The Book of Tea, 1906Kakuzõ Okakura,
I fly out on April 23, 2019, to meet my trail angel in Los Angeles before meeting Helen a few days later in San Diego. Mike and I can’t believe the day of my departure has arrived. Six months have flown from the day I conceived walking the PCT. Still, I have rushed my preparation.
Together 33 years, we have never parted company for any lengthy period.
We stare at each other, like tongue-tied teenagers on a first date. I’m hesitant too, but the powerful urge to walk the PCT leads me to the Departure Gate. A quick kiss without ceremony and I’m gone.
Before I know it, I’ve arrived at Rebecca’s place in LA. She’s excited to hear more about this mammoth long-distance hike. Her corkscrew curls and engaging eyes bounce in anticipation. First, we enjoy a hot black tea with a dash of milk from a true connoisseur.
Rebecca is an Assistant Professor and Librarian in Japanese Studies at the University of Southern California and a skilled educator in the Japanese tea ceremony. Exemplary execution of this ceremony has the potential for both host and guest to transcend to a higher place; imagine reaching peaceful serenity found with meditation and mindfulness. I can’t see my high-strung personality relaxing enough to reach this state, but I’m open to the possibilities.
For now, I enjoy the simple flavour of a well-made, hot, black English tea, without the ceremony, from someone who knows how to make tea. It’s a drink I will crave throughout the hike. Rejuvenated, I regale Rebecca with every detail of what I hope to achieve over the next few days before I meet Helen in San Diego. I ask if she could help me secure the bulk of my food.
After tea, Rebecca drives me to Trader Joe’s, the first of many supermarkets Helen and I become well acquainted. Trader Joe’s is a health-focused store. I find a wide choice of freeze-dried fruit and vegetables, instant oatmeal, dried potato mix, ‘Everything but the Bagel’ seasoning mix, bacon pieces, nut spreads, and a multitude of fruit and muesli bars. My food choices need to be light and high in calories. Packaging is not a concern because I will decant everything into quart-sized ziplock freezer bags.
Our next port of call is the AT&T cell phone shop to get a US SIM card. AT&T has good coverage for most of the PCT and a reasonable monthly prepaid plan for overseas hikers.
The phone will become an important part of our navigation and communication arsenal. I’ve loaded the FarOut app onto it to help us navigate the PCT trail without needing a Wi-Fi connection. This navigation app also gives us real-time updates from other PCT hikers on the best campsite locations and whether seasonal water sources are still running. And I can avoid knowing how to use a compass. Yippee!
In addition, my phone has the Earthmate app – an integral part of our Garmin InReach Mini GPS – to allow us to send quick text messages to loved ones and each other when there’s no available cell reception. Using the Iridium satellite network, our Garmin InReach device becomes a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which can call for real help if we ever need rescuing. Simply push the big orange SOS button on its side. Hopefully, not.
And in the interest of weight saving, my iPhone will also be my camera.
My final bit of navigation equipment is my Suunto Core Watch. It has an altimeter for checking elevation, a barometer to spot changing weather, and a compass to aid with direction. Well, you know my thoughts on the compass. I never use this feature. Nor the barometer. As for the altimeter, I am interested to know the height of our climbs.
My multi-purpose watch is big, black, and mean-looking. It tells the time, has an alarm feature, and makes me feel invincible. I prefer looking the part to knowing how to use the equipment.
Next stop, is the USPS (United States Postal Service). This is where I’ll spend a large proportion of my time receiving and mailing resupply and bounce boxes. To clarify, a resupply box is a box you mail ahead for a specific leg of your trip which typically includes food, toiletries, medicines, and specialist clothing. The USPS will hold your resupply box for a month. Timing when to send them and when you’ll arrive to pick them up is a key consideration.
A bounce box you ‘bounce’ ahead of you from one town to the next, typically the same towns as your resupply boxes. It has essential items you frequently replenish. Helen uses contact lenses and special non-allergenic sunscreen. And we both have an extensive supply of diabetic consumables we must carry such as pen needles, lancet devices, and Abbott Freestyle Libre sensors. I’m fortunate to have Rebecca in Los Angeles. My need for a bounce box will be minimal but Helen’s specialist needs mean she must keep one for the entire journey.
