Section O Day 5: Seeing a Person, Being in a Lightning Storm

April 21

14 miles

It was hard to fall asleep last night, due to the strange auditory tricks the loud creek played. Sometimes the gurgling water sounded like a pack of dogs, sometimes a few men fighting, and sometimes like FM radio. Once my ears heard what they thought were human voices, it was difficult to un-hear them.

Up until now, my blisters have not really grown in size. But climbing around trees the last several days, plus yesterday’s unplanned off-trail adventure has re-ignited them. I am running low on athletic tape and band-aids. Today I will have to not re-tape them at breaks. Since my mileage has been slower than planned, the tape needs to last 3 more days. I don’t think that’s gonna happen.

I also have had to make t.p. out of my extra set of socks. If that doesn’t last, good-bye bandanna. And I have had to ration my already low supply of food. I am eating about 800-1000 cals a day.  That’s not bothering me too much, as long as I stay hydrated. Now that I have lost a water bottle, I have 2 1-liter bottles, plus a 24 oz Gatorade bottle that I drink from. Water has not been an issue here, so I think I will be okay.

I have been saving my cup of sunflower seeds until today, they have the most calories packed into the least amount of food. I figured on day 2 that I would need more calories later, rather than earlier in the trek, so I held off on eating them. Now, I’m gonna eat half those suckers today at lunch! I can’t remember ever salivating over sunflower seeds like I am right now.

My mind has seemed to turn more to food fantasy today: Bacon Cheese Burger, Chicken Salad Sandwich, Cobb Salad, a fresh Orange and a Smoothie. Or maybe a Wilted Spinach Salad instead of a Cobb. I make this list as I amble down the trail. The first 10 miles are a big loss in elevation, so I’m taking advantage by going faster than normal. The trail has plants, poison oaks and trees with pretty white blooms encroaching on both sides. There are more bugs here, there is more blooming than withering, and I can hear what sounds like a big river way down there to my left. I even pass ever prettier creeks on the path, and trip and slip into each and every one. My left shoe seems to have no traction. Yes, it is TOO the shoe. I made a perfect jump on a dry rock earlier, and slipped right off into the water. The shoe, I tell ya, the shoe.

The trail heads steadily down, getting rockier again; sometimes the path so skinny and along a slippery, sandy slope, that there is only room for one foot in front of the other. I can hear McCloud River, rushing and gushing. Sounds big. And then I hear voices, high-pitched, laughing. Is it the river playing tricks on me again? I strain to listen. I think I hear a man’s voice, and a woman’s.

I feel oddly invaded. I haven’t seen anyone for FIVE days. This is my trail, I’ve cried tears on it, I’ve given blood to it! Who are these people, coming here and having fun without giving what I’ve given? I laugh out loud at my possessiveness. But I can’t quite stop feeling it. You would think I would be happy to see people, yet I guess part of me has thought I would make it the whole section without seeing anyone.

I begin to prepare for this eventual collision with these interlopers. I am suddenly hyper aware of the grime on my face. I douse my bandanna with water and wipe. My hair is a tangled lump perched precariously atop my head, like a silly New Year’s Eve hat. I fuss with it. My legs are lacerated. I no longer have a sun shirt, so there’s no hiding my flabby freak arms. “Let your freak arms flail,” I think. (This is a motto I came up with before I started the PCT. My freak flag already flies.)

Down and down, but I don’t see anybody. Did I just have a strong auditory hallucination, I wonder? The trail does a few obligatory switchbacks, and dumps me at an unpaved road. There is a giant semi-truck and an old-timey gasoline truck. Wha-? So out-of-place. I’m just not prepared for such blatant displays of civilization, yet there they are. And why these two trucks, out all the types of vehicles there could be?

On the other side of the road is Ash Camp, a nice looking established campground that explains the possibility of people. But I don’t see or hear anyone. I cross the bridge over McCloud River- just gorgeous. Pools of blue-green and fast rapids in either direction A real mountain river! I can almost believe there is no drought while looking at it. This would be the place to forget trail itineraries and body modesty and frolic in the water for a while. Tempting, but I don’t.

I find a nice sunny rock ledge to enjoy my sunflower seeds. They are as delicious as I have been imagining. And, bonus! I packed 2 cups, instead of one! This surprise gift makes me do a happy dance. I eat some Goldfish crackers, and some Sports Beans. Oh my gosh, it’s only 1pm and I’ve had almost 1000 calories! I’m living the life! I’m full of smiles and grins, all alone (maybe), no cares (almost), and in this beautiful spot, this wonderful moment. Happiness.

I decide to wait to get water at Ferguson Gulch. I tramp happily along, my stomach like a little engine that can. It’s kinda buggy at the Gulch, but I need to air out my feet, since I didn’t at McCloud. I spread my stuff around me, and pull out my maps and water report. I enjoy looking at the Elevation Profile particularly. I tentatively decide to go five more miles.

