Lost in the great alone: A hiker's quest on the Pacific Crest Trail

Bloodied, terrified, and exhausted, I was two days into a 1,100-mile hike, says Cheryl Strayed, and ready to quit

I AM TECHNICALLY 15 days older than the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada along the crest of nine mountain ranges. I was born in 1968, on Sept. 17, and the trail was designated by an act of Congress on Oct. 2 of that same year, though it wasn't officially dedicated until 1993 — almost two years before I woke that first morning among the Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert. The trail didn't feel two years old to me. It didn't even feel like it was about my age. It felt ancient. Knowing. Utterly and profoundly indifferent to me.

I woke at dawn but couldn't bring myself to so much as sit up for an hour, lingering instead in my sleeping bag. The wind had awakened me repeatedly throughout the night, smacking against my tent in great bursts, sometimes hard enough so the walls whipped up against my head. It died down a few hours before dawn, but then it was something else that woke me: the silence. The irrefutable proof that I was out here in the great alone.

My plan was to hike the PCT from the Mojave Desert to Washington state. Later on, I told someone I met on the trail the reasons why: I was 26 and recently divorced; four years before my mother had died suddenly of cancer, at age 45; and in my grief I'd gotten off track. I thought spending three solid months alone in the woods carrying a pack so heavy that I could barely lift it would help me find my center.

I crawled out of my tent and stood slowly, my muscles stiff from yesterday's hike, my bare feet tender on the rocky dirt. I still wasn't hungry, but I forced myself to eat breakfast. I drank the last of the water in my bottles and awkwardly refilled them from my dromedary bag, which flopped heavily in my hands. According to my bible, The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, I was 13 miles away from my first water source: Golden Oak Springs, which, in spite of yesterday's poor showing, I expected to reach by day's end.

I loaded my pack the way I had the day before in the motel, cramming and wedging things in until nothing more would fit, then attaching the rest by bungee cords to the outside. It took me an hour to break camp and set off. Almost immediately I stepped over a small pile of scat on the trail, a few feet from where I'd been sleeping. It was black as tar. A coyote, I hoped. Or was it a mountain lion? I searched the dirt for tracks, but saw none. I scanned the landscape, ready to see a large feline face among the sagebrush and rocks.

I began to walk, feeling experienced in a way I hadn't the day before, less cautious with each step in spite of the scat, stronger beneath my pack. That strength crumbled within 15 minutes, as I ascended and then ascended some more, pushing into the rocky mountains, walking switchback after switchback. My pack's frame creaked behind me with each step, straining from the weight. The muscles of my upper back and shoulders were bound in tense, hot knots. Every so often, I stopped and bent over to brace my hands against my knees and shift the pack's weight off my shoulders for a moment of relief before staggering on.

By noon I was up over 6,000 feet and the air had cooled, the sun suddenly disappearing behind clouds. Yesterday it had been hot in the desert, but now I shivered as I ate my lunch of a protein bar and dried apricots, my sweat-drenched T-shirt growing cold on my back. I dug the fleece jacket out of my clothing bag and put it on. Afterward, I lay down on my tarp to rest for a few minutes and, without meaning to, fell asleep.

I WOKE TO raindrops falling on my face and looked at my watch. I'd slept for nearly two hours. I hadn't dreamed of anything, hadn't had any awareness that I'd been sleeping at all, as if instead someone had come up behind me and knocked me unconscious with a rock. When I sat up I saw that I was engulfed in a cloud, the mist so impenetrable I couldn't see beyond a few feet. I cinched on my pack and continued hiking through the light rain, though my whole body felt as if it were pushing through deep water with each step. 

I continued up, into the late afternoon and evening, unable to see anything except what was immediately before me. I wasn't thinking of snakes, as I'd been the day before. I wasn't thinking, "I'm hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail." I wasn't even thinking, "What have I gotten myself into?" I was thinking only of moving myself forward. My mind was a crystal vase that contained only that one desire. My body was its opposite: a bag of broken glass. Every time I moved, it hurt. I counted my steps to take my mind off the pain, silently ticking the numbers off in my head to 100 before starting over again. The blocks of numbers made the walk slightly more bearable, as if I only had to go to the end of each one.

