It was the first day of September, 2013, and I was feeling a little impressed with myself. Starting at the Columbia River Gorge, I had been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for nearly 30 days, 10 to 12 hours every day, and covered nearly 400 hundred miles. Along the way, I met some amazing people whose generosity and kindness were humbling, and I had a new pack that REI had switched-out for me simply on my word-of-honor over the phone. Indeed, trail angels abounded.
Aside from my blindingly painful left big toe and assorted blisters, I was in relatively decent shape, and though I had lost nearly 15 pounds, I felt stronger by the day. At 71 years old, that was an overflow list for gratitude. Nevertheless, there were many nights I awoke from pain I was feeling somewhere. At those times I would simply lie still and wait until it passed, trying to fall back to sleep knowing that the next day would demand renewed vigor and energy.
I began this new month on the Pacific Crest Trail with a sense of contentment I had rarely known before. I sat by Sitkum Creek sipping another wretched cup of instant coffee, writing a few sentences in my journal, and chewing on a breakfast bar. It was crumbly and stale, but I washed it down with generous sips of coffee and opened another. I would need the extra calories for the challenging miles the day would extract. I wanted to make Dolly Vista campsite, about 16 miles north from where I sat. The terrain was as rugged as I had yet encountered, so it would be a long and difficult day of hiking. I would start at 3,800 feet and climb to 5,800 by the day’s end. That meant an entire day of ups and downs and multiple switchbacks; a hiker’s nightmare. Demanding, yes, but the views were glorious beyond description, which helped my aesthetic spirit prod my weary body into moving forward.
About seven miles into the day, I met a man sitting by the side of the trail next to his teenage son. They had started at the trailhead 15 miles outside of Stehekin, and were hiking south to Stevens Pass. They had taken the three-hour boat ride from the town of Chelan to begin their own trek.
The man invited me to join them, so I unstrapped my pack and dropped it at my feet. I plunked down on a tree stump close to them. Our conversation led from one topic to another and eventually to his telling about his childhood in India where his father had been the tailor in their small village, supporting a family of eight children. His mother had died while giving birth to his youngest sibling and they were poor by any standard. Forty years ago he’d come to America to create a better life. He went to college, settled into a career, married, and had a large family. He told me that when he came to America he brought only the clothes he wore for the trip, an extra shirt, a pair of sandals, a windbreaker, a pair of shorts, assorted toiletries, and several pictures of his family. To the present day, it remained a mystery how his father managed to scrape together enough money to pay for his passage. He told me that as he become increasingly successful, he sent money to bring his entire family to America, where they all thrived and where his father and several of his siblings are buried in a family plot.
As he spoke, tears brimmed. Then, after a short pause, he continued, “Now I am retired, and I have a closet full of clothes, more than I can wear, and a house full of things I rarely pay attention to.”
And there, in the presence of his bored son (who’d probably heard the story a thousand times), he told me he was happier when he possessed nothing than he was today. He claimed that he would happily return to those earlier days of simplicity. He laughed when he said he was the American success story, but in the end, he succeeded in nothing but collecting more things than he wanted or needed.
“No, my friend, my greatest treasure is my family and my great joy today is that this son is with me here. If you have family and health, you have everything.”
By now it was close to lunchtime, so we sat on the side of the trail and shared our food. I had more stuff than they, and the boy smiled broadly when I pulled out a Snickers bar and handed it over to him. The father watched as his son tore off the paper and devoured the candy before he ate the lunch his father had prepared. I detected sadness in the father as he watched his son. It was if the father had somehow failed to impart the values he himself had been taught as a child.
After lunch, I stood up from the stump I’d been sitting on to continue my own hike. I sensed I had been in the presence of an itinerant guru imparting wisdom to whomever would welcome it. I thought of these encounters as gifts spread along my pathway for me to open and explore. It was another example that proved the best things that happened to me along the Trail were not planned.
With my pack securely strapped on, I gathered up my trekking poles and stood on the path heading north. As I began my first step, I turned around and asked, “About how far to Dolly Vista?”
The man replied, “You’re almost there.”
“Really? Seems like it’d be farther.”
He slowly shook his head and reaffirmed, “Nope, you’re almost there.”
“Well, enjoy the rest of your day,” and I headed north.
Being “almost there” is an all-too-typical response to enquiries about distance from one point to another. I soon learned that what one person considered “almost there” wasn’t the same for another. For a 20-year old, five miles was a couple hours walk. For me, at 72, depending on the terrain, it could mean half a day of hiking. Receiving such information from someone 20, 30, or even half my age, was usually not helpful. So at some point during my PCT experience, I stopped asking.
“Almost there” is different for each hiker. But then, in a different meaning, heading into my 73rd year on this remarkable planet, “almost there” might be more accurate than I want to admit.
I reached Dolly Vista after a long and daunting 15-mile day. I felt every year of my life that night. Yet no matter how weary, the taste of ice-cold stream water and being in the midst of perfect beauty was an elixir that restored me.
A gentle breeze came from the north, and I fell asleep with that sound as the last I heard for the day.
Excerpted from Almost There: Stories and Musings along the Pacific Crest Trail