You are currently viewing Chapter 11 Return to California
Kakuzõ Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906

Trail Angel No. 100 is our next stop. After we arrive at South Lake Tahoe, we head straight to the USPS where Shepherd has sent her parcels, because this post office is close to the bus stop and our trail angel’s home. As is typically the case they want her to collect her parcel elsewhere, always beyond walking distance on the other side of town. Stuff it. We’ll sort this out later. Lunch first, before our new trail angel drives us to her lovely holiday home. After last night’s trip, an offer of a room and bathroom to ourselves sounds delightful.

On first impressions, I put Laura in a similar age bracket to me. She is svelte, glamourous, and toned. Her glorious auburn locks make me briefly reconsider my helmet of unwashed dull grey hair. With the exercise I am getting, I can only compete on ‘toned.’ Not a competition, Katrina. We each have our priorities. Remember yours is going grey gracefully and accepting who you are. It’s disappointing society places such importance on women’s looks, whatever their age. Even more depressing is the realisation women, including me, can be the harshest judges of other women.

How you deal with ageing is your choice. I shouldn’t make comparisons and waiver in my convictions because someone else looks more drop-dead gorgeous than me. A moment of hesitation surfaces. Who am I kidding believing my new, carefree, adventurous spirit can obliterate years of society’s objectification of women if I fall victim to the first attractive older woman I see?

Shepherd is gorgeous too, may I add, in a dirty, ‘hiker trash’ sort of way. She doesn’t threaten me. She has youth on her side, and I see no need for comparison. Shepherd attracted me from our first conversation with her quiet confidence and determination to walk the PCT. Looks didn’t enter the equation when I assessed whether I wanted to walk with her.

I should treat Laura the same way. I want to be an advocate for older women and encourage them to break the mould. They can wear lipstick, like me, if it makes them feel good, but ultimately I want them to be confident in the way they choose to lead their lives. If I fall prey to comparing appearances, I’m no better than the people I criticise. Good looks, bad looks, we should try not to judge. My hasty retreat from the Ladies’ Room last night observing a homeless woman soiling herself still torments me.

Despite her quiet demeanour, Laura’s personality hints at high intelligence and strength of character. She has recently retired from teaching children with learning difficulties such as autism. “It’s about adapting teaching methods to their unique needs and creating an environment in which they can thrive.” My daughter is training in this same field. Both talk passionately about their wish to help autistic children navigate the education system. It takes a special person to dedicate their life to teaching children and young adults with special needs. The people we meet on the PCT are truly amazing, kind, and generous. It’s an eye-opener. The Double Ds’ only claim to fame is we’re prepared to walk an exceptionally long distance for six months of our lives.

Emerald Bay State Park near South Lake Tahoe

Asking for help has opened my life to a whole new network of future friends. It’s made me aware of how extraordinary every ordinary person is. To embrace human interaction is a tremendous part of the PCT’s appeal.

Laura has a cute, needy Havanese dog called Henry who won’t leave her side. Very like my pampered pooch, Eli, back home. I envisage Eli walking the PCT. He’d love it, sniffing every fresh animal scent as he trots beside me on his lead. But the PCT isn’t suitable for a dog too comfortable with soft bedding, air conditioning, and a cut and blow-dry every six weeks. Just watching Henry’s similar mannerisms is making me homesick. Brings to the fore a growing yearning to see family, friends, and pets.

August 29, 2019. It is Day 125 of our PCT journey and back home in Australia, August 30, is my birthday. I get lots of lovely messages from home but today is a busy resupply and postage day. No time to focus on age or celebrations. It’s all systems go. Supermarket shop, meal preparation, posting extra supplies back to Rebecca and Shepherd has a bounce box to mail to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) deep in the Sierra. It sounds easy enough but nothing on the PCT is easy.

We find the post office holding Shepherd’s gear. Her bounce box has arrived safely thank goodness. But has her Garmin InReach GPS satellite communicator arrived? We wait an eternity while we watch a postal worker fruitlessly walk the parcel delivery aisles behind a glass partition. Coming back empty-handed we add,

“It’s only a small parcel. Not the usual priority mailbox and they sent it Express Post.”

“Oh, okay. We store that size elsewhere. I’ll check there.”

Once again, we watch in agonising anticipation. We hold our breath as this second search seems destined for equal failure. He stops and reaches for a small parcel a few shelves above him. My heart can’t take this any longer.

“You’re in luck.” That’s a first. A tremendous sigh of relief from Shepherd.

We could manage with just my GPS but not having your own Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a risky game. Its intended use is for the individual registered to the device, not to help another person. Circumstances could arise when you might need to use your device to save another person’s life. Regardless, of whether you walk together or as part of a team, having the ability to be self-reliant should always be your top priority.

So, after Shepherd has retrieved what she needs from her bounce box you’d assume one could just reseal it and pay the extra postage to redirect it to VVR. Nup! That’s way too easy. VVR will receive mail, but not US Priority Mail from the post office. Only UPS (United Parcel Service) mail. OMG!

And where is the UPS office where we can redirect this bounce box? Nevada. What! Not so ridiculous. Nevada is at the other end of South Lake Tahoe, Central California; what the locals refer to as ‘the casino end of town’. After lunch, we leave Laura to rest while we Uber our way across town. Trail angeling is hard work. This evening we’ll celebrate her overwhelming generosity and kindness combined with my birthday dinner.

At last, we enter Nevada, two miles in, and locate the UPS mail service. I wait in the Uber vehicle and chat with the driver while Shepherd does this chore. What do you know? The driver and I have the same birth date. I’m celebrating mine today because it’s my birthday in Australia. Small world isn’t it, full of coincidences.

“Where to next girls?”

“Heavenly Village, please if that’s not too much trouble.”

This is a major ski town with a gondola ride to the mountain top. We consider treating ourselves to a ride. US$65 seems a tad excessive when we can access the mountains, on the PCT, for free. Our last duty for the day is to buy one last gourmet dehydrated meal and a gas cylinder for cooking. And Kit Kat wants a quick browse in these ritzy shops. 

“You’ve got 20 minutes tops,” instructs Shepherd.

I burst into a gallery and spot pearl earrings.

“Aren’t they gorgeous, Shep?” I chirp. I ask the price. Reasonable. Shep hands me cash towards their cost.

“Happy Birthday!”

“Oh, Shep. How could you tell I like them?”

“Not hard, Kit Kat.”

“Thank you. I love them,” followed with a quick hug for my walking buddy.

I take the earrings unwrapped to avoid adding more weight to my pack. I will treasure these babies. They’ll be a constant reminder of my birthday, a wonderful friendship, and this grand PCT journey.

The celebrations continue into the evening at a lovely Italian restaurant. American food has improved since my last visit. Burger joints and diners still exist, but there’s a wide variety of other healthier cuisines available. It’s been nice celebrating my special day.

A last birthday surprise awaits me as we pull into Laura’s driveway. An enormous black bear just four yards from the car. Often called dumpster bears they hang around populated areas and raid the trash cans. Many residents don’t secure their rubbish well enough, so full trash cans become easy prey for bear visits. This one looks sleepy and disinterested. I lower the car window for a few blurry shots.

Laura suggests we exit the other side of the car and head for the front door. We scurry off. Once indoors, we hear a deafening ruckus coming from the neighbour’s trash can. Eventually, the bear runs off with its spoils. Never imagined our second impressive bear sighting would be in a town full of trash cans. And everyone told us the PCT was dangerous. Nothing compares to suburbia. 

