This year, I had the absolute pleasure of trekking high up into the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles to bring 12 lbs. of fresh fruit and veggies up to thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. These brave souls amble their way up and down a narrow strip of trail from Mexico to Canada, hiking over 2,650 miles in the process. They give each other wild trail names like Sherlock, Pinkman, and Crush and harbor a Lost Boys-style camaraderie. I embarked on this portrait project to showcase the beautiful abandon written all over each one of their faces. Their stories made me tremble and smile and remember to carpe the hell out of every last diem.
Here I am, all five feet, six inches of tanned, golden-haired glory. I’m probably wearing yoga shorts and trail runners so clean you could eat a vegan acai bowl out of them. I smell like snickerdoodles and definitely don’t poop in the woods. My selfie stick rivals Gandalf’s staff in its sun-stained splendor, and I’ve got ninja-like skills when it comes to using it. You see that trail over yonder? It’s ready for its goddamn close up.
I’m sitting here on my day off, staring at the computer screen, recklessly picking the skin off my cuticles at the sheer nervousness I feel about relaxing and writing a simple article about rest. Sure, spending 15 hours clinging to the side of a mountain with no food or water is dangerous and perhaps more than a little unwise, but, if you’re type-A and goal driven like me, there’s something comforting about repetitive motion towards a singular objective. The ragged in and out of my breath at altitude and the familiar burn of my legs as I ascend huge, granite steps give me a source of focus. As long as I’m moving forward, I can’t worry about my car payment or if my boss hates me or if the last piece I wrote is any good. I inhale, I sink my body into the dirt, and I push.
The first time I soloed a long trail, it almost broke me. Being naked and shivering inside my sleeping bag with nothing to shield me except a tiny backpacker’s tent quickly twisted my thoughts into a thousand worst case scenarios, my mother’s voice echoing loudly about hypothermia, snakes, and career-minded decision making. It was 42 degrees outside, and I could hear the percussion of rain lapping against my tent as I trembled in my down sack. Below my precarious perch on Saddle Peak’s mud-covered switchbacks, the constant whoosh of traffic pulled at me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Civilization was just a mile away, if only I would give up.
It is 8:05 AM, and I can feel the razor-sharp edges of my crampons cut through the fragile, top layer of snow like a child cracking crème brulée. I shove the spike of my ice axe a couple of feet above me and, shoes turned out like a clumsy ballet dancer, I hoist myself another few steps up the dizzying, 2000 foot climb. I turn over my right shoulder and exhale, taking in the panoramic view, as a breeze carries tiny ice crystals into my hair. I am exactly where I want to be.
“Of. Fucking. Course!” The demons inside my head are screaming at me as I skid down sun-drenched gravel and onto the highway shoulder, narrowly avoiding a rock kicked up by an old Ford Ranger. I am rage-walking in the unrelenting sun of Death Valley National Park, whipping my head around my shoulder to double-check that Ben is still behind me, and praying that at any moment, my heels will sprout wings. It’s nearly 2pm, we’re out of water, and our car is definitely not where we left it. In the distance, thunderheads shroud neighboring peaks, filling me with envy for the comforts of water and shade. My skin is seething as my stomach churns trail mix into knots. I steady my breathing, look both ways down the dusty, two-lane motorway, and shove my thumb into the air, indignant.