The USPS is a convenient way of getting goods to us on the trail, particularly where food in the smaller town’s convenience stores is lacking in choice and quality. Free flat-packed priority mailboxes of varying sizes are available from any USPS in America. They charge a flat rate based on the size of the box. There are no weight restrictions. Just assemble with packing tape and fill to the brim.
Rebecca and I head back home to fill my resupply boxes. My last task is to show her where to post my resupply boxes. My original sales pitch “You only have to store my insulin in your refrigerator and send me a resupply box each month” has ballooned to an enormous job. Once completed, we reward ourselves with a calming cup of tea. We bid each other goodnight and I head to bed yearning for my PCT journey to begin.
Meanwhile, Helen awaits me in San Diego. She is staying at the home of Scout and Frodo, an extraordinary trail-angel couple who have invited PCT thru-hikers into their home for the past 15 years. Over 6,000 hikers have spent a night in their modest two-storey home, or out back in the enormous tents set up in their yard.
Helen and I have been in constant contact since I committed to walk the PCT with her. Using video messaging, I saw a pleasing small face with a neat button nose, exquisite blue eyes, and a short brown pixie hairstyle. From our conversations, with her darling English accent, I have a good sense of her hiking and camping experience, and her likes and dislikes. Her humour is most appealing with its understated turn of phrase. And she’s always reassuring me when I doubt aspects of our planning. I’m feeling a wonderful sense of calm and excitement but meeting a stranger is a daunting prospect.
The first step towards meeting her is to catch Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner departing from LA’s Union Station at 8.33 am. I have my backpack, resupply provisions, and gifts for Helen packed inside an old suitcase for protection. I hit a snag at the check-in desk.
“Sorry, Ma’am but you need to get rid of 2kgs worth before we can check-in your baggage.”
Rebecca looks on with a sympathetic smile as I unlock the suitcase and decant a bunch of stuff. I carry these items on board in two flimsy plastic shopping bags.
“Good luck!” says Rebecca as she hastily departs. I suspect she is thinking I’m glad it’s Katrina undertaking this mammoth hike and not me.
I settle into a pleasant three-hour journey to downtown San Diego’s Santa Fe Station along the US’s West Coast. Plenty of time to contemplate the enormity of this undertaking to which I have committed six months of my life. I daydream away. Only to be shocked back to reality when temporary shade from metallic posts alongside the railway line is replaced by flickering light entering the cabin. I hope my decision is not a mistake.
Scout and Frodo’s website says to exit the train to Kettner Boulevard. As instructed, I leave the beautifully restored old station with its fine Byzantine mosaic tiled walls through the main doors. I look for Frodo at the pickup zone with the yellow pompom hanging out the car’s passenger window. The sun is shining, and the temperature is warm.
On cue, Frodo arrives to pick me up, together with a young Australian woman. I notice her backpack is much smaller than mine. She looks competent and 30 years younger, but the speed of her conversation alerts me to obvious nerves and trepidation. Frodo, observant in the front, talks calmly to both of us. I permit myself to relax. We will face the same challenges when we start the PCT, regardless of our experiences.
Still, I’m a major novice at this game. Can I hike for six months? My longest thru-hike to date, the Pennine Way in the UK, was less than three weeks in duration. Can I survive the first six weeks in the desert with limited water sources? 37⁰C temperatures with zero shade will quickly deplete reliable stream and spring supplies. I hope winter’s heavy snowfall will obviate the need to use mangy cattle troughs peppered with small dead mammals. Filth aside, we must siphon and filter this water if it’s our only choice. We need to drink at least one litre for every six kilometres we walk. Or heat stroke will come. Better to have a good dose of giardiasis, ‘Mojave belly’, than die.
There will be hikers who know the ideal water carry weight. Others, how to find and filter water. But will they use their knowledge wisely? Will competence lead to complacency in their efforts to keep their pack weight low? Expert or novice, it matters little. We will learn soon enough. The key determinants for completing this journey are to make wise decisions and retreat if your life is in danger. Heat stroke, heart attacks, suicide, drownings, lightning strikes, falling off cliffs, being downed by tree limbs, and being eaten by wildlife have threatened and claimed 19 lives throughout the PCT’s history.