I hear a soft whistle to my right. My heart jumps. I look over, and there is a backpacker coming from the north. ” Didn’t want to scare you,” he says. He’s doing Section O north to south, and he just started yesterday. He did 17 miles yesterday and plans similar for today. “I’m a triple-crowner, but my days of 30 mile days are gone,” he humble-brags. He readily admits that he didn’t want, nor expect, to see anyone on the trail. It makes me laugh that we both had a similar possessive urge to keep the trail to ourselves. But he decides to enjoy a little company, so we sit for a while and talk.

He tells me that he is using a very old copy of the Wilderness Press books as a guide. All kinds of info in it is wrong, he informs me. When I ask why he doesn’t use the updated stuff, he just scoffs- he doesn’t wanna. I call him stubborn, and he says, “Well, that is my trail name.”

Stubborn doesn’t have a phone or a computer or a T.V. He lives in Colorado and feels like the town he lives in has become too touristy, so he has vowed to not spend one day of summer there. We have a pleasant conversation for about an hour, and he declines looking at my maps the whole time. Finally, before he leaves, he can’t resist looking at the elevation profile, which also has campsites listed on it. He is going to aim for a campsite about 5 miles away. “My book says there are no campsites for the next 12 miles,” he grins. He truly seems glad that his guide is full of errors. We wish each other well, and off he goes. What an interesting guy. He was very nice to me, even though I look like a crazy lady, and I’m pretty sure he caught me picking my nose.

I pack up and start the big climb up. It gets windy. There is blue sky to the west, but dark clouds are forming north of me. And they are building fast. I can hear thunder rolling long, drawn out rumbles that sound menacing. I study it. It kinda looks like it might just pass me by on the right. Hopefully. I keep hiking, eyeing the storm, noting the wind getting stronger and colder.

There are three campsites one mile+ apart from each other, and I had planned to hike to the third one. But it is clear I am going to get rained on., so I stop at the first. This first campsite is at a flat area at the top of the climb, with the pinnacle of the mountain not far above me to the right. I set up in what I guess is the best place for rain, within a circle of trees, and with the back of my tent facing the brunt of the wind. There are three places to set up, but all have dried trees, all are tall and none cull the wind. This spot has the shortest trees, so that’s why I pick it.

I barely get in my tent before it starts to rain. The thunder is very close now, but still sounds slightly to the right of me, so maybe it won’t be too bad. Before I close the storm doors of the tent, I see that I have misjudged the size of the storm, and that, in fact, it is gigantic and crowding itself around me. Uh-oh. My stomach starts to flip-flop.

I try to write in my journal, but things are happening fast. Suddenly there is thunder and lightning all around me and ice rain begins to pelt the tent. I realize this storm is not something above me, but I am actually in it. I think about all the dead trees ready to crack and fall on my tent. I think about everything I know about lightning storms. Not much. Then there is a flash and thunder cracks only one second later. I yelp and start to cry. Oh my god. And now I think about the possibility of death. I picture Aaron, how he will feel, what he will think if I die. I scrawl a note to him in my journal. There is so much I need to say, but it gets too scary to do anything at all, and I can only fold into a fetal position, hot tears and snot wetting my quilt.

There is lightning everywhere, it’s to my left, and right, above me and next to me, and it’s bright and forked and fast. The thunder cracks and booms, crazy loud and unlike any kind of sound I’ve ever heard, and it comes not even a second after the lightning. This is what war sounds like, I think, my fingers in my ears and covering my eyes at the same time. The ground shakes and I start pleading, “Please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me.” I am crying harder than I can remember crying in years. It seems like it can’t get louder or closer, but it does, and time crawls and I am paralyzed with a very primitive fear. There is a sound, like a sucking in sound, like all the air is being pulled up, then horrible and never-ending cracks and booms, like lighting is jumping from object to object. This happens over and over. The sleet and ice and hail and rain (all at the same time!) crash against the tent like an angry swarm. I hear the storm moving to the valley below me, and I hope that Stubborn will be okay, that he will somehow miss this wrath. Then, my body just shuts down, kinda like sleep, but deeper. I wake up around 9:30pm (the storm hit me at 6pm) and there is peace in the forest. My quilt is wet, but I think it might be more from the condensation of my breath being trapped in the tent, and possibly back-splash, and less from the actual downpour. The tent has held up super well, from what I can tell in the dark.

I am exhausted and my brain just keeps replaying the evening’s events. I try to laugh it off, tell myself that I wasn’t in danger, but I can’t convince myself this time. I was in danger, I know it in my heart. But it’s over and I am here. Relief. Still, sleep only comes in bits and pieces the rest of the night.