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Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail / . (by Cheryl Strayed, 2012) -

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Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail / .       (by Cheryl Strayed, 2012) -

Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail / . (by Cheryl Strayed, 2012) -

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Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail / . (by Cheryl Strayed, 2012) -
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2012
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Cheryl Strayed
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Bernadette Dunne
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upper-intermediate
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13:02:32
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192 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail / . :

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: Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail

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AUTHORS NOTE To write this book, I relied upon my personal journals, researched facts when I could, consulted with several of the people who appear in the book, and called upon my own memory of these events and this time of my life. I have changed the names of most but not all of the individuals in this book, and in some cases I also modified identifying details in order to preserve anonymity. There are no composite characters or events in this book. I occasionally omitted people and events, but only when that omission had no impact on either the veracity or the substance of the story. PROLOGUE The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California. Moments before, Id removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen into those trees, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. It bounced off of a rocky outcropping several feet beneath me before disappearing into the forest canopy below, impossible to retrieve. I let out a stunned gasp, though Id been in the wilderness thirty-eight days and by then Id come to know that anything could happen and that everything would. But that doesnt mean I wasnt shocked when it did. My boot was gone. Actually gone. I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and silver metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life. I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when Id told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world. My father left my life when I was six. My mother died when I was twenty-two. In the wake of her death, my stepfather morphed from the person I considered my dad into a man I only occasionally recognized. My two siblings scattered in their grief, in spite of my efforts to hold us together, until I gave up and scattered as well. In the years before I pitched my boot over the edge of that mountain, Id been pitching myself over the edge too. Id ranged and roamed and railedfrom Minnesota to New York to Oregon and all across the Westuntil at last I found myself, bootless, in the summer of 1995, not so much loose in the world as bound to it. It was a world Id never been to and yet had known was there all along, one Id staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl Id once been. A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long. A world called the Pacific Crest Trail. Id first heard of it only seven months before, when I was living in Minneapolis, sad and desperate and on the brink of divorcing a man I still loved. Id been standing in line at an outdoor store waiting to purchase a foldable shovel when I picked up a book called The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California from a nearby shelf and read the back cover. The PCT, it said, was a continuous wilderness trail that went from the Mexican border in California to just beyond the Canadian border along the crest of nine mountain rangesthe Laguna, San Jacinto, San Bernardino, San Gabriel, Liebre, Tehachapi, Sierra Nevada, Klamath, and Cascades. That distance was a thousand miles as the crow flies, but the trail was more than double that. Traversing the entire length of the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, the PCT passes through national parks and wilderness areas as well as federal, tribal, and privately held lands; through deserts and mountains and rain forests; across rivers and highways. I turned the book over and gazed at its front covera boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags against a blue skythen placed it back on the shelf, paid for my shovel, and left. But later I returned and bought the book. The Pacific Crest Trail wasnt a world to me then. It was an idea, vague and outlandish, full of promise and mystery. Something bloomed inside me as I traced its jagged line with my finger on a map. I would walk that line, I decidedor at least as much of it as I could in about a hundred days. I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband, and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as Id ever been in my life. Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? Id been so many things already. A loving wife and an adulteress. A beloved daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with too many men. I was the granddaughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner, the daughter of a steelworker turned salesman. After my parents split up, I lived with my mother, brother, and sister in apartment complexes populated by single mothers and their kids. As a teen, I lived back-to-the-land style in the Minnesota northwoods in a house that didnt have an indoor toilet, electricity, or running water. In spite of this, Id become a high school cheerleader and homecoming queen, and then I went off to college and became a left-wing feminist campus radical. But a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for eleven hundred miles? Id never been anything like that before. I had nothing to lose by giving it a whirl. It seemed like years ago nowas I stood barefoot on that mountain in Californiain a different lifetime, really, when Id made the arguably unreasonable decision to take a long walk alone on the PCT in order to save myself. When I believed that all the things Id been before had prepared me for this journey. But nothing had or could. Each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed. And sometimes even the day before didnt prepare me for what would happen next. Such as my boots sailing irretrievably off the side of a mountain. The truth is, I was only half sorry to see them go. In the six weeks Id spent in those boots, Id trekked across deserts and snow, past trees and bushes and grasses and flowers of all shapes and sizes and colors, walked up and down mountains and over fields and glades and stretches of land I couldnt possibly define, except to say that I had been there, passed over it, made it through. And all the while, those boots had blistered my feet and rubbed them raw; theyd caused my nails to blacken and detach themselves excruciatingly from four of my toes. I was done with those boots by the time I lost them and those boots were done with me, though its also true that I loved them. They had become not so much inanimate objects to me as extensions of who I was, as had just about everything else I carried that summermy backpack, tent, sleeping bag, water purifier, ultralight stove, and the little orange whistle that I carried in lieu of a gun. They were the things I knew and could rely upon, the things that got me through. I looked down at the trees below me, the tall tops of them waving gently in the hot breeze. They could keep my boots, I thought, gazing across the great green expanse. Id chosen to rest in this place because of the view. It was late afternoon in mid-July, and I was miles from civilization in every direction, days away from the lonely post office where Id collect my next resupply box. There was a chance someone would come hiking down the trail, but only rarely did that happen. Usually I went days without seeing another person. It didnt matter whether someone came along anyway. I was in this alone. I gazed at my bare and battered feet, with their smattering of remaining toenails. They were ghostly pale to the line a few inches above my ankles, where the wool socks I usually wore ended. My calves above them were muscled and golden and hairy, dusted with dirt and a constellation of bruises and scratches. Id started walking in the Mojave Desert and I didnt plan to stop until I touched my hand to a bridge that crosses the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border with the grandiose name the Bridge of the Gods. I looked north, in its directionthe very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where Id been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking. PART ONE THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Antony and Cleopatra 1 THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it. There was the quitting my job as a waitress and finalizing my divorce and selling almost everything I owned and saying goodbye to my friends and visiting my mothers grave one last time. There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and, a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the PCT crossed a highway. At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it. And then there was the real live truly doing it. The staying and doing it, in spite of everything. In spite of the bears and the rattlesnakes and the scat of the mountain lions I never saw; the blisters and scabs and scrapes and lacerations. The exhaustion and the deprivation; the cold and the heat; the monotony and the pain; the thirst and the hunger; the glory and the ghosts that haunted me as I hiked eleven hundred miles from the Mojave Desert to the state of Washington by myself. And finally, once Id actually gone and done it, walked all those miles for all those days, there was the realization that what Id thought was the beginning had not really been the beginning at all. That in truth my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail hadnt begun when I made the snap decision to do it. It had begun before I even imagined it, precisely four years, seven months, and three days before, when Id stood in a little room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and learned that my mother was going to die. I was wearing green. Green pants, green shirt, green bow in my hair. It was an outfit that my mother had sewnshed made clothes for me all of my life. Some of them were just what I dreamed of having, others less so. I wasnt crazy about the green pantsuit, but I wore it anyway, as a penance, as an offering, as a talisman. All that day of the green pantsuit, as I accompanied my mother and stepfather, Eddie, from floor to floor of the Mayo Clinic while my mother went from one test to another, a prayer marched through my head, though prayer is not the right word to describe that march. I wasnt humble before God. I didnt even believe in God. My prayer was not: Please, God, take mercy on us. I was not going to ask for mercy. I didnt need to. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine. For a good number of years shed mostly been a vegetarian. Shed planted marigolds around her garden to keep bugs away instead of using pesticides. My siblings and I had been made to swallow raw cloves of garlic when we had colds. People like my mother did not get cancer. The tests at the Mayo Clinic would prove that, refuting what the doctors in Duluth had said. I was certain of this. Who were those doctors in Duluth anyway? What was Duluth? Duluth! Duluth was a freezing hick town where doctors who didnt know what the hell they were talking about told forty-five-year-old vegetarian-ish, garlic-eating, natural-remedy-using nonsmokers that they had late-stage lung cancer, thats what. Fuck them. That was my prayer: Fuckthemfuckthemfuckthem. And yet, here was my mother at the Mayo Clinic getting worn out if she had to be on her feet for more than three minutes. You want a wheelchair? Eddie asked her when we came upon a row of them in a long carpeted hall. She doesnt need a wheelchair, I said. Just for a minute, said my mother, almost collapsing into one, her eyes meeting mine before Eddie wheeled her toward the elevator. I followed behind, not allowing myself to think a thing. We were finally on our way up to see the last doctor. The real doctor, we kept calling him. The one who would gather everything that had been gathered about my mom and tell us what was true. As the elevator car lifted, my mother reached out to tug at my pants, rubbing the green cotton between her fingers proprietarily. Perfect, she said. I was twenty-two, the same age she was when shed been pregnant with me. She was going to leave my life at the same moment that I came into hers, I thought. For some reason that sentence came fully formed into my head just then, temporarily blotting out the Fuck them prayer. I almost howled in agony. I almost choked to death on what I knew before I knew. I was going to live the rest of my life without my mother. I pushed the fact of it away with everything in me. I couldnt let myself believe it then and there in that elevator and also go on breathing, so I let myself believe other things instead. Such as if a doctor told you that you were going to die soon, youd be taken to a room with a gleaming wooden desk. This was not so. We were led into an examining room, where a nurse instructed my mother to remove her shirt and put on a cotton smock with strings that dangled at her sides. When my mother had done so, she climbed onto a padded table with white paper stretched over it. Each time she moved, the room was on fire with the paper ripping and crinkling beneath her. I could see her naked back, the small curve of flesh beneath her waist. She was not going to die. Her naked back seemed proof of that. I was staring at it when the real doctor came into the room and said my mother would be lucky if she lived a year. He explained that they would not attempt to cure her, that she was incurable. There was nothing that could have been done, he told us. Finding it so late was common, when it came to lung cancer. But shes not a smoker, I countered, as if I could talk him out of the diagnosis, as if cancer moved along reasonable, negotiable lines. She only smoked when she was younger. She hasnt had a cigarette for years. The doctor shook his head sadly and pressed on. He had a job to do. They could try to ease the pain in her back with radiation, he offered. Radiation might reduce the size of the tumors that were growing along the entire length of her spine. I did not cry. I only breathed. Horribly. Intentionally. And then forgot to breathe. Id fainted oncefurious, age three, holding my breath because I didnt want to get out of the bathtub, too young to remember it myself. What did you do? What did you do? Id asked my mother all through my childhood, making her tell me the story again and again, amazed and delighted by my own impetuous will. Shed held out her hands and watched me turn blue, my mother had always told me. Shed waited me out until my head fell into her palms and I took a breath and came back to life. Breathe. Can I ride my horse? my mother asked the real doctor. She sat with her hands folded tightly together and her ankles hooked one to the other. Shackled to herself. In reply, he took a pencil, stood it upright on the edge of the sink, and tapped it hard on the surface. This is your spine after radiation, he said. One jolt and your bones could crumble like a dry cracker. We went to the womens restroom. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didnt exchange a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two. I could feel my mothers weight leaning against the door, her hands slapping slowly against it, causing the entire frame of the bathroom stalls to shake. Later we came out to wash our hands and faces, watching each other in the bright mirror. We were sent to the pharmacy to wait. I sat between my mother and Eddie in my green pantsuit, the green bow miraculously still in my hair. There was a big bald boy in an old mans lap. There was a woman who had an arm that swung wildly from the elbow. She held it stiffly with the other hand, trying to calm it. She waited. We waited. There was a beautiful dark-haired woman who sat in a wheelchair. She wore a purple hat and a handful of diamond rings. We could not take our eyes off her. She spoke in Spanish to the people gathered around her, her family and perhaps her husband. Do you think she has cancer? my mother whispered loudly to me. Eddie sat on my other side, but I could not look at him. If I looked at him we would both crumble like dry crackers. I thought about my older sister, Karen, and my younger brother, Leif. About my husband, Paul, and about my mothers parents and sister, who lived a thousand miles away. What they would say when they knew. How they would cry. My prayer was different now: A year, a year, a year. Those two words beat like a heart in my chest. Thats how long my mother would live. What are you thinking about? I asked her. There was a song coming over the waiting room speakers. A song without words, but my mother knew the words anyway and instead of answering my question she sang them softly to me. Paper roses, paper roses, oh how real those roses seemed to be, she sang. She put her hand on mine and said, I used to listen to that song when I was young. Its funny to think of that. To think about listening to the same song now. I wouldve never known. My mothers name was called then: her prescriptions were ready. Go get them for me, she said. Tell them who you are. Tell them youre my daughter. I was her daughter, but more. I was Karen, Cheryl, Leif. Karen Cheryl Leif. KarenCherylLeif. Our names blurred into one in my mothers mouth all my life. She whispered it and hollered it, hissed it and crooned it. We were her kids, her comrades, the end of her and the beginning. We took turns riding shotgun with her in the car. Do I love you this much? shed ask us, holding her hands six inches apart. No, wed say, with sly smiles. Do I love you this much? shed ask again, and on and on and on, each time moving her hands farther apart. But she would never get there, no matter how wide she stretched her arms. The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be quantified or contained. It was the ten thousand named things in the Tao Te Chings universe and then ten thousand more. Her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned. Every day she blew through her entire reserve. She grew up an army brat and Catholic. She lived in five different states and two countries before she was fifteen. She loved horses and Hank Williams and had a best friend named Babs. Nineteen and pregnant, she married my father. Three days later, he knocked her around the room. She left and came back. Left and came back. She would not put up with it, but she did. He broke her nose. He broke her dishes. He skinned her knees dragging her down a sidewalk in broad daylight by her hair. But he didnt break her. By twenty-eight she managed to leave him for the last time. She was alone, with KarenCherylLeif riding shotgun in her car. By then we lived in a small town an hour outside of Minneapolis in a series of apartment complexes with deceptively upscale names: Mill Pond and Barbary Knoll, Tree Loft and Lake Grace Manor. She had one job, then another. She waited tables at a place called the Norseman and then a place called Infinity, where her uniform was a black T-shirt that said GO FOR IT in rainbow glitter across her chest. She worked the day shift at a factory that manufactured plastic containers capable of holding highly corrosive chemicals and brought the rejects home. Trays and boxes that had been cracked or clipped or misaligned in the machine. We made them into toysbeds for our dolls, ramps for our cars. She worked and worked and worked, and still we were poor. We received government cheese and powdered milk, food stamps and medical assistance cards, and free presents from do-gooders at Christmastime. We played tag and red light green light and charades by the apartment mailboxes that you could open only with a key, waiting for checks to arrive. We arent poor, my mother said, again and again. Because were rich in love. She would mix food coloring into sugar water and pretend with us that it was a special drink. Sarsaparilla or Orange Crush or lemonade. Shed ask, Would you like another drink, madam? in a snooty British voice that made us laugh every time. She would spread her arms wide and ask us how much and there would never be an end to the game. She loved us more than all the named things in the world. She was optimistic and serene, except a few times when she lost her temper and spanked us with a wooden spoon. Or the one time when she screamed FUCK and broke down crying because we wouldnt clean our room. She was kindhearted and forgiving, generous and na?ve. She dated men with names like Killer and Doobie and Motorcycle Dan and one guy named Victor who liked to downhill ski. They would give us five-dollar bills to buy candy from the store so they could be alone in the apartment with our mom. Look both ways, shed call after us as we fled like a pack of hungry dogs. When she met Eddie, she didnt think it would work because he was eight years younger than she, but they fell in love anyway. Karen and Leif and I fell in love with him too. He was twenty-five when we met him and twenty-seven when he married our mother and promised to be our father; a carpenter who could make and fix anything. We left the apartment complexes with fancy names and moved with him into a rented ramshackle farmhouse that had a dirt floor in the basement and four different colors of paint on the outside. The winter after my mother married him, Eddie fell off a roof on the job and broke his back. A year later, he and my mom took the twelve-thousand-dollar settlement he received and with it bought forty acres of land in Aitkin County, an hour and a half west of Duluth, paying for it outright in cash. There was no house. No one had ever had a house on that land. Our forty acres were a perfect square of trees and bushes and weedy grasses, swampy ponds and bogs clotted with cattails. There was nothing to differentiate it from the trees and bushes and grasses and ponds and bogs that surrounded it in every direction for miles. Together we repeatedly walked the perimeter of our land in those first months as landowners, pushing our way through the wilderness on the two sides that didnt border the road, as if to walk it would seal it off from the rest of the world, make it ours. And, slowly, it did. Trees that had once looked like any other to me became as recognizable as the faces of old friends in a crowd, their branches gesturing with sudden meaning, their leaves beckoning like identifiable hands. Clumps of grass and the edges of the now-familiar bog became landmarks, guides, indecipherable to everyone but us. We called it up north while we were still living in the town an hour outside of Minneapolis. For six months, we went up north only on weekends, working furiously to tame a patch of the land and build a one-room tarpaper shack where the five of us could sleep. In early June, when I was thirteen, we moved up north for good. Or rather, my mother, Leif, Karen, and I did, along with our two horses, our cats and our dogs, and a box of ten baby chicks my mom got for free at the feed store for buying twenty-five pounds of chicken feed. Eddie would continue driving up on weekends throughout the summer and then stay come fall. His back had healed enough that he could finally work again, and hed secured a job as a carpenter during the busy season that was too lucrative to pass up. KarenCherylLeif were alone with our mother againjust as wed been during the years that shed been single. Waking or sleeping that summer, we were scarcely out of one anothers sight and seldom saw anyone else. We were twenty miles away from two small towns in opposite directions: Moose Lake to the east; McGregor to the northwest. In the fall wed attend school in McGregor, the smaller of the two, with a population of four hundred, but all summer long, aside from the occasional visitorfar-flung neighbors who stopped by to introduce themselvesit was us and our mom. We fought and talked and made up jokes and diversions in order to pass the time. Who am I? wed ask one another over and over again, playing a game in which the person who was it had to think of someone, famous or not, and the others would guess who it was based on an infinite number of yes or no questions: Are you a man? Are you American? Are you dead? Are you Charles Manson? We played it while planting and maintaining a garden that would sustain us through the winter in soil that had been left to its own devices throughout millennia, and while making steady progress on the construction of the house we were building on the other side of our property and hoped to complete by summers end. We were swarmed by mosquitoes as we worked, but my mother forbade us to use DEET or any other such brain-destroying, earth-polluting, future-progeny-harming chemical. Instead, she instructed us to slather our bodies with pennyroyal or peppermint oil. In the evenings, we would make a game of counting the bites on our bodies by candlelight. The numbers would be seventy-nine, eighty-six, one hundred and three. Youll thank me for this someday, my mother always said when my siblings and I complained about all the things we no longer had. Wed never lived in luxury or even like those in the middle class, but we had lived among the comforts of the modern age. There had always been a television in our house, not to mention a flushable toilet and a tap where you could get yourself a glass of water. In our new life as pioneers, even meeting the simplest needs often involved a grueling litany of tasks, rigorous and full of boondoggle. Our kitchen was a Coleman camp stove, a fire ring, an old-fashioned icebox Eddie built that depended on actual ice to keep things even mildly cool, a detached sink propped against an outside wall of the shack, and a bucket of water with a lid on it. Each component demanded just slightly less than it gave, needing to be tended and maintained, filled and unfilled, hauled and dumped, pumped and primed and stoked and monitored. Karen and I shared a bed on a lofted platform built so close to the ceiling we could just barely sit up. Leif slept a few feet away on his own smaller platform, and our mother was in a bed on the floor below, joined by Eddie on the weekends. Every night we talked one another to sleep, slumber-party style. There was a skylight window in the ceiling that ran the length of the platform bed I shared with Karen, its transparent pane only a few feet from our faces. Each night the black sky and the bright stars were my stunning companions; occasionally Id see their beauty and solemnity so plainly that Id realize in a piercing way that my mother was right. That someday I would be grateful and that in fact I was grateful now, that I felt something growing in me that was strong and real. It was the thing that had grown in me that Id remember years later, when my life became unmoored by sorrow. The thing that would make me believe that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was my way back to the person I used to be. On Halloween night we moved into the house wed built out of trees and scrap wood. It didnt have electricity or running water or a phone or an indoor toilet or even a single room with a door. All through my teen years, Eddie and my mom kept building it, adding on, making it better. My mother planted a garden and canned and pickled and froze vegetables in the fall. She tapped the trees and made maple syrup, baked bread and carded wool, and made her own fabric dyes out of dandelions and broccoli leaves. I grew up and left home for college in the Twin Cities at a school called St. Thomas, but not without my mom. My acceptance letter mentioned that parents of students could take classes at St. Thomas for free. Much as she liked her life as a modern pioneer, my mother had always wanted to get her degree. We laughed about it together, then pondered it in private. She was forty, too old for college now, my mother said when we discussed it, and I couldnt disagree. Plus, St. Thomas was a three-hour drive away. We kept talking and talking until at last we had a deal: she would go to St. Thomas but we would have separate lives, dictated by me. I would live in the dorm and she would drive back and forth. If our paths crossed on campus she would not acknowledge me unless I acknowledged her first. All this is probably for nothing, she said once wed hatched the plan. Most likely Ill flunk out anyway. To prepare, she shadowed me during the last months of my senior year of high school, doing all the homework that I was assigned, honing her skills. She replicated my worksheets, wrote the same papers I had to write, read every one of the books. I graded her work, using my teachers marks as a guide. I judged her a shaky student at best. She went to college and earned straight As. Sometimes I hugged her exuberantly when I saw her on campus; other times I sailed on by, as if she were no one to me at all. We were both seniors in college when we learned she had cancer. By then we werent at St. Thomas anymore. Wed both transferred to the University of Minnesota after that first yearshe to the Duluth campus, I to the one in Minneapolisand, much to our amusement, we shared a major. She was double majoring in womens studies and history, I in womens studies and English. At night, wed talk for an hour on the phone. I was married by then, to a good man named Paul. Id married him in the woods on our land, wearing a white satin and lace dress my mother had sewn. After she got sick, I folded my life down. I told Paul not to count on me. I would have to come and go according to my mothers needs. I wanted to quit school, but my mother ordered me not to, begging me, no matter what happened, to get my degree. She herself took what she called a break. She only needed to complete a couple more classes to graduate, and she would, she told me. She would get her BA if it killed her, she said, and we laughed and then looked at each other darkly. Shed do the work from her bed. Shed tell me what to type and Id type it. She would be strong enough to start in on those last two classes soon, she absolutely knew. I stayed in school, though I convinced my professors to allow me to be in class only two days each week. As soon as those two days were over, I raced home to be with my mother. Unlike Leif and Karen, who could hardly bear to be in our mothers presence once she got sick, I couldnt bear to be away from her. Plus, I was needed. Eddie was with her when he could be, but he had to work. Someone had to pay the bills. I cooked food that my mother tried to eat, but rarely could she eat. Shed think she was hungry and then shed sit like a prisoner staring down at the food on her plate. It looks good, shed say. I think Ill be able to eat it later. I scrubbed the floors. I took everything from the cupboards and put new paper down. My mother slept and moaned and counted and swallowed her pills. On good days she sat in a chair and talked to me. There was nothing much to say. Shed been so transparent and effusive and I so inquisitive that wed already covered everything. I knew that her love for me was vaster than the ten thousand things and also the ten thousand things beyond that. I knew the names of the horses she had loved as a girl: Pal and Buddy and Bacchus. I knew shed lost her virginity at seventeen with a boy named Mike. I knew how she met my father the next year and what he seemed like to her on their first few dates. How, when shed broken the news of her unwed teen pregnancy to her parents, her father had dropped a spoon. I knew she loathed going to confession and also the very things that shed confessed. Cursing and sassing off to her mom, bitching about having to set the table while her much younger sister played. Wearing dresses out the door on her way to school and then changing into the jeans shed stashed in her bag. All through my childhood and adolescence Id asked and asked, making her describe those scenes and more, wanting to know who said what and how, what shed felt inside while it was going on, where so-and-so stood and what time of day it was. And shed told me, with reluctance or relish, laughing and asking why on earth I wanted to know. I wanted to know. I couldnt explain. But now that she was dying, I knew everything. My mother was in me already. Not just the parts of her that I knew, but the parts of her that had come before me too. It wasnt long that I had to go back and forth between Minneapolis and home. A little more than a month. The idea that my mother would live a year quickly became a sad dream. Wed gone to the Mayo Clinic on February 12. By the third of March, she had to go to the hospital in Duluth, seventy miles away, because she was in so much pain. As she dressed to go, she found that she couldnt put on her own socks and she called me into her room and asked me to help. She sat on the bed and I got down on my knees before her. I had never put socks on another person, and it was harder than I thought it would be. They wouldnt slide over her skin. They went on crooked. I became furious with my mother, as if she were purposely holding her foot in a way that made it impossible for me. She sat back, leaning on her hands on the bed, her eyes closed. I could hear her breathing deeply, slowly. God damn it, I said. Help me. My mother looked down at me and didnt say a word for several moments. Honey, she said eventually, gazing at me, her hand reaching to stroke the top of my head. It was a word she used often throughout my childhood, delivered in a highly specific tone. This is not the way I wanted it to be, that single honey said, but it was the way it was. It was this very acceptance of suffering that annoyed me most about my mom, her unending optimism and cheer. Lets go, I said after Id wrestled her shoes on. Her movements were slow and thick as she put on her coat. She held on to the walls as she made her way through the house, her two beloved dogs following her as she went, pushing their noses into her hands and thighs. I watched the way she patted their heads. I didnt have a prayer anymore. The words fuck them were two dry pills in my mouth. Bye, darlings, she said to the dogs. Bye, house, she said as she followed me out the door. It hadnt occurred to me that my mother would die. Until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life. She would grow old and still work in the garden. This image was fixed in my mind, like one of the memories from her childhood that Id made her explain so intricately that I remembered it as if it were mine. She would be old and beautiful like the black-and-white photo of Georgia OKeeffe Id once sent her. I held fast to this image for the first couple of weeks after we left the Mayo Clinic, and then, once she was admitted to the hospice wing of the hospital in Duluth, that image unfurled, gave way to others, more modest and true. I imagined my mother in October; I wrote the scene in my mind. And then the one of my mother in August and another in May. Each day that passed, another month peeled away. On her first day in the hospital, a nurse offered my mother morphine, but she refused. Morphine is what they give to dying people, she said. Morphine means theres no hope. But she held out against it for only one day. She slept and woke, talked and laughed. She cried from the pain. I camped out during the days with her and Eddie took the nights. Leif and Karen stayed away, making excuses that I found inexplicable and infuriating, though their absence didnt seem to bother my mom. She was preoccupied with nothing but eradicating her pain, an impossible task in the spaces of time between the doses of morphine. We could never get the pillows right. One afternoon, a doctor Id never seen came into the room and explained that my mother was actively dying. But its only been a month, I said indignantly. The other doctor told us a year. He made no reply. He was young, perhaps thirty. He stood next to my mother, a gentle hairy hand slung into his pocket, looking down at her in the bed. From this point on, our only concern is that shes comfortable. Comfortable, and yet the nurses tried to give her as little morphine as they could. One of the nurses was a man, and I could see the outline of his penis through his tight white nurses trousers. I wanted desperately to pull him into the small bathroom beyond the foot of my mothers bed and offer myself up to him, to do anything at all if he would help us. And also I wanted to take pleasure from him, to feel the weight of his body against me, to feel his mouth in my hair and hear him say my name to me over and over again, to force him to acknowledge me, to make this matter to him, to crush his heart with mercy for us. When my mother asked him for more morphine, she asked for it in a way that I have never heard anyone ask for anything. A mad dog. He did not look at her when she asked him this, but at his wristwatch. He held the same expression on his face regardless of the answer. Sometimes he gave it to her without a word, and sometimes he told her no in a voice as soft as his penis in his pants. My mother begged and whimpered then. She cried and her tears fell in the wrong direction. Not down over the light of her cheeks to the corners of her mouth, but away from the edges of her eyes to her ears and into the nest of her hair on the bed. She didnt live a year. She didnt live to October or August or May. She lived forty-nine days after the first doctor in Duluth told her