the rest of me. If that didn’t kill me, my head hitting the granite might just do the trick. I could die in the next instant.

Panicking wouldn’t help. Tensing muscles wouldn’t help. Moving wouldn’t help. So I just sat there, heels down, back straight, body relaxed in perfect balance, looking ahead, breathing, waiting to see what happened next as horse legs scrambled furiously beneath me.

There are these moments in life, I don’t know what you call them, moments of truth, I guess, where something’s going on, and it’s dire, and there’s nothing you can do except face the situation and succumb to the outcome, whatever it may me.

I didn’t die that day.

I didn’t even get crushed. My horse found his footing. The affectionate pats I gave him after don’t even begin to convey the gratitude I felt that he found his balance so that we could continue on as before, me with my baby girl on a wilderness pack adventure, all in one piece, able to go home and hug Honeybunny and The Hubby, just like always.

Meadow Above Virginia Canyon
Beautiful meadow on the way to Virginia Canyon, a shot almost every PCT hiker takes.
Snowman on the Trail
We saw Snowman again later that day on the trail. I love his improvised nose guard made of duct tape.

Ruminating on that memory, I ran into Fish Nugget resting on a rock. I walked over and sat down next to her, sharing my BBQ Fritos, which she inhaled like crack. I told her what I’d been thinking about. She said that to her it sounded more like a moment of surrender. Maybe she was right.

I thought a lot about surrender on the trail after that, my word of the day.

Mindful to not overstay my welcome, I went on ahead. Further down the meadow I found a nice spot to sit at roughly the 4-mile mark. I sat there for a while, resting, eating, looking at the incredible alpine view. I watched a few hikers go by.

Our goal that day was Miller Lake, which we had never reached on the horse pack trip because of a tree blocking the trail, so I was excited to finally see what it looked like. It would be a 12-mile day, which I wasn’t convinced I could do but was willing to try.

Squarepants passed by and said hello. How the heck did she get behind me?

The trail to Virginia Canyon seemed vaguely familiar. Lumbering down the endless mountain, I thought about how much easier it had all been on horseback. My feet ached. My back and shoulders, too. Maybe if I surrendered to pain, it would all be better?

I met up with the girls at the bottom. We rested at the McCabe and Return Creek fork for maybe 45 minutes, about eight miles into our day. Unable to locate a good hammock spot between these raging waterways, I gave up, laid in dirt with my feet up on a rock and dozed off. I didn’t even bother to spread out the Zrest.

The last four miles were brutal.

I slogged it out step-by-step, trying to embrace the pain. We passed over my granite-moment-of-truth-rock, and for a minute I forgot my throbbing feet. So cool to be here again, thankful to be alive, I took a picture.

Soon after, we crossed another thigh-high creek. I made Fish Nugget go first to show me the way. She got a little too wet for my taste, so I picked a different route. Using my poles for support and stepping on underwater rocks, I was able to keep the water level below my knees. Higher than that freaks me out.

Behind me, moments after warning me to be careful, Squarepants slipped, fell and got the bottom of her pack all wet. She was unhurt but lost her water bottle downstream. We all shared a laugh at the irony of the situation. Later she learned that her toilet paper got ruined, but fortunately we had extra.

Resting by Return Creek
Resting by Return Creek, the sound of the water was almost deafening.
Passed Out on Rock
Passed out in the dirt at Return Creek. I wished this day were over, but we had four more miles to go.
Rock Skating Rink
Rock skating rink, where I lived to die another day. The trail is more clearly marked now than it used to be.

The final approach to the lake was a big, uphill slog. I took up patterned breathing, counting steps to eight like dance steps, occasionally resting on logs. The girls weren’t even sweating, but they stuck with me, letting me set the pace. They talked the whole way up about mailing packages to boys, an engaging distraction.

The trail topped off to more level terrain, over a big rise, so of course, we thought we were almost there but weren’t. The trail is such a tease, there’s always more. But at last we arrived at Miller Lake. Smaller than I expected, it was still beautiful.

Squarepants located some tent sites in a big rock grouping above the lake. They picked spots in the sun to catch the last rays of the day, while I chose a shady spot sheltered from the wind by huge boulders. No view for me this time, it was more important to stay warm. Exhausted, it took longer than usual to pitch my tent. I didn’t even have the energy for pictures. The ones you see were taken the next morning.

Hopefully that rodent village right next door won’t be an issue.

Later, a European hiker and a guy named Laser joined our campsite, both choosing respectable distances up the hill. Squarepants knew Laser from the desert, so they chatted for a bit. He’d hiked all the way in from Tuolumne that day.

Two couples passed by asking about space, which I’m pretty sure we had up the hill and told them so, but they moved on, probably looking for more privacy. Located up front, I had become our de facto campground host.

By Miller Lake
The PCT near Miller Lake, just below our campsite.
Miller Lake
On the little beach at Miller Lake, deep in Yosemite National Park.

Clouds gathered, and we thought it might rain. But it never did. The wind, however, had this curious habit of coming up from nowhere, blowing hard and cold, disappearing minutes later. I wondered if two canyons crossed below us, causing the phenomenon. I wished for a wider view on my Halfmile maps to see the terrain.

Two more guys camped on the windy flat below, high-mileage PCTers arriving late.

Remembering last night and that night in Lyell Canyon, I thought it interesting how some thru-hikers blow in and out like they own the trail, camping wherever is convenient, just like they did in the desert. I guess when it’s your home for months at a time, you treat it with greater familiarity. Even the girls do.

Our permits say camp 100 feet from the trail and 100 feet from the water. They also say, use established sites. The reality is, out here in the middle of nowhere, most of the established sites are a lot closer to the trail and the water that what the permit wants. Tonight we’re at most 40 feet from the trail. Last night we were maybe 15 feet from a stream in a ranger supervised campground. All established sites, a dilemma that continued to haunt me.

It had been a long day. I pulled everything inside to avoid potential rodent damage, took off my camp shoes and settled into my sleeping bag. Against a symphony of frogs in the distance, I finally had a moment to miss The Hubby. I hoped that he was having fun.

I dozed off, surrendering to sleep.

30 Days on the PCT
Day 7: July 9, mile 960