ITT – Intensive Trail Therapy: Flapjack Lakes

One of the most frustrating things about being diagnosed with a stress fracture in my lower leg has been the fact that it’s not that bad of an injury.  While painful for the first two weeks, to the point where I couldn’t walk or even raise and lower my foot, my leg has felt pretty healthy since mid-June for day-to-day, normal use.  Of course, the PCT is not normal use.

Given that my recovery was happening in Washington, I opeted to reverse course and head south from the Canadian border three weeks after my initial diagnosis.  I was excited to get back out to the trail, albeit under different conditions from where I left it, but the call of the hike was pulling me out there.  Unfortunately it was too soon.
The details of my three day hike up to Canada and back from Hart’s Pass in North Cascades National Park are for a later post, but the aftermath of the hike left me hobbled for another week, my lower leg still in pain though there had been none for a week prior, and now my feet, and knees aching from compensating for that pain.  I was a mess, and terribly defeated.  I returned to Olympia and my parent’s house lost and ready to give up entirely.  I had no idea how to get back to where I was before my disasterous week in the Sierras.

I still wanted to hike.  My three days in the Cascades had inspired me more than anywhere before to photograph the beauty out there, but my body wasn’t cooperating.  I needed a plan to get back.  I needed to find a way to be sure the pain wouldn’t derail me again.

A week later I was feeling good again, but was wary.  In the month I’d been off trail I’d seen several other hikers forced to leave from injury, including my friend Eric, one of the Warrior Hikers who I’d grown close to since leaving Campo.  Eric had hurt his knee coming into Tahoe, and had himself been forced to return to Olympia to recover at his house not two blocks from where I was staying with my parents.  People were dropping like flies off the trail, but I was determined not to be away for ever.  I needed to get back out.

It was Eric who introduced me to the term ITT, Intensive Trail Therapy.  Looking to heal as he hiked, Eric’s plan was to rest until he felt better then use the physicality of the trail to work himself back into hiking condition.  I liked the sound of it.

But first I needed to test myself physically, to determine whether my body could even stand up to the rigors of day hiking, let alone distance hiking.  My parents live an hour from Olympic National Park, one of my favorite places to hike, so I picked a trail not far from their house, a 15 mile out and back hike up to Flapjack Lakes, off the Staircase section of the Olympics, an area I’ve become very familiar with over the years, and a longtime nemesis of mine.
In 2012 I attempted my first distance hike up the North Fork Skokomish Trail, and was soundly beaten by the mountain on the way up.  I’d made it 18 miles into the trail when I gave up and turned around, and was so exhausted and beaten up by the experience I hardly moved for two days after.  The reasons for turning back: too much weight, snow, and pain in my knees.  These seem to be recurring problems for me.
Flapjack Lakes had long been on my list of destinations, though I’d always thought of it as an overnight hike.  Though only 7.5 miles from trailhead to lake, the Olympics have a way of exaggerating distances, whether through poorly maintained trails, high elevation gains, or weather, 10 miles seems like 20 in those mountains.  My choice of this 15 mile trail, however, was based on my confidence, or hubris, that that distance had been my minimum on the PCT, and I was hiking during the height of summer in Washington, when the weather was warm, the days long, and the trails abundant with berries (a deciding factor for me, for sure).
I set out at 11:30 from the Staircase ranger station, along the mostly level trail for about 3.5 miles til I reached the junction to the flapjack trailhead.  I felt good, strong, fast.  I passed day hikers and blew past them, and felt no small amount of pride at being a stronger hiker than when I’d hiked this section in the past.  The fact that these other hikers were old women and small children meant nothing to me, I was a strong hiker, damn it!

It took me an hour and a half to reach the junction, well ahead of my PCT pace, but I had no weight on my back beyond my tripod and camera, so I didn’t read too much into it.  I turned up the hill, and was immediately confronted by the Olympics I knew and loved.  The trail climbed up several hundred feet right off the bat, up long switchbacks that drained my enthusiasm quickly.  Combined with the increasingly rocky, root-strewn nature of the trail, and I was starting to question my decision to hike up to the lakes, still some 4 miles away.

Thankfully the trail leveled out for a time, but not for long, and soon I found myself climbing one of the worst sections of trail I’d ever attempted.  To call some parts of it a trail would be generous, as I clambored over rocks and roots, and generally hated my life.  Oh there were highlights, a bridge crossing Madeline Creek, bumblebees on lupines, a waterfall that I spent far too much time (nearly an hour) shooting pictures of, but the trail was pounding my legs, and I still hadn’t reached the difficult section of the trail.

