The Five Mile Mistake

One of the thru-hiker’s articles of faith is “Hike your own hike” – go at your own pace, use the gear that makes you happy, don’t let other hikers’ opinions change your experience. This also means setting your own goals and rules for the hike. With fire closures, snow hazards, and other obstacles, it’s impossible to literally walk 2,660 consecutive miles of trail (and as the trail moves around hazards or requires extra hiking to water sources, that’s not even the exact length of the trail anyway), so it’s up to each hiker to figure out how they’ll best approximate a complete hike from Mexico to Canada. As they say, the PCTA pays you the same no matter how you hike it. 

From the beginning, Cal and I knew we wanted to be completists. We want to hike every mile it is possible to hike, and we have both been getting great satisfaction at looking south across a valley to a distant mountain range and being able to say, “we walked across all of that!” We are rule-oriented perfectionists, and for the first five hundred miles, we were proud of our commitment to walking every step.

On day 42 of our hike, we were at Hikertown at mile 517, an elaborate junkyard with hiker bunkhouses decorated like Old West buildings. We were about to embark on one of the most notorious stretches of trail.

The trail runs directly atop the Los Angeles Aqueduct – straight, level walking in hot sun, and, ironically, without access to water for seventeen miles. We decided to leave Hikertown in the afternoon and do most of the walking in the dusk. We figured we’d get to the campsite around nine or ten, which is fairly late for us, but we’d avoid the worst heat of the day. We got our gear together, including a couple of burritos from the local cafe to eat on trail later, and set off into the desert around 3:30.

We offset the monotony of the walk by bellowing Beatles songs and speculating on the lives of the people who lived in such a remote part of the country. Some houses were surrounded by corrals and grazing fields, some by Confederate flags and rusted car parts. The dirt road we hiked on was marked by careening ATV tracks and mysterious concrete structures for the aqueduct- one of which served as a seat while we ate our burritos and watched the sun creep towards the horizon.

After roughly four hours and ten miles of hiking, a white pickup truck came bumping down the road towards us. We stood aside as it passed, but then the driver stopped and reversed until he was alongside us. “There’s a barbecue for hikers just down the way! One hell of a party!” he yelled. “I’d give you guys a ride but I’ve gotta get home and don’t have the gas for it- but you guys should get up there! Where’re you headed?!”

We told him we were headed to the creek at mile 534. “That’s where the party is! They’re takin’ orders for hot dogs, sausages, you name it!” We agreed that sounded great, thanked him for the heads up, and said goodbye, hoping we’d make it, but knowing we had hours of hiking ahead of us.

He sped off, and Cal and I laughed about his wild enthusiasm, and agreed that it wouldn’t have made sense to take a ride if he had offered- it was contrary to our goals for the trail. We’d also noticed his bloodshot eyes and were a little concerned about exactly how much time he’d spent at this party before getting behind the wheel. We shrugged it off as a nutty encounter with a local and kept on hiking down the trail.

Another mile or so down the road, we heard the sound of a motor rapidly approaching. It was the same white pickup, though this time the driver had a couple hikers with him, including one of our good friends. “This is the best day of my life!”   our friend shouted. “We’re going to a barbecue! Get in the truck!”

Here’s where things got hazy and weird. I knew neither of us wanted to ride these miles; we wanted to walk it. We’d even talked about this very scenario, less than an hour ago. But we were also trying to be open to experiences, and saying yes, and still getting used to accepting the generosity strangers seem to want to bestow on thru-hikers. Some half-formed thought like, “well if the other guys are doing it, it must be okay” flitted through my mind. Cal and I glanced at each other briefly, and then threw our packs in the back of the truck, before clambering in ourselves. We got nestled in among the junk just as the truck took off speeding down the bumpy dirt road.

Cal’s face mirrored the slightly sick feeling I had in my stomach. “This isn’t right,” he said. I agreed, and even though my tired feet and sore back were grateful for a rest, I couldn’t stop looking at the scenery rushing by and thinking, “we shouldn’t be seeing this at fifty miles per hour.” Windmills dotted the landscape like eerie alien constructions, and the setting sun made the dusty hills glow gold.

