Algonquin – Day 3

I woke this morning warm and dry, under good tree cover. Sleeping below the stars is nice, but it’s colder and causes more condensation so I avoid it when I can. Emilio is already up working on a fire for coffee. Soon we’re both hunched by the fire, waiting for the water in his small cup to heat up. A faint, rhythmic tinkling approaches, getting louder by the second. Two young hikers pass through our campsite, the leader’s bear bell jangling. Do those things even work? A quick, mid-stride “hello” and they’re gone. Our first human contact since day 1.

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Today feels especially lazy. We’re only 12km (7.5mi) from the parking lot, so there’s no rush. It’s a grey, cloudy day when we do get a glimpse of the sky through the trees. Under some dense tree cover it almost looks like early evening.

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It’s a peaceful, calm, Monday morning hike through the woods as we mentally prepare for traffic jams and construction. Back through the short, steep ups and downs. The muddy flats, board walks, and occasional lakes and marshes. I don’t remember half of this scenery we’re backtracking through.

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After a few Snickers bars we’re back in a much emptier parking lot. Two hikers are getting ready to head into the park. The forecast called for rain today. We’ve avoided it so far, but these two might not be so lucky. Three hours later I’m back in the city, sitting in a crowded subway train flanked by commuters. I wonder if they can smell the campfire.

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Algonquin – Day 2

We’re out of our tents by 8am and I feel great. I slept well, but it’s cold so we get a small fire started for coffee. Being able to hold and drink something hot on a cold morning, instead of racing to hike out and warm up, is a real treat. I relax and breathe the tension out of my body. It’s a great way to start the day.
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After a hearty breakfast of poptarts, snickers, and coffee we head out. I’m feeling great. Not hiking too fast, just cruising and thinking about life and its possibilities. Algonquin has been nice so far, but a bit monotonous and boxed in. It’s mostly muddy flats with some short, steep climbs and an occasional lake, marsh or river to look out on. This is a great time to hike in Ontario–there are no bugs and the weather’s not bad. Maybe I’ll attempt the famous Kilarney loop later this month. Or even the Lake Superior coastal trail! Being back in the woods has reignited by excitement for hiking and adventure.
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But after two hours we stop. Emilio’s in serious pain and limping. We rest for half an hour and weigh our options, but his leg isn’t looking good so we decide to turn around early and head back to the car. We’re maybe 35% done our total hike, but it’s the smart thing to do.
Once we start backtracking our momentum and spirits drop. The miles inch by. After ages we finally make it back to our campsite at Redwing Lake. Another hour further and we decide to call it a day at Lupus Lake. The campsite is great here–spacious and wide open. We sprawl out, stretching and eating, enjoying the silence. We haven’t seen anyone else today.
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There’s plenty of good dry wood and birch bark and soon a fire is cackling–far better than last night’s attempt. A chipmunk pokes and prods around our gear but I shoo him away. I’m still scarred from mice on the pct. We make hot ramen over the fire and suddenly I’m thinking about the PCT. Maybe I should attempt it again next year.
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What a beautiful pitch. So taut.

The excitement of the idea flashes through me and I envision all the prep, training, and heartache. I’m suddenly motivated more than I have been in months. While training for the PCT last winter I noticed that my anxiety eased and happiness increased. Having a clear, challenging, and appealing goal to work towards gave my life a lot of meaning. It brought a sense of calm and purpose that I miss. But a decision to hike the PCT (again) isn’t made in a vacuum and its consequences can’t be ignored. How do you make life decisions? I still haven’t figured it out yet.

Our fire did well tonight, keeping us warm well after dark. The stars are peering down at us through the trees, as we relax and talk. It’s been a fun trip, even though we’ve had to turn around early.

