March 31 – April 2, 2014
Stuck at Mile 109.5
On the morning of the 31st, the thru-hikers who had stayed with him the night before piled into Monty’s truck again and took off for the Warner Springs Post Office.
After picking up our resupply packages, which the Post Office had so kindly held for us as we walked from Campo, we went back to the community center and dumped pounds of carefully rationed powders and bars onto the ground to sort them into our packs.
My box was filled with dried pineapple and strawberries and other wonderful snacks that would take me to Idyllwild for my next resupply. I kneeled on my foam admiring the shiny, colorful wrappers before me.
The night before, two of the hikers who had stayed with Monty had given the rest of us an uneasy feeling. They continuously spouted convoluted messages about Jesus while organizing their massive packs. These were not typical thru-hikers. One was carrying a military issue hatchet, a bayonet he claimed was from the Vietnam War, a machete, a large buck knife, and a vicious curved blade that he kept in a holster strapped across his chest which he claimed was for mountain lions. The pair bragged about killing snakes for food and lighting fires in the desert on their way to Warner Springs, and they were hiking in long, cotton pants.
For reference, no thru-hiker uses cotton for major pieces of clothing on the trail, our knives are often comically tiny, and we adhere to campfire and stove restrictions which are extremely widespread and strict during this dry season.
These two men claimed to not believe in money and they said they had started the trail in February but had gotten off for a while to work for a church organization, asking only for canned food as payment. While sitting at Monty’s I watched them retrieve can after can of green beans and other foods from their packs (another sign that they are not thru-hikers, considering most people hiking long distances will repackage much of their food into small ziplock bags rather than carry cardboard or heavier plastic wrappers. Metal cans are not even an option.). They were also carrying deodorant and asked another hiker what kind of soap he was using on the trail. Ha ha. We all know that hikers are famous for their grubby garb and distinctive odor. Plus, soaps like Irish Spring (which they were carrying), and even biodegradable brands can seriously damage the delicate ecosystems through which the trail passes.
Now that I’ve exposed these “hikers” for the frauds they seem to be, I should finish the job by saying that they did not mail themselves any resupply at Warner Springs, they were upset that there was nothing in the hiker box at the post office, and they became even more agitated when they realized that those of us who had mailed ourselves food had all given our extra rations to Monty so that they could be offered to true thru-hikers. “Jesus loves you, one and all,” were the cryptic parting words of the strange pair as the rest of us hiked back towards the trail. In case there’s any doubt left in your mind, Monty might or might not be missing two pairs of hiking shoes.
As the rest of us stepped back onto the trail and walked out across a grassy field, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and agreed that it felt good to be hiking in a group knowing those two were behind us.
Unfortunately, as we traveled along transitioning from meadow to forest, my tendonitis continued to pull and burn at the outside of my calf and ankle. We stopped at a tire swing hanging in the woods near a picnic table, and I took a swing and a stretch, but when we left the spot, I realized that I needed to stop. I could not justify creating a chronic condition or doing serious damage to such an important part of my body so early in life. There is too much that I still want to do with my legs.
The trail dipped under a small bridge where cars thundered along highway 79. I stopped to sit on a log, and choked when I tried to explain to the others that I couldn’t continue. They gave me advice for resting and stretching and even offered me cash to use back in town. Surely I’d zoom past them, they said. I just needed to heal.
I called Monty again, and feeling utterly defeated, I asked for a ride. Before they walked on, David “Nobody’s Friend” and LaVonne “Waterbug” assured me that I would always have a place with them up the trail. I tried to smile and thanked them for the past 70 miles, and then I climbed up a sandy slope to sit on the guardrail and wait for Monty.
That afternoon, Alphabet Soup, Dynamo, and Johnny returned from REI and the grocery store with new gear and what turned out to be a ridiculous amount of food. Meander was now staying at Monty’s, too, and we all stood on the porch chatting while the three sorted their food. They tossed extra donuts and chocolate bars and unopened poptarts into a pile for the hiker box. I happily raided their leavings to supplement my own food supply for the next few days, which was running dangerously low on candy. They make Snickers bars with almonds. There’s nothing more to understand.