she had cancer; thirty-four after the one at the Mayo Clinic did. But each day was an eternity, one stacked up on the other, a cold clarity inside of a deep haze. Leif didnt come to visit her. Karen came once after Id insisted she must. I was in heartbroken and enraged disbelief. I dont like seeing her this way, my sister would offer weakly when we spoke, and then burst into tears. I couldnt speak to my brotherwhere he was during those weeks was a mystery to Eddie and me. One friend told us he was staying with a girl named Sue in St. Cloud. Another spotted him ice fishing on Sheriff Lake. I didnt have time to do much about it, consumed as I was each day at my mothers side, holding plastic pans for her to retch into, adjusting the impossible pillows again and again, hoisting her up and onto the potty chair the nurses had propped near her bed, cajoling her to eat a bite of food that shed vomit up ten minutes later. Mostly, I watched her sleep, the hardest task of all, to see her in repose, her face still pinched with pain. Each time she moved, the IV tubes that dangled all around her swayed and my heart raced, afraid shed disturb the needles that attached the tubes to her swollen wrists and hands. How are you feeling? Id coo hopefully when she woke, reaching through the tubes to smooth her flattened hair into place. Oh, honey, was all she could say most times. And then shed look away. I roamed the hospital hallways while my mother slept, my eyes darting into other peoples rooms as I passed their open doors, catching glimpses of old men with bad coughs and purpled flesh, women with bandages around their fat knees. How are you doing? the nurses would ask me in melancholy tones. Were holding up, Id say, as if I were a we. But it was just me. My husband, Paul, did everything he could to make me feel less alone. He was still the kind and tender man Id fallen for a few years before, the one Id loved so fiercely Id shocked everyone by marrying just shy of twenty, but once my mother started dying, something inside of me was dead to Paul, no matter what he did or said. Still, I called him each day from the pay phone in the hospital during the long afternoons, or back at my mom and Eddies house in the evenings. Wed have long conversations during which Id weep and tell him everything and he would cry with me and try to make it all just a tiny bit more okay, but his words rang hollow. It was almost as if I couldnt hear them at all. What did he know about losing anything? His parents were still alive and happily married to each other. My connection with him and his gloriously unfractured life only seemed to increase my pain. It wasnt his fault. Being with him felt unbearable, but being with anyone else did too. The only person I could bear to be with was the most unbearable person of all: my mother. In the mornings, I would sit near her bed and try to read to her. I had two books: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, and The Optimists Daughter, by Eudora Welty. These were books wed read in college, books we loved. So I started in, but I could not go on. Each word I spoke erased itself in the air. It was the same when I tried to pray. I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I cursed my mother, whod not given me any religious education. Resentful of her own repressive Catholic upbringing, shed avoided church altogether in her adult life, and now she was dying and I didnt even have God. I prayed to the whole wide universe and hoped that God would be in it, listening to me. I prayed and prayed, and then I faltered. Not because I couldnt find God, but because suddenly I absolutely did: God was there, I realized, and God had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mothers life. God was not a granter of wishes. God was a ruthless bitch. The last couple of days of her life, my mother was not so much high as down under. She was on a morphine drip by then, a clear bag of liquid flowing slowly down a tube that was taped to her wrist. When she woke, shed say, Oh, oh. Or shed let out a sad gulp of air. Shed look at me, and there would be a flash of love. Other times shed roll back into sleep as if I were not there. Sometimes when my mother woke she did not know where she was. She demanded an enchilada and then some applesauce. She believed that all the animals shed ever loved were in the room with herand there had been a lot. Shed say, That horse darn near stepped on me, and look around for it accusingly, or her hands would move to stroke an invisible cat that lay at her hip. During this time I wanted my mother to say to me that I had been the best daughter in the world. I did not want to want this, but I did, inexplicably, as if I had a great fever that could be cooled only by those words. I went so far as to ask her directly, Have I been the best daughter in the world? She said yes, I had, of course. But this was not enough. I wanted those words to knit together in my mothers mind and for them to be delivered, fresh, to me. I was ravenous for love. My mother died fast but not all of a sudden. A slow-burning fire when flames disappear to smoke and then smoke to air. She didnt have time to get skinny. She was altered but still fleshy when she died, the body of a woman among the living. She had her hair too, brown and brittle and frayed from being in bed for weeks. From the room where she died I could see the great Lake Superior out her window. The biggest lake in the world, and the coldest too. To see it, I had to work. I pressed my face sideways, hard, against the glass, and Id catch a slice of it going on forever into the horizon. A room with a view! my mother exclaimed, though she was too weak to rise and see the lake herself. And then more quietly she said: All of my life Ive waited for a room with a view. She wanted to die sitting up, so I took all the pillows I could get my hands on and made a backrest for her. I wanted to take her from the hospital and prop her in a field of yarrow to die. I covered her with a quilt that I had brought from home, one shed sewn herself out of pieces of our old clothing. Get that out of here, she growled savagely, and then kicked her legs like a swimmer to make it go away. I watched my mother. Outside the sun glinted off the sidewalks and the icy edges of the snow. It was Saint Patricks Day, and the nurses brought her a square block of green Jell-O that sat quivering on the table beside her. It would turn out to be the last full day of her life, and for most of it she held her eyes still and open, neither sleeping nor waking, intermittently lucid and hallucinatory. That evening I left her, though I didnt want to. The nurses and doctors had told Eddie and me that this was it. I took that to mean she would die in a couple of weeks. I believed that people with cancer lingered. Karen and Paul would be driving up together from Minneapolis the next morning and my mothers parents were due from Alabama in a couple of days, but Leif was still nowhere to be found. Eddie and I had called Leifs friends and the parents of his friends, leaving pleading messages, asking him to call, but he hadnt called. I decided to leave the hospital for one night so I could find him and bring him to the hospital once and for all. Ill be back in the morning, I said to my mother. I looked over at Eddie, half lying on the little vinyl couch. Ill come back with Leif. When she heard his name, she opened her eyes: blue and blazing, the same as theyd always been. In all this, they hadnt changed. How can you not be mad at him? I asked her bitterly for perhaps the tenth time. You cant squeeze blood from a turnip, shed usually say. Or, Cheryl, hes only eighteen. But this time she just gazed at me and said, Honey, the same as she had when Id gotten angry about her socks. The same as shed always done when shed seen me suffer because I wanted something to be different than it was and she was trying to convince me with that single word that I must accept things as they were. Well all be together tomorrow, I said. And then well all stay here with you, okay? None of us will leave. I reached through the tubes that were draped all around her and stroked her shoulder. I love you, I said, bending to kiss her cheek, though she fended me off, in too much pain to endure even a kiss. Love, she whispered, too weak to say the I and you. Love, she said again as I left her room. I rode the elevator and went out to the cold street and walked along the sidewalk. I passed a bar packed with people I could see through a big plate-glass window. They were all wearing shiny green paper hats and green shirts and green suspenders and drinking green beer. A man inside met my eye and pointed at me drunkenly, his face breaking into silent laughter. I drove home and fed the horses and hens and got on the phone, the dogs gratefully licking my hands, our cat nudging his way onto my lap. I called everyone who might know where my brother was. He was drinking a lot, some said. Yes, it was true, said others, hed been hanging out with a girl from St. Cloud named Sue. At midnight the phone rang and I told him that this was it. I wanted to scream at him when he walked in the door a half hour later, to shake him and rage and accuse, but when I saw him, all I could do was hold him and cry. He seemed so old to me that night, and so very young too. For the first time, I saw that hed become a man and yet also I could see what a little boy he was. My little boy, the one Id half mothered all of my life, having no choice but to help my mom all those times shed been away at work. Karen and I were three years apart, but wed been raised as if we were practically twins, the two of us equally in charge of Leif as kids. I cant do this, he kept repeating through his tears. I cant live without Mom. I cant. I cant. I cant. We have to, I replied, though I couldnt believe it myself. We lay together in his single bed talking and crying into the wee hours until, side by side, we drifted off to sleep. I woke a few hours later and, before waking Leif, fed the animals and loaded bags full of food we could eat during our vigil at the hospital. By eight oclock we were on our way to Duluth, my brother driving our mothers car too fast while U2s Joshua Tree blasted out of the speakers. We listened intently to the music without talking, the low sun cutting brightly into the snow on the sides of the road. When we reached our mothers room at the hospital, we saw a sign on her closed door instructing us to check in at the nurses station before entering. This was a new thing, but I assumed it was only a procedural matter. A nurse approached us in the hallway as we walked toward the station, and before I spoke she said, We have ice on her eyes. She wanted to donate her corneas, so we need to keep the ice What? I said with such intensity that she jumped. I didnt wait for an answer. I ran to my mothers room, my brother right behind me. When I opened the door, Eddie stood and came for us with his arms outstretched, but I swerved away and dove for my mom. Her arms lay waxen at her sides, yellow and white and black and blue, the needles and tubes removed. Her eyes were covered by two surgical gloves packed with ice, their fat fingers lolling clownishly across her face. When I grabbed her, the gloves slid off. Bouncing onto the bed, then onto the floor. I howled and howled and howled, rooting my face into her body like an animal. Shed been dead an hour. Her limbs had cooled, but her belly was still an island of warm. I pressed my face into the warmth and howled some more. I dreamed of her incessantly. In the dreams I was always with her when she died. It was me who would kill her. Again and again and again. She commanded me to do it, and each time I would get down on my knees and cry, begging her not to make me, but she would not relent, and each time, like a good daughter, I ultimately complied. I tied her to a tree in our front yard and poured gasoline over her head, then lit her on fire. I made her run down the dirt road that passed by the house wed built and then ran her over with my truck. I dragged her body, caught on a jagged piece of metal underneath, until it came loose, and then I put my truck in reverse and ran her over again. I took a miniature baseball bat and beat her to death with it, slow and hard and sad. I forced her into a hole Id dug and kicked dirt and stones on top of her and buried her alive. These dreams were not surreal. They took place in plain, ordinary light. They were the documentary films of my subconscious and felt as real to me as life. My truck was really my truck; our front yard was our actual front yard; the miniature baseball bat sat in our closet among the umbrellas. I didnt wake from these dreams crying. I woke shrieking. Paul grabbed me and held me until I was quiet. He wetted a washcloth with cool water and put it over my face. But those wet washcloths couldnt wash the dreams of my mother away. Nothing did. Nothing would. Nothing could ever bring my mother back or make it okay that she was gone. Nothing would put me beside her the moment she died. It broke me up. It cut me off. It tumbled me end over end. It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again. To be the woman my mother raised. To remember how she said honey and picture her particular gaze. I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didnt know where I was going until I got there. It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods. 2 SPLITTING If I had to draw a map of those four-plus years to illustrate the time between the day of my mothers death and the day I began my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, the map would be a confusion of lines in all directions, like a crackling Fourth of July sparkler with Minnesota at its inevitable center. To Texas and back. To New York City and back. To New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada and California and Oregon and back. To Wyoming and back. To Portland, Oregon, and back. To Portland and back again. And again. But those lines wouldnt tell the story. The map would illuminate all the places I ran to, but not all the ways I tried to stay. It wouldnt show you how in the months after my mother died, I attemptedand failedto fill in for her in an effort to keep my family together. Or how Id struggled to save my marriage, even while I was dooming it with my lies. It would only seem like that rough star, its every bright line shooting out. By the time I arrived in the town of Mojave, California, on the night before I began hiking the PCT, Id shot out of Minnesota for the last time. Id even told my mother that, not that she could hear. Id sat in the flowerbed in the woods on our land, where Eddie, Paul, my siblings, and I had mixed her ashes in with the dirt and laid a tombstone, and explained to her that I wasnt going to be around to tend her grave anymore. Which meant that no one would. I finally had no choice but to leave her grave to go back to the weeds and blown-down tree branches and fallen pinecones. To snow and whatever the ants and deer and black bears and ground wasps wanted to do with her. I lay down in the mother ash dirt among the crocuses and told her it was okay. That Id surrendered. That since she died, everything had changed. Things she couldnt have imagined and wouldnt have guessed. My words came out low and steadfast. I was so sad it felt as if someone were choking me, and yet it seemed my whole life depended on my getting those words out. She would always be my mother, I told her, but I had to go. She wasnt there for me in that flowerbed anymore anyway, I explained. Id put her somewhere else. The only place I could reach her. In me. The next day I left Minnesota forever. I was going to hike the PCT. It was the first week of June. I drove to Portland in my 1979 Chevy Luv pickup truck loaded with a dozen boxes filled with dehydrated food and backpacking supplies. Id spent the previous weeks compiling them, addressing each box to myself at places Id never been, stops along the PCT with evocative names like Echo Lake and Soda Springs, Burney Falls and Seiad Valley. I left my truck and the boxes with my friend Lisa in Portlandshed be mailing the boxes to me throughout the summerand boarded a plane to Los Angeles, then caught a ride to Mojave with the brother of a friend. We pulled into town in the early evening, the sun dipping into the Tehachapi Mountains a dozen miles behind us to the west. Mountains Id be hiking the next day. The town of Mojave is at an altitude of nearly 2,800 feet, though it felt to me as if I were at the bottom of something instead, the signs for gas stations, restaurants, and motels rising higher than the highest tree. You can stop here, I said to the man whod driven me from LA, gesturing to an old-style neon sign that said WHITES MOTEL with the word TELEVISION blazing yellow above it and VACANCY in pink beneath. By the worn look of the building, I guessed it was the cheapest place in town. Perfect for me. Thanks for the ride, I said once wed pulled into the lot. Youre welcome, he said, and looked at me. You sure youre okay? Yes, I replied with false confidence. Ive traveled alone a lot. I got out with my backpack and two oversized plastic department store bags full of things. Id meant to take everything from the bags and fit it into my backpack before leaving Portland, but I hadnt had the time. Id brought the bags here instead. Id get everything together in my room. Good luck, said the man. I watched him drive away. The hot air tasted like dust, the dry wind whipping my hair into my eyes. The parking lot was a field of tiny white pebbles cemented into place; the motel, a long row of doors and windows shuttered by shabby curtains. I slung my backpack over my shoulders and gathered the bags. It seemed strange to have only these things. I felt suddenly exposed, less exuberant than I had thought I would. Id spent the past six months imagining this moment, but now that it was herenow that I was only a dozen miles from the PCT itselfit seemed less vivid than it had in my imaginings, as if I were in a dream, my every thought liquid slow, propelled by will rather than instinct. Go inside, I had to tell myself before I could move toward the motel office. Ask for a room. Its eighteen dollars, said the old woman who stood behind the counter. With rude emphasis, she looked past me, out the glass door through which Id entered moments before. Unless youve got a companion. Its more for two. I dont have a companion, I said, and blushedit was only when I was telling the truth that I felt as if I were lying. That guy was just dropping me off. Its eighteen dollars for now, then, she replied, but if a companion joins you, youll have to pay more. A companion wont be joining me, I said evenly. I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from the pocket of my shorts and slid it across the counter to her. She took my money and handed me two dollars and a card to fill out with a pen attached to a bead chain. Im on foot, so I cant do the car section, I said, gesturing to the form. I smiled, but she didnt smile back. AlsoI dont really have an address. Im traveling, so I Write down the address youll be returning to, she said. See, thats the thing. Im not sure where Ill live afterwards because Your folks, then, she barked. Wherever home is. Okay, I said, and wrote Eddies address, though in truth my connection to Eddie in the four years since my mother died had become so pained and distant I couldnt rightly consider him my stepfather anymore. I had no home, even though the house we built still stood. Leif and Karen and I were inextricably bound as siblings, but we spoke and saw one another rarely, our lives profoundly different. Paul and I had finalized our divorce the month before, after a harrowing yearlong separation. I had beloved friends whom I sometimes referred to as family, but our commitments to each other were informal and intermittent, more familial in word than in deed. Blood is thicker than water, my mother had always said when I was growing up, a sentiment Id often disputed. But it turned out that it didnt matter whether she was right or wrong. They both flowed out of my cupped palms. Here you are, I said to the woman, sliding the form across the counter in her direction, though she didnt turn to me for several moments. She was watching a small television that sat on a table behind the counter. The evening news. Something about the O. J. Simpson trial. Do you think hes guilty? she asked, still looking at the TV. It seems like it, but its too soon to know, I guess. We dont have all the information yet. Of course he did it! she shouted. When she finally gave me a key, I walked across the parking lot to a door at the far end of the building, unlocked it and went inside, and set my things down and sat on the soft bed. I was in the Mojave Desert, but the room was strangely dank, smelling of wet carpet and Lysol. A vented white metal box in the corner roared to lifea swamp cooler that blew icy air for a few minutes and then turned itself off with a dramatic clatter that only exacerbated my sense of uneasy solitude. I thought about going out and finding myself a companion. It was such an easy thing to do. The previous years had been a veritable feast of one- and two- and three-night stands. They seemed so ridiculous to me now, all that intimacy with people I didnt love, and yet still I ached for the simple sensation of a body pressed against mine, obliterating everything else. I stood up from the bed to shake off the longing, to stop my mind from its hungry whir: I could go to a bar. I could let a man buy me a drink. We could be back here in a flash. Just behind that longing was the urge to call Paul. He was my ex-husband now, but he was still my best friend. As much as Id pulled away from him in the years after my mothers death, Id also leaned hard into him. In the midst of my mostly silent agonizing over our marriage, wed had good times, been, in oddly real ways, a happy couple. The vented metal box in the corner turned itself on again and I went to stand before it, letting the frigid air blow against my bare legs. I was dressed in the clothes Id been wearing since Id left Portland the night before, every last thing brand-new. It was my hiking outfit and in it I felt a bit foreign, like someone I hadnt yet become. Wool socks beneath a pair of leather hiking boots with metal fasts. Navy blue shorts with important-looking pockets that closed with Velcro tabs. Underwear made of a special quick-dry fabric and a plain white T-shirt over a sports bra. They were among the many things Id spent the winter and spring saving up my money to buy, working as many shifts as I could get at the restaurant where I waited tables. When Id purchased them, they hadnt felt foreign to me. In spite of my recent forays into edgy urban life, I was easily someone who could be described as outdoorsy. I had, after all, spent my teen years roughing it in the Minnesota northwoods. My family vacations had always involved some form of camping, and so had the trips Id taken with Paul or alone or with friends. Id slept in the back of my truck, camped out in parks and national forests more times than I could count. But now, here, having only these clothes at hand, I felt suddenly like a fraud. In the six months since Id decided to hike the PCT, Id had at least a dozen conversations in which I explained why this trip was a good idea and how well suited I was to the challenge. But now, alone in my room at Whites Motel, I knew there was no denying the fact that I was on shaky ground. Perhaps you should try a shorter trip first, Paul had suggested when I told him about my plan during one of our should-we-stay-together-or-get-divorced discussions several months before. Why? Id asked with irritation. Dont you think I can hack it? It isnt that, he said. Its only that youve never gone backpacking, as far as I know. Ive gone backpacking! Id said indignantly, though he was right: I hadnt. In spite of all the things Id done that struck me as related to backpacking, Id never actually walked into the wilderness with a backpack on and spent the night. Not even once. Ive never gone backpacking! I thought with a rueful hilarity now. I looked suddenly at my pack and the plastic bags Id toted with me from Portland that held things I hadnt yet taken from their packaging. My backpack was forest green and trimmed with black, its body composed of three large compartments rimmed by fat pockets of mesh and nylon that sat on either side like big ears. It stood of its own volition, supported by the unique plastic shelf that jutted out along its bottom. That it stood like that instead of slumping over onto its side as other packs did provided me a small, strange comfort. I went to it and touched its top as if I were caressing a childs head. A month ago, Id been firmly advised to pack my backpack just as I would on my hike and take it on a trial run. Id meant to do it before I left Minneapolis, and then Id meant to do it once I got to Portland. But I hadnt. My trial run would be tomorrowmy first day on the trail. I reached into one of the plastic bags and pulled out an orange whistle, whose packaging proclaimed it to be the worlds loudest. I ripped it open and held the whistle up by its yellow lanyard, then put it around my neck, as if I were a coach. Was I supposed to hike wearing it like this? It seemed silly, but I didnt know. Like so much else, when Id purchased the worlds loudest whistle, I hadnt thought it all the way through. I took it off and tied it to the frame of my pack, so it would dangle over my shoulder when I hiked. There, it would be easy to reach, should I need it. Would I need it? I wondered meekly, bleakly, flopping down on the bed. It was well past dinnertime, but I was too anxious to feel hungry, my aloneness an uncomfortable thunk that filled my gut. You finally got what you wanted, Paul had said when we bade each other goodbye in Minneapolis ten days before. Whats that? Id asked. To be alone, he replied, and smiled, though I could only nod uncertainly. It had been what I wanted, though alone wasnt quite it. What I had to have when it came to love was beyond explanation, it seemed. The end of my marriage was a great unraveling that began with a letter that arrived a week after my mothers death, though its beginnings went back further than that. The letter wasnt for me. It was for Paul. Fresh as my grief was, I still dashed excitedly into our bedroom and handed it to him when I saw the return address. It was from the New School in New York City. In another lifetimeonly three months before, in the days before I learned my mother had cancerId helped him apply to a PhD program in political philosophy. Back in mid-January, the idea of living in New York City had seemed like the most exciting thing in the world. But now, in late Marchas he ripped the letter open and exclaimed that hed been accepted, as I embraced him and in every way seemed to be celebrating this good newsI felt myself splitting in two. There was the woman I was before my mom died and the one I was now, my old life sitting on the surface of me like a bruise. The real me was beneath that, pulsing under all the things I used to think I knew. How Id finish my BA in June and a couple of months later, off wed go. How wed rent an apartment in the East Village or Park Slopeplaces Id only imagined and read about. How Id wear funky ponchos with adorable knitted hats and cool boots while becoming a writer in the same romantic, down-and-out way that so many of my literary heroes and heroines had. All of that was impossible now, regardless of what the letter said. My mom was dead. My mom was dead. My mom was dead. Everything I ever imagined about myself had disappeared into the crack of her last breath. I couldnt leave Minnesota. My family needed me. Who would help Leif finish growing up? Who would be there for Eddie in his loneliness? Who would make Thanksgiving dinner and carry on our family traditions? Someone had to keep what remained of our family together. And that someone had to be me. I owed at least that much to my mother. You should go without me, I said to Paul as he held the letter. And I said it again and again as we talked throughout the next weeks, my conviction growing by the day. Part of me was terrified by the idea of him leaving me; another part of me desperately hoped he would. If he left, the door of our marriage would swing shut without my having to kick it. I would be free and nothing would be my fault. I loved him, but Id been impetuous and nineteen when wed wed; not remotely ready to commit myself to another person, no matter how dear he was. Though Id had attractions to other men since shortly after we married, Id kept them in check. But I couldnt do that anymore. My grief obliterated my ability to hold back. So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself? My mom had been dead a week when I kissed another man. And another a week after that. I only made out with them and the others that followedvowing not to cross a sexual line that held some meaning to mebut still I knew I was wrong to cheat and lie. I felt trapped by my own inability to either leave Paul or stay true, so I waited for him to leave me, to go off to graduate school alone, though of course he refused. He deferred his admission for a year and we stayed in Minnesota so I could be near my family, though my nearness in the year that followed my mothers death accomplished little. It turned out I wasnt able to keep my family together. I wasnt my mom. It was only after her death that I realized who she was: the apparently magical force at the center of our family whod kept us all invisibly spinning in the powerful orbit around her. Without her, Eddie slowly became a stranger. Leif and Karen and I drifted into our own lives. Hard as I fought for it to be otherwise, finally I had to admit it too: without my mother, we werent what wed been; we were four people floating separately among the flotsam of our grief, connected by only the thinnest rope. I never did make that Thanksgiving dinner. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around eight months after my mom died, my family was something I spoke of in the past tense. So when Paul and I finally moved to New York City a year after we had originally intended to, I was happy to go. There, I could have a fresh start. I would stop messing around with men. I would stop grieving so fiercely. I would stop raging over the family I used to have. I would be a writer who lived in New York City. I would walk around wearing cool boots and an adorable knitted hat. It didnt go that way. I was who I was: the same woman who pulsed beneath the bruise of her old life, only now I was somewhere else. During the day I wrote stories; at night I waited tables and made out with one of the two men I was simultaneously not crossing the line with. Wed lived in New York only a month when Paul dropped out of graduate school, deciding he wanted to play guitar instead. Six months later, we left altogether, returning briefly to Minnesota before departing on a months-long working road trip all across the West, making a wide circle that included the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, Big Sur and San Francisco. At trips end in late spring, we landed in Portland and found restaurant jobs, staying first with my friend Lisa in her tiny apartment and then on a farm ten miles outside the city, wherein exchange for looking after a goat and a cat and a covey of exotic game henswe got to live rent-free for the summer. We pulled the futon from our truck and slept on it in the living room under a big wide window that looked out over a filbert orchard. We took long walks and picked berries and made love. I can do this, I thought. I can be Pauls wife. But again I was wrong. I could only be who it seemed I had to be. Only now more so. I didnt even remember the woman I was before my life had split in two. Living in that little farmhouse on the edge of Portland, a few months past the second anniversary of my mothers death, I wasnt worried about crossing the line anymore. When Paul accepted a job offer in Minneapolis that required him to return to Minnesota midway through our exotic hen-sitting gig, I stayed behind in Oregon and fucked the ex-boyfriend of the woman who owned the exotic hens. I fucked a cook at the restaurant where Id picked up a job waiting tables. I fucked a massage therapist who gave me a piece of banana cream pie and a free massage. All three of them over the span of five days. It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again. To cure me of myself. At summers end, when I returned to Minneapolis to live with Paul, I believed I had. I thought I was different, better, done. And I was for a time, sailing faithfully through the autumn and into the new year. Then I had another affair. I knew I was at the end of a line. I couldnt bear myself any longer. I had to finally speak the words to Paul that would tear my life apart. Not that I didnt love him. But that I had to be alone, though I didnt know why. My mom had been dead three years. When I said all the things I had to say, we both fell onto the floor and sobbed. The next day, Paul moved out. Slowly we told our friends that we were splitting up. We hoped we could work it out, we said. We were not necessarily going to get divorced. First, they were in disbeliefwed seemed so happy, they all said. Next, they were madnot at us, but at me. One of my dearest friends took the photograph of me she kept in a frame, ripped it in half, and mailed it to me. Another made out with Paul. When I was hurt and jealous about this, I was told by another friend that this was exactly what I deserved: a taste of my own medicine. I couldnt rightfully disagree, but still my heart was broken. I lay alone on our futon feeling myself almost levitate from pain. Three months into our separation, we were still in a torturous limbo. I wanted neither to get back together with Paul nor to get divorced. I wanted to be two people so I could do both. Paul was dating a smattering of women, but I was suddenly celibate. Now that Id smashed up my marriage over sex, sex was the furthest thing from my mind. You need to get the hell out of Minneapolis, said my friend Lisa during one of our late-night heartbreak conversations. Come visit me in Portland, she said. Within the week, I quit my waitressing job, loaded up my truck, and drove west, traveling the same route Id take exactly one year later on my way to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. By the time I reached Montana, I knew Id done the right thingthe wide green land visible for miles outside my windshield, the sky going on even farther. The city of Portland flickered beyond, out of sight. It would be my luscious escape, if only for a brief time. There, Id leave my troubles behind, I thought. Instead, I only found more. 3 HUNCHING IN A REMOTELY UPRIGHT POSITION When I woke the next morning in my room at Whites Motel, I showered and stood naked in front of the mirror, watching myself solemnly brush my teeth. I tried to feel something like excitement but came up only with a morose unease. Every now and then I could see myselftruly see myselfand a sentence would come to me, thundering like a god into my head, and as I saw myself then in front of that tarnished mirror what came was the woman with the hole in her heart. That was me. That was why Id longed for a companion the night before. That was why I was here, naked in a motel, with this preposterous idea of hiking alone for three months on the PCT. I set my toothbrush down, then leaned into the mirror and stared into my own eyes. I could feel myself disintegrating inside myself like a past-bloom flower in the wind. Every time I moved a muscle, another petal of me blew away. Please, I thought. Please. I went to the bed and looked at my hiking outfit. Id laid it out carefully on the bed before Id gotten into the shower, the way my mom had done for me when I was a child on the first day of school. When I put on my bra and T-shirt, the tiny scabs that still rimmed my new tattoo caught on the shirts sleeve and I delicately picked at them. It was my only tattooa blue horse on my left deltoid. Paul had one to match. Wed had them done together in honor of our divorce, which had become final only the month before. We werent married anymore, but the tattoos seemed proof to us of our everlasting bond. I wanted to call Paul even more desperately than I had the previous night, but I couldnt let myself. He knew me too well. Hed hear the sorrow and hesitation in my voice and discern that it was not only that I felt anxious about beginning on the PCT. Hed sense that I had something to tell. I put my socks on and laced up my boots, went to the window, and pushed the curtain back. The sun was blinding against the white stones of the parking lot. There was a gas station across the waya good place to hitch a ride to the PCT, I supposed. When I let go of the curtain, the room went dark again. I liked it that way, like a safe cocoon that Id never have to leave, though I knew I was wrong. It was nine in the morning and already hot outside, the vented white box in the corner come alive with its breezy roar. In spite of everything that implied I was going nowhere, I had someplace to be: it was day 1 on the PCT. I opened the compartments of my pack and pulled everything out, tossing each item onto the bed. I lifted the plastic bags and emptied them too, then stared at the pile of things. It was everything I had to carry for the next three months. There was a blue compression sack that held the clothes I wasnt already wearinga pair of fleece pants, a long-sleeved thermal shirt, a thick fleece anorak with a hood, two pair of wool socks and two pair of underwear, a thin pair of gloves, a sun hat, a fleece hat, and rain pantsand another, sturdier sack called a dry bag, packed to the gills with all the food Id need over the next