It’s official: I am The Wanderer, or more simply, Wanderer, which will come as no surprise to followers of this blog. Trail names are important out here on the PCT. You are supposed to earn one by your actions, looks or quirks. For example, a young woman came in to get water at Deer Creek Springs above the McCloud River where I was camping for the night and introduced herself as Pez. Apparently, she likes the candy, was using it for encouragement along the trail, and was glad to share.
“I’m running low,” she told me, somewhat concerned. I understood. It would be like my eating the last of my nightly Oreos before reaching Peggy and my resupply. It’s like seeing your gas needle hit empty on a lonely road. I pictured Pez raiding the stores in the Castle Crag area, buying enough to get her over the next mountain range.
Pez allowed that she might not keep the name. Through-trekkers are allowed to accept or reject the trail names they are given, and choose another— if a better one comes along. Does that make us a fickle bunch? She chatted for a while, maybe a little lonely. Her boyfriend was hiking the Appalachian Trail while she was hiking the PCT. She seemed so young. “I felt it was important for my independence.” I admired her.
There is great equality out on the trail. We are all hiking up the same mountains, facing the same issues of weather, biting insects, and miles and miles to travel. The lack of water in the last section I just hiked through, added the serious problem of having adequate water to drink. Forget having enough to bathe or wash clothes! My nightly sniff-test suggested I was deteriorating rapidly.
Temperatures climbing above 100-degrees F (37.7 C) on the sizzling hot afternoons didn’t help. There was also a major lightning storm. It missed me; Peggy was worried. Another through-trekker was struck. Luckily he wasn’t killed and is recovering. Several forest fires were started as well, which are always a worry for those of us who live and travel through Western forests in this era of global warming. I can smell smoke now. One is out there lurking, waiting to pounce.
As a general rule, the through-hikers are a cheerful bunch. I rarely hear a negative word, regardless of how tough the day. A ready smile and “How are you doing?” is the normal greeting. “Great” or “Good” is the normal answer. And there is always, “Have a great hike!” or something similar. Occasionally we stop and chat. But the need to get on down the trail always drives us on.
As usual in my life, I am going against the flow. While the vast majority of trekkers are going south to north, I am going north to south, hiking to my own drummer, so to speak. In fact, I have only met one other couple going the same direction I am. It makes it more difficult in the name game. One minute, or even five-minute encounters along the trail, are hardly enough time to observe a quirk or trait that might suggest one. “Grey Beard” Peggy urged. And that fit. At 75, I am certainly of the age that a name implying elder seems appropriate. And it made me think of Gandalf the Grey! But I have seen several youngsters along the trail in their 60s with magnificent grey and white beards that put my puny efforts at growing whiskers to shame. (My students in Africa where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching high school in the 1960s called me Ho Chi Minh because I sported a see-through beard like his.)
I was hiking up Grider Creek out of Seiad when I came on Adam and Eve. They wanted to know my trail name. “Happy Wanderer,” I replied spontaneously. I had just been singing the song to help me up the trail. Immediate recognition filled their eyes as they sang a few bars of the tune that was once popular in my (and their) youth. It fit even better than Grey Beard.
The title of my blog is “Wandering through Time and Place.” My business card for this trip announces ‘celebrating 75-years of wandering in the wilderness.” I have a lifetime of wandering behind me. But it goes further. Ancestors on both sides of my family were wanderers. My father’s side, the Mekemsons, arrived in Pennsylvania in 1755 and had soon moved on the Maryland. (All six sons fought in the Revolutionary War.) They were living in Kentucky by the late 1700s and had then moved on to Illinois, Iowa and then west coast by the early 1900s. My mother’s side, the Marshalls, followed a similar route, arriving even earlier in Boston in 1630. They had moved on to Connecticut, New York, Illinois, and then west. Wandering is in my blood.
