Saturday, September 21, 2013

Part 205 - But What Did You Eat

On the climb up Hancock Mountain, on all twenty switchbacks, I practiced "pressure breathing" and can report that it made a significant difference.  I didn’t walk a whole lot faster, but I also didn’t have to stop and rest very often.  I found it ironic that I discovered this simple, but effective breathing technique on the last few days of my journey; but perhaps future, aspiring Pacific Crest Trail hikers will surely benefit from this knowledge
Climbing and descending, never taking a break because I got cold when I stopped, I kept a steady pace as I plodded through the never-ending green forest.  Only by walking could I stay warm.  I ate snacks continuously, but it was never really enough to satisfy my insatiable hunger.

The rain continued its steady drizzle making the trail slippery with gooey mud; several times, on a downhill course, my feet flew out from underneath me and I landed in a heap in the middle of the muddy trail.  I could see how easy it would be to twist an ankle, or worse, break an ankle as Gourmet did last year.  Hart’s Pass was my next resting point, and I hoped I would arrive intact.  

I had no idea what to expect at Hart’s Pass; it was a total mystery to me.  I had read a number of journal accounts of hikers’ encounter with this last outpost of civilization – thirty miles before the Canadian border, and from these accounts, I knew there was a well-maintained, but infrequently used Forest Service road, a Forest Service guard station that sometimes had a resident campground host, picnic tables and registration box, and most important – a cement vault restroom that offered protection from inclement weather.  More than one account talked about hikers, who in the midst of miserable, cold, snowy weather, would sprint up the trail to partake of the shelter provided by the cement toilet.  Some accounts talked about hikers actually spending the night inside the cold, windowless structure.

After hours of hiking in weather more suited to polar bears and penguins, it was now time for my introduction to Hart’s Pass and the cold, impersonal cement vault toilet.  I approached the area by first walking down a small incline; then as the trees opened up, there before me was the Forest Service guardhouse, a time dated, wooden structure built before 1940, situated on a small knoll, with the well-maintained, but infrequently used road running in front of it.  Off to my right was the picnic area, trailhead parking lot, and the much-venerated cement vault toilet.

The trail I was on ended at the road, and I saw no continuation of it on the other side; I walked down the road a ways, hoping to spot it, but no luck.  Inasmuch as there was a pickup truck parked in front of the guardhouse, I decided to save myself time and effort trying to locate the trail, and just ask for directions from whoever answered the door.

One knock on the side door awakened the sleeping giant that guarded the other side of the door, and when the owner appeared in the doorway, it was all he could do to restrain the large dog that was desperately trying to break free of its leash in order to gain access to my legs that would probably taste like chicken nuggets to him.

As quickly as he could, in response to my question, the owner of the hyperactive dog, the host of the campground, informed me that the trail took off from the road that went down the mountain, to the left of where I first entered the gravel road.  I thanked him, and quickly back away from the lunging dog.

I backed down the path leading to the guardhouse and crossed the road to the cement toilet.  It was time to get acquainted with this legendary cement structure.  Out of curiosity, I opened the door and peered inside.  A quick glance told me there was nothing special about this toilet; it smelled like all the rest I had ever seen and used, but there was one unique feature about this one; it had a cement roof over the small cement pad in front of the metal door, as well as two cement walls that supported the cement roof, which provided a semblance of protection from the wind and rain.

Basically, it provided protection from the weather, without having to put up a tent.  And right now, I desperately need that protection.  Under normal circumstances, no one in their right mind would cuddle up to a Forest Service outhouse, but at the moment, the whole hiking situation was a bit strained, and I was willing to embrace and make a friend out of the un-embraceable.

I need protection from the weather, a chance to rest from the constant rain, and an opportunity to fix a proper meal without resorting to putting up my tent in the mud that surrounded the picnic area.

I placed my pack in the corner of the two cement walls, placed a plastic trash bag on the cement floor, and started unloading my pack – lunch today will be another of those never-ending peanut butter and jam sandwiches on a flour tortilla shell.  It was strange that I never got tired of those sandwiches; after five months, I still liked them, and the same could be said for Idahoan Instant Potatoes.

While I was making preparation for a meal, I didn’t hear the car approach and park in the parking lot.  But momentarily, I noticed a woman approaching the outhouse; because my stuff was blocking the entrance to the facility, I told her I would move it, but she said not to bother.  I moved it anyway and then walked away from the entrance to give her privacy.  While I waited, I walked over to the Forest Service bulletin board that had basic information about camping regulations and camping fees, what to do with garbage, and the fact that bears are still about. Beside the car was the woman’s companion, her husband I assumed.

We chatted for a few moments and presently the woman reappeared.  Both of them were apparently totally unaware of the Pacific Crest Trail, as she asked a number of questions pertaining to the trail. One question she asked was,

“How far have you walked?”

“Twenty-six hundred and thirty miles,” I replied.

And then, as though she hadn’t heard my answer, she asked again,

“No, I mean, how far have you walked?” and again I answered,

“Twenty-six hundred and thirty miles.”

She stood there with a blank look on her face, as it took a moment for my answer, repeated twice, to register with her.

Next question:

“What did you eat?"

I answered that I was just about to make myself another peanut butter and jam sandwich with a tortilla shell.

At this reply, she turned to her husband and said,
“Anthony (not real name), we could give him my sandwich that we had made at the sandwich shop back in town; in fact, we could give him both of our sandwiches.”

I was stunned at this offer of generosity; I asked,

“What will you do?” to which she replied,

“We’ll just get new ones when we get back to town.”

And with that, she turned her husband around, undid the straps to his knapsack, reached in and pulled out two large, custom-made sandwiches complete with meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and slathered with pickle relish, mayonnaise, and special sauce– the works, all on sourdough and whole wheat buns, easily the equivalent of two foot-long Subway sandwiches.

As she handed them to me, I lost my composure, and quietly begin crying.  I was humbled to my core.  My shoulders, which were already rounded from the weight of the heavy pack, sank lower, and I just stood there, unashamed, and wept.

Like a mother reaching out to her child to give comfort and provide solace, the woman, whose name was Beth, approached me, placed her arms around me and held me tight, just like a mother would.  And I cried more.  And not just because of the bounteous food that had been given to me, but because of the constant strain and physical hardship I had endured on this long journey, not that I was complaining, for I chose to be here.  Beth said, “This is the hug your wife would give you, if she were here.”

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