Thursday, May 12, 2016

Week one reveals the PCT's pleasures and pains

North of Lake Morena. Photo by some guy. 

Day 8, May 3, 2016

Week 1 has been everything a PCT hike is supposed to be. All boxes are checked - ups, downs, exhilaration, tedium, trail magic, incredible views of scenery and wildlife, instant friendships, challenges, problem solving, potential showstopper issues in whose whose dour face I laugh in defiance... in short, adventure. I expected the unexpected, and my expectations have been fulfilled.

Some assumptions have borne out. It's true what they say about trail camaraderie. Everyone is so friendly, and there is a lot of mutual support in terms of sharing of information food and water sharing. I think the reason is that all of us out here have the same basic needs: water, cool campsites and other resources. There's no pretense, just the joy of discovery. Who are you? Where are you from? What's your goal? What are your issues?

It's also true that the trail clarifies one's priorities, and I already have learned a lot. Among the lessons: I wasn't careful enough packing. Why do I have six pens, a tape measure, a book I'm too tired to focus on at the end of the day and other weighty nonsense? All that and more redundant oddments totaling five pounds of dead weight are being sent home from Mt. Laguna.  Apparently this is quite common, and the hiker boxes here in town are loaded with prime but superfluous gear people have sluffed off.

My gear works great. The pack handles like a champ. And even my hokey front pack (which I think of as my toy box) turned out to be a good idea. My umbrella is one of my favorite bits of gear, and miraculously, it mounts fuss-free in my pack strap and definitely helps lower the temperature 10 to 15 degrees.

My trekking poles are also invaluable. I have weak ankles, and am very concerned about rolling one on irregularly surfaced trail. The poles help take weight off the feet; they help me climb steep stretches and lower myself big steps in the trail; and they help arrest slides when one is walking over gravelly or otherwise slippery spots.

The Enlightened Equipment quilt, Thermarest pad and Big Agnes tent all make for very snug, comfortable nights. My no-cook approach also worked out well. There's no way I'd want to fuss with cooking and cleaning after a day on the trail, at least during this shakedown phase. My lukewarm mashed potato and soup concoctions taste just fab, but then so do the nice sandwiches in towns.

I'm figuring out how to quickly set up camp and transition to evening activity, and how to pack up and head out in the morning. So far I'm staying in established campsites or campgrounds. Others I've met prefer to find wilder spots off trail.

I've also learned that fatigue isn't going to be a problem, nor fortunately, will my knees, back or shoulders. Others have had trouble in those areas.

I can handle heat pretty well, and long stretches of elevation gain are just a matter of pacing and persistence. The PCT is really a series of day hikes, and each day might be thought of as a succession of micro-hikes. That hot climb out of Hauser Creek was where I learned to go a few hundred feet, rest, drink water and resume, and then get to the top in good shape.

The sole (pun intended) limiting factor on my mileage, stamina and enjoyment has been my feet. It turns out that for all my planning, I neglected to put decent insoles in my Merrill Moabs for this initial stretch. The ones that come with the shoes, it turns out, are paper-thin and have been transmitting the full shock of each step right into the soles of my feet. I was wondering why I felt every sharp rock right through the soles.

It got pretty bad yesterday as I approached Mt. Laguna. Each footfall was a painful jolt, and I had this fleeting vision of my feet as masses of shredded roast beef at the end of shards of bone. I was glad to get a room at the Mt. Laguna Lodge, then head down to Laguna Mountain Sports for foot care items.

What a trippy store. Imagine talking all of Pacific Outfitters' inventory and cramming it into a shop about the size of the Union's office. You literally have to bushwhack through floor-to-ceiling forests of hiking clothes, tents, sleeping bags and other gear. Somehow Mountain Dave packs every conceivable piece of gear and gizmos into that tiny place. There were lots of things I've never seen before, even at REI. It reminds me of some of the crazy-overstuffed knick-knack shops in Malaysia. Matt there was wonderfully helpful, very kind.

