23 miles and free stuff.

Day 16, 7/23
Miles: 22.8
Mileage: 209.3 – 232.1

I never remember hitting snooze a million times, but it always happens. Luckily we only hit it about 10 times this morning instead of 100, and I sit up in bed at 6:30, all of the sudden frantic to wake up and pack up and be on the trail.

“We’re late we have to get up!” I scream at Simone who then sits up to tell me she’s been saying that for the last half hour. Hmm, I don’t remember any of that.

I eat a pop tart- delicious. And then I prepare myself for what’s about to come- it’s the morning that I’m going to dump a Starbucks via down my throat. Simone watches me, thinking I’m nuts, as I open the package and dump the entire thing into the back of my mouth. I try to swallow but nothing happens, then I take some swigs of water and finally a clump goes down. I take more swigs of water, and the rest of the little clumps go down my throat.

“Yumm! That wasn’t so bad at all!” I announce. “Kinda like an espresso shot!”

Now all of the sudden It’s a great idea and Simone wants to try it too. She takes the powdered espresso shot, washes it down with water, and is also surprised and excited that it’s much better than expected. This is going to be our new morning ritual, we decide. Five minutes later I’m all sorts of chipper and happy, pumped about the day, blabbing on and on about a bunch of nonsense that anyone still tired first thing in the morning wouldn’t care about.

Last night while we were hungry, eating more than our ration of food for the day and looking at the map, I got a twinkle in my eye and looked at Simone and said “how do you feel about a 20 mile day tomorrow?”

As soon as we realized there was a general store and a restaurant at the Mt. Princeton hot springs, that was a game-changer and a 15 mile day suddenly turned into a 23 mile day. So that is what we are doing this morning after taking our powdered espresso shots- walking 20 miles to the hot springs so we can eat.

From the moment we wake up to the moment we are walking on the trail it only takes us 48 minutes to get ready. Not too bad! I’m rather excited about this, as it normally takes a miracle to get me out of camp in less than an hour. Up we go, up our first and biggest climb of the day- a 3.5 mile, almost 3,000ft. Elevation gain climb. Not too far in I see a familiar backpack ahead, and when she turns around I realize it’s none other than our friend Peggy! We met Peggy on our very first day, and we spent the first 5 days flip-flopping with each other until we hitched into Fairplay and she continued on. We didn’t know if we’d see her again, especially because she planned to take the collegiate west route and we decided to take the east. But here we are! And here she is! We spend 5 minutes or so catching up and having a brief reunion, but we can’t take too long of a break, so Simone and I continue on up the hill.

I am happy today. I’m excited to be walking a 20 mile day, I feel good, energized, and there’s no where else I’d rather be. I spend my time walking up the hill thinking about how much I love to push my body. I think about how different people are given different skill sets, and one of mine apparently is to push my body and ignore pain. Not just ignore pain, in fact, but actually ENJOY it. I am itching to run an ultra. I want to get back from this trip and run a 50k, and if that goes well, I want to run a 50 miler. I don’t want to do it for the achievement or for the glory, but rather to FEEL something I’ve never felt before. Something that I’ve read about in so many books, and craved to find within myself so many times. There is something about feeling pain pulsating through your body- aching, throbbing, dying to slow down or stop or collapse on the ground because your energy I depleted. I think it takes a special kind of person to enjoy challenges like that, and as I walk today I am thankful that I’m one of them.

I reach the top of the climb at 9:15am- 15 minutes before the time I estimated we’d arrive. Simone shows up only 5 minutes later. She has been listening to her iPod today and apparently it’s making her faster because I only had to wait 5 minutes! Hell yes! We’re just below 12,000 feet and the trees are still clustered up here, the view is minimal. I think about the tree line in Oregon- somewhere down around 6,000-7,000 ft. What a difference! Here we are up at 11,900 feet- higher than any point in Oregon- and the trees are still just hanging out up here, just living and breathing and acting like everything is normal up at this freakishly high elevation.

We make it down quick and begin walking a 3 mile flat section which winds it’s way barely up then barely down and around a lake, very close to a highway. Beautiful log homes are spotted along the lake and buried in the hills. I decide this would be an amazing place for a vacation home. Just as we are beginning our last little two mile climb of the day I hear a deep, loud rumble from behind and I look up to see a huge, dark cloud looming above me, slowly making it’s way towards me like a lion prowling on it’s prey, waiting for the perfect time to attack.

“Where did this cloud come from!! 10 minutes ago it was 100% sunny!” I exclaim.

We are walking fast away from the cloud, just on the outside of it, and for a while we stay just a few steps ahead. Soon we start our 2 mile climb up to 10,200 ft, and the switchbacks give way for the storm to catch us. First it starts raining, then it hails. We’re walking uphill…. I know we aren’t going above tree line but still…. There’s something about walking up at high elevations with metal in our packs, metal sticks in our hands, walking directly under a dark cloud that could shoot out a bolt of electricity at any moment that makes me feel so…. Vulnerable. We continue walking but stop several times to reassess the situation. Finally, with deep, shaking rumbles coming from directly above us, we decide to put a pause to our hike for now- to stop for lunch under the relative safety of tree cover.

We sit there for 40 minutes or so, I munch on chips and beef jerky, update my blog and post on Facebook. We sit in the rain, let it dump onto our head and back from under the comfort of a rain jacket. Finally I’m getting antsy and tired of sitting still in one place for too long. My legs should be walking! I was made for walking, not for sitting! We decide to keep going and make a run for it, and we haven’t heard thunder for a couple minutes now so it should be fine, right?

