Belated journal: Harpo’s first solo backpacking trip

Sometime in August: After hiking more than 6000 miles with Groucho over the past 3 years, and sleeping more than 300 nights outside, I realize I’ve never taken a solo backpacking trip. Sure… I’ve hiked and wandered by day on my own, but unlike so many friends… I’ve never shouldered the pack, set out on foot, pitched camp by myself and made it back home, alone. 


Sometime in September

 in the middle of Wyoming -a state of open spaces, bison, guns, dust, sun, solitude and wind – I feel like I need some space. I want to be more alone than I already am. 

My thoughts are only directed at the misery and trap of the thru hike. I’m irritable and desparate. Turns out I contracted Giardia which maybe contributes to my fatigue and grumpiness as well as the smell of rotten eggs coming out of my butt. (Sorry mom). 

But more importantly I feel a need to digest. Literally and figuratively. Literally I need to get better in order to digest food… and figuratively I want to settle down for a minute and reconnect with a sense of home and community and process what the heck am I doing with this little life. What does all of this mean?

I begin to talk to Groucho about my dreams of heading home to the NW. And as the weather worsens and my parasites take hold, my resolve sets in. I will head home. But not until I’d have a few days on trail by myself. 

So we fly back to the NW. Grab some supplies. And with one week of solid rain predicted, we make a romantic gesture: we grant each other space and time. 5 days to walk away from each other. Then toward each other. Than away again. than toward. We resolve to hike the 95 mile wonderland loop around mount Rainer – in opposite directions. 
Herein lies my journal:


September 19

Longmire to nickle creek

14 miles
We get to the trailhead at longmire around 10am. We have no issues getting permits but it is already drizzling rain. I have all the gear. I’ve already walked 1300 miles this summer. But I feel fear. This is new. I put on the brave face and stall at the cafe over breakfast which I can’t eat. Nerves or Giardia? 
We set out around noon and take a half hearted video at the trailhead. I feel ready to be on my own …soooo ready. I’ve been with Groucho every day all day for months. But I’m scared too. 

I speed down the path. Ready to be at camp and have my first day done. It turns out it’s not Groucho that’s my problem. It’s hiking. It’s me. I’m tired and sick and 10 lbs underweight and it’s cold foggy and damp. 14 miles feels like forever. This sucks. This is not Groucho’s fault. It’s me. I’m the problem. 

I see a deer buddy. A river. A box canyon. 


I make videos. Ones for YouTube and ones for Groucho. I don’t pick up litter even tho that would make our friend “FutureDad” sad. It’s not like me. But I just don’t care. 

After seeing Rainer peek from the clouds my head is filled with gratitude and my heart suddenly misses Groucho. I stay optimistic and type in my phone “It’s like physical therapy for your heart. Sometimes it hurts to be apart. That’s how you know it’s working.”


The sun sets on my first solo backpacking night at the Nickle Creek campsite. I feel nervous but also confident. Set up is easy enough. Mostly i really am thinking about Groucho. I thought I might feel carefree or light without needing to consider his needs. But Instead I feel sort of blank and empty and depressed. 

I pullout my gear and it’s damp; My pack has failed. I put on the layers knowing they will dry out overnight. I eat snacks and it takes too long. (Why does it matter how long it takes to eat?!) I make a video and cry a little. Why am I such a mess? I head to bed and sleep warm and well. 

SEPTEMBER 20 -day 2

Nickel creek to white River 

19 miles
A good day. I wake up calm and enjoy clear skies all morning. Tho I find frost at 5k feet and take pictures of Borg-like ice structures. 


I take long morning breaks to enjoy the sudden and surprising presence of sun. 
I dry my gear in one such supercharge burst around noon. I’ve gone about 9 miles into my day. I talk to 3 men who treat me like a celebrity. Although they are ultra marathoners this is a big deal backpacking trip for them. They have too much gear and at noon they’ve only gone a mile or so today. They take my picture and I feel embarrassed. 
Later in the afternoon I regret my morning breaks as the clouds condense. A storm approaches. I hustle. 


In the highest points of elevation I encounter majestic marmot buddies keeping watch. 


