We’re walking through a wash in the desert in the dark, and we’re thirsty. We’ve been hiking since five a.m., and left our last water source a few hours after that. In the interim we climbed ten thousand feet cross-country up and over a ridge, stopping on top to look back down at our starting point in Death Valley, then hiked down the other side. The last of the light has long since gone.
I’m hiking with Chance and Jess, two other women who share my passion for long-distance hiking. We’re here in Death Valley in the first week of October to complete the Lowest to Highest Trail — an overland route created by Brett “Blisterfree” Tucker that takes the hiker from the lowest point in North America (and also the hottest), Badwater Basin, to the top of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48. The route, which crosses three mountain ranges, is 135 miles long. Only 14 miles of that is trail.
Very few have completed this route on foot, and we’ve given ourselves about six days to do it.
I drank the last of my water hours ago and I’m thirsty — not yet in a scary way, but enough to be uncomfortable. The wash is full of rocks and boulders, and Chance’s ankles are giving her pain. Only Jess is unperturbed, walking silently ahead, moving the beam of her headlamp over the bare rock cliffs, looking for signs of the spring that may or may not be here. Jess is a brilliant hiker — she has a natural talent that’s almost eerie. She carries the least water of the three of us, and is the least affected by heat, cold, fatigue and hunger. Hiking with Jess makes everything seem possible.
I met Jess in 2013, during my first thru-hike of the 2,660-mile Pacific Crest Trail. We were on the shuttle to Red’s Meadow and I saw her sitting there — this girl in dirt-stained hiking clothes, her pack so small it looked empty. The sun was shining on her hair and she was painfully beautiful, as though she made her own light. After that bus ride I asked around, and learned that this was not her first long trail, that she stopped every hour to boil coffee, and that she had not, as far as anyone knew, ever been passed on an uphill.
It was over a year later that we finally became friends, when Chance, Jess and I were working on the same pot farm in the fall to make money to fund our hikes. During the long days trimming weed I learned that Jess’ first thru-hike was the Appalachian Trail, which she hiked at 21. In high school she’d been a track and field star — they’d put her on the varsity team while she was still in middle school. But she’d struggled with depression, and she hated the pressure to compete. “I was a quiet, introverted kid,” she told me while we big-leafed late into the evening, the air in the trailer thick with the resinous smell of the plants. “And I didn’t like school.”
She wasn’t sure where she belonged or what it was that she was meant to do. “The AT was like a loophole in regular life. Once I was on it I just fit into it, and everything became clear. And the community was so great — all sorts of different people, helping each other out. It felt like where I was supposed to be.”
Now 26, Jess had spent much of her life in New York, where she worked as a barista at whichever coffee shops would allow her to leave for half the year to hike. She owned few possessions — a harmonium, her backpacking gear, and a box of trinkets. She lived with her father sometimes, to save money.
At the beginning of October there was a lull in work on the farm, and so Chance, Jess and I jumped on the opportunity, printed maps, stuck out our thumbs, hitched the seven hundred miles to Death Valley, and set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route.
“Water!” Says Chance. “You guys, I found water!” At the edge of the wash is a clump of trees, and we find Chance there, bent over a shallow depression that enterprising creatures have clawed into the earth. The water in the depression is yellow and there are bits and things floating in it, but we don’t care. Miraculous water! We can hear the spring running within the clump of trees, but the trunks are like a fortress and there is no way to get to the source. The earth around the trees is trampled, like a yard in which a dog is kept. There are bones scattered around, piles of poop. This must be the place where every animal for forty miles comes to drink, and fight, and fuck.
I fill my bottles carefully to minimize floaties, and treat the water twice with my water purifier. Chance doesn’t treat the water at all. After six years of long-distance hiking, Chance can drink from a mud puddle without getting sick. Not that she hasn’t gotten sick before — she’s had giardia a handful of times over the years. But she keeps drinking the water on her hikes, and her immune system keeps getting stronger. Chance doesn’t give up easily, or at all.
I first met Chance in 2014 at Scout and Frodo’s, the trail angels’ house in San Diego where we were both staying before starting our northbound thru-hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail. We sat in the dark backyard, watching the moonlight on the grass, unable to sleep on account of our excitement. Chance told me that she’d been living on a sailboat in Bellingham and working at a pizza shop. She was twenty-nine years old, and this would be her fourth time hiking the PCT. I asked her if it got any easier, after each thru-hike, to return to the “regular world.”