Today is my birthday in America. It’s the start of a five-day food carry. We limit celebrations to a hearty breakfast of sugar-laden granola, peanut butter toast, and tea. I increase the insulin dosage to cope with this indulgence, but not excessively. We have much elevation today. I know high altitude climbing can lower sugar levels. I don’t want to end up eating unnecessarily a few hours later because I overdosed on insulin. I think I get the dosage right.

Shortly afterwards, Laura drives us to Echo Lake trailhead to reconnect us with the Sierra section of the PCT. The trail starts with a steep 1500ft climb. I find it more difficult than expected. I’m tired, out of breath, and dizzy. Could it be due to our heavy packs and a few days break? Or maybe my sugar levels have plummeted.

I test and find them high, off the charts high. The culprit is the sugar-laden granola. I haven’t taken enough insulin. I end up taking a huge dose at lunchtime to bring it under control. Never a dull moment with diabetes management. To cap off the morning a bee stings me on my inner thigh, just for the hell of it, leaving me with a hot, inflamed, itchy spot for days.  

Did the lunchtime megadose fix my problem? Sure did. I’m back in the healthy range. Later in the afternoon, I’m low again. This time the culprit is elevation. Guess I need to eat again to give myself the energy to continue to our campsite. Damn you, diabetes! You are making me angry, but you will not spoil my fun. Just watch.

The air is dry again. My nostrils are getting clogged: need to plug them with Vaseline. The quicks of my nails are splitting and causing deep fissures: Super Glue. And my throat is parched. Diet Dr Pepper, where are you? There’s little cover as we walk through exposed open meadows. Until we return to the subalpine forests, reminiscent of our earlier High Sierra experience before the FLIP. Dramatic scenery back then, equal magnificence again.

Sierra junipers. Lodgepole, foxtail, and whitebark pines. Giant sequoia redwoods. And John Muir’s ‘range of light’ along the horizon with many gently rounded granite domes. Calming, lofty, luminescent. I’m so glad we are revisiting these Sierra Nevada ranges. They’re one of the most beautiful natural features of the United States. They’re worth the sacrifices, toil, and torment to see them.   

A respectable 15.4 miles (25 km) walked today. Time to pitch our tents. I’m still slower than Shepherd but much faster than at the beginning.

Here’s my setup. I remove everything I have put in my pack and scatter it over the tent floor. This comprises a variety of multi-coloured stuff sacks of various sizes that hold my repair kit, toiletries, toileting, first aid, food, stove, clothing, electronics, and journal. I gather water, filter it, and place it carefully in the tent to avoid water leakages in my safe private haven. The last items to hurl in are my pack and shoes before I drop myself in, with a thud to the floor. All pretence at joviality or civil discourse goes.

“Night Shepherd. Have a good one,” or sometimes “You did well today. It was tough. Thanks for leading me,” is as much as I can muster. Shepherd grunts in acknowledgment. Silence reigns.

I tighten my guy lines, toggle my vestibule flaps together, and close myself to the outside world. I know Shepherd will have her stove on eager to eat her evening meal. But I don’t always follow suit. Sometimes I will treat myself to a Mountain House chicken teriyaki and rice meal or I go for my regular Idahoan Mashed Potato brand with its appealing flavours and a mix of other additives for bulk and calories.

If food is not a priority, I might hit the toiletries stuff sack and check out my face. I use Wet Wipes for toileting and washing my face. Toileting takes precedence over face washing so if we have a seven-day carry and I have only 20 sheets in a pack I allow three sheets each day for toileting purposes. If I don’t use my strict allocation, I’ll use one to wash my face first. Then the grime between my toes. If any cleaning surface remains, I wash my hands, arms, and legs.

I carry a compact mirror to spot the fast-accumulating white eyebrow hairs and facial injuries. Tweezers help me tame the white hairs. With closeup vision deteriorating I enjoy this challenge. I use reading glasses and a small credit-card-sized magnifying glass in front of the mirror to spot those pesky hairs. My head torch, hanging from the tent’s ceiling, assists me in completing this grooming task.

Will anyone notice my white eyebrow hair advance? Unlikely. Shepherd won’t. Minute observation is not her thing, but it proves an entertaining time waster for me.

She can’t help but notice my Infinite Raspberry lipstick. I wear it every day. And my solid fanbase, all 40 of them, keep sending me messages of encouragement, “Keep the lippy” when they see my enthusiasm for applying it wane. How can I disappoint them? It’s become my mission to apply it daily to keep up the facade of being in control. It earns nine out of 10 as a morale booster and I love how it stays on a solid 16 hours. So good are its application claims I am carrying a little more weight to help me remove it each night. The chunky layer-upon-layer approach is not ideal. I can’t carry heavy liquid bottles. A friend introduced me to an ingenious Makeup Eraser Cloth, a 5 x 5-inch teeny weeny piece of microfleece. I add a splash of water to it and rub it across my lips to remove the lipstick. Success! No wonder I take ages to prepare dinner. Too many self-improvement tasks before I can contemplate a meal.

So, yes, like Laura, I still want to look good. I still feel some pressure to conform to society’s beauty standards. It’s not for me to judge whether or not a woman should wear makeup. If it makes you feel good do it. Before I started this hike, I wouldn’t have been game to walk outside without full makeup. Now I’m content with just my Infinite Raspberry. Each day I become more accepting and comfortable with my ageing appearance. The PCT is giving me a newfound confidence to explore life’s possibilities without wearing a mask. If I look like hiker trash so be it. The beauty routines I persist with simply keep me occupied. They’re unnecessary. And they’re only done if the products weigh nothing. I simply don’t have the space for a heavy cosmetics bag.  

Let’s focus on the filth instead and look at my feet. They’re covered in a variety of blister plasters, band-aids, Fixomull stretch adhesive tape, and waterproof tape. I marvel at their application, beneath the grime and dirt. How sore are those feet? I prod the tender spots. Bearable? Let the grubby dressings stay. Dislodged dressings? Replace. Painful? Ouch! Investigate. The culprit is usually a burning blister or corn. There are lots of methods to reduce infection. Sterilise a needle and thread it through an unburst blister to release the fluid. Clean the area, apply betadine, and cover with a clean bandage. The same for corns, just dig a little deeper. It’s best to treat the ailments in the evening than add an extra 30 minutes to the morning routine. I dare not be late for our 6.30 am start.

Next, ‘Put a looser pair of socks on for bed to keep your sleeping bag clean and allow your feet to breathe,’ the seasoned hikers recommend. Or I can disregard this advice completely, put my hiking socks back on, and be ready sooner. If I’m not bothered by the foot odour, who cares? A stinky sleeping bag is the least of my worries. How much worse can it get?

‘Change out of your hiking clothes each night and put your clean base layers on.’ Why? My sleeping bag already smells like shit. Moist hiking clothes dry quicker if you sleep in them. There’s nothing worse than changing back into chilly ones the next morning.

But at least change your underwear. Butt chafe is a curse of the thru-hiker. There are lots of gooey remedies with cringe-worthy names–Anti Monkey Butt Anti Friction Cream comes to mind. I resort to soothing remedies, but I try my best to clean myself with Wet Wipes. I figure I am as clean as can be. Changing my underwear will not freshen me for any length of time. I can go six days without a change.

