Backpacking on the PCT

Months ago when my mother died, the only books I read were about death and mother loss. Now I read some other books but those books are still attractive to me. One book I read was Wild about a girl who lost her mother and then everything else and went to hike on the PCT for three months. I knew I probably couldn’t replicate that but in those days the only peace I got was alone outdoors. So I signed up to do this backpacking trip sponsored by REI this Labor Day weekend.

I flew out to SFO and stayed with my friend Ujj for a night. I had ill planned the trip with virtually no training, purchasing gear only Tuesday before I left. I also asked Ujj if I could borrow her pack. On the day before I had an 11 hour work day. Arhan also started school and Bharath managed the whole thing. Even though he had been encouraging of the trip before, typically he was annoyed I was leaving for the long weekend. I packed my stuff in silence, and half didn’t want to go. But I knew I had to and somehow I wanted to just get away from this frenzy of the move and settling in a new city that my mother would never see again and in which I had last celebrated her birthday ten years ago.

On Friday a trip to REI in Oakland had me with a new backpack because the borrowed one wasn’t large enough. I started the painful drive out of the Bay Area at 4 pm on a holiday weekend. It was long and boring and I intermittently stressed about things I hadn’t packed, grieving my mom this weekend of 10 months since her death, raging against everything else about my life and that included Bay Area traffic.

I reached Cold Creek Inn at Mt Shasta where I had a reservation for the night at 10.15 pm. It took 6 hours but i was there and I crashed for the night. Next morning I woke at 5.30 am thanks to continental jet lag and began repacking my pack. At 7 am I breakfasted at Yak’s coffee shop in a block otherwise known as downtown Mt Shasta. I watched amusedly, the car show of vintage cars owned by rich old white men and admired by the poor old white men of Shasta town.

Day 1

Day 1 of the hike began at the parking lot of the inn with gear check. We thinner down the gear we brought. The stuff I excluded were 1) utensils in excess of a spoon and bowl and cup 2) camp towel 3) day pack 4) bags carrying the sleeping bag. They added to our personal stuff, group gear like tents, cooking pots and food. We got some good pre info on the tour including how we were going to use the trowel for backcountry bathroom. More on that later.

We got tips on lowering weight by taking out extra bags, organizers. Took out a lot of personal items but took some “luxury” like deo for me. I took 2 pairs of clothes and more socks. Layers. But everything needed thought about adding unnecessary ounces and weight.

The REI van dropped us to the trailhead to Deadfall lakes. The packs weighed easily 35-40 lbs and we strapped them on. We got another dose of Leave No Trace. That is zero trash to be left on the trail except your poop.

We began the hike into the base camp area which we 3 miles. On the way we saw gorgeous vistas of the dry scree- filled, piney mountains. This part of the PCT is part of the Trinity Alps State park. We were not too far from the California forest fires. On the way we drank from fresh streams without filtering the water, pure snow melted from atop the mountains.

We reached base camp by Deadfall lakes. We learned how to set up the tents and inflate sleeping pads etc. We admired the beauty of the lake and settled in for the evening. The guides made a wonderful meal of chicken stir fry with fresh cut veggies, cooked pre packaged chicken and sauces. Not your average camp meal! We took a stroll by the lake before and saw the pitcher plant.

We had hot drinks after and I was ready to crash by sunset.

Day 2

We were woken up the next day to go on the short but high altitude gain hike of Mt Eddy, named after the first woman who hiked up Mt Shasta. The hike started slow and cool and picked up pace after breaks with the sun glaring down and the switchbacks winding to the top. We saw the remaining Deadfall lakes on the way up, slowly draining away over the summer heat and dryness. At some point the guide said I could go ahead as the group wanted frequent breaks and I was getting antsy. I wanted to walk alone as I wanted to think about my mother. I was doing this trip as a memory to her. I wanted to commemorate her on this day with the feeling I got when i was outdoors when I felt closest to her. I had extra time on the summit waiting for the others and took some time to think about my mother.