Food is a problem. I hate Giardia. My nateropathic remedies are frozen so the parasites are partying. All I can stomach are cashews. 5 at a time. the rest of my food bag sags heavy and useless. The uphill jaunts grow particularly gross as My body expels puffs of sulfur. I need rest stops far more often than a thru hiker should. 
I decide to call dinner at 3pm, only 3 miles from camp, praying the weather holds. I Need to force food in for the power. A cool ranger checks my permit and chats for awhile. It’s nice to have company. 
I get to the huge white River campground around 5:30. It starts raining right as I put up my tarp. Then hail. Then rain. 
I think of my buddy Groucho….Now halfway around the mountain. Hoping his small poncho/tarp holds. Knowing he sleeps a bit higher elevation tonight. I feel luxurious spaciousness with our double tarp tent all to myself. 
And it feels like Christmas Eve because -tomorrow morning- I will start to walk toward Groucho again. With any luck I’ll see him tomorrow afternoon. 

SEPTEMBER 21 – day 3

White River to carbon river

17 miles

This day begins extremely cool and crisp. The ground crunches with frost and snow. Rainer is Large and in charge. And I’m powered by her presence. 


Water at the high elevations sparkles with ice. My fingers are cold, even with gloves. 


Around 11am I see a herd of mountain goats. And the descent back into the trees. It feels tough. I pass the campsite Groucho will sleep at tonight.  I leave him a wilderness graffiti made of twigs. H 💛’s G


I walk down down down. The wonderland is hella beautiful but the ascent and descents are no joke. Pretty steep elevation changes. 
Around 3:14 I run into Groucho. We backtrack to a sheltered spot for a coffee break. I feel calm and happy to see him. We share snacks. I tell him about Giardia and he tells me about his xtreme allergic reaction. 

At 4pm thunder claps and rain break up the party. We part ways. I am buoyed by our interaction. I get to camp and am granted a super cute site. I throw my tarp up just as it begins to rain. Eat half my snacks and then throw up. Stupid Giardia. 


SEPTEMBER 22-day 4

Carbon River to Golden Lakes 

18 miles

The First hours of the day are familiar! i’ve done this section before a few years ago. 

I’m soooo tired. It’s a steep and long climb out of the carbon River valley. I really can’t wait to be done and keep fantasizing about cutting the trip short. I am dreading the ford I know will come at the end of the day. 


At Mowich lake I try to dry my tent while conversing with some really nice ladies from whidby. They know my friends at MAHA farm. They are out here for a few days going off trail into the spray park! With just map and compass. So cool. 

There are hella cool mushrooms


This is the day no one can believe what I’m doing (95 miles in 4.5 days) and so I keep feeling behind my schedule and then believing them that I’m not going to make it.

Then I ford this river I’ve been dreading for 4 days. And It turns out I am awesome. And smart about it. and brave.  I see a man trying some Herculean stuff to help his gal cross and I giggle. He’s dragging huge logs trying to make a bridge for her as the current just keep sweeping the logs down stream. They would be better off without their fear. I am a superhero.  

The last uphill climb is long but feels easy and there is company as I take a snack break and Hercules and his lady friend catch up and we exchange stories. They are pretty cool. 


I reach camp At 6 or so. Feeling happy. It’s the home stretch. I’m not hungry and fog is rolling. I pitch tarp too low and pray it holds in the winds and storm predicted for tomorrow. 

——–


SEPTEMBER 23-day 5

Golden lakes to Longmire. 

25 miles

I have a crazy Lucid dream. And then wake before dark. I’m hoping to get to the trail head early. I want to be done. 

But the Day is super tough. Like everyday this week there is over 5000 feet of elevation gain today. And it’s relentlessly wet. And Cold. Mystic and foreboding. I’m Pretty lonely. 

Around 10 I run into the three ultramarathoner men again.  They keep trying to share their snacks. I keep rejecting their advances saying we shouldn’t share germs. They laugh it off. I want to say “no really you dorks I have Giardia” but I’m too tired. After a few photos and dried apricots we fistbump farewell. 

