“Not all who wander are lost”.
I never wandered. I simply walked…
To all who are probably not interested in a long trail description, along with a bag of emotions, pictures can be found here.
I had a plan. A very clear plan with equal miles (more or less), water sources, camping ideas, and yet somehow, after being far from a good shape (where I am concerned, not a general population), I wasn’t sure if my plans were too ambitious. There was anxiety, yet there was also knowledge: I am an ox. I can carry on.
Wednesday, 8/19 - start at Tahoe City!!! Go to Brockway 19M (water pick up), then extra 5M past the trailhead to Martis peak for camp. Total 26M
Thursday, 8/20 - from Martis Peak trailhead to Marlette peak campground. Water resupply at the pump at the camp, for a total 29M.
Friday, 8/21 - Marlette peak campground to Spooner lake, proceed 13M to Kingsbury North, for total on day 3 22M (planned extra 2M for Spooner water)
Saturday, 8/22 - Kingsbury North to Rd 207 3.2M then 12.4M to Kingsbury South plus ~12M to Grass Lake Trailhead (water source/camp) - total 27M
Sunday, 8/23 - Grass creek to Big Meadow, to Echo Lake 17.5 for total 20M, hit the store by 6 pm for resupply
Monday, 8/24 - Echo lake all the way through Granite Wilderness to Richardson lake for total of 26M
Tuesday, 8/25 - Richardson lake campground to Tahoe City - for total on day 7 24M.
At home my pack seemed to have weighed in at 35 lbs, without water - see details here. By the time I added 5.5L of water – which is for the math challenged 11 lbs (I had a 2L bladder, 2x1L Nalgene bottles, 1x1L collapsible plastic container, and a 0.5L Nalgene bottle I wanted to use to mix recovery drinks and such), a little more food (I was guessing it was about 18 lbs, may be less, at home the main bag was at 15 lbs) and a few miscellaneous items, the starting weight of my pack hit 53.5 lbs. Yes, you heard it right. And yes, I got a lot of flack and advice I wasn’t asking for and gasping at what the heck is in there (see previous post, minus rain jacket and extra shorts), and why do I need so much water. People who pressed me for too much water were operating on the idea of hiking PNW, CO/MT and East Coast, where water sources are under your feet every few miles. Not so on the North and East side of Lake Tahoe. May be normally I’d hit one or two more, but with drought and winter lacking snow, all the creeks were dry, and the lakes were mud puddles. I was prepared. I read reports, I studied, and I took it very personally – all that flack on Internet over my pack. Who is asking anybody for suggestions on what they would do? The important part is what I will do. And to me it was by far easier to carry more (I am an ox, remember?) than to be dehydrated (or to even stop and filter and spend some extra 20-30 min). So, I fired back: I am not running, or fast-hiking, I am doing a backpacking trip, a classic, old-fashioned, where I don’t sleep under the stars in the open, I cook my dinners and morning meals, and I carry a bear canister. On another hand, I definitely utilize my years of ultrarunning experience in terms of what I eat during a day, and how I keep my energy even throughout the day without spending too much time. Not to mention the ability to own pieces of the latest and lightest gear – speaking of weight, there was a time in my life when I did a 7-day backpacking trip in Glen Canyon in UT and my pack was 30 kg. For the Americans of you, that’s over 60 lbs. I knew I can do it. I was ready to go. And thanks to Larry and Gretchen, who believed in me – my ability to carry it, and its necessity.
Gretchen, my dear Trail Angel, who hosted me in Truckee, dropped me off at the Tahoe City Trailhead on Wednesday, August 19th, at 5:45 am. This time will prove to be a good one to stick to, as it was right when the sky slowly becomes grey and one can make the trail’s path without needing a light. The trail, of course, started with a climb…and in 10 min, rounding another corner, I was met with a reddish line over horizon at first, and then a glorious first sunrise of my trip. Suddenly, without preparing it, a prayer burst out of me – me, a former Soviet Union native, a Medical Professional, a Darwin theory follower! – “Dear God. Thank you for giving me strength, ability and desire to do such things. May you stay with me for this journey.” And I teared up. Little that I knew that this prayer will come to my mind, every hard climb, every sore shoulder or painful blister – and, most definitely, every sunrise. It was a great start.
The pack felt heavy but fine. The sweat was building. The uphill was relenting. But none of this mattered – I was on the trail, alone, hiking. Doing something that is so natural for me, putting one foot in front of another, thinking – and not thinking – making simple decisions and working hard. I was born to hike. I always knew that. From day 1 the routine settled in – since I had a breakfast between 5 and 5:30 am, my daily calorie intake would begin at 7 am, and would continue every 30 min “a something in”, aiming for 200 cal an hour, though not always being precise (and that was OK with me). Some things, like gels and little Cliff bars and half of Lara bars, or even airport bags of nuts and pretzels (you bet I saved those from the flight!) were great to count, and some – like trail mix, jerky, individual servings of chocolate (60 cal each) – not so much, but I didn’t care about that. The important part was to have a consistent flow of calories and water.
The climb was long and lasted into the heat, which would begin daily around 8 am. And then soon after, on one of the rollers, I walked into a sitting guy – my first encounter with another through-hiker. We nodded and exchanged hello, and I walked by. This was the first time when it hit me: he didn’t stand a chance to catch me. Young, strong – and I knew I’d be the one pushing the miles here and causing talks.
