Love the West Hike - DNF
For the first time I didn't finish a long distance hike. I didn't even come close with only 228 miles of the over 6,000 miles I planned. A friend requested a trip report, which I never planned on doing, but realized I now have the time and had an idea that I thought could make it interesting (at least more interesting to me). I've been delayed due to not having my computer with me, but I just got it so here it goes:
"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose fate is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who errs and comes short again; who knows the great enthusiasms; the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat." – Teddy Roosevelt
What I wanted to accomplish
I planned this hike for multiple reasons which are discussed here. At a higher more abstract level, I never saw this hike as an end itself, but as another step towards a concept I've chased all my life. This hike was meant to be the first of a series of four hikes as I continue chasing this elusive and difficult idea.
I want to be a "man in the arena" and the arena I've chosen is long distance hiking. The idea or concept I'm chasing is greatness. I believe that true greatness is very rare, but its driven me all my life. As a kid, I thought I would achieve it in baseball. Fortunately, I played at a level high enough that I saw what Major League talent looked like and that saved me from a life as an Uncle Rico. Next, I threw all my efforts into engineering before deciding that I liked working to live better than living to work. Hiking the PCT in 2016 gave me a new passion and a new arena to chase greatness.
My Calendar Year Triple Crown attempt which ended as a Single Year Triple Crown was never meant to be my peak achievement and I do not think it put me in the realm of greatness. It was what I meant it to be from the start, a step towards greatness that I could build on to get there. I'm closer now than I ever have been before and my Love the West hike was meant to get me closer or at least prove my SYTC wasn't my peak.
I failed without coming even remotely close, so I'm still where I was before I started. However, I refuse to be a "cold and timid soul who knows neither victory or defeat".
"Prior proper preparation prevents piss poor performance."
I spent a lot of time, effort, and money on preparation for each of my hikes. I'm not the person who shows up and wings it, although I do show up ready to make changes on the fly. As this hike had a route of my own creation, multiple hiking routes with sometimes complicated travel between them, the planning load was high. I poured over maps ultimately creating a gpx file and paper maps for this route. I also had to gather maps and GPS data for all the other routes I planned to do, and then made a couple modifications in areas where I believe those modifications will help me improve the hike. Using that information, I researched trail towns and created documents and spreadsheets so that information would be handy whenever I needed it. Each detail I researched and recorded I believe gave me a slightly better chance at success.
That's my mentality for preparation. I try to focus on finding any advantage for the hike. Any effort that does not accomplish that is wasted.
I needed more than just a plan with backing research to prepare. Another area I looked at to gain an advantage is gear. Mostly, I stuck with the gear I used on my SYTC replacing old gear where needed because it worked really well. I did make a couple changes and eliminated a few items to further lighten my pack.
My most substantial change was my pack. Someone I met on the PCT in 2018 made his own pack. It worked so well that he and a friend decided to try making and selling packs, so they started Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear. I asked for some very specific things from the pack and they were eager to provide me with the customized pack I wanted. The pack I received appears to be as good or better than any pack I've ever used and working with them was pure pleasure. I have a little more experimenting I want to do before I go back to them to order another pack with specific customizations.
Mostly though, the area where I believe I can gain the biggest advantage is showing up healthy and fit. In other words, physical training is the area I believe will provide the biggest advantage I can have. That means, I try to train a lot and eat a healthy diet. The problem is, my body didn't want to recover after the SYTC, so I didn't get to train nearly as much as I wanted to. Too late, I decided I needed help, so I reached out to my friend Toe Touch of Wild and Well and asked her to develop a nutrition plan pre-trail so I would show up as healthy as possible. I also asked for on trail nutrition advice.
Toe Touch came through for me. Her pre-trail nutrition plan had me feeling better, sleeping better (cured my most recent bout of insomnia), thinking clearer, and eating less (a lot less) for the same activity level. Her on-trail nutrition advice meant I had a lot more work putting together all the resupply packages I needed for the hike.