Back at the room, I tended to my hammered, hamburgered feet. I won't show you the pictures, because they're gross. Blisters, dead skin, purple toes, oozing... Almost as bad as Cheryl's feet were in that movie. And yes, like her I had contrived some primitive field dressing using Gorilla (duct) tape and gauze just to get me to town.

But now I have the real stuff. Some supposedly high-tech, shock-absorbing insoles, plus leukotape and more moleskins. So I can properly armor up for the next leg of the journey.

Still, as of last night, I was in no condition to continue the hike. My feet were swollen, bleeding and throbbing. I could barely walk at all, and could only hobble around the room by walking on the sides of my feet. Not good when you have almost 1,700 miles to go. By the end of the night, I couldn't even lower my swollen right foot to the floor without it feeling like it might explode. I had to keep it elevated, wrapped in a wet towel.

Overnight, it was hard to find a sleeping position since my feet were so sensitive. In a funny way though, I could feel them healing. My sore heels were tingling, almost buzzing, and I took that to mean the restorative processes were underway.

When I woke up this morning, I could once again walk - gingerly - on the edges of my feet. After several steps, I could plant my foot firmly on the floor. Now, in the afternoon, I can walk almost normally and mostly without pain. In fact, I probably could have left today, and all my impulses were to do so even though I knew it would be premature. I was waffling because I really want to get to Julian, the next town stop.

Then I read this incredibly timely post by Carmen McNerny on the PCT Class of 2016 page. She runs Carmen's Place, a Mexican restaurant in Julian, a place much-beloved by hikers:

"Well, crap. Been a tough couple of days at mile 77. Some pretty rough injuries. Two that are bad enough to take them off trail. Breaks my heart. I'm sure not a fraction of what they are feeling. All those months (if not years) of planning and saving to attempt a monumental journey. To have it all end so close to the beginning due to an injury. Injuries that could have been avoided.
"I have seen quite a few that have left because the mental toughness is not there. Cool. It's not for everyone. But to have to leave because your body says no must be so devastating.
"I am by no means a long distance hiker, but I've talked to many over the years. May I hand out advice?
"The 1st week or two are brutal. Your body is adjusting. The weight you are carrying, the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, back and your sad little feet. By the time you see me you've already figured out that your tent, shoes and pack suck.
"Please be kind to yourself. IT IS NOT A DAMN RACE!!!! LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!!! Take it at your own pace, love. Don't feel like you need to prove you can keep up with the pack. Persistent pain should NOT be ignored. Take a day or two now or 8 days later in a hotel you can't afford.
"Or of course the worse... leaving the trail all together because you felt like you had to "push on." There is so much pressure... especially at the beginning. Relax, enjoy the ride. That's what you're here for, right? Don't push it, kittens..."

That was all I needed to make the responsible decision to spend the $60 and stay another day in Mt. Laguna, letting my feet heal. I must admit that after a week on trail, I'm enjoying watching cable TV news about the fine lunatics vying for the presidency. That's only gotten worse it seems.

The trail has really worked with me over this past week. There was an initial elevation test for a taste of things to come, then a series of well-defined campsites, water resources and resupply townlets.

I read somewhere that when pack trains used to resupply at Brizard's before heading out for the gold mines in the Sierras, they would stop at Alliance and Spear to rejigger everything - shift loads around among the animals and make other adjustments needed   after that first couple miles. That's how I'm thinking of this pause in Mt. Laguna - a place to drop 5 lbs., smarten my setup and relaunch.

The plan is to be all packed up and set off around dawn tomorrow. With water resources ahead somewhat sparse and funky, I plans to carry five liters. If my feet start to hurt, I can pull off after just five miles at Mt. Laguna Campground, which has full facilities. Or I could keep going and camp somewhere else along the trail, maybe Oriflamme Canyon 12 miles up the road if I have truly regained my trail legs (feet). Fortunately it looks like a relatively gentle amble to Julian.

My medium-term goal is to continue trail acclimation and start achieving better mileage each day. But at the same time, there is so much to savor in terms of sights and smells, people and places that I'm perfectly happy going slow for now. Eventually I'll hit a working stride and whatever that turns out to be will be fine. Feets, don't fail me now!

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