At some 13 miles and a good hour ahead of what I “thought” I’d be there at I came to my first official “water” – Watson lake. Thankfully, I knew it was muddy and marshy on a normal year, yet along on this dry one. Even getting to a spot where I could filter was yucky. Yes, that is why I carried all this weight in water. I stopped, re-arranged a few things (while weight was heavy yet comfortable, the size of my pack was busting at the seams with all the items, and I was looking forward “downsizing” as I went) and tended to my first blister. Between the heaviness and the heat and the dust getting through the mesh of my trails shoes (Perl Izumi M2) I was surprised to find a little toe blister – I rarely if ever have those. I didn’t get fazed. I asked for it, right?
Things were settling in for the hike, I was following the detailed topomap and the pages of book on trail’s exact description. That worked great, because there were no confidence markers, and not even every single turn had a blazer either. That first day meant a lot, and when I reached Brockway Summit Rd, mile 20, where Gretchen and I dropped my only re-supply of water (2 Gallons) a full 2 hrs ahead of time, I was thrilled, and the mathematical skills came churning in my head. Should I push further than planned on day 1 so day 2 feels better? Where would I camp? What should I do with excess of water? For those who wonder, by that time (2:15 pm, 8.5 hrs in) I had consumed 4 L out of 5.5 – and that felt right. I refilled all my containers, washed my face, and made an executive decision – to carry - in hands! – the extra half a gallon (2 L, 4.5 lbs!) right in that jug, all the way to the camp. I had calculated that I could drink from there and then cook my dinner and breakfast from the 2 extra liters, and then use 5.5 L of water to make my way through the next day – and its 29 miles, climbing highest peak, working driest section, and not be concerned about anything (including potential side-trip to a creek that may or may not run to filter water on the way). As I said, I am an ox. Carrying was an easy choice.
With that and a text to Larry, I crossed the road, hiked first 2 miles uphill, and “checked” to myself: piece of cake, I can do that, 57 lbs now and poles with hands busy (jug and poles), I was flying! When I came across a trail intersection, I got the book out, read “Go straight, cross the field of Mule Ears”, walked on – and right away was stopped by another intersection. Straight was uphill. To the right was a slight decline and bike tires imprints (more than 60% of the TRT is shared as Mountain Bike Trail). The page in the book said: “After a slight decline the trail levels off and begins to climb”. Technically, I knew I had to go up, all tonight, and lots tomorrow, all of some 15 miles. The book, but most importantly, the scribbled error on the wooden pole at the intersection showing to the right, threw me off. I walked, warily. Crossed some dirt road in a mile, and walked more. There was some incline, which quickly tuned into decline, and then down-right downhill. It lasted for a good mile and half, until another intersection came – there was no such thing on the map. Or in the book. And as I gingerly picked a trail and walked, I suddenly saw a glimpse of the Tahoe Lake…ON MY LEFT! I was going clockwise direction around the lake, so it always – ALWAYS – have to be on my right! A slight panic set in. I ran – with a pack and a water jug – back and forward a couple of times from the last intersection. Then took off uphill – at the speed of light, adrenaline pumping – back to the last dirt road intersection. If I can identify which one it is on the map – and that section had, like, 10 of them – I can figure out how to get on trail. Somehow, due to that carved error on the wooden pole back now 3 miles ago, I couldn’t picture the mistake was there. So, I dropped my backpack, and studied map and book, then ran up the dirt road for a third of a mile – nothing. Ran down the other direction of the dirt road – nothing. Set down and thought some more, starring at the map’s web of dirt road. I wasn’t bailing out. I wasn’t calling Larry for the rescue. I was going to figure this shit out, by myself, to the best of my ability, and not let it ruin my week around Tahoe.
Knowing I had to gain a lot of elevation, lake on the right, and that if I take all left turns in the maze of the ATV/4-wheel drive roads, I will cross TRT. I picked all my 57 lbs, and almost ran, eyes forward. I walked into a dead end twice, but in general, the next couple of miles I kept climbing on the rutted rocky roads and aiming left. Suddenly, headlights came from behind (even though it was 6:40 pm and still light), and one of those funky vans with a couple of New Zeland 20-year olds traveling in CA stopped by me. They had an i-Phone. Which had a Google map. Which showed I was exactly where I thought I was – 0.75 mile from the merge of the ATV road with the trail. I didn’t hesitate on the purity of my travel (I wasn’t setting any records or stuff like that, and I already covered far more miles than if I did had I stayed on TRT) and hopped into the van. The problem was, the van couldn’t go more than 0.5M before being stopped by the sharp and up-turned rocks. So, while the kids (a boy and a girl, who were super-nice and have heard the name of Anna Frost) were figuring out what to do next, I thanked them, got out, hiked last uphill, and – halleluiah! – saw the TRT marker, and soon the trail! Yeah!
Thus was my evening. Instead of going few miles beyond my originally intended point, I ended up camping exactly there, some 5 miles and change past Brockway Summit Rd, some mile beyond Martis peak trailhead, at the edge of a treeline, on a rise of a flat rock, with magnificent views on lake Tahoe and its other shore – and with some 29+ miles on my feet. If I were into big water bodies, I would have been in heaven, but even with my indifference to Lake Tahoe itself (I prefer little quaint mountain lakes) the views were gorgeous, and I was happy I scored such a camping spot on my first night after all the evening presented to me. All in all, I was on track, feeling strong, and ready to continue. I set up the tent, cooked my dinner, watched the sunset and knitted a few rows of my future sweater…
Night rolled in, and I found out one effect of altitude – my nose is fully stuffed, and I am not capable to breathe with my mouth when trying to sleep. Tossing and turning, this will be my routine for the next 5 nights as well: nose plugged, mouth dry, fall into abyss for 30 min, wake up and lay for the next 30, do it between 9 pm and 4 am. Regardless of that lack of sleep, I never felt deprived. May be there is something about that fresh mountain air…
With that, I decided to get up at 4:30 am. Knowing it took me from 5:45 am to 7 pm to make some 29 miles, and that next day brings exactly the same number – this time officially – and that I will still be carrying same 50+ lbs pack, facing the biggest climb to the highest peak of the trip, I didn’t want to linger. As I rolled out of the tent in the dark, I was stuck with the fact that my headlamp’s batteries died a sudden death (were they turned on during my travel, or in the pack?), I don’t remember where I stashed my spare batteries or spare headlamp (small pack and 1 week worth of stuff make one utilize some weird corners), and I had only a small kid’s handheld flashlight. So, with nose not breathing, I shove the flashlight between my teeth and, trying to suck air through the mouth around it, broke my tent down, cooked oatmeal and packed my backpack to the brims, again. All of that, without any hurry, in 1 hr. I was satisfied. Ate my breakfast, moved food for the day into forward compartment, hung the empty water jug behind the backpack (pack it in – pack it out!), and with sky getting grey, at the very same 5:45 am, I set my foot on the trail.