Unfortunately, I gave myself less time to put those together meaning I had to rush to get those done. Also, I had other life preparations to make so I could put civilized life on hold while I hiked. Transferring my car to someone else provided me with a problem I couldn't get my arms around. I knew someone who needed it, but didn't know how to get it to her. Fortunately, her sister, Sammie, came to our rescue. She flew up to Washington and drove the car to her sister.
Sammie is also my sister, not by blood but by how we view each other. I met her while living in Colorado and working with her mom. We became close and I started referring to her as my little sister as she referred to me as her big brother. Sammie stayed for a day and helped me put together packages, which I barely finished in time to leave for my hike. Her help was needed.
We had a great time together as usual. She told me about her engagement to her boyfriend and about her plans for her next step in life as she returned from almost a year abroad.
Before leaving, Sammie sat me down and told me that too many people depended on me for me to not come back safely. She then gave me a bracelet that has a pendant similar to one she wears on a necklace. It has left my wrist only one time to go through airport security. I think the intent was to remind me of her and her message to me. It worked.
All the work mentioned above to get ready for my hike was physical, but I also spent a lot of time on mental preparation. On this hike, I felt a danger of growing complacent in this area as I have grown to believe that long distance hiking is more of a physical challenge for me than a mental challenge. Fortunately, a friend triggered the long dormant coach in me. I used to coach high school baseball, but for the last 14 years, have only had rare and short occasions to use that. This woman got me back in my coaching mindset. Coaching or more accurately advising her helped me refresh on what I learned in my life as an athlete an coach on mental preparation, but it also got me to more diligently work on my own mental prep.
This culminated on one of the bus rides to get to the PCT where I decided to write out all the different goals I had for the hike and created a bunch of rules to follow as I hiked. As I did that, I looked up and saw terrain that reminded me of the PCT and soon tears streamed down my face as I thought about how special this opportunity was. Mentally at that moment, I was ready.
Unfortunately, my body didn't feel quite so ready. I felt like I was fit enough to have a chance despite having a much shorter training period than I wanted. Mostly, my back did stiffened up on me about two weeks prior to starting and that didn't go away. I hoped that hiking would help work that out. I've never started a long distance hike totally healthy, so why should this time be any different?
"Association brings on assimilation."
I managed to catch a flight, four different buses, and hitch a ride to the trail all in the same day giving me a couple hours of hiking before I set up camp for the night. I felt content as I turned in for the night.
The next day, I noticed that I couldn't quite hike at the speed I wanted to and started feeling tightness in my right hamstring and lower back. On day 3, my right hamstring got so bad that I couldn't hike without a limp.
Normally, the thought of quitting isn't close to my mind, but it came early for this hike. I didn't want to quit, but was scared I might have to. Fortunately, things felt better on day 4 and my speed picked up a little despite hiking in more difficult terrain.
I showed up to my first town with extra food even though I made a mistake and packed one meal too few for the section. The grocery store in Agua Dulce was closed, so I didn't end up packing out as much food as I wanted once again. For the three sections I hiked, I only carried as much food as I planned for one section and still ended with at least two days worth of food. That's after eating a lot of my extra food in one of the towns. Also, Toe Touch helped me develop a breakfast smoothie that tasted good and had me feeling good all day with a nice sustained energy level. That alone was worth everything I've paid her for and I got so much more.
Hiking the PCT south this early in the year meant I had the trail almost completely to myself. I also experienced it differently than before. How many people can say they hiked the aqueduct with two jackets on? When I started, wildflowers had not yet begun to bloom, but each day I saw more than I did the previous day.
Also, storms started to affect my hike. I had experienced storms in Southern California on the trail before, but they didn't last long. As I attempted to get set up for a sunrise summit of Mt. Baden-Powell, it started to mist mid-morning. By noon, it was rain. Within an hour or so, the rain came down so hard that I started getting wet despite my rain gear. Finally soaked from head to toe, the rain turned to snow about 3 in the afternoon.
Coming out to a road, I decided to start walking to town as snow was accumulating at a rate of about 4 inches per hour. Two people stopped and informed me that the gate to Wrightwood was closed, so I would have to go down the other direction into town. Instead of Wrightwood, I ended up in Pasadena in a motel room soaking wet without any clothes on as I spread mine out to dry.