I’m not sure of Shepherd’s hygiene routine but she never says my presence is intolerable. I hope she’ll be honest with me. “Kit Kat, you stink! Do something about it!” My increasing disregard for personal care might explain the growing distance between us.

No doubt, she’s waging her own battles. The longer you hike the less inclined you are to follow or want others’ advice. Faced with the daily grind shortcuts emerge. You do what is necessary to survive and continue. Hardly lazy, it’s a coping strategy and a realistic view of our current mindset. Sensible, pragmatic, brave.

I like the space inside my tent, to do what pleases me. Our respect for each other’s privacy gives us time to confront our difficulties alone without becoming constant misery guts to each other when out on the trail. I have enjoyed most of this epic PCT journey, but an ordeal it is fast becoming.

The next few days bring us brilliant warm days with stunning vistas and wildflowers sprinkled over the meadows. Even snow crossings with brilliant white accents on distant peaks and valleys. Motionless lakes dazzle us with their perfect mirror images.

We’re over 8,000 ft in elevation. Altitude fatigues us. The conversation is minimal. I notice families with small children effortlessly climbing these steep slopes and passing us.

“Don’t you find that unusual, Shepherd? What have they got we haven’t?”

“Well, for a start, they’re not carrying a settee on their back.”

“Hilarious, Shep.” Just the comment I need. I visualise walking this slippery scree slope with a settee on our backs and chuckle the entire way to the top.

This brings to mind another fine example of undertaking ridiculous challenges. In 2013, Tony Phoenix-Morrison ran 1,000 miles (1,600kms) from John O’Groats in the Highlands of Scotland to the southern tip of the UK, Land’s End in Cornwall–with an 88lb (40kg) fridge on his back.

“Why?” everyone asked. He responded “When I set out, I genuinely had no idea how far I’d get. I wanted to try something so hard that nobody could be certain of its outcome. All I could do was try to prepare myself physically and mentally as best I could.”

We were only carrying half a fridge, but you can see the similar torture we’re subjecting our bodies. Our pack weight has ended the possibility of completing the entire trail. A hefty pack enormously pressures your feet. The sorer the feet the higher the chance of injury and not achieving those larger distances.

Our revised mileage goal of 1,800 miles (2,897 km) will be two-thirds the distance of the entire PCT. I can’t see myself returning to complete it. Age and foot problems are not on my side. Shepherd and I have walked for four months. We have committed to walk for one more month to complete the best parts of the trail. Five months, by anyone’s standards, is a decent long-distance thru-hike. We should be proud of what we’ve achieved.

That night. “Arghh!”

“Are you okay, Shepherd?”

“Yes, I just burnt my leg.”

“Do you need anything for it?”

“No. All good.” Moments later. “Arghh!”

“Everything okay?”

“I knifed my tent. It’s got a bloody big hole in it.”

“Do you need something from my repair kit?

“No. I think it will last the distance.”

“Maybe it’s time for another episode of My Dad Wrote a Porno and away with the tools.”

“You might be right there, Kit Kat.”

“Sweet dreams.”

We’re both exhausted. The end cannot come soon enough. We agree to continue for the moment. During the night I awake at 3 am chilled to the bone. I put on an extra layer and sleep through my alarm. Shepherd usually wakes me, on the odd occasion that I oversleep. I jokingly berated her for not doing it this morning.

“I’ve only just got up myself.”

She’s told me on many an occasion she’s not a morning person. I hazard that now is not the time to annoy her further. I ask if she survived the leg burning and tent knifing incidents. She assures me she’s fine. But with the mouse chews and other running tent repairs, I suspect Shepherd’s living quarters are not looking so flash. Battered might be a better description. The best course of action is to continue walking toward our end goal. Don’t be a prick, Katrina. Antagonising Helen is not a smart move. Clearly, she’s not in the mood for your caustic comments and sharp observations. Diversion from our misery becomes my sole aim.

This morning we amble through high-elevation meadows. Pleasant enough but nothing grabs me until I hear chiming bells. Church bells? Unlikely. There’s no civilisation for miles in any direction. They’re cow bells, those lovely big Austrian brass ones fastened with thick leather straps around each animal’s neck. A percussive melody of delicate tinkles and loud jangling fills the air as we spot cattle feasting on lush grasses and deer brush.

We’re witnessing permitted livestock grazing, a controversial activity in national parks. Sierran ranchers need high-country grazing during the summer months to feed their cattle when low-elevation grasslands become too dry. Environmentalists argue overgrazing has a detrimental impact on the meadow breeding habitat of half of this area’s endangered native amphibian species, particularly the Yosemite toads (Bufo canorus Camp). Hopefully, these parties can work with the USDA Forest Service to coexist harmoniously and ensure the survival of both ranchers and endangered species.

To us, these well-fed cattle with their gleaming black, chestnut, and cream coats, and those adorable bells, present an idyllic rural scene amid this Sierran landscape of meadows, massive rock outcrops, and coniferous forests. Gee, they’re even heading up the path to greet us. Such placid animals compared to how we presume an encounter with a mountain lion or bear might be, but confrontation with animals of any kind should be avoided. We step off the path. They stop in the middle hesitant to pass stinky ‘hiker trash’ humans.

“We can’t sit here all day waiting for them to decide,” announces Shepherd.

“No, I agree. Why don’t you confront them, Shepherd? They might end up following you too.” Can’t help myself. Barely a few hours and I’m trying to make light of the situation. Didn’t I say to myself I’d be good, tolerant, and behave?

She is not amused. Nor the cows as they scamper up the hillside and disappear. The delightful clanging sound soon gets on my nerves. I need earplugs.

I should welcome this new distraction. The rugged ascents continue to sap our energy. Shepherd struggles with frequent low sugar readings yet can still lead me. Truly, I’m in awe of her efforts. I couldn’t walk with such low readings. Diabetes is such an individual disease. So many factors play a part: mood, stress, weather, altitude, sickness, diet, insulin dose, and exercise. It’s a troublesome condition to manage, but we do our best. Of more concern are the mental and emotional aspects of this epic journey which are testing us more each day.

Constant ascents continue throughout the afternoon, but they’re not as strenuous as this morning’s efforts. We set up camp by a lovely stream. I use this opportunity to have a dip and wash the grime from my arms and legs. Mileage gains have been good these past four days. Only 6.3 miles left before we arrive at our next resupply town, KMN (Kennedy Meadows North). With an elevation of 10,559ft (3,2198m), I am experiencing persistent nausea, queasiness, and lack of appetite. These symptoms could be the first signs of mild altitude mountain sickness (AMS). You don’t want it developing into life-threatening HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) or HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). I welcome the rest stop to ease this discomfort.

Approaching Sonora Pass

After our usual early morning departure we reach Sonora Pass around 10 am. This is where they suggest you hitch to KMN, but the road is narrow and blind, not allowing drivers time to stop. I spend 40 minutes sticking out my thumb at the few passing cars without any success. I suggest we move along and see if we can nab a lift in a location more conducive to stopping.

“Your turn, Shepherd. Infinite Raspberry and an enormous smile are not cutting it this morning. What tricks have you got up your sleeve?”

The limited traffic on this deserted road is half the problem but Shepherd sticks her thumb out a few times, and within minutes we’re in luck. Knew she could do it. A delightful couple move their stuff from their back seats to accommodate us. They can’t release the lever to return the seats to an upright position.

“Don’t worry. We can sit on them as they are. It’s not far so we should be ok.”

“You sure?”

“We’re positive.”