The name fit well but I had given it to myself, which certainly happens… but isn’t supposed to. I was reluctant to use it. The next time someone asked, I replied “still searching,” meaning I was still searching for my name. They assumed it was my name and liked it! It certainly isn’t a bad one. I am ‘still searching’ at 75 and would love to be at 95. But now I had three active names, and that can get a bit confusing.
I was hiking along the ridge above Moosehead Springs a few days ago between Castle Crags and Burney Falls when a fellow with a large red beard, named Red of course, stopped me and asked “Are you Curt, or Grey Beard, or Wanderer?” Naturally I was delighted. The question meant he had run into Peggy and was carrying a message. But you can see the difficulty.
It came to a head when I was hiking out to Burney Falls. Peggy was a bit confused about when I would arrive and had found a much better location to pick me up. The confusion wasn’t surprising. My first four days on the section had been tough (I’ll cover them in a later post.) I’d given myself a semi-layover day on the McCloud River and fallen behind. Three days out from the falls, I’d found myself with over 45 miles to travel— a walk in the park for the hardened PCTers with 1500 miles under their belts, but tough for my 75 year-old-body that was already complaining. None-the-less, I buckled down and vowed to do it. I dutifully arrived at Peavine Creek, 15 miles from the Falls at the end of the second day. The next morning found me shooting down the trail at 3-4 miles per hour. I can still move when inspired and It was mainly downhill. Peggy, cold beer, a shower, a good meal, and clean clothes were waiting!
I’d made it 10 miles when Patch stopped me. He had pointed to his belt pouch and pulled out my card. “You must be Grey Beard or Wanderer, or something else,” he had announced laughing. ‘Peggy is waiting for you at the Dam and she is a really neat woman.” Peggy had given him and his buddies apples and PCTers respond amazingly well to fresh fruit. Thus, it started. A dozen people must have told me that Peggy was waiting and raved about her. “A lovely young woman is waiting for you at the Dam and she said you should hurry,” was one comment. I hurried. Peggy was now distributing cold beer and I wanted to make sure I got there before she ran out. (Kidding, sort of.) A couple greeted me at Rock Creek and the man asked if I was Graveyard— at least that’s what my ears heard. “Um, not yet,” I had responded. He assured me he had said Greybeard. His companion asked, “Wanderer?”
That did it. When I reached my lovely wife, and had been properly greeted and handed a cold beer, she announced, “We have to do something about this name thing. You are Wanderer!” Peggy had spoken— and I couldn’t have agreed more.
Now it’s time to drop back to my 100-mile trip between Etna Summit and Castle Crags of a week ago. There is a lot to cover, having hiked through the Russian Wilderness, the Trinity Alps, and the magnificent Castle Crags Wilderness. I was lucky to have my nephew Jay along. He had joined when he was a somewhat shy 16-year-old as I wrapped up a 360-mile backpack trip from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney 15-years ago. Now he was 31 years old and a talented photographer, cameraman, and director in the early stages of a Hollywood career. He was also in love; no longer shy. I heard a lot about the young woman. (grin) More to the point of this trip was his incredible enthusiasm for the country we were hiking through. I’d often hear him exclaim “Wow!” as he found something of interest or beauty. It seemed that half of our hiking time was taken up with photography as we found something new to photograph.
I am going to do several posts on this section. One, because there is so much to cover, and two because I would like to do a separate post featuring Jay’s photography and another featuring Peggy’s photos of Etna. The small towns along the PCT are very important to the through hikers. They are where they pick up their resupplies but they also provide a break from the trail. Again: think cold beer, good meal, shower, and clean clothes.
I’ll do these as photographic essays on a thematic basis. Where to start is the question? Logically, I would show photos of the general terrain we were hiking through. But for fun, I am going to start with the natural wood sculptures Jay and I found along the trail. These almost guaranteed a frenzy of photography. Also, there were the strange faces peering out at us from the wood. The forests are alive. A little theme music please…
I am back into the woods today, but this time for a short 50 miles. I’ll get up more posts on the PCT between Etna Summit and Castle Crags when I come out, including photograph collections by both Jay and Peggy.