The next day, Dave Valentich, one of my bosses, came to Pasadena and drove me to Wrightwood where I stayed at the Holistic Health Day Spa and Lodge. They treated me incredibly well and did laundry for me as I planned to attempt to climb Mt. Baden-Powell the next day.
I learned that the storm that kicked me off the trail also dumped 16 inches on snow at the local ski resort. Clouds covered the mountains so there was almost no visibility. At an elevation where before the storm, I only saw a few patches of snow, there was now so much snow that I couldn't see a single sign for where the trail was. The wind blew hard enough that it reminded me of one of the windiest mountain climbs I've ever been part of and the temperature was so low that I quickly realized that I had no chance of climbing the mountain with the gear I had.
I shifted into a new plan and got a ride down to Cajon Pass from the people running Holistic Health so I could continue my hike south skipping this higher elevation section. As this was just a warm up hike, I didn't worry about continuous steps (I'm normally very anal about this). My hiking speed really picked up and I moved quickly towards Big Bear trying to beat the next storm in the forecast. Unfortunately, on my second day my right groin flared up causing me significant pain as I hiked. I barely beat the storm and found myself in a Motel 6 with almost nobody else staying there as the ski resort had just shut down. Cornoavirus really picked up steam and I didn't hike anymore.
I really enjoyed this short hike in Southern California. Even when in pain, I found ways to mostly enjoy the hike despite the fear of not being able to continue. The lack of people gave me a different experience as I had always seen a lot of people in this area. The early season gave me a different experience. Even the storm that booted me from the trail was mostly enjoyable. I didn't start to get down mentally until I knew I had to find a way into town or get hypothermia if I didn't already have it. I'm fortunate in that I got out to hike at all as many others had to cancel before their hikes ever started. Almost every morning, I saw a great sunsrise and almost every evening, I saw a great sunset. I hiked the aqueduct, considered the hottest section of the PCT, with a wind jacket and at times a rain jacket on. I got to see the wildflowers bloom as I hiked. Snow appeared in places I hadn't seen it before. Basically, I believe I got a unique and beautiful hiking experience in Southern California.
One of my favorite things about long distance hiking is the opportunity to think, dream, scheme, and plan. Mental clarity for me is at a high on the trail so I can work through thoughts and emotions that I can't seem to make any headway on while living a civilized life. My head frequently feels like its in a fog while in civilization compared to the clarity I achieve on trail. I choose not to listen to music or podcasts unless I'm on a long road walk or in so much pain, I need the escape. That means that I have hours each day to think.
Sometimes, I have a focus. Other times, I let my mind wander. In this case, I mostly had a focus. When I wrote about my SYTC, I focused on all the people who joined my team to help me complete that hike. My thoughts drifted to the people in my life once again, but this time, I focused on those under 50 years old.
A former coach, teacher, and boss once asked me what my age was. I replied 22 and he responded, "22 going on 40". He told me that my biggest struggle in life would be interacting with people my age which proved accurate so far. Its easy for me to interact with people my parent's age or older. I drew the line at 50 for a reason as that seemed like a good number to provide a wide age distribution for people at least close to my age. That forced me to ask the question of do I have friends or people in my life I can rely on who are even somewhat close to my age?
For the SYTC, I wrote about my "Reliable 5" which includes my parents, Dave Valentich and Jeanette Hackney (my bosses), and my best friend Lloyd. All 5 came through for me on the hike when I needed them to. Out of those five, only Lloyd fits that age range.
I thought through the friendships I have and believe that I have the best group of friends I've ever had. Each friend is someone that in some way, I want to be more like. Since "association brings on assimilation", that's a good thing. I have friends who inspire me, live "in the arena", live with purpose, care about others, and all of them are people I can rely on. Each friendship I have enhances my life.