No way are we letting a lift go begging in whatever shape or form it comes. Kerry and Tom drop us at the General Store, and we thank them for the lift. Things are looking up. We secure a reasonably priced share room which we end up getting all to ourselves.

Kennedy Meadows North is a Resort and Pack station opened in 1917. 10 miles west of the PCT it provides a gateway to the Sierra Nevada and northern Yosemite National Park. It offers horse riding, accommodation in the two-storey lodge or cabins, and access to good old-fashioned 50s-style hospitality. On October 2, 2007, a fire razed the Resort’s historic main lodge. It took them a year to rebuild it.

Today it has a pleasing fresh atmosphere, even with the happy stuffed elk and black bears peering at you from every wall. The taxidermist has gifted them smiles. If I saw these animals in the woods, I’d rush to pat them. I know killing these animals is barbaric and wrong today, but these old relics from the past give the lodge a rustic charm. 

The amenities rock; a well-stocked convenience store, showers, laundry, dining room, and even a saloon bar. I’m still feeling nauseous, but I’m trying to ignore it and enjoy our time here. I eat a grilled chicken sandwich without incident. After lunch, sitting on the deck outside the restaurant, I glimpse the Surgeon awaiting a shuttle ride back to the trail.

Focus on ill health takes an immediate backseat to those mesmerising blue eyes. The Surgeon, the Danish dentist, pops up whenever I need a boost. I don’t care what Shepherd thinks. He’s lovely to talk to and admire. If only I was 30 years younger.

“Kit Kat, we’ve got work to do,” prompts Shepherd.

“Yes, I’m coming.”

The Surgeon’s parting words to me, “You’re in for a treat.”

“That sounds good. I can’t wait.” I leave him with my best wishes for his northbound journey and copy Medicine Man’s words.

“Hike well, be well.”

Shepherd and I return to our rooms to secure the mandatory bear canister, for Yosemite National Park, a section with high park ranger presence. They may ask to see our bear canister and PCT Permits. You risk a hefty fine and escort from the trail if you walk without them.

The canister must be one of the most ungainly pieces of equipment ever. Heavy to carry, hard to pack, and Kit Kat proof. Some have patented locking mechanisms; others need a dime to unscrew two latch points. My arthritic hands can’t handle either. I much prefer going without one.

I understand the mandatory order is to keep humans, food, and scented products separate so bears will not see humans as potential food sources. This practice helps save the bears’ lives and avoids the need for rangers to kill rogue bears who make the connection. All too often, the saying, “a fed bear, is a dead bear,” is true. 

I chuckle to myself when another PCT thru-hiker suggests an ingenious way to overcome the logistical issues of carrying a bear canister.

“Get a bear canister lid only and show that, deep in your backpack, to the ranger.” Cheeky, very wrong, but most amusing.

We didn’t call bear canister hire companies earlier because we had no cell reception. After a quick phone charge, we call the two recommended companies. One of these outfitters has rented to us before from KMS (Kennedy Meadows South) on our first foray into the High Sierra.

“So sorry. You’re out of luck this time. I just rented out my last one for pickup at KMN.”

“Sorry. I’m out of town. It’ll be a few days before I can offer any canisters for hire,” the second replies.

“Do you have any other contacts you might recommend?”

“No, sorry.” Click.

“Bloody hell. Can you believe this?” I ask Shepherd.

“Yes, I can believe it.”

The insurmountable logistical challenges are wearing us down. Determined not to let the PCT win we become brazen and reckless.

“To hell with it,” we both announce.

We’re proceeding regardless. Just need to be extra careful with our food storage. We’ve had no bear encounters so far. After resupplying at the convenience store, we will leave tomorrow and return to the High Sierra Nevada region. I suspect each of us is questioning this course of action. Bear encounters are the least of our worries, although we should never be complacent. It’s our reckless decision to forgo a bear canister and risk getting caught by a ranger.

We need a breather. A drink might relieve the brewing tension. We wander over to the Grand Saloon. It’s full of the office and restaurant employees who served us earlier in the day. It takes a unique person to want to work at this isolated station. They have several jobs. Most are accomplished horse riders masquerading as bar staff and cleaners when they’re not taking care of the horses and leading holidaymakers on rides. We enjoy sharing a drink with them. They admire us as PCT hikers, but these folks’ nomadic lives are equally interesting.

Dinner soon follows. After a final gear check we settle in for an early night. Only to be roused soon after by the loud sound of an idling backfiring engine. It’s something to do with the resort’s generator, and it doesn’t stop until 4.30 am. That might explain the cheap room rate. I much prefer the sound of a howling coyote.

Kennedy Meadows North Shuttle Service to Sonora Pass

Nausea continues, but it’s time to go. We secure a 10 am shuttle back to the PCT at Sonora Pass with six other hikers. Beforehand, the usual preparation–check feet, put on Injinji toe liner socks, merino hiking socks, clothes, breakfast, toilet, and pack gear. After a last check of the room and a quick making of the beds, we hoist those heavy packs onto our workhorse backs ready for another adventurous day.

We hit the trail at 10.30 am blinded by sunshine and heat. No real inkling of the predicted thunderstorms as we climb steadily toward heaven. Just wonderful crisply defined mountains sloping sharply in all directions. Atop the ridgeline, the view is breathtaking–deep crevasses, craggy rock faces, and an abundance of miniature wildflowers. Ah! The Surgeon’s promised treat. In the distance, threatening Cumulonimbus clouds form.

We eat lunch at noon to avoid impending rain and satisfy Shepherd’s growing hangriness which comes from the adjective hangry, meaning irritable or angry because of hunger. Who made that word up? Does it even exist? It exists. Boy, can that girl get stroppy if she’s not fed on time? I didn’t notice earlier when we were both ravenous. Like water quenching a flame, only food extinguishes her distress.

“Eat, as much as you like. I’m going nowhere till you’re satisfied.” We must try to get on if we are to survive these last weeks. Mental and emotional strain are bringing out our worst traits. I welcome fights. So polite and charming to each other at the start, time and hardship on the trail have collapsed the façade. A light moment is required fast. I dig deep into my pack.

“Got you something, Shep. Food-related.” Her eyes light up. I brace myself.

52 Great SPAM recipes?”

“Yes, one for every week of the year. Endless possibilities, eh?” as I duck my head low. “And you can play Solitaire in your spare time,” I smirk.

A gorgeous smile emerges. “Thank you, Kit Kat. A nice touch.” Phew, she doesn’t hate me. She has every right to. I’ll miss her when it’s over. We know each other too well.

“Sorry, about the extra weight.”

“So, you should be.”

Her hunger satiated, it’s time to go. Something’s wrong with my feet though. They feel odd. I look down to inspect them. Well, there’s one less bear to worry me. Both feet have the Injinji toe liner socks on but only one has the black bear hiking sock. In our haste to get ready this morning I got distracted. One shoe is looser because it’s missing a sock. What a wally am I? I have a spare pair, but mistakes are creeping into our routine.

Of more immediate concern, is the forecast thunderstorm threat. In the distance, dramatic forks of lightning sprout from the darkening cloud formations, and the thunder booms soon afterward.

It’s getting closer. I love watching the light show, but I’m unfamiliar with the rules on lightning strikes. We’re walking on an exposed ridgeline.

I want to seek shelter under trees, but experts insist you avoid the tallest landmarks. We crest the ridge and temporarily walk away from the danger. Shepherd chooses this moment for a horrendous hypo as we near a slope covered in snow. It’s unfortunate, but she knows what to do. Treat it with a sugar snack and rest awhile before she can resume.