This was primitive backpacking. No toilets or showers. We had a trowel and we dig holes for number 2. We put used toilet paper in bags and put them back in our packs. We pulled our pants down whenever we needed to for number one. After one day it got strangely liberating to not have to wait in line. We also got very conscious very quickly of how much toilet paper to use (because we would carry it), how much we ate during the day (to optimize output), and overall how little we needed to be comfortable. On top of Mt Eddy I wanted to go to the bathroom so I took the trowel, dug my hole and enjoyed that experience with the wind in my face while I looked on at the indomitable Mt Shasta. That may have been the highlight of the trip for me!

I shared my tent with one of the girls and it was snug and comfortable. A complete stranger. And we both made sure we were comfy. We were most conscious of the gorgeous outdoor and how lucky we were to be there. Now on a loud flight or uncomfortable seat, it almost feels not that bad.

We ate wonderful meals prepared by the guides. Some freeze dried stuff but lots of fresh veggies. Our guides were absolutely wonderful young women who had mastered the outdoor at a very young age. One was a skier and mountaineer. The other had hiked the 2.6k miles of the PCT at 22 years of age. They knew about the outdoor, the back country, and they knew about wounded hearted women. They opened up the doors and possibilities that others have for me before on the trails.

Day 2 ended with a lovely swim in Deadfall Lake and a hot burrito meal at base camp.

Day 3

Day 3 had wiped out a lot of our group in exertion. One of the guides took us for a short hike south on the PCT to a natural spring. We saw incredible vistas of the mountains and learned about the flora from her. We also talked about our lives in ways only women can exchange. The three days outdoor had brought us closer and I wished they were friends for longer with me.

The smoke reminded us how lucky we were to have this and at any moment life could take it away from us. This and everything else. How small and petulant my thoughts were in contrast to those great mountains of the California Trinity Alps and to Mt Shasta.

We returned to the base camp and packed up our things. A slightly lighter load for all of us but fuller us. We hiked back out the three miles to trail head where we started and REI’s trusty van driver awaited.

I summited Eddy at the very moment my mother passed away 10 months ago. Nothing in the world I had done could have planned that. That hike was usually done on day 3 but the guides did it on Day 2. We started hiking at 830 am. I picked up pace on my own not because I wanted to race but because I felt the need to be alone. I yearned for her on that trail. I envisioned her face, her voice and her behaviors like she was next to me. I thought about how awed and concerned she would be and that she would not understand why I did things like running and hiking. But that was when she was alive. Now dead, I find her in these quiet hillsides away from the din outside and dealing with the din inside. I was atop that hill with her 10 months after she left me.


Sep 2 PST 11.45 am is Sep 3 IST 12.15 am. Precisely 10 months since my mother breathed her last. I wasn’t there to count down to the last few breaths as i waited outside with Baba. Didi and Kedar did that. Ironically I was in the bathroom with stress related belly ache.

I summited Mt Eddy in California on Sep 2 at that hour. Huffing and panting those last ten or so switchbacks under the glaring sun and wind at 9000 feet above sea level, I thought back to the breaths she took. I thought about the impact of her death on my life. How it had shut out the sun, driven me to a mad frenzy of grief and rage against people who I love dearly. How it has left me feeling lost and confused about what matters to my life. How I’m living mostly still in pain and oblivion, just trapped in my head. Did the altitude clear my head? Probably not. I still had my stress related belly ache and went to the bathroom atop Mt Eddy facing the indomitable Mt Shasta and inhaling the fire smoke from miles away where the forest fire raged outside like my own internal rage. Ironically the same thing I was doing when she died. I can’t help the anger and feel helpless against it at times. I don’t know to whom i should direct it and perhaps it really is towards me. So many months later, most folks have moved on. But my internal state has adapted to an external veneer that sometimes doesn’t hide what’s beneath. I think it does but probably doesn’t. Sometimes the pain feels old, sometimes fresh. But it’s always there and it was very much alive atop that mountain 10 months later. Just like Shasta, in the backdrop, hazy, waiting to explode.