It was about Barstow when the drugs hit … No, no wait! Wrong story … that was my previous life!
In my current life, the year of the humungous walk has finally arrived. The months of waiting are now sufficiently small that I am now counting the weeks instead. My excitement has definitely moved up a gear, but so too has a nagging and somewhat odd sense of angst. What is all this fear? I ask myself … surely I just need to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking, all the way from Mexico to Canada. I feel sufficiently well prepared, my feet have started to toughen up and I am practically packed. So what’s the cause of this absurd apprehension and anxiety? On closer inspection, it turns out that I’m terrified of a whole bunch of stuff and not all of it is entirely irrational. It is often suggested that we carry the weight of our fear on the trail … well here’s the sum of my fears and a number of them will definitely be adding a few pounds to my pack.
Thus far in my life I haven’t had too many reasons to consider how I might interact with bears. The last time I came across a bear was in 2004 on Oxford Street, Sydney during the annual LGBT Mardi Gras parade, and although he was fairly furry he was generally quite affable and far from grizzly. Apparently, however, this is not the sub species of bear that I can expect to find on the PCT. Much to my dismay the trail is basically the bears’ backyard and I will be trespassing right through the middle of it. I needed to get a handle on good bear etiquette so I Googled “bear attacks on hikers” … on reflection it was a really dumb thing to do!
Basically, there are two types of bear that I could encounter along the trail. The biggest and most feared is of course the Grizzly. Despite claims that they still roam in the far northern reaches of Washington, I am very relieved to report that this bad tempered colossus is hardly ever seen on the PCT and as such I am choosing to remain in total denial regarding its very existence. Unfortunately however, there is a very strong chance that I will happen upon an American black bear at some point on my journey. Apparently, Winnie the Pooh was named after a black bear cub, so how fearsome can they really be? The short answer … very! Although the “smallest” of the continent’s bears, adult males typically weigh around 250kg (550lbs), have great physical strength, can run at speeds of up to 30mph, are highly dexterous (capable of opening screw-top jars, car doors and probably tent zippers), can see as well as most humans, have a sense of smell seven times greater than a dog, are excellent tree climbers and of course, they are more than capable of killing a human with a single paw swipe. Thankfully there is a glimmer of hope. It transpires that black bears are pretty shy, they typically avoid confrontation and attacks on humans are delightfully rare.
The majority of bear related problems seem to arise in National Parks where they can become habituated to close human proximity and food conditioned. For this reason there are some pretty strict guidelines regarding the cooking and storing of food along certain sections of the trail. When I am in these areas of intense bear activity, I will need to do everything possible to avoid smelling like bear dinner. I won’t be cooking or eating in or near my tent and better still, I plan on making sleeping and cooking two entirely mutually exclusive events. I have also earmarked a dedicated set of sleeping clothes that hopefully won’t be contaminated by cooking and food smells. My food (and all other smelly things, even toothpaste) will need to be stored in a big, heavy bear proof canister, well away from me and my tent. I am taking no chances!
Hopefully these precautions should keep me safe in camp, but what about out on the trail, what should I do if my path crosses Winnie’s? The best tip I have received thus far is to talk to myself or sing as I’m walking, thus scaring the reclusive bear away before any issues arise. Should I come face to face with a bear, the one thing that I absolutely must NOT do, under any circumstances whatsoever, is the one thing that I will instinctively and immediately want to do … RUN! Unless I can suddenly muster a Usain Bolt turn of speed, there is no way I will be able to out run a bear and fleeing will evidently trigger its chase instinct. So, staying still and defecating on the spot seems to be my most likely first move … Great! Once I’ve got that unpleasantness out of the way, my next suggested course of action is to stay calm, talk softly (oh shit! … oh fuck! … oh shit!), avoid eye contact and slowly start to back up. At this point the bear will probably make a “bluff” charge … this just gets better by the moment. If this happens I must stand my ground and attempt to look big and fierce … yeah right. If the bear actually attacks (which is extremely rare remember), I must fight back with all my might. Now, this last piece of advice seems to go against the generally held belief that you should play dead. According to bear experts, this ploy doesn’t work with black bears. They attack because they want to eat you and if you play dead they will simply drag you off to their den and start to prepare a nice hiker stew. However, playing dead does allegedly work with Grizzlies, but remember, they are mythical creatures that don’t exist so no need to discuss this any further!
I am not overly keen on any species of elongated, carnivorous reptile but the one that I am particularly perturbed by is the rattlesnake. California’s only native venomous snake, rattlers are part of the viper family, a fact which definitely doesn’t make them seem any less intimidating. Rattlesnakes are seen in great numbers in the desert sections of the Pacific Crest Trail which means that the potential for to me encounter a slithering menace is very much towards the inevitable end of the scale. So, if I can’t evade a confrontation, I need to ensure that I avoid becoming the victim of a deadly toxic attack. At this point, I am feel ever so slightly more confident than I did with the bears, mostly because I think my chances of out running a snake are much higher!