Now I’m moving at lightening speed. Okay, so maybe I’m not actually moving at lightening speed, cause if I was, I wouldn’t be afraid of the lightening? I think that’s how that works. Either way, I’m moving fast. We crest the top of the ridge in no time, but still have 2 1/2 miles of ridge walking to do before we head back down. I tell Simone I’m gonna move and not stop until we’re at lower elevation. Off I go, plodding into the woods and through the trees at full speed. This section of trail is totally cruiser and I’m just walkin’ walkin’ walkin’ up the tiny ups and down the tiny downs but mostly it’s flat so I’m almost running. All the sudden I hear a CRASH! BOOM! CRASH! And some rustling in the trees to my left. I look over, startled, and there in the trees not too far off is an elk! My first elk! I stop. He stops. We get a good look at each other for a few seconds- frozen in place- then he tears off through the forest, his giant antlers crashing against the trees as if he forgot they stick out three feet from his side. Well that was awesome, I think, then I start walking again and life goes on.

The thunder is still above me terrorizing me on occasion, but I’m just on the outskirts of it now and I know I’ll be safe. I still continue walking a good clip, now set in a rhythm of my feet and my hiking poles and my breath all working together, simultaneously, pushing me onward down the trail. I’m still wearing my rain jacket although it hasn’t rained in about a half hour, but I want to get down into better trees before I stop. I don’t want to break my rhythm, and I don’t want to be above 10,000 feet while there is still a storm threatening me from above. It’s a sauna inside my jacket. Steam and heat is building up, I can feel it, so I open my pit vents and zip open my jacket and keep walking and sweating and walking and sweating.

I finally reach the downhill section where I finally stop and finally take my jacket off and finally get a drink of water. I’m so thirsty. So, so thirsty. My mouth is dry, my saliva is cottony, my throat is parched. I drink and drink and drink a whole liter almost, then Simone shows up and we keep walking down the path together. I tell her about the sauna inside my jacket and the steam that evaporated up into the air when I took it off. After a short downhill segment, we attach onto a dirt road and walk the road until we hit a young life camp. The kids are having a blast, riding go-carts. We walk in and fill our water bottles, ask them if we can take a turn on the go-carts. They say no. Damn, we tried.

I walk along the side of the highway, which is the Colorado Trail for a short while, down two more miles to the resort. Cars are driving by from both directions, honking on occasion. I get to the hot springs at 4:30. We hiked 20.2 miles in 9 hours, which we feel pretty good about for our longest day yet. I buy an ice cream sandwich from the little store- I’m completely obsessed with ice cream sandwiches when I have access to them on the trail- we walk down to the pool area and manage to get a free shower. We don’t even care about the hot springs at this point- It’s 18 bucks to swim in a swimming pool that is heated naturally and smells like minerals. Awesome? The shower is more awesome. I wash my clothes in the shower as well, use shampoo and conditioner and I even get the luxury of using silky lotion on my unshaven legs. I throw my wet clothes back on, happy that I no longer smell like a dirty, sweaty old rag, and we head to the restaurant for some real food.

I’m really treating myself tonight. I order a margarita. I order a salad, and a burger. The couple next to us have a loaf of bread with honey butter that looks absolutely fluffily delicious, and we’re talking about their bread apparently too loudly, so when the waitress walks away the couple offers it to us.

“If you’re reeeeally seeeeriously not gonna eat that….. We’ll take it!” I say to them kind of happily but also with uncertainty.

“We’re shameless.” Simone adds in.

I eat my whole salad, my entire burger, and I finish off 2/3 of a whole loaf of fresh, warm, soft bread with the best honey butter I’ve ever placed in my mouth. Finally, after eating two large dinner portions worth of food, I feel full and satisfied so we ask for our check and pull out our money.

“By the way, the couple next to you covered your tab tonight.” Says the waitress.

My jaw drops, my hands go to my mouth, and I scream “THEY DID NOT!” All at the same time.

Simone yells “WHAAAAT?!” In a freakishly loud and astonished voice, and her jaw is also wide open in shock.

Someone we didn’t even talk to, don’t even know, didn’t even make friends with, just paid for our 50 dollar tab. WHAT?! We are happy and excited and shocked and in awe all at the same time, and it takes about an hour to sink in. The waitress wishes us farewell as we walk out of the restaurant, and walk away from the hot springs, not having paid for either of the two things we came for. How is this real?

I recall a blog entry I read recently, by Carrot Quinn, who is on her second thru hike of the PCT right now. She said it how it is:

“People are so nice to us! I really don’t understand why we deserve it- walking and sleeping on the ground, that’s all we do.”

I think about this so often, after all these amazingly nice things people have done for us as hikers. People see someone walking down the street with a backpack on, and they instantly want to be your friend. They want to know where you’re from, what you’re doing, and congratulate you ahead of time. They want to give you a ride, buy you a beer, offer a bed on their couch, or buy your meal. Seriously, all we do is walk and stink and sleep on the ground. Why are we so special?

We walk the last 2.8 miles to the end of the segment, pitch the tent just as it’s getting dark. For walking 23 miles and spending 3 hours at the hot springs, we feel great and energetic.

“What an incredibly amazing day. Days like today, people like those we met today, really restore my faith in humanity”, I sleepily say to Simone.

If you ever feel like humanity is turning bad, and you need your faith restored, hit the trail for a month. I promise you everything will change. Oh the trail, I love the trail.