Of course, it went up, as it was supposed to for the next 10 miles. The grade was rather mellow, and while my shoulders did talk, I put my head down; sucked on a 2L bladder filled with water, and made my way. In the middle of Nevada Wilderness Boundary, where the bikes are not allowed, on a slope of open field of Mule Ears with open views to Lake Tahoe, I met my first person for the day – and second through-hiker, an older gentlemen with a huge pack. I am so sorry I didn’t ask his name, as I will meet him again, going opposite direction – because he was the only person who took me seriously. As the days will progress and I see more and more long-distance hikers of all different trails, I noticed even if I ask what their destination is, nobody asked that of me, treating me somewhere in-between a day hiker and an overnighter. Their packs were so huge, it looked like they carried a dead body and a coffin. Older heavier packs and gear, stuff attached beneath and above the pack itself – that was a definition of a through-hiker. I, with my light pack, wearing running shorts and running shoes, didn’t impress anyone. Oh, well…
But I digressed. While my shoulders, I won’t lie, were saying something to my ears, the rest of me was doing great. This stretch was also my first time I saw backpackers rolling out of their tents past 7 am, and getting on the trail close to 9. Missing sunrises and cool-ish hours to hike? Why would they do that? I loosely planned to arrive to the top of Relay Peak, a highest point on the TRT at over 10k feet elevation, somewhere around 11 am and 12 pm. At 10 am I saw a (different) peak with a radio tower on it, read some pages in the book and was surprised to learn I was really close. Another 20 min – and I was there! I got my cell phone out and texted Larry: “At the high point, early again!” I was blowing away my own mind. There were a lot of high school kids at the top, as it turned out cross-country team doing their summer workout as a “friendly race” to the top. One of the top guys took my picture (twisting my camera in his hands for a while, not knowing how to use this old machine instead of an i-Phone, and I will have a similar problem later with another new-er generation), and I stood and watched for a few minutes kids to come up, some surging and feeling strong, and as the tail-end was near, more power-hiking (it was a dang steep pitch on their other side!), heavy breathing, hands on the knees.
I said a few encouragements, took a 5 min break with relocation of some foods and drinking my recovery mix, and took on a downhill. Lucky for me, a group of local day-hikers was coming towards me, and as I asked them about “that dirt road that supposed to take me down to the Mt. Rose Trailhead”, they informed me in the time since the book I used as a guide was written the TRT organization built a new trail – a couple miles longer, but a single track that is so much nicer! And so I went. Lots of down, a few ups, a long way it seemed, but indeed, much better option than dirt roads and weird turns. The trail even had a cascading creek – wish I knew that, would have cut some of my water weight – but alas, I relied on the book, and I had no regrets.
I finally dropped all the way down (last stretch was so open and so hot, I thought it would never end!) to the trailhead with garbage (off my water jug and 2 days worth of trash go) cans and a real toilet. I dialed Larry at 1 pm and happily announced that despite trail section being longer than I expected and struggling a little in the heat, I am, again, a full hour ahead of time, what may be very useful for the following miles. I took a full 15 min to re-charge and refuel, and to study some maps. Knowing I have over 14 miles to go, it is hot, and I only have 2 L of water left (for y’all who wandered why I needed so much), I was worried. Even more so I worried that my next “for sure” water is not coming until Star lake, another 35 miles past my tonight’s camp. The decision grew by itself. Initially I was supposed to have a shorter day 3, hoping for a creek camp. The word on the trail was all creeks on this side are dry, and a couple that are trickling have an extra mileage to get to them (and not certain anyway). I felt strong and being an ox that I am, I figured I will fill all my 5.5L of jugs, again, at the pump at my day 2 campground – and push further, stretching that water for the day 3, dinner, breakfast and 10 miles of day 4 to the lake. I called Larry and notified him of changes in plan.
Next section was stupefying-ly hot, open, flat, and had no views at first. There were a lot of mountain bikers passing me in both directions, all super-nice, but it did require me to step off the trail and eat their dust. Under the baking sun. Not only I, who doesn’t believe in SPF, used my sun-protection stick, I also put a bandanna around my neck as I felt it boiling. The trail continued to roll, the bikers became sparse, and while the markers corresponding to various points and miles in the book kept coming at me at the needed spaces, I was wary for the remaining daylight and getting to the camp with enough left – not only I wanted to wash off, I needed to dig out my spare headlamp, so the morning would go smoothly.