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Algonquin Western Uplands – Day 1

Last weekend my friend Emilio invited me to join him on a 56km (35mi) hike along the Western Uplands Trail in Algonquin Provincial Park. I haven’t been to Algonquin since high school, so I was excited to see it again. How many miles per day will we hike? How much elevation gain will there be? And water? No idea. Emilio did all the planning and I’m just along for the ride.
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I haven’t hiked since getting off the PCT in late June, so I’m a bit nervous as we drive north. Will it be easy? Hard? Soon we’re paying for our permits at the park office and then finally hiking out on the trail. My first few steps are joyous. Light, springy, quick. My legs feel fresh and I can hardly believe I’ve ever been tired in all my life. Fatigue is just an illusion. Soon though I’m back to reality. Down to regular levels of enjoyment, and then slowly the pain in my leg creeps in. But I’m determined not to let it faze me–I can deal with it for a few days.
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Yours truly. Thanks Emilio (Insta @eghloum) for the photo!

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My boy Emilio. What a good looking team we make.

The hiking is mostly through forest, with rolling hills. A few short steep climbs, but mostly easy terrain. Occasionally we pass small lakes and campsites. Some hikers pass in the opposite direction. There are a few small creeks to cross and plenty of mud patches to navigate. I size up my options–sunken logs and narrow rocks–and hop along trying avoid the worst of the mud. My ankles protest–this is the most they’ve flexed and strained in weeks.
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Emilio powers up the climbs, and I lazily follow along keeping up a steady pace. After five hours of hiking we arrive at a rather cramped and sloping campsite on Redwing lake. There’s just barely enough room for both our tents. We unpack and lounge by the empty fire pit. Chatting, killing time, and enjoying the silence.
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Emilio asks if I miss the PCT. I don’t miss the pain and loneliness, or forcing myself to constantly eat as much as possible. (Eating really is a skill you know.) But I do miss the trail. I miss the pride from accomplishing something difficult each day. I miss the nice bits of trail, with good views. Hikers I met along the way are finishing now and I’m happy for them, but also jealous of what they must be feeling. Could I have mentally and physically held up another few months on trail? Honestly, I don’t think so.
We attempt to get a fire going, but neither of us is much good. Emilio hangs his bear bag and then we sit with our feeble fire as the sun slowly sets behind the trees. When darkness hits we retreat to our tents.
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Days 91 & 92 – The End

Day 91
6.1 miles
Mile 1010.8 – 1016.9

Last night I had a leisurely dinner outside my tent, watching the mountains thinking: why am I quitting? It’s easy to forget hard times when you’re comfortable. In truth I’m not entirely sure why I’m quitting, just like I’m not quite sure why I started in the first place.

Yesterday and today are some of the most beautiful hiking of the whole trail. We’re right on the mountain’s edge, hiking through talus with sweeping, magestic views and no bugs. My camera is having another “not working well” day, so I just soak it all in.

I zig zag back and forth over a ridge, alternating views. And there’s snow–much more than I expected. A month ago it might’ve worried me, but I’m surprisingly unaffected by the long, slippery runouts. I don’t even bother to stop and put on my microspikes (though I probably should).

Soon the highway is visible below, but it takes ages to get down to it and my foot is painfully slowing me down. A few yards before the highway I hear doors closing and an engine start–hikers are just getting a hitch. Do they have room for one more? Only if I sit in the trunk? No problem! It’s only after a few minutes in the car do I realize that those may have been the last steps I take on the PCT. I’d planned on taking a moment to reflect after stepping off, maybe even a picture, but I got swept up in the hitch.

Half an hour later I’m in town–Bridgeport–and ready to head home.

Day 92
The End

I stayed in tiny Bridgeport last night, before catching the bus to Reno this morning. I bought a used suitcase for my pack and a stranger offered me a ride to the airport–even stopping to buy me dinner. Soon my ticket is booked and a few hours later I’m on the red eye flight to Toronto via Chicago.

Deciding to quit was an emotional and strategic decision. I was getting burnt out and didn’t want to ruin my love for hiking by pushing past my breaking point. My pre-existing foot/leg injury had been bothering me since day one and it was wearing me down. And I felt like I’d already learned a lot and grown. It seemed to be diminishing marginal returns from here on out and quitting now would save 3 months of trail expenses that I could use for my next adventure. It was a hard decision. As Trooper said the other day: “I wish finishing [the trail] didn’t mean so much to me”.

