Out Here On My Own
By Lauren Norton
I recently completed my first solo hike, an 8.5 mile round trip trek from Ebbett’s Pass to Nobel Lake on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). It was the kind of adventure I thought would be a regular occurrence in my adult life, despite having only sporadic forays into the Great Outdoors as a youngster. I am now of the belief that there are two kinds of families: the kind that go to the beach, and the kind that go to the mountains. We were a beach family, with the kids swimming and digging holes and burying each other in the sand while the parents sat in beach chairs and wore enormous hats and periodically checked to make sure no one had drowned.
And then at some point in my early twenties, I decided that outdoorsy people were annoying. They filled your newsfeed every weekend with their endorphin crazed exploits, their altitude sick professions: OMG I LOVE MY LIFE. RAD TIMES PEAK BAGGING!!! MOUNTAIN KILLAZ R US. You spend your whole Saturday cleaning out the garage and here’s some jerk you did a poli sci class with ten years ago, riding a donkey in the Grand Canyon. Social media makes you hate these people, and the hatred becomes yet another barrier to you making it out into the wilderness.
Reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild opened up a whole new set of possibilities for me. I liked this woman. I liked her honesty. For me, the matter of her having hiked 1000 miles on her own was less startling, less incredible, than being in the company of a woman who spoke so directly and openly about desire and addiction. This wasn’t some eye-rolling addiction to the great outdoors, this was the illicit and illegal kind that typically doesn’t produce best-selling authors. I liked the idea of running into someone like Cheryl on the PCT, someone with a great back story that didn’t involve a sale at REI.
So, with the closure of Highway 4 just days away, I begged, borrowed, and bought enough materials to sustain a nearly nine mile hike in the snow. I left Sacramento at 7am, and stopped in Markleeville for breakfast and permits. At the cafe, the owner was talking with a friend about the improvements she would be making over the winter. A woman in a purple pant suit and a man in a big black cowboy hat drank coffee and talked about new shutters. No one looked like they were getting ready to hit the trail. Most of the campsites and small businesses were closed; folks were finally battening down the hatches after a summer that hung around too long.
I felt the nerves kick in as I got closer to the trailhead. Between Lake Alpine and Silver Creek, Highway 4 becomes a narrow road with no center line and no shoulders as it winds its way over the Sierra Crest. I imagined my car plummeting into the precipitous drop off on my right hand side, and the snow quietly covering up the wreckage. Eventually I found a parking lot with a locked toilet and a PCT sign for Ebbett’s Pass.
I was triple checking my pack when a family from Utah pulled into the lot. I was going to be joined on the trail by three generations from the same family, including the 71 year old matriach, Marilyn. Nothing makes you feel as confident in the wilderness as having someone’s grandmother hiking behind you. I was joyous. In the smattering of snow I could easily follow the prints left by the hikers the day before, so I put away the GPS and tried to take it all in.
Unlike other hikes I’ve done in the Sierras, this part of the PCT is not so heavily wooded. You can see deep into the forest and admire how the trail gently traverses the landscape. In the places where the trees have fallen, the PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association) volunteers have bisected their trunks with chainsaws so you walk through unimpeded. Often you hear the sound of water on the trail, and you hop over small streams or see a flash of light in a frozen puddle.
And then just as suddenly, you are in a dry, arid, volcanic section of the trail, and you’re tying your jacket around your waist and taking thirsty glugs from your water bottle. As I climbed the final switchbacks to Nobel Lake I heard Marilyn and her daughter calling out from down below.
“Lauren! I don’t think we’re going to make it in time, will you tell the boys we’re turning back when you catch up with them?”
I check my map.
“It’s just another mile,” I yell down to them. “I think you can make it!”
Nobel Lake comes into view at a distance of about 500 yards. At this time of year it’s bright green with algae, and flanked by golden grasses and snowbanks. I am tempted to pull my shirt over my head and run around like a striker who has just scored the winning goal. I jump up and down yelling “WHOOOOP I DIDN’T DIE!” and eat my victory Cliff bar and a packet of beef jerky. Marilyn finally makes it to the lake and she starts singing and dancing too.
It’s nearly 2pm and I’m worried about driving back down Highway 4 in the dark, so I start the four mile march back to the car. The adrenalin lasts about two miles, and then I hit a wall. This is something that happens every time I exercise, whether I’m at a yoga class or trying to run a few blocks. I think it’s something residual from all of those beach trips. Why not lie in the sun and eat icecream? my body suggests.
The fear kicks in then too. Fear of the dark, and the cold. Fear of getting lost. I think about Cheryl Strayed on the PCT for all of those lonely months. What lunacy!
I start making elaborate plans about how to hike the PCT in the most luxurious way possible, stitching together loops of ten or fifteen miles at a time, with a hotel room and a hot shower at the end of every section. I am fantasizing about dinner and dessert in Lake Tahoe when I realize I am back at the parking lot and the ordeal is over. I am still not dead, and there are warm, dry clothes in the back of the car–and mango slices! I turn the stereo up and start the descent down 4 when Kinney Reservoir comes into view. I pull off the road, strip off my warm sweats and jump into the freezing water. My muscles are shocked out of soreness, but it’s still warm enough to lay on the sand and absorb the sunshine. I am a beach kid well on her way to being a mountain woman.