The day feels long and interminable. The big lady always shrouded. I can’t feel my toes. My gloves are soaked. My fingers are numb. If I could feel… I’d feel bummed. Instead i’m coldly resolute. A depleted machine with a homing beacon back to the car. Only 5 more hours to go. 


I run into a couple on a ridge. They are out here for days more. I feel sorry for them. It’s so damp and windy. I don’t know how they are staying dry. I care little about being wet. It’s cold but I’m headed to the car. The car. The car. And Groucho. 

After a long climb I realize I need more snacks. I’m too cold despite the incessant walking. I have food.  it’s not appealing….But I have to force it down if im gonna make it. In the rain I pause to grab something from my snack bag. It takes me 14 minutes to tear a small hole in the hazelnut butter packet. I try to press hazelnut butter out the hole but my fingers won’t squeeze anymore. Literally I can’t press my thumb and forefinger together. This is not good. but I still have teeth. I slobber and masticate all over the metallic packet until some nut butter warms enough to ooze out. This goes on for 3 miles as I continue to walk and slowly consume the minuscule calories seeping out, suck by slobbery suck. 

I get to a suspension bridge. there are slats missing. It’s super Kathleen turner vibes. I pass 3 day hikers! This means the end’s in sight!  Tho still 3 hours to go.  I pass them and feel relieved they are behind me. If I die before the trail head at least they will find me. These are the irrational and morbid thoughts that go thru my brain in the cold. Biology of cold works hard to slow us down enough to gently accept death. Luckily my familial obligation is strong and for my mom and dad I feel resolute to continue. And if I keep moving I will make it 


I run into two ladies at the end of the day. They say I’m close! As I descend the rain let’s up and it gets 10 degrees warmer. My fingers feel better. Then a trail runner and people wearing jeans!! I must be close. 


Then signs. And I practically run to the parking lot. And Groucho is dry but cold I the car having beat me by 2 hours. 

And I did it. 

People, Places, Things

Catching some shred with the homie Justin. When I’m hiking I only dream of being back on a bike… and fall riding in the Northwest is AWESOME.

I’m always photographing this spot – on the Elliott Bay Trail between Interbay and Downtown in Seattle. It’s one of my favorite urban rides, and reminds me how fortunate I am to live here.

Running with slugs. Lord Hill Regional Park is a spot I’ve returned to often since I learned to mountain bike there in the 90’s. Regional trail systems are awesome – you can wander in without a map, get a little lost & a lot dirty, & still be dry & eating vegan mac&chz by sunset.

Harpo & I did work for stay with Fred (pictured) at a small organic farm on Whidbey Island. Fred’s running his own garden now, & my friend Pol & I went to source veggies from him for a meal we’re creating for a theatre company.

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Oregon Coast Storm of the Half Century

Several weeks ago a large weather event was predicted for coastal oregon and washington areas. Thankfully we were already scheduled to travel to the Oregon coast, so we had a front row seat. While a tornado touched down 5 miles south of our Friday-morning hike, we enjoyed an intimate, dramatic, but relatively safe weekend with family and friends celebrating my brother’s wedding. Congrats you guys… and welcome to the family Sarah!

 

picking up litter on the coast

 

grey on grey on grey

Dad likes the huge trees

My cute mom raises her glass

my dudes

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Harpo’s CDT Journal: #16


Sep 4

15 miles
We leave before noon and enjoy a flat and well maintained trail around the lakes… Then the Colorado River. It’s Labor Day Sunday and motor boats are the prevailing mode of transportation. 
On one trail I see (and finally get video of) a big black bear. 
We hear there might be a store open near Monarch Lakes at Arapaho Lodge. Our dream is a single soda or beer. But much to our delight this family run lodge, bar and store is hiker friendly. It is hopping with a reunion and toddler birthday party but trail magic abounds from a round of beers bought by Ryan? to triscuits brought by an anonymous stranger, to free camping in the lawn offered by the owner Todd as we settled up our very, VERY reasonable bar tab. 


I feel like part of a tight knit community talking to locals out enjoying their Labor Day weekend. And go to bed hearing the extremely drunk reunioners singing Rocky Mountain High by John Denver, proudly, at the top of their lungs. 