“Shep, I hope you’re okay soon. I’m going to play in the snow and try to take an amazing selfie.”

Jittery and exhausted she nods at me in understanding. What a bloody awful walking partner am I! Should I be staying by her side to help her? Nah! She’s one tough broad. She’ll be fine. At least, I hope so. Who will lead me over this exposed ridgeline?

I don’t want her dying on me. The skies are menacing. I know little of the safety protocol for surviving a severe electrical storm. I suspect my camping buddy knows more. I grill her as we resume our hike.

“You know how to do CPR, don’t you?” Shepherd responds.

“Yes.” I think I do.

“Good then. We have nothing to worry about.”

Until we do. Overhead, a solid bolt of lightning.

“Okay,” Shepherd instructs, “Let’s crouch on these rocks and make ourselves look small.”

I try to appear brave and nonchalant. Inside me, someone has called ‘Fore’ on the golf course and I’m awaiting with trepidation for the solid thwack of a golf ball on my head. Hail follows; a relief not golf-ball-sized. When the worst has passed we resume our hike, setting up camp earlier than planned.

The white hailstorm blankets the valley floor, but we find a suitable dry spot. An older male hiker, surveying the options on either side of the path, joins us. He gets the best level spot because he spotted the site first. His camp setup is methodical and practised. He has a bear canister, and he prepares his food a suitable distance from his tent.

When he susses out we eat in our tents and don’t have bear canisters, I sense a wall of hesitation. He advises us to get a bear canister as soon as possible.

“You will get inspected by rangers as soon as you enter Yosemite National Park. There’s a possibility you can hire one from Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Centre, but you’ll need a bloody good reason why it’s taken you so long to get one.”

We reassure him we know of their importance, but to date, we have not managed to secure one. It amuses me, despite his vigilance in following the rules, that this older hiker is now just as vulnerable to bear attacks as us, sleeping so near to two reckless women. We catch up with him over the next few days, but never for camping. This approach of ours is certainly one way to secure your own private wild camping spot.

Yesterday we reached the 1,500-mile (2,414km) milestone. No hanging around to collect rocks to mark this momentous event. Amid a severe electrical thunderstorm, we thought it prudent to treasure our lives and save the announcement for another day. So today, at the 1,511-mile mark we manage a treasured StickPic moment to recognise this achievement. What a ridiculously long distance we have walked. There have been disastrous days, huge tension days, and minor mishap days but the majority have been sheer bliss. I will never forget this experience. It will live in my memory for the rest of my life.

Everything looks rosy when we kick off this morning, but thunder and heavy rain clouds build. We sidestep showers for most of the morning. After lunch, we don our rain gear. There are many lovely lakes on this stretch. Lake Harriett is a bonus when we lose our way and add a dreaded extra mile before returning to the correct PCT junction. We pass Stella Lake and lunch at Dorothy Lake. Varied terrain today. Rocky mountain outcrops, uneven paths, simple paths, sloshy paths, and sparkling crystal streams where we can spot everything on the riverbed including the swimming trout. Nausea abates and I enjoy today. The winner is the variable sky bedecked with every imaginable cloud shape and shade of grey. We achieved a commendable 19.5 miles (31.4 km).

Each night I document each day in my journal. It is a thin lightweight notebook. I number the day and date, our intended mileage, the mileage point for each campsite, and our achieved mileage. I photograph each day on my iPhone, and I allow two pages of commentary. My journal details the weather, the scenery, the people we meet, and my observations. This task often precedes dinner. Then as I settle into bed, I edit my photos before the cool of the evening chills my fingers and I’m forced to retire for the night. Often at 7 pm. Tonight follows this same routine.

Back home in Australia my husband is celebrating our 34th wedding anniversary without me. Some wife am I, off gallivanting in the US without him? A testimony to our marriage is his unwavering trust. I know I have a weakness for blue eyes, but I’m behaving myself. Never have I felt my wings being clipped. Our marriage is strong, and I thank Mike every day for allowing me this freedom to explore this magnificent long-distance trail. His encouragement and support have helped me grow as a person as I test my limits. And time away from one another helps us cope with both our chronic diseases. Enough reflection. I’m having a blast here, but I know its conclusion is fast approaching. I wonder what I’ll try next.

Today is a tough day. Five hard ascents spaced throughout the day and seven stream crossings. We must wade through three. With this frequency, I’m not fussing about removing my shoes to put on waterproof camp sandals. I opt to use my waterproof socks. Knee-high, with black and candy pink stripes. With my pigtails, I look like Pippi Longstocking, a popular fictional character in children’s books written by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren in the 50s.

Pippi was unconventional, strong, playful, and unpredictable, with a tendency to anger in extreme cases. Me, in every way.

I’m sure she’d love wading into a stream with these socks. They’re a wonderful find, recommended to us by German Strider at Kennedy Meadows South when we had completed 700 miles. They’re thick and comfortable and keep my feet in my shoes. I wear them every day from now on and get many compliments.

We wear the same hats, shirts, shorts, and pants every day too. No one cares what you wear on the PCT. It’s what makes this hike so appealing. There are no pretences. Hikers accept you for being a committed thru-hiker or section hiker only. I must admit clothes can help express your personality. I try my best to captivate people with my stories, to appreciate me for me, but these bright pink socks are very ‘Kit Kat’ and I love the lift they give me.

Overall, I love being a grub and not worrying about how people judge me. I know paying less attention to my looks will continue when I leave the trail. Removed from the daily constraints of conformity, the PCT is a wonderful conduit for exploring the real you. And it saves time. Why go back to a tedious half-hour makeup routine when I have perfected a two-minute one?

The next day is even tougher. Once again Shepherd and I suffer multiple low sugar readings. Our mileage for the day ended up 2.6 miles short of our original goal. Unavoidable with frequent stops needed to treat lows before we can resume hiking. These interruptions are contributing to our crotchety dispositions.

Ill temper and grumpiness flare again when we select a campsite, get our gear out and then realise we are pitching on a large rock. The tent stakes make little impact and bend. We want to blame each other.

“We should test the surface first before proceeding to pitch next time,” Shepherd declares.

Is she saying this because I suggested this site or is it just an innocent observation? I shouldn’t view her comment as a criticism. It makes sense. Our patience is being tested as our bodies fatigue.

As is our mental strength with those pesky rangers likely to catch us any day as we enter Yosemite National Park. I let Shepherd choose the next tent site. A fine one indeed with the potential for a lovely sunset. But I batten down the hatches and withdraw from the world into my private cocoon of peace and solace. Tomorrow I look forward to a warm bed, shower, and a decent meal.

The scenery in Yosemite National Park is spectacular. John Muir, one of America’s greatest conservationists, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to declare it a national park in 1906. I was fortunate to see the actual document granting Yosemite ‘National Park’ status at the Huntington Public Library in Pasadena, Los Angeles. This document contributed to President Roosevelt’s decision to protect over 148 million acres of land reserves throughout the United States.