The driver had mentioned stopping to pick up more hikers as we went. “When he stops, we have to get out and walk the rest of this. We can’t do this,” said Cal. I nodded, feeling even more queasy as I noticed the five gallon bucket in the bed of the truck, overflowing with empty Natural Light cans. The truck sped over bumps and dips in the road, tilting around turns and bouncing us all over the place. Music blared from the cab, with the driver and other hikers singing along at top volume. Cal and I just kept looking grimly at each other and the road, thinking of the miles we weren’t hiking, of the long evening walk we’d planned for and were now abandoning.

Eventually the truck pulled up alongside another hiker, an older guy with a distinguished white beard. The driver offered a ride, and this guy politely, firmly refused. “No thanks, man, I’m here to walk it!” Although we’d agreed to get out of the truck, Cal and I were both frozen and silent, immobilized by some mix of politeness and not wanting to make a fuss, and shame in the face of this other hiker’s gracious refusal. Our opportunity to get out of the truck was slipping away and neither of us was making a move. Soon enough, the truck was speeding along again, the voices in the cab more raucous, and Cal and I more miserable for having failed this second chance to keep hiking and salvage what was left of the evening.

More miles slipped away as we bounced around in the back of this truck, kicking ourselves and questioning our moral fortitude. The funny thing about this kind of moral failing is that it’s about as victimless a crime as you could possibly commit. The rules of the hike are our own. As every school teacher has said, the only people we cheated were ourselves. The PCT is a kind of vacuum in that way- it’s an opportunity to create your own guidelines for life and try to stick to them, to test your own limits and strength with consequences that really only affect you. Of course, this means when you fail to measure up, there’s no one else to distract from your failing. It’s the ultimate “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed,” bad feeling.

After another mile or so passed, the truck stopped alongside another hiker, and as this hiker also refused the offer of a ride, explaining there was only a mile to go before the creek, Cal and I started clambering out of the back of the truck. “Don’t drive away! We’re getting out!” we shouted to the driver, praying he could hear us over the radio. We brushed off his attempts to get us to stay, and started putting our packs on as he sped away.

We were grateful to be back on trail, and ashamed of our lapse. The other hiker was a bit bewildered by our embarrassed explanations of how we’d wound up in the truck in the first place (I’m sure he also didn’t really care at all, but Cal and I were still trying to make sense of it). We tried to relax, pay attention to the scenery, and enjoy walking the last mile through the wind farm as the sun set.

When we got to the creek, we really were greeted by “a hell of a party”.

A group of Burners had heard about this difficult stretch of trail and decided to set up a spacious tent, complete with furniture, food, drinks, lights, good music, and chill vibes. It was a gorgeous oasis that neither of us felt we deserved, though we each gratefully drank the cans of La Croix offered by one of the trail angel’s kids.

Our friend who’d been in the truck met us as we came near and gave us a big hug. “I am so, so sorry, you guys,” he said. He’d gotten in the truck not realizing that the barbecue was all the way at the end of the day’s walk (or that the driver was completely hammered). The lively singing we’d heard, thinking everyone else was having a blast while we were miserable, was the driver blaring the radio through his blown-out speakers, flipping from station to station and demanding his passengers sing along. They were flatly terrified by his driving and his demeanor, so shouted along with songs they didn’t know in order to placate him. So we had all arrived at this trail magic tent shaken and embarrassed, feeling unworthy of the generosity of the lovely people who just wanted to help out some hikers. We spent some time talking to the trail angels, thanking them profusely, and eventually allowing ourselves to relax and enjoy the music and the company of the other hikers.

If I were religious, I think I’d describe that trail magic as a form of grace. It was an act of kindness and selflessness that humbled us, and made us want to become worthy.  The time and effort so many strangers put into helping hikers is deeply moving, and it’s important to me that we fulfill the definition of thru-hikers- no shortcuts, no half measures.

In the end, we only skipped five miles. It was less than one percent of our hike at that point, and now it’s an even smaller fraction. It seems insignificant, but when all you’re doing is walking from one place to another, it’s important to actually walk it. Cal and I both see this as a clarifying moment- we were tested, and failed, but recognized our failure and tried to right it as soon as we could. We refocused ourselves, and recommitted to our goals. Now, we’ve hiked 652 miles. Just 2,008 to go (give or take a few, of course).


One thought on “The Five Mile Mistake

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s