I woke up in my tent to the sound of nothing. I had never before been in a place so utterly quiet, still…lifeless. Oh there was life all around me, the spider crawling on the outside of my tent, the frogs I knew were there in the creek below, the dozen other hikers sleeping not twenty yards away, all blissfully unaware at the complete and implacable silence that hung over Kitchen Creek Canyon at 5am. It was haunting. It was terrifying.
I’d spent the last few years thinking I knew what loneliness was. I’d chased it, embraced it, and yet here I was, on the morning of the anniversary of my best friend’s death, feeling more truly alone than I’d ever felt before.
I forced myself to sleep. I don’t know how long, or how well I slept, but I slept. I woke up with the sun just starting to peak over thehill behind me, painting the red rocks of the canyon a beautiful shade of scarlet. Around me I could hear the other hikers breaking camp. The marines had left before I even got up, and the pair I’d walked in with the night before were about to go.
I waited them out, until I truly was alone in the canyon. I filled my water bottle from the creek and ran cold water over my head and face. Then I called my mother.
I was not expecting tears, let alone crying harder than I ever remember crying. This place felt like a prison, I told her. Here, at my most free, with no job or bills or problems beyond walking everyday, I felt trapped, claustrophobic, petrified that I would never find a way out.
We talked for some time. My battery dipped low, but I didn’t care. We talked about why I was doing this hike in the first place. We developed a plan whereby I’d stop through hiking and start section hiking shortly after arriving in Mt. Laguna that evening. I made concessions and excuses, I bargained like I’d never bargained before. I was ready to quit.
But I didn’t. I stowed my camera holster, a ridiculous saddlebag that pulled me off balance and kept my camera a little too secure. In the previous two days I barely touched the thing. Photography and making a documentary were the reasons I’d started the PCT, and I’d done so little of either. Once my bag was packed, and I was back on the trail, I started taking photos. Not many, mind you, but enough to feel like I was being productive. I pushed on, breaking here and there, still convinced that this was my last full day as a through hiker.
It was around mile 34 that I met No-Trace and Unbreakable, eating lunch in the shade of a manzanita. A retired couple from San Diego, they are in the opening days of their second through hike attempt of the PCT, and revisiting the first part of their triple crown history of long distance hiking. These were lords of the trail, and they offered to walk with me for a way, sensing my mindset.
No-Trace, a grizzled hiker who never lacks for words, put me at the front of the pack, which I saw as a veteran move, as it let me set the pace, and allowed them to make sure I kept moving. He talked at length about the trail, of his own history with it, of the characters I was bound to meet if I kept going. Then he talked about me. The pace of set was slow, but he said it would get me to Canada if I kept it up. My pack was huge, but no bigger than the one he’d brought his first year. My doubts weighed on me like a stone, but he said they were no different from the doubts any other hiker would carry at certain points along the trail.
When I finally had to stop, my calves on fire, my chest straining at the exertion, they promised to see me at camp that evening. I watched them walk away and for the first time on the trail, truly felt encouraged to reach camp that night.
It took me another four hours to do so, and once again I found myself pitching my tent after dark. I slurped down all the ramen I could stomach and went to bed, a short call to my family and girlfriend the only things that kept me from passing out immediately upon slipping into my bag. The stars shine overhead, and the morning would bring my first resupply, and hopefully, a new perspective on the trail.