I encourage you to read his works. He wrote for The Atlantic during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In The Atlantic’s August 1899 issue, he recounted the new national park, writing:

‘Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed; I like the Sierra Nevada the best. Of this glorious range, the Yosemite National Park is a central section, thirty-six miles in length and forty-eight miles in breadth. The famous Yosemite Valley lies in the heart of it, and it includes the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Merced rivers, two of the most songful streams in the world; innumerable lakes and waterfalls and smooth silky lawns; the noblest forests, the loftiest granite domes, the deepest ice-sculptured canyons, the brightest crystalline pavements, and snowy mountains soaring into the sky twelve and thirteen thousand feet, arrayed in open ranks and spiry pinnacled groups partially separated by tremendous canyons and amphitheaters; gardens on their sunny brows, avalanches thundering down their long white slopes, cataracts roaring gray and foaming in the crooked rugged gorges and glaciers in their shadowy recesses working in silence, slowly completing their sculpture; newborn lakes at their feet, blue and green, free or encumbered with drifting icebergs like miniature Arctic Oceans, shining, sparkling, calm as stars.’

The dome-shaped granite mountaintops, conifer forests, and blue-green lakes he describes are awe-inspiring. The following morning rewards us with frost-coated fields sprinkled with rivulets of crystal-clear water silhouetted against an orange dawn. So serene it deserves a moment of contemplation.  

Later, as the sunshine emerges, massive areas of flat rock present themselves. You can see little perfect rectangular rock shapes embedded in many of these rock platforms. Firm evidence of the glacial influence that has shaped here, bringing waterfalls, waterways, and lakes in its wake.

Like John Muir, I am most relaxed in this environment. We enjoy a brief morning tea at the base of Tuolumne Falls, three-tiered and impressive. We hike upwards towards the Tuolumne River on well-constructed paths. Cascading voluminous waterfalls at every suggested viewing point. We hear the river for miles before we see its fast flow.

Above Tuolumne Falls

I can only imagine how fierce and noisy it must sound during the height of the summer snow melt. Today we have only one pebble-hopping stream to cross. Tuolumne River has two well-built bridges providing easy access for the day hikers who visit here in great numbers.

Tuolumne River

By noon we reach the town of Tuolumne Meadows where we will resupply from their convenience store. There are camping facilities nearby but no showers or laundry facilities. I want something better than this. The Lodge is a good mile away, but we have no cell reception to look up its phone number and check room availability. I ask the proprietor of the General Store for their phone number so I can call them at a public phone box nearby.

With the number written on my hand, we make it to the phone box only to discover we don’t have enough quarters to make the call. We must go back to the store and buy something before they’ll give us the required change. Shepherd looks on as I persist with my mission. I get through to find they charge a preposterous US$153 for 1 night. There is a cabin available. They don’t have laundry facilities, but we can use their staff dryer.

“You know, I just had my 59th birthday and celebrated 34 years of wedded bliss last week. Can I get a discount for reaching these significant milestones?” The receptionist laughs.

“Nice try, but I have no authority to give discounts. I will ask my manager. Ring back in 30 minutes.”

I call back at the suggested time. My contact has disappeared. I repeat my cheeky appeal to the new manager.

“I’m sorry madam but no discounts are available. Do you want a cabin or not?”

“I want a cabin.”

“No discount. I tried Shepherd. My age and achievements count for nothing. I’m a stinky PCT thru-hiker they’d prefer not to have.”

At least we have sorted out our accommodation. Lunch and resupply follow. I buy a grilled chicken sandwich, tea, and apple to ease my queasy stomach. We lunch with a German couple, Trail Brain and Bavarian Blue, who have just finished their PCT thru-hike. They did most of their PCT in 2017. They returned this year to complete the sections they missed. Maybe, a future choice for Shepherd and me. We haven’t even discussed this, but the couple’s achievement pricks my interest in the possibility.

Of more relevance is the building pressure to secure a bear canister. We’ve avoided a ranger inspection these past five days, but will we be so lucky next time? The Germans have been lucky too. Each hiker should carry their own canister, but they shared one. In their opinion, we’re taking a huge risk for this next section with no canister between us. They offer Shepherd theirs if she agrees to ship it back to them when she returns to the UK.

That leaves me to consider approaching the Wilderness Centre with a convincing story for why I need to hire one. With guilt written all over my face, I know I’ll get caught red-handed, lying to either the rangers at the Centre or a ranger on the trail.

“Why do you want to hire a bear canister now?” asks the ranger at the Centre.

“Oh, I had to give mine back to another hiker who lent it to me and is returning home.” She stares at me, not believing one word of my story.

“Okay, I can rent you one for $15 (that’s $5 a week) for your remaining time in the Sierra Nevada, as long as you mail it back to us.”

“Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much.” I did it. Yeh, me!

The ranger looks at Shepherd. “Do you want one too?”

“Yes. I mean no. I’m good.”

This reply blows our cover story. She doesn’t believe me anymore. I fluff out the grey hair from beneath my baseball cap, to look needy and old. She processes my credit card, eager to see the back of us, as we are of her. The things you do to make progress on the PCT.

With a bulky bear canister in hand, we return to the General Store. We resupply for two days before catching a shuttle bus to the expensive Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. I expect luxury based on the quoted price for one night.

The reception is a massive tent. Our cabin, another tent. We’re sleeping on camp beds. You wash and shower in a communal outhouse. You store your food in your bear canisters and deposit them in a bear-proof locker, yards from our cabin. Scented products, another locker far away. They serve dinner in a tented dining room. This is proving more difficult than camping.

But Tuolumne Meadows Lodge is one of our most delightful stays. Shepherd and I find the rustic atmosphere appealing. There is wood stacked outside each cabin to stoke a pot belly stove. Shepherd does a fine job keeping the cabin warm. This evening proves to be our coldest yet. I can’t imagine camping outside in these conditions. It’s only early September. It should still be warm. Turns out we landed here during another cold snap the weather bureau didn’t forecast.

That evening they seat us with an older father and son who are walking the John Muir Trail (JMT). Communal dining is a wonderful way to promote discussion among strangers. The food, a vegetarian curry, is the perfect comfort food on this chilly night with an accomplished pianist playing great old covers of yesteryear. We head to bed afterward, journal, and then pick up our laundry before pondering tomorrow’s immense challenge. A 3.7 mile 2,084ft climb to Donahue Pass. We need to make sure we take enough snacks, lower our insulin intake, and eat a decent breakfast.

It falls to 28⁰F (-2⁰C) overnight. I am cocooned in warm bed linen. The pot belly stove is out. It’s freezing. I refuse to get out of bed. Shepherd remedies the situation with more kindling. We head off for breakfast in the communal dining room and then return to a warm cabin to rearrange our packs. How are we ever going to stow that blasted bear canister? I’m sure it will be the death of me.

I stuff it with food and whatever else will fit, but I find it difficult to seal. My jacket is poking out. Not a problem while carrying a canister but we must seal it tightly when we deposit it in the woods, a distance from our campsite. Loosely secured canisters will attract bears. And there goes your food supply. We leave at 9 am, my canister already trying to escape the straps that tether it to my pack.

Today is amazing in more ways than one. At 11.30 am, as I rummage in my pack for sunscreen deep below that blasted bear canister, a ranger pops out of nowhere. Our first ranger ever. Shepherd and my eyes are saucer-shaped.

“Good morning, ladies.”

“Good morning, Ranger.”

“I notice your bear canister is open. You’ll need to secure it properly when you stow it away from your campsite.”

“Yes, sir. I was in a rush to get out this morning and thought I’d fix it later. It’s okay when I’m hiking isn’t it?”

“Oh yes. I just want to be sure you know the correct way to seal the canister.”

“Thank you. We appreciate the advice.”