According to the California Poison Control Centre, although rattlesnakes account for more than 800 bites each year, only one to two of these are fatal … Hoorah! Furthermore, rattlesnakes are not aggressive and will strike only when threatened or deliberately provoked. On top of all that, the helpful and courteous rattler will also use the modified scales on the tip of its tail to provide me with a useful heads-up “rattle” before launching any attack. So, my plan of action is to keep my ears and eyes open (no earbuds for me in the desert), my feet and ankles well covered, makes sure that I meticulously check before sitting down, picking anything up or sticking my hands anywhere and I will use my walking poles to frisk areas of long grass and bush if heading off trial for a spot of LNT. When I come across a rattler I will most definitely be giving it an exceptionally wide berth!
Dehydration and Death in the Desert
For the first 650 or so miles, the Pacific Crest Trail meanders through the desolate desiccated deserts of Southern California. This arid section of the trail is notorious for its long waterless stretches that necessitate ridiculously heavy water hauls. Water is vital to my survival and it has been in desperately short supply in California for well over a decade now. Oh and just in case I hadn’t already mentioned it, water is very, very heavy!
During my training hikes I have been paying close attention to how much water I consume. On average I suck my way through approximately 1 litre (1kg) every 5 miles or 90 minutes. This suggests that on an average 20 mile PCT day I would need to consume about 4 litres (4kg) of water. On the face of things this doesn’t seem too bad, however what these “training” statistics fail to take into account are the umpteen cups of coffee I drink before setting off and the litres of water I drink when I get home. Neither does my “training” consumption consider the need to rehydrate food and the debilitating heat of the desert. Once I’ve factored in this additional “stealth” consumption, it looks likely that I would need to be carrying closer to 6 litres (6kg) if I want to remain certain of staying alive … did I mention that water is heavy? Of course, dehydration is only half the problem. I will also need to deal with possible heat stroke and hydonatremia (a potentially lethal condition that occurs when we don’t have enough sodium in our bodies, usually as a result of excessive sweating and high water in take).
Thankfully, there are a few resources and strategies that I can adopt to alleviate some of these desert dangers. A crowdsourced compilation of water information called The PCT Water Report will be my first line of defence. This life saving project provides real time data on all water sources in Southern California and a few other dry stretches of trail further north. The report, in conjunction with canny map reading and navigation skills should allow me to make the most of the limited natural water supplies. I am also planning to do a fair amount of night hiking. By avoiding the hottest part of the day (pretty much all of it) I hope to reduce the need for water and eliminate the risk of heat stroke.
The Funk and Turning Feral
I decided to look up the dictionary definition of feral … “existing in a wild or uncultivated state, especially after being domestic or cultivated” … yep, that pretty much hits the nail on the head. Living in the wilderness, as I intend to do, for almost 5 months can play havoc with a person’s perception of what might be considered a socially acceptable level of cleanliness. It is no secret that thru-hikers stink, they even have a special term for it … Hiker Funk … and it is this that I fear!
Hiker Funk is the name given to the tangy aroma of a fully ripened thru-hiker. This obnoxious whiff is the result of a unique combination of excessive sweat, overly economical use of laundry facilities, irregular showering and a generally scant regard for personal hygiene. Some thru-hikers embrace and grow to love their funk, however I have a borderline obsessive disorder when it comes to sanitation and I am terrified of turning feral. This is a fear that will definitely add weight to my pack. Notwithstanding the fact that just about every experienced thru-hiker that I have ever asked tells me that it is impossible to avoid the funk and that I will eventually succumb to the stench, I will at least start with good intentions. My armament will include; an entirely merino wardrobe (merino wool has natural anti-bacterial properties which means that is can be worn much longer than synthetic clothing before it starts to stink), wet wipes for daily washing, Gold Bond medicated talc, hand washing socks and underwear on a daily basis and deodorant (this last item always seems to cause much controversy). On zero and nero town days I intend to shower, wash all my clothes, my sleeping bag liner and my pack. Hopefully, these simple steps will help to prevent me taking on the appearance of a “wildling” within weeks of setting off from Campo.
Snow and Ice in The Sierras
As I sit writing this in the glorious heat of a sub-tropical southern hemisphere summer, snow is falling all along the Pacific Crest Trail … lots and lots of snow. Although it is still too early to tell with any degree of certain how the Sierra snowpack will look by the time I reach it, with each and every Facebook posting I see of the trail buried under a deep blanket of white, my anxiety levels gain a little more altitude. To make matters worse, there’s a very well meaning dude called Ned Tibbits who, although unquestionably knowledgeable and informative about all things snow related, has single handedly managed to scare the living daylights out of me. I am constantly trying to convince myself that its probably all just a cunning marketing ploy (he runs some kind of snow survival school), however all his talk of self-arrest, ice-axes, crampons and treacherous creek crossings have made me start to really warm towards the bears!
