It’s a beautiful morning here in Big Bear Lake. There is a cool breeze as I walk to the Post office to send my bounce box to Cajon Pass. TnT are running late, but they’ve procured a shuttle that will take us to the TH at Hwy 18. While I’m waiting, a man comes up to me, and asks me if I need help. He is a section hiker named Mountain Lion, and he’s willing to pick up people, even if they are as far away as the Sierra. When he sees I don’t need help, he hands me his card and jumps back into his truck. How nice is that? Some people are finally seeing me as a thru hiker, and not just some lady that dresses weird.
TnT show up, mail their boxes, and we then we are off. The shuttle driver tells us the same stuff that most locals seem to relish telling all the hikers: how aggressive the snakes are (“They like to strike at eye level,” he warns), that mountain lions will stalk us, that snow is impassable, stuff like that. When he hears I’m from Sacramento (and therefore familiar with California), he ditches me and focuses his fear-based lore on TnT. We all seem kinda grumpy this morning, but try to keep the pleasantries up as best we can.
The camp sites are listed sparsely this first day. There is one in 11 miles, and another in 18. Neither option suits me well. I don’t feel great, but want to continue trying to condition my feet to take fewer breaks. We are starting so late, too, about 10am. I warn TnT that I don’t know how far I’ll go today; that we may be separated this whole section. They say okay, but Tumbler doesn’t seem to like the idea. I feel like maybe they are irritated at me, or maybe they are merely immersed in their own grumps and pains.
I have 4.5 days of food in my pack, plus 4 liters of water. It feels so heavy at first, but my body quickly adjusts to the weight, an almost comforting sensation, like a pack on my back is the normal state of being. It does make me move slower though. Plus the trail winding between the mountains is extremely rocky. It alternates between larger rocks that look engineered to get past washouts, and small rocks that lay like landscaping cobble on the path. When I walk on the larger stones, they make a pleasing sound as they crunch against each other. My ankles twist this way and that as I switchback up the mountainside. My feet ache and shout obscenities at me after only an hour of walking.
Eventually, I round a curve and the terrain changes. I’m in an almost standard forest scene; the trail turns to dirt and pine needles and there is a faint waft of that great smell only a mountain forest has. There are no real views, although the lake pokes through here and there on one side, and glimpses of the dry hills that lead down to the desert are seen on the other side. It’s easy, boring walking, and I’m enjoying it. The feet let up a little. I can quicken my pace. I let my mind wander. Sing songs with mangled lyrics. Envision berating the cyclists in Sacramento about how lame they are. Update my Cajon Pass McDonald’s order: now I want some Chicken McNuggets, a hashbrown and a vanilla shake.
I am definitely the hungriest I’ve been on the trail. I’m thinking about food, even though I was just in town. I’m having a harder time meting out my water, too. I just want to drink it all, right here, right now. I stop to unwrap a Slim Jim, let it hang out of my mouth like a farmer chews a piece of straw, then continue stomp along the lovely dirt path.
It’s only 3pm when I get to the 11 mile campsites. I can’t decide if I should stop here. It’s so early, but I don’t know if there will be anywhere to camp ahead. On the map it looks like the trail is hugging a contour the whole time. I have to commit to at least 7 more miles if I want to go. Even though I’m not feeling my best in my head, I sense that I could probably push myself, that today could be the day I break the darn 15 mile barrier.
I go a mile farther before I chicken out. I have so far gone from marked campsite to marked campsite, and even though I have seen that there are actually campsites everywhere, what if this time is different, and I become miserable and trapped on the side of the mountain. I know, I know. It’s embarrassing that these things plague me, and I completely talk myself out of being brave and taking this one small step in taking my hiking to a new level.
I consider hiking back a mile to the campsites. Maybe I can wait for TnT and see what they’re doing. It would be good to see them anyway, so they know I’m not trying to get away from them. I go find a place to pee and there it is. A hidden, perfectly flat campsite. I wait about a half an hour to see if TnT will catch up to me. When I don’t see them, I feel certain they stopped at the 11 mile campsites, so I set up my tent in this little hidden oasis.
I’ve decided to try out my new stove on this leg, and brought along some Ramen, the one food I never get sick of on trail. I sit there for twenty minutes, watching the water in my new Titanium cup not boil. I stick a finger in, it’s barely even lukewarm! I hear some people coming along the trail. It’s TnT and they are heading a few more miles up. The Guthook app (which I have, but never look at) shows that there are, in fact, a few campsites up ahead.
Dang it. I should’ve been brave. I should have pushed myself. Why do I give up so easily? TnT continue on without me and I go back to my tent, where water is still not boiling. I say screw it, and pour the tepid water into my Ziplock. Try to allow the noodles to soften, but yeah, they’re not going to. I eat about five bites before throwing the rest out by a tree. I don’t like to do that, but I can’t eat it.
In my tent, I pretty much go into full panic. Everything strikes me as scary and lonely and negative. I use my InReach to text Aaron. He manages to talk me down a little bit. It’s very similar to a manic-depressive episode, and I have no choice but to ride it out. I cry and cry, over everything. Over nothing. I can’t bear being in the moment, I can’t bear the feelings, the suffering, the ambiguity of life. Soon, the waves of emotion ebb and break off. I can finally find some solace in sleep. I drift off, sniffling, listening to the sounds of a critter eating my discarded chicken Ramen.