“Could I just ask to check your PCT Permits as well before I go?”

“Oh, sure.” They’re wrong because we’re no longer heading in a NoBo direction. We play dumb. He peruses our official PCT Permits presented in the required full A4 size paper format. I’m impressed they look so pristine after 136 days.

“They look fine, but you’re not heading in this direction, are you?

“No, the Sierra was too dangerous in late June. We made the prudent decision to flip to the Canadian border and head southbound from there. I’m sure you’d appreciate us making this decision in this high snow year.”

“You made the correct call. But it means your PCT Permit is now invalid.” A potential escort off the trail is possible. Not happening on my watch.

“Really? We didn’t know that. We thought once you had your permit you could go in either direction. There’s nothing on the PCTA website informing us of this.” Though plenty of thru-hikers had warned us.

“Yes. There’s a lot of confusion out there amongst the hikers,” he acknowledges. “We need to know what direction you are travelling so we can make sure the trail doesn’t get overloaded in sections and compromise this delicate environment. The PCT Permit system helps us manage this better.”

We nod our understanding and look contrite. The moment has arrived. What will he say? Are we continuing?

“Considering the confusion out there, I will let you continue but you will need to contact the PCTA or one of our Wilderness Centres to change the direction of your PCT Permit as soon as possible.”

“We understand. Thanks for clarifying everything for us.”

“Well, have an enjoyable day, ladies.”

“You too, Mr Ranger, Sir!” as if we’re Yogi Bear.

Shepherd and I turn our heads and look at one another. Our did-we-just-dodge-a-bullet look to one another sums it perfectly. He’s still too close for us to utter any expletives of relief. We secured the bear canisters half a day earlier and the much-feared confrontation occurs. Brazen and fearless one moment, prudent and wise the next. This time our behaviour is spot on. A win for us today but will it last?

In the afternoon we tackle a 3.7-mile climb of over 2,000ft from 9,000 to 11,074ft. The elevation is killing me. I’m not experiencing a low, but the feeling is similar. Before we start our ascent, we meet Cory, a young woman resting under a tree. She’s doing the John Muir Trail but struggling. She looks the same as we did when we started our hike; clueless, nervous, and doubtful.

Gigantic granite mountains, deep valleys, and winding streams emerge as we begin our ascent of Donahue Pass. If she wants company, she’s most welcome to join us. We’re not sure how we’ll go but walking with others can often help you tackle this formidable terrain.

Lyell Fork of Tuolumne River beneath Donahue Pass

Shepherd sets off at a good pace and although I see her struggle, it doesn’t compare to what I’m enduring. From far below, I see a veritable mountain goat ahead. I’m quicker and then slower than Cory. We push each other forward. I’m thankful for her company. I’ve lost Shepherd.

I’m convinced that bear canister will be my undoing. I have too much weight at the top of my pack. The pack’s straps need constant adjustments as the weight digs into my shoulders. Is this bit of equipment necessary?

When we reach Donahue Pass, we slump beside the sign acknowledging this landmark. There’s no epic view. We abandon the StickPic moment. The Pass’s only positive is cell phone reception. Cory slumps off to call a family member. She tells them she has sent back half her provisions to reduce her weight. It’s taken us many hours to get to this point and night approaches.

We need to descend. We invite Cory to join us. She says she needs to rest longer. We leave her with the mileage to our intended campsite and encourage her to keep going before the light fails. Shepherd and I run swiftly down the other side, without incident. But the torment of this afternoon’s ascent plays heavily on my mind.

I question again my ability to complete this revised schedule. I can’t carry my pack up these unending mountainsides. The bear canister is a curse. What am I trying to prove here? In two days, after we reach Reds Meadows, we’ll ascend another 3,000ft over 10 miles, rumoured to be even steeper than today. After that, another seven hard passes. The views continue to surprise and delight, but they’re merging into one with little differentiation.

I am so tired. Shepherd, I suspect, is having similar doubts announcing earlier in the day she might bale out at Reds Meadows. Maybe this town’s name is giving us a ‘Reds Warning’, with the devastating impact high altitude is having on our sugar readings and energy levels. Our packs continue to weigh 40lbs (20kgs) and are only comfortable when we’ve eaten everything in them and are coming into town.

“Don’t quit on a bad day.” Today is one of those days. We’re both hating it. I hope these feelings pass, and we can find the strength and resilience to continue towards Mount Whitney, our revised endpoint.

Today is freezing. 43⁰F (6⁰C) at 9 am. I keep my wind jacket on the entire day. We’re hoping for warmer weather. The terrain is level. The highlight is Thousand Island Lake. Speckled with tiny land masses this lake is an imposing site surrounded by jagged pinnacle mountains. If it were warmer, I could sit here the whole day and feast my eyes upon it. It’s one of the finest examples of Yosemite Park scenery. Is it preparing me for my life ahead? An overwhelming sense of peace and harmony descends upon me. Shepherd, too, as she sits quietly beside me. 

Banner Peak looks over Thousand Island Lake

Until I hear a ruckus of noise beneath us. Section hikers. How can I tell? They have overnight backpacks, but they’re nowhere near the weight of ours. And talking to them is another ranger. The second within 24 hours. I can’t believe it. The banter is friendly as we approach. The ranger asks to see our bear canisters and PCT Permits. He acknowledges our bear canisters. Closely inspecting our PCT Permit he notes we’re walking in the wrong direction. We agree with him and recall our conversation with the other ranger yesterday.

“We’ll get them corrected at our next stop.”

“Please make sure you do. It’s important for the safe management of the trail.”

“Yes, Mr Ranger, Sir.”

No further reprimands. As we prepare to leave one of the section hikers comes up to us and asks us if we’d like a hug and could she sing a song for our safe passage.

“You both look in need of encouragement. I see your struggle,” she comments.

“Okay, sure.”

Do we look that broken? Or is this a devout Christian thing? I don’t have the patience for this, but I hold my tongue, let her hug us, and then watch her sing a song of praise. Shepherd’s British reserve is as uncomfortable with this show of affection, but the moment resonates with us. We leave feeling more relaxed and energised. No food or accommodation is offered this time, but it’s still trail angel magic. We marvel at its healing powers and head towards Ansel Adams Wilderness. 

I’m still fatigued. I fall all day. The tread on my third pair of shoes is possibly wearing thin. Maybe, it’s a lack of concentration. I look to the great sequoias for inspiration and see the trusty PCT Trail signs nailed to them. The old ones are metal with the green conifer emblem. Many are faded and difficult to read. Sometimes the metal plaque embeds itself in the tree’s bark. The newer versions are wooden with the trail logo branded into them. Sometimes the logo’s imprint is difficult to see when positioned high on the trunk. I turn my head to the skies to study the changing signage, land my foot on a dowel-shaped branch, and promptly slip over. I use my wrist to break the impact and avoid breaking my trekking poles, for a third time. Flailing about on my back Shepherd suggests I take off my pack to right myself.

“No, don’t worry. I can do it. Did it at the start when I was posing on an old railway line. Can do it again.”

Whatever, she thinks. I refuse to remove the pack. It takes time and is bothersome to readjust. Through sheer stubbornness and determination, I right myself. I’m sure I look a right ass and Shepherd can laugh all she likes if she chooses. But neither of us is feeling chirpy.