Sep 5

20 miles
Today it’s my turn to feel like crap. I got belly aches all day. There is some elevation gain, but nothing unreasonable. The day passes quickly with scores of day hikers out for Labor Day. Lots of them excited and incredulous asking about our backpacks and learning we are thru hikers. 
At the end of the day we ascend to around 12,000 feet elevation and I start dragging hard core. I fall behind Groucho again and again. My belly aches and my body produces a hot box of death smell that adds to my nausea. I can see Winter Park, our next resupply, 4 miles west as the crow flies, but we still have 21 trail miles (and a 12 mile hitch.)
We sleep in a shrubby area that protects us a bit from wind. 


Sep 6

17 miles
I’ve never dropped acid myself, so I can only believe certain friends who tell me that today felt like a very bad trip. Almost throwing up, crying about 15 times, the sensation that the rocks are moving, a feeling like I can’t catch breath all causing me to dissolving into hysterical gasps and literal wailing/ugly cries. but eventually I learn tears are like super powers: providing endorphins, huge gulping bellows of air, a chance for my feet to stop and heart rate to slow, a clear sinus passage for better breathing (after blowing several snot rockets), and a moistening for my dry eyes, which have burned from sun and wind exposure. Also a firm resolve. I will not succumb to this. I WILL keep walking. I will get out of this. I will feel better. Pain is temporary. 

Over several mountains. Climbing Over 5000 feet of elevation. Reaching higher than 13,000 feet several times. The day just doesn’t get easier. 
In addition to altitude problems we are cross country following faint or non existent paths much of the day. 


Tho the terrain is tough and I feel like crap… Well it’s just SUPER BEAUTIFUL up here. Also we enjoy a lengthy lunch break with Crunchmaster and Happy. Friends we’ve followed since the AT but haven’t seen in more than 3 years they are hiking this section NOBO. Crunch as a thru hiker and happy – his dad – as a short summer vacation following a knee replacement. Happy is so freaking nice and cool! Also he gives me pistachios so I love him forever. 

Ok so then much later in the day we decide to take a Ley map “shortcut” ascending steeply to 13,000 and walking the literal ridge line. It’s… how can I put it… INCREDIBLY FREAKING DIFFICULT. 
And up here it starts to snow. Snow?! It can happen anytime of year at this elevation but as we walk into fall the sense of an early winter is upon us. 


It feels like the most effort I’ve ever expended to step after step and get back to trail. But I do it. And then we descend to the road. My tears dry up, my altitude sickness alleviates and we get a super fast hitch from two amazing vacationers from Arkansas. They are so merry and warm. And they ask if they can help us with any prayers.  How cool is that? 
People are good. 
We get to town and enjoy a drink and shower and hotel. We sleep. Tomorrow is a day off. 


Sep 7

Zero

We tune in… To Facebook, friends, weather forecasts, inspiring activism in North Dakota, and to our own needs and feelings. 
People are starting to go off trail for the winter. Coming back next summer or a future year to finish. Others are shuttling ahead, skipping this section for now, trying to hit the 14,000 peaks and exposed sections of Colorado in the next week or so. If the weather holds, maybe they’ll come back to fill in this section later or just continue to the desert of New Mexico thru October. Tho the forecast for next week is snow above 9000 feet. That’s like the whole Colorado section of Trail. 
And Groucho and I have consensus. It’s time to get off trail this season. 
I love being here. In many respects, I love being anywhere but I’m tired of moving. I feel ready to sit for a minute. And reconnect, build, create and be a part of a geographically located community. I’m ready to digest and see if I can extend the lessons learned thru hiking to my everyday life: Operating in person. Not sweating the small stuff. Eating snacks when cranky. Tuning out of divisive capitalist-driven messaging. Tuning back into social justice, public spaces, communication, humans. 
Sooooo… Here in Winter Park, CO is where Groucho and I will deviate from the set path of the thru hike. Instead we carve our own path forward, toward an idea of home. 

