July 25, 2018
My alarm goes off at 5:30am which feels much too early after the fitful night of sleep due to the moon beaming directly into the tent. I kept dreaming someone was outside shining a flashlight in my face, or that I’d overslept with the sun already high in the sky, only to wake up squinting at the moon, fat and bright like a star, sliding across the sky.
I twist the nozzle on my sleeping pad and listen to the sad whooosh as my butt touches down onto the ground, followed by one calf, then the other. My shoulders are last to reach the ground and I can defer the inevitable no longer.
I sit up and roll my shoulder blades to loosen up my very important and hard-working trapezius muscles, bounce my legs to wake up my quads, then go to wiggle my toes but am met with an electric pang shooting out from my left foot.
I inhale sharply and freeze.
“Ohmygod,” I exhale.
Shoving my quilt aside, my eyes widen as I get a look at my left big toe. What felt like mild tightness last night has bloomed into an ugly black and purple bruise wrapping around swollen skin pulled so tight it shines. Any natural curve and shape to the toe has been obliterated. I try to bend my toe, but it doesn’t budge, so I manually try to bend it and am met with another nauseating flare of pain.
My brain rapid-fires “if/then” scenarios about what to do if the injury is bad and not gone tomorrow. I cycle through the first four steps of grief as I try to grasp busting my toe this early in the trip with no perceptible memory of how it happened:
Denial – “This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening,” I mutter while covering my foot with the quilt and willing the swelling to be gone when I look again. No such luck.
Anger – “Fucking goddamn piece of shit toe. How dare you?” I thrash my body verbally for failing me so quickly, embarrassed and mad at its fragility. I immediately feel bad and apologize.
Bargaining – “Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe I’ll wake up in the morning and it’ll be fine.” Let’s be real: I know I’m not going to wake up in the morning and be fine. My foray into the bargaining phase is briefest of them all.
Depression – “I’m going to have to abort my trip. I’m going to go home a failure. I’m going to lose the whole trip.” I cover my face with my hands, imagining the months spent planning and dreaming of this coveted few weeks, feeling it all slipping through my hands as I work through bailout options.
But then, a moment of quiet.
Just keep walking.
Three words cut through the cacophony.
I’m several days from the next potential exit point, so panicked machinations aren’t going to help me now. I just need to keep walking and see what happens.
My first steps back on the trail are a bit wobbly as I work out how to minimize impact on my toe. At first I hobble, but within a half mile I have settled into a kind of shambling flatfooted gait.
Maybe it’s the flood of my body’s painkillers, or maybe it’s the risk of losing the whole trip, but the morning is enchanted. The PCT leads me toward Seavy Pass up perfect cobbled steps padded with tufts of grass in the crevices between stones. The scent of wild onions fills the air and white clustered flowers bob in the faint breeze.
I am the first person on this section of trail today, judging by the pristine animal prints in the dust. Big hooves, tiny hooves, and little mammalian paw prints lead the way up through this emerald landscape. I am just another animal amongst many here.
I encounter three does over the next couple miles, picking their way though the meadows too busy grazing to care about my interloping presence. Two of them pause mid-chew to look at me before returning to more interesting activities. One turns her tail on me and vanishes into a stand of willow brush.
All at once, I step around a boulder in the trail and look up to see a lake stretched out before me, cradled by swoops of smooth granite. The reveal was so sudden and delightful I laugh before turning around to walk back around the corner to see the lake appear again. And then I do it yet once more, walking back and forth around the corner laughing.
Up yet more I go, declaring Seavy Pass my new favorite pass, a fickle designation as I have a habit of awarding this status to every new pass I cross.
I pause at the lake at the top of the pass, enjoying a breakfast Snickers while taking in the water’s beautiful green color. I remove my left shoe and sock to see how my toe is holding up and am met with more swelling and skin that itches from being stretched so far. The swelling is so impressive it challenges the stretch of my Injinji toe socks; arranging the sock chamber properly over my monster toe is indeed a delicate operation punctuated with language as colorful as the bruise.
The trail begins its inevitable downward slope. I chat with a couple groups doing the popular Matterhorn-Benson Circuit, who veer right at the Buckeye Pass Junction and out of my sight. I turn to the left to follow the PCT along Rancheria Creek, which is strewn with boulders like a baby giant had a tantrum, but the miles are easy and afford dramatic views of the steep, bare granite cliffs across the creek.
My easy miles come to a close as I reach the Kerrick Creek ford, a crossing that can be tricky earlier in the season but now is a an innocuous, knee-deep jaunt across. The day has heated up considerably and the cold water feels incredible, so incredible I shed my pack on the other side, wipe off my sunscreen, then plunge into a deep pool.
I emerge and, still soaking wet, prepare my lunch of peanut butter and honey in a tortilla. The air is so hot that even in the shade, I am mostly dry within 20 minutes.
While packing back up, another hiker crosses Kerrick Creek behind me. I raise my hand to wave as he approaches and start to say hello, but the second syllable withers quietly as the hiker makes eye contact and keeps walking with nary a head nod. The few hikers I’ve met in this section have been aloof and skittish, while the deer, marmots, and hummingbirds consistently make much more congenial company.
The afternoon unfolds through a series of hot, exposed climbs and descents. The landscape grows more arid and lizards proliferate the trail like little dinosaurs amusing with their squinty side-eye and push-up routine.
With the heat, I have torn through the three liters of water I filtered at lunch. I have half a liter left as I reach the unnamed summit of my post-lunch climb. Seasonal water has been consistently dried up in this drainage, so I transition into conservation mode and pray to the water gods that the seasonal streams marked on the map for the descent into Stubblefield Canyon are flowing. My mouth is parched and I think of the poor horse in a pack train that I’d run into huffing and puffing with a bloody nose.
I know I have water at the bottom of this canyon but am beyond thrilled when I spy willows further down the switchbacks, a sure sign that water is nearby. Sure enough, the water flows, even if I have to rummage around in a mosquito-laden willow thicket to reach the pipe and awkwardly fill my bottles. It’s cold, clean, and delicious. I pound two liters and filter another for the final descent with a new lease on life.
When I reach the bottom, I contemplate my options. It’s too early to stop for the day; my toe is fiercely angry and has slowed my pace considerably. I need to make a few more miles before I quit for the day. I load up on water in the creek flowing through Stubblefield Canyon, not confident that I can make it to the next water source before my toe grounds me for the night.
Sure enough, my body calls it quits about 85% of the way up the climb beneath Macomb Ridge. My toe is just done, and what had been a steady but manageable throb of pain with each step elevates to a stab so sharp my stomach turns over.
Tent spots are in short supply, so it takes me about a half hour of shuffling around scouting for a spot before I come across a flat ledge hidden from the trail. My body is wrung out and I spend about 10 minutes staring at the views, foot elevated, while shoveling gummy bears into my mouth to stoke my energy fires enough to set up camp in the shallow granite sand–no easy feat with a non-freestanding tent–and cook dinner.
I watch thunderheads pile up over the next valley over, but the skies above my own valley remain clear and blue. Clambering into my tent, I’m too tired to worry much about my toe and slower pace tonight. I melt into my quilt and sigh as the sleeping pad feels like the world’s softest feather bed. I begin to wonder where the moon, my constant companion is, before falling asleep mid-thought, unconsciousness swallowing me like a trap door collapsing beneath my feet.