She leads me on through a car park towards a steep descent where many hikers are heading. Except we go off course. That last PCT Trail sign I fell at was the last one we saw, and we’re now on another hiking trail. We check our FarOut app to get our bearings and see we are heading to Agnew Meadow instead of Reds Meadow. An older male hiker comes towards us with a big old-school map.

“I know you youngies love apps but sometimes a paper map can give more detail.”

“You may be right there,” we respond. We just want it over and if someone will help us get there sooner, we’ll listen.

“You can either go back up that steep path you descended, or you can cut across at this junction,” he points to on his map “and walk on the valley floor where you’ll reconnect with the path to Reds Meadows.”

“That sounds great. We’ll do that. Thanks for your help.”

“My pleasure girls.”

A good two miles of bush whacking later we emerge back on the PCT. The alternative route is an obscure path with many fallen trees. The fact we lost our way in the first place is disconcerting. We survive the mistake. We are accomplished hikers, but what are we accomplishing? I think we both want it to finish.

Exhausted, we set up camp beside San Joaquin River, a pleasant setting with inquisitive stellar jays darting around our tents. Such striking cornflower blue feathers. Mild night. Gently moving water. Zero conversations. We cook dinner, enter our tents, and wish each other good night. I journal my thoughts and wonder what tomorrow will bring.

On September 11 we wake to a glorious day, forever etched in most people’s minds as the day America lost its innocence. This Wednesday, on the same day in 2019, Shepherd and I are unaware of its significance. We’re deep in the wilderness, fighting our own battles. Our sense of time takes a back seat to our efforts to survive–eat, drink, walk, and rest. I forget loved ones. I’m on a mission to finish the High Sierra, but deep fissures are forming.

Our ascent of Donahue Pass a few days prior was gruelling. It took hours to climb, and each step hurt. The feet are over it–swollen and blistered. The extra weight of the bear canister has tipped my carrying capacity to breaking point, and the altitude is making me nauseous and screwing with my diabetes management. We experience frequent lows and must stop walking to treat them. There are seven more High Sierra passes to traverse.

Today is a short walk to Reds Meadow for a two-day resupply. The following day will see us tackle our toughest ascent. If we get cell reception, we must contact the PCTA and get our NoBo (North Bound) approved PCT Permit converted to a SoBo (South Bound) one. As we leave camp, I remind Helen of this task.

“Academic. Unnecessary now.”

“What d’you mean?”

“It’s over. I finish the trail today. I’m not enjoying it anymore.”

Shepherd’s announcement leaves me with a sick, tingling sensation over my entire face. I cannot respond to her. Overwhelming disappointment grips me. I mourn my last night in the woods. Like the sudden loss of a loved one, I didn’t see Shepherd’s decision coming, just yet. I’m unprepared for this outcome. I fume. The earlier shock of readjusting to a revised shorter thru-hike left me traumatised. To fall short of our revised target is gut-wrenching.

In my eyes, Shepherd is coping well. She motors up the mountains. I always struggle with the ascents as my shoes tear my feet to shreds. I want to struggle on towards the High Sierra which many consider the most idyllic and captivating terrain of the whole trail. But is it worth the physical discomfort and mental anguish to summit a few more mountains?

I admit walking on feet, resembling shredded stumps, is not a pleasant experience. My stuccoed bandaged feet look appalling. Our hips are badly bruised. Shepherd’s hip belt needs constant tweaking as she disappears before my eyes. She’s lost a staggering amount of weight. Our quadriceps femoris muscle bulges with definition. All those mountain ascents, carrying much weight, have done a fantastic job toning and sculpturing our physiques. But every muscle aches. Beneath the impressive facade, we are a crumbling mess.

Except I still feel mentally strong. Isn’t that the trait that matters the most? Didn’t Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson, Triple Crowner extraordinaire, tell me, way back in San Diego at Scout and Frodo’s trail angel home before our PCT journey had even started, that mental strength would get me to the end? 

Admittedly, after the torment of ascending Donahue Pass, we agreed we couldn’t continue under these conditions. But it was only a whinge, wasn’t it? Torment aside, the PCT has been tough from Day 1 and every successful thru-hiker advises, “Don’t quit on a bad day.” You may live to regret it. What am I going to do?

I expected to have further discussions. I’m physically wrecked and emotionally drained but still mentally strong. Isn’t Shepherd the same? Can’t she rally for two more weeks? Seems not. Shepherd has decided. She’s quitting, with or without me. 

“What are your plans?” enquires Shepherd. WTF! Throw that at me now with no warning. Does she expect me to be shocked or accepting? Yeah, I know I’m the logistics guru and can solve most PCT difficulties, but I need time to work things out.

“I’m not sure. I’d like to discuss it with Mike. I’ll take a ride with you to Mammoth Lakes from Reds Meadow and make my decision then.” What are my plans? After everything we’ve gone through. I’d appreciate a heads-up next time, Shepherd. Your announcement has floored me. Damn, I’m angry!

I follow Shepherd, in silence, as she leads us towards Reds Meadow. An easy six-mile forested pathway should take us three hours. Lyrical bird calls serenade us as we pass. Not a cloud in the sky. The PCT couldn’t be more divine.

 We pass a deer with her fawn, illuminated by dawn light, peacefully grazing in the woods. Can I bear to leave these magical scenes?

With my other hikes, I always set a target, announced it to the world, and then completed each one. This time I’ll return home with a partial completion. Shepherd and I had an implicit agreement to “Hike our own hike” at any stage in our PCT journey if this proved the best course of action. If I continue, how much further can I go?  

Mount Whitney is still 165 miles away. I have my Garmin InReach GPS locator beacon for emergency help and communicating with my family and my phone for navigation using the FarOut app. But is it wise to enter this terrain without a walking partner with many hazardous river crossings to traverse and narrow mountain paths to climb? I could put my life in danger if I continued alone. The answer is emphatically NO.  I want to continue but Shepherd’s decision has merit.

To push on, to show others how far I can walk, is pointless. I have walked six times the distance of the Pennine Way–my longest-ever hike at 267 miles (430 km). I have shown women you can follow your dreams, whatever your age. Our ambitious expedition has been an overwhelming success.                                                                            

I have lived with a stranger for four and a half months with minimal discord. We have looked out for each other the whole way, sharing our insulin when our resupply strategies went awry and our sweet treats for treating lows. We have become good friends. We share a common passion for the great outdoors, pristine wilderness areas, and captivating scenery. We’ll walk again one day, but not if I walk off in a huff.

Reds Meadow finally comes into view. It’s a resort and pack station, like Kennedy Meadows North. Full of dust, trails, sleepy cabins, and the smell of horses. As you enter the place, you pass a large signpost with mileage markers to Canada, Mount Whitney, Tuolumne Meadows, and even Mexico. It’s a significant landmark for our last StickPic moment. This morning’s amble has given me enough time to reassess my options. I no longer need to consult Mike. I will leave the PCT here, with Shepherd. My PCT hike has finished too. 

We fossick on the ground for regular-shaped pinecones to create our final 1,604-mile distance marker. Shepherd attaches the StickPic to my trekking pole and we crane our heads into the frame trying to include the large signpost marker and our handmade pinecone distance marker on the ground beneath it. Not our best attempt. Another hiker, observing our exhausted efforts, kindly takes a proper photo of us.

Smiling at the camera in our last moments on the trail, I feel overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude to my walking partner for choosing to share this exceptional journey with me. Tears of joy, disappointment, and achievement. Wiped clean, I step off the trail confident, in my heart, the PCT will always be with me

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