Outside of Toe Touch and Sammie, one other friend greatly enhanced my hike. Also someone I've written about several times, my friend Sage is an adventure photographer. She has a Bachelors in Fine Arts with a photography emphasis so she actually knows what she is doing with a camera. Her adventurous spirit has led her to run the Hardrock 100 among other ultramarathons, hike the Colorado Trail, Continental Divide Trail (where I met her), and the Hayduke Trail, and frequently goes on bike-packing trips. After hiking the CDT, she created a photography book of that trail that I purchased for the sole purpose of supporting my friend. I went through it initially and found it interesting, but was looking to pass it along to someone else. After spending a day backcountry skiing with her, Sage sent me this photo:
I was blown away by how good it was and how I would never have figured out to do what she did to capture that moment. Following that, I went through her book again and noticed not just that she's a better photographer than me, but that she sees beauty that I miss. Areas that I just walked through without a single thought of taking a picture, she captured photographs better than any picture I've ever taken.
That realization made me want to attempt to see the world more like she does. One of my rules was to take at least one picture everyday. That would force me to try to see beauty where I hadn't seen it before. I hope to be more like Sage fully knowing that I will never be completely like Sage. "Association brings on assimilation" and my time with Sage, the book and the prints I bought from Sage brought about a change in me. I assimilated to become more like Sage and I believe I enjoyed this hike more because of her.
"The greatest power in the world is the power to choose."
I'm not a fan of COVID-19. I don't like looking around and seeing it hurt people I know and care about. No, I don't know anyone who has tested positive or is showing symptoms of this virus, but the protective measures we are doing to slow the spread of the virus is definitely hurting people I know. Sometimes, I feel like I must be taking crazy pills because I'm one of the most black and white people I know and yet in this situation, I see a lot more shades of grey than everyone else seems to. For example, I worry about how many people will be impoverished because of social distancing remembering that when you drop below a certain financial level, the impact is years off your life.
In terms of my hike, I tried to analyze it in terms of risk as risk analysis has been a large part of my engineering career. What is the probability of me contracting and spreading this virus and what is the consequence of me doing so? If you simply compare me being on the trails I planned to hike compared to any civilized situation I could find for myself, my probability greatly increases of contracting and spreading the virus in civilization as my human interaction goes up. Even when you compare it using degrees of separation meaning counting the human interactions for people who I interact with and continuing that trend, I believe my chances increase in civilization. However, the consequence does decrease a little as I'm now in a town with better medical facilities than almost every trail town. My overall risk (probability times consequence) to society has increased by coming off trail.
When I first started seeing people pressure others to not start their long distance hikes or to not continue their long distance hikes, I didn't have my head wrapped around the risk either way. It seemed to me the least risky thing I could do was limit my human interaction and I had that down to almost none on the trail and even in town much less than I would have when I returned to civilization. I reached out as when I see things differently than seemingly everyone else, I question myself. Literally everyone who responded then told me that I should keep going. Those people generally understood my situation better than the people making these black and white blanket statements.
I ran into a problem as I started seeing more travel restrictions put in place and predicted that further restrictions would end the hike for me. My initial transition from trail to civilization would require my largest amount of human interaction with my largest variance in degrees of separations creating my largest risk. That changed the above risk calculation for me in that if my hike was ended for me, that would likely be at a worse time to make that transition than it was at the time I ended my hike. The probability of my hike ending for me seemed high enough to consider it likely. As soon as I realized that, I ended my hike. The trail closures that followed have since proven me right as the hike I have planned is not currently legal even if I were to ignore the Stay at Home orders issued by many states.. Also, my groin flare up meant I had another high probability reason to end my hike, injury. It felt like I had to walk a razor's edge in order to avoid injury. With those two combined, the risk was best minimized by coming off the trail then and not later when all projections showed this would only get worse. Based on that thinking, I made the right choice.
Also, I wanted to protect my "power to choose". I ended my hike when that was still my choice as I predicted that eventually, that no longer would be.
As I don't believe the right thing to do is as black and white as others seem to suggest, I will give some hikers who made a different choice a benefit of a doubt in that their situation may actually create more risk by returning to civilization than by staying on trail. As more trails are closed and more states issue Stay at Home Orders, this is getting harder to justify. Most hikers should have left the trail by now and I only know of one person's situation where I would have to pause before making the decision to end my hike.
