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“It’s fine,” I said, even though my entire body was clenched in the passenger seat of our silver Toyota Corolla. In the dim fluorescent light that only barely cast Toes’ hands into a visible spectrum I could see how hard he was squeezing the steering wheel. It was a nice Corolla. It has done everything right for us since picking it up last minute from the Reno airport. It practically drives for us. It is such a very nice Corolla. But we forgot to feed it.
I don’t know anything about all of this road trip business. Every time I cross the country, it’s up and down, and on foot. I have devoted the last couple of years of my life to pursuing a breath of freedom via that tiny, soulful stretch of trail between Canada and Mexico along the PCT only to be stopped by powers beyond my control. My brain, ever turning all things negative into a positive light whether the positive is truthful or not, reverted to basic instinct mode of FiNd dIFFerEnT tRaiL
Let me tell you, the middle of the desert in eastern California is not a place conducive to getting anywhere else without a car. Bishop, CA seems to be somewhere that everyone shows up for no real reason, then finds that they are unable to leave. The town has a population of around 4,000 spread across the patch of desert in the Owen Valley below the Sierra Nevada mountains I was coming to love so much, but at any time there are over 10,000 there. As we wandered through the asphalt turns we asked a fella if he knew where, exactly, the bus stop was. He said “I have no idea. I’m not even supposed to be here. I stopped to get lunch 3 days ago and my car hasn’t started since and I can’t figure out why.”
The west is weird.
I think back to this man, stuck in the west somewhere he isn’t supposed to be, and realize I have no idea where I am supposed to be if not right here, right now. Toes and I have different thresholds and ways to display or deal with stress. I can not begin to define the difference or the limits, but it always seems to work out that at least one of us keeps the ability to calmly rationalize the steps in front of us. Today, just about an hour ago, we both surpassed the stress to hit cool calm clarity at the same time: We are screwed.
When we passed the last bastion of civiliation on this dusty stretch of I80, there was a quarter of a tank of gas. Little did we know, Wendover, NV is a very long ways away from the westernmost gas station on the Utah side. Turns out, it is about exactly a quarter tank of gas away. Google told us that the next closest open gas was 44 miles away still, and this sweet precious Corolla had been obnoxiously begging to be fed for so long the gas gauge dropped depressingly below the empty line. We are so hyper focused on getting back to a trail, we forgot the real life rules that one must follow to move from place to place in a metal box that speeds along the earth at a pace my hiking brain cannot fathom. 20 miles is all day to me, not a quarter hour on the interstate. We even discussed how crazy it is that our perception of time and distance is so skewed. We did not discuss the reality of gallons per mile, only how magical it was to be going anywhere at all.
Sublime is on the radio, but the car is stuffed with only silence and fear as we see an exit sign. There is a gas station. It’s not listed on Google because the inside is closed, but will we still be able to get gas? I imagine the car begins to sputter. I think how lucky we are to run out of gas so close to a gas station. I look around to figure out how we are going to both sleep in this little car. So grateful for our warm down sleeping bags. I have accepted the inevitability.
As soon as we pull up, another car pulls up and a desperate man gets out of his black SUV. He is desperate because his card isn’t working and he doesn’t have gas. We are somewhere called the “Tooele Valley.” Eerily close to my trail name, Toodles. Thankfully, blissfully, the gas tank works after hours and we are able to not only fill our tank, but help out another person who was in the exact situation we had been so terrified of.
On the PCT, my hiking friends and I constantly remind each other that we are exactly where we are supposed to be. We believe it. We put in the work, hiked on the hard days when we wanted to take other options. We pushed those extra few miles in the evenings, even though we didn’t necessarily have to. We gave ourselves to that damn trail. In return, we were always where we were supposed to be. In Washington, at the right place to meet friends both new and old. Somewhere on a mountain that I get to see the sky and clouds just so. On the Bridge of the Gods, when a random truck played our favorite obscure song. In Oregon, when we arrive at places just in time for surprise special events and shows. In and out of towns just in time to avoid smoke. At Crater Lake on the only clear day in weeks. Through the Caldor fire just before it closed the trail. Through Kennedy Meadows before closures extended. At Yosemite in time to magically get half dome permits and meet a friend from TN who was willing to go out of his way to help us get around. The list goes on and on.
I have to keep that list going, because from outward appearances it would seem that my luck has run out. I am even reminded right now as I type this, because I do not know whether my PCT experience is past tense or present. After accounting for skipping around the Dixie fire and Lionshead closure, we walked all the way to the Sawmill Pass trail in the Sierra. 1,200 miles until California decreed the forests closed and when we left to get more food, we were not allowed back.
I am always exactly where I am supposed to be. Even when I don’t want to be there. I met some amazing folks in Bishop, CA. I was so lucky for another chance to go back to Reno to see Alyson. I was elated to reconnect with Pancake and Viewfinder, friends we haven’t seen since Stehekin, WA. I chose, and still choose, to focus on the positive.
It was a whirlwind of a few days since leaving the PCT, and decision making is hard when everything you have planned and worked for goes out the window. Toes and I took a while to make the decision to leave California and get a rental car to Denver, CO. When hiking, all you have to do is keep taking steps. Off trail, it is disheartening how expensive and difficult it is to get from one place to another. I could hike for over a month on what it cost to travel away from the PCT and it’s closed national forests. But, the decision has been made and there was nothing left to do but do it. It seems like every SOBO on the PCT is now on the Colorado Trail, and I’m excited to join them. I think these nearly 500 miles between Denver and Durango are going to be exactly what I need to sate my thru hiking appetite, and soothe my anxieties about leaving the Pacific Crest Trail. After all, I originally left Tennessee for an adventure. Who am I to complain if said adventure takes me to even more new places and people than I originally planned?
We didn’t run out of gas. We didn’t lose our happy. We are always where we are supposed to be.