Frodo pulls up outside her neat two-storey home. A team of volunteers is there to greet us. They take us through all the rules designed to make this summer camp of sorts as pleasant as possible for everyone, with 20 or more hikers expected most nights. A tour of the house and yard follows. Outside they have erected three large marquee tents. US residents can stay one night, Canadians two, and other foreigners up to three nights before leaving for Campo, the official start of the PCT. I glimpse Helen in the kitchen as the house tour continues. We smile at each other, in person, for the first time.
“To be fair to other guests, we encourage you to limit showers to one during your stay. Dinner is at 6 pm each evening followed by a talk. Once you are ready, we appreciate any help you can offer with meal preparations and cleaning up,” my guide continues.
Helen and I have much to discuss. I want to break free from this practised routine and greet Helen, but the tour guide has me intrigued.
“If you have any further questions, just ask any of our volunteers.”I recognise her now.
The youthful woman giving me the house tour is none other than THE Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson. In the hiking world, she is one of America’s greatest thru-hikers. Not only has she achieved Triple Crown status, awarded only to those who complete the three longest thru-hikes in America: the AT (Appalachian Trail), the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), and the CDT (Continental Divide Trail), but she has three Triple Crowns to her name. Yes, she has walked 12,785 km of these joint trails on three separate occasions. In 2018 she became the first woman to complete these three trails in a single calendar year. Crazy as, but what an achievement!
While I have her attention, I’m eager to know how she did it and soak up any words of wisdom she will impart. My walking partner must wait a tad longer.
“Mental strength is far more important than your physical ability. Work on keeping mentally strong.”
She wasn’t a star athlete. She endured much pain completing this amazing feat, but she reiterates it was her mental strength, not physical, that kept her going. I will remember these words, and the soles of her feet–strong and blister-proof from all those miles–when she later sits with us relaxing, cross-legged and barefoot.
“These feet are made for walkin’,” I note to myself. If I ever want to know more about what maketh this woman, I can read of her completed PCT journeys in her 2019 book Thirst.
I still haven’t officially met Helen Shepherd, the most important person in the room.
“Helen! Helen! At long last! How wonderful to see you! I have so much to show you and discuss.”
She smiles again, pleasant and reassuring, like an old friend. Could our union be a heavenly match? We exchange gifts. From me to her, a pair of collapsible chopsticks, a micro-fleece towel decorated with Smarties (the UK and Australian equivalent of M&Ms), and proper chocolate ones. From Helen to me, Yorkshire tea, chocolate-lime English hard-boiled sweets, and a mini-Australian flag. This is for me to wave in front of Helen’s Union Jack every time I need to suppress her “Rule, Britannia” urges.
“Let’s have lunch at Starbucks and then start our resupply,” I suggest.
Scout and Frodo don’t offer lunch. Nor should they. Our hosts are providing everything else at no charge. They accept no payment of any kind. Instead, they encourage us to donate to the PCT Association (PCTA) which does vital work to keep this wonderful long-distance trail alive. Or consider paying forward their kindness with selfless kind acts of our own at some future date. Thank heavens for Trail Angels. The PCT is impossible to complete without them.
Rejuvenated, we head to Sprouts supermarket to decide our food choices for our first carry. Most of this I secured in LA with Rebecca, but I need more for our first resupply which we’ll mail ahead tomorrow. Sprouts stock food labelled ‘organic’, ‘artisan’, and ‘natural’. For a start, I try to avoid American bread. From a diabetic perspective, we need food with a low glycaemic index (GI) rating which slowly releases glucose from carbohydrates into the bloodstream. Their bread, because of its high sugar content, is high GI. This means we get sharp spikes in our blood glucose levels (BGLs) and then rapid lows because our food choices don’t offer sustained energy for any length of time.
Of most concern to me is the bread tastes as fresh on the fifth day as it did on the first–no doubt because of sugar’s effective preservative qualities. In summary, most brands of bread contain too much sugar. I have a better chance of securing a healthier choice if labelled ‘artisan’ or ‘no corn syrup’. Helen isn’t as hung up on ‘artisan’ choices as me, but we are pickier than most thru-hikers because of our specific dietary needs.
We end up eating whatever we can find if the food is calorie-dense and lightweight. There is little fear of putting on weight walking an average of 10 hours a day carrying a 20kg backpack. It’s the only time in my life I can justify such unhealthy indulgences. We return to package our purchases, one to carry with us, the other to mail to Warner Springs, our first town to receive a resupply box.