"Opportunity knocks so often it has raw knuckles."
I'm not devastated from ending my hike. I'm not even devastated by having to stay home mostly to limit the spread. I see this as an opportunity.
I don't like that I had to end my hike and I don't like not being able to get out and do more, but one of the first things I did was reach out to Toe Touch and a physical therapist and long distance hiker, Sara at Endless Peaks Strength for a debrief. I described to them where I was and where I want to get to talking for almost two hours. They are providing me with specialized training plans and nutrition plans to help me get there (at a much lower cost than their expertise should be worth).
Basically, before I started this hike, I had the thought that maybe I needed another year to get my body right. After the debrief, Toe Touch confirmed that telling me:
"Your body is a mess, Pathfinder, and even though you know this, maybe you just need an outside voice to tell you how bad it really is. My thought is that if you pushed through on this hike, you would have done serious damage, creating a long recovery window and a lot of thorns in your plans. So here's your silver lining of this whole pandemic (you had to know this was coming)...although the virus is devastating other people, it may have saved you physically."
She's probably right. I've seen my body adjust and heal on the trail, but this time did feel different. I still wanted to give my body a chance making Toe Touch's statement even more true. COVID-19 got me to quit sooner probably protecting me.
Another side tangent about Toe Touch for those who have seen me write glowingly about her before. I've written before about how she has the ability to stay positive better than anyone else I know. She refuses to get beat down and provides examples of that all the time. Look at the above statement again. I'm not even talking about her finding a "silver lining" in this pandemic. This is a different trait. She just told me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. That takes guts and makes her the exact person I need on my team as I chase greatness.
Now I have the opportunity to return to being the guy who placed 6th out of 1300 registered runners in my first half marathon race. I have the opportunity to be the guy who snowshoed up and down a mountain with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss maintaining an average speed of over 3 mph. I have an opportunity to get healthy like I haven't been in three years. To help with that, I've hired Toe Touch and Sara. I'm going to need them as my body is a mess.
In addition, as I hiked, I also thought about what I want to be about and came up with three things:
I want to do hard things.
I want to inspire other people to do hard things.
I want to help other people do hard things.
Another way of saying it is that I want to be a "man in the arena", I want to inspire other people to be "in the arena", and then I want to help those people have success "in the arena". A lot of my friends are already "in the arena" so I now have a greater opportunity to help them have success in their arenas.
On top of that, I have an opportunity for other personal projects that I've wanted to do for at least a couple years, but have never gotten around to doing. With all that in mind, here's my new goals for 2020 (many of these are COVID-19 dependent):
Obtain my Professional Engineering License: this will help my engineering career by allowing me to stamp drawings and analyses and will provide me with more opportunities.
Convert a van into a camper van: I've wanted to live in a camper van for a few years now and I have an opportunity to make that happen.
Clean out my storage unit minimizing my possessions: for the lifestyle I want to live, I have way too many possessions. I see possessions as limiting freedom as I have to do something with them. By getting rid of possessions, I see myself as purchasing freedom.
Pace my friend Pancakes in the Moab 240 Endurance Race: this has become my most important goal for the year as it is meant help Pancakes have success "in the arena" and also show me that my body is healed. I can't promise that she will accomplish what she wants to in this race. I can only promise that I will throw everything I have into helping her accomplish what she wants.
Hike the Escalante Overland Route in a single push: from what I can tell, this has never been done in a single push. I have a partner for this and am thinking about attempting to get one or two more. It requires a very specific skill set that I think I only know three people who could pull this off. I will need quite a bit of training and skill development to get there myself.
Finish climbing the Idaho 12s: I've climbed 7 of the 9 Idaho 12s and have been at this spot for several years now. As I think I will end up mostly in Idaho until my next hike, this is my opportunity to finish it.
Go on a backpacking trip in my favorite place to hike: I try to make it there every year.
Re-take the Avalanche 1 course: I took this course years ago and haven't consistently done enough backcountry skiing to keep that skill-set where I want it and for future plans need it. Therefore, I want to re-take the class.
