July 31, 2015
Grand Total: 1417
For the last time this trip I stuff my dusty gear into my dusty pack. Tie my worn shoes. Check my water and my maps. Pick up my pack, my poles. Each mundane movement overflowing with meaning today, the Last Day. I mark my name in thanks on a picnic table covered in gratitude, before leaving this wondrous cache that embodies the generosity of the PCT community. I walk, heart heavy with the sadness of endings. I walk, lungs burning with the smoke-tinged air of fire season in a year of extreme drought.
At the bridge I chose to follow the riverside path to Burney Falls. Suddenly struck with the realization that this is where I leave the trail, I pose hugging the signpost, tears in my eyes, before reluctantly moving on. The riverside path delivers its promised magic, a transition from desert to abundance condensed into a single short mile, like a fast-forward flyover of the Mojave becoming the Sierra. From a completely dry creek bed, with flowers sprouted here and there among the gravel, puddles emerge and then trickles. As I walk, the river that is not a river comes alive, my emotions welling up with the water until I stand sobbing at the brink of the huge falls. Water pours impossibly out of stone, the mist diluting tears for three incredible months, millions of footsteps, and all the adventures yet to come.At the Burney Falls store, I pose with kitschy t-shirts, Hannah Solo taking the photo that will let Stephen know I am on my way home. A few days ago, I had promised to leave the trail at the next stop with an ‘appropriate’ tourist t-shirt. I give away the contents of my resupply box, wash away the trail dirt, and don my new shirt. The others sit with me for a while, in quiet support, until I am ready to leave. Tikimon makes my hitchhiking sign. There’s no other way to get to town. “My only trail art,” he says, taking photos.I stand at the park gate for an hour, maybe two. Watching car after car of tourists ignore me or shrug their apologies. Finally, a car of three early twenty-something friends pulls over. “We saw you on the way in,” they say. “Our friend Elise is hiking the PCT this year. We can take you to Redding.” Even as I leave, the trail community is strong.
I am deposited at the transit station, but the train station is closed, and the bus sold out. I find a cheap motel for the night in the sketchy part of town. In the morning, I ceremoniously cook my last pack of ramen eat it at the worn table of my dated motel room. I look over my maps, previewing the day’s elevation profile and set tentative goals, performing my morning ritual though I will be flying, not walking today.
The airport is crowded, even for SFO. People are everywhere and I cannot remember feeling lonelier. Not a friend in the masses, not one person who sees me as a PCT hiker. I am just a woman in a stained skirt with wild hair and a dusty backpack that reeks with the sweat of a thousand miles. I walk through a bookstore, stroking shiny covers of favorite books. Overwhelmed, I apologize to the man working there for not being able to decide on a purchase, explaining where I have been for the last three months. He points to Wild, “like her?” He asks. Yes, I say, abstaining from my usual lecture. What makes you a thru-hiker anyway, I wonder? Is it an accomplishment or a state of being? What if a thru-hiker is not someone who completes an entire trail in a single season. What if a thru-hiker is simply someone who walks as if it is her calling, day after day, for as long as she can.
From the air, I see clouds to the east, barest pink in the very last light. I think of all the hikers scattered along the invisible line below. Eating their garlic-ramen mashed potatoes, sharing stories of the day before curling up in sleeping bags in the quiet forest, muscles aching with accomplishment. I hope it is fully dark before we fly over the cascades; I know not if my heart can handle the sight of snowy summits rising through the clouds. Already, I miss the trail with my whole being. Already, I want to begin again. To start fresh and brave at the border, with all the miles before me.