After the water the trail rose precipitously, in some sections seeming to shoot almost straight up the mountainside.  I rolled my ankles and twisted my knees, and just when I thought I’d overdone it…the trail leveled out and I was rewarded with the most glorious possible reward.  Huge salmon berries, the size of my thumb and subtly sweet on my tongue, lined the trail, and I gorged myself on all I could find.  They were delicious, and though I was sore, and tired, I felt buoyed, pushed to get up to the lakes which couldn’t be far away.

Sure enough, I reached the twin bodies of the Flapjack Lakes around 4:30, after another half mile from the berry patch, and was rewarded with an amazing view of the Gladys Divide, a craggy mountain spur along the southeast section of the Olympics, and took pictures along the lakes edge while eating mountain huckleberries straight off the bush.  It was peaceful and very rewarding.

I left the lakes at 5:30 and started my descent, and was pounded by the impact of my feet down the trail.  Everything ached and hurt, my feet felt ruined, my knees like jello, and my muscles were tight and burning, and I was regretting my life.

I pushed on, though, the thought of a burger pushing me onward.  All I wanted was to get to my car and to find somewhere where I could find a greasy, delicious burger and a milkshake to fill my belly.  It’s the simple motivations that often work best.

By the time I reached the North Fork Trail, I was exhausted, and it took me another two hours to reach my car, seemingly far longer than it had taken to get up just eight hours earlier.  I passed two hikers on their way to the lakes as I descended, and felt sorry for the poor bastards and their 50+ pound backpacks.  I tried to warn them about what they were getting into, but they didn’t listen.  Such foolish pride…
I reached my car and collapsed in the driver’s seat, taking off my boots and stretching my aching feet.  I was not ready for the PCT yet, my body was still not cooperating, but I figured out some important things about the causes for my pain.  My boots, heavy waterproof Merrell’s, duplicates of the ones that had carried me from Campo to Kennedy Meadows, had so little cushioning that impacts (like those that had caused my stress fracture in the first place), sent shocks of pain straight into my legs.  Also, my lower leg was perhaps the only thing that didn’t hurt, a signal that maybe the stress fracture had healed in the week since I’d retreated from the North Cascades.
As I drove back and pulled into Five Guys for a well-deserved burger (with everything, naturally, and cajun fries), I knew I wasn’t ready, but found myself encouraged that maybe, just maybe, I could make adjustments to get me back on the trail in the not too distant future.

Day 8

I woke in the canyon I’d stopped at the night before and broke camp, climbing a small distance to take my morning constitutional and loading up all my gear as the sun peeked over the crest of the ridge above, bathing the canyon in the gold light of early morning.

My primary goal for the day was making it to mile 91, where the promise of a massive water cache offered a chance to refill my water for the final push into Warner Springs the next day.
Leaving camp I met a hiker named Rasputin, who’d grown up not far from my former home in upstate New York.  We marveled at the small world nature of the trail, and talked of our favorite places to eat in the tri-state area.  It was a brief moment, but exciting, and got me out on the trail in a rather good mood.
I hiked for a few miles, taking breaks as I could in the few shady patches along the ridge line.  It was mostly flat up there, and I was glad for my late night push the night before, though the sun quickly began to assert itself.
I began to feel the tortoise in the race of the PCT.  Early in my hike I was passed by Ranger and Bubba Gump, setting a fast pace for yet another 20 mile day for them.  I watched them race off into the distance only to pass them as they rested a mile or so later.
A few hours into the morning I met two sisters from Portland, Rebecca and Marisa, nice girls who were very open to conversing, and who would suffer an unfortunate turn a week later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The landscape was bleak, to say the least.  A fire had swept few some time before and the dusty brown hills were devoid of nearly any plant life.  Blackened skeletal bushes and burned husks of cacti greeted me around every turn, and the oppressive heat beat down on me with no shade to be found.
It was around this time that I became keenly aware of the blisters forming on my hands and forearms.  It wasn’t the first time I’d dealt with sweat blisters, but I knew it to be a sign that I was doing serious damage to my skin out in the blazing sun.  I popped a few, to make sure they were in fact sweat pockets built up under the dead skin of my sun burn, and the salty squirts of sweat felt cool on my roasting skin.  It was gross, but it entertained me as I walked through that barren, desolate landscape.
I found a lone juniper in a small valley around mile 87 before a large uphill section, and crawled underneath the scant shade that it offered.  I ate lunch, my new favorite meal of applesauce and chia seeds poured into a peanut butter jar, and napped for nearly an hour to pass the time during the hottest part of the day.  The juniper, barely a shrubby bush, proved popular in the heat, and soon two other hikers had joined me, Spectrum, who I’d seen the previous few days, and Rick, a former merchant marine from southern Washington.  
After I’d worked up the courage to tackle the uphill, I pushed forward, fighting the heat as I climbed ever upward along seemingly endless switchbacks.  The wind picked up, massive gusts slamming into me as I reached the high point of the section, and blowing away a kerchief I’d carried with me on innumerable hikes throughout the years.  Bill and Jennifer from Ashland, who id hiked with the previous morning, were up near the top, and I hiked with them again, talking cacti and animals with them as we fought the high winds.