Go on a backpacking trip with Sammie: my adopted little sister promised to hike with me for a weekend sometime in the fall as I tried to finish my Love the West hike. Now that I'm no longer on my Love the West hike, we're planning a backpacking trip together.
Plan at least one of my next long distance hikes: I have two different hikes that I could sit down and plan for future years.
All of this is fluid, so I will keep trying to do what I can to achieve as much as possible and help as much as possible in 2020.
What does this mean in terms of my hiking plans? Next year, I hope to try Love the West again. I'm making a couple small modifications to my plan, but otherwise, run it back. Then, everything will continue with as much or as little time as my body needs to recover. Can I do these next four hikes in four years? I don't know. Toe Touch and Sara are already warning me that might not be possible. For now, I'm just going to focus on getting my body ready for Love the West. After that, I will worry about the next hikes.
In many ways, I think I'm almost ideally suited to handle social distancing. I'm a strong introvert with a lot of loner tendencies. Its easier for me to feel lonely in a party full of my friends than it is hiking on the trail completely alone.
I have a large personal bubble. It's large enough that I basically had to learn how to hug at age 24 (I know that's weird). Social distancing for me means live normally as I never relied on physical contact with people.
Right now, I need to rest more to recover my body, so being stuck inside isn't as big of an issue as it normally would be. I can look through what Toe Touch and Sara are putting together for me to do, study it in depth, and with their help get my body as healthy and as fit as I want it. I know that I'm injury prone and no longer heal as fast as I used to. However, I believe these two will get me where I want to go provided I let them. Right now, Coronavirus is forcing me to let them help me.
Mostly the reason I believe I can handle social distancing is I have a habit of living in the future. I don't mean in a fantasy world. I simply like to look forward, not backward. What I do today, I believe will impact tomorrow, so I focus on tomorrow to figure out how to live today. More than that, I visualize, a lot. For example, my head is already thinking about pacing Pancakes in Moab. I'm trying to predict every possible scenario and work through how best to handle each one. This is natural to me. I dream, plan, prepare, scheme for large parts of my day, so I may be stuck here, mostly inside with restrictions on how much physical activity I can do, but my head is usually somewhere else, somewhere in the future, sometime when times are better (even if when I arrive there I find they aren't).
The strange thing for me is that most of my preparation is already done for my next hike, so that frees me up for all these other activities. Also, I'm not working at the moment giving me even more time. Time spent working out is also way down, so I have even more time. My money is already saved up for this time off work as I wasn't supposed to work right now anyway. I can spend my days focusing on the opportunities in front of me which is quite exciting.
I enjoy the process of getting ready for a hike. Now, I get to work ahead and can plan hikes that are 2-3 years in the future. I also get to further think about how at the end of these hikes, I can use them to the benefit some in the long distance hiking community. At the end of each hike, I tend to have a project associated with that hike. Right now, I'm thinking through ideas for my next project.
Mostly, I'm thinking about how I can help those friends who are "in the arena". I'm visualizing scenarios that may occur and practicing helping them in those scenarios. I'm preparing myself to help them in those scenarios. I've always wanted to be the person who someone can turn to during difficult times. This is my opportunity to do so.
I don't have the resources to help everyone who needs it, so I'm going to focus my efforts on those who are important to me. I believe that it is a moral imperative that at this time, those of us who can help others do so.
My hope from this trip report is that someone reads it and is intrigued by Toe Touch and ends up deciding to help with their nutrition from her. My hope is that someone in the market for a pack reads my short blurb on Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear and decides to give them a try. My hope is that someone reads that I'm working with Sara at Endless Peaks Strength and decides to get her to help them train for their next long distance hike. My hope is that someone reads about Sage and becomes intrigued by her photography enough to buy prints from her. All of these people are trying to run and grow businesses, already a hard thing, in an economy that's now in a recession. All of these businesses are in their infancy and all of these businesses have received money from me.
If I am the person I think I am or the person I want to be, this is my opportunity to shine. This is my opportunity to get creative and make other people's lives better. That is my focus during this unexpected downtime.