One Day in 12 Miles
Day 4: Saturday July 22, 2017
Mile Marker 18:
This portion of the Laurel Highlands trail is abundant in flowing runs of water, so finding or having enough water is not an issue. We stop at our first good run to filter and fill only two of our water bottles, knowing we will come across more water sources throughout the day. This helps our packs feel lighter. Last year, I caught a fairly serious parasite on my backpacking adventure, so this year, I am being more deliberate about preventing cross contamination. We fill the plastic pouch that comes with our filter and dry it before filtering the water into a clean bottle. This is to prevent any unclean drips from sliding down into our clean drinking water. Filtering water is a time consuming process and not a job for the impatient. Our packs are also feeling lighter, because we have been literally eating our weight away. I am sure this is one of the few times in life where you can say that.
Since our shelter last night was more than halfway past the previous mile, this first mile marker comes easy.
Mile Marker 17:
Our energy level is great this morning, and mile marker 17 is the halfway point of our backpacking trip. We stop to take a picture, but my phone dies—no more pictures, only memories in our minds.
Mile Marker 16:
We are feeling good, so we decide to push through to mile marker 15 (3 ½ miles in) before taking a break. We try to make use of the energy we feel from our morning cup of matcha green tea. I am grateful that I did that restorative yoga, because I feel so refreshed and not too sore today. Kai regrets that he didn’t listen to my prodding that he do some yoga too. He also regrets staying up late to play with the fire. I woke him up early since we have a long day ahead of us. I want to be sure we have plenty of time to reach camp tonight. I had to have a talk with Kai about being responsible. He had left his lighter on the edge of the fire. When I was sleeping, I heard a big pop, a wiz, and a bang as something flung out of the fireplace. I woke Kai, but we couldn’t figure out what it had been. In the morning, I found his lighter less than a foot away from me, with the top burnt off. It must have exploded and flung in my direction, just missing me. I admonished Kai, saying that with more freedom comes more responsibility, and that he needs to be aware of and on top of these things.
Mile Marker 15:
We breezed through those first three miles pretty well. We are starting to feel like we want a break and we are coming upon a pretty stream. Kai makes a strong case that we should rest at this nice spot. I like to push through to the mile marker we planned for before we take a break. As we we are crossing the stream, I spot on the opposite bank, the mile 15 marker. I point out to Kai that we can break here after all. It rarely works out this way. We are decompressing, our packs off. I am doing some easy, stretchy yoga and Kai is playing at the stream. As we are just about to start in on our allotted snacks, we see clouds rolling in. We decide to pull out our rain gear, and we get it set up just in time. The rain starts coming down and picking up fast.
Mile Marker 14:
Sitting and eating in heavy rain is not restive, so we decide to keep moving. We finish up the dried mango we had started as we are walking, but we don’t make it through all our morning snacks. The little adrenaline rush caused by the sudden rain keeps us moving at a steady pace. It’s like our natural urge is to walk out of the rain, but of course, we really can only walk through it and hope it stops. I keep Kai moving by promising chocolate covered espresso beans soon. And then, “when we get to the 14 mile marker.” I try to push us a little past our limits and time our caffeine hits just right, so we are not overdoing it, but are milking each dose to its fullest. Mile marker 14 comes quickly, or so it seems.
Mile Marker 13:
Kai likes to suck the chocolate off the coffee bean and then eat the coffee bean inside. I like to take one at a time and savor the coffee and chocolate flavor together, so that I can almost imagine that I am drinking a mocha. And then in my mind, I am in a coffee shop. The nice and cozy kind. With a fireplace, books, and games. The type you could spend all day at. Each coffee bean transports me to this place, so I space them out well, at regular intervals to keep the thoughts alive. We are at the point where we know that it is wet and raining, but this has just become the state of our existence. There is no walking away from the rain. We are just in the rain. “Blueberries!”, Kai exclaims, pulling me out of my fantasy. Earlier I had noticed that the climate was changing as we were descending in elevation. It looked like the territory we might find wild blueberries in. I thought I would mention this to Kai, but then thought better to leave it as a surprise. New territories, new scenery, and new discoveries keep our spirits up and renew our energy. Wild blueberries are not like their cultivated cousins. Finding a good patch might yield a couple tablespoons at most, and they are teeny tiny. But their flavor is truly wild and complex. We try a bite of blueberries with coffee beans. It is an interesting and curious flavor combination, but we didn’t discover anything worth writing about.