“No,” she said quietly, finishing the last of her cigarette. “It doesn’t.”
The water in my bottle tastes like a tepid hotspring, sulfuric and a little salty, and I can barely get it down. I have to remind myself how thirsty I am. Just drink a liter, I tell myself. We roll our sleeping pads out in the dirt and prepare for bed. It’s warm here and there are mosquitoes, bumping up against us now and then. I look at the trampled ground and imagine the animals watching us from the hills, waiting for their chance to come and drink. How often do humans hike out of this wash, or stop to drink at this spring? Never? I lay down and pull my sleeping bag up to my chin, but it’s too warm for that. I wonder if I’ll be able to sleep.
Before I hiked the PCT in 2013, my backpacking experience was limited. I had, however, had lots of adventures — I’d ridden freight trains across the country, lived in a squat in New York City, hitchhiked to Alaska a couple of times. I’d worked as a restaurant server, a cook, a housekeeper, a dishwasher, a boat launcher, a campground caretaker, a gardener, a cannery worker, a dog walker, a rare book seller, a weed trimmer and a pedicab driver, among other things. I’d attempted to “settle down” at various points in my twenties, only to discover that I couldn’t. I simply wasn’t able. I watched in amazement as the people I loved found joy in routine, in knowing what the future held. But this simple comfort eluded me. I hated owning things, and waking up in the same bed for months at a stretch filled me with panic.
I have always lived a transient life — I was raised in Alaska on welfare by a schizophrenic single mother who believed she was the reincarnation of the virgin Mary. We were sometimes homeless, staying on friends’ couches or sleeping in shelters. I still remember the scratchy-comforting feel of the cheap shelter blankets, and the noise the ceiling fan would make at night. I also spent two years in foster homes. We rarely lived anywhere for more than a year. My home life was a nightmare — empty cupboards, lots of screaming and violence and my mother’s second-hand cigarette smoke slowly turning the walls a pale yellow. I spent every daylight hour outside, gathering dandelions and wandering through the woods alone, swimming in frigid lakes and climbing trees to listen to the wind. When I was hungry I shoplifted cookies or checked the dumpster at the bakery outlet store. In the winter I dug caves beneath the low-hanging boughs of the spruce trees and would lay in there where it was warm, watching the snow fall. I could feel the earth around me, holding me, and the whispering of the trees — You’re safe. You’re safe. You’re safe.
By the time I was fourteen my mother had grown catatonic and I moved to Colorado to live with my grandparents. My grandparents are old-school conservative Catholics who believe that women shouldn’t go to college. After three years I moved out on my own. I worked graveyard shifts at Denny’s my last year of high school in order to support myself. At nineteen I moved to Portland, which in 2001 was an inexpensive, frumpy town full of radical environmentalists and brilliant, if unmotivated artists. I lived in a dilapidated craftsman with ten other people, straight-edge anarchists who rode freight trains and dumpstered all of their food. My new friends abhorred institutions, and if someone wanted to learn something, she simply went to the library and studied it — from bicycle repair to herbalism to navigation at sea.
In the morning the heat comes on like an oven and we sit up at the sulfuric desert spring and rub our faces, disoriented. None of us have really slept. But no matter, that’s what instant coffee is for — and caffeinated cliff shot blocks. I squeeze some of the latter into my mouth, recoiling at the way they stick to my molars. We pack up our things and set out to cross the playa — a dry lakebed that stretches across the Panamint valley. I am sweating from every pore in the heat and all I have to drink is this awful, yellowish water. I put one foot in front of the other, focusing on the bright, sandy ground and feeling my brain grow slowly warmer. In the distance I can see Jess and Chance — we’re spread out across the valley, lost in our own thoughts, each of us focused on this moment, this personal challenge. In twenty miles we’ll reach a remote campground resort where we’ll eat burgers and drink shockingly cold gatorade, but right now all we have is this big open sky and this flat white valley and this sun, which would like to vaporize us. It is 110 degrees.
In the afternoon Chance finds me sitting in the dirt under my sunbrella, my face in my hands.