fourteen days, before I reached my first resupply stop at a place called Kennedy Meadows. There was a sleeping bag and a camp chair that could be unclipped to use as a sleeping pad and a headlamp like the kind miners wear and five bungee cords. There was a water purifier and a tiny collapsible stove, a tall aluminum canister of gas, and a little pink lighter. There was a small cooking pot nested inside a larger cooking pot and utensils that folded in half and a cheap pair of sports sandals I intended to wear in camp at the end of each day. There was a quick-dry pack towel, a thermometer keychain, a tarp, and an insulated plastic mug with a handle. There was a snakebite kit and a Swiss army knife, a miniature pair of binoculars in a fake leather zip-up case and a coil of fluorescent-colored rope, a compass I hadnt yet learned how to use and a book that would teach me how to use the compass called Staying Found that I had intended to read on the plane to LA, but hadnt. There was a first aid kit in a pristine red canvas case that snapped shut and a roll of toilet paper in a ziplock bag and a stainless-steel trowel that had its own black sheath that said U-Dig-It on the front. There was a small bag of toiletries and personal items I thought Id need along the wayshampoo and conditioner, soap and lotion and deodorant, nail clippers and insect repellent and sunscreen, a hairbrush and a natural menstrual sponge, and a tube of waterproof sunblock lip balm. There was a flashlight and a metal candle lantern with a votive candle inside and an extra candle and a foldable sawfor what, I did not knowand a green nylon bag with my tent inside. There were two 32-ounce plastic water bottles and a dromedary bag capable of holding 2.6 gallons of water and a nylon fist that unfurled into a rain cover for my backpack and a Gore-Tex ball that opened up to become my raincoat. There were things I brought in case the other things I brought failedextra batteries, a box of waterproof matches, a Mylar blanket, and a bottle of iodine pills. There were two pens and three books in addition to Staying Found: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California (the very guidebook that had set me off on this journey, written by a quartet of authors who spoke in one calm but stern voice about the rigors and rewards of the trail), William Faulkners As I Lay Dying, and Adrienne Richs The Dream of a Common Language. There was an eight-by-eleven two-hundred-page hardback sketchbook that I used as a journal and a ziplock bag with my drivers license inside and a small wad of cash, a sheaf of postage stamps, and a tiny spiral notebook with the addresses of friends scrawled on a few pages. There was a full-sized, professional-quality 35-millimeter Minolta X-700 camera with a separate attachable zoom lens and another separate attachable flash and a tiny collapsible tripod, all of which was packed inside a padded camera case the size of a football. Not that I was a photographer. Id gone to an outdoor store in Minneapolis called REI about a dozen times over the previous months to purchase a good portion of these items. Seldom was this a straightforward affair. To buy even a water bottle without first thoroughly considering the latest water bottle technology was folly, I quickly learned. There were the pros and cons of various materials to take into account, not to mention the research that had been done regarding design. And this was only the smallest, least complex of the purchases I had to make. The rest of the gear I would need was ever more complex, I realized after consulting with the men and women of REI, who inquired hopefully if they could help me whenever they spotted me before displays of ultralight stoves or strolling among the tents. These employees ranged in age and manner and area of wilderness adventure proclivity, but what they had in common was that every last one of them could talk about gear, with interest and nuance, for a length of time that was so dumbfounding that I was ultimately bedazzled by it. They cared if my sleeping bag had snag-free zipper guards and a face muff that allowed the hood to be cinched snug without obstructing my breathing. They took pleasure in the fact that my water purifier had a pleated glass-fiber element for increased surface area. And their knowledge had a way of rubbing off on me. By the time I made the decision about which backpack to purchasea top-of-the-line Gregory hybrid external frame that claimed to have the balance and agility of an internalI felt as if Id become a backpacking expert. It was only as I stood gazing at that pile of meticulously chosen gear on the bed in my Mojave motel room that I knew with profound humility that I was not. I worked my way through the mountain of things, wedging and cramming and forcing them into every available space of my pack until nothing more could possibly fit. I had planned to use the bungee cords to attach my food bag, tent, tarp, clothing sack, and camp chair that doubled as a sleeping pad to the outside of my packin the places on the external frame meant for that purposebut now it was apparent that there were other things that would have to go on the outside too. I pulled the bungee cords around all the things Id planned to and then looped a few extra things through them as well: the straps of my sandals and the camera case and the handles of the insulated mug and the candle lantern. I clipped the metal trowel in its U-Dig-It sheath to my backpacks belt and attached the keychain that was a thermometer to one of my packs zippers. When I was done, I sat on the floor, sweaty from my exertions, and stared peaceably at my pack. And then I remembered one last thing: water. Id chosen to begin my hike where I had simply because from there I estimated it would take me about a hundred days to walk to Ashland, Oregonthe place Id originally planned to end my hike because Id heard good things about the town and thought I might like to stay there to live. Months ago, Id traced my finger southward down the map, adding up the miles and the days, and stopped at Tehachapi Pass, where the PCT crosses Highway 58 in the northwest corner of the Mojave Desert, not far from the town of Mojave. What I hadnt realized until a couple of weeks before was that I was beginning my hike on one of the driest sections of the trail, a section where even the fastest, fittest, and most seasoned hikers couldnt always get from one water source to another each day. For me, it would be impossible. It would take me two days to reach the first water source seventeen miles into my hike, I guessed, so I would have to carry enough to get me through. I filled my 32-ounce bottles in the bathroom sink and put them in my packs mesh side pockets. I dug out my dromedary bag from the place Id crammed it in my packs main compartment and filled up all 2.6 gallons of it. Water, I later learned, weighs 8.3 pounds a gallon. I dont know how much my pack weighed on that first day, but I do know the water alone was 24.5 pounds. And it was an unwieldy 24.5 pounds. The dromedary bag was like a giant flattish water balloon, sloshing and buckling and slipping out of my hands and flipping itself onto the floor as I attempted to secure it to my pack. The bag was rimmed with webbing straps; with great effort I wove the bungee cords through them, next to the camera bag and sandals and the insulated cup and candle lantern, until I grew so frustrated that I pulled out the insulated cup and threw it across the room. Finally, when everything I was going to carry was in the place that I needed to carry it, a hush came over me. I was ready to begin. I put on my watch, looped my sunglasses around my neck by their pink neoprene holder, donned my hat, and looked at my pack. It was at once enormous and compact, mildly adorable and intimidatingly self-contained. It had an animate quality; in its company, I didnt feel entirely alone. Standing, it came up to my waist. I gripped it and bent to lift it. It wouldnt budge. I squatted and grasped its frame more robustly and tried to lift it again. Again it did not move. Not even an inch. I tried to lift it with both hands, with my legs braced beneath me, while attempting to wrap it in a bear hug, with all of my breath and my might and my will, with everything in me. And still it would not come. It was exactly like attempting to lift a Volkswagen Beetle. It looked so cute, so ready to be liftedand yet it was impossible to do. I sat down on the floor beside it and pondered my situation. How could I carry a backpack more than a thousand miles over rugged mountains and waterless deserts if I couldnt even budge it an inch in an air-conditioned motel room? The notion was preposterous and yet I had to lift that pack. It hadnt occurred to me that I wouldnt be able to. Id simply thought that if I added up all the things I needed in order to go backpacking, it would equal a weight that I could carry. The people at REI, it was true, had mentioned weight rather often in their soliloquies, but I hadnt paid much attention. It seemed there had been more important questions to consider. Like whether a face muff allowed the hood to be cinched snug without obstructing my breathing. I thought about what I might take out of my pack, but each item struck me as either so obviously needed or so in-case-of-emergency necessary that I didnt dare remove it. I would have to try to carry the pack as it was. I scooted over the carpet and situated myself on my rump right in front of my pack, wove my arms through the shoulder straps, and clipped the sternum strap across my chest. I took a deep breath and began rocking back and forth to gain momentum, until finally I hurled myself forward with everything in me and got myself onto my hands and knees. My backpack was no longer on the floor. It was officially attached to me. It still seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle, only now it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back. I stayed there for a few moments, trying to get my balance. Slowly, I worked my feet beneath me while simultaneously scaling the metal cooling unit with my hands until I was vertical enough that I could do a dead lift. The frame of the pack squeaked as I rose, it too straining from the tremendous weight. By the time I was standingwhich is to say, hunching in a remotely upright positionI was holding the vented metal panel that Id accidentally ripped loose from the cooling unit in my efforts. I couldnt even begin to reattach it. The place it needed to go was only inches out of my reach, but those inches were entirely out of the question. I propped the panel against the wall, buckled my hip belt, and staggered and swayed around the room, my center of gravity pulled in any direction I so much as leaned. The weight dug painfully into the tops of my shoulders, so I cinched my hip belt tighter and tighter still, trying to balance the burden, squeezing my middle so tightly that my flesh ballooned out on either side. My pack rose up like a mantle behind me, towering several inches above my head, and gripped me like a vise all the way down to my tailbone. It felt pretty awful, and yet perhaps this was how it felt to be a backpacker. I didnt know. I only knew that it was time to go, so I opened the door and stepped into the light. PART TWO TRACKS The words are purposes. The words are maps. ADRIENNE RICH, Diving into the Wreck Will you take me as I am? Will you? JONI MITCHELL, California 4 THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, VOLUME 1: CALIFORNIA Id done a lot of dumb and dangerous things in my life, but soliciting a ride with a stranger was not yet one of them. Horrible things happened to hitchhikers, I knew, especially to women hitchhiking alone. They were raped and decapitated. Tortured and left for dead. But as I made my way from Whites Motel to the nearby gas station, I could not allow such thoughts to distract me. Unless I wanted to walk twelve miles along the broiling shoulder of the highway to reach the trail, I needed a ride. Plus, hitchhiking was simply what PCT hikers did on occasion. And I was a PCT hiker, right? Right? Right. The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California had explained the process with its usual equanimity. On some occasions the PCT would cross a road and miles down that road would be the post office where one would have mailed the box of food and supplies needed on the next section of the trail. Hitchhiking was the only practical solution when it came to fetching those boxes and returning to the trail. I stood near the soda machines up against the gas station building, watching people come and go, trying to work up the nerve to approach one of them, hoping Id sense that I was safe from harm when I saw the right person. I watched old desert-grizzled men in cowboy hats and families whose cars were full already and teenagers who pulled up with music blasting out their open windows. Nobody in particular looked like a murderer or rapist, but nobody in particular didnt look like one either. I bought a can of Coke and drank it with a casual air that belied the fact that I could not stand up properly because of the unbelievable weight on my back. Finally, I had to make a move. It was nearly eleven, pitching steadily into the heat of a June day in the desert. A minivan with Colorado plates pulled up and two men got out. One man was about my age, the other looked to be in his fifties. I approached them and asked for a ride. They hesitated and glanced at each other, their expressions making it apparent that they were united in their silent search for a reason to say no, so I kept talking, explaining in quick bursts about the PCT. Sure, the older one said finally, with obvious reluctance. Thank you, I trilled girlishly. When I hobbled toward the big door on the side of the van, the younger man rolled it open for me. I gazed inside, realizing suddenly that I had no idea how to get in. I couldnt even attempt to step up into it with my pack on. Id have to take my pack off, and yet how? If I undid the buckles that held the backpacks straps around my waist and over my shoulders, there would be no way that I could keep it from falling so violently away from me that it might rip my arms off. You need a hand? the young man asked. No. Ive got it, I said in a falsely unruffled tone. The only thing I could think to do was turn my back to the van and squat to sit on the doorframe while clutching the edge of the sliding door, letting my pack rest on the floor behind me. It was bliss. I unclipped my packs straps and carefully extricated myself without tipping my pack over and then turned to climb inside the van to sit beside it. The men were friendlier to me once we were on our way, driving west through an arid landscape of parched-looking bushes and pale mountains stretching off into the distance. They were a father and son from a suburb of Denver, on their way to a graduation ceremony in San Luis Obispo. Before long, a sign announcing Tehachapi Pass appeared and the older man slowed the van and pulled to the side of the road. The younger man got out and slid the big door open for me. Id hoped to put my pack on the same way Id taken it off, aided by the height of the vans floor as I squatted in the doorway, but before I could step out, the man pulled out my pack and dropped it heavily in the gravelly dirt by the side of the road. It fell so hard I feared my dromedary bag would burst. I climbed out after it and pulled it back to standing position and dusted it off. Are you sure you can lift that? he asked. Cause I barely can. Of course I can lift it, I said. He stood there, as if waiting for me to prove it. Thanks for the ride, I said, wanting him to leave, so he wouldnt be witness to my humiliating pack-donning routine. He nodded and slid the vans door shut. Be safe out there. I will, I said, and watched him get back in the van. I stood by the silent highway after they drove away. Small clouds of dust blew in swirling gusts beneath the glaring noon sun. I was at an elevation of nearly 3,800 feet, surrounded in all directions by beige, barren-looking mountains dotted with clusters of sagebrush, Joshua trees, and waist-high chaparral. I was standing at the western edge of the Mojave Desert and at the southern foot of the Sierra Nevada, the vast mountain range that stretched north for more than four hundred miles to Lassen Volcanic National Park, where it connected with the Cascade Range, which extended from northern California all the way through Oregon and Washington and beyond the Canadian border. Those two mountain ranges would be my world for the next three months; their crest, my home. On a fence post beyond the ditch I spied a palm-sized metal blaze that said PACIFIC CREST TRAIL. I was here. I could begin at last. It occurred to me that now would be the perfect time to take a photograph, but to unpack the camera would entail such a series of gear and bungee cord removals that I didnt even want to attempt it. Plus, in order to get myself in the picture, Id have to find something to prop the camera on so I could set its timer and get into place before it took the shot, and nothing around me looked too promising. Even the fence post that the PCT blaze was attached to seemed too desiccated and frail. Instead, I sat down in the dirt in front of my pack, the same way Id done in the motel room, wrested it onto my shoulders, and then hurled myself onto my hands and knees and did my dead lift to stand. Elated, nervous, hunching in a remotely upright position, I buckled and cinched my pack and staggered the first steps down the trail to a brown metal box that was tacked to another fence post. When I lifted the lid, I saw a notebook and pen inside. It was the trail register, which Id read about in my guidebook. I wrote my name and the date and read the names and notes from the hikers whod passed through in the weeks ahead of me, most of them men traveling in pairs, not one of them a woman alone. I lingered a bit longer, feeling a swell of emotion over the occasion, and then I realized there was nothing to do but go, so I did. The trail headed east, paralleling the highway for a while, dipping down into rocky washes and back up again. Im hiking! I thought. And then, I am hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was this very act, of hiking, that had been at the heart of my belief that such a trip was a reasonable endeavor. What is hiking but walking, after all? I can walk! Id argued when Paul had expressed his concern about my never actually having gone backpacking. I walked all the time. I walked for hours on end in my work as a waitress. I walked around the cities I lived in and visited. I walked for pleasure and purpose. All of these things were true. But after about fifteen minutes of walking on the PCT, it was clear that I had never walked into desert mountains in early June with a pack that weighed significantly more than half of what I did strapped onto my back. Which, it turns out, is not very much like walking at all. Which, in fact, resembles walking less than it does hell. I began panting and sweating immediately, dust caking my boots and calves as the trail turned north and began to climb rather than undulate. Each step was a toil, as I ascended higher and higher still, interrupted only by the occasional short descent, which was not so much a break in the hell as it was a new kind of hell because I had to brace myself against each step, lest gravitys pull cause me, with my tremendous, uncontrollable weight, to catapult forward and fall. I felt like the pack was not so much attached to me as me to it. Like I was a building with limbs, unmoored from my foundation, careening through the wilderness. Within forty minutes, the voice inside my head was screaming, What have I gotten myself into? I tried to ignore it, to hum as I hiked, though humming proved too difficult to do while also panting and moaning in agony and trying to remain hunched in that remotely upright position while also propelling myself forward when I felt like a building with legs. So then I tried to simply concentrate on what I heardmy feet thudding against the dry and rocky trail, the brittle leaves and branches of the low-lying bushes I passed clattering in the hot windbut it could not be done. The clamor of What have I gotten myself into? was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out. The only possible distraction was my vigilant search for rattlesnakes. I expected one around every bend, ready to strike. The landscape was made for them, it seemed. And also for mountain lions and wilderness-savvy serial killers. But I wasnt thinking of them. It was a deal Id made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasnt long before I actually wasnt afraid. I was working too hard to be afraid. I took one step and then another, moving along at barely more than a crawl. I hadnt thought that hiking the PCT would be easy. Id known it would take some getting adjusted. But now that I was out here, I was less sure I would adjust. Hiking the PCT was different than Id imagined. I was different than Id imagined. I couldnt even remember what it was Id imagined six months ago, back in December, when Id first decided to do this. Id been driving on a stretch of highway east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when the idea came to me. Id driven to Sioux Falls from Minneapolis the day before with my friend Aimee to retrieve my truck, which had been left there the week before when it broke down while a friend was borrowing it. By the time Aimee and I arrived in Sioux Falls, my truck had been towed from the street. Now it was in a lot surrounded by a chain-link fence and buried in snow from the blizzard that had passed through a couple of days before. It had been for this blizzard that Id gone to REI the previous day to purchase a shovel. As I waited in line to pay for it, Id spotted a guidebook about something called the Pacific Crest Trail. I picked it up and studied its cover and read the back before returning it to its place on the shelf. Once Aimee and I had cleared the snow away from my truck that day in Sioux Falls, I got inside and turned the key. I assumed Id hear nothing but that dead clicking sound that automobiles make when theyve got nothing left to give you, but it started right up. We couldve driven back to Minneapolis then, but we decided to check into a motel for the night instead. We went out to a Mexican restaurant for an early dinner, elated with the unexpected ease of our journey. As we ate chips and salsa and drank margaritas, I got a funny feeling in my gut. Its like I swallowed the chips whole, I told Aimee, like the edges are still intact and jabbing me inside. I felt full and tingly down low, like Id never felt before. Maybe Im pregnant, I joked, and then the moment I said it, I realized I wasnt joking. Are you? asked Aimee. I could be, I said, suddenly terrified. Id had sex a few weeks before with a man named Joe. Id met him the previous summer in Portland, when Id gone there to visit Lisa and escape my troubles. Id been there only a few days when hed walked up to me in a bar and put his hand on my wrist. Nice, he said, outlining the sharp edges of my tin bracelet with his fingers. He had neon punk-rock hair cut close to the scalp and a garish tattoo that covered half his arm, though his face was in precise contradiction to those disguises: tenacious and tenderlike a kitten wanting milk. He was twenty-four and I was twenty-five. I hadnt slept with anyone since Paul and I had broken up three months before. That night we had sex on Joes lumpy futon on the floor and barely slept, talking until the sun rose, mostly about him. He told me about his smart mother and his alcoholic father and the fancy and rigorous school where hed earned his BA the year before. Have you ever tried heroin? he asked in the morning. I shook my head and laughed idly. Should I? I couldve let it drop. Joe had only just started using it when he met me. It was something he did separate from me, with a group of friends hed made whom I didnt know. I couldve glided right past it, but something compelled me to pause instead. I was intrigued. I was unattached. In my youth and sorrow, I was ready to self-destruct. So I didnt just say yes to heroin. I pulled it in with both hands. I was cuddled up with Joe, postsex, on his ratty couch the first time I used it, a week after wed met. We took turns sucking up the smoke from a burning dab of black tar heroin that sat on a sheet of aluminum foil through a pipe that was made of foil too. Within a few days, I wasnt in Portland to visit Lisa and escape my sorrows anymore. I was in Portland falling into a drug-fueled half love with Joe. I moved into his apartment above an abandoned drugstore, where we spent most of the summer having adventuresome sex and doing heroin. In the beginning, it was a few times a week, then it was every couple of days, then it was every day. First we smoked it, then we snorted it. But we would never shoot it! we said. Absolutely not. Then we shot it. It was good. It was like something inordinately beautiful and out of this world. Like Id found an actual planet that I didnt know had been there all along. Planet Heroin. The place where there was no pain, where it was unfortunate but essentially okay that my mother was dead and my biological father was not in my life and my family had collapsed and I couldnt manage to stay married to a man I loved. At least thats how it felt while I was high. In the mornings, my pain was magnified by about a thousand. In the mornings there werent only those sad facts about my life. Now there was also the additional fact that I was a pile of shit. Id wake in Joes squalid room implicated by every banal thing: the lamp and the table, the book that had fallen and rested now belly-down and open, its flimsy pages buckled on the floor. In the bathroom, Id wash my face and sob into my hands for a few fast breaths, getting ready for the waitressing job Id picked up at a breakfast place. Id think: This is not me. This is not the way I am. Stop it. No more. But in the afternoons Id return with a wad of cash to buy another bit of heroin and Id think: Yes. I get to do this. I get to waste my life. I get to be junk. But this was not to be. Lisa called me one day and said she wanted to see me. Id stayed in touch with her, hanging out for long afternoons at her place, telling her glimmers of what I was up to. As soon as I walked into her house this time, I knew something was up. So tell me about heroin, she demanded. Heroin? I replied lightly. What could I possibly say? It was inexplicable, even to me. Im not becoming a junkie, if thats what youre worried about, I offered. I was leaning against her kitchen counter, watching her sweep the floor. Thats what Im worried about, she said sternly. Well, dont, I said. I explained it to her as rationally and playfully as I could. It had been only a couple of months. We would stop soon. Joe and I were simply messing around, doing something fun. Its summertime! I exclaimed. Remember how you suggested that I come here to escape? Im escaping. I laughed, though she didnt laugh along. I reminded her that Id never had trouble with drugs before; that I drank alcohol with moderation and reserve. I was an experimentalist, I told her. An artist. The kind of woman who said yes instead of no. She challenged my every statement, questioned my every rationale. She swept and swept and swept the floor as our talk turned into an argument. She eventually became so furious with me that she swatted me with the broom. I went back to Joes and we talked about how Lisa just didnt understand. Then, two weeks later, Paul called. He wanted to see me. Right now. Lisa had told him about Joe and about my using heroin, and hed immediately driven the seventeen hundred miles straight through from Minneapolis to talk to me. I met him within the hour at Lisas apartment. It was a warm, sunny day in late September. Id turned twenty-six the week before. Joe hadnt remembered. It was the first birthday of my life when not one person had said happy birthday to me. Happy birthday, said Paul when I walked in the door. Thank you, I said, too formally. I meant to call, but I didnt have your numberI mean, Joes. I nodded. It was strange to see him. My husband. A phantom from my actual life. The realest person I knew. We sat at the kitchen table with the branches of a fig tree tapping on the window nearby, the broom with which Lisa had struck me propped against the wall. He said, You look different. You seem so How can I say this? You seem like you arent here. I knew what he meant. The way he looked at me told me everything Id refused to hear from Lisa. I was different. I wasnt there. Heroin had made me that way. And yet the idea of giving it up seemed impossible. Looking Paul squarely in the face made me realize that I couldnt think straight. Just tell me why youre doing this to yourself, he demanded, his eyes gentle, his face so familiar to me. He reached across the table and took my hands, and we held on to each other, locked eye to eye, tears streaming first down my face, then down his. He wanted me to go home with him that afternoon, he said evenly. Not for a reunion with him but to get away. Not from Joe, but from heroin. I told him I needed to think. I drove back to Joes apartment and sat in the sun on a lawn chair that Joe kept on the sidewalk outside the building. Heroin had made me dumb and distant from myself. A thought would form and then evaporate. I could not quite get ahold of my mind, even when I wasnt high. As I sat there a man walked up to me and said his name was Tim. He took my hand and shook it and told me that I could trust him. He asked if I could give him three dollars for diapers, then if he could use my phone inside the apartment, and then if I had change for a five-dollar bill, and on and on in a series of twisting questions and sorry stories that confused and compelled me to stand and pull the last ten dollars I had out of my jeans pocket. When he saw the money, he took a knife out of his shirt. He held it almost politely to my chest and hissed, Give me that money, sweetheart. I packed my few things, wrote a note to Joe and taped it to the bathroom mirror, and called Paul. When he pulled up to the corner, I got into his car. I sat in the passenger seat as we drove across the country, feeling my real life present but unattainable. Paul and I fought and cried and shook the car with our rage. We were monstrous in our cruelty and then we talked kindly afterward, shocked at each other and ourselves. We decided that we would get divorced and then that we would not. I hated him and I loved him. With him I felt trapped, branded, held, and beloved. Like a daughter. I didnt ask you to come and get me, I yelled in the course of one of our arguments. You came for your own reasons. Just so you could be the big hero. Maybe, he said. Whyd you come all this way to get me? I asked, panting with sorrow. Because, he said, gripping the steering wheel, staring out the windshield into the starry night. Just because. I saw Joe several weeks later, when he came to visit me in Minneapolis. We werent a couple anymore, but we immediately started back up with our old waysgetting high every day for the week he was there, having sex a couple of times. But when he left, I was done. With him and with heroin. I hadnt given it another thought until I was sitting with Aimee in Sioux Falls and I noticed the bizarre being-poked-by-sharp-edges-of-uncrushed-tortilla-chips feeling in my gut. We left the Mexican restaurant and went to a vast supermarket in search of a pregnancy test. As we walked through the brightly lit store, I silently reasoned with myself that I probably wasnt pregnant. Id dodged that bullet so many timesfretted and worried uselessly, imagining pregnancy symptoms so convincing that I was stunned when my period arrived. But now I was twenty-six and wizened by sex; I wasnt going to fall for another scare. Back at the motel I shut the bathroom door behind me and peed onto the test stick while Aimee sat on the bed outside. Within moments, two dark blue lines appeared on the tests tiny pane. Im pregnant, I said when I came out, tears filling my eyes. Aimee and I reclined on the bed talking about it for an hour, though there was nothing much to say. That I would get an abortion was a fact so apparent it seemed silly to discuss anything else. It takes four hours to drive from Sioux Falls to Minneapolis. Aimee followed me the next morning in her car, in case my truck broke down again. I drove without listening to the radio, thinking about my pregnancy. It was the size of a grain of rice and yet I could feel it in the deepest, strongest part of me, taking me down, shaking me up, reverberating out. Somewhere in the southwestern farmlands of Minnesota, I burst into tears, crying so hard I could barely steer, and not only for the pregnancy I didnt want. I was crying over all of it, over the sick mire Id made of my life since my mother died; over the stupid existence that had become my own. I was not meant to be this way, to live this way, to fail so darkly. It was then that I remembered that guidebook Id plucked from a shelf at REI while waiting to buy the shovel a couple of days before. The thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face. I believed Id only been killing time when Id picked up the book while standing in line, but now it seemed like something morea sign. Not only of what I could do, but of what I had to do. When Aimee and I reached Minneapolis, I waved her off at her exit, but I didnt go to mine. Instead, I drove to REI and bought The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and took it back to my apartment and stayed up reading it all night. I read it a dozen times over the next months. I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink. I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to bestrong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, Id walk and think about my entire life. Id find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous. But here I was, on the PCT, ridiculous again, though in a different way, hunching in an ever-more-remotely upright position on the first day of my hike. Three hours in, I came to a rare level spot near a gathering of Joshua trees, yuccas, and junipers and stopped to rest. To my monumental relief, there was a large boulder upon which I could sit and remove my pack in the same fashion I had in the van in Mojave. Amazed to be free of its weight, I strolled around and accidentally brushed up against one of the Joshua trees and was bayoneted by its sharp spikes. Blood instantly spurted out of three stab wounds on my arm. The wind blew so fiercely that when I removed my first aid kit from my pack and opened it up, all of my Band-Aids blew away. I chased them uselessly across the flat plain and then they were gone, down the mountain and out of reach. I sat in the dirt and pressed the sleeve of my T-shirt against my arm and took several swigs from my water bottle. Id never been so exhausted in all of my life. Part of it was due to my body adjusting to the exertion and the elevationI was up at about 5,000 feet now, 1,200 feet higher than where Id begun, on Tehachapi Passbut most of my exhaustion could be blamed on the outrageous weight of my pack. I looked at it hopelessly. It was my burden to bear, of my very own ludicrous making, and yet I had no idea how I was going to bear it. I retrieved my guidebook and looked through it, holding the fluttering pages against the wind, hoping that the familiar words and maps would dispel my growing unease; that the book would convince me, in its benign four-part harmony, that I could do this, the same way it had in the months that Id been hatching this plan. There were no photographs of the four authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, but I could see them each in my minds eye: Jeffrey P. Schaffer, Thomas Winnett, Ben Schifrin, and Ruby Jenkins. They were sensible and kind, wise and all-knowing. They would guide me through. They had to. Plenty of people at REI had told me of their own backpacking excursions, but none had ever hiked the PCT and it hadnt occurred to me to attempt to track down someone who had. It was the summer of 1995, the stone ages when it came to the Internet. Now there are dozens of online PCT hiker journals and a deep well of information about the trail, both static and ever changing, but I had none of that. I had only The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California. It was my bible. My lifeline. The only book Id read about hiking on the PCT, or anywhere else for that matter. But paging through it for the first time while actually sitting on the trail was less reassuring than Id hoped. There were things Id overlooked, I saw now, such as a quote on page 6 by a fellow named Charles Long, with whom the authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California heartily agreed, that said, How can a book describe the psychological factors a person must prepare for the despair, the alienation, the anxiety and especially the pain, both physical and mental, which slices to the very heart of the hikers volition, which are the real things that must be planned for? No words can transmit those factors I sat pie-eyed, with a lurching knowledge that indeed no words could transmit those factors. They didnt have to. I now knew exactly what they were. Id learned about them by having hiked a little more than three miles in the desert mountains beneath a pack that resembled a Volkswagen Beetle. I read on, noting intimations that it would be wise to improve ones physical fitness before setting out, to train specifically for the hike, perhaps. And, of course, admonishments about backpack weight. Suggestions even to refrain from carrying the entire guidebook itself because it was too heavy to carry all at once and unnecessary anywayone could photocopy or rip out needed sections and include the necessary bit in the next resupply box. I closed the book. Why hadnt I thought of that? Of ripping the guidebook into sections? Because I was a big fat idiot and I didnt know what the hell I was doing, thats why. And I was alone in the wilderness with a beast of a load to carry while finding that out. I wrapped my arms around my legs and pressed my face into the tops of my bare knees and closed my eyes, huddled into the ball of myself, the wind whipping my shoulder-length hair in a frenzy. When I opened my eyes several minutes later, I saw that I was sitting next to a plant I recognized. This sage was less verdant than the sage my mother had grown in our yard for years, but its shape and scent were the same. I reached over and picked a handful of the leaves and rubbed them between my palms, then put my face in them and inhaled deeply, the way my mother had taught me to do. It gives you a burst of energy, shed always declared, imploring my siblings and me to follow her lead on those long days when wed been working to build our house and our bodies and spirits had flagged. Inhaling it now, I didnt so much smell the sharp, earthy scent of the desert sage as I did the potent memory of my mother. I looked up at the blue sky, feeling, in fact, a burst of energy, but mostly feeling my mothers presence, remembering why it was that Id thought I could hike this trail. Of all the things that convinced me that I should not be afraid while on this journey, of all the things Id made myself believe so I could hike the PCT, the death of my mother was the thing that made me believe the most deeply in my safety: nothing bad could happen to me, I thought. The worst thing already had. I stood and let the wind blow the sage leaves from my hands and walked to the edge of the flat area I was occupying. The land beyond gave way to a rocky outcropping below. I could see the mountains that surrounded me for miles, sloping gently down into a wide desert valley. White, angular wind turbines lined the ridges in the distance. My guidebook told me that they generated electricity for the residents of the cities and towns below, but I was far from that now. From cities and towns. From electricity. From California, it even seemed, though I was squarely in the heart of it, of the real California, with its relentless wind and Joshua trees and rattlesnakes lurking in places I had yet to find. As I stood there, I knew I was done for the day, though when Id stopped Id intended to push on. Too tired to light my stove and too exhausted to be hungry in any case, I pitched my tent, though it was only four in the afternoon. I took things from my pack and tossed them into the tent to keep it from blowing away, then pushed the pack in too and crawled in behind it. I was immediately relieved to be inside, even though inside meant only a cramped green nylon cave. I set up my little camp chair and sat in the small portal where the tents ceiling was high enough to accommodate my head. Then I rummaged through my things to find a book: not The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, which I should have been reading to see what lay ahead the next day, and not Staying Found, which I should have read before starting the trail, but Adrienne Richs book of poems, The Dream of a Common Language. This, I knew, was an unjustifiable weight. I could imagine the disapproving expressions on the faces of the authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California. Even the Faulkner novel had more right to be in my pack, if only because I hadnt yet read it and therefore it could be explained as entertainment. Id read The Dream of a Common Language so often that Id practically memorized it. In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words Id chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didnt regret carrying it one iotaeven though carrying it meant that I could do no more than hunch beneath its weight. It was true that The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California was now my bible, but The Dream of a Common Language was my religion. I opened it up and read the first poem out loud, my voice rising above the sound of the wind battering the walls of my tent. I read it again and again and again. It was a poem called Power. 