Mile marker 13 feels like a long time coming. We pass by a small duck pond where this group of about fifteen day hikers come upon us. Kai decides to make a game of running up ahead of them, hiding himself up in a small tree, a bush, or a fallen log, and seeing if they will spot him. I keep myself going by chanting in my head, “thirteen is my favorite number.”
Mile Marker 12:
Kai keeps up his game with the hikers for a good bit of this mile, while I keep a slow, steady pace, so I actually don’t seen him for much of this mile. I need to pee, but I don’t want one of the day hikers to catch me with my pants down, so I just hold it in—a whole mile. Mile marker 12 is our next scheduled break, lunch time, and our halfway point of this day (6 miles in). As I go along, I realize that I haven’t seen Kai for a while, and I am really not sure if he is ahead or behind. All I can think is that he better have the sense not to leave the trail. I am not moving backwards and I don’t have it in me to go on a Kai hunt. I can make it to mile marker 12, not anything more. Then, I feel, slightly, guilty and worried, so I call out for him. No response. I keep moving forward. I continue to call out every so often. Eventually, he responds and I catch up to him. My greeting is, “You are lucky you were ahead of me, because there is no way I was going back to hunt you down.” Kai laughs. We do have a conversation about the importance of staying on the trail. He does understand, and has an equal desire not to be lost or completely on his own out here.
Finally, mile marker 12, and the relief of peeing without being watched. There are several fallen logs that act as our benches. It feels so great to have the packs come off for a bit. And we are hungry. Lunch is wraps with Primal Strips, mayo, Babybel cheese, and grape tomatoes torn into pieces. We have an avocado, but it has somehow managed to not ripen, so we sacrifice it to the forest gods and goddesses. Our wraps are served with a side of potato chips leftover from our market meal. When I tear open the bag of potato chips, I inhale the scent as if it were the most satisfying smell I have ever experienced. The taste of each bite of food, is enhanced by each mile we have walked to earn it. The rain lets up long enough for us to have a decent lunch break. My song of clear skies and prayed for rainbows worked. I am able to lay on a wet log to rest. It feels like lying on a wet log, but it feels soo good.
Mile Marker 11:
Before we head out, I switch my shoes. On these longer days, I alternate between my hiking sandals and my sturdier hiking shoes. Each set of shoes hit my feet at different parts of my foot, so alternating between them gives my feet some relief. Our next scheduled break is mile marker 9. I promised Kai that we would split the second half of our package of coffee beans after lunch, but I am trying to stretch them out a bit longer, so I keep saying, “soon.” And finally, “at mile marker 11.” He doesn’t like this. The rain hits again and we are getting to the point where we are tired of being wet. Kai tries going barefoot for a while. He splashes his feet in the puddles and streams. Hiking barefoot on the trail feels good and gives your feet a break from your shoes, but it is easy to stub your toes on stones and tree roots, and it definitely slows you down. Kai manages for about a half mile, before returning to his shoes.
Mile Marker 10:
The coffee beans are our reward for the past sloshy mile. There is no savoring them this time. They are wet and clumped together. We pop them in our mouths several at a time, hoping to get their high quickly. This part of the trail is beautiful. Rocky corners. Flowering pink and white Rhododendrons. Flowing streams. We try to stay present, but our minds fluctuate between awing at the beauty around us and escaping to a more comfortable place in our minds. At mile marker 10 there is a perfect tree stump, at just the right height to sit into and lean the weight of our packs against. We sit just long enough to get some water in us. No packs off. This isn’t our break yet.
