Somewhere deep in the wilderness of Connecticut on the Appalachian Trail, I had to go. Emily and I were taking a lunch break right before a steep, rocky five-mile descent, and this was pretty much my last chance. I scurried a bit further into the woods and stepped over a giant log, my foot landing on a large black duffle bag, creating a sort of clinking glass sound.
Well that’s weird. Next to the duffle was another tote, full of pots and pans and other odds and ends. Why in the world would something like that be way out here? But when I have to go, I have to go. With little time to spare, I called Emily to come investigate. When you’ve walked over a thousand miles on the same trail, random duffle bags in the wilderness are like gossip magazines in a long line at the grocery store, all of a sudden extremely interesting.
As I turned my back to the next giant fallen tree and popped a squat, we pondered aloud what could be inside. Emily was a few feet from the bags when I saw her eyes get bigger than any eyes I have ever seen before, and will ever see again. She pointed at what I could only assume was behind me, because why would she point at me? She knew what I was doing.
So, in my very compromised position, I turned my head around to see what all the fuss was about.
A shaggy, blonde, bespectacled head had popped up from behind the log, the very same log my ass was pointed at, about to, well, you know.
I like to think I reacted the way any human would if they walked into a private bathroom stall, shut the door, sat on the toilet, and heard a “Psst” in their ear just as they were about to go.
“I’M POOPING!!!!” I shouted, with all the emotions.
“Oh, sorry,” the head replied, laying back down behind the log from which it came.
“Well, not anymore,” I needlessly commented as I hurried to pull up my skirt, grab my pack and catch up with Emily who had already run down the trail in tears.
The moral of that story is: you’re never alone on a long distance wilderness trail. Even when you’re 100% sure you are, even if you haven’t seen another person in eight hours, especially when you see “abandoned” duffle bags in the forest. Feeling lonely on the PCT? Just try to take a pee in the open desert, or on one of those never ending exposed cliff edges, someone is guaranteed to come around the corner and catch you midstream.
A few weeks after summiting Katahdin, when only the good memories remained and the hard times no longer seemed that hard, I started ingesting all the information I could find on the internet about the PCT. I wanted to know everything. Was it similar to the AT? What was different? How? Why? Again and again I read that aside from both being long distance hiking trails, basically everything was different. I was annoyed, unsatisfied. That answer didn’t help quench my thirst for information at all. But after 19 days and 370 miles, I get it. It’s like trying to compare my bicycle to my car. They’re both modes of transportation, but there’s really no point in laying out their similarities beyond that.
For me, the biggest difference so far has been embarking on this adventure without my dear friend and hiking partner. I feel Emily’s absence on the trail every day. Like when I struggle to reattach my pee rag to my pack (you learn to do everything with a pack on your back) and she’s not there to help me. Yeah, I know, she’s a really good hiking partner. Or when I stretch my arms on the trail and no one behind me tells me to put them down (though I’m sure they are thinking it), that I smell like an onion. Or when I get to the top of a hard climb and wait for nothing in particular, until I realize I am waiting for someone who is never coming. When I point at a plant (like, all the plants) and wonder aloud what it is, no one makes an educated (or more often, accurate) guess, and then tells me all about how it can be used in the wilderness. When I make odd comments in my awful British accent and no one responds in a slightly less awful British accent. When I stroll into town and try to convince whoever I’m with that town days are about drinking wine in bed and watching the Bachelorette or Game of Thrones in fancy B&Bs. When I take a photo and have no hiker model to give it meaning. When the sun is still up as I roll into camp and I get excited about cribbage time, and realize my cribbage partner is across the country.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy hiking solo, it’s just a total different experience. I love hiking by myself, being alone with my thoughts, moving at my own pace, having just myself to let down. But part of me also feels a bit guilty. I’m fully aware I wouldn’t be taking these steps if it weren’t for Emily. A few years ago when she asked me to hike the AT, her true desire was really the PCT, but a friend suggested if she wanted to hike both (or go for that elusive Triple Crown), start with the AT. You’ll see why (I totally see why). And now I’m here and she’s not. I’m living out one of her dreams, and she can’t (yet). And that sucks.
But the thing about Emily, she would hate that I feel guilty. So I have to passive aggressively write about feeling guilty. The kind of hiking partner who is willing to handle another woman’s pee rag is definitely one who wants that other woman to crush it, pretty much always, no matter what the situation.
No, I am not alone out here, yet I feel a unique loneliness all the same. I didn’t start writing this as a love letter to the best adventure buddy out there, but it definitely turned into one.
Miss ya, Em.