“You okay?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say, my words slurring a bit. “My brain got too warm.”
Chance gives me a couple of bars, which instantly make me feel better. I pull myself up and we walk together towards the highway, which shimmers like a black snake in the distance.
As we hike, Chance and I talk about the idea of life being not a steady thing but a series of seasons, and each season opening one into the other in a natural sort of way. Working in a pizza shop, hiking. Trimming weed, hiking. Living in a cabin in the woods. Everything sprinkled with failed romances, personal growth, and the feeling that anything is possible. Of course, all of this is easier if you have no belongings. Besides her hiking gear, Chance owns a single box of books, a bicycle, and one outfit — wranglers, a pair of suspenders, and a faded t-shirt with a snake on it.
Chance was seven years old when she started riding horses. At age twelve she won the Novice Rider of the Year award for eventing: dressage, cross-country and show jumping. Chance grew up in rural Ohio with her mother, in a small brick house on the banks of Lake Erie. The times she didn’t win at shows, her mother would strike her in the truck on the way home. As she got older, Chance took to sleeping at the barn after shows to avoid her mother’s anger. “I just wanted to be near the horses,” she tells me, when we’re eating crushed potato chips on the banks of the Feather River, on the PCT. By age fourteen she stopped winning altogether. It was the same year she discovered snowboarding. She was good at it, which surprised everyone.
“You ride good for a girl,” they would say.
Chance moved to Bellingham, Washington for college, and studied philosophy. It was a male-dominated department, and a professor once called her an “intellectual coward” for not speaking up more in class. She drank a lot. In 2009, at age 23, she set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for the first time. She received her trail name, NotaChance, from another, more experienced hiker who decided that she would never make it to Canada. She did make it to Canada that year, in October, in the snow. En route she spent several days trapped in her tent in Oregon, waiting out a storm, watching the freezing rain penetrate everything and growing slowly hypothermic.
Now, ten thousand miles of hiking later, Chance is one of the toughest hikers I know. She walks on tendinitis, she walks on blisters. She walks when the backs of her legs are bubbly with sunburn. She walks through hypothermia, rain, and when she’s run out of food and water. In 2014 she postholed through the High Sierra in running shorts, having entered before the snow had a chance to melt, and left a trail of blood for the rest of us to follow.
We reach Panamint Springs Resort in the afternoon. I am weak with heat exhaustion and I smell like a pair of socks that has been buried in a hamper for weeks. The other patrons stare at me, but I don’t care. I lock myself in the tiny bathroom, pull off my salt-caked clothes, and stick my head under the faucet. The water running over the back of my neck is one of the most pleasurable sensations I’ve ever experienced. Later we’ll eat burgers in the restaurant and then unfurl our bedrolls on the warm desert sand in the campground across the street, but for now I am here, with my head under the faucet, in this one pure, perfect moment. As the cool water runs over my salty neck I can feel this moment stretching on and on and on, out into space-time, for forever. It’s the only moment that has ever existed, and it’s the only moment that ever will.
“How many people do this hike?” I ask the bartender, after I’ve come out of my reverie.
“None,” she says.
That night the wind comes. I wake up to the moon, and Chance silhouetted against it, struggling with her tarp. The three of us take shelter in some canvas wall tents on the edge of the campground and catch a small bit of sleep, listening to the woo-woo-woo of the wind. In the morning we hike a few miles to an abandoned mine, where we pass the hottest part of the day in the shade of a Black Cottonwood, dozing and watching the goldfish swim in the spring there, which bubbles like a miracle from the earth, filling a small pond. Our plan is to hike cross-country over Darwin Flats in the evening, once the earth has begun to cool. At I-90 we’ve left ourselves a water cache, some gallon jugs hidden under rocks and bits of fabric we found in the desert. And then the night is ours — to walk as far as we can before the sun returns.
People ask me how I feel safe on a long hike.
“Are you bringing a gun?” they say. “What if there’s a murderer in the woods?”
Our culture, at this moment in history, is a very urban one; people are terrified of the wilderness. But the mountains and the desert are just as knowable, just as finite, just as accountable to the laws of everyday reality as the grocery store, or traffic, or your neighborhood bus stop. In the daytime hours in the wilderness the sun shines down and drives the shadows from the dark corners; everywhere is a cathedral, full of light and peace. At night the stick-breakers emerge from their lairs to act out their small dramas. Mice, deer, mountain lions, the occasional bear. I am a daytime creature; at night I store my food properly, and I go to sleep. These two things protect me.
