Day 29 / North Fork Ranger Station to Hiker Heaven – Agua Dulce (18.21mi.) / Saturday, May 25, 2013

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Previous to the beginning of this hike, I remember being absolutely confident that I would have plenty of time to journal each night. Similarly, I pictured myself rising, well rested and energetic, before the sun in order to stretch and prepare my body for the day ahead.Those preconceptions are utterly laughable to me now. Short of eating and packing/unpacking/shuffling gear, my days consist solely of waking with the sun, prying myself out of bed, and walking. Lots of walking. Walking which ultimately results in the reward of rest, of sleep, which starts the circle anew.

I’m not particularly bothered by my new and limited agenda, apart from the slight pang of guilt I feel each time I realize another day has gone by that I haven’t recorded anything whatsoever about my experience.

At this point, days have begun to blend together, and today the thought bubbled up in my wandering hiker brain that if I’m having trouble separating days and experiences in the midst of this adventure, it’s going to be quite a blur in retrospect.

The end of my fourth week of hiking finds me still toddling along at a pace much slower than that of my nimble-footed brother, but at an improved rate nonetheless. In all honesty, it’s been much more of a slow and painful transition than I anticipated.

Based on years of soccer training, and my time spent learning to snowboard, kayak, climb…, I’m familiar with the bodily pain associated with throwing yourself head on into unfamiliar and strenuous activity. In the past, I admit, I’ve even reveled in that pain a little, as through each experience I could feel my body strengthening, and though sometimes frustrated, could see improvement in leaps and bounds.
Adjusting to hiking at this level has been a totally different experience. It’s funny to think that at its core, the only skill required to hike is the ability to continuously place one foot in front of another. In the game of long-distance hiking, many of the most skilled hikers are able to place one foot in front of another with dizzying rapidity. This is a skill I, of relatively adept coordination and generally adequate physical fitness, was confident I could master from the onset. To my great dismay, this is not so, and my learning experience has been quite counter-intuitive to any activity I have ever pursued.

After four weeks of 20-ish mile days of climbing and descending in the hot desert sun, my muscles are not sore in the least, yet my body – from my bones, to my tendons, to the skin that holds me together, is steadily rattling, shaking, and stretching its way apart. My feet and the inner workings of my legs have been devastated by the unrelenting impact of my march through the desert, and at the onset of the hike the pads and heels of my feet blistered with such severity that by day 9, I stopped in my tracks and was unable to continue for three days.

Luckily, after countless Epsom salt soaks and tireless attention to every ailment, my blisters are on the mend. However, the cessation of one problem comes at the expense of other body parts (i.e. my knees), which have been taking the impact of my blister-altered stride. I am slightly comforted by the fact that other hikers have expressed a similar sentiment; sitting alongside me as I soak and clean my feet, kneading aching calves or stretching tight muscles, and additionally comforted by the realization that we have now caught up with the wave of hikers who started with us indicating that for all of our down days and setbacks, we’re keeping up and making good time.

Seth seems cheered and relaxed a little at the thought of being again in stride with the front of the pack, which in turn pleases me. It was hard to see him frustrated by our slow progress on account of my feet, though he weathered his disappointment admirably, conceding to walk behind me in order to keep pace, and take the extra days needed to heal up enough to walk again.

I’m hesitant to let myself believe it, but I think the worst is over now. Seth and I have fallen into a manageable routine, I seem to be mostly through a very painful transition into hiker mode, and, perhaps most surprising of all, we haven’t killed each other yet.

I’ve been slightly nauseated to discover that my brother and I don’t look as obviously related as I thought, and that most hikers who meet us on the trail think we’re a couple. Moving past my revulsion, I can laugh a little when I think about the impression people get about our “relationship” when they hear the way we bicker.

Aside from getting a little snippy at times, I’m pretty impressed at how well our dynamic has developed. We don’t talk too much while hiking, or even during our resting hours, but I’m always glad for the company. And despite not having seen each other in years, we grew up together and have seen the best and worst of each other, which eliminates an incredible amount of pretense.

With morale much improved and our pace quickening, I’m beginning to enjoy the hike a little more. There are certainly stretches that pass almost unbearably due to either physical discomfort, exhaustion, or simply antsiness, but increasingly I am also able to let my feet walk with purpose and my mind wander with ease.

I have been hesitant to mention this aloud to other hikers lest I offend the notion that the entirety of this trail should be breathtakingly beautiful, but the desert has been generally uninspiring to me so far. Certainly there have been moments, especially on the rare occasion that our elevation has climbed above 9,000, or when the setting sun illuminates a gorge just right, when my heartrate quickens at a grand panorama, but predominately the land around us is charred, barren, or solely populated by sand, brush, and scurrying, harried lizzards. I suppose there’s a beauty inherent in the sparseness, simplicity, and hardness of this place, especially when it is unexpectedly punctuated by the rare vibrant desert plant, pristine and rebellious in its beauty, but nothing grips me here, nothing tugs at me aside from a growing urge to quicken my pace towards the north, a promised land of temperate climes and alpine splendor.

To my great relief, we have landed for the night in a desert oasis, a property owned by the Saufley family of Agua Dulce, CA which has been fitted with a thru-hiker’s every need. Our tarp is currently pitched on their beautiful lawn, rife with shady trees and luscious green grass, I have had a long, hot shower, a fantastic Mexican meal, and my stinky hiker clothes are well on their way to being clean for a fleeting evening of Tide-fresh glory.

We set off again into the desert tomorrow with the hopes of reaching another PCT oasis; Casa del Luna, operated by the Anderson family, 24 miles away. A few more epsom salt baths, and a good night’s sleep, and I might just be ready.