At some point I passed a ski lift, and entered a familiar territory: a trail towards a Tunnel Creek RD. The memories of my silly drop from Tahoe Rim trail 100 miler flooded. As I came to a spot where the AS was – and where I dropped at 62 miles – I knew next section like my own hand. I had 5 miles, 2.5 of which were uphill, and it was 5:30 pm. Can I make it in 2 hrs? I pushed, every turn bringing me reminders: here I puked, here I decided not to take a gel, here I was pissed off and bored, and then figured I don’t want to go on anymore. I had never dropped from a race “just because” – TRT100 was that experience. I even knew it was happening because I needed some quick calories, and in general I was burnt out with 3rd 100 miler in a span of 8 weeks, but still, I was like a stubborn toddler. I was reliving my shame – and pushing the “pace”, now with the pack and daylight fading. When the trail flattened out on top, and the views to Marlette lake came to me – I was overjoyed and almost took off running. I got it! I stumbled down to the campground at exactly 7:01, all of hour and half later, making it my fastest hike for the 2 days on the trail. Oh, the strengths we hide…
Mile 55-ish (and 29 for day 2) met me with a toilet, camp-sites with bear boxes and fire rings, and 2 guys, who announced “You look like you’re happy to be here!”. Heck, yeah, I was elated! I had over an hour of light to do my things, still 8 oz of water (because I moved faster and saved it in case I will be out for another hour), and I made it, made it, damn it, with all the nay-sayers, the heat, the climbs, the pack weight! I dropped my backpack, and feverishly began unpacking, collecting water containers and digging for my light. One guy, Jason (never asked the 2nd guy’s name) offered to help with the pump – and as I started walking and mentioned I just made a 29 mile day, both stopped in their tracks, looked at each other, and said: “You know we hate you right about now”. I was trying to shake it off, making a joke (I had nowhere else to go), telling them I used to be an ultrarunner – nothing helped. They were very nice, but never grew into more friendly conversation, occasionally whispering something to each other and then telling me “You know we are talking about you”, especially when I told them my plan for the next day, and another 28 miles to go…
Regardless, they were extremely helpful. Jason pumped the water while I filled all my jugs, washed myself (felt like a paradise!), washed my clothes (“Sorry, we, ultrarunners, strip easily with no shame”), tended to my dirty feet. They also confirmed the error I used as my guide when I got off-TRT the day prior and how they couldn't make a decision for some time, but eventually, did decide to not turn despite someone's joke (?), and later, at home, Larry found the trail that lead me off on the first evening. It was nice to have a bear box, because all that 1 week worth of food was not fitting into my bear canister, and the first night I slept with a 3rd of the bars and gels in my sleeping bag (yeah, I know. What did you do before bear canisters were invented? Hung it on trees to invite other creatures to eat it? Done that.) Anyway, I spread out, did find my spare light (success!), ate, and retired to read the book’s pages on that next stretch, now with extra miles. It was going to be a long day…
The sleep was the same as the 1st night, I breathed loudly and felt guilty for the guys possibly hearing it and cutting into their sleep time. I got up at 4:30 am, which became a routine, and took my time to shove all the stuff in – day 3 trail was, according to the book and the map, the least interesting, yet very open, simply a grind to get to the “other side” of the lake. But now it felt like I was going somewhere. As I tried to roll my shoulders backwards, they had none of that, but the pack set nicely, like it was attached to my back, and I took off, you guessed it, at exactly 5:45 am, with the first grey light showing the way.
I had some 9 miles and change to the next road intersection, Spooner Lake Trailhead (which had a spur to said Spooner lake, which was over a mile away and, I heard, pretty marshy). There was a climb, a sunrise, a deer who didn’t know where to go off the trail when I faced it, and a long downhill, that kicked my feet and presented me with a deep under-callus blister on my right heel. This would prove to be my only “injury-like” thing for the whole week.
I dropped to Spooner at 9:20 am – yet again, an hour sooner, but since I was nursing my water that day, drinking only 8 oz in those 3.5 hrs, slightly lightheaded (despite starting in the cooler temps). I made a call to Larry how I am doing (as well as to my job at Myo Massage - ?? – because they left me a message about some client desperate to see me – hello, Wilderness, you know that?), ate some food (anybody tried to scoop ground tuna out of a package with a hand?) and began the arduous climb out. There were pretty sections, there were trees, but the heat was unbearable, again.
From what I had experienced (and expected) the North and Upper-East side’s openness and dryness felt by far the hottest on the whole TRT. I wasn’t taking many pictures, and there wasn’t many views to admire – I just simply worked. Like an ox, you put a rein on and add a plow – and it goes, head down, no thoughts. I had to get to Kingsbury South, the “pretty side”, the “wet one”, the cooler, the one I worked hard for getting through the first 3 days so fast and heavily loaded. A couple (a few?) times I had some negative spells; just dehydrated (3 L is NOT enough to go at 7k altitude of the open mountain terrain for 12 hrs!) and under-fueled (a mistake we all make in an ultra: we get tired, we get angry, we stop eating – we magnify the cycle). I sort of still was feeding myself on the time point, but without much water to chase it with, my bites were small, and it showed. As I crossed Kingsbury Rd, some 3+ miles from my intended camping spot, I set at that road, trying to call Larry and whine. That was my only breakdown – and he wasn’t around to listen.
I crossed the road and began that final climb for the day. The sun wasn’t as oppressive anymore, yet I suddenly missed my husband. May be the fact that he wasn’t readily there to support me, in combination with low calories, did something – while the trail and the surrounding were suddenly and immediately getting better on that side of the road. But he caught me, before I turned the phone off, and talked to me – and all got better. And I pushed on, strong again, with a smile, and getting my camera out for pictures. An upcoming biker recommended a nice flat little spot wedged between 2 ski lifts – and I found it, just perfect, possibly one of my best camping sites, despite having dirt roads (and in the winter ski runs) intersecting right behind. It was risen above, tiny, rocky, barely enough space to put my one-person tent, but I was there, at 6:20 pm, 28 miles under my under-hydrated belt, knowing this was the last day I suffered – and I suffered well, strong and fast.
