Los Angles. Nairobi. Geneva. London. Boston. San Francisco. Reno. South Lake Tahoe.
I think of them as stations on the cross: duty calls after leaving the PCT at the beginning of June, and now back again, with stops in-between. Some 17,000 miles, five days of traveling, three continents, all to set foot once again on this 18-inch path of sand, dust and rock winding its way from Mexico to Canada.
The Mellow Meadows hostel in South Lake Tahoe is, well, mellow. A private room for $60; a bunk in a shared room for a fraction of that — appealing in this pricey resort town of casinos and strip malls where the Reno airport shuttle drops me off.
Out front in a circle of chairs, a female hiker announces that she’ll soon turn 21. Another practices balancing on a zip line between two trees. In the common room, a set of somewhat older hikers cook dinner and watch a video of a trail runner named Karl setting a world record for the fastest “supported” hike of the Appalachian Trail. That’s when an essentially professional athlete recruits a support team of feeders and tenders and dashes off into the woods to do something as fast as possible that, by rights, should be done slowly.
A dozen of us watch him moan and groan, lance blisters, trip on rocks and repeatedly fall on his face, suffer from angst and self-doubt and the existential pain and agony of striving to “do it ” — that is, “conquer the AT.” That’s the language, and of course he does, along the way passing (without a glance) all the impressive sights of the Appalachian Trail, which the veterans in our group happily point out from personal experience. As in: “I remember that bridge.” Or: “Yeah, that ledge is the most photographed spot on the whole Appalachian Trail!” And: “The AT makes the PCT look easy!”
That last is true enough, but the whole spectacle strikes me as neurotic, this lunatic near-killing himself turning something that should be a personal adventure, an encounter with oneself, into some extreme faux-sport.
Picking up the trail once again at Carson Pass this morning after nearly a month away, in all its sheer beauty, reminds me that the PCT is not about miles, or “making it” to Canada. It’s what John Muir famously called a “saunter” through the best our Earth has to offer. It’s about the pause. The moment. A freedom that few people ever get to experience.
So I forget about logging a 25-mile day, the better to position myself tomorrow for one of the Sierras’ last formidable climbs over Dick’s Pass. Instead, I amble along, taking the time to drink everything in, as befits my trail name, Pause. The snow on the high ridges. The soft path winding through sunny meadows in the valley. Flowers everywhere. The rippling Truckee trout stream catching the light as it crosses and re-crosses the trail. It is a fresh, warm, perfect spring morning in the mountains.
Later, the trail becomes a tangle of boulder fields, more like the dread AT than PCT. But even then there are cliff-top glimpses of Lake Tahoe in the distance. Woodpeckers sound amid the pines. There’s running water everywhere. The slopes burst with spring grass.
I call it a day at Berkeley Camp near Echo Lake, a modest 14 miles from where I began, and settle into a deck chair on a bluff overlooking Lake Tahoe, as deep blue as the purest Mediterranean.
“Gag me with a spoon,” you might think, as I likely would, reading such seemingly sentimental drivel from afar. But from where I sit just now, on this bluff, it is a real and precious slice of life.