***
Epilogue

It’s been a few days of living at home and I’m surprised at how quickly I’ve fallen back into old, bad habits. And I didn’t realize how messed up my right foot was. I’m seriously hobbling around the house. At a friend’s place I have to sit down because my feet can’t take standing too long.

But I went to the rock climbing gym on my second day back. Ordered “Training for the New Alpinism” off Amazon and have started planning a 50 mile hike with a friend in Killarney, Ontario.

I also wanted to take a minute to say a few thank-yous. To all the American strangers who helped me–who picked me up at the airport, drove me to and from trailheads, housed me, fed me, sent packages for me, stocked water caches in the desert for me, provided spontaneous trail magic for me, and picked me up while hitch hiking. To all the other hikers I met on trail. To my friends and family back home. And to all of you for reading my blog. I also want to apologize if I’ve let anyone down. Learn from my mistakes and do better than me, whatever “better” means to you.

Keep your stick on the ice.

-Matt/ Couch Potato

Days 88-90

Days 88 & 89
15.5 miles & 20 miles
Mile 957.3 – 992.8

These last few days have been tough. After pondering my “Meru” moment, I more or less decided to get off trail. But with 150 miles to hike before town I still had a long way to go and my heart wasn’t in it. I was exhausted, constantly swarmed by mosquitoes, and in pain most of the time. At the end of day 89 I got a spurt of energy and pulled ahead of Trooper, Sparky, and Ghost Hiker–hiking alone again.

Day 90
18 miles
Mile 992.8 – 1010.8

There’s a small highway in 24 miles and I’ve decided to get off there and hitch into town. The bugs have been horrible these last few days but this morning the trail takes us out onto bare talus and the mountain’s edge where there are no mosquitoes. There’s wind and a 10 mile dry stretch and it feels like the desert. I miss the desert.

I stop on the bare mountainside and lay down, relishing the lack of mosquitoes. I’ve just started my last big climb before highway 108. If I get off trail, it’ll be my last big climb of the year–about 2,100ft up over 5 miles. While I rest, a whole troupe of hikers passes by. I resume hiking and around the bend I see them again, scattered on the giant switchbacks that lazily zig zag up the mountainside.

Starting the first long switchback I feel like I’m entering an Olympic stadium for the last laps of a marathon. The vast expanse to my right is spotted with distant snowy mountains–our audience. It’s quiet and almost solemn as I push hard to make my last climb count, goosebumps tingling. Soon other hikers enter the stadium behind me and I’m determined not to let them catch me. Armed with will and determination and grace, too I gasp up the mountain hanging onto my place.

At the top is a big group of hikers–The Foxes they call themselves–and I rest with them. There’s really gorgeous views from up here in all directions. After a long break and the climb done, I cruise another few miles to a campsite for my last night on trail.

The Last Climb

Day 87 – “Meru”

14.8 miles
Mile 942.5 – 957.3

I was tired, frustrated and bit angry last night. I couldn’t sleep so I watched a comedy special on Netflix. When that didn’t work I watched the beautiful documentary “Meru” about a dangerous climb by a trio of alpinists. Near the end of the film, with all the pressure building, the climbers struggling, and Jose Gonzalez strumming his guitar and singing wistfully, I cried. I wasn’t sure if it was a sign that I should go home, or push on.

Thanks Trooper for the photo.

The film struck a chord. Over the past year I’ve slowly realized that I want to climb mountains–that maybe I’ve always wanted to climb them. Not on trails and paths, but up sheer cliffs and ice, over snow. As a mountaineer or alpinist. It’s something that I’ve never consciously acknowledged, and am just starting to understand. This dream sleepily rose its head when a friend invited me to try rock climbing earlier this year. The rock climbing was more than fun–it felt right. And when I decided to hike the PCT, I suddenly realized that I was on a path towards mountaineering, if I chose to pursue it.