After another hour I finally reached the water cache, and was greeted by the sight of nearly two dozen other hikers, and dozens of huge jugs of fresh water.  I lay at the cache and watched hummingbirds sip at cholla blossoms, and luxuriated in the shade provided by the trees that encircled the stash.  It was a gloriously peaceful moment after a very hard day.
As I lay there the hikers from the Warrior Hikes group showed up, and I happily reintroduced myself, thinking they had left me in their dust on day three, and shocked that they had ended up behind me somehow.  This time, meeting them seemed more solid, and in the coming days I would find myself running into hem repeatedly, and forming friendships that I’ve learned to truly value since.  But that is a story for another day.

I filled up with 8 liters and drank nearly two more by the time I left the cache, eager to get a few more miles in before the sun went down.  I pushed on, signing the trail register and camped two miles up the trail, catching the sun as it went down over the hardest section of the trail is faced to that point.  I slept well that night, buffeted by the desert winds, excited to be in position to hit Warner Springs the next evening.

Day 7

I have discovered an amazing meal, and I’m not sure how it took me so long to devise it.  A squeeze packet of applesauce poured in a peanut butter jar, sprinkled with chia seeds and graham cracker crumbles.  It is special, well and truly, and it is my lunch of choice since discovering it on the afternoon of Day 7.  But I digress…

As has become my pattern on the trail, I woke up at 4:30 am, wide awake, staring up at the milky way above.  I’ve always had a fondness for the darkness of out of the way places, and most of my campsites along the trail have certainly qualified.  The stars are amazing at night, truly breathtaking, and one of my major regrets is that I’ve been too tired from hiking all day to fully take photographic advantage of them.  Perhaps as I grow more used to life on the trail I’ll be able to accommodate a few late night photography sections.  I hope so.

I went back to sleep, waking at 6:30 and giving my girlfriend a call as she walked the dog and got ready for work.  Work has been tough on her and I could hear the weariness in her voice, the stress and sadness.  It makes it difficult for me to be out here knowing she’s struggling back at home, all I want to do is hold her and help her make things better, but I know we’re working out our own paths right now, and in the long run we’ll be stronger for it.  Still, the caretaker in me finds it difficult not to want to be there.

No Trace and Unbreakable passed me while I lay in my tent, already four miles into their day while I talked on the phone.  It still upsets me somewhat that I’m not an earlier hiker, there are many advantages to doing so that I should be allowing myself to partake in, cooler morning weather in the desert, less direct sunlight, finishing my day earlier, but I haven’t worked it out yet, though I’m sure I will.

By the time I got on the trail around 8, it was still cool, and I made good time hiking the two miles from my camp to the fire tank at the Rodriguez Spur road at mile 68.  As I hiked I met Bill and Jennifer, a couple from Ashland, Oregon hiking in support of the PCTA, and the constant revitalization and repair efforts being done by trail workers and volunteers all along the trail’s length.  They had an easy pace, and we walked and talked amiably, about the cacti and animal life we saw, about our lives back home, about their reasons for doing the trail.  It was the first time I’d hiked with another set of hikers and had such a relaxed walk, and I definitely appreciated the conversation.

The Rodriguez Spur fire tank was yet another communal gathering spot for hikers along the trail.  Rumors had been flying for the past two days that it was the last water on the trail for the next 32 miles, and everybody was worried at the prospect, myself included.  Remembering the lack of water on my second day, and how dehydrated I got just in that 16 mile section, the prospect of 32 hot, waterless miles through the Anza Borrego desert had me petrified.

