Something happened a little while after reaching that halfway point of the trail. I started growing increasingly sure that I would be able to finish walking the entire length of the trail, started doing the math in my head: “If I walk this many miles and take this many days off then I will make it by this and that date” and so on. Before that, I had simply just walked and walked and then walked some more, happily accumulating mile after mile, without knowing where the trail took me. Ironically, the smell of success wasn’t a good feeling. Something was lost. The insecurity.
There was still one major obstacle for succeeding, something that not only posed as a time-challenge but a safety risk as well: I had to make it past The High Sierras of California before the snow would start to fall. Being trapped in a blizzard at 4000m altitude without any escape-options could lead to some serious consequences. So even though I had gained confidence in my legs ability to carry me across the US, the weather was still an unknown factor. By now, the only thing that could derail me.
Maybe that explains the completely illogical decision to take a week off, drinking and partying, just before I reached the notorious Sierras, the mountains that I had raced for months to reach before the snow. Playing with the fire, till the fire plays with me.
Or maybe it was simply the desire to forget the trail for a little while and have a grand old time together with a bunch of other hikers that were on the same quest as I: walking across America. I had bumped into several other of these hikers during the last couple of weeks and as I was taking a short one-day-off, we had all gathered in a little village just 100 miles before the Sierras would start. It started with one beer and the elaborate stories of each our walks: Close-encounters with bears, people hiking double-marathon days, creepy people that had picked us up while hitch-hiking and ridiculous, way-too-detailed stories of the nature of someone’s…pooh. The beer kept flowing and the stories got better. At one point, someone managed to borrow a guitar from a local and as one rest-day led to another, more hikers joined the party. We were all camped in tents next to the village church, playing with fire in case any divinity was looking. Simply having a great time.
Finally, on day three we all agreed that it was time to get back to business and start walking again. However, by now the trail in front of us was closed for the next 100 miles due to a giant fire that had exploded in size during our isolated little hiker-party. Oops.
Minke popped another beer while we all contemplated our options and got ready for a hitchhike-attempt around