Sensing my ‘five-star’ preference my host has kindly offered me a bed in their small caravan out front which sleeps three. I’ve never slept in a caravan; what a novelty for me. A tent, yes, when I completed the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea in 2008 but the lovely porters accompanying me set it up for me. ‘Glamping’–glamorous camping without any effort on my part–is an apt description of my outdoor experience.
Regardless, when I want a rollicking good adventure, I’ll do what it takes. Little actual camping experience doesn’t worry me in the slightest. I lie. Just a wee bit. I spent a fair bit of energy researching tents with the easiest setup and disassembly, but I don’t stew over failure. In the past, good preparation has always overcome any ability deficiencies. I will learn. Tonight, at least, I have a proper roof over my head. Helen joins me here for our remaining two nights.
Our hosts’ garage resembles a Post Office with everything you could want–priority mailboxes of various sizes and free use of marker pens and packaging tape. Helen and I start preparing our resupply and bounce boxes for mailing by Saturday noon. They weigh a ton. The next morning, we lug them to the local USPS.
On our return, we struggle back with several large Smart Water bottles needed for our water filtration setup. Once we have consumed this shop-bought water, we will filter clean water into these durable bottles.
Lugging heavy water back to Scout and Frodo’s heralds the start of the constant carry. With or without heavy backpacks, we are always carrying something, lugging, juggling, and groaning the whole way. Moments without a burdensome weight are rare. When they come, it feels as if we are walking on air.
Another common PCT expression is “Embrace the suck.” Complaining never makes the difficulties go away. The faint-hearted will not survive this trail. The PCT’s difficulties make this hike so appealing to me. I sense each hiker’s equal motivation on this final evening, as we sit in Scout and Frodo’s backyard to listen to our hosts’ last pieces of advice.
“Leave no trace,” they reiterate.
We form a circle and shout out “Leave no trace” for greater emphasis and memory. Most embarrassing, but I don’t forget the message. Biodegradable or not, you must take out every item you use. No trace means no trace.
“Pack out your toilet paper. Drink the dirty water you use to clean your cooking implements. Pick up other people’s wrappers you see dropped on the trail. Don’t use soap or shampoo in the pristine waters. If you want to swim, as a courtesy to other hikers, go downstream from where they are gathering drinking water. Practise good trail ethics. You are stewards of this glorious land. Be cognisant of how privileged you are to walk this magnificent trail. Make sure you protect it for future generations.”
Wise words. Scout and Frodo have us enraptured. Nervous laughs filter through the group. Frodo, in her earlier career, was a molecular biologist. She delivers her talk with sound scientific objectivity. Facts are irrefutable.
“Be careful out there. Be aware of the dangers. Make wise decisions. Don’t die. This year the heavy winter snowfall will translate into rapid, high river crossings when the snow melts in the High Sierra region of Central California. In 2017, another high snow year, we lost two of you.” With a lump forming in the back of her throat, she’s finding it difficult to contain her emotions. Her audience is no longer cocky.
“One of them stayed with us. She was a sweet young Japanese girl full of enthusiasm and urgency to start the trail. The river was surging. She attempted to cross but, within seconds, the river had whisked her downstream. We don’t know the full details of how she drowned but do NOT underestimate the power of nature. Stay in a group for these difficult crossings and if you are a solo hiker, wait for a group with whom you can cross,” she concludes.
“Let’s talk about tomorrow.”
We need to pay attention but how can we when you hear this devastating cautionary tale? Won’t happen to me. Why shouldn’t it? I’ve never crossed a stream of this size in my life; let alone with an unwieldy 20kg backpack. Solemn thoughts.
Back to Frodo and Scout’s instructions. “Departing hikers need to be ready for first breakfast at 5.30 am. Leave your packs outside the front door. Please be quiet to avoid waking our neighbours and be ready to go in your nominated vehicle at 6.00 am sharp.”
Whoa! Things are happening. At last. I wonder if my Will is in order. Mike need not know the pertinent details of this evening’s talk. No call for alarm bells at this stage. Reassurance of my sensible decision-making is enough. And I have Helen. Thank heavens for my walking buddy and trail angels. At least, I’m not alone.
I text Mike sending him my love and assurances. There will be no time for this tomorrow when the convoy of six vehicles drives us to Campo, drops us in the middle of nowhere with the parting words,
“Head North brave thru hikers. Enjoy yourselves. You’ll be fine.”