My Mother vs the Pacific Crest Trail
I’ve talked about my mother a few times on this blog. She’s an interesting person. She has the personality of someone who should be in the history books like Sally Ride or Amelia Earhart, but that personality has been stuck in the life of a Silicon Valley tech writer for the majority of her life. She’s been the primary income provider for the family, spent 22 years leading Camp Fire groups, put two kids through college (and one through grad school), volunteered with the Red Cross whenever she could, and has generally spent her life as a Good Person. Not always an easy person but a good one.
Five years ago, when she found out she was going to become a grandmother (after many years of nagging) she decided to take up mountain biking, get her EMT certifications, and join the county’s volunteer wilderness search and rescue. The family took a very ‘Mom is Mom’ approach to all this because we’re talking about a woman who once literally charged a bear yelling ‘shoo bear’ when we were camping.
There is no point in telling her no.
Last November she got word that her writing job of almost twenty years was being offshored to a country where writers are cheaper and English isn’t the primary language. She’d felt it coming but it was still a blow.
Most people, especially ones with spouses who have complex medical needs requiring good health insurance, would be scrambling to have the next job lined up. And she did make some phone calls and have some coffee meetings with people she had worked with and managed in the past who were willing to hook her up with work, but my mom, being the person that she is, decided instead to take a Gap Year. She also decided that at the age of sixty-[redacted] she was going to take three months to hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Something she has never come close to doing before.*
For those who don’t know about Great Walks this is like deciding one morning that your new hobby is going to be mountain climbing and that you’re going to start with a middle chunck of Everest.
Now, when people lose jobs they talk a lot of shit about what they’re going to do next but 99% just go and find a new job, often a lot like their old one. Not my mom.
On June 11th, six months into her gap year, starting at Tuolumne Meadows, with the ultimate goal of reaching Crater Lake she started out on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone.
The plan was that she would hike 15 miles a day and get resupplied at Lake Tahoe. This would actually be the hardest part of the entire journey as it would be the roughest terrain at the highest altitude and she simply wouldn’t be able to carry enough food to make the recommended 4500 calories a day for that section of the trail. No one in the family was happy about this but mom was determined and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
She did have with her an emergency GPS box that had an SOS and an ‘I’m Fine’ button. She would push the button at the end of every day and the family would all get emails with her location. The first three days were fine. At the end of each day (or about two in the afternoon for me) we’d all get an automated email saying she was alive and well with a little link to google maps so we could work out exactly where she was.
On day four there was no message. I called my dad. He said not to worry. She might have just forgotten to push it. On day five there was no message. I called my dad and my sister. Apparently, mom had made them promise that they would not panic and call search and rescue for at least three days because she didn’t want to be embarrassed if she was rescued and nothing was actually wrong. Day six, no message. We called the help line for the company that made her GPS box. From their end it looked like the box had ‘frozen’ and basically needed a reboot. They said that the ‘all good’ signal is pretty weak so as not to drain the batteries but assured us if the SOS button is pressed, even in the frozen state a major signal would get out. That’s all well and good as long as someone is alive, awake, and able to reach the damn box.
By this point we’ve dug out the maps and we’re trying to figure out where mom might be, working on the assumption that she was fine and still hiking along. There would only be one road she would cross and that would be CA 108 at Sonora Pass. A stretch of road the whole family knows well because for multiple generations we would spend our summers camping just to the west of it.
Then, as we are all on the phone, literally trying to figure out which SAR group to contact first, all our phones go off. It’s the automated ‘I’m fine’ email. We check the maps and mom is no where near where she should be. Instead of going 15 miles a day she’s been covering five or less. Something has happened to slow her down considerably, we have zero way of contacting her, and there is no way in hell she’ll get to Lake Tahoe before running out of food. The best option we have is to try to meet her when she crosses the road at Sonora Pass.
A few problems with that. My dad can’t drive (hello diabetic blackouts) and is in and out of a wheelchair. My sister can drive but is not in a job where she can easily get time off and is on crutches due to an aggravated knee injury left over from her ballet days. And I’m in New Zealand. The days go by and we watch mom’s progress as the ‘I’m fine’ button seems to now be working. Some days she goes a full six miles, other days as little as four. There are days when she is up at 11,000 feet traversing nothing but rock with no water sources for miles in either direction.
Finally, 14 days into mom’s trek, on a Sunday my dad and sister get up at four in the morning, taking boxes of supplies, new socks, and a bottle of oxygen, and drive like mad to the pass hoping to catch her as she crosses the road. An hour away from the pass their phone coverage drops out so sitting down in New Zealand I wait.
What I was told was this. They got to the pass by nine and were quickly able to question another walker coming down the trail. They looked at a picture and said that they recognized my mom and said she was just a half hour behind them down the trail. An hour went by and someone else came off the trail. They said the same. They’d passed mom and she wasn’t far behind. Over and over into the afternoon people assured them that they had seen mom and she should be there any minute.
People going the other direction were asked to pass on the message that her husband and daughter were waiting for her. She was utterly surprised by this. Her plan had been to hitchhike down to Sonora and make a call. I don’t know why she was surprised. We knew how much food she was carrying, how far she was going. We can read maps and do basic math.
By the time my sister’s phone started showing her location again all three of them were heading home. What had happened was that on day three mom had slipped slightly crossing a high river. She hadn’t fallen in but in correcting her balance something in her back tweaked. She figured it was just a little strain at it would come right. By the time it was obvious it wasn’t going to come right she had the choice of turning around and going 35 miles back or pushing on 40 miles forward. She could walk, at most, 400 steps before she had to sit and rest do to extreme and building pain. The pain also affected her sleep and ability to eat draining her of that much more energy.
Her chiropractor thinks she rolled a rib which set off cascading muscle spasms. She’s been told to rest and lightly stretch.
But here’s the thing, she’s going back. This Friday if she can find someone to drive her up there. She’s feeling better. She’s trying to repack her bag down to 30 pounds instead of 40 but she’s going back and I don’t think she’s going to quit until she hits her three months or Crater Lake, whichever comes first. It’s not going to get her into any history books but she’ll be well cemented into family legend from here on out.
* She also started writing a novel. I’ve read the first three chapters and it’s annoyingly good.