5 TRACKS I am technically fifteen days older than the Pacific Crest Trail. I was born in 1968, on September 17, and the trail was officially designated by an act of Congress on October 2 of that same year. The trail existed in various forms long before thatsections of it having been forged and pieced together since the 1930s, when a band of hikers and wilderness enthusiasts first took interest in creating a Mexico-to-Canada trailbut it wasnt until 1968 that the PCT was designated and not until 1993 that it was complete. It was officially dedicated almost exactly two years before I woke that first morning among the Joshua trees that had stabbed me. The trail didnt feel two years old to me. It didnt even feel like it was about my age. It felt ancient. Knowing. Utterly and profoundly indifferent to me. I woke at dawn but couldnt bring myself to so much as sit up for an hour, lingering instead in my sleeping bag while reading my guidebook, still drowsy, though Id slept for twelve hoursor at least Id been reclining that long. The wind had awakened me repeatedly throughout the night, smacking against my tent in great bursts, sometimes hard enough so the walls whipped up against my head. It died down a few hours before dawn, but then it was something else that woke me: the silence. The irrefutable proof that I was out here in the great alone. I crawled out of my tent and stood slowly, my muscles stiff from yesterdays hike, my bare feet tender on the rocky dirt. I still wasnt hungry, but I forced myself to eat breakfast, scooping two spoonfuls of a powdered soy substance called Better Than Milk into one of my pots and stirring water into it before adding granola. It didnt taste better than milk to me. Or worse. It didnt taste like anything. I might as well have been eating grass. My taste buds had seemingly gone numb. I continued to press the spoon into my mouth anyway. Id need the nutrition for the long day ahead. I drank the last of the water in my bottles and awkwardly refilled them from my dromedary bag, which flopped heavily in my hands. According to The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, I was thirteen miles away from my first water source: Golden Oak Springs, which, in spite of yesterdays poor showing, I expected to reach by days end. I loaded my pack the way I had the day before in the motel, cramming and wedging things in until nothing more would fit, then attaching the rest by bungee cords to the outside. It took me an hour to break camp and set off. Almost immediately I stepped over a small pile of scat on the trail, a few feet from where Id been sleeping. It was black as tar. A coyote, I hoped. Or was it a mountain lion? I searched the dirt for tracks, but saw none. I scanned the landscape, ready to see a large feline face among the sagebrush and rocks. I began to walk, feeling experienced in a way I hadnt the day before, less cautious with each step in spite of the scat, stronger beneath my pack. That strength crumbled within fifteen minutes, as I ascended and then ascended some more, pushing into the rocky mountains, walking switchback after switchback. My packs frame creaked behind me with each step, straining from the weight. The muscles of my upper back and shoulders were bound in tense, hot knots. Every so often, I stopped and bent over to brace my hands against my knees and shift the packs weight off my shoulders for a moment of relief before staggering on. By noon I was up over 6,000 feet and the air had cooled, the sun suddenly disappearing behind clouds. Yesterday it had been hot in the desert, but now I shivered as I ate my lunch of a protein bar and dried apricots, my sweat-drenched T-shirt growing cold on my back. I dug the fleece jacket out of my clothing bag and put it on. Afterwards, I lay down on my tarp to rest for a few minutes and, without meaning to, fell asleep. I woke to raindrops falling on my face and looked at my watch. Id slept for nearly two hours. I hadnt dreamed of anything, hadnt had any awareness that Id been sleeping at all, as if instead someone had come up behind me and knocked me unconscious with a rock. When I sat up I saw that I was engulfed in a cloud, the mist so impenetrable I couldnt see beyond a few feet. I cinched on my pack and continued hiking through the light rain, though my whole body felt as if it were pushing through deep water with each step. I bunched up my T-shirt and shorts to cushion the spots on my hips and back and shoulders that were being rubbed raw by my pack, but that only made it worse. I continued up, into the late afternoon and evening, unable to see anything except what was immediately before me. I wasnt thinking of snakes, as Id been the day before. I wasnt thinking, Im hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. I wasnt even thinking, What have I gotten myself into? I was thinking only of moving myself forward. My mind was a crystal vase that contained only that one desire. My body was its opposite: a bag of broken glass. Every time I moved, it hurt. I counted my steps to take my mind off the pain, silently ticking the numbers off in my head to one hundred before starting over again. The blocks of numbers made the walk slightly more bearable, as if I only had to go to the end of each one. As I ascended, I realized I didnt understand what a mountain was, or even if I was hiking up one mountain or a series of them glommed together. Id not grown up around mountains. Id walked on a few, but only on well-trod paths on day hikes. Theyd seemed to be nothing more than really big hills. But they were not that. They were, I now realized, layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing. Each time I reached the place that I thought was the top of the mountain or the series of mountains glommed together, I was wrong. There was still more up to go, even if first there was a tiny slope that went tantalizingly down. So up I went until I reached what really was the top. I knew it was the top because there was snow. Not on the ground, but falling from the sky, in thin flakes that swirled in mad patterns, pushed by the wind. I hadnt expected it to rain in the desert, and I certainly hadnt expected it to snow. As with the mountains, thered been no deserts where I grew up, and though Id gone on day hikes in a couple of them, I didnt really understand what deserts were. Id taken them to be dry, hot, and sandy places full of snakes, scorpions, and cactuses. They were not that. They were that and also a bunch of other things. They were layered and complex and inexplicable and analogous to nothing. My new existence was beyond analogy, I realized on that second day on the trail. I was in entirely new terrain. What a mountain was and what a desert was were not the only things I had not expected. I hadnt expected the flesh on my tailbone and hips and the fronts of my shoulders to bleed. I hadnt expected to average a bit less than a mile an hour, which is what, by my calculationsmade possible by the highly descriptive guidebookId been covering so far, lumping my many breaks in with the time I actually spent walking. Back when my hike on the PCT had been nothing but an idea, Id planned to average fourteen miles a day over the course of my trip, though most days Id actually walk farther than that because my anticipated average included the rest days Id take every week or two, when I wouldnt hike at all. But I hadnt factored in my lack of fitness, nor the genuine rigors of the trail, until I was on it. I descended in a mild panic until the snow turned back into mist and the mist to clear views of the muted greens and browns of the mountains that surrounded me near and far, their alternately sloping and jagged profiles a stark contrast to the pale sky. As I walked, the only sound was that of my boots crunching against the gravelly trail and the squeaky creak of my pack that was slowly driving me insane. I stopped and took my pack off and swabbed its frame with my lip balm in the place where I thought the squeak might live, but when I hiked on I realized that it had made no difference. I said a few words out loud to distract myself. It had been only a little more than forty-eight hours since Id said goodbye to the men whod given me a ride to the trail, but it felt like it had been a week and my voice sounded strange all by itself in the air. It seemed to me that Id run into another hiker soon. I was surprised I hadnt seen anyone yet, though my solitude came in handy an hour later, when suddenly I had the urge to do what I called in my mind use the bathroom, though out here using the bathroom meant maintaining an unsupported squat so I could shit in a hole of my own making. It was for this reason Id brought the stainless-steel trowel that was looped through my backpacks waistband in its own black nylon sheath with U-Dig-It printed on the front. I didnt dig it, but it was the backpacker way, so there was nothing else to do. I hiked until I found what seemed a reasonable spot to venture a few steps off the trail. I took my pack off, pulled my trowel from its sheath, and darted behind a sage bush to dig. The ground was a rocky, reddish beige and seemingly solid. Digging a hole in it was like attempting to penetrate a granite kitchen counter sprinkled with sand and pebbles. Only a jackhammer couldve done the job. Or a man, I thought furiously, stabbing at the dirt with the tip of my trowel until I thought my wrists would break. I chipped and chipped uselessly, my body shimmering into a crampy cold sweat. I finally had to stand up just so I wouldnt shit my pants. I had no choice but to pull them offby then Id abandoned underwear because they only exacerbated my raw hips situationand simply squat down and go. I was so weak with relief when I was done that I almost toppled over into the pile of my own hot dung. Afterwards, I limped around gathering rocks and built a small crap cairn, burying the evidence before hiking on. I believed I was going to Golden Oak Springs, but by seven oclock it was still nowhere in sight. I didnt care. Too tired to be hungry, I skipped dinner again, thus saving the water Id have used to make it, and found a spot flat enough to pitch my tent. The tiny thermometer that dangled from the side of my pack said it was 42 degrees. I peeled off my sweaty clothes and draped them over a bush to dry before I crawled into my tent. In the morning, I had to force them on. Rigid as boards, theyd frozen overnight. I reached Golden Oak Springs a few hours into my third day on the trail. The sight of the square concrete pool lifted my spirits enormously, not only because at the springs there was water, but also because humans had so clearly constructed it. I put my hands in the water, disturbing a few bugs that swam across its surface. I took out my purifier and placed its intake tube into the water and began to pump the way Id practiced in my kitchen sink in Minneapolis. It was harder to do than I remembered it being, perhaps because when Id practiced Id only pumped a few times. Now it seemed to take more muscle to compress the pump. And when I did manage to pump, the intake tube floated up to the surface, so it took in only air. I pumped and pumped until I couldnt pump anymore and I had to take a break; then I pumped again, finally refilling both my bottles and the dromedary bag. It took me nearly an hour, but it had to be done. My next water source was a daunting nineteen miles away. I had every intention of hiking on that day, but instead I sat in my camp chair near the spring. It had warmed up at last, the sun shining on my bare arms and legs. I took off my shirt, pulled my shorts down low, and lay with my eyes closed, hoping the sun would soothe the patches of skin on my torso that had been worn raw by my pack. When I opened my eyes, I saw a small lizard on a nearby rock. He seemed to be doing push-ups. Hello, lizard, I said, and he stopped his push-ups and held perfectly still before disappearing in a flash. I needed to make time. I was already behind what I considered my schedule, but I could not force myself to leave the small verdant patch of live oaks that surrounded Golden Oak Springs that day. In addition to the raw patches of flesh, my muscles and bones ached from hiking, and my feet were dotted with an ever-increasing number of blisters. I sat in the dirt examining them, knowing there was little I could do to prevent the blisters from going from bad to worse. I ran my finger delicately over them and then up to the black bruise the size of a silver dollar that bloomed on my anklenot a PCT injury, but rather evidence of my pre-PCT idiocy. It was because of this bruise that Id opted not to call Paul when Id been so lonely at that motel back in Mojave; this bruise at the center of the story I knew hed hear hiding in my voice. How Id intended to stay away from Joe in the two days I spent in Portland before catching my flight to LA, but hadnt. How Id ended up shooting heroin with him in spite of the fact that I hadnt touched it since that time hed come to visit me in Minneapolis six months before. My turn, Id said urgently after watching him shoot up back in Portland. The PCT suddenly seeming so far in my future, though it was only forty-eight hours away. Give me your ankle, Joe had said when he couldnt find a vein in my arm. I spent the day at Golden Oak Springs with my compass in hand, reading Staying Found. I found north, south, east, and west. I walked jubilantly without my pack down a jeep road that came up to the springs to see what I could see. It was spectacular to walk without my pack on, even in the state my feet were in, sore as my muscles were. I felt not only upright, but lifted, as if two elastic bands were attached to my shoulders from above. Each step was a leap, light as air. When I reached an overlook, I stopped and gazed across the expanse. It was only more desert mountains, beautiful and austere, and more rows of white angular wind turbines in the distance. I returned to my camp, set up my stove, and attempted to make myself a hot meal, my first on the trail, but I couldnt get my stove to sustain a flame, no matter what I tried. I pulled the little instruction book out, read the troubleshooting section, and learned that Id filled the stoves canister with the wrong kind of gas. Id filled it with unleaded fuel instead of the special white gas that it was meant to have, and now the generator was clogged, its tiny pan blackened with soot by my efforts. I wasnt hungry anyway. My hunger was a numb finger, barely prodding. I ate a handful of tuna jerky flakes and fell asleep by 6:15. Before I set out on the fourth day, I doctored my wounds. An REI worker had encouraged me to buy a box of Spenco 2nd Skingel patches meant to treat burns that also happened to be great for blisters. I plastered them in all the places my skin was bleeding or blistered or red with rashon the tips of my toes and the backs of my heels, over my hip bones and across the front of my shoulders and lower back. When I was done, I shook my socks out, trying to soften them before I put them on. I had two pair, but each had become stiff with dirt and dried sweat. It seemed they were made of cardboard rather than cloth, though I switched them out every few hours, wearing one pair while the other air-dried, dangling from the bungee cords on my pack. After I hiked away from the springs that morning, fully loaded down with 24.5 pounds of water again, I realized I was having a kind of strange, abstract, retrospective fun. In moments among my various agonies, I noticed the beauty that surrounded me, the wonder of things both small and large: the color of a desert flower that brushed against me on the trail or the grand sweep of the sky as the sun faded over the mountains. I was in the midst of such a reverie when I skidded on pebbles and fell, landing on the hard trail facedown with a force that took my breath away. I lay unmoving for a good minute, from both the searing pain in my leg and the colossal weight on my back, which pinned me to the ground. When I crawled out from beneath my pack and assessed the damage, I saw that a gash in my shin was seeping copious blood, a knot the size of a fist already forming beneath the gash. I poured a tiny bit of my precious water over it, flicking the dirt and pebbles out the best I could, then pressed a lump of gauze against it until the bleeding slowed and I limped on. I walked the rest of the afternoon with my eyes fixed on the trail immediately in front of me, afraid Id lose my footing again and fall. It was then that I spotted what Id searched for days before: mountain lion tracks. It had walked along the trail not long before me in the same direction as I was walkingits paw prints clearly legible in the dirt for a quarter mile. I stopped every few minutes to look around. Aside from small patches of green, the landscape was mostly a range of blonds and browns, the same colors as a mountain lion. I walked on, thinking about the newspaper article Id recently come across about three women in Californiaeach one had been killed by a mountain lion on separate occasions over the past yearand about all those nature shows Id watched as a kid in which the predators go after the one they judge to be the weakest in the pack. There was no question that was me: the one most likely to be ripped limb from limb. I sang aloud the little songs that came into my headTwinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Take Me Home, Country Roadshoping that my terrified voice would scare the lion away, while at the same time fearing it would alert her to my presence, as if the blood crusted on my leg and the days-old stench of my body werent enough to lure her. As I scrutinized the land, I realized that Id come far enough by now that the terrain had begun to change. The landscape around me was still arid, dominated by the same chaparral and sagebrush as it had been all along, but now the Joshua trees that defined the Mojave Desert appeared only sporadically. More common were the juniper trees, pi?on pines, and scrub oaks. Occasionally, I passed through shady meadows thick with grass. The grass and the reasonably large trees were a comfort to me. They suggested water and life. They intimated that I could do this. Until, that is, a tree stopped me in my path. It had fallen across the trail, its thick trunk held aloft by branches just low enough that I couldnt pass beneath, yet so high that climbing over it was impossible, especially given the weight of my pack. Walking around it was also out of the question: the trail dropped off too steeply on one side and the brush was too dense on the other. I stood for a long while, trying to map out a way past the tree. I had to do it, no matter how impossible it seemed. It was either that or turn around and go back to the motel in Mojave. I thought of my little eighteen-dollar room with a deep swooning desire, the yearning to return to it flooding my body. I backed up to the tree, unbuckled my pack, and pushed it up and over its rough trunk, doing my best to drop it over the other side without letting it fall so hard on the ground that my dromedary bag would pop from the impact. Then I climbed over the tree after it, scraping my hands that were already tender from my fall. In the next mile I encountered three other blown-down trees. By the time I made it past them all, the scab on my shin had torn open and was bleeding anew. On the afternoon of the fifth day, as I made my way along a narrow and steep stretch of trail, I looked up to see an enormous brown horned animal charging at me. Moose! I hollered, though I knew that it wasnt a moose. In the panic of the moment, my mind couldnt wrap around what I was seeing and a moose was the closest thing to it. Moose! I hollered more desperately as it neared. I scrambled into the manzanitas and scrub oaks that bordered the trail, pulling myself into their sharp branches as best I could, stymied by the weight of my pack. As I did this, the species of the beast came to me and I understood that I was about to be mauled by a Texas longhorn bull. Mooooose! I shouted louder as I grabbed for the yellow cord tied to the frame of my pack that held the worlds loudest whistle. I found it, brought it to my lips, closed my eyes, and blew with all my might, until I had to stop to get a breath of air. When I opened my eyes, the bull was gone. So was all the skin on the top of my right index finger, scraped off on the manzanitas jagged branches in my frenzy. The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summerand yet also, like most things, so very simplewas how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go. The bull, I acknowledged grimly, could be in either direction, since I hadnt seen where hed run once I closed my eyes. I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward. And so I walked on. It took all I had to cover nine miles a day. To cover nine miles a day was a physical achievement far beyond anything Id ever done. Every part of my body hurt. Except my heart. I saw no one, but, strange as it was, I missed no one. I longed for nothing but food and water and to be able to put my backpack down. I kept carrying my backpack anyway. Up and down and around the dry mountains, where Jeffrey pines and black oaks lined the trail, crossing jeep roads that bore the tracks of big trucks, though none were in sight. On the morning of the eighth day I got hungry and dumped all my food out on the ground to assess the situation, my desire for a hot meal suddenly fierce. Even in my exhausted, appetite-suppressed state, by then Id eaten most of what I didnt have to cookmy granola and nuts, my dried fruit and turkey and tuna jerky, my protein bars and chocolate and Better Than Milk powder. Most of the food I had left needed to be cooked and I had no working stove. I didnt have a resupply box waiting for me until I reached Kennedy Meadows, 135 trail miles into my journey. A well-seasoned hiker would have traversed those 135 miles in the time Id been on the trail. At the rate I was moving, I wasnt even halfway there. And even if I did make it through to Kennedy Meadows on the food I had, I still needed to have my stove repaired and filled with the proper fueland Kennedy Meadows, being more of a high-elevation base for hunters and hikers and fishers than a town, was no place to do it. As I sat in the dirt, ziplock bags of dehydrated food that I couldnt cook scattered all around me, I decided to veer off the trail. Not far from where I sat, the PCT crossed a network of jeep roads that ran in various directions. I began walking down one, reasoning that Id eventually find civilization in the form of a highway that paralleled the trail approximately twenty miles to the east. I walked not knowing exactly what road I was on, going only on faith that I would find something, walking and walking in the bright hot sun. I could smell myself as I moved. Id packed deodorant and each morning Id swabbed it under my arms, but it made no difference anymore. I hadnt bathed in over a week. My body was covered with dirt and blood, my hair, dense with dust and dried sweat, plastered to my head underneath my hat. I could feel the muscles in my body growing stronger by the day and at the same time, in equal measure, my tendons and joints breaking down. My feet hurt both inside and out, their flesh rubbed raw with blisters, their bones and muscles fatigued from the miles. The road was blissfully level or gently descending, a welcome break from the relentless up and down of the trail, but still I suffered. For long stretches I tried to imagine that I didnt actually have feet, that instead my legs ended in two impervious stumps that could endure anything. After four hours I began to regret my decision. I might starve to death out there or be killed by marauding longhorn bulls, but on the PCT at least I knew where I was. I reread my guidebook, uncertain by now that I was even on one of the roads theyd described in a cursory way. I took out my map and compass every hour to assess and reassess my position. I pulled out Staying Found to read again how exactly to use a map and compass. I studied the sun. I passed a small herd of cows that were unbound by a fence and my heart leapt at the sight of them, though none moved in my direction. They only stopped eating to lift their heads and watch me pass while I delicately chanted to them, Cow, cow, cow. The land through which the road passed was surprisingly green in places, dry and rocky in others, and twice I passed tractors parked silent and eerie by the side of the road. I walked in a state of wonder at the beauty and the silence, but by late afternoon, apprehension rose in my throat. I was on a road, but I had not seen a human being in eight days. This was civilization and yet, aside from the free-range cows and the two abandoned tractors, and the road itself, there was no sign of it. I felt as if I were starring in a science fiction movie, as if I were the only person left on the planet, and for the first time in my journey, I felt like I might cry. I took a deep breath to push away my tears and took off my pack and set it in the dirt to regroup. There was a bend in the road ahead and I walked around it without my pack to see what I could. What I saw were three men sitting in the cab of a yellow pickup truck. One was white. One was black. One was Latino. It took perhaps sixty seconds for me to reach them on foot. They watched me with the same expression on their faces as Id had when I saw the longhorn bull the day before. As if any moment they might yell Moose! My relief at the sight of them was enormous. Yet as I strode toward them my whole body tingled with the complicated knowledge that I was no longer the sole star in a film about a planet devoid of people. Now I was in a different kind of movie entirely: I was the sole woman with three men of unknown intent, character, and origin watching me from the shade of a yellow truck. When I explained my situation to them through the open drivers-side window, they gazed at me silently, their eyes shifting from startled to stunned to scoffing until they all burst out laughing. Do you know what you walked into, honey? the white man asked me when hed recovered, and I shook my head. He and the black man looked to be in their sixties, the Latino barely out of his teens. You see this here mountain? he asked. He pointed straight ahead through the windshield from his position behind the wheel. Were getting ready to blow that mountain up. He explained to me that a mining operation had bought rights to this patch of land and they were mining for decorative rock that people use in their yards. My names Frank, he said, tapping the brim of his cowboy hat. And technically youre trespassing, young lady, but we wont hold that against you. He looked at me and winked. Were just miners. We dont own the land or else wed have to shoot you. He laughed again and then gestured to the Latino in the middle and told me his name was Carlos. Im Walter, said the black man sitting by the passenger window. They were the first people Id seen since the two guys in the minivan with the Colorado plates whod dropped me by the side of the road more than a week before. When I spoke, my voice sounded funny to me, seemed to be higher and faster than Id remembered, as if it were something I couldnt quite catch and hold on to, as if every word were a small bird fluttering away. They told me to get in the back of the truck, and we drove the short distance around the bend to retrieve my pack. Frank stopped and they all got out. Walter picked up my pack and was shocked by the weight. I was in Korea, he said, hoisting it onto the trucks metal bed with considerable effort. And we aint never carried a pack that heavy. Or maybe once I carried one that heavy, but that was when I was being punished. Quickly, without my being much involved, it was decided Id go home with Frank, where his wife would feed me dinner and I could bathe and sleep in a bed. In the morning, hed help me get someplace where I could have my stove repaired. Now explain all this to me again? Frank asked a few times, and each time all three of them listened with confused and rapt attention. They lived perhaps twenty miles from the Pacific Crest Trail and yet none of them had ever heard of it. None could fathom what business a woman had hiking it by herself, and Frank and Walter told me so, in jovial, gentlemanly terms. I think its kind of cool, said Carlos after a while. He was eighteen, he told me, about to join the military. Maybe you should do this instead, I suggested. Nah, he said. The men got into the truck again and I rode in the back for a couple of miles by myself, until we reached the spot where Walter had parked his truck. He and Carlos drove off in it and left me alone with Frank, who had another hour of work to do. I sat in the cab of the yellow truck watching Frank go back and forth on a tractor, grading the road. Each time he passed, he waved to me, and as he rode away I surreptitiously explored the contents of his truck. In the glove compartment there was a silver flask of whiskey. I took a shallow swig, and quickly put it back, my lips on fire. I reached under the seat and pulled out a slim black case and opened it up and saw a gun as silver as the whiskey flask and shut it again and shoved it beneath the seat. The keys to the truck dangled from the ignition, and I thought idly about what would happen if I started it up and drove away. I took off my boots and massaged my feet. The little bruise on my ankle that Id gotten from shooting heroin in Portland was still there, but faded to a faint morose yellow now. I ran my finger over it, over the bump of the tiny track mark still detectable at its core, amazed at my own ludicrousness, and then put my socks back on so I wouldnt have to see it anymore. What kind of woman are you? Frank asked when he was done with his work and hed climbed into the truck beside me. What kind? I asked. Our eyes locked and something in his unveiled itself, and I looked away. Are you like Jane? Like the kind of woman Tarzan would like? I guess so, I said, and laughed, though I felt a creeping anxiety, wishing that Frank would start the truck and drive. He was a big man, rangy and chiseled and tan. A miner who looked to me like a cowboy. His hands reminded me of all the hands of the men Id known growing up, men who worked their bodies for a living, men whose hands would never get clean no matter how hard they scrubbed. As I sat there with him, I felt the way I always do when alone in certain circumstances with certain menthat anything could happen. That he could go about his business, mannerly and kind, or he could grab me and change the course of things entirely in an instant. With Frank in his truck, I watched his hands, his every move, each cell in my body on high alert, though I appeared as relaxed as if Id just woken from a nap. Ive got a little something for us, he said, reaching into the glove compartment to remove the flask of whiskey. Its my reward for a hard days work. He unscrewed the cap and handed it to me. Ladies first. I took it from him and held it to my lips and let the whiskey wash into my mouth. Yep. Thats the kind of woman you are. Thats what Im going to call you: Jane. He took the flask from me and had a long drink. You know Im not actually out here completely alone, I blurted, making up the lie as I spoke. My husbandhis name is Paulhes also hiking. He started at Kennedy Meadows. Do you know where that is? We each wanted the experience of hiking alone, so hes hiking south and Im hiking north and were meeting in the middle, and then well go the rest of the summer together. Frank nodded and took another sip from the flask. Well, then hes crazier than you, he said, after thinking about it for a while. Its one thing to be a woman crazy enough to do what youre doing. Another thing to be a man letting his own wife go off and do this. Yeah, I said, as if I agreed with him. So anyway. Well be reunited in a few days. I said it with such conviction that I felt convinced of it myselfthat Paul that very minute was making his way toward me. That in fact we hadnt filed for divorce two months before, on a snowy day in April. That he was coming for me. Or that he would know if I didnt make it any further down the trail. That my disappearance would be noted in a matter of days. But the opposite was true. The people in my life were like the Band-Aids that had blown away in the desert wind that first day on the trail. They scattered and then they were gone. No one expected me to even so much as call when I reached my first stop. Or the second or third. Frank leaned back against his seat and adjusted his big metal belt buckle. Theres something else I like to reward myself with after a hard days work, he said. Whats that? I asked, with a tentative smile, my heart hammering in my chest. My hands on my lap felt tingly. I was acutely aware of my backpack, too far away in the bed of the truck. In a flash, I decided Id leave it behind if I had to push the truck door open and run. Frank reached under the seat, where the gun resided in its little black case. He came up with a clear plastic bag. Inside, there were long thin ropes of red licorice, each bunch wound like a lasso. He held the bag out to me and asked, You want some, Miss Jane? 6 A BULL IN BOTH DIRECTIONS I devoured a good six feet of Franks red licorice as he drove, and Id have eaten a good six feet more if it had been available. You wait here, he told me once we pulled up in the little dirt driveway that ran alongside his housea trailer in a small encampment of trailers in the desert brush. Ill go in and tell Annette who you are. A few