Harpo’s CDT Journal: #15


Aug 30

12 miles
Leaving town Groucho and I receive rides from 2 excellent humans. First Clint who is on his way to get dental work in Silverthorne. He offers us a joint (we are in Colorado after all) as he confesses he doesn’t have enough money to pay for gas home. Lucky for him our practice is always to offer hitches gas money. The $10 I offer is exactly what he needs. The ride is exactly what we need. Win win. 

Clint drops us at trail which turns out to be a 10 mile paved road walk. But then comes Bret, a buffalo and cow rancher whose property goes right by the trail here. He gives a ride even though it is out of his way. Such a great dude. We enjoy hearing his ethos about raising meat and hunting elk. For 4500 people can pay Bret to stay on his property and shoot, slaughter and pack out a wild elk with like 75%+ success rate. He takes such pride in feeding his kids wild, non-chemical meat. I respect it. 

Bret drops us at trail which is actually a dirt road. We walk for 15 miles until we reach a flat spot with a snotel sensor. We sleep here since most of the snags have been cut to protect the snow measuring equipment. 


Aug 31
The hills turn to mountains. Suddenly elevation gain is back in full effect as we pass landmarks with ominous names like troublesome pass trail and never summer gulch. 
As the air thins, the trees spread out and we frequently walk above tree line. Beautiful – but affording us a view of encroaching thunder clouds every afternoon around 4pm. 
I reflect on winter approaching: the frost on our sleeping bags, the scattering of dry snow when it’s precipitating above 11,000 feet, and these long above tree line sections. I realize I am triangulating signs from the universe… what does it add up to?
I think of CDT thru hiker Otter who died from exposure last year in a campground in northern New Mexico. He’s on my mind because 2 recent hitches, first our Rawlins angel a few days ago, and then just yesterday Bret, mentioned him as an old friend. Someone they hosted or gave a ride to. Someone they remembered. The repetition makes me alert. When is winter coming? And how best do I live my life so I can embrace each day?
Groucho is ill. Very ill. Doubled over. Groucho is strong and usually crankiness is the only sign of pain but today it’s visible. He needs long breaks, and to sit, and to dig multiple cathodes. Altitude? Food poisoning? Giardia?
By 6pm we reach a clearing and see Curtis already set up. He too, it turns out, has been slowed today by the stomach bug. We camp with him hoping both buddies will feel better tomorrow. 


September 1

22 miles
In the morning, Curtis asks where the nearest bail out point is. “Nine miles… But over the next 13,000 foot hill.” Hearing he feels worse we insist on hiking in proximity till the road where he wants to hitch. 
The terrain is open country ridge walking. Again above tree line. Very difficult, even though I am healthy. I feel so bad for the poopsie twins.  We summit Parkview Peak with a cool old fire lookout and take a long break. Then descend a mile in 45 minutes- very slow- cause it’s basically loose rock. 
We reach the road but no one will pick Curtis up. The poopsie twins rally and decide they can hike on. Another 27 miles to town. 
We encounter so many raspberries. I say to Groucho “I have to say I’m a pretty good berry spotter.” He replies “That’s true that’s one of your many talents. Do you think it’s genetic?” Haha. Totally since my dad has been foraging roadside berries into discarded mcdonalds fry containers since I was a small kinder. 
We summit Bowen pass at dusk and descend rapidly to the cover of trees to camp with Curtis. Passing not one, not two, but SEVEN moose at the creek. Amazing world. 

Bowen Pass

Never Summer Wilderness

Sep 2

15 miles
We wake to rain at 5:30am. No matter it’s another town day! We pack up and race thru the Never Summer Wilderness as it pours for hours. All downhill tho, so we reach town by 1pm. Right on trail is the glorious, volunteer built Shadow Cliff lodge and hostel. A beautifully homespun, loosely spiritual community where instead of 80’s movies one can spend hours playing board games with strangers. 


Sep 3

Zero
Curtis has decided. His hike is over. It’s not the same without Christiana, and sable’s old paws are cut up. It’s time for them to call it. 
Groucho and I decide to take a zero. It’s cheap to stay and so comforting here. 
Grand Lakes sports excellent pizza, good coffee and a nice outfitter. We enjoy free computer time at the library and more board games with new friends – hikers, volunteers and travel weary road trippers.