The Triumphant Return

On Thursday, July 7, things literally could not have worked out better. This streak of good fortune started at the airport, where I figured I’d have to pay $25 to check my tent because who’s going to let nine sharp, metal tent stakes through security? The ticket counter lady ran to TSA and asked.

Of course, only in Idaho can you get away with walking a tent full of sharp poles through security. That’s exactly what I did.

Then, as fortune would have it, my good friend Natalie happened to be on my same flight from Boise to Reno (seated one row behind me) and we spent the time catching up on our lives.

Once in Reno, I worried about being able to get on the bus to take me to Lee Vining–the closest I could get to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. I found out too late that I needed to make my reservation 24 hours in advance, but as my luck would have it, the bus took me anyway.

While I waited for the bus to pick me up at the Reno Airport (after my step-dad’s uncle, Ed, returned my backpack to me along with a delicious BLT), I saw another girl wearing a pack.

“PCT?” I asked.

“Yeah,”she said. “I just got off.”

She seemed defeated, looked down a lot. I could tell she was embarrassed to talk about it. There’s a weird phenomenon that happens to thru-hikers. If you told anyone else in the world you hiked 1,000 miles, they’d think you were some mixture of inspirational and crazy. But if you tell a PCT hiker that, you preface it with the word “only.”

“I only walked 1,000 miles.”

I told her it’s still something to be proud of. My answer felt weak and watered down. I could see the disappointment she felt in herself. She left to catch a bus home.

My bus arrived and took four hours to get me to Lee Vining. There, I put out my thumb and caught the third car to pass, a cramped and cluttered car driven by a man and his nine-year-old daughter, road-tripping  from Mississippi. He listened ecstatically to my stories about the trail.

“Can you believe that, Milly?” he kept saying. His daughter, nonplussed by his enthusiasm, assured him over and over again that, no, she couldn’t believe it.

As we got closer to the entrance of Yosemite, my driver’s enthusiasm only grew. We putted along at 25 miles per hour as he leaned over his steering wheel to look at the mountains surrounding us. The line of cars behind us grew long.

“Look at this, Milly!” he said. “Look at that!”

They dropped me at the Tuolumne Meadows general store around 6 p.m., where I expected to know no one. Instead, I ran into an old trail friend who started the same day I did all those months ago. A trail angel served up some spaghetti. I love spaghetti. I sat by the fire ring and listened to a ranger wearing a coyote face mask tell stories of Yosemite. I pitched my tent in the backpacker camp without paying the camp fee (didn’t have cash) and laid in  my sleeping bag, looking up at my little LED Christmas lights. I felt home.

For nearly 900 miles, I walked this journey with Storytime. Now, while he finished up his visit with his family in New York, I hiked alone. It’s a different experience. I spent some time walking with other people, but most of my time walking solo.

I started forming my own systems: on the morning climbs, I listened to music. In the afternoons, I listened to podcasts. I walked 20 to 25 miles a day through Yosemite, reading my kindle on breaks and giving meditation a try. I walked past more waterfalls and mountain lakes. I camped by myself and I camped with other people. I accidentally missed a switchback once and made one climb up a shale-covered hill much harder than it needed to be. I took a tempting-but-disastrous glissade down the other side of the hill, resulting in a bruised tailbone and a long bushwhack back to the trail.I reached 1,000 miles, but no one was around to take my picture. It was the first time I hit a mile-marker without Storytime.

The scenery changed drastically: from tall, craggy mountain peaks reflecting in still, bright blue lakes to red hillsides covered in yellow, pink, purple and white wildflowers.

It was on my fourth day out that I heard Storytime was behind me and working to catch up. He did the 76-mile stretch from Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass in an insane 46 hours. I was still nine miles ahead of him, though, and kept walking to stay on schedule.

Two days later, his footprints leapfrogged mine and he was ahead of me. I worried he still thought I was ahead of him and I wouldn’t be able to catch up. I hiked along, lost in thought about this, when I heard him say, “Hey.”

I jumped a foot in the air in surprise and then tried to look normal and I was like, “hey,” back, all cool, like nothing had happened. He sat on a log off the side of the trail, eating a Poptart, looking tired and defeated.

“I had just given up,” he told me. “I didn’t think I’d catch up to you.”

“I can get rid of this weight now,” he said, and pulled out a bottle of root beer for me.

We spent the rest of the day hiking in hobbling bliss, happy to be reunited and jabbering about our time apart. We talked about Boise, about New York, about what happened in the airport, about us. We caught a ride into South Lake Tahoe and laughed over pizza and beer. We talked about a future together. We started making plans.

Those plans are beginning to unfold. But, that will have to wait for another blog post. This all for now.

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7 thoughts on “The Triumphant Return

  1. Yeah Jessica! Yeah Storytime! The best epic story of this Summer 2016!!! Safe journey to you both as your hiking unfolds triumphantly…

  2. Congratulations! WOW. You are doing so well and you sound so appreciative and aware of the fabulous creation around you. Big like. Lots of best wishes.

  3. Jessica,
    I last posted in March?
    So your seasoned thru hiker now…seems like the blink of an eye…
    I’m sure you don’t feel that way ..
    Time is fleeting and your doing exactly the right thing to suspend this unstoppable force.
    And to boot .. your doing with prose… making memories last forever.
    I think it was scuzin Gail Ruscetta that reminded us that “all who wander are not lost”
    I trust you will never lose your wander lust and your prose will follow each path…
    You must know we all like your writing ….
    scuzin richie

    do you ever have second thoughts about that bear encounter?

  4. Enjoyed reading your log describine your adventures along the Trail. At your age I would have loved that experience. It’s an accomplishment. It takes courage to finish the 1000 miles. Congratulations. Carmen Chisholm 8/3/16

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