minutes later they emerged together. Annette was plump and gray-haired, the expression on her face unwelcoming and suspicious. Is that all you got? she grouched as Frank pulled my pack from his truck. I followed them inside, where Frank immediately disappeared into the bathroom. Make yourself at home, said Annette, which I took to mean that I should sit at the dining table that bordered the kitchen while she made me a plate of food. A small blaring television sat on the far corner of the table, the volume so loud it was almost hard to hear. Another story about the O. J. Simpson trial. I watched it until Annette came and set the plate down before me, then turned off the TV. Its all you hear about. O.J. this and O.J. that, she said. You wouldnt think there were children starving in Africa. You go on and start, she said, gesturing to my food. Ill wait, I said in a casual tone that belied the desperation I felt. I gazed down at my plate. It was piled high with barbecued ribs, canned corn, and potato salad. I thought to rise and wash my hands, but I feared doing so might delay dinner. It didnt matter. The notion of whether it was necessary to wash ones hands before eating was now as distant to me as the news report on the TV. Eat! Annette commanded, setting a plastic cup of cherry Kool-Aid before me. I lifted a forkful of potato salad to my mouth. It was so good I almost fell out of my chair. You a college girl? Yes, I said, oddly flattered that I appeared that way to her, in spite of my filth and stench. Or I used to be. I graduated four years ago, I said, and then took another bite of food, realizing it was technically a lie. Though Id promised my mother in the last days of her life that I would finish my BA, I hadnt. My mother had died on the Monday of our spring break and Id returned to school the following Monday. Id staggered my way through a full load of classes that last quarter, half blind with grief, but I did not receive my degree because Id failed to do one thing. I had not written a five-page paper for an intermediate-level English class. It should have been a breeze, but when I tried to start writing, I could only stare at my blank computer screen. I walked across the stage in a cap and gown and accepted the little document baton that was handed to me, but when I unrolled it, it said what I knew it would: that until I finished that paper, I would not have my bachelors degree. I had only my college loans, which, by my calculations, Id be paying off until I was forty-three. The next morning Frank left me at a convenience store on the highway after instructing me to catch a ride to a town called Ridgecrest. I sat on the front porch of the store until a guy who distributed chips came along and said yes when I asked him for a ride, in spite of the fact that it was against company rules to pick up a hitchhiker. His name was Troy, he told me once Id climbed into his big truck. He drove around southern California five days a week, delivering bags of chips of all varieties. Hed been married to his high school sweetheart for seventeen years, since he was seventeen. Seventeen years out of the cage, and seventeen years in, he joked, though his voice was raw with regret. Id do anything to trade places with you, he said as we drove. Im a free spirit who never had the balls to be free. He left me at Todds Outdoor Supply Store, where Mr. Todd himself dismantled my stove, cleaned it, installed a new filter, sold me the correct gas, and then led me through a stove-lighting trial run just to be sure. I bought more duct tape and 2nd Skin for my wounded flesh and went to a restaurant and ordered a chocolate malt and a cheeseburger with fries, feeling as I had at dinner the evening before: shattered by each delicious bite. Afterwards, I walked through town as cars whizzed by, the faces of the drivers and passengers turning to look at me with cold curiosity. I passed fast-food joints and car dealerships, unsure of whether I should stick out my thumb for a ride or spend a night in Ridgecrest and head back to the PCT the next day. As I stood near an intersection, trying to figure out which direction to go, a scruffy-looking man rode up beside me on a bicycle. He held a wrinkled paper bag. You heading out of town? he asked. Maybe, I said. His bike was too small for himmade for a boy instead of a manwith garish flames painted along the sides. Which direction you headed? he asked. His body odor was so strong I almost coughed, though I guessed I smelled almost as bad as he did. In spite of the bath Id taken the night before at Frank and Annettes after dinner, I was still dressed in my dirty clothes. I might stay in a motel for the night, I told him. Dont do that! he bellowed. I did that and they put me in jail. I nodded, realizing that he thought that I was like him. A drifter. An outlaw. Not a so-called college girl, or even a former one. I didnt even try to explain about the PCT. You can have this, he said, holding the paper bag out to me. Its bread and bologna. You can make sandwiches. No, thanks, I said, both repulsed and touched by his offer. Where you from? he asked, reluctant to ride away. Minnesota. Hey! he cried, a smile spreading across his grubby face. Youre my sister. Im from Illinois. Illinois and Minnesota are like neighbors. Well, almost neighborstheres Wisconsin in between, I said, and instantly regretted it, not wanting to hurt his feelings. But thats still neighbors, he said, and held his open palm down low so I would give him five. I gave him five. Good luck, I said to him as he pedaled away. I walked to a grocery store and wandered up and down the aisles before touching anything, dazzled by the mountains of food. I bought a few things to replace the food Id eaten when I hadnt been able to make my dehydrated dinners and walked along a busy thruway until I found what looked like the cheapest motel in town. My names Bud, the man behind the counter said when I asked for a room. He had a hangdog expression and a smokers cough. Tan jowls hung off the sides of his wrinkled face. When I told him about hiking the PCT, he insisted on washing my clothes. I can just throw them in with the sheets and towels, darling. It aint nothing at all, he said when I protested. I went to my room, stripped, and put on my rainpants and raincoat, though it was a hot June day; then I walked back to the office and handed my little pile of dirty clothes shyly over to Bud, thanking him again. Its cause I like your bracelet. Thats why I offered, said Bud. I pulled up the sleeve of my raincoat and we looked at it. It was a faded silver cuff, a POW/MIA bracelet my friend Aimee had clamped onto my wrist as we said goodbye on a street in Minneapolis weeks before. Let me see who you got there. He reached across the counter and took my wrist and turned it so he could read the words. William J. Crockett, he said, and let go. Aimee had done some research and told me who William J. Crockett was: an air force pilot whod been two months shy of his twenty-sixth birthday when his plane was shot down in Vietnam. Shed worn the bracelet for years without ever taking it off. Since the moment shed given it to me, neither had I. Im a Vietnam vet myself, so I keep my eyes out for that sort of thing. Thats also why I gave you the only room we got that has a tub, said Bud. I was there in 63, when I was barely eighteen. But now Im against war. All kinds of war. One hundred percent against it. Except in certain cases. There was a cigarette burning in a plastic ashtray nearby that Bud picked up but didnt bring to his lips. So Im gonna assume you know theres a lot of snow up there on the Sierra Nevada this year. Snow? I asked. Its been a record year. Entirely socked in. Theres a BLM office here in town if you want to call them and ask about conditions, he said, and took a drag. Ill have your clothes ready in an hour or two. I returned to my room and took a shower and then a bath. Afterwards, I pulled back the bedspread and lay on the bedsheets. My room didnt have an air conditioner, but I felt cool anyway. I felt better than Id ever felt in all of my life, now that the trail had taught me how horrible I could feel. I got up, rummaged through my pack, then reclined on the bed and read As I Lay Dying while Buds words about the snow thrummed through me. I knew snow. I had grown up in Minnesota, after all. Id shoveled it, driven in it, and balled it up in my hands to throw. Id watched it through windows for days as it fell into piles that stayed frozen for months on the ground. But this snow was different. It was snow that covered the Sierra Nevada so indomitably that the mountains had been named for itin Spanish, Sierra Nevada means the snowy range. It seemed absurd to me that Id been hiking in that snowy range all alongthat the arid mountains Id traversed since the moment I set foot on the PCT were technically part of the Sierra Nevada. But they werent the High Sierrasthe formidable range of granite peaks and cliffs beyond Kennedy Meadows that mountaineer and writer John Muir had famously explored and adored more than a hundred years before. I hadnt read Muirs books about the Sierra Nevada before I hiked the PCT, but I knew he was the founder of the Sierra Club. Saving the Sierra Nevada from sheepherders, mining operations, tourist development, and other encroachments of the modern age had been his lifelong passion. Its thanks to him and those who supported his cause that most of the Sierra Nevada is still wilderness today. Wilderness that was now apparently snowbound. I wasnt entirely taken by surprise. The authors of my guidebook had warned me about the snow I might encounter in the High Sierras, and Id come prepared. Or at least the version of prepared Id believed was sufficient before I began hiking the PCT: Id purchased an ice ax and mailed it to myself in the box I would collect at Kennedy Meadows. It had been my assumption when I purchased the ice ax that Id need it only occasionally, for the highest stretches of trail. The guidebook assured me that in a regular year most of the snow would be melted by the time I hiked the High Sierras in late June and July. It hadnt occurred to me to investigate whether this had been a regular year. I found a phone book in the bedside table and paged through it, then dialed the number for the local office of the Bureau of Land Management. Oh, yes, theres lots of snow up there, said the woman who answered. She didnt know the specifics, she told me, but she knew for certain it had been a record year for snowfall in the Sierras. When I told her I was hiking the PCT, she offered to give me a ride to the trail. I hung up the phone feeling more relieved that I didnt have to hitchhike than worried about the snow. It simply seemed so far away, so impossible. The kind woman from the BLM brought me back to the trail at a place called Walker Pass the next afternoon. As I watched her drive away, I felt both chastened and slightly more confident than I had nine days before when Id begun my hike. In the previous days, Id been charged by a Texas longhorn bull, torn and bruised by falls and mishaps, and had navigated my way down a remote road past a mountain that was soon to be blown up. Id made it through miles of desert, ascended and descended countless mountains, and gone days without seeing another person. Id worn my feet raw, chafed my body until it bled, and carried not only myself over miles of rugged wilderness, but also a pack that weighed more than half of what I did. And Id done it alone. That was worth something, right? I thought as I walked through the rustic campground near Walker Pass and found a place to camp. It was late but still light, June in the last week of spring. I pitched my tent and cooked my first hot meal on the trail on my newly functioning stovedried beans and riceand watched the skys light fade in a brilliant show of colors over the mountains, feeling like the luckiest person alive. It was fifty-two miles to Kennedy Meadows, sixteen to my first water on the trail. In the morning, I loaded my pack with another full supply of water and crossed Highway 178. The next road that crossed the Sierra Nevada was 150 as-the-crow-flies miles north, near Tuolumne Meadows. I followed the PCT along its rocky, ascendant course in the hot morning sun, catching views of the mountains in all directions, distant and closethe Scodies to the near south, the El Paso Mountains far off to the east, the Dome Land Wilderness to the northwest, which Id reach in a few days. They all looked the same to me, though each was subtly different. Id become used to having mountains constantly in sight; my vision had changed over the past week. Id adjusted to the endless miles-long panoramas; become familiar with the perception that I was walking on the land in the very place where it met the sky. The crest. But mostly I didnt look up. Step by step, my eyes were on the sandy and pebbly trail, my feet sometimes slipping beneath me as I climbed up and switched back. My pack squeaked annoyingly with each step, the sound still emanating from that spot only a few inches from my ear. As I hiked, I tried to force myself not to think about the things that hurtmy shoulders and upper back, my feet and hipsbut I succeeded for only short bursts of time. As I traversed the eastern flank of Mount Jenkins, I paused several times to take in vast views of the desert that spread east below me to the vanishing point. By afternoon I had come to a rockslide and stopped. I looked up the mountain and followed the slide with my eyes all the way down. There was a great river of angular fist-sized metamorphic rocksin place of the once-flat two-foot-wide trail that any human could walk through. And I wasnt even a normal human. I was a human with a god-awful load on my back and without even a trekking pole to balance myself. Why I had neglected to bring a trekking pole, while not failing to bring a foldable saw, I did not know. Finding a stick was impossiblethe sparse low and scraggly trees around me were of no use. There was nothing to do but to push on. My legs trembled as I stepped onto the rockslide in a half squat, fearful that my usual hunching in a remotely upright position would upset the rocks and cause them to slide en masse farther down the mountain, carrying me with them. I fell once, landing hard on my knee, and then I rose to pick my way even more tediously across, the water in the giant dromedary bag on my back sloshing with each step. When I reached the other side of the slide, I was so relieved it didnt matter that my knee was pulsing in pain and bleeding. Thats behind me, I thought with gratitude, but I was mistaken. I had to cross three more rockslides that afternoon. I camped that night on a high saddle between Mount Jenkins and Mount Owens, my body traumatized by what it had taken to get there, though Id covered only 8.5 miles. I had silently lambasted myself for not hiking more quickly, but now, as I sat in my camp chair catatonically spooning my dinner into my mouth from the hot pot that sat in the dirt between my feet, I was only thankful that Id made it this far. I was at an elevation of 7,000 feet, the sky everywhere around me. To the west I could see the sun fading over the undulating land in a display of ten shades of orange and pink; to the east the seemingly endless desert valley stretched out of sight. The Sierra Nevada is a single uptilted block of the earths crust. Its western slope comprises 90 percent of the range, the peaks gradually descending to the fertile valleys that eventually give way to the California coastwhich parallels the PCT roughly two hundred miles to the west for most of the way. The eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada is entirely different: a sharp escarpment that drops abruptly down to a great flat plain of desert that runs all the way to the Great Basin in Nevada. Id seen the Sierra Nevada only once before, when Id come west with Paul a few months after we left New York. Wed camped in Death Valley and the next day drove for hours across a landscape so desolate it seemed not of this earth. By midday the Sierra Nevada appeared on the western horizon, a great white impenetrable wall rising from the land. It was nearly impossible for me to conjure that image now as I sat on the high mountain saddle. I wasnt standing back from that wall anymore. I was on its spine. I stared out over the land in a demolished rapture, too tired to even rise and walk to my tent, watching the sky darken. Above me, the moon rose bright, and below me, far in the distance, the lights in the towns of Inyokern and Ridgecrest twinkled on. The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight. This is what I came for, I thought. This is what I got. When at last I stood and readied my camp for bed, I realized that for the first time on the trail, I hadnt put on my fleece anorak as the sun went down. I hadnt even put on a long-sleeved shirt. There wasnt the slightest chill in the air, even 7,000 feet up. That night I was grateful for the soft warm air on my bare arms, but by ten the next morning my gratitude was gone. It was seared off of me by the relentless, magnificent heat. By noon the heat was so merciless and the trail so exposed to the sun I wondered honestly if I would survive. It was so hot the only way I could keep going was by stopping every ten minutes to rest for five, when I would chug water from my bottle that was hot as tea. As I hiked, I moaned again and again, as if that would provide some cooling relief, but nothing changed. The sun still stared ruthlessly down on me, not caring one iota whether I lived or died. The parched scrub and scraggly trees still stood indifferently resolute, as they always had and always would. I was a pebble. I was a leaf. I was the jagged branch of a tree. I was nothing to them and they were everything to me. I rested in what shade I could find, fantasizing in intricate detail about cold water. The heat was so intense that my memory of it is not so much a sensation as a sound, a whine that rose to a dissonant keen with my head at its very center. Despite the things Id endured so far on the trail, Id never once considered quitting. But now, only ten days out, I was done. I wanted off. I staggered north toward Kennedy Meadows, furious with myself for having come up with this inane idea. Elsewhere, people were having barbecues and days of ease, lounging by lakes and taking naps. They had access to ice cubes and lemonade and rooms whose temperature was 70 degrees. I knew those people. I loved those people. I hated them too, for how far away they were from me, near death on a trail few had ever even heard of. I was going to quit. Quit, quit, quit, I chanted to myself as I moaned and hiked and rested (ten, five, ten, five). I was going to get to Kennedy Meadows, retrieve my resupply box, eat every candy bar Id packed into it, and then hitch a ride to whatever town the driver who picked me up was going to. I would get myself to a bus station and from there go anywhere. Alaska, I decided instantly. Because in Alaska there was most definitely ice. As the notion of quitting settled in, I came up with another reason to bolster my belief that this whole PCT hike had been an outlandishly stupid idea. Id set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since Id begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind. Why, oh why, had my good mother died and how is it I could live and flourish without her? How could my family, once so close and strong, have fallen apart so swiftly and soundly in the wake of her death? What had I done when Id squandered my marriage with Paulthe solid, sweet husband whod loved me so steadfastly? Why had I gotten myself in a sad tangle with heroin and Joe and sex with men I hardly knew? These were the questions Id held like stones all through the winter and spring, as I prepared to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The ones Id wept over and wailed over, excavated in excruciating detail in my journal. Id planned to put them all to rest while hiking the PCT. Id imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. Id thought Id weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips. And also, during that second week on the trailwhen spring was on the very cusp of turning officially to summerbecause I was so hot I thought my head would explode. When I wasnt internally grumbling about my physical state, I found my mind playing and replaying scraps of songs and jingles in an eternal, nonsensical loop, as if there were a mix-tape radio station in my head. Up against the silence, my brain answered back with fragmented lines from tunes Id heard over the course of my lifebits from songs I loved and clear renditions of jingles from commercials that almost drove me mad. I spent hours trying to push ads for Doublemint Gum and Burger King out of my head, an afternoon trying to recall the next line to an Uncle Tupelo song that went Falling out the window. Tripping on a wrinkle in the rug. An entire day was spent trying to piece together all the words of Lucinda Williamss Something About What Happens When We Talk. My feet on fire, my flesh rubbed raw, my muscles and joints aching, the finger that had been denuded of its skin when the bull charged me throbbing with a mild infection, my head broiling and abuzz with random bits of music, at the end of the blistering tenth day of my hike I practically crawled into a shady grove of cottonwoods and willows that my guidebook identified as Spanish Needle Creek. Unlike many of the places my guidebook listed that had falsely promising names that included the word creek, Spanish Needle Creek truly was one, or at least it was good enough for mea few inches of water shimmered over the rocks on the creeks shaded bed. Immediately, I shed my pack and my boots and my clothes and sat naked in the cool, shallow water, splashing it over my face and head. In my ten days on the trail, Id yet to see another human, so I lounged without concern for anyone coming along, dizzy with ecstasy as I laboriously pumped the cold water through my water purifier and guzzled bottle after bottle. When I woke the next morning to the soft sound of Spanish Needle Creek, I dallied in my tent, watching the sky brighten through the mesh ceiling. I ate a granola bar and read my guidebook, bracing myself for the trail ahead. I rose finally and went to the creek and bathed in it one last time, savoring the luxury. It was only nine in the morning, but it was hot already, and I dreaded leaving the shady patch along the creek. As I soaked in the four-inch-deep water, I decided I wasnt going to hike to Kennedy Meadows. Even that was too far at the rate I was going. My guidebook listed a road the trail would cross in twelve miles. On it, Id do what Id done before: walk down it until I found a ride. Only this time I wasnt going to come back. As I prepared to depart, I heard a noise to the south. I turned and saw a bearded man wearing a backpack coming up the trail. His trekking pole made a sharp clicking sound against the packed dirt with each step. Hello! he called out to me with a smile. You must be Cheryl Strayed. Yes, I said in a faltering voice, every bit as stunned to see another human being as I was to hear him speak my name. I saw you on the trail register, he explained when he saw my expression. Ive been following your tracks for days. Id soon become used to people approaching me in the wilderness with such familiarity; the trail register served as a kind of social newsletter all summer long. Im Greg, he said, shaking my hand before he gestured to my pack: Are you actually carrying that thing? We sat in the shade talking about where we were going and where wed been. He was forty, an accountant from Tacoma, Washington, with a straitlaced, methodical accountants air. Hed been on the PCT since early May, having started where the trail begins at the Mexican border, and he planned to hike all the way to Canada. He was the first person Id met who was doing essentially what I was doing, though he was hiking much farther. He didnt need me to explain what I was doing out here. He understood. As we spoke, I felt both elated to be in his company and flattened by my growing awareness that he was an entirely different breed: as thoroughly prepared as I was not; versed in trail matters I didnt even know existed. Hed been planning his hike for years, gathering information by corresponding with others whod hiked the PCT in summers before, and attending what he referred to as long-trail hiking conferences. He rattled off distances and elevations and talked in great detail about the pros and cons of internal versus external pack frames. He repeatedly mentioned a man Id never heard of named Ray Jardinea legendary long-distance hiker, Greg told me in a reverent tone. Jardine was an expert and indisputable guru on all things PCT, especially on how to hike it without carrying a heavy load. He asked me about my water purifier, my daily protein intake, and the brand of the socks I was wearing. He wanted to know how I treated my blisters and how many miles I was averaging a day. Greg was averaging twenty-two. That very morning hed hiked the seven miles I had agonized over the entire previous day. Its been harder than I thought it would be, I confessed, my heart heavy with the knowledge that I was even more of a big fat idiot than Id initially reckoned. Its all I can do to cover eleven or twelve, I lied, as if Id even done that. Oh, sure, Greg said, unsurprised. Thats how it was for me at the beginning too, Cheryl. Dont worry about it. Id go fourteen or fifteen miles if I was lucky and then Id be beat. And that was with me training ahead of time, taking weekend trips with my pack fully loaded and so on. Being out here is different. It takes your body a couple of weeks to get conditioned enough to do the big miles. I nodded, feeling enormously consoled, less by his answer than by his very presence. Despite his clear superiority, he was my kin. I wasnt sure if he felt the same way about me. What have you been doing with your food at night? I asked meekly, afraid of his answer. Usually I sleep with it. Me too, I gushed with relief. Before my trip Id had notions of diligently hanging my food from trees each night, as every good backpacker is advised to do. So far Id been too exhausted to even consider it. Instead, Id kept my food bag inside my tent with methe very place one is warned not to put itusing it as a pillow upon which to prop my swollen feet. I pull it right into my tent, said Greg, and a little something inside of me flared to life. Thats what the backcountry rangers do. They just dont tell anyone about it, because theyd catch hell if some bear came along and mauled someone because of it. Ill be hanging my food in the more touristy parts of the trail, where the bears have become habituated, but until then I wouldnt worry about it. I nodded confidently, hoping to communicate the false notion that I knew how to correctly hang a food bag from a tree in such a way that would thwart a bear. But then of course we might not even make it up into those areas, said Greg. We might not make it? I said, blushing with the irrational thought that hed somehow divined my plan to quit. Because of the snow. Right. The snow. I heard there was some snow. In the heat Id forgotten about it entirely. Bud and the woman from the BLM and Mr. Todd and the man who tried to give me the bag of bread and bologna seemed like nothing now but a far-off dream. The Sierras completely socked in, Greg said, echoing Buds words. Lots of hikers have given up entirely because there was a record snow-pack this year. Its going to be tough to get through. Wow, I said, feeling a mix of both terror and reliefnow Id have both an excuse and the language for quitting. I wanted to hike the PCT, but I couldnt! It was socked in! In Kennedy Meadows were going to have to make a plan, Greg said. Ill be laying over there a few days to regroup, so Ill be there when you arrive and we can figure it out. Great, I said lightly, not quite willing to tell him that by the time he got to Kennedy Meadows I would be on a bus to Anchorage. Well hit snow just north of there and then the trails buried for several hundred miles. He stood and swung his pack on with ease. His hairy legs were like the poles of a dock on a Minnesota lake. We picked the wrong year to hike the PCT. I guess so, I said as I attempted to lift my pack and lace my arms casually through its straps, the way Greg had just done, as if by sheer desire to avoid humiliation Id suddenly sprout muscles twice the strength of the ones I had, but my pack was too heavy and I still couldnt get it an inch off the ground. He stepped forward to help me lift it on. Thats one heavy pack, he said as we struggled it onto my back. Much heavier than mine. Its so good to see you, I said once I had it on, attempting to not seem to be hunching in a remotely upright position because I had to, but rather leaning forward with purpose and intention. I havent seen anyone on the trail so far. I thought thered be morehikers. Not many people hike the PCT. And certainly not this year, with the record snow. A lot of people saw that and postponed their trips until next year. I wonder if thats what we should do? I asked, hoping hed say he thought that was a great idea, coming back next year. Youre the only solo woman Ive met so far out here and the only one Ive seen on the register too. Its kind of neat. I replied with a tiny whimper of a smile. You all ready to go? he asked. Ready! I said, with more vigor than I had. I followed him up the trail, walking as fast as I could to keep up, matching my steps with the click of his trekking pole. When we reached a set of switchbacks fifteen minutes later, I paused to take a sip of water. Greg, I called to him as he continued on. Nice to meet you. He stopped and turned. Only about thirty miles to Kennedy Meadows. Yeah, I said, giving him a weak nod. Hed be there the next morning. If I continued on, it would take me three days. Itll be cooler up there, Greg said. Its a thousand feet higher than this. Good, I replied wanly. Youre doing fine, Cheryl, he said. Dont worry about it too much. Youre green, but youre tough. And tough is what matters the most out here. Not just anyone could do what youre doing. Thanks, I said, so buoyed by his words that my throat constricted with emotion. Ill see you up in Kennedy Meadows, he said, and began to hike away. Kennedy Meadows, I called after him with more clarity than I felt. Well make a plan about the snow, he said before disappearing from sight. I hiked in the heat of that day with a new determination. Inspired by Gregs faith in me, I didnt give quitting another thought. As I hiked, I pondered the ice ax that would be in my resupply box. The ice ax that allegedly belonged to me. It was black and silver and dangerous-looking, an approximately two-foot-long metal dagger with a shorter, sharper dagger that ran crosswise at the end. I bought it, brought it home, and placed it in the box labeled Kennedy Meadows, assuming that by the time I actually reached Kennedy Meadows I would know how to use ithaving by then been inexplicably transformed into an expert mountaineer. By now, I knew better. The trail had humbled me. Without some kind of ice ax training, there wasnt any question that I was far more likely to impale myself with it than I was to use it to prevent myself from sliding off the side of a mountain. On my trailside breaks that day, in the hundred-plus-degree heat, I flipped through the pages of my guidebook to see if it said anything about how to use an ice ax. It did not. But of hiking over snow-covered ground it said that both crampons and an ice ax were necessary, as well as a firm grasp of how to use a compass, an informed respect for avalanches, and a lot of mountaineering sense. I slammed the book shut and hiked on through the heat into the Dome Land Wilderness, heading toward what I hoped would be an ice ax crash course taught by Greg in Kennedy Meadows. I hardly knew him and yet he had become a beacon for me, my guiding star to the north. If he could do this, I could, I thought furiously. He wasnt tougher than me. No one was, I told myself, without believing it. I made it the mantra of those days; when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night I asked, often out loud: Who is tougher than me? The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on this earth it was true, I said it anyway: No one. As I hiked, the terrain slowly shifted from desert to forest, the trees grew taller and more lush, the shallow streambeds more likely to have a seep of water, the meadows dense with wildflowers. There had been flowers in the desert too, but theyd been less abundant, more exotic, preciously and grandiosely festooned. The wildflowers I encountered now were a more common bunch, growing as they did in bright blankets or rimming the shaded edges of the trail. Many of them were familiar to me, being the same species as or close cousins to those that prospered in Minnesota summers. As I passed them, I felt the presence of my mother so acutely that I had the sensation that she was there; once I even paused to look around for her before I could go on. On the afternoon of the day I met Greg, I saw my first bear on the trail, though technically I heard it first, an unmistakably muscular snort that stopped me in my tracks. When I looked up, I saw an animal as big as a refrigerator standing on all fours on the trail twenty feet away from me. The instant our eyes met, the same startled expression swept across both of our faces. BEAR! I yelped, and reached for my whistle the moment after he turned and ran, his thick rump rippling in the sun as my whistle peeped its murderously loud peep. It took me a few minutes to work up the courage to continue on. In addition to the reality that I now had to walk in the very direction in which the bear had run, my mind was reeling with the fact that he didnt seem to be a black bear. Id seen lots of black bears before; the woods of northern Minnesota were thick with them. Often, Id startled them in this very manner while walking or running on the gravel road I grew up on. But those black bears were different from the one Id just seen. They were black. Black as tar. Black as planting soil you bought in big bags from the garden store. This bear hadnt been like any of them. Its coat was cinnamon brown, almost blond in places. I began to walk tentatively, attempting to make myself believe that surely the bear was not a grizzly or a brown bearthe black bears more predatory ursine cousins. Of course it was not. I knew it could not be. Those bears didnt live in California any longer; theyd all been killed off years ago. And yet why was the bear Id seen so very, very, indisputably not black? I held my whistle for an hour, preparing to blow it while also singing songs so as not to take the refrigerator-sized whatever sort of bear it was by surprise should I come upon him again. I belted out my old fallback tunesthe ones Id used when Id become convinced the week before that a mountain lion was stalking mesinging Twinkle, twinkle, little star and Country roads, take me home in artificially brave tones, then letting the mix-tape radio station in my head take over so I simply sang fragments of songs I longed to hear. A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido. YEAHH! It was because of this very singing that I almost stepped on a rattlesnake, having failed to absorb that the insistent rattling that increased in volume was actually a rattle. And not just any old rattle, but one attached to the tail end of a serpent as thick as my forearm. AH! I shrieked when my eyes landed on the snake coiled up a few feet away from me. If Id been able to jump, I would have. I jumped but my feet didnt leave the trail. Instead, I scrambled away from the snakes small blunt head, yowling in terror. It was a good ten minutes before I could work up the courage to step around it in a wide arc, my entire body quaking. The rest of the day was a slow march, my eyes scanning both the ground and the horizon, terrified at every sound, while also chanting to myself: I am not afraid. Shaken as I was, I couldnt help but feel grateful to glimpse a couple of the animals that shared this place that had begun to feel a tiny bit like mine. I realized that in spite of my hardships, as I approached the end of the first leg of my journey, Id begun to feel a blooming affection for the PCT. My backpack, heavy as it was, had come to feel like my almost animate companion. No longer was it the absurd Volkswagen Beetle Id painfully hoisted on in that motel room in Mojave a couple of weeks before. Now my backpack had a name: Monster. I meant it in the nicest possible way. I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldnt help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadnt spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away. By the end of that second week, I realized that since Id begun my hike, I hadnt shed a single tear. I hiked the final miles to the narrow flat where I made camp the night before I reached Kennedy Meadows in the familiar agony that had been my constant companion. I was relieved to see that a wide fallen tree bordered my campsite. It was long dead, its trunk worn gray and smooth, shorn of its bark ages ago. It formed a high smooth bench, where I sat and removed my pack with ease. As soon as I got my pack off, I lay on the tree as if it were a coucha sweet respite from the ground. The tree was just wide enough that if I lay still, I could rest without rolling off either side. It felt spectacular. I was hot, thirsty, hungry, and tired, but all of those things were nothing in comparison to the burning pain that emanated from the knots in my upper back. I closed my eyes, sighing with relief. A few minutes later, I felt something on my leg. I looked down and saw that I was covered with black ants, an entire army of