I squeezed my tent, cooked my dinner, finally was able to put all the food into the canister, and with so much daylight left – knitted my sweater inside the tent, with hauling winds around, all alone, perfectly still, feeling safe and amazing.
That night somehow I slept better. My stretches of being able to breathe were longer, and by 4:30 am I felt fully renewed – and smiling ear to ear. Taking the camp down has become so much faster, between getting the routine down (what you do first while something else is happening) and the fact that I had less food items to stuff, that I was ready to hike while still dark – 5:25 am. When I couldn’t find a big enough rock to put my pack on and slide my arms through – what I have been doing so far – I simply picked the backpack on and threw – THREW – it over my shoulders. And I didn’t even wince! Between pack finally getting under 40 lbs (only 1L of water, and almost half the food eaten) and me “hiking” myself in shape, the joy was overwhelming. I would have yielded if anybody listened. With a spring in my step, I took off like a mad woman, hitting a sign that I am more than half-way around Lake Tahoe! Wow, that was insane!
And got to Star lake a full hour and half ahead of planned time. This is what happens when you hike happily! The sun rose gorgeously, the hills were alive, the views – to die for! Mountains, real mountains towered everywhere around me. They had trees too! And the lake was amazing, just as I love it – on a smaller side, with blue see-through water, clear, cool, surrounded by fir trees and rocky formations. Since it was only 9:30 am, and I had only 25.5M to go (according to my, of course, fully revised plan due to the yesterday’s push), I spent a full 30 min washing my feet, doing laundry, filtering water and hanging out. It was magical…
The whole day went like that – I kept trying to slow down, and kept flying happy. Freel pass came and left, Armstrong pass, Monument pass…I had to force myself to sit down, literally, take my pack off, and just be still, because I simply could not walk slowly enough to stretch my day. This section was filled with mountain bikers, for whom I have a new respect. I actually never had any feelings towards them, since I am not a cyclist of any kind, and rarely see bikers (besides often obnoxious Austin street road cyclists who don’t like to share roads with neither cars nor runners) in general. I hear good things about mountain biking community, but was able to confirm that, indeed. They were ALL to the last one very nice, apologetic, thankful for letting them by, always said how many in a group (and each next continued the count) and something nice about my hiking. On top of that, I was fully impressed about their grit going up the climbs – and even more so taking on steep rocky twisty downhills with a side drop that could scare me to a heart attack! Good folks, thank you very much. Talked to a few of them too (“You are such a tiny little girl to carry 50 lbs” – “Can’t see without glasses the point I want to show you on my map”… - “You are such a tiny little lady to carry 50 lbs”). Lots of runners (ultrarunners?) on that section too, and day hikers. A fully unexpected party of people. But that was ok – I was on cloud 9 and flying.
I made it to Big Meadow Trailhead at 4:30 pm, and dialed Larry. I was beaming and yelling so loudly, screaming into the phone “I was born to hike! I found my stride! I will always want to make alone trips from now on!” that 2 ladies, through-hiking ahead of me and taking a night off the trail, came to talk. Susan (one of them, who backpacked PCT the previous year) and I chatted about water-less sections behind and the beauty that awaits us ahead. I bid goodbye and went to my designated camping at Round Lake, some 3 miles away.
Dropping to the lake by 6:20 pm, I hated to say I was disappointed. It wasn’t mountain-clear-blue-quaint as I expected, but rather like any lake in any other state, somewhat browning, which waters you’d want to filter for sure, and while I was looking forward to take a swim, I didn’t dare – and it had a lot of people around it camping for the night. I found a spot close to the trail and away from the others, did my washing/laundry/filtering routine, and finally took care of some of the blisters on my feet (they never hurt, but they looked rather scary), re-arranging more stuff, and yes, knitting. This is where I tried to ask a girl walking around the lake (and who turned out to be Russian, what are the odds!!??) to take a photo of me. She tried to, but as I later was looking in my camera, I never found a picture. It's "press the button", not "Touch the button"! As an i-Phone owner, she pressed too lightly, and "it never downloaded" (I was wondering what she meant when she said that). Oh, well, more selfies to go...That night my propane can ran out of fuel, and I ate half-warm Ramen noodles – and the morning met me with cold oatmeal. Well, you deal with what you have to, and I knew a store was ahead of me, where I could resupply if I decided it was worth it.
Another 4:30 am rolled in, and I was walking on at 5:17 am. What can I say; efficiency was getting better, even if I didn’t try. The trail around Round lake was rocky, rolling, and somewhat unassuming, I even passed by a through-hiker sleeping right on the trail in his sleeping bag. But as the sun rose, I hit a long-awaited intersection, where TRT merges with PCT and TYT (Tahoe Yosemite Trail). That was fun! I let out a yelp, turn to my right, and followed new markers. 5 miles after I started the day, Showers lake came soon to my views, beautiful (wish I camped here), with a big number of various through-hikers just stretching out of their tents (huh?). I met a couple more TYT trekkers, and then a girl going same way, down to Tuolumne Meadow. I took it as a sign, maybe I should go for this 185 mile trip next summer?
The descend to Bryan Meadow was crazy, knee-breaking rock steps for 2 miles, that took me longer than any uphill 2 miles before that. It mellowed out, then the heat hit, and with only little water left (miscalculated the distance), I struggled on the last 2M climb to Echo Lake parking lot.
