Most of the pictures from my first backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail are blurry. I was six, horse crazy, and I had a disposable camera. A hoof print in the baked dirt, a picture of a stream cut in half to remove a thumb, a hazy picture of the hut, Castle Peak, the sky. I took a picture of my Grandma and my Dad as we rested, both smiling, the Sierras spread behind them.
“I want you to send me a copy of that picture, Okay Amelia?” she said to me, but I never have. The only copy is still in my collection, their grins stretched and blurred by my unskilled six-year-old hands. I remember the walk home, the three miles endless for me and my brother.
“Are we there yet?” I would moan happily, grinning, over and over again.
“Wait up!” my three year old brother would yell from behind.
The next year my Dad and I returned to Peter Grubb Hut with my Mom and both of my brothers. This time we didn’t have the hut alone. It was thru hiker season. A soft spoken, red haired Australian and two friends who were hiking together joined us. They, like all thru hikers, wore beards. I listened shyly from afar as they talked.
“Yah, I went to Australia to photograph the Great Barrier Reef.”
“Yah, well you might as well see it before it’s gone,” said the Aussie, and the both of them nodded grimly.
I knew about the Great Barrier Reef. I had done a report on it for school. My righteous eight year old self felt a jolt of shame and outrage. Who were they to say that, just give up? (I had read Sierra magazine, soon to begin a three year phase of devout readership). I was awake for a while that night listening to their voices drifting up to the hut’s grubby loft, drawn to these strange people who pronounced Truckee wrong, ate candy bars for dinner, and who had been to so many places.
I was nine when I went for my first real backpacking trip. My Dad and I reached the trailhead after lunch; I donned my new backpack, weighing a blasphemous twenty or thirty pounds -definitely incompliant with the pack/body-weight ratio- and we were off. The sun blazed down at us as we shuffled forwards, the pace stop and go as hundreds of city tourists from California commuted the mile to Eagle Lake. We took our side trail exit and escaped the congestion. The trail wound into the forest- and then straight up. The only consolation was going down the next morning and watching the day hikers struggle up past us, sweating, pointing in disbelief to my towering pack: “You got up there with THAT?” There were two things my Dad forgot on that trip; half of our water, and the foresight to check the contour lines on the map.
Now, six years later, I come out on the trailhead from a day hike up to Mt Judah, the first signs of evening appearing in the sky. I feel spit out, chewed. As we had been coming down the trail, our dog had given a warning bark. Seconds later, a man wearing blue corduroy pants stalked up the switchback.
“If your F**king dog comes any closer, I’ll put my foot through his face.”
I stepped aside to let him past as my Mom yelled at him and he cussed back.
“No wonder my dog didn’t like you, you #$@&%* (depletive, blankety-blank)!” My Mom shouted over her shoulder, getting in the final word.
As we wait at the trailhead for my Dad and brothers to catch up, a backpacker comes behind us, bends over. He’s out of water and dehydrated so I offer him my Nalgene. He and his friend are ending a 100 mile section hike of the PCT here and we commiserate on the dryness of this last piece, having done it ourselves. Another hiker and his family come up and join the talk. The sun sinks, sky darkens, bugs chatter in the woods a few hundred feet away; the rich aroma of night envelops us, and the tiredness in our bodies feels good. Although I am still shaken up from the freak anomaly that was Blue Corduroy, as we say farewell I am keenly aware of this culture I am part of.
These moments of connection are what make the trail; thru hikers call it trail magic, I just call it community. However many times I have said I hated backpacking, however miserable and gross I feel, how many secret oaths I have sworn to never go again, I will return. For that little quirk of humanity that allows us to forget the miserable parts and remember the good, that lets us continue; Thank you.