I have spent the vast majority of my adult life hemisphere-hopping in an effort to actively avoid snow and ice … I dislike winters and everything associated with them. I have scant experience of walking in (or do you walk on, I’m not sure) snow and ice and my chances of acquiring any before I start my PCT thru-hike and precisely nonexistent. My overly active imagination is full of footage of me endless postholing through The Sierras, starving to death because I can’t carry enough food to sustain myself during the snail like pace, impaling myself on an ice axe, slithering to my demise down a frigorific cliff face, getting swept to my death by a raging torrent of snow melt or simply freezing to death in my tent!
Although I certainly can’t do anything to change what mother nature has in store for me, I do have an ingenious plan to circumvent the worst of what she may dole out. It is a strategy known as “flipping” and is commonly practiced in high snow years. In a nutshell, if things look too sketchy through The Sierras, I plan to get off the trail at Kennedy Meadows (MM702) and hitch a ride north to Sierra City (MM1195) where hopefully the path is less perilous. Then once I reach Canada I will then backtrack and complete the missed 500 miles in a southbound direction. Of course, all of this is just idle speculation and nothing is for certain until the time arrives. One thing this trail is already teaching me to do is to stay in the moment and stop wasting my energy on worrying about thing I can neither control or predict.
Somehow Lyme disease has gone from not even being on my radar to seemingly being all over it … WTF! This alarmingly prevalent bacterial infection lives in mice and deer and is transmitted to humans by tiny ticks who become infected when they feed on the animals. A Harvard study suggests that Lyme is probably 10 times more common than we think, and the 30,000 cases reported annual in the US alone are just the tip of the iceberg. So the next important question … is it deadly? Well no, but that’s not the point. For sufferers with chronic cases of the disease, it can mean a life sentence of pain and suffering that makes death feel like a pretty attractive alternative … Yikes!
The early signs and symptoms aren’t great … A big bull’s-eye shaped red rash is often the first thing that people notice, along with flu-like aches, pains, fever and general feelings of extreme fatigue. If left untreated or not treated quickly enough, more serious symptoms can develop. Now here’s the problem, these longer term symptoms mimic other debilitating illnesses such as arthritis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. As a consequence Lyme is all too often misdiagnosed and mistreated. Even when it is correctly diagnosed, there is currently no clear consensus on how to treat chronic cases so the best thing seems to avoid getting it in the first place.
Thankfully here at least I have a fighting chance. Ticks it turns out don’t like DEET or Permethrin so that is a good first line of defence. Ticks also don’t fly or jump so they can only get on me if I come into physical contact with them. Avoiding long grass and brushing through foliage will also help, as does wearing long pants and a long sleeved top. Getting into the habit of regularly inspecting myself for ticks will become a crucial part of my hygiene routine. If I should find one, I must remove the little bugger carefully with a pair of tweezers … there’s another 20 grams to add to the pack!
Not Finishing and Finishing
Of all of my fears, these two are probably the greatest. You may think that “not finishing” is pretty self explanatory but first let me quantify exactly what I mean by “not finishing”. Basically what I fear is being forced off of the early trail by some sort of injury or illness. Overuse injuries are the largest single reason why people fail to complete a thru-hike and when you need to average 20 miles a day for over 4 months its not hard to see why. The next most common reason to quit is psychological meltdown … all that time alone with your own thoughts can be hard to handle I guess. Then there are the unforeseen family emergencies that need to be attended to. I have prepared for what I can as best as I can and I am confident that I have sufficient zen, the mental tenacity and physical strength to stick it out. So what if I don’t make it all the way to Canada? Well this is a real possibility and one I have come to accept, but ultimately my goal is not a destination but a 140 day journey. How far that journey takes me remains to be seen.
Finally, my biggest fear of all … finishing! Adjusting to life after the trail is a big problem for many and its not too hard to understand why this might be. Living in a state of total freedom, totally in tune with nature and with no agenda apart from walking, eating and sleeping for almost 5 months will undoubtedly have a profound impact upon my psyche. The daily challenge of making the miles, finding water, building camp and replenishing the calorific output is a persistent low level stress that has been likened to PTSD … something which, from my own past experience, I know can be difficult to cope with. However, the trail also provides something far more visceral and intrinsic that is often hard to rediscover back in the real world. The trail provides both direction and purpose. Two of the most essential elements that us biodegradable little mammals need to flourish. Without these fundamental influences I may just be left drifting aimlessly and that is definitely something to fear!