It’s 2am, an absurdly late hour for hikers, and I’m in the throes of a late night, manic brainstorming session. Trying to understand what I want and what I should do. What’s best. Is mountaineering my new objective, or a convenient excuse to get off trail? I’ve been on the PCT for almost three months and have learned about pain, fear, and endurance. I’ve experienced desert, forest, and mountains. High alpine lakes and snowy passes. My favorite times were the technical moments–scrambling, using an ice axe, and careful footwork. Those were mental challenges and tests of skill. But the vast majority of thru hiking is one-dimensional: stamina above all else. Hike until you drop, then do it again.

Maybe thru hiking isn’t for me. Is there shame in admitting that and quitting? Even after making it my life goal for the past year? On the spectrum of climbing mountains, maybe I’m more of a technical, shorter distance guy.

Admittedly, I’ve been mostly terrified when exposed to sheer cliffs and sketchy snow on this trip. Am I foolish to think I can overcome that? Or, more importantly, why do I think getting into mountaineering at age 27 is a good idea? I should be thankful to have had this PCT opportunity, then go home and get on with real life–start a career, save for retirement and secure my independence. The clock is ticking. At least, that’s what the voices in my head say.

***

I think I fell asleep around 2:30am last night, but I’m alright this morning. My manic energy has eased but is still simmering enough to keep me going.

I pack up and walk over to the Tuolumme Meadows store, where all the other hikers are. I order a big breakfast and slowly prepare myself to hike out. By 11:30am I’m ready, and hit the trail. South Lake Tahoe is my next town stop, but it’s 150 miles away. In about 75 miles is a ranch I’ll stop at–Kennedy Meadows North.

Most of the day I spend deep in thought about my future. We’re still in Yosemite and the scenery is nice–bridges and waterfalls and granite mountains. Though I’m constantly stopping to pour sand out of my shoes. It’s getting in through all the holes.

I eventually catch up with Trooper, Sparky, and Ghost Hiker and spend the rest of the day hiking and then camping with them.

Day 86

Zero in Yosemite

I slept in this morning, without a plan for the day but a vague understanding that I would take a zero. I walk over to the Tuolumne Meadows store for breakfast and soon Trooper’s trail family arrives. Sparky and Ghost Hiker (Trooper’s hiking companions) are retired veteran thru hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Ghost Hiker’s husband is visiting and has rented a car. They’re all headed out to drive around Yosemite Park for the day and have generously invited me along.

Photo taken by Trooper

I leave my tent still setup in the back of the big campground and we all pile into the sedan. A lot of hikers have talked about getting off trail to see “The [Yosemite] Valley” and many are even trying to get permits to hike non-PCT miles through the park, including going up Half Dome. Some are just trying to hitch into the Valley to hang out and eat at a real restaurant.

It’s taken all of my energy to keep hiking the PCT, so I hadn’t planned on heading into the Valley. I do feel guilty though–as many are saying: when’s the next time I’ll be this near Yosemite? And in this good shape? But I can’t bear to hike any non-trail miles, no matter how iconic and breathtaking they are. Sorry, future Matt.

Getting a driving tour seems like a good middle ground–I’ll get to see the park and rest as well. And once we’re underway I learn that Ghost Hiker grew up very near Yosemite and knows the park like the back of her hand.

The roads wind up through the mountains and trees and I get glimpses of bare granite mountain faces. It takes a surprisingly long amount of time to get to our first stop–maybe 2 hours. There’s plenty of traffic and dozens of cars parked at the side of the road along the way. We stop at a parking lot, swarming with tourists, with a majestic view of Half Dome and El Capitain. An hour of driving later we stop at Mariposa Grove and take a 2 mile hike through the giant redwoods. They’re massive, awe inspiring trees that tower over us. Our last stop is Glacier Point, a much higher view of the Valley and surrounding granite mountains. It’s a beautiful lookout and there’s even a glimmer of cell service so I send a few messages.

Back at Tuolumne and it’s already 7pm. I didn’t realize how much driving was involved, but it was cool to see the sights.