them, making a conga line from a hole in the tree and swarming my body. I shot off the log, shouting louder than I had when Id seen the bear and the rattlesnake, batting at the harmless ants, breathless with an unreasonable fear. And not just of the ants, but of everything. Of the fact that I wasnt of this world, even if I insisted I was. I cooked my dinner and retreated into my tent as soon as I could, well before dark, simply so I could be inside, even if inside only meant being surrounded by a thin sheet of nylon. Before I began hiking the PCT, Id imagined that Id sleep inside my tent only when it threatened to rain, that most nights Id lay my sleeping bag on top of my tarp and sleep beneath the stars, but about this, like so much else, Id been wrong. Each evening, I ached for the shelter of my tent, for the smallest sense that something was shielding me from the entire rest of the world, keeping me safe not from danger, but from vastness itself. I loved the dim, clammy dark of my tent, the cozy familiarity of the way I arranged my few belongings all around me each night. I pulled out As I Lay Dying, put on my headlamp, and positioned my food bag beneath my calves while saying a little prayer that the bear I saw earlier in the daythe black bear, I emphasizedwouldnt bust through my tent to steal it from me. When I woke at eleven to the yipping of coyotes, the light from my headlamp had grown dim; the Faulkner novel was still open on my chest. In the morning, I could barely stand up. It wasnt just that morning, day 14. It had been happening for the past week, an ever-increasing array of problems and pains that made it impossible for me to stand or walk like a regular person when I first emerged from my tent. It was as if I were suddenly a very old woman, limping into the day. Id managed to carry Monster more than a hundred miles over rough and sometimes steep terrain by then, but as each new day began, I couldnt even tolerate my own weight; my feet tender and swollen from the previous days exertions; my knees too stiff to do what a normal gait required of them. Id finished ambling barefoot around my camp and was packed up and ready to go when two men appeared on the trail from the south. Like Greg, they greeted me by name before Id even spoken a word. They were Albert and Matt, a father-and-son team from Georgia, hiking the entire trail. Albert was fifty-two; Matt, twenty-four. Both had been Eagle Scouts and they looked it. They had a clean-cut sincerity and a military precision that belied their grizzled beards, their dust-caked calves, and the five-foot stench cloud that surrounded their every move. Jiminy Cricket, Albert drawled when he saw Monster. What you got in there, girly-o? Looks like everything but the kitchen sink. Just backpacking things, I said, reddening with shame. Each of their packs was about half the size of mine. Im just teasing you, Albert said kindly. We chatted about the scorching trail behind us and the frozen one ahead. As we spoke, I felt just as I had when Id met Greg: giddy to be with them, though being with them only underscored how insufficiently Id prepared for my hike. I could feel their eyes on me, read them as they shifted from one thought to the next, as they registered my preposterous pack and my dubious grasp of the business at hand, while also acknowledging the moxie it had taken to make it this far on my own. Matt was a big lug of a guy, built like a linebacker, his reddish-brown hair curling softly over his ears and glinting golden on his gargantuan legs. He was only a couple of years younger than me, but so shy he struck me as a kid, letting his dad do most of the talking while he stood off to the side. Pardon my question, asked Albert, but how many times are you urinating a day in this heat? Um I havent been keeping track. Should I be? I asked, feeling exposed yet again for the wilderness fraud that I was. I hoped they hadnt been camped near enough to hear me shrieking about the ants the evening before. Ideally, its seven, said Albert crisply. Thats the old Boy Scout rule, though with this heat and the waterless conditions on the trail, combined with the extreme level of exertion, weve been lucky if its three. Yeah. Me too, I said, though in fact thered been one twenty-four-hour periodin the midst of the most ferocious heatthat I hadnt gone even once. I saw a bear south of here, I said to change the subject. A brown bear, which was a black bear, of course. But it looked brown. In color, I mean, the black bear. Theyre just cinnamon-colored down in these parts, said Albert. Bleached by the California sun, I suppose. He tapped the brim of his hat. Well be seeing you up in Kennedy Meadows, miss. Pleasure to meet you. Theres another guy up ahead named Greg, I said. I met him a couple of days ago and he said hed still be there. My insides leapt when I spoke Gregs name, for no other reason than he was the only person I knew on the trail. Weve been following him for a good stretch, so itll be nice to finally meet him, said Albert. Theres another couple a fellas behind us. Most likely theyll be along any time, he said, and turned to look down the trail in the direction that wed come from. Two kids named Doug and Tom, about the same age as yall. They started not long before you did, a touch south. I waved Albert and Matt off and sat for a few minutes pondering the existence of Doug and Tom, and then I rose and spent the next several hours hiking harder than ever, with the single-minded goal that they would not catch up to me before I reached Kennedy Meadows. I was dying to meet them, of coursebut I wanted to meet them as the woman whod left them in her dust instead of the woman theyd overtaken. Like Greg, Albert and Matt had started hiking at the Mexican border and were by now well seasoned, logging twenty-some miles each day. But Doug and Tom were different. Like me, theyd started only recently on the PCTnot long before you did, Albert had said, and just a touch south. His words replayed themselves in my mind, as if replaying them would wring more meaning and specificity from them. As if by them I could discern how fast or slow I was traveling in comparison to Doug and Tom. As if the answer to that question held the key to my success or failure at thisthe hardest thing Id ever done. I stopped in my tracks when that thought came into my mind, that hiking the PCT was the hardest thing Id ever done. Immediately, I amended the thought. Watching my mother die and having to live without her, that was the hardest thing Id ever done. Leaving Paul and destroying our marriage and life as I knew it for the simple and inexplicable reason that I felt I had tothat had been hard as well. But hiking the PCT was hard in a different way. In a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit less hard. It was strange but true. And perhaps Id known it in some way from the very beginning. Perhaps the impulse to purchase the PCT guidebook months before had been a primal grab for a cure, for the thread of my life that had been severed. I could feel it unspooling behind methe old thread Id lost, the new one I was spinningwhile I hiked that morning, the snowy peaks of the High Sierras coming into occasional view. As I walked, I didnt think of those snowy peaks. Instead, I thought of what I would do once I arrived at the Kennedy Meadows General Store that afternoon, imagining in fantastic detail the things I would purchase to eat and drinkcold lemonade and candy bars and junk food I seldom ate in my regular life. I pictured the moment when I would lay hands on my first resupply box, which felt to me like a monumental milestone, the palpable proof that Id made it at least that far. Hello, I said to myself in anticipation of what Id say once I arrived at the store, Im a PCT hiker here to pick up my box. My name is Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayedthose two words together still rolled somewhat hesitantly off my tongue. Cheryl had been my name forever, but Strayed was a new additiononly officially my name since April, when Paul and I had filed for divorce. Paul and I had taken on each others last names when we married, and our two names became one long four-syllable name, connected by a hyphen. I never liked it. It was too complicated and cumbersome. Seldom did anyone manage to get it right, and even I stumbled over it a good portion of the time. Cheryl Hyphen-Hyphen, an old grumpy man I briefly worked for called me, flummoxed by my actual name, and I couldnt help but see his point. In that uncertain period when Paul and I had been separated for several months but were not yet sure we wanted to get divorced, we sat down together to scan a set of no-fault, do-it-yourself divorce documents wed ordered over the phone, as if holding them in our hands would help us decide what to do. As we paged through the documents, we came across a question that asked the name wed each have after the divorce. The line beneath the question was perfectly blank. On it, to my amazement, we could write anything. Be anyone. We laughed about it at the time, making up incongruous new names for ourselvesnames of movie stars and cartoon characters and strange combinations of words that werent rightly names at all. But later, alone in my apartment, that blank line stuck in my heart. There was no question that if I divorced Paul, Id choose a new name for myself. I couldnt continue to be Cheryl Hyphen-Hyphen, nor could I go back to having the name I had had in high school and be the girl I used to be. So in the months that Paul and I hung in marital limbo, unsure of which direction wed move in, I pondered the question of my last name, mentally scanning words that sounded good with Cheryl and making lists of characters from novels I admired. Nothing fit until one day when the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress. I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didnt embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest daysthose very days in which I was naming myselfI saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldnt have known before. Cheryl Strayed I wrote repeatedly down a whole page of my journal, like a girl with a crush on a boy she hoped to marry. Only the boy didnt exist. I was my own boy, planting a root in the very center of my rootlessness. Still, I had my doubts. To pick a word out of the dictionary and proclaim it mine felt a bit fraudulent to me, a bit childish or foolish, not to mention a touch hypocritical. For years Id privately mocked the peers in my hippy, artsy, lefty circles whod taken on names theyd invented for themselves. Jennifers and Michelles who became Sequoias and Lunas; Mikes and Jasons who became Oaks and Thistles. I pressed on anyway, confiding in a few friends about my decision, asking them to begin calling me by my new name to help me test it out. I took a road trip and each time I happened across a guest book I signed it Cheryl Strayed, my hand trembling slightly, feeling vaguely guilty, as if I were forging a check. By the time Paul and I decided to file our divorce papers, Id broken in my new name enough that I wrote it without hesitation on the blank line. It was the other lines that gave me pause, the endless lines demanding signatures that would dissolve our marriage. Those were the ones I completed with far more trepidation. I didnt exactly want to get divorced. I didnt exactly not want to. I believed in almost equal measure both that divorcing Paul was the right thing to do and that by doing so I was destroying the best thing I had. By then my marriage had become like the trail in that moment when I realized there was a bull in both directions. I simply made a leap of faith and pushed on in the direction where Id never been. The day we signed our divorce papers, it was April in Minneapolis and snowing, the flakes coming down in thick swirls, enchanting the city. We sat across a table from a woman named Val who was an acquaintance of ours and also, as it happened, licensed as a notary public. We watched the snow from a wide window in her office downtown, making little jokes when we could. Id met Val only a few times before; I knew glimmers of things about her that jumbled together in my mind. She was cute, blunt, and impossibly tiny; at least a decade older than us. Her hair was an inch long and bleached blonde except for a longer hank of it that was dyed pink and swooped down like a little wing over her eyes. Silver earrings rimmed her ears and a throng of multicolored tattoos etched her arms like sleeves. This, and yet she had an actual job in an actual office downtown with a big wide window and a notary public license to boot. We chose her to officiate our divorce because we wanted it to be easy. We wanted it to be cool. We wanted to believe that we were still gentle, good people in the world. That everything wed said to each other six years before had been true. What was it we said? wed asked each other a few weeks before, half drunk in my apartment, where wed decided once and for all that we were going through with this. Here it is, Id yelled after riffling through some papers and finding the wedding vows wed written ourselves, three faded pages stapled together. Wed given them a title: The Day the Daisies Bloomed. The Day the Daisies Bloomed! I hooted, and we laughed so hard at ourselves, at the people we used to be. And then I set the vows back on top of the pile where Id found them, unable to read on. Wed married so young, so uncharacteristically, even our parents asked why we couldnt just live together. We couldnt just live together, even though I was only nineteen and he twenty-one. We were too wildly in love and we believed we had to do something wild to demonstrate that, so we did the wildest thing we could think of and got married. But even married, we didnt think of ourselves as married peoplewe were monogamous, but we had no intention of settling down. We packed our bicycles into boxes and flew with them to Ireland, where a month later, I turned twenty. We rented a flat in Galway and then changed our minds and moved to Dublin and got a matching pair of restaurant jobshe in a pizza place, me in a vegetarian caf?. Four months later, we moved to London and walked the streets so destitute we searched for coins on the sidewalk. Eventually, we returned home, and not long after that my mother died and we did all the things that we did that led us here, to Vals office. Paul and I had clutched each others hands beneath the table, watching Val as she methodically examined our do-it-yourself no-fault divorce documents. She inspected one page and then the next, and on and on through fifty or sixty, making sure wed gotten everything right. I felt a kind of loyalty rear up in me as she did this, unified with Paul against whatever contrary claim she might make, as if we were applying to be together for the rest of our lives instead of the opposite. It all looks good, she said at last, giving us a reticent smile. And then she went back through the pages again, at a brisker clip this time, pressing her giant notary public stamp against some and sliding dozens of others across the table for us to sign. I love him, I blurted when we were nearly through, my eyes filling with tears. I thought about pulling up my sleeve and showing her the square of gauze that covered my brand-new horse tattoo, as proof, but I only stammered on. I mean, this is not for lack of love, just so you know. I love him and he loves me I looked at Paul, waiting for him to interject and agree and declare his love too, but he remained silent. Just so you know, I repeated. So you wont get the wrong idea. I know, Val said, and pushed the pink hank of her hair aside so I could see her eyes fluttering nervously from the papers up to me and then down to the papers again. And its all my fault, I said, my voice swelling and shaking. He didnt do anything. Im the one. I broke my own heart. Paul reached for me and squeezed my leg, consoling me. I couldnt look at him. If I looked at him I would cry. Wed agreed to this together, but I knew that if I turned to him and proposed we forget about divorcing and get back together instead, he would agree. I didnt turn. Something inside of me whirred like a machine that I had started but could not stop. I put my hand down and placed it on top of Pauls hand on my leg. Sometimes we wondered together if things would have turned out differently if one thing that was true hadnt been true. If my mother hadnt died, for example, would I still have cheated on him? Or if I hadnt cheated on him, would he have cheated on me? And what if nothing had happenedno mother dying, no cheating on anyonewould we still be getting divorced anyway, having simply married too young? We couldnt know, but we were open to knowing. As close as wed been when we were together, we were closer in our unraveling, telling each other everything at last, words that seemed to us might never have been spoken between two human beings before, so deep we went, saying everything that was beautiful and ugly and true. Now that weve been through all this, we should stay together, I half joked in the tender wake of our last heartrending, soul-baring discussionthe one wed had to decide at last whether or not to get divorced. We were sitting on the couch in the dark of my apartment, having talked through the afternoon and into the evening, both of us too shattered by the time the sun set to get up and switch on a light. I hope you can do that someday with someone else, I said when he didnt reply, though the very thought of that someone else pierced my heart. I hope you can too, he said. I sat in the darkness beside him, wanting to believe that I was capable of finding the kind of love I had with him again, only without wrecking it the next time around. It felt impossible to me. I thought of my mother. Thought of how in the last days of her life so many horrible things had happened. Small, horrible things. My mothers whimsical, delirious babblings. The blood pooling to blacken the backs of her bedridden arms. The way she begged for something that wasnt even mercy. For whatever it is that is less than mercy; for what we dont even have a word for. Those were the worst days, I believed at the time, and yet the moment she died Id have given anything to have them back. One small, horrible, glorious day after the other. Maybe it would be that way with Paul as well, I thought, sitting beside him on the night we decided to divorce. Maybe once they were over, Id want these horrible days back too. What are you thinking? he asked, but I didnt answer. I only leaned over and switched on the light. It was up to us to mail the notarized divorce documents. Together Paul and I walked out of the building and into the snow and down the sidewalk until we found a mailbox. Afterwards, we leaned against the cold bricks of a building and kissed, crying and murmuring regrets, our tears mixing together on our faces. What are we doing? Paul asked after a while. Saying goodbye, I said. I thought of asking him to go back to my apartment with me, as wed done a few times over the course of our yearlong separation, falling into bed together for a night or an afternoon, but I didnt have the heart. Goodbye, he said. Bye, I said. We stood close together, face-to-face, my hands gripping the front of his coat. I could feel the dumb ferocity of the building on one side of me; the gray sky and the white streets like a giant slumbering beast on the other; and us between them, alone together in a tunnel. Snowflakes were melting onto his hair and I wanted to reach up and touch them, but I didnt. We stood there without saying anything, looking into each others eyes as if it would be the last time. Cheryl Strayed, he said after a long while, my new name so strange on his tongue. I nodded and let go of his coat. 7 THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WOODS Cheryl Strayed? the woman at the Kennedy Meadows General Store asked without a smile. When I nodded exuberantly, she turned and disappeared into the back without another word. I looked around, drunk with the sight of the packaged food and drinks, feeling a combination of anticipation over the things Id consume in the coming hours and relief over the fact that my pack was no longer attached to my body, but resting now on the porch of the store. I was here. I had made it to my first stop. It seemed like a miracle. Id half expected to see Greg, Matt, and Albert at the store, but they were nowhere in sight. My guidebook explained that the campground was another three miles farther on and I assumed thats where Id find them, along with Doug and Tom eventually. Thanks to my exertions, they hadnt managed to catch up with me. Kennedy Meadows was a pretty expanse of piney woods and sage and grass meadows at an elevation of 6,200 feet on the South Fork Kern River. It wasnt a town but rather an outpost of civilization spread out over a few miles, consisting of a general store, a restaurant called Grumpies, and a primitive campground. Here you go, the woman said, returning with my box and setting it on the counter. Its the only one thats got a girls name on it. Thats how I knew. She reached across the counter to me. This came too. In her hand was a postcard. I took it and read it: I hope you made it this far, it said in a familiar scrawl. I want to be your clean boyfriend someday. I love you. Joe. On the other side was a photograph of the Sylvia Beach Hotel on the Oregon coast, where wed stayed together once. I stared at the photograph for several moments, a series of feelings washing over me in waves: grateful for a word from someone I knew, nostalgic for Joe, disappointed that only one person had written to me, and heartbroken, unreasonable as it was, that the one person who had wasnt Paul. I bought two bottles of Snapple lemonade, a king-sized Butterfinger, and a bag of Doritos and went outside and sat on the front steps, devouring the things Id purchased while reading the postcard over and over again. After a while, I noticed a box in the corner of the porch stuffed full with mostly packaged backpacker food. Above it there was a handwritten sign that said: PCT hiker FREE box!!! Leave what you dont want! Take what you do! A ski pole was propped behind the box, precisely the thing I needed. It was a ski pole fit for a princess: white, with a bubble-gum-pink nylon wrist strap. I tested it out for a few steps. It was the perfect height. It would help me across not only the snow, but also the many stream fords and rockslides that no doubt lay ahead. I walked with it an hour later as I made my way along the dirt road that went in a loop around the campground, looking for Greg, Matt, and Albert. It was a Sunday afternoon in June, but the place was mostly empty. I passed by a man preparing his fishing gear and a couple with a cooler of beer and a boom box and eventually came to a campsite where a shirtless gray-haired man with a big tan belly sat at a picnic table reading a book. He looked up as I approached. You must be the famous Cheryl of the enormous backpack, he called to me. I laughed in agreement. Im Ed. He walked toward me to shake my hand. Your friends are here. They all just caught a ride up to the storeyou must have missed them as you were comingbut they asked me to watch for you. You can set up your tent right over there if youd like. Theyre all camped hereGreg and Albert and his son. He gestured to the tents around him. We were taking bets whod arrive first. You or the two boys from back east coming up behind you. Who won? I asked. Ed thought for a moment. No one, he said, and boomed with laughter. None of us bet on you. I rested Monster on the picnic table, took it off, and left it there, so when I had to put it on again I wouldnt have to perform my pathetic dead lift from the ground. Welcome to my humble abode, Ed said, gesturing to a little pop-up trailer that had a tarp roof extending out its side with a makeshift camp kitchen beneath it. You hungry? There were no showers at the campground, so while Ed made lunch for me, I walked to the river to wash as best as I could with my clothes still on. The river felt like a shock after all that dry territory Id crossed. And the South Fork Kern River wasnt just any river. It was violent and self-possessed, ice-cold and raging, its might clear evidence of the heavy snows higher up the mountains. The current was too fast to go in even ankle-deep, so I walked down the bank until I found an eddying pool near the rivers edge and waded in. My feet ached from the cold water and eventually went numb. I crouched and wetted down my filthy hair and splashed handfuls of water beneath my clothes to wash my body. I felt electric with sugar and the victory of arriving; filled with anticipation of the conversations Id have over the next couple of days. When I was done, I walked up the bank and then across a wide meadow, wet and cool. I could see Ed from a distance, and as I approached I watched him move from his camp kitchen to the picnic table with plates of food in his hands, bottles of ketchup and mustard and cans of Coke. Id known him only a few minutes and yet, like the other men Id met, he felt instantly familiar to me, as if I could trust him with close to anything. We sat across from each other and ate while he told me about himself. He was fifty, an amateur poet and seasonal vagabond, childless and divorced. I tried to eat at his leisurely pace, taking bites when he did, the same way Id attempted to match my steps to Gregs a few days before, but I couldnt do it. I was ravenous. I devoured two hot dogs and a mountain of baked beans and another mountain of potato chips in a flash and then sat hungrily wishing for more. Meanwhile, Ed worked his way languidly through his lunch, pausing to open his journal to read aloud poems that hed composed the day before. He lived in San Diego most of the year, he explained, but each summer he set up camp in Kennedy Meadows in order to greet the PCT hikers as they passed through. He was whats referred to in PCT hiker vernacular as a trail angel, but I didnt know that then. Didnt know, even, that there was a PCT hiker vernacular. Look here, fellas, we all lost the bet, Ed hollered to the men when they returned from the store. I didnt lose! Greg protested as he came close to squeeze my shoulder. I put my money on you, Cheryl, he insisted, though the others disputed his claim. We sat around the picnic table, talking about the trail, and after a while, they all dispersed to take napsEd to his trailer; Greg, Albert, and Matt to their tents. I stayed at the picnic table, too excited to sleep, pawing through the contents of the box Id packed weeks before. The things inside smelled like a world far-off, like the one Id occupied in what seemed another lifetime, scented with the Nag Champa incense that had permeated my apartment. The ziplock bags and packaging on the food were still shiny and unscathed. The fresh T-shirt smelled of the lavender detergent I bought in bulk at the co-op I belonged to in Minneapolis. The flowery cover of The Complete Stories by Flannery OConnor was unbent. The same could not be said of Faulkners As I Lay Dying, or rather the thin portion of the book I still had in my pack. Id torn off the cover and all the pages Id read the night before and burned them in the little aluminum pie pan Id brought to place beneath my stove to safeguard against errant sparks. Id watched Faulkners name disappear into flames feeling a bit like it was a sacrilegenever had I dreamed Id be burning booksbut I was desperate to lighten my load. Id done the same with the section from The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California that Id already hiked. It hurt to do it, but it had to be done. Id loved books in my regular, pre-PCT life, but on the trail, theyd taken on even greater meaning. They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear. When I made camp in the evenings, I rushed through the tasks of pitching my tent and filtering water and cooking dinner so I could sit afterwards inside the shelter of my tent in my chair with my pot of hot food gripped between my knees. I ate with my spoon in one hand and a book in the other, reading by the light of my headlamp when the sky darkened. In the first week of my hike, I was often too exhausted to read more than a page or two before I fell asleep, but as I grew stronger I was reading more, eager to escape the tedium of my days. And each morning, I burned whatever Id read the night before. As I held my unspoiled copy of OConnors short stories, Albert emerged from his tent. Looks to me like you could stand to lose a few things, he said. Want some help? Actually, I said, smiling ruefully at him, yes. All right, then. Heres what I want you to do: pack up that thing just like youre about to hike out of here for this next stretch of trail and well go from there. He walked toward the river with the nub of a toothbrush in handthe end of which hed thought to break off to save weight, of course. I went to work, integrating the new with the old, feeling as if I were taking a test that I was bound to fail. When I was done, Albert returned and methodically unpacked my pack. He placed each item in one of two pilesone to go back into my pack, another to go into the now-empty resupply box that I could either mail home or leave in the PCT hiker free box on the porch of the Kennedy Meadows General Store for others to plunder. Into the box went the foldable saw and miniature binoculars and the megawatt flash for the camera I had yet to use. As I looked on, Albert chucked aside the deodorant whose powers Id overestimated and the disposable razor Id brought with some vague notion about shaving my legs and under my arms andmuch to my embarrassmentthe fat roll of condoms Id slipped into my first aid kit. Do you really need these? Albert asked, holding the condoms. Albert the Georgia Daddy Eagle Scout, whose wedding band glinted in the sun, who cut off the handle of his own toothbrush, but no doubt carried a pocket-sized Bible in his pack. He looked at me stone-faced as a soldier, while the white plastic wrappers of a dozen ultrathin nonlubricated Trojan condoms made a clickety-clack sound as they unfurled like a party streamer from his hand. No, I said, feeling as if I was going to die of shame. The idea of having sex seemed absurd to me now, though when Id packed my supplies it had struck me as a reasonable prospect, back before I had a clue of what hiking the Pacific Crest Trail would do to my body. Id not seen myself since I was at the motel in Ridgecrest, but after the men had gone off to nap, Id taken the opportunity to gaze at my face in the mirror attached to the side of Eds truck. I looked tan and dirty, despite my recent dunk in the river. Id become remotely leaner and my dark blonde hair a tad lighter, alternately flattened and sprung alive by a combination of dried sweat, river water, and dust. I didnt look like a woman who might need twelve condoms. But Albert didnt pause to ponder such thingswhether Id get laid or not, whether I was pretty. He pushed on, pillaging my pack, inquiring sternly each time before tossing another item Id previously deemed necessary into the get-rid-of pile. I nodded almost every time he held an item up, agreeing it should go, though I held the line on both The Complete Stories and my beloved, intact copy of The Dream of a Common Language. I held the line on my journal, in which I recorded everything I did that summer. And when Albert wasnt looking, I tore one condom off the end of the fat roll of condoms hed tossed aside and slid it discreetly into the back pocket of my shorts. So what brought you out here? Albert asked when his work was done. He sat on the bench of the picnic table, his broad hands folded in front of him. To hike the PCT? I asked. He nodded and watched as I pushed the various items wed agreed I could keep back into my pack. Ill tell you why Im doing it, he said quickly, before I could answer. Its been a lifelong dream for me. When I heard about the trail I thought, Now theres something Id like to do before I go to meet the Lord. He rapped his fist gently on the table. So how about you, girly-o? Ive got a theory that most folks have a reason. Something that drove em out here. I dont know, I demurred. I wasnt about to tell a fifty-something Christian Georgia Eagle Scout why I decided to walk alone in the woods for three solid months, no matter how kindly his eyes twinkled when he smiled. The things that compelled me to hike this trail would sound scandalous to him and dubious to me; to both of us, theyd only reveal just how shaky this whole endeavor was. Mainly, I said, I thought it would be something fun. You call this fun? he asked, and we both laughed. I turned and leaned into Monster, threading my arms into the straps. So lets see if it made a difference, I said, and buckled it on. When I lifted it from the table, I was amazed at how light it felt, even fully loaded with my new ice ax and a fresh supply of eleven days worth of food. I beamed at Albert. Thank you. He chuckled in response, shaking his head. Jubilant, I walked away to take my pack on a trial run on the dirt road that made a loop around the campground. Mine was still the biggest pack of the bunchhiking solo, I had to carry things that those who hiked in pairs could divvy up, and I didnt have the ultralight confidence or skills that Greg didbut in comparison to how my pack had been before Albert helped me purge it, it was so light I felt I could leap into the air. Halfway around the loop I paused and leapt. I made it only an inch off the ground, but at least it could be done. Cheryl? a voice called out just then. I looked up and saw a handsome young man wearing a backpack walking toward me. Doug? I asked, guessing right. In response he waved his arms and gave out a joyous hoot, and then he walked straight up to me and pulled me in for a hug. We read your entry in the register and weve been trying to catch up to you. And here I am, I stammered, taken aback by his enthusiasm and good looks. Were all camped over there. I gestured behind me. Theres a bunch of us. Wheres your friend? Hell be coming up soon, Doug said, and hooted again, apropos of nothing. He reminded me of all the golden boys Id known in my lifeclassically handsome and charmingly sure of his place at the very top of the heap, confident that the world was his and that he was safe in it, without ever having considered otherwise. As I stood next to him, I had the feeling that any moment hed reach for my hand and together wed parachute off a cliff, laughing as we wafted gently down. Tom! Doug bellowed when he saw a figure appear down the road. Together we walked toward him. I could tell even from a distance that Tom was Dougs physical and spiritual oppositebony, pale, bespectacled. The smile that crept onto his face as we approached was cautious and mildly unconvinced. Hello, he said to me when we got close enough, reaching to shake my hand. In the few short minutes it took for us to reach Eds camp, we exchanged a flurry of information about who we were and where we were from. Tom was twenty-four; Doug, twenty-one. New England blue bloods, my mother would have called them, I knew almost before they told me a thingwhich meant to her only that they were basically rich and from somewhere east of Ohio and north of D.C. Over the course of the coming days, Id learn all about them. How their parents were surgeons and mayors and financial executives. How theyd both attended a tony boarding school whose fame was so great even I knew it by name. How theyd vacationed on Nantucket and on private islands off the coast of Maine and spent their spring breaks in Vail. But I didnt know any of that yet, how in so many ways their lives were unfathomable to me and mine to them. I knew only that in some very particular ways they were my closest kin. They werent gearheads or backpacking experts or PCT know-it-alls. They hadnt hiked all the way from Mexico, nor had they been planning the trip for a decade. And even better, the miles theyd traversed so far had left them nearly as shattered as theyd left me. They hadnt, by virtue of their togetherness, gone days without seeing another human being. Their packs looked of a size reasonable enough that I doubted they were carrying a foldable saw. But I could tell the instant I locked eyes with Doug that, despite all his confidence and ease, he had been through something. And when Tom took my hand to shake it, I could read precisely the expression on his face. It said: IVE GOT TO GET THESE FUCKING BOOTS OFF MY FEET. Moments later, he did, sitting on the bench of Eds picnic table, after we arrived at our camp and the men gathered around to introduce themselves. I watched as Tom carefully peeled off his filthy socks, clumps of worn-out moleskin and his own flesh coming off with them. His feet looked like mine: white as fish and pocked with bloody, oozing wounds overlaid with flaps of skin that had been rubbed away and now dangled, still painfully attached to the patches of flesh that had yet to die a slow, PCT-induced death. I took off my pack and unzipped a pocket to remove my first aid kit. Have you ever tried these? I asked Tom, holding out a sheet of 2nd Skinthankfully, I had packed more into my resupply box. These have saved me, I explained. I dont know if I could go on without them, actually. Tom only looked up at me in despair and nodded without elaborating. I set a couple of sheets of 2nd Skin beside him on the bench. Youre welcome to these, if youd like, I said. Seeing them in their translucent blue wrappers brought to mind the condom in my back pocket. I wondered if Tom had packed any; if Doug had; if my bringing them had been such a dumb idea after all. Being in Tom and Dougs presence made it seem slightly less so. We thought wed all go up to Grumpies at six, Ed said, looking at his watch. Weve got a couple hours. Ill drive us all up in my truck. He looked at Tom and Doug. Meanwhile, Id