You don’t choose the day you enter the world and you don’t chose the day you leave. It’s what you do in between that makes all the difference. – Anita Septimus
I wake on my final day with the moon casting leaf shadows on our tent, Rich a giant breathing blue bag next to me. He’s more of a night owl, working on projects at home until the wee hours, but he’s always awakened with me when I need an early start, sometimes even walking me to work at 4 am. What a treasure I have, his muppet face peaking out then brightening excited for me on this last bit.
The campground was mostly silent, though the three hikers sharing our space yell to each other from tent to tent about sharing a joint and coffee, every other word beginning with an ‘F.’ The sun isn’t up yet and there are posted quiet hours. We’re offered an entire area for only $5 each and I wince thinking these guys are ruining it for future hikers. I pack quickly just as they start playing music. Guys, really? I hold back lecturing them as lesson learned is to simply remove myself. We find a rock in shade near the trailhead to drink coffee as a man comes by with a pair of pugs. My self-righteous indignation melts at the sight of these cuties. Another lesson learned – everything changes. They have the softest fur, too.
Richard walks up with me to the view above the reservoir. It’s the highest in San Diego county at 3,000 feet, the entire valley purchased for this purpose in 1895 by John Spreckels, a tycoon whose name is associated with just about everything here including Balboa Park, the railroad and a spectacular theatre organ still in use. My mood lifts more up here holding Richard’s hand and recalling how last night some revelers at the campground invited us to join them. It wasn’t our thing, but the gesture was lovely.
Richard is definitely not walking this part – twenty waterless miles through steep chaparral vs. six miles by car – so we kiss goodbye and I power on up. Whoever said things get vastly easier to the end likely didn’t walk the trail. I have rock outcroppings and views before dropping steeply into a canyon and climbing right back out, 1,000 feet. To be fair, it’s not very steep, but it feels warmer down here. Clouds and wind keep me from getting too sweaty.
At the top, two of the hikers catch me and we chat. They may not quite understand being considerate at camp, but they’re nice kids, having a laugh at how much they look like their trail names – ‘Sour Patch’ and ‘Willy Wonka’ – as well as how desperately one of them needs a shave. I like them immediately but will likely not see them again since their pickup at the terminus is early. I tell them Richard and I will meet my dad and brother tonight for sushi, something even Mountain House hasn’t figured out how to make available in dehydrated form for backpackers.
I take their photo and they head on, leaving me to enjoy all this alone for one last time. I am so lucky my family is here at the end. I walked to the signpost in Bluff, New Zealand by myself. Bluff is famous for its oysters, and I took a brief stop to eat some before tagging the end. It slowed me down enough so that when my friend Ian drove down from Invercargill to see if I’d made it, he caught me within sight of the sign. What a moment! He acted as photographer when a passing tourist boosted me up to hang wildly from the arrow pointing to New York, my birthplace, thousands of miles away. Today, Richard will cheer me on as the PCT paparazzo.
But it’s still a half day’s walk away first up a dirt road with signs in Spanish warning of the desert’s dangers. Are desperate migrants hiding in the bushes right now? I see no sign of anyone except a rock cairn that I add to. I did this often on the Te Araroa since much of the ‘trail’ was just signs and rock piles. What a tough journey that was, my first long-distance hike over 1,000 miles. I was more nervous and out of my element on that hike, challenged daily by my trepidation with the unknown as well as the churning inside my heart and soul. This trail I feel more deliberate and intentional. I definitely feel more ‘comfortable in my own skin’, as they say. Perhaps because I have a specific goal, not just to walk the trail until I finish, rather to walk until I heal.
I complete the last big climb of the PCT and top out without any views, which seems oddly fitting as my future is a bit hazy and unclear, and I’ll need to walk with faith, trusting things will work out. They always do, of course. Just like walking, the views open up and change whether I trust or not. Here, too, I come out of a tunnel of mesquite, walking through several pipe gates, as though in a fairy tale, and out onto a snaking balcony walk, a huge rock garden below. Just when the plants become repetitive, I pass huge stalks with tiny yellow flowers stacked like satellite dishes, their happy faces turned towards the sun. I try to get a photo, but my shadow blocks them at most angles.
I am ready to reach the end, of course. It’s time now. But I slow down a little, not quite sure I want to let go. I check my map app, crossing into single digits to the end. I can see Campo Creek far below and the railroad, granite studded mountains beyond in Mexico. I eat a handful of oreos, definitely my last for a long time, and head down steeply on loose rock switchbacks. Spreading oaks in a gorgeous meadow look like a model train set scene from this vantage point. A group of backpackers out for a few days approach asking about camping ahead. They are amazed by my accomplishment and the tiny size of my backpack. I can’t bear to correct them that I’m slackpacking, allowing them to believe I only carry food, water and my puffy in the desert. Pure evil! One asks me if I was in the malt shop last night and I flash my wedding ring. I can hear the mournful train whistle from here and wish them luck, working my way down a serpentine trail towards the tracks.
A few lizards dart in and out of my steps. Goodbye, friends! One sneaky snake slithers into the bushes. Thanks for showing your beautiful selves to me, snakes! The air is hot now. Gummy bears melt in my pocket and I feel admonished to begin cutting out sugar in my diet. Yes, I ate horribly. Too much junk kept me going and I’ll need to reconsider my awful habits the next time out. I clean my sticky fingers with a wipie and chug another liter of water after crossing the tracks. Just as I come closer to the road, Richard appears. He excitedly tells me about the d train in use for tourists and the activities today at the train museum. Just three miles to go and we’ll head over for a look.
I’m on my own as he drives up the rutted dirt road to the end. I walk a ridge above Campo and hear live music in the distance, applause then an announcer. I meet a road, but follow a trail next to it, a cast off pair of jeans shoved into a notch in the rock. A highway mile marker tells me I am mile one. I pass empty rodeo stands as border patrol whizzes by. Huge oaks look like Shel Silverstein’s ‘Giving Tree’ and I feel welcomed even as a razor wired wall appears on the horizon like China’s Great Wall, following the hilly contour.
It’s dusty to the top, one last rise into the sun, our rental car gleaming next to the terminus pillars. Richard raises his arms in victory and attempts a photo just as a tourist parks his car right in his way. The same tourist elbows his way to the sign, aggressively saying, “Excuse me,” so he can have his picture taken without a PCT hiker wrecking it. What symmetry on this hike shared with so many personalities. His pushiness makes no difference since I can wait until he’s finished, then have the monument all to myself. Oddly, I laugh about it rather than find it upsetting. Perhaps it doesn’t occur to him that I walked all those miles. But who cares if he does or doesn’t. I know and Richard and you reading this. My walk was an adventure and a journey. I find congratulations and accolades, as nice as they are and as grateful as I am for them, are not the point. What happened inside me and to the relationship I have with the world is all that counts.
Richard makes me a fresh lime margarita and takes photos, then we leave for the train museum and finally dinner with my dad. I haven’t seen him in years and it is a happy reunion, one we both needed. We eat and drink and talk and laugh, then plan for brunch tomorrow. He even invites me to San Francisco to share my hiking story with his seniors group. Friends, life is filled with surprises for those who don’t lose sight of faith and hope. I am deeply, deeply blessed.