I filled my water at the tank, purifying it as I collected, and loaded up all 8 liters into my pack.  The weight of it, nearly 17 lbs of extra weight in my already heavy pack, brought back memories of the time before Mt. Laguna, unpleasant memories I was not happy to be reliving.  Still, the majority of the day’s hike would be downhill, so I thought it would be a little easier at least.

The heat of the day caught up to me around 1:00pm, the cloudless sky blasting me with intense sunlight on the mostly shadeless downslope into the Anza Borrego.  I took a two hour break under the branches of a small tree, eating lunch and calling my family and girlfriend, and generally not exerting myself.

The whole way down I saw Scissor’s Crossing, the intersection of Highway 78 and the Great Overland Stage Route at mile 77, and even watched as I seemed to walk past it, away from it.  The trail was designed by idiots, I told myself.  Why not cut straight across the desert from where I stood to the intersection and save 4 hot, merciless miles?  There was no logic to it.  It was a lesson in inefficiency.

I reached the bottom of the hill as the sun started to sit low on the western horizon.  Sunsets in the Anza Borrego are magical times, the two or three hours before the sun finally dips below the mountains casting an ethereal golden light across the whole of the desert, causing cholla and barrel cactuses to glow as if rimmed by halos.  It’s always been one of my favorite times to photograph the desert, and this particular sunset did not disappoint.

I continued on, meeting a Vietnamese hiker named Half Slope that was doing a reverse hike for the first two weeks, starting in Warner Springs some 35 miles to the north, and hiking south to the Mexican border for the Kickoff celebration in a week’s time.  He carried his pack not on his back, but on a small wheeled cart behind him.  As impractical as it looked, I was jealous, still feeling the weight of the 7 remaining liters of water on my own back.  We chatted for a time, and he told me of the water situation ahead of me.  A cache had been left at Scissor’s Crossing, he said, and another at mile 91, enough water for everyone and then some.  I would be fine, I didn’t need all the water I was carrying, according to him.

I frowned and moved on, stumbling through the flat trail like a staggering drunk.  I passed a sign as I approached the crossing with the number of a trail angel named Misty, who was offering rides to the town of Julian (where there were amazing pies and milkshakes to be had) or the equally appealing Stagecoach RV Resort in the opposite direction, which advertised swimming pools, electricity, ice cream, and beer.  The temptations were almost too much to bear, but I declined, and moved on.  At a small cooler left by Misty, I applied some aloe lotion to my blistering sunburns, and then turned down Misty herself as she drove by.  I thanked her for the lotion, but could not accept the ride.  I was foolishly determined to climb the next set of mountains before me that night, to escape the heat and set me up to reach mile 91 in the morning.

At the crossing I saw about a dozen other hikers, including Bill and Jennifer, all camped out for the night and looking comfortable, at ease with the dozens of gallons of water left by some enterprising trail angel there.  I waved but moved on.  I would not be tempted.

I climbed out of the desert and up the switchbacks to a spot where I could sit and watch the sunset from a high vantage point and made dinner.  I ate and rested my feet, and when the sun had gone down, continued onward and upward.  At mile 80 I finally stopped, a hot, miserable day behind me, a nice cool night in a small box canyon immediately ahead of me, and just 29 miles to Warner Springs, and my next resupply.  It was all going according to plan…

Day 3

My third day on the trail started slow.  The final push in over Mt Hauser had left me sore, chafed, and thoroughly disheatened.  My pack was too heavy, I was moving too slow, and I couldn’t get out of camp til two hours after I’d wanted to.  The heat of the previous day had dissipated somewhat, but the sun nevertheless beat down on me the whole way.  It was tough.