Mile Marker 9:
As our coffee beans kick in, I tell Kai maybe we should push on to mile marker 8 before taking our break. But as the mile drags on, and the coffee high fades, and we come upon mile marker 9, we are both in full agreement that we need a break. Caffeine has its limits. We have hiked nine miles today, and we are tired. Kai lays prone on a wet log, arms and legs wrapped around the log, his head turned to one side; he has forgotten to take off his pack. I do take off my pack and sit on a log on the other side of the trail. The rain gods and goddesses are smiling on us, for the rain has stopped for this break too. I look at our map, and I am encouraged. I had thought that after mile marker 9, we had a steep hill to climb, but I see that we are already up the hill, and there will not be too much incline coming up. After resting for a bit, we pull out the carob malt balls. I had been saving this sugary snack for a time when we would need that sugar rush, and this is it. You definitely don’t want to overdo it, but sweets do have their place on the trail.
Mile Marker 8:
The next three miles or so, we start getting loopy. We are at that point where we are doing whatever it takes to make it through. The trail to mile marker 8 is misty and surreal. We start being silly and make things up. I say, “The guy at REI, Joe, or I think he is Joe anyway, so I will call him Joe, he knows this trail well, and everything has said has been true, and well, he said that there is a lemonade stand at mile marker 8.” Kai says, “really?” Just for a moment, his mind wanted to believe it was true. Then, we joke about how we really died at mile marker 9, and that we are just ghosts walking through the mist. The topic of death is appropriate and not disturbing. I mean, we do feel like we have died. And death is merely stepping into another dimension.
When we reach mile marker 8, we really do have lemonade. We stop and rest on a rock and make lemonade out of two packets of Real Lemon that I stole from GetGo, and two fizzy electrolyte tablets. The lemonade lacks the icy refreshness that we long for. It is cool, at best. But it is some kind of break from everything else we have had. Then, we move on.
Mile Marker 7:
We start moving down hill both literally and figuratively, as we make our way to mile marker 7 and beyond to Ohiopyle shelter. I start humming and singing Alison Krauss’s song “Your Long Journey.” A song about death. Kai first thinks I am kooky for singing to myself, but I say, “In my mind I am wearing headphones and listening to the radio.” And, “It is working, as long as the song is playing in my head, I am not focusing on my pain and fatigue.” After a bit, Kai decides to give it a go by highjacking my song. He starts singing a song he made up about us being slower than snails and snails singing better than us too. He sings loud, and his singing drowns out my peaceful melody, so I give up. We are moving pretty slowly at this point, and perhaps, snails are faster than us. We each have one hiking pole to rely on. The hill is so steep and relentless. Our already tired feet crush up against the edges of our shoes and each step is painful. It really is impossible to move any faster. Kai keeps his song up for nearly a mile, and as we pass mile marker 7 (no stopping, only moving forward), and move into our last stretch to the shelters, his chant changes. It changes to something along the lines of “we are going to die, we are never going to make it.” Over and over again. I am completely demoralized. Who can think positive when someone is shouting those things. I attempt a “shut up!” a few times, to no avail. So I just give up, and my feet keep slowly crawling forward. Because forward is where home for the night is. At one point, Kai decides to try positivity by shouting, “look, I see the shelter sign!” He lies. It is still at least a quarter mile down.
Finally, we make it to Ohiopyle shelter, and our humble shelter 3. The rain starts in again, so for the first time we cook and eat in the shelter. This is the first time I actually start the fire. There are three dry logs that are at our shelter and some bits of sticks leftover from previous users. I use five petroleum jelly saturated cotton balls (our emergency fire starter), because I am not in the mood to coax a fire all night. It works and our fire takes off quickly. Dinner is vacuum packed indian meals, but they don’t hit the spot, so we manage to eat just enough. We are tired of being wet and it is still raining, so we do everything in our shelter tonight. We go to sleep as soon as we can. I had agreed that we would exchange sleeping systems for the night. I want to try out Kai’s equipment and he wants to see if my setup is more comfortable. Unfortunately, Kai’s sleeping mat is defective, with a very slow leak, so that after several hours it loses most of its inflation. This is not a fun way to wake up.