But eventually, shortly after 1 pm, I was there, in full civilization, Echo lake trailhead, one I should have been camping at that night, so I could push next day through the Desolation Wilderness without needing to obtain an overnight permit. You see, even day hikers were required to get one – which you could fill up right at the trailhead – but for the night camping, I needed to go to Tahoe City and apply. Like I got nothing better to do. I never intended to spend a night there, but here I was, with a decision to make. While churning my brains, I bought a huge hot dog ($6, mind you) and a cup of coffee, a gallon of water to fill my 2.5L jugs, a new propane can, and called Larry while shoving the food in (it tasted golden). I decided I will fill the day permit, go to mid-way to stay at Gilmore lake (as I wanted to), and if the rangers come, just push through the night to the other end. That was my plan. What are they going to do, shoot me?
Fueled by hotdog, water and coffee, dodging way too many people on the trail (what a popular spot it is!!) and running on pure adrenaline, I took off on the climb to Aloha lake at a crazy speed. Evefry intersection I’d look at the watch and not believe my eyes. It was insane, and for a hundreds time I thought about experience of ultrarunning. The push when needed, the focus and determination we all share. I was on fire.
Aloha didn’t impress me one bit. Stretched out long and rocky, with no trees on the sides of it, it was clear, indeed, but I couldn’t understand why would anybody make it a camping destination. I flew around, and Heather Lake, along with Susie lake, made my eyes twinkle. Met a couple random families there with very little kids (a boy 3 yo – “I don’t like her hat” – “It’s ok, it’s a bandanna”), very impressive for parents! On the final climb I had considered just going over the Dick’s pass and make it extra 6 miles to the Dick’s lake – this was if I am to be awaken at night, that would for sure have to direct me to where I needed to go anyway, not backwards. But I met a few guys who camped at Gilmore the previous day, and they said such nice things about the lake, that despite it still being super-early, I decided to take my chances (and boy, was I happy about it the next morning).
Gilmore lake was nice, had some folks spread around, friendly short conversations (“Oh, you’re doing the while ‘Wild’ thing!”), clear water, soft ground for my no-supports sleeping, and so much daylight left, I, of course, got my yarn and the needles out.
The night was super-peaceful, and nobody shook me out of the tent. When I rolled out at my favorite 4:30 am – not only the sky was full of stars with all the Zodiac signs one have ever heard of – I saw one of the best Milky Ways ever in my entire life. And others sleep through this? I set there, stunned, still, wishing I could capture it in any other way but in my heart. Alas, my camera was not meant for this kind of things, and packing out quickly, I rolled out on the trail at 5:20 am, again. I guess there is a new routine in town…
I climbed in a somewhat cold air (coldest I’ve had so far this trip, warranting a windbreaker), trying to stay slow, not to hurry, like I knew something grand was about to happen. I took shots of the lakes and the mountains, massively huge over, in a grayness of what’s to come, and as I approached Dick’s Pass and looked to my left – I gasped. There it was, God’s Glory, best and biggest sunrise I had seen on this trip, sparkling over the top, golden colors spreading slowly – and I shouted, loudly now, same thing I was saying since morning 1: “Dear God. Thank you for giving me strength, ability and desire to do such things. May you stay with me for this journey.” And then I cried, amazed at this vast world we have, one that was given to us, so wild, untouched, yet so approachable if one only wants to – and I smiled, and laughed, and cried again, as the sun rays hit more and more surface, lightening majestic mountains and spreading the joy of the day to come. Only like that – only during sunrises in the mountains – do I, a former Soviet Union born and raised atheist and a medical professional with Evolution Theory beliefs – fully comprehend that this Earth, the Land we live on, was created by a completely Higher Power than we can ever imagine. So, so much bigger than us, our little understanding, our close mind-ness – yet it was given to us to experience freely.
And like that, walking and trying to hold back the tears (so I can keep on breathing), I walked on down, past the pole Larry and hiked to in 2010 from Emerald Bay, to the Dick’s lake, to the Fontanillis lake, Upper Velma lake…still in owe and an admiration. At the outlet of Upper Velma Lake I filled up 2L of water to take me through the rest of the day. The trail changed to dark fir woods, and as I knew there was a bear country right here from my previous experience and reports, I talked aloud, and tried to sing songs (which were exactly what hopefully scared the bears – nobody really wants to hear me sing). It came to my attention, I don’t know any songs fully – I never learned the words of any English-speaking song, and the Russians song, not practiced, are mostly forgotten but 1 or 2 verses. Apparently, the only full text I remembered was a song written overnight for the war with Fascists – when in WWII Nazi army crossed Soviet border. I sang that, and then I pumped my fist into the air, and yelled – “Mo-fo Nazi, what did you do to my people and my country!” – and then I cried again. I guess that was the day filled with emotions…as my thoughts rolled from memories of my life back home (and a sudden realization I had been thinking more in Russian than in English as the days on the trail passed – without destruction and influences, I am still strictly Russian at heart) to life here (“I am an ox. You put a rein on me and connect a plow – and I pull…”) to where I am finally now (happy? Happy. For sure. But why, oh why I still keep trying to pull?) to my kids, my f*ed up kids' lives and struggles and who are trying to find their own way - one this way, one clawing out and somewhat better, and whose actions I can not control, never anymore, and how my heart bursts at the seams, from the thoughts of it, between wanting to give them my wisdom, pull them out – to knowing there is nothing – NOTHING – I can do unless they each want to, because God knows I had done everything there is, and the only thing left to to love them, unconditionally, and pray, and wait. And I couldn’t hold back my tears – I still can’t, as I write it – and I screamed, and cried, and it was purifying, and angering, and maddening, and so much more roped in all this walk..