I am not afraid of animals, or trees, or the weather. (Okay, I am a little afraid of the weather.) I am an adult human, capable of reading my surroundings and the intentions of others. Should I encounter a sketchy human in the woods I have a number of options, just like in the city. But the chances of this happening are statistically low. Humans are the most dangerous animals in the world; and in the wilderness there are far fewer of them. And at any rate, the woods are my home. They do not scare me.
When we reach our cache Jess boils water for instant coffee and we sit in the dirt, eating a little dinner. There is no water for the next 45 miles, so we’ve got to carry a bunch, but how much water is enough for 45 miles, and up and over the Inyo mountains in the heat? Jess rebraids her thick side braid; Chance takes off her shoes and cleans her feet with a hanky. I drink the last of my coffee from the plastic jar in which I soaked my dinner; the thin coffee tastes a bit like instant black beans. In the end we each pack out six liters of water, and set out across the desert under the bright silver moon. The land is warm and open and there are Joshua trees here and there, being weird like they do. Chance plays music on her phone and we walk three abreast, moving the earth beneath our feet.
Some people tell me I’m brave for doing what I do, for living a transient life. For having no savings, for working seasonal jobs and walking through the wilderness for months at a time. But maybe it isn’t bravery, but a sort of cowardice that keeps us out here. Because if you could find happiness in a more regular sort of life — in committed relationships, in sleeping in the same bed each night, in having children — why would you give that up? If you could be growing a garden, or picking the perfect paint colors, or learning carpentry. If you could find joy in investing in the place where you were planted.
But I can’t and so I’m here, living out of my backpack. Because this is what feels like life, and all those other things feel like death, or at the very best a sort of suspended place between life and death.
The desert night is expansive and warm and in the distance we can see the Inyo mountains, dark silhouettes against a starlit sky. Jess tells us that her dream is to have a homebase somewhere, someday, that she can keep going back to. She’d like to have her dog there — a wriggling black lab who mostly stays with her brother. She’d like to have a piano, and a windowsill for her trinkets, the bones and rocks and things she’s gathered on her travels.
She also has big hiking dreams — traveling to South America, Africa, making routes in the U.S. where no one has ever hiked before. A few months later I’ll get a text from her, while she’s out hiking one such route in the desert:
This hike has been so great. I’m laying close enough to a long fire so that I get some extra heat tonight, since it’ll be below 20…and I only have a 20-degree bag. I didn’t bring a tent with me because I thought it wouldn’t rain but, well, it snowed. So I made a makeshift shelter out of a shower curtain. I’m carrying four days’ worth of water, which is heavy when you don’t have a hipbelt. Oh and I lost my spoon so I’m using a stick. I’m having a blast!
“There’s so much of the world to see,” she says as we walk beneath the hard bright stars, our packs heavy with water. “It would take a whole lifetime. It would take more than one lifetime.”
This reminds me of the quote, often attributed on Instagram to the Buddha, but which is actually from the writer Jack Kornfield:
The trouble is, you think you have time.
Tonight we’ll camp at two a.m. and at six we’ll rise, after a little sleep, to climb up and over the Inyo Mountains. We’ll cross the Owens Valley, stop in Lone Pine for fast food and Mt. Whitney permits, and then we’ll walk up Whitney Portal Road as the sun sinks and sets the clouds on fire. The next morning we’ll hike the 99 switchbacks up Mount Whitney to the summit block where, as we’re standing looking out over everything, the first snowflakes will begin to fall.
What even is a life? I think, as I look out at the sand and the lonesome Joshua trees. I don’t have the answer. The only thing I know for sure, the one thing I can really hold in my hands, is that one day I’ll be gone, as will all of this.
I look at my feet on the rocky ground, feel the hotspots that are beginning on my heels. Madonna is playing from Chance’s phone, and around us the desert night is beginning to cool. Somewhere in the hills the stick-breakers are acting out their nightly dramas, and above us the Milky Way unfurls, spiraling outward and away, into forever.
All photos courtesy of the author.