I set in my mind that I would split the day into two stages.  First, I would hike the six miles to Boulder oaks campground, which promised shade and water right next to Interstate 8, and a nice rest spot before I pushed the next 12 miles to Fred Canyon, my stop for the night.
Boulder Oaks proved a little too comfortable, as I spent nearly three hours in the shade contemplating what I had gotten myself into.  I started to feel like something had to change, and soon, or I wasn’t going to make it.
A more pressing concern had started to arise, in my mind, that was only fueling the fire of doubt within myself.  I had set out on this trip with the primary goal of documenting, through photos and video, the trail and the people who hike it.  So far, all of gotten were a few photos and a lot of video of me huffing and puffing in the heat.  Nothing was going according to plan.
I pulled myself off the ground and moved on past Boulder Oaks, doubt and depression weighing on me even heavier than the massive pack on my back.  It took every ounce of conviction not to walk up to the side of the interstate and hitch a ride into San Diego.  My old life was so close, salvation so near.  I talked to my mother again, and later my girlfriend, and they pushed me on with words of encouragement, and a lot of verbal kicks in the pants.
The sun had started to hang low on the horizon, the hazy golden light again racing me to camp, and winning.  I fell in with a pair of hikers, strangers to each other at the start of the trail, but now seeming fast friends, and walked with them to Kitchen Creek, two miles short of my goal for the day, but a welcoming and peaceful valley carved into the rock by its namesake.  There, standing amongst the rocks and sagebrush, were half a dozen marines, part of the Warrior Hikes group of heard about my first two days.
I introduced myself, and they did in turn and I promised to catch up with them before dark, but by the time I’d eaten and set up camp, the stars were out and everyone had gone to sleep.
I went to bed feeling the weight of the emotional and mental wringer I’d put myself through all day.  Little did I know the worst of it was yet to come…

Day 2

My second day on the trail was a hard one, for sure.  Breaking camp at 7:30, I set out into the hills north of Campo, and was immediately made aware of how hot and dry this stretch of trail really is.  My left hip ached immediately from the weight of my pack, and within an hour I had already regretted my decision to try hiking commando.  Ah, the chafing…

I stopped for an impromptu breakfast after two miles, cold oatmeal with applesauce, chia seeds, and cinnamon sugar.  I took pictures of pretty flowers and let myself soake in the pretty morning sunlight.  It was the last moment of tranquility I would find.

As I pushed up the winding trail, I slowly watched the border fence dwindle behind me, and the rocky pinnacle of Mt. Hauser signal me onward.  At the base of the mountain, in a verdant creek bed, sadly dry this year, I had designated my first camp, though having hiked four miles the day before, I felt encouraged to push an extra five miles in to Lake Morena, where there was the promise of clean water, showers, and a quiet campground filled with other through hikers.
So I pushed onward, up through rolling hills dotted with craggy boulders.  I spooked a rattlesnake in a bush, and almost had a heart attack.  I met other hikers who quickly left me in the dust.  I stopped frequently and drank water as I could, though the burning sun seemed to suck it out of me as soon as I ingested it.

I stopped for lunch as I came to the southern face of Hauser Canyon, a trail bar, some jerky, and a handful of dried fruits and nuts.  Shortly beyond, a work crew from the local prison was clearing brush under the watchful gaze of half a dozen corrections officers.  One officer, noting my dwindling water supply, kindly proffered me a bottle of evian, for which I was most grateful.
I was soon overtaken by Alex, a hiker from England who I fell in with for the next 4 miles to Hauser Creek.  We hit a good pace and I was most thankful for her conversation.  I’m finding the loneliness is oppressive out here, so every bit of human contact becomes a welcome relief, and invigorates me to push on.
I hit the creek bed out of water and dreading the coming five miles.  Blessedly there was a water stash some kind soul had left along the creek bed, and I filled up one more liter, enough, I surmised, to make it to camp.  I lay in the shade of the cottonwoods with my boots off for half an hour, watching a half dozen other hikers, including Alex, leave me behind.  I was alone once more for what would be the hardest part of the hike so far.

Straight up the side of the ravine I started to climb, up dreaded switchbacks with no shade and the heat of the damnable sun pounding on my back.  It was getting late, and my internal clock was pounding in my head.  I had two hours to go five miles.  I wasn’t going to make it.

I called my parents near the top of the ridge, one of the few fleeting moments of cell service, feeling defeated and demoralized.  They talked me back on my feet, but it was hard.  I pushed on, and as the sky grew dark a mile from camp, I lay down again, my body spent, my water drained, my heart deflated.  Was this how it was going to be for the next six months?
I called my girlfriend, and her voice calmed my nerves.  I miss her terribly, and knowing I would disappoint her if I didn’t push on helps me do exactly that.  She offered some words of encouragement, one of her fortes, and forced me off my ass for the last mile.
At 9:00, roughly 13 hours after I started the day, I arrived in camp, and was greetd by a cold can of beer on a rock.  I like to think it was left for me by one of the other hikers, and it’s a gesture I will try to pay forward in the days and weeks to come.
I showered and made dinner, then passed out, feeling innumerable aches and bruises and raw chafed spots.
Thus ended my second day.  I hope the third is easier.
John