be happy to get you boys a snack. The men sat at the picnic table, eating Eds potato chips and cold baked beans, talking about why they chose the pack they chose and the pros and cons of each. Someone brought out a deck of cards, and a game of poker started up. Greg paged through his guidebook at the end of the table near me, where I stood beside my pack, still marveling at its transformation. Pockets that had been bursting full now had tiny cushions of room. Youre practically a Jardi-Nazi now, said Albert, in a teasing tone, seeing me gazing at my pack. Those are the disciples of Ray Jardine, if you dont know. They take a highly particular view about pack weight. Its the guy I was telling you about, added Greg. I nodded coolly, trying to conceal my ignorance. Im going to get ready for dinner, I said, and ambled to the edge of our campsite. I pitched my tent and then crawled inside, spread out my sleeping bag, and lay on top of it, staring at the green nylon ceiling, while listening to the murmur of the mens conversation and occasional bursts of laughter. I was going out to a restaurant with six men, and I had nothing to wear but what I was already wearing, I realized glumly: a T-shirt over a sports bra and a pair of shorts with nothing underneath. I remembered my fresh T-shirt from my resupply box and sat up and put it on. The entire back of the shirt Id been wearing since Mojave was now stained a brownish yellow from the endless bath of sweat it had endured. I wadded it up in a ball and put it at the corner of my tent. Id throw it away at the store later. The only other clothes I had were those I brought for cold weather. I remembered the necklace Id been wearing until it got so hot that I couldnt bear to have it on; I found it in the ziplock bag in which I kept my drivers license and money and put it on. It was a small turquoise-and-silver earring that used to belong to my mother. Id lost the other one, so Id taken a pair of needle-nose pliers to the one that remained and turned it into a pendant on a delicate silver chain. Id brought it along because it had been my mothers; having it with me felt meaningful, but now I was glad to have it simply because I felt prettier with it on. I ran my fingers through my hair, attempting to shape it into an attractive formation, aided by my tiny comb, but eventually I gave up and pushed it behind my ears. It was just as well, I knew, that I simply let myself look and feel and smell the way I did. I was, after all, what Ed referred to somewhat inaccurately as the only girl in the woods, alone with a gang of men. By necessity, out here on the trail, I felt I had to sexually neutralize the men I met by being, to the extent that was possible, one of them. Id never been that way in my life, interacting with men in the even-keeled indifference that being one of the guys entails. It didnt feel like an easy thing to endure, as I sat in my tent while the men played cards. Id been a girl forever, after all, familiar with and reliant upon the powers my very girlness granted me. Suppressing those powers gave me a gloomy twinge in the gut. Being one of the guys meant I could not go on being the woman Id become expert at being among men. It was a version of myself Id first tasted way back when I was a child of eleven and Id felt that prickly rush of power when grown men would turn their heads to look at me or whistle or say Hey pretty baby just loudly enough that I could hear. The one Id banked on all through high school, starving myself thin, playing cute and dumb so Id be popular and loved. The one Id fostered all through my young adult years while trying on different costumesearth girl, punk girl, cowgirl, riot girl, ballsy girl. The one for whom behind every hot pair of boots or sexy little skirt or flourish of the hair there was a trapdoor that led to the least true version of me. Now there was only one version. On the PCT I had no choice but to inhabit it entirely, to show my grubby face to the whole wide world. Which, at least for now, consisted of only six men. Cherylllll, Dougs voice called softly from a few feet away. You in there? Yeah, I replied. Were going down to the river. Come hang with us. Okay, I said, feeling flattered in spite of myself. When I sat up, the condom made a crinkling sound in my back pocket. I took it out and slid it into my first aid kit, crawled out of my tent, and walked toward the river. Doug, Tom, and Greg were wading in the shallow spot where Id cleaned up a few hours before. Beyond them, the water raged in torrents, rushing over boulders as big as my tent. I thought of the snow Id soon be encountering if I continued on with the ice ax I didnt yet know how to use and the white ski pole with its cute little pink wrist strap that had come to me only by chance. I hadnt yet begun to think about what was next on the trail. Id only listened and nodded when Ed told me that most of the PCT hikers whod come through Kennedy Meadows in the three weeks hed been camped here had opted to get off the trail at this point because of the record snowpack that made the trail essentially unpassable for most of the next four or five hundred miles. They caught rides and buses to rejoin the PCT farther north, at lower elevations, he told me. Some intended to loop back later in the summer to hike the section theyd missed; others to skip it. He said that a few had ended their hikes altogether, just as Greg had told me earlier, deciding to hike the PCT another, less record-breaking year. And fewer still had forged ahead, determined to make it through the snow. Grateful for my cheap camp sandals, I picked my way over the rocks that lined the riverbed toward the men, the water so cold my bones hurt. I got something for you, said Doug when I reached him. He held his hand out to me. In it was a shiny feather, about a foot long, so black it shone blue in the sun. For what? I asked, taking it from him. For luck, he said, and touched my arm. When he took his hand away, the place where it had been felt like a burnI could feel how little Id been touched in the past fourteen days, how alone Id been. So I was thinking about the snow, I said, holding the feather, my voice raised over the rush of the river. The people who bypassed? They were all here a week or two before us. A lot more snow has melted by now, so maybe itll be okay. I looked at Greg and then at the black feather, stroking it. The snow depth at Bighorn Plateau on June first was more than double what it was the same day last year, he said, tossing a stone. A week isnt going to make much of a difference in that regard. I nodded, as if I knew where Bighorn Plateau was, or what it meant for the snowpack to be double what it was a year ago. I felt like a fraud even having this discussion, like a mascot among players, as if they were the real PCT hikers and I was just happening through. As if somehow, because of my inexperience, my failure to read even a single page written by Ray Jardine, my laughably slow pace, and my belief that it had been reasonable to pack a foldable saw, I had not actually hiked to Kennedy Meadows from Tehachapi Pass, but instead had been carried along. But I had walked here, and I wasnt ready to give up on seeing the High Sierra just yet. It had been the section of the trail Id most anticipated, its untouched beauty extolled by the authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and immortalized by the naturalist John Muir in the books hed written a century before. It was the section of mountains hed dubbed the Range of Light. The High Sierra and its 13,000- and 14,000-foot-high peaks, its cold, clear lakes and deep canyons were the point of hiking the PCT in California, it seemed. Plus, bypassing it would be a logistical mess. If I had to skip the High Sierra, Id end up in Ashland more than a month before I intended to. Id like to push on, if theres a way, I said, waving the feather with a flourish. My feet didnt hurt anymore. Theyd gone blissfully numb in the icy water. Well, we do have about forty miles to play with before the going gets seriously roughfrom here up to Trail Pass, said Doug. Theres a trail there that intersects the PCT and goes down to a campground. We can hike at least that far and see how it goessee how much snow there isand then bail out there if we want to. What do you think of that, Greg? I asked. Whatever he would do was what Id do. He nodded. I think thats a good plan. Thats what Im going to do, I said. Ill be okay. I have my ice ax now. Greg looked at me. You know how to use it? The next morning he gave me a tutorial. This is the shaft, he said, running his hand up the length of the ax. And this is the spike, he added, touching a finger to the sharp end. And on the other end theres the head. The shaft? The head? The spike? I tried not to crack up like an eighth grader in sex ed class, but I couldnt help myself. What? asked Greg, his hand around the shaft of his ax, but I only shook my head. Youve got two edges, he continued. The blunt edge is the adze. Thats what you use to chop your steps. And the other edge is the pick. Thats what you use to save your ass when youre sliding off the side of the mountain. He spoke in a tone that assumed I knew this already, as if he were just reviewing the basics before we got started. Yep. The shaft, the head, the spike, the pick, the ad, I said. The adze, he corrected. Theres a z. We were standing on a steep bank along the river, the closest thing we could find to simulate an icy slope. Now lets say youre falling, said Greg, throwing himself down the incline to demonstrate. As he fell, he jammed the pick into the mud. You want to dig that pick in as hard as you can, while holding on to the shaft with one hand and the head with the other. Like this. And once youre anchored in, you try to get your footing. I looked at him. What if you cant get your footing? Well, then you hold on here, he answered, moving his hands on the ax. What if I cant hold on that long? I mean, Ill have my pack and everything and, actually, Im not strong enough to do a single pull-up. You hold on, he said dispassionately. Unless youd rather slide off the side of the mountain. I got to work. Again and again I threw myself against the increasingly muddy slope, pretending that I was slipping on ice, and again and again I planted the pick of my ice ax into the soil while Greg watched, coaching and critiquing my technique. Doug and Tom sat nearby pretending they werent paying attention. Albert and Matt were lying on a tarp wed spread out for them beneath the shade of a tree near Eds truck, too ill to move anywhere but to the outhouse several times an hour. Theyd both woken in the middle of the night sick with what we were all beginning to believe was giardiaa waterborne parasite that causes crippling diarrhea and nausea, requires prescription medication to cure, and almost always means a week or more off the trail. It was the reason PCT hikers spent so much time talking about water purifiers and water sources, for fear theyd make one wrong move and have to pay. I didnt know where Matt and Albert had picked up whatever they had, but I prayed I hadnt picked it up too. By late afternoon we all stood over them as they lay pale and limp on their tarp, convincing them it was time they got to the hospital in Ridgecrest. Too sick to resist, they watched as we packed their things and loaded their packs into the back of Eds truck. Thank you for all your help with lightening my pack, I said to Albert when we had a moment alone before he departed. He looked wanly up at me from his bed on the tarp. I couldnt have done it myself. He gave me a weak smile and nodded. By the way, I said, I wanted to tell youabout why I decided to hike the PCT? I got divorced. I was married and not long ago I got divorced, and also about four years ago my mom diedshe was only forty-five and she got cancer suddenly and died. Its been a hard time in my life and Ive sort of gotten offtrack. So I He opened his eyes wider, looking at me. I thought it would help me find my center, to come out here. I made a crumpled gesture with my hands, out of words, a bit surprised that Id let so many tumble out. Well, youve got your bearings now, havent you? he said, and sat up, his face lighting up despite his nausea. He rose and walked slowly to Eds truck and got in beside his son. I clambered into the back with their backpacks and the box of things I no longer needed and rode with them as far as the general store. When we reached it, Ed stopped for a few moments; I jumped out with my box and waved to Albert and Matt, hollering good luck. I felt a stinging rush of affection as I watched them drive away. Ed would return in a few hours, but most likely Id never see Albert and Matt again. I would be hiking into the High Sierra with Doug and Tom the next day, and in the morning Id have to say goodbye to Ed and Greg tooGreg was laying over in Kennedy Meadows another day, and though he would certainly catch up to me, it would likely be a fleeting visit, and then he too would pass out of my life. I walked to the porch of the general store and put everything but the foldable saw, the special high-tech flash for my camera, and the miniature binoculars into the PCT hiker free box. Those I packed into my old resupply box and addressed it to Lisa in Portland. As I sealed my box with a roll of tape Ed had loaned me, I kept having the feeling that something was missing. Later, as I walked the road back to the campground, I realized what it was: the fat roll of condoms. Every last one was gone. PART THREE RANGE OF LIGHT We are now in the mountains and they are in us JOHN MUIR, My First Summer in the Sierra If your Nerve, deny you Go above your Nerve EMILY DICKINSON 8 CORVIDOLOGY Kennedy Meadows is called the gateway to the High Sierra, and early the next morning I walked through that gate. Doug and Tom accompanied me for the first quarter mile, but then I stopped, telling them to go on ahead because I had to get something from my pack. We embraced and wished one another well, saying goodbye forever or for fifteen minutes, we didnt know. I leaned against a boulder to lift some of Monsters weight from my back, watching them go. Their leaving made me melancholy, though I also felt something like relief when they disappeared into the dark trees. I hadnt needed to get anything from my pack; Id only wanted to be alone. Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it werent a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasnt a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before. Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel both bigger and smaller to me. Until now, I hadnt truly understood the worlds vastnesshadnt even understood how vast a mile could beuntil each mile was beheld at walking speed. And yet there was also its opposite, the strange intimacy Id come to have with the trail, the way the pi?on pines and monkey flowers I passed that morning, the shallow streams I crossed, felt familiar and known, though Id never passed them or crossed them before. I walked in the cool of the morning to the rhythm of my new white ski pole clicking against the trail, feeling the lightened-but-still-ridiculously-heavy weight of Monster shift and settle in. When Id set off that morning, I thought that it would feel different to be on the trail, that the hiking would be easier. My pack was lighter, after all, not only thanks to Alberts purge but because I no longer needed to carry more than a couple of bottles of water at a time, now that Id reached a less arid stretch of the trail. But an hour and a half into the day I stopped for a break, feeling the familiar aches and pains. At the same time, I could ever so slightly feel my body toughening up, just as Greg had promised would happen. It was day 1 of week 3, officially summerthe last week of Juneand I was not only in a different season now, but in different country too, ascending higher in the South Sierra Wilderness. In the forty miles between Kennedy Meadows and Trail Pass, Id climb from an elevation of just over 6,100 feet to nearly 11,000. Even in the heat of that first afternoon back on the trail, I could feel an edge of cool in the air that would no doubt envelop me at night. There was no question I was in the Sierra nowMuirs beloved Range of Light. I walked beneath great dark trees that put the smaller plants beneath in almost complete shadow and past wide grassy meadows of wildflowers; I scrambled over snowmelt streams by stepping from one unsteady rock to another, aided by my ski pole. At foot speed, the Sierra Nevada seemed just barely surmountable. I could always take another step. It was only when I rounded a bend and glimpsed the white peaks ahead that I doubted my abilities, only when I thought how far I had yet to go that I lost faith that I would get there. Dougs and Toms tracks periodically appeared on the alternately muddy and dusty trail, and by midafternoon I came upon them as they sat near a stream, their faces registering surprise when I walked up. I sat next to them and pumped water and we chatted for a while. You should camp with us tonight if you catch up with us, said Tom before they hiked on. I already have caught up to you, I replied, and we laughed. That evening I strolled into the small clearing where theyd pitched their tents. After dinner, they shared the two beers theyd brought from Kennedy Meadows, giving me swigs as we sat in the dirt bundled in our clothes. As we drank, I wondered which one of them had taken the eleven ultrathin nonlubricated Trojan condoms Id purchased in Portland a few weeks before. It seemed it had to be one of them. The next day when I was hiking alone I came to a wide swath of snow on a steep incline, a giant ice-crusted sheath that obliterated the trail. It was like the rockslide, only scarier, a river of ice instead of stones. If I slipped while attempting to cross it, I would slide down the side of the mountain and crash into the boulders far below, or worse, fall farther into who knew what. Air, it seemed, from my vantage point. If I didnt attempt to cross it, Id have to go back to Kennedy Meadows. That didnt seem like an altogether bad idea. And yet here I was. Hell, I thought. Bloody hell. I took out my ice ax and studied my course, which really only meant standing there for several minutes working up the nerve. I could see that Doug and Tom had made it across, their tracks a series of potholes in the snow. I held my ice ax the way Greg had taught me and stepped into one of the potholes. Its existence made my life both harder and easier. I didnt have to chip my own steps, but those of the men were awkwardly placed and slippery and sometimes so deep that my boot got trapped inside and Id lose my balance and fall, my ice ax so unwieldy it felt more like a burden than an aid. Arrest, I kept thinking, imagining what Id do with the ax if I started to slide down the slope. The snow was different from the snow in Minnesota. In some places it was more ice than flake, so densely packed it reminded me of the hard layer of ice in a freezer that needs defrosting. In other places it gave way, slushier than it first appeared. I didnt look at the bank of boulders below until Id reached the other side of the snow and was standing on the muddy trail, trembling but glad. I knew that little jaunt was only a sample of what lay ahead. If I didnt opt to get off the trail at Trail Pass to bypass the snow, Id soon reach Forester Pass, at 13,160 feet the highest point on the PCT. And if I didnt slip off the side of the mountain while going over that pass, Id spend the next several weeks crossing nothing but snow. It would be snow far more treacherous than the patch Id just crossed, but having crossed even this much made what lay ahead more real to me. It told me that I had no choice but to bypass. I wasnt rightly prepared to be on the PCT in a regular year, let alone a year in which the snow depth measurements were double and triple what theyd been the year before. There hadnt been a winter as snowy as the previous one since 1983, and there wouldnt be another for more than a dozen years. Plus, there wasnt only the snow to consider. There were also the things related to the snow: the dangerously high rivers and streams Id need to ford alone, the temperatures that would put me at risk of hypothermia, the reality that Id have to rely exclusively on my map and compass for long stretches when the trail was concealed by the snowall of those made more grave by the fact that I was alone. I didnt have the gear I needed; I didnt have the knowledge and experience. And because I was solo, I didnt have a margin for error either. By bailing out like most of the other PCT hikers had, Id miss the glory of the High Sierra. But if I stayed on the trail, Id risk my life. Im getting off at Trail Pass, I told Doug and Tom as we ate dinner that night. Id hiked all day alonelogging my second fifteen-plus-mile daybut caught up with them again as they made camp. Im going to go up to Sierra City and get back on the trail there. We decided to push on, said Doug. We talked about it and we think you should join us, said Tom. Join you? I asked, peering out from the tunnel of my dark fleece hood. I was wearing all the clothes Id brought, the temperature down near freezing. Patches of snow surrounded us beneath the trees in spots shaded from the sun. Its not safe for you to go alone, Doug said. Neither one of us would go alone, said Tom. But its not safe for any of us to go into the snow. Together or alone, I said. We want to try it, said Tom. Thank you, I said. Im touched youd offer, but I cant. Why cant you? Doug asked. Because the point of my trip is that Im out here to do it alone. We were silent for a while then, eating our dinners, each of us cradling a warm pot full of rice or beans or noodles in our gloved hands. I felt sad to say no. Not only because I knew it meant I was opting to bypass the High Sierra, but because as much as I said I wanted to do this trip alone, I was soothed by their company. Being near Tom and Doug at night kept me from having to say to myself I am not afraid whenever I heard a branch snap in the dark or the wind shook so fiercely it seemed something bad was bound to happen. But I wasnt out here to keep myself from having to say I am not afraid. Id come, I realized, to stare that fear down, to stare everything down, reallyall that Id done to myself and all that had been done to me. I couldnt do that while tagging along with someone else. After dinner, I lay in my tent with Flannery OConnors Complete Stories on my chest, too exhausted to hold the book aloft. It wasnt only that I was cold and tired from the days hike: at this elevation, the air was thinner. And yet I couldnt exactly fall asleep. In what seemed a fugue state, I thought about what it meant to bypass the High Sierra. It basically ruined everything. All the planning Id done, the way Id mapped out the whole summer down to each box and meal. Now Id be leapfrogging over 450 miles of the trail Id intended to hike. Id reach Ashland in early August instead of the middle of September. Doug? I called into the darkness, his tent only an arms length from mine. Yeah? I was thinking, if I bypass, I could hike all of Oregon instead. I rolled onto my side to face in the direction of his tent, half wishing he would come lie next to me in minethat anyone would. It was that same hungry, empty feeling Id had back in that Mojave motel when Id wished I had a companion. Not someone to love. Just someone to press my body against. Do you happen to know how long the trail is in Oregon? About five hundred miles, he answered. Thats perfect, I said, my heartbeat quickening with the idea before I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep. The next afternoon Greg caught up to me just before I reached Trail Pass Trail, my route off the PCT. Im bypassing, I said to him reluctantly. I am too, he said. You are? I asked with relief and delight. Its way too socked-in up here, he said, and we looked around at the wind-twisted foxtail pines among the trailside boulders; the mountains and ridges visible miles away under the pure blue sky. The highest point of the trail was only thirty-five trail miles farther on. The summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, was closer still, a short detour off the PCT. Together we descended Trail Pass Trail two miles down to a picnic area and campground at Horseshoe Meadows, where we met up with Doug and Tom and hitched a ride into Lone Pine. I hadnt planned to go there. Some PCT hikers had resupply boxes sent to Lone Pine, but Id planned to push through to the town of Independence, another fifty trail miles to the north. I still had a few days worth of food in my bag, but when we reached town I went immediately to a grocery store to replenish my stock. I needed enough to last for the ninety-six-mile section Id be hiking once I made the bypass, from Sierra City to Belden Town. Afterwards, I found a pay phone and called Lisa and left a message on her answering machine, explaining my new plan as quickly as I could, asking her to send my box addressed to Belden Town immediately and hold all the others until I gave her the details of my new itinerary. I felt dislocated and melancholy when I hung up the phone, less excited about being in town than I thought Id be. I walked along the main street until I found the men. Were heading back up, said Doug, his eyes meeting mine. My chest felt tight as I hugged him and Tom goodbye. Id come to feel a sort of love for them, but on top of that, I was worried. Are you sure you want to go up into the snow? I asked. Are you sure you dont? Tom replied. You still have your good luck charm, said Doug, pointing to the black feather hed given me back in Kennedy Meadows. Id wedged it into Monsters frame, up over my right shoulder. Something to remember you by, I said, and we laughed. After they left, I walked with Greg to the convenience store that doubled as the towns Greyhound bus station. We passed bars that billed themselves as Old West saloons and shops that had cowboy hats and framed paintings of men astride bucking broncos displayed in their front windows. You ever see High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart? Greg asked. I shook my head. That was made here. Plus lots of other movies. Westerns. I nodded, unsurprised. The landscape did in fact look straight out of Hollywooda high sage-covered flat that was more barren than not, rocky and treeless with a view that went on for miles. The white peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the west cut so dramatically up into the blue sky that they seemed almost unreal to me, a gorgeous fa?ade. Theres our ride, Greg said, pointing to a big Greyhound bus in a parking lot of the store as we approached. But he was wrong. There were no buses that went all the way to Sierra City, we learned. Wed have to catch a bus that evening and ride seven hours to Reno, Nevada, then take another one for an hour to Truckee, California. From there wed have no option but to hitchhike the final forty-five miles to Sierra City. We bought two one-way tickets and an armful of snacks and sat on the warm pavement at the edge of the convenience store parking lot waiting for the bus to come. We polished off whole bags of chips and cans of soda while talking. We ran through the Pacific Crest Trail as a conversational topic, through backpacking gear and the record snowpack one more time, through the ultralight theories and practices of Ray Jardine and of his followerswho may or may not have misinterpreted the spirit behind those theories and practicesand finally arrived at ourselves. I asked him about his job and life in Tacoma. He had no pets and no kids and a girlfriend hed been dating a year. She was an avid backpacker too. His life, it was clear, was an ordered and considered thing. It seemed both boring and astounding to me. I didnt know what mine seemed like to him. The bus to Reno was nearly empty when we got on at last. I followed Greg to the middle, where we took pairs of seats directly opposite each other across the aisle. Im going to get some sleep, he said once the bus lurched onto the highway. Me too, I said, though I knew it wasnt true. Even when I was exhausted, I could never sleep in moving vehicles of any sort, and I wasnt exhausted. I was lit up by being back in the world. I stared out the window while Greg slept. Nobody whod known me for more than a week had any idea where I was. I am en route to Reno, Nevada, I thought with a kind of wonder. Id never been to Reno. It seemed the most preposterous place for me to be going, dressed as I was and dirty as a dog, my hair dense as a burlap bag. I pulled all the money from my pockets and counted the bills and coins, using my headlamp to see. I had forty-four dollars and seventy-five cents. My heart sank at the paltry sight of it. Id spent far more money than Id imagined I would have by now. I hadnt anticipated stops in Ridgecrest and Lone Pine, nor the bus ticket to Truckee. I wasnt going to get more money until I reached my next resupply box in Belden Town more than a week from now, and even then it would be only twenty bucks. Greg and I had agreed wed get rooms in a motel in Sierra City to rest up for a night after our long travels, but I had the sickening feeling Id have to find a place to camp instead. There was nothing I could do about it. I didnt have a credit card. Id simply have to get through on what I had. I cursed myself for not having put more money in my boxes at the same time that I acknowledged I couldnt have. Id put into my boxes all the money Id had. Id saved up my tips all winter and spring and sold a good portion of my possessions, and with that money Id purchased all the food in my boxes and all the gear that had been on that bed in the Mojave motel, and I wrote a check to Lisa to cover postage for the boxes and another check to cover four months of payments on the student loans for the degree I didnt have that Id be paying for until I was forty-three. The amount I had left over was the amount I could spend on the PCT. I put my money back in my pocket, turned my headlamp off, and stared out my window to the west, feeling a sad unease. I was homesick, but I didnt know if it was for the life I used to have or for the PCT. I could just barely make out the dark silhouette of the Sierra Nevada against the moonlit sky. It looked like that impenetrable wall again, the way it had to me a few years before when Id first seen it while driving with Paul, but it didnt feel impenetrable anymore. I could imagine myself on it, in it, part of it. I knew the way it felt to navigate it one step at a time. I would be back on it again as soon as I hiked away from Sierra City. I was bypassing the High Sierramissing Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks, Tuolumne Meadows and the John Muir and Desolation wildernesses and so much morebut Id still be hiking another hundred miles in the Sierra Nevada beyond that, before heading into the Cascade Range. By the time the bus pulled into the station in Reno at 4 a.m., I hadnt slept a minute. Greg and I had an hour to kill before the next bus would depart for Truckee, so we wandered blearily through the small casino that adjoined the bus station, our packs strapped to our backs. I was tired but wired, sipping hot Lipton tea from a Styrofoam cup. Greg played blackjack and won three dollars. I fished three quarters out of my pocket, played all three in a slot machine, and lost everything. Greg gave me a dry, I-told-you-so smile, as if hed seen that coming. Hey, you never know, I said. I was in Vegas oncejust passing through a couple of years agoand I put a nickel in a slot machine and won sixty bucks. He looked unimpressed. I went into the womens restroom. As I brushed my teeth before a fluorescently lit mirror above a bank of sinks, a woman said, I like your feather, and pointed to it on my pack. Thanks, I said, our eyes meeting in the mirror. She was pale and brown-eyed with a bumpy nose and a long braid down her back; dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and a pair of patched-up cutoff jeans and Birkenstock sandals. My friend gave it to me, I mumbled as toothpaste dribbled out of my mouth. It seemed like forever since Id talked to a woman. Its got to be a corvid, she said, reaching over to touch it delicately with one finger. Its either a raven or a crow, a symbol of the void, she added, in a mystical tone. The void? Id asked, crestfallen. Its a good thing, she said. Its the place where things are born, where they begin. Think about how a black hole absorbs energy and then releases it as something new and alive. She paused, looking meaningfully into my eyes. My ex-partner is an ornithologist, she explained in a less ethereal tone. His area of research is corvidology. His thesis was on ravens and because I have a masters in English I had to read the fucking thing like ten times, so I know more than I need to about them. She turned to the mirror and smoothed back her hair. You on your way to the Rainbow Gathering, by chance? No. Im You should come. Its really cool. The gatherings up in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest this year, at Toad Lake. I went to the Rainbow Gathering last year, when it was in Wyoming, I said. Right on, she said in that particular slow-motion way that people say right on. Happy trails, she said, and reached over and squeezed my arm. Corvidology! she cheered as she headed for the door, giving me and my feather a thumbs-up as she went. By eight Greg and I were in Truckee. By eleven we were still standing on the hot side of the road trying to hitch a ride to Sierra City. HEY! I yelled maniacally at a VW bus as it whizzed past. Wed been snubbed by at least six of them over the past couple of hours. Not being picked up by those who drove VW buses made me particularly indignant. Fucking hippies, I said to Greg. I thought you were a hippy, he said. I am. Kind of. But only a little bit. I sat down on the gravel on the roads shoulder and retied the lace of my boot, but when I was done I didnt stand back up. I was dizzy with exhaustion. I hadnt slept for a day and a half. You should walk ahead of me and stand by yourself, said Greg. Id understand. If you were alone youd have gotten a ride a long time ago. No, I said, though I knew he was righta single woman is less threatening than a man-woman pair. People want to help a woman alone. Or try to get in her pants. But we were together for now, so together we stayed until, an hour later, a car stopped and we clambered in and rode to Sierra City. It was a scenic village of less than a dozen wooden buildings perched at an elevation of 4,200 feet. The town was wedged in between the North Yuba River and the towering Sierra Buttes that rose brown against the clear blue sky to the north. Our ride dropped us at the general store in the towns center, a quaint old-timey place where tourists sat eating ice-cream cones on the painted front porch, which was abuzz with a preFourth of July weekend crowd. You getting a cone? asked Greg, pulling out a couple of dollars. Nah. Maybe later, I said, keeping my voice light to hide my desperation. I wanted a cone, of course. It was that I didnt dare purchase one, for fear of not being able to afford a room. When we stepped into the small crowded store, I tried not to look at the food. I stood near the cash register instead, scanning tourist brochures while Greg shopped. This entire town was wiped out by an avalanche in 1852, I told him when he returned, fanning myself with the glossy brochure. The snow from the Buttes gave way. He nodded as if he knew this already, licking his chocolate cone. I turned away, the sight of it a small torture to me. I hope you dont mind, but I need to find someplace cheap. For tonight, I mean. The truth was, I needed to find someplace free, but I was too tired to contemplate camping. The last time Id slept, Id been on the PCT in the High Sierra. How about this, said Greg, pointing to an old wooden building across the street. The downstairs was a bar and restaurant; the upstairs had rooms for rent with shared bathrooms. It was only 1:30, but the woman in the bar allowed us to check in early. After I paid for my room I had thirteen dollars left. You want to have dinner together downstairs tonight? Greg asked when we reached our rooms, standing before our side-by-side doors. Sure, I said, blushing lightly. I wasnt attracted to him, and yet I couldnt help hoping he was attracted to me, which I knew was absurd. Perhaps hed been the one whod taken my condoms. The idea of that sent a thrill through my body. You can go first if youd like, he said, gesturing down the hall to the bathroom we shared with all of the inhabitants of our floor. We seemed to be the only two occupants so far. Thanks, I said, and unlocked the door to my room and stepped inside. A worn-out antique wooden dresser with a round mirror sat against one wall and a double bed against the other with a rickety night-stand and chair nearby. A bare lightbulb dangled from the ceiling in the center of the room. I set Monster down and sat on the bed. It squealed and sank and wobbled precariously beneath my weight, but it felt excellent anyway. My body almost hurt with pleasure to merely sit on the bed, as if I were being the opposite of burned. The camp chair that doubled as my sleeping pad didnt offer much cushioning, it turned out. Id slept deeply most nights on the PCT, but not because I was comfortable: I was simply too spent to care. I wanted to sleep, but my legs and arms were streaked with dirt; my stench was magnificent. To get into the bed in such a state seemed almost criminal. I hadnt properly bathed since Id been at the motel in Ridgecrest nearly two weeks before. I walked down the hall to the bathroom. There wasnt a shower, only a big porcelain tub with claw feet and a shelf piled high with folded towels. I picked up one of the towels and inhaled its detergent-scented