I called my insurance company to figure out how to get an appointment out of my coverage area and explained that I was hiking from Mexico to Canada. “That sounds pretty cool. I’ve had foot problems myself,” said the man on the phone. Soon I had an urgent care appointment for the next day to get a referral to see a podiatrist Monty recommended.
Dynamo’s knee had worsened since I last saw him. It was now swollen and purple, and he and I switched off using an ice-filled ziplock to soothe our injuries.
The next day, I rode along as Monty dropped Alphabet Soup and Johnny at the trail so that they could begin hiking again. I watched longingly out the rain-spattered window as they walked into the post office to prepare to leave. Dynamo’s knee had become so swollen he couldn’t continue and instead he opted to stay with an aunt and see a doctor in San Diego.
Monty drove us to town and I got my referral easily, but a strange feeling had crept into my mind. I was in a sort of limbo where my desire to hike was powerful, but where I was becoming less focused on the trail and more focused on things I was missing at home like friends and family and warm weather.
I understood that the podiatrist could easily end my hike the next day by prescribing an extended period of rest. I wanted desperately to be on the trail or at home. Though Monty was always happy to oblige, I felt like a leech, asking him for rides and meals and a place to sleep.
I tried unsuccessfully to remain emotionally distant from my persistent desire to hike and from my growing desire to go home, knowing that no matter what the doctor decided, I would somehow be disappointed.
That night, Me Too, another hiker who had started far earlier in the season, arrived with a horrible back injury that had taken him off the trail many miles north of us. His injury seemed far worse than mine, and I was suddenly thankful that all I had to deal with was a little tendonitis.
Monty taught me to bake apples, and as I sat poking at the steaming, cinnamon flavored fruit, I thought of Nobody’s Friend and Waterbug, alive and camped many miles north under the unsettled sky. Would I ever see them again? I glanced at a picture taken when Alphabet Soup, Dynamo, Johnny, Friend, Waterbug, and I had first been together in Mount Laguna. That was at mile 42. Now, as I lay stuck indefinitely at mile 109.5, a pang of grief knotted my stomach as I contemplated the possibility of never seeing any of them again.
The podiatrist shook my hand, pressed on my foot, and confirmed my diagnosis of peroneal tendonitis. He gave me a pink sheet of sticky felt and showed me how to cut it to pad my superfeet insoles. “Most of my patients have been more comfortable in a shoe with an elevated heel,” he said as he examined my decrepit zero-drop Altras. I got the OK to keep hiking, and stepped into the sun feeling slightly bewildered.
Just like that I had been snapped out of limbo. I was not stuck at mile 109.5, I was hiking the PCT. All I needed was some new shoes, a healthy dose of Aleve, and a ride to the trail in the morning.
Monty drove me to REI and I sat on the cold cement watching the other people waiting for the store to open and wondering, “Why are you at REI on a Wednesday morning? What expedition are you preparing for?”.
Inside, I asked for shoes in size 13, a full two sizes larger than I’d ever worn before. None of the oddly patterned shoes seemed to suit my wide feet. As I stepped through the endless racks of gear, testing shoes, I became conscious of my own odor. Other people smelled good as they walked by. I wondered what they thought when I walked by.
A pair of La Sportiva Wildcats supported my heel and accommodated my toes, and I remembered Waterbug’s declaration that they were the best shoes for everything, including thru-hiking. Her brother told her so, and he did the trail in 2010.
I was sold.
Back at Monty’s house, I felt awkward sharing my good news while Me Too groaned in pain on the couch. But I couldn’t deny my excitement. Finally I was ready to move on from the dreaded 109.5. Meander and I made plans to leave in the morning, and I stuffed my things into their familiar places in my pack, already wondering where I would be in the next 24 hours, who I would meet, and where my friends were on this damp, cold night.
March 31 – April 2, 2014