As I ascended, I realized I didn't understand what a mountain was. I'd not grown up around mountains. I'd walked on a few, but only on well-trod paths on day hikes. They'd seemed to be nothing more than really big hills. But they were not that. They were, I now realized, layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing. Each time I reached the place that I thought was the top of the mountain or the series of mountains glommed together, I was wrong. There was still more up to go, even if first there was a tiny slope that went tantalizingly down. So up I went until I reached what really was the top. I knew it was the top because there was snow. Not on the ground, but falling from the sky, in thin flakes that swirled in mad patterns, pushed by the wind.

I hadn't expected it to rain in the desert, and I certainly hadn't expected it to snow. As with the mountains, there'd been no deserts where I grew up, and though I'd gone on day hikes in a couple of them, I didn't really understand what deserts were. I'd taken them to be dry, hot, and sandy places full of snakes, scorpions, and cactuses. They were that and also a bunch of other things. They were layered and complex and inexplicable and analogous to nothing. My new existence was beyond analogy, I realized on that second day on the trail.

I was in entirely new terrain.

I WALKED THE rest of the afternoon with my eyes fixed on the trail immediately in front of me, afraid I'd lose my footing again and fall. It was then that I spotted what I'd searched for days before: mountain lion tracks. It had walked along the trail not long before me in the same direction as I was walking — its paw prints clearly legible in the dirt for a quarter mile. I stopped every few minutes to look around. The landscape was mostly a range of blonds and browns, the same colors as a mountain lion. I walked on, thinking about the newspaper article I'd recently come across about three women in California — each one had been killed by a mountain lion on separate occasions over the past year — and about all those nature shows I'd watched as a kid in which the predators go after the one they judge to be the weakest in the pack. There was no question that was me: the one most likely to be ripped limb from limb. I sang aloud the little songs that came into my head — "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads" — hoping that my terrified voice would scare the lion away, while at the same time fearing it would alert her to my presence, as if the blood crusted on my leg and the days-old stench of my body weren't enough to lure her.

As I scrutinized the land, I realized that I'd come far enough by now that the terrain had begun to change. The landscape around me was still arid, dominated by the same chaparral and sagebrush as it had been all along, but now the Joshua trees that defined the Mojave Desert appeared only sporadically. More common were the juniper trees, piñon pines, and scrub oaks. Occasionally, I passed through shady meadows thick with grass. The grass and the reasonably large trees were a comfort to me. They suggested water and life. They intimated that I could do this.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, as I made my way along a narrow and steep stretch of trail, I looked up to see an enormous brown horned animal charging at me.

"Moose!" I hollered, though I knew that it wasn't a moose. In the panic of the moment, my mind couldn't wrap around what I was seeing, and a moose was the closest thing to it. "Moose!" I hollered more desperately as it neared. I scrambled into the manzanitas and scrub oaks that bordered the trail, pulling myself into their sharp branches as best I could, stymied by the weight of my pack.

As I did this, the species of the beast came to me and I understood that I was about to be mauled by a Texas longhorn bull.

"Mooooose!" I shouted louder as I grabbed for the yellow cord tied to the frame of my pack that held the world's loudest whistle. I found it, brought it to my lips, closed my eyes, and blew with all my might, until I had to stop to get a breath of air.

When I opened my eyes, the bull was gone.

So was all the skin on the top of my right index finger, scraped off on the manzanitas' jagged branches in my frenzy.

The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer — and yet also, like most things, so very simple — was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go. The bull, I acknowledged grimly, could be in either direction, since I hadn't seen where he'd run once I closed my eyes. I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward.

And so I walked on. 

From the book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. ©2012 by Cheryl Strayed. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.


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