splendor, then took off my clothes and looked at myself in the full-length mirror. I was a startling sight. I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did like a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if Id been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by my pack. Beneath the bruises and wounds and dirt I could see new ridges of muscle, my flesh taut in places that had recently been soft. I filled the tub with water and got in and scrubbed myself with a washcloth and soap. Within a few minutes, the water became so dark with the dirt and blood that washed off my body that I drained it and filled it up again. In the second bath of water I reclined, feeling more grateful than perhaps I ever had for anything. After a while, I examined my feet. They were blistered and battered, a couple of my toenails entirely blackened by now. I touched one and saw that it had come almost entirely loose from my toe. That toe had been excruciating for days, growing ever more swollen, as if my toenail would simply pop off, but now it only hurt a little. When I tugged on the nail, it came off in my hand with one sharp shot of pain. In its place there was a layer of something over my toe that wasnt quite skin or nail. It was translucent and slightly shiny, like a tiny piece of Saran Wrap. I lost a toenail, I said to Greg at dinner. Youre losing toenails? he asked. Only one, I said glumly, aware that in fact Id likely lose more and that this was further evidence of my big fat idiocy. It probably means your boots are too small, he said as the waitress approached with two plates of spaghetti and a basket of garlic bread. Id planned to order with reserve, especially since Id spent another fifty cents that afternoon doing laundry, going in together with Greg. But once we sat down I hadnt been able to keep myself from matching Gregs every moveordering a rum and Coke along with dinner, saying yes to the garlic bread. I tried not to let on that I was adding up the bill in my head as we ate. Greg already knew how unprepared Id been to hike the PCT. He didnt need to know that there was yet another front on which I was an absolute fool. But a fool I was. After we got our bill, tacked on a tip, and split it down the middle, I had sixty-five cents. Back in my room after dinner, I opened The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California to read about the next section of the trail. My next stop was a place called Belden Town, where my resupply box with a twenty-dollar bill inside would be waiting. I could get through to Belden on sixty-five cents, couldnt I? Id be in the wilderness, after all, and I wouldnt have anywhere to spend my money anyway, I reasoned, though still I felt anxious. I wrote Lisa a letter, asking her to purchase and send me a PCT guidebook for the Oregon section of the trail using the bit of money Id left with her, and reordering the boxes shed be mailing me for the rest of California. I went over the list again and again, making sure I had it all correct, lining up the miles with the dates and the places. When I turned off my light and lay on my creaky bed to sleep, I could hear Greg on the other side of the wall shifting around on his creaky bed too, his closeness as palpable as his distance. Hearing him there made me feel so lonely I wouldve howled with pain if Id let myself. I didnt know exactly why. I didnt want anything from him and yet also I wanted everything. What would he do if I knocked on his door? What would I do if he let me in? I knew what I would do. Id done it so many times. Im like a guy, sexually, Id told a therapist Id seen a couple of times the year beforea man named Vince who volunteered at a community clinic in downtown Minneapolis where people like me could go to talk to people like him for ten bucks a pop. Whats a guy like? hed asked. Detached, I said. Or many of them are, anyway. Im like that too. Capable of being detached when it comes to sex. I looked at Vince. He was fortyish with dark hair parted in the middle and feathered like two tidy black wings along the sides of his face. I had nothing for him, but if hed risen and come across the room and kissed me, Id have kissed him back. Id have done anything. But he didnt rise. He only nodded without saying anything, his silence conveying both skepticism and faith. Who detached from you? he asked finally. I dont know, I said, smiling the way I did when I was uncomfortable. I wasnt exactly looking at him. Instead, I was looking at the framed poster that hung behind him, a black rectangle with a whirl of white that was meant to be the Milky Way. An arrow pointed into its center, above which were written the words YOU ARE HERE. This image had become ubiquitous on T-shirts as well as posters and I always felt mildly irritated by it, unsure of how to take it, whether it was meant to be comical or grave, to indicate the largeness of our lives or the insignificance. Nobodys ever broken up with me, if thats what youre asking, I said. Ive always been the one to end relationships. My face felt suddenly hot. I realized I was sitting with my arms wound around each other and my legs wrapped around each other tooin a yogic eagle pose, hopelessly twisted. I tried to relax and sit normally, but it was impossible. Reluctantly, I met his eyes. Is this the part where I tell you about my father? I asked, laughing falsely. It had always been my mother at the center of me, but in that room with Vince I suddenly felt my father like a stake in my heart. I hate him, Id said during my teens. I didnt know what I felt for him now. He was like a home movie that played in my head, one whose narrative was broken and sketchy. There were big dramatic scenes and inexplicable moments floating free from time, perhaps because most of what I remember about him happened in the first six years of my life. There was my father smashing our dinner plates full of food against the wall in a rage. There was my father choking my mother while straddling her chest and banging her head against the wall. There was my father scooping my sister and me out of bed in the middle of the night when I was five to ask if we would leave forever with him, while my mother stood by, bloodied and clutching my sleeping baby brother to her chest, begging him to stop. When we cried instead of answered, he collapsed onto his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor and screamed so desperately I was sure we were all going to die right then and there. Once, in the midst of one of his tirades, he threatened to throw my mother and her children naked onto the street, as if we werent his children too. We lived in Minnesota then. It was winter when he made the threat. I was at an age when everything was literal. It seemed precisely like a thing that he would do. I had an image of the four of us, naked and shrieking, running through the icy snow. He shut Leif, Karen, and me out of our house a couple of times when we lived in Pennsylvania, when my mother was at work and he was left to care for us and he wanted a break. He ordered us into the back yard and locked the doors, my sister and me holding our barely walking baby brother by his gummy hands. We wandered through the grass weeping and then forgot about being upset and played house and rodeo queen. Later, enraged and bored, we approached the back door and pounded and hollered. I remember the door distinctly and also the three concrete stairs that led up to it, the way I had to stand on tiptoes to see through the window in the upper half. The good things arent a movie. There isnt enough to make a reel. The good things are a poem, barely longer than a haiku. There is his love of Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers. There are the chocolate bars he brought home from his job in a grocery store. There are all the grand things he wanted to be, a longing so naked and sorry I sensed it and grieved it even as a young child. There is him singing that Charlie Rich song that goes Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world? and saying it was about me and my sister and our mother, that we were the most beautiful girls in the world. But even that is marred. He said this only when he was trying to woo my mother back, when he was claiming that things would be different now, when he was promising her that he would never again do what hed done before. He always did it again. He was a liar and a charmer, a heartbreak and a brute. My mother packed us up and left him and came back, left him and came back. We never went far. There was nowhere for us to go. We didnt have family nearby, and my mother was too proud to involve her friends. The first battered womens shelter in the United States didnt open until 1974, the year my mother finally left my father for good. Instead, we would drive all night long, my sister and me in the back seat, sleeping and waking to the alien green lights of the dashboard, Leif up front with our mom. The morning would find us home again, our father sober and scrambling eggs, singing that Charlie Rich song before long. When my mother finally called it quits with him, when I was six, a year after wed all moved from Pennsylvania to Minnesota, I wept and begged her not to do it. Divorce seemed to me to be the very worst thing that could happen. In spite of everything, I loved my dad and I knew if my mom divorced him Id lose him, and I was right. After they broke up the last time, we stayed in Minnesota and he returned to Pennsylvania and only intermittently got in touch. Once or twice a year a letter would arrive, addressed to Karen, Leif, and me, and wed rip it open, filled with glee. But inside would be a diatribe about our mother, about what a whore she was, what a stupid, mooching welfare bitch. Someday hed get us all, he promised. Someday wed pay. But we didnt pay, Id said to Vince in our second and final session together. The next time I saw him, hed explain that he was leaving his position; hed give me the name and number of another therapist. After my parents divorced, I realized that my fathers absence from my life was, sadly, a good thing. There werent any more violent scenes, I said. I mean, imagine my life if Id been raised by my father. Imagine your life if youd had a father who loved you as a father should, Vince countered. I tried to imagine such a thing, but my mind could not be forced to do it. I couldnt break it down into a list. I couldnt land on love or security, confidence or a sense of belonging. A father who loved you as a father should was greater than his parts. He was like the whirl of white on the YOU ARE HERE poster behind Vinces head. He was one giant inexplicable thing that contained a million other things, and because Id never had one, I feared Id never find myself inside that great white swirl. What about your stepfather? Vince asked. He glanced at the notebook on his lap, reading words hed scrawled, presumably about me. Eddie. He detached too, I said lightly, as if it were nothing to me at all, as if it were almost amusing. Its a long story, I said in the direction of the clock that hung near the YOU ARE THERE poster. And times almost up. Saved by the bell, Vince said, and we laughed. I could see the outline of Monster by the dim streetlights that filtered into my room in Sierra City, the feather Doug had given me sticking up from the place where Id wedged it into my packs frame. I thought about corvidology. I wondered if the feather was really a symbol or if it was simply something I hauled along the way. I was a terrible believer in things, but I was also a terrible nonbeliever in things. I was as searching as I was skeptical. I didnt know where to put my faith, or if there was such a place, or even precisely what the word faith meant, in all of its complexity. Everything seemed to be possibly potent and possibly fake. Youre a seeker, my mother had said to me when she was in her last week, lying in bed in the hospital, like me. But I didnt know what my mother sought, exactly. Did she? It was the one question I hadnt asked, but even if shed told me, Id have doubted her, pressing her to explain the spiritual realm, asking her how it could be proved. I even doubted things whose truth was verifiable. You should see a therapist, everyone had told me after my mother died, and ultimatelyin the depths of my darkest moments the year before the hikeI had. But I didnt keep the faith. I never did call the other therapist Vince had recommended. I had problems a therapist couldnt solve; grief that no man in a room could ameliorate. I got out of bed, wrapped a towel around my naked body, and, stepping barefoot into the hall, walked past Gregs door. In the bathroom, I shut the door behind me, turned on the tubs faucet, and got in. The hot water was like magic, the thunder of it filling the room until I shut it off and there was a silence that seemed more silent than it had before. I lay back against the perfectly angled porcelain and stared at the wall until I heard a knock on the door. Yes? I said, but there was no reply, only the sound of footsteps retreating down the hallway. Someones in here, I called, though that was obvious. Someone was in here. It was me. I was here. I felt it in a way I hadnt in ages: the me inside of me, occupying my spot in the fathomless Milky Way. I reached for a washcloth on the shelf near the tub and scrubbed myself with it, though I was already clean. I scrubbed my face and my neck and my throat and my chest and my belly and my back and my rump and my arms and my legs and my feet. The first thing I did when each of you was born was kiss every part of you, my mother used to say to my siblings and me. Id count every finger and toe and eyelash, shed say. Id trace the lines on your hands. I didnt remember it, and yet Id never forgotten it. It was as much a part of me as my father saying hed throw me out the window. More. I lay back and closed my eyes and let my head sink into the water until it covered my face. I got the feeling I used to get as a child when Id done this very thing: as if the known world of the bathroom had disappeared and become, through the simple act of submersion, a foreign and mysterious place. Its ordinary sounds and sensations turned muted, distant, abstract, while other sounds and sensations not normally heard or registered emerged. I had only just begun. I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world all around me hummed on. 9 STAYING FOUND Id bypassed. Passed by. I was out of danger now. Id leapfrogged over the snow. It was clear sailing through the rest of California, I supposed. Then through Oregon to Washington. My new destination was a bridge that crossed the Columbia River, which formed the border between the two states. The Bridge of the Gods. It was 1,008 trail miles away; Id hiked only 170 so far, but my pace was picking up. In the morning, Greg and I walked out of Sierra City for a mile and a half along the shoulder of the road until we reached the place where it intersected the PCT, then walked together for a few minutes on the trail before pausing to say goodbye. Thats called mountain misery, I said, pointing at the low green bushes that edged the trail. Or at least thats what the guidebook says. Lets hope its not literal. I think it might be, Greg said, and he was right: the trail would rise nearly three thousand feet over the eight miles ahead. I was braced for the day, Monster loaded down with a weeks worth of food. Good luck, he said, his brown eyes meeting mine. Good luck to you too. I pulled him into a hard embrace. Stay with it, Cheryl, he said as he turned to go. You too, I called after him, as if he wouldnt. Within ten minutes he was out of sight. I was excited to be back on the trail, 450 PCT miles north of where Id been. The snowy peaks and high granite cliffs of the High Sierra were no longer in view, but the trail felt the same to me. In many ways, it looked the same too. For all the endless mountain and desert panoramas Id seen, it was the sight of the two-foot-wide swath of the trail that was the most familiar, the thing upon which my eyes were almost always trained, looking for roots and branches, snakes and stones. Sometimes the trail was sandy, other times rocky or muddy or pebbly or cushioned with layers upon layers of pine needles. It could be black or brown or gray or blond as butterscotch, but it was always the PCT. Home base. I walked beneath a forest of pine, oak, and incense cedar, then passed through a stand of Douglas firs as the trail switchbacked up and up, seeing no one all that sunny morning as I ascended, though I could feel Gregs invisible presence. With each mile that feeling waned, as I imagined him getting farther and farther ahead of me, hiking at his customary blazing pace. The trail passed from the shady forest to an exposed ridge, where I could see the canyon below me for miles, the rocky buttes overhead. By midday I was up above seven thousand feet and the trail grew muddy, though it hadnt rained in days, and finally, when I rounded a bend, I came upon a field of snow. Or rather, what I took to be a field, which implied there was an end to it. I stood at its edge and searched for Gregs footprints, but saw none. The snow wasnt on a slope, just a flat among a sparse forest, which was a good thing, since I didnt have my ice ax any longer. Id left it that morning in the PCT hiker free box at the Sierra City post office as Greg and I strolled out of town. I didnt have the money to mail it back to Lisas, much to my regret, given its expense, but I wasnt willing to carry it either, believing Id have no use for it from here on out. I jabbed my ski pole into the snow, skidded onto its icy surface, and began to walk, a feat I achieved only intermittently. In some places I skittered over the top of it; in others, my feet crashed through, sometimes forming potholes halfway up to my knees. Before long, the snow was packed into the ankles of my boots, my lower legs so snowburned it felt as if the flesh had been scraped away with a dull knife. That worried me less than the fact that I couldnt see the trail because it was buried beneath the snow. The route seemed apparent enough, I assured myself, holding the pages from my guidebook as I walked, pausing to study each word as I went. After an hour, I stopped, suddenly scared. Was I on the PCT? All the while, Id been searching for the small metal diamond-shaped PCT markers that were occasionally tacked to trees, but I hadnt seen any. This wasnt necessarily reason for alarm. Id learned that the PCT markers were not to be relied upon. On some stretches they appeared every few miles; on others, Id hike for days without spotting one. I pulled the topographical map of this area out of my shorts pocket. When I did, the nickel in my pocket came with it and fell into the snow. I reached for it, bending over unsteadily beneath my pack, but the moment my fingers grazed it, the nickel sank deeper and disappeared. I clawed through the snow looking for it, but it was gone. Now I only had sixty cents. I remembered the nickel in Vegas, the one with which Id played the slots and won sixty dollars. I laughed out loud thinking about it, feeling as if these two nickels were connected, though I couldnt explain why other than to say the daffy thought came to me as I stood there in the snow that day. Maybe losing the nickel was good luck the same way that the black feather that symbolized the void actually meant something positive. Maybe I wasnt really in the very midst of the thing Id just worked so hard to avoid. Maybe around the next bend Id be in the clear. I was shivering by now, standing in the snow in my shorts and sweat-drenched T-shirt, but I didnt dare continue on until I got my bearings. I unfolded the guidebook pages and read what the authors of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California had to say about this portion of the trail. From the trailside ridge, you confront a steady, bush-lined ascent, it said to describe the place I thought I might have been. Eventually your trail levels off at an open-forested flat I turned in a slow circle, getting a 360-degree view. Was this the open-forested flat? It would seem that the answer would be clear, but it was not. It was only clear that everything was buried in snow. I reached for my compass, which hung from a cord on the side of my pack near the worlds loudest whistle. I hadnt used it since the day I was hiking on that road after my first hard week on the trail. I studied it in conjunction with the map and made my best guess about where I might be and walked on, inching forward uncertainly on the snow, alternately skidding across the top or breaking through the surface, my shins and calves growing ever more chafed each time. An hour later I saw a metal diamond that said PACIFIC CREST TRAIL tacked to a snowbound tree, and my body flooded with relief. I still didnt know precisely where I was, but at least I knew I was on the PCT. By late afternoon I came to a ridgeline from which I could see down into a deep snow-filled bowl. Greg! I called, to test if he was near. I hadnt seen a sign of him all day long, but I kept expecting him to appear, hoping the snow would slow him enough that Id catch him and we could navigate through it together. I heard faint shouts and saw a trio of skiers on an adjoining ridge on the other side of the snowy bowl, close enough to hear, but impossible to reach. They waved their arms in big motions to me and I waved back. They were far enough away and dressed in enough ski gear that I couldnt make out whether they were male or female. Where are we? I yelled across the snowy expanse. What? I barely heard them yell back. I repeated the words over and over againWhere are we, Where are weuntil my throat grew raw. I knew approximately where I believed myself to be, but I wanted to hear what theyd say, just to be sure. I asked and asked without getting through, so I tried one last time, putting everything I had into it, practically hurling myself off the side of the mountain with the effort, WHERE ARE WE? There was a pause, which told me theyd finally registered my question, and then in unison they yelled back, CALIFORNIA! By the way they fell against one another, I knew they were laughing. Thanks, I called out sarcastically, though my tone was lost in the wind. They called something back to me that I couldnt quite make out. They repeated it again and again, but it got muddled each time until finally they shouted out the words one by one and I heard them. ARE YOU LOST? I thought about it for a moment. If I said yes, theyd rescue me and Id be done with this godforsaken trail. NO, I roared. I wasnt lost. I was screwed. I looked around at the trees, the waning light slanting through them. It would be evening soon and Id have to find a place to camp. I would pitch my tent in the snow and wake in the snow and continue on in the snow. This, in spite of everything Id done to avoid it. I walked on and eventually found what passed for a fairly cozy spot to pitch a tent when you have no choice but to allow a frozen sheaf of snow beneath a tree to be cozy. When I crawled into my sleeping bag, wearing my rain gear over all my clothes, I was chilly but okay, my water bottles wedged in close beside me so they wouldnt freeze. In the morning, the walls of my tent were covered with swirls of frost, condensation from my breath that had frozen in the night. I lay quiet but awake for a while, not ready to confront the snow yet, listening to the songs of birds I couldnt name. I only knew that the sound of them had become familiar to me. When I sat up and unzipped the door and looked out, I watched the birds flitter from tree to tree, elegant and plain and indifferent to me. I got my pot and poured water and Better Than Milk into it and stirred, then added some granola and sat eating it near the open door of my tent, hoping that I was still on the PCT. I stood and washed out my pot with a handful of snow and scanned the landscape. I was surrounded by rocks and trees that jutted out from the icy snow. I felt both uneasy about my situation and astounded by the vast lonesome beauty. Should I continue on or turn back? I wondered, though I knew my answer. I could feel it lodged in my gut: of course I was continuing on. Id worked too hard to get here to do otherwise. Turning back made logical sense. I could retrace my steps to Sierra City and catch another ride farther north still, clear of the snow. It was safe. It was reasonable. It was probably the right thing to do. But nothing in me would do it. I walked all day, falling and skidding and trudging along, bracing so hard with my ski pole that my hand blistered. I switched to the other hand and it blistered too. Around every bend and over every ridge and on the other side of every meadow I hoped there would be no more snow. But there was always more snow amid the occasional patches where the ground was visible. Is that the PCT? Id wonder when I saw the actual ground. I could never be certain. Only time would tell. I sweated as I hiked, the whole backside of me wet where my pack covered my body, regardless of the temperature or what clothing I wore. When I stopped, I began shivering within minutes, my wet clothes suddenly icy cold. My muscles had at last begun to adjust to the demands of long-distance hiking, but now new demands were placed on them, and not only to brace myself in the constant effort to stay upright. If the ground upon which I was walking was on a slope, I had to chop out each step in order to get my footing, lest I slip down the mountain and crash into the rocks and bushes and trees below, or worse, go sailing over the edge. Methodically, I kicked into the snows icy crust, making footholds step by step. I remembered Greg teaching me how to do this very thing with my ice ax back in Kennedy Meadows. Now I wished for that ice ax with an almost pathological fervor, picturing it sitting uselessly in the PCT hiker free box in Sierra City. With all the kicking and bracing, my feet blistered in new places as well as in all the old places that had blistered back in my first days of hiking, the flesh on my hips and shoulders still rubbed raw by Monsters straps. I walked on, a penitent to the trail, my progress distressingly slow. Id generally been covering two miles an hour as I hiked most days, but everything was different in the snow: slower, less certain. I thought it would take me six days to reach Belden Town, but when Id packed my food bag with six days worth of food, I didnt have any idea what Id encounter. Six days in these conditions were out of the question, and not only for the physical challenge of moving through the snow. Each step was also a calculated effort to stay approximately on what I hoped was the PCT. With my map and compass in hand, I tried to remember all I could from Staying Found, which Id burned long ago. Many of the techniquestriangulating and cross bearing and bracketinghad perplexed me even when Id been holding the book in my hand. Now they were impossible to do with any confidence. Id never had a mind for math. I simply couldnt hold the formulas and numbers in my head. It was a logic that made little sense to me. In my perception, the world wasnt a graph or formula or an equation. It was a story. So mostly I relied on the narrative descriptions in my guidebook, reading them over and over, matching them up with my maps, attempting to divine the intent and nuance of every word and phrase. It was like being inside a giant standardized test question: If Cheryl climbs north along a ridge for an hour at a rate of 1.5 miles per hour, then west to a saddle from which she can see two oblong lakes to the east, is she standing on the south flank of Peak 7503? I guessed and guessed again, measuring, reading, pausing, calculating, and counting before ultimately putting my faith in whatever I believed to be true. Fortunately, this stretch of the trail held plenty of clues, riddled with peaks and cliffs, lakes and ponds that were often visible from the trail. I still had the same feeling as I had from the start, when Id begun walking the Sierra Nevada from its southern beginningas if I were perched above the whole world, looking down on so much. I pushed from ridge to ridge, feeling relieved when I spotted bare ground in the patches where the sun had melted the snow clean away; quivering with joy when I identified a body of water or a particular rock formation that matched what the map reflected or the guidebook described. In those moments, I felt strong and calm, and then a moment later, when I paused yet again to take stock, I became certain that Id done a very, very stupid thing in opting to continue on. I passed trees that seemed disconcertingly familiar, as if Id surely passed them an hour before. I gazed across vast stretches of mountains that struck me as not so different from the vast stretch Id seen earlier. I scanned the ground for footprints, hoping to be reassured by even the slightest sign of another human being, but saw none. I saw only animal tracksthe soft zigzags of rabbits or the scampering triangles of what I supposed were porcupines or raccoons. The air came alive with the sound of the wind whipping the trees at times and at other times it was profoundly hushed by the endless silencing snow. Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself. The sky didnt wonder where it was. HELLO! I bellowed periodically, knowing each time that no one would answer, but needing to hear a voice anyway, even if it was only my own. My voice would guard me against it, I believed, it being the possibility that I could be lost in this snowy wilderness forever. As I hiked, the fragments of songs pushed their way into the mix-tape radio station in my head, interrupted occasionally by Pauls voice, telling me how foolish Id been to trek into the snow like this alone. He would be the one who would do whatever had to be done if indeed I didnt return. In spite of our divorce, he was still my closest kin, or at least the one organized enough to take on such a responsibility. I remembered him lambasting me as we drove from Portland to Minneapolis, when hed plucked me out of the grips of heroin and Joe the autumn before. Do you know you could die? hed said with disgust, as if he half wished I had so he could prove his point. Every time you do heroin its like youre playing Russian roulette. Youre putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger. You dont know which time the bullets going to be in the chamber. Id had nothing to say in my defense. He was right, though it hadnt seemed that way at the time. But walking along a path I carved myselfone I hoped was the PCTwas the opposite of using heroin. The trigger Id pulled in stepping into the snow made me more alive to my senses than ever. Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what Id lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things Id done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things Id been skeptical about, I didnt feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me. Somber and elated, I walked in the cool air, the sun glimmering through the trees, bright against the snow, even though I had my sunglasses on. As omnipresent as the snow was, I also sensed its waning, melting imperceptibly by the minute all around me. It seemed as alive in its dying as a hive of bees was in its life. Sometimes I passed by places where I heard a gurgling, as if a stream ran beneath the snow, impossible to see. Other times it fell in great wet heaps from the branches of the trees. On my third day out from Sierra City, as I sat hunched near the open door of my tent doctoring my blistered feet, I realized the day before had been the Fourth of July. The fact that I could so clearly imagine what not only my friends but also a good portion of the residents of the United States had done without me made me feel all the more far away. No doubt theyd had parties and parades, acquired sunburns and lit firecrackers, while I was here, alone in the cold. In a flash, I could see myself from far above, a speck on the great mass of green and white, no more or less significant than a single one of the nameless birds in the trees. Here it could be the fourth of July or the tenth of December. These mountains didnt count the days. The next morning I walked through the snow for hours until I came to a clearing where there was a large fallen tree, its trunk bare of both snow and branches. I took my pack off and climbed up on top of it, its bark rough beneath me. I pulled a few strips of beef jerky out of my pack and sat eating it and swigging my water. Soon I saw a streak of red to my right: a fox walking into the clearing, his paws landing soundlessly on top of the snow. He gazed straight ahead without looking at me, not even seeming to know I was there, though that seemed impossible. When the fox was directly in front of me, perhaps ten feet away, he stopped and turned his head and looked peaceably in my direction, his eyes not exactly going to mine as he sniffed. He looked part feline, part canine, his facial features sharp and compact, his body alert. My heart raced, but I sat perfectly still, fighting the urge to scramble to my feet and leap behind the tree for protection. I didnt know what the fox would do next. I didnt think he would harm me, but I couldnt help but fear that he would. He was barely knee-high, though his strength was irrefutable, his beauty dazzling, his superiority to me apparent down to his every pristine hair. He could be on me in a flash. This was his world. He was as certain as the sky. Fox, I whispered in the gentlest possible voice I could, as if by naming him I could both defend myself against him and also draw him nearer. He raised his fine-boned red head, but remained standing as hed been and studied me for several seconds more before turning away without alarm to continue walking across the clearing and into the trees. Come back, I called lightly, and then suddenly shouted, MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM! I didnt know the word was going to come out of my mouth until it did. And then, just as suddenly, I went silent, spent. The next morning I came to a road. Id crossed smaller, rougher jeep roads in the previous days that were buried in snow, but none so wide and definitive as this. I almost fell to my knees at the sight of it. The beauty of the snowy mountains was incontestable, but the road was my people. If it was the one I believed it to be, simply arriving there was a victory. It meant Id followed the path of the PCT. It also meant that there was a town miles away in either direction. I could turn left or right and follow it, and Id be delivered to a version of early July that made sense to me. I took off my pack and sat down on a grainy mound of snow, pondering what to do. If I was where I thought I was, Id covered forty-three miles of the PCT in the four days since Id left Sierra City, though Id probably hiked more than that, given my shaky abilities with map and compass. Belden Town was another fifty-five mostly snow-covered trail miles away. It was hardly worth thinking about. I had only a few days worth of food left in my pack. Id run out if I tried to push on. I began walking down the road in the direction of a town called Quincy. The road was like the wilderness Id been hiking through the last several days, silent and snow-covered, only now I didnt have to stop every few minutes to figure out where I was going. I only followed it down, as the snow gave way to mud. My guidebook didnt say how far away Quincy was, only that it was a long days walk. I quickened my pace, hoping to reach it by evening, though what I was going to do there with only sixty cents was another question. By eleven I rounded a bend and saw a green SUV parked on the side of the road. Hello, I called, altogether more cautiously than I had in the times Id bellowed that same word across the white desolation. No one answered. I approached the SUV and looked inside. There was a hooded sweatshirt lying across the front seat and a cardboard coffee cup on the dash, among other thrilling objects reminiscent of my former life. I continued walking down the road for a half hour, until I heard a car approaching behind me and turned. It was the green SUV. A few moments later, it came to a halt beside me, a man at the wheel and a woman in the passenger seat. Were going to Packer Lake Lodge if you want a ride, the woman said after she rolled down the window. My heart sank, though I thanked her and got into the back seat. Id read about Packer Lake Lodge in my guidebook days before. I could have taken a side trail to it a day out of Sierra City, but Id decided to pass it by when I opted to stay on the PCT. As we drove, I could feel my northward progress reversing itselfall the miles Id toiled to gain, lost in less than an hourand yet to be in that car was a kind of heaven. I cleared a patch in the foggy window and watched the trees blaze past. Our top speed was perhaps twenty miles an hour as we crept around bends in the road, but it still felt to me as if we were moving unaccountably fast, the land made general rather than particular, no longer including me but standing quietly off to the side. I thought about the fox. I wondered if hed returned to the fallen tree and wondered about me. I remembered the moment after hed disappeared into the woods and Id called out for my mother. It had been so silent in the wake of that commotion, a kind of potent silence that seemed to contain everything. The songs of the birds and the creak of the trees. The dying snow and the unseen gurgling water. The glimmering sun. The certain sky. The gun that didnt have a bullet in its chamber. And the mother. Always the mother. The one who would never come to me.

  • Thumbelina /  (Disney, 2014)    Thumbelina /
  • Mulan /  (Disney, 2012)    Mulan / (Disney, 2012)
  • The Lion King /   (Disney, 2012)    The Lion King /

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