These posts for the next week or so are from a recent backpacking trip I made on the PCT with my dear friend Brad Shaffer. The post titles are taken from the great climber Fred Beckey from his Cascade Alpine Guide which I have no business owning. The posts are stand-alone but probably better if you can read them in order, going back if needed.
I had too many beers in my pack and because they were in the top it cranked down on my shoulders, and I tried not to complain about it but couldn’t help myself. When we crossed State Route 20 Brad told me about the bikers he’d seen driving past: he flipped them a peace sign and they did back, and as they passed it was a guy and a girl, both of them buck naked. We didn’t have a watch and kept our phones stashed to save the battery life but guessed it was between 5 and 6 when we got going, about 11 miles to camp. Somehow I worked it into the conversation about my new shorts, the fact they have this inner mesh, and did I need underwear in addition to the shorts — and as soon as I said that I realized I didn’t and felt stupid, and at our first rest stop I got out of them, and was right as rain.
I was going on about how good it felt with no underwear and just the mesh when I felt something else down there the size of a fly or a tick, it had the same contours through my shorts, and when I pulled over to self-examine it was just the tip of the waistband strap so I adjusted it, but I had myself out in my hands and exposed as another hiker appeared from the brush and it must have looked really bad; he pretended he didn’t see anything but had to have, and I turned my back and Brad giggled, and when the hiker came by he gave a hearty greeting (‘Evenin’, gentlemen’) and just kept going.
We started drinking beers at each stop, two I remember, a third one we split, and yet the beers didn’t affect us we were sweating so much; though the sun was almost down the forest was still hot, the large granite boulders in the drainages warm to the touch.
You couldn’t stop longer than a couple minutes before the bugs really kicked in, a medley of mosquitoes, yellow jackets and flies, a trio of folk singers layering on top of one another, the mosquitoes slow enough you could slap them into a paste to discourage the others, the yellow jackets inquisitive but alarming when you’d feel one kneading you, the flies didn’t bite, they just harvested salt from our sweat: it’s the mosquitoes that would suck you through a straw and get themselves in a state of ecstasy, even when your hand came down for the kill they wouldn’t budge, it was probably a good way to go out, engorged like that.
Because my pack was heavy and I wasn’t used to the trail like Brad, who’d come down 30 miles from the north, with the altitude and the heat and the beer my mind went to dark places, and I wondered if I was cut out for it.
There was the achilles problem I developed stumbling down the steps in a German train station on my way to a beer festival in a pair of trachten shoes a half size too big; there was the risk of inner thigh chafing I hadn’t dealt with yet; I’d started wondering if my nipples would bleed with this new shirt, and did sunscreen lose its potency over time because mine came out like mustard juice.
Brad stopped to treat the hot spots on his feet and I was admiring the look of the valley with the sun making everything pink, and that’s when I sensed the bear off trail and looked up to mark it, eating some grass, cinnamon colored and innocent looking, and it spotted me and seemed curious, and I lifted my poles and clapped them together and shouted, and it ambled up the hill a bit, and I waited for Brad to catch up so I could point it out but when I did another one popped its head up and this one was bigger, and black — and Brad said we should get going, we don’t want them to feel challenged.
We knew it was almost a full moon but it would take some time for it to get up, and held off with the headlamps as long as we could to acquire our night vision. The trail ran along cliff sides and cataracts Brad called them, about a foot wide but with bad drop-offs to the valley floor. I found myself staggering if I stopped, my balance poor, and really needed the poles to keep myself up.
Brad went ahead and spotted a bullfrog on the trail and then I did another, and Brad offered a shamanistic interpretation for what the sightings meant: because they were frogs and there were two of them, perhaps they gave us the agility we needed for the stream crossing we made in the dark, once the moon finally came out and it was maybe 9 o’clock, and we’d come to a large opening, a canyon of sorts, and the stream was going so loud it echoed over the woods and crashed down on the rocks, and with the moon coming down the barrel of the valley it was like a spotlight with us on stage, and it took all I had to keep my balance and use my headlamp to go from rock to rock sometimes grunting, and when I got to the other side Brad had gone around the corner, disappearing into dark of the forest.
There was the gray squirrel corpse we marked on the trail with our lamps next, and all the black ants going in and out of it like some freaky mask, deflated down to the hide — we wondered what that meant. But we got into camp at last, it was dusty and dark, and Brad boiled water for a freeze-dried meal we split, and set to hang his food from the bear wire but bunged up the chord, and now there was no way to hang it, it was a good 20 feet in the air dangling from the line they provide for people to hoist their food on, and he asked what I thought we should do but I had nothing to offer, and he said we could jerry-rig my pocket knife with duct tape to try to saw it, to cut the chord, but I didn’t think that would ever work, and it took a good half an hour of us fucking around before we gave up and just hung it on a tree high enough maybe a midget bear couldn’t reach it, he joked — and Brad said I could get into the bug hut with him and we could sleep head-to-foot configuration but I let him have the space to himself to lay his things out, I was self-conscious about my body odor that felt like Peter Pan’s shadow now, it was hard to shake, and only Day 1.