It was a good thing I was walking in deep dark forest, with nobody around. As I calmed down, a Richardson lake came to view, a more often visited by ATV riders, and a guy stood by the trail with a pack that indicated he is a through-hiker.
- -Where are you off to?
- -That creek just above Braker Trailhed a few miles up
- -Hmm this is where I plan to crash
- -See you there!
I walked on, and the more I walked, the more thoughts I got about above conversation. First of all, it was so damn early (and I got so wrapped up in my mind that I never slowed down on my hike) that I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself at the camp so early. Secondly, I absolutely did NOT want to share my last night with anybody at all! Not a nicest guy in the world, nothing personal. This trip was set out to be my “alone” time, my thinking time, my contemplating. I knew the campsite we both planned to be at was a tight quarters, not even the same as my stay at the lakes. I took off, now with a vision – not only there was no way he will catch me (after all, I caught him), I am going to go further up the trail for my night.
Somewhere on that stretch I ran into that older gentleman I met on my way to Relay Peak. He fully recognized me and was stunned at my pace. He mentioned that this circle, as far as he saw/heard, the only other “speedsters” were a couple of guys doing occasionally 23 miles (I am guessing those were “my” guys from Marlette lake campground?). Light pack and shoes pay off after all.:) We talked for a couple of minutes, he confirmed the creek at that campsite has water (I was running low, again), and I pushed on. At the Barker Trailhead there was an adventure racing aid station, and I had asked them to “shelter” my trash from that day, which they absolutely didn’t mind (it wasn’t much at all). As I turned to the trailhead itself, I suddenly read: “Tahoe City, 17 miles”. It is 2:30 pm, and I have less than 17 miles to go. Holly damn. I almost jumped forward on a spur, “I can be at Tahoe City tonight, by 8pm, definitely by 9!” as I stopped as abruptly as took off: why??? Why in the world would I want to be there, when the whole idea was to be alone, on the trail, in the wilderness, by myself, for as long as I can be?? I slowed down to what I thought was a crawl. Despite that, and being shaken by such a close end of my journey, the 2.4M uphill and the camp came by in under an hour (first I passed right by it for half a mile and had to return), and I set by the creek, taking my time. I washed off my body, my feet, I pumped 3L of water, which would last me till the end of tomorrow, I stared at Tahoe Lake, picking in a view.
Boy, the author of the book (who described this spot as the best camping) and I do not see eye to eye for sure (as I noticed numerous times before). But the book did help me, and I silently thanked the dude who wrote it (for some weird reason I kept calling him a “she” when I’d flip the pages). In the 30 min I spent by the creek the “Guy” who was to camp there never showed up. Ah, well, for the best, less explanations (and why am I not surprised). I slowly got up and took on the climb to Barker Pass. I looked around more, and rolled some more thoughts in my head, reminiscing on the days behind. At the top, Granite Wilderness post announced itself, and I hung out there. Made my way another half a mile to the split between PCT and TRT – kissed that pole, promising to come back. Walking slowly, went towards the Twin Peaks pass for a mile, when it suddenly hit me – it is early, and I don’t want to get any closer to the end, even if a slow walking I was trying to produce. I made a 180 degrees turn and went back, near the Granite Wilderness at the top, picked a best spot, and at 5:40 pm settled in, with another (unexpected and not all necessary) 28 miles under my belt. This was a PROPER spot for my last night on the trail for this year. This one deserved the honors.
I took my pack off in a slow motion and came to the edge of the pass. Just as the book says, the views took 360 degrees, ranges of mountains across one side and Lake Tahoe on another. I could see Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley mountains and think of my years at Western States 100, and simultaneously of all ultrarunning gave me. I could stand still and think of the strength nature provides, the inspiration, love and support. I set a camp, had my last Ramen noodle dinner, and yes, knitted. I was honestly happy I took he needles and yarn with me – I didn’t do too much of a progress, despite utilizing it 4 nights out of 6, but I surely was happy to hold it in my hands. Two passions combined. Where will they bring me next?
The night was quiet and finally almost windless. At 3:30 am the nature called, and I opened a flap of my tent – and the big yellow circle stared right back at me, hanging as if I could touch it. In the days and nights I spent by myself, I lost fears, and none of the bad ideas popped into my head when I saw this light, but – did somebody broke a camp next to me and is using a bright lamp? I got out, and it hit me – it was an (almost) full moon, that bright yellow I rarely see, hanging over the cliff I camped on, so close, I could practically grab it in my hands. I stood there, paralyzed. Mountains kept throwing me surprises. It was magnificent and unbelievably beautiful. I got back into tent, laying still, thinking. What is the meaning of life? Any big revelations happened on the trek? Not really, but that life is simple: you just put one foot in front of another. Sometimes you put your head down and grind for what you planned. Sometimes you grind a little more. Sometimes you enjoy and adjust your plans and slow down and find new ways or places... And then there are days when you just have no idea where and when you will stop, leaving it all to chance, and that’s ok too.
I’ve been known to have an issue with control. My childhood was tumultuous, so was my youth, despite working and studying, things kept slipping away in a direction I wasn’t wanting them to go. I moved across the ocean losing my connections with family and friends, forgoing the career and passion I dreamt about. I raised my kids to the best of my ability and held on to a family I knew how – and those things, too, got out of my control, and slipped away, far, where no parent ever wants them to be. I tried to get a grip – and fell in love, and moved across the country now, where I never thought I’d spend my days. So, I go about life, trying to make routines and controlling little things that I can, work over-scheduling, exercise, wake up and time for bed, cooking meals, organizing the house... But sometimes, you just have to let it go…
I didn’t set up an alarm clock for that last morning on the trail, and I opened my eyes at 6 am. Slowly I wondered around my last camping site, trying to hold back tears, not ready to go back, because I knew, no matter how slow I’ll go, it will never be slow enough, and was too soon I’ll be out, in the world, with distractions, and all the “stuff” that will pile up inevitably.
I put all my stuff into the pack, which now was totally empty besides the tent and the bear canister – and that bear canister held the rest of my personal belongings. 6 days in the woods – where did everything go? I easily picked up my backpack, which practically grew to me tight, and set off, past that PCT and TRT intersection, considering for a few seconds taking off North, to Canada, for some absolutely unknown time…
When Larry took me to the airport, he asked me: “What if you decide not to return?”. There is always that thought, when you let someone be alone with their thoughts, especially if you got together in a more of a golden age and not sharing children and lifetime of memories and relatives…In the first 2 days I never gave that thought a single minute, but by the end of day 3 I knew the answer, and by 4th day, that conversation at the toilet in the parking lot of Big Meadow, I screamed: “I am coming back to you”. Because no matter how much I love being alone and “hiking my own hike”, there is nobody I rather tell all this about but Larry. There are surely things we have to adapt, like doing trips together considering both of our needs and speeds and ideas – but to make it happen happily, I need to have MY time on the trail. At my pace, my strength, my weight to carry. “If you love somebody, set them free”. So true. Because I am coming back.
Despite almost wandering in the woods those last 11 and some miles, I made it out in 4 hrs, and crossed the road to come up the final turn to my starting point. The end was rather anticlimactic, with cars, people, fumes, paved roads…I kissed the map at the trailhead and texted Larry. I am done. And I am completely, utterly lost…
It’s been a number of days, almost a week, and I am still slightly lost. The first days were the hardest. I spent the next day sitting still in Squaw Valley village with my knitting in hands and starring at the mountains around, crying sometimes. I wasn’t ready to face the real world. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t WANT to do anything at all. I am blessed to have a husband who understands…
The final itinerary looked quite different from the initial one.
Day 1 - Tahoe City to extra 5M past the trailhead to Martis peak for camp for 29M, 23 on TRT, 6 random, 3 TRT miles missing
Day 2 - from Martis Peak trailhead to Marlette peak campground, for a total 29M – as planned.
Day 3 - Marlette peak campground to Kingsbury South, for total 28M
Day 4 - Kingsbury South to Round lake - total 26M
Day 5 - Round lake to Gilmore Lake, total 26M
Day 6 - Gilmore Lake to Twin peak pass with some back and forward for total of 28-29M
Day 7 - to Tahoe City - for total 11.5M.
Looks like I made a 171M trail loop into a 177 mile trek, and that is nothing knowing my infamous getting lost. I actually never did. Even on the first evening, that was presented to me as a gift, as a challenge to use my brain, to read the map, to test my resolve. Stopping was never an option.
Just like in a real life. I am an ox. You put reins on me, connect a plow, and I walk, and I pull. Sometimes I am not even sure where I am going, what is my final destination, when if ever will I be there. But I walk, and I pull, regardless of those silly little questions. Because this is what I do.
Could I see myself doing a longer trail? Absolutely yes. But I am also a responsible adult, who has obligations and loved ones, who would miss me, and whom I would miss. What I do see in my future are these kind of 1-2 week long trails. Despite my fast hiking, I never had an interest to go for any kind of speed record, fast-hiking and so on. All I ever wanted to is to go at my own speed, physically and emotionally. That trip fulfilled it.
It would not have happened had I not married the man who believes in me – and believes me. Thank you, Larry, for knowing how important this was for me. (And how cute was the fact that he printed the maps out, posted them on the entrance door and "followed" my steps with times of my texts and trails).
A heartfelt thanks to Gretchen and her husband Andrew (and their dogs) for opening their doors for me and helping me so much with logistics – and giving full moral support too. Sometimes life gives us random friends if we let it happen.
I used every item in my backpack but a quart Ziploc with the following: extra watch (mine is 6 years old, I didn’t want to end up with no time), extra headlamp (batteries were sufficient), extra glasses (I happen to find a pair of great glasses on the first day on the trail, so never used my own, but you can’t predict that), and an i-Pod shuffle (I was afraid I’d have to do miles in the dark and need some kind of motivation. Music never crossed my mind). I also was left with 10 gels, 2 bars and 3 pouches of recovery drinks – but not because I didn’t need it, rather that I am cheap and at some point decided to save them for my future potential racing. My pack's weight after I used the food and water was 28 lbs (that included the above sort of extras). While my shoulders did feel sore and even swollen for day 2 and 3, my legs had never said a peep. Never! I often get upset with my body, wish for something else...but in the end, my body is so amazingly strong and carries me anywhere I take it, I am forever grateful. I lost an inch off my butt and thighs and a few pounds of overall weight – best diet plan is to take into the mountains for a week, we all knew that already. My sweater I was knitting is close to completion, and the gear is all washed and put away. I tried to go for a couple of hours run last Saturday, and while I never – NEVER – felt any kind of fatigue while on the trail, it hit me then, 3 days later. I struggled for a mile and half, and then decided to play it smart (having suffered from Overtraining Syndrome for 2 years) and walked the next 5. I am going to try and go tomorrow, but I have no desire to screw things for myself anymore. Being lost without my running was not a state of mind I would recommend anybody, and I am slightly scared.
But I am also optimistic – regardless anything life will decide to gift me, good, bad, or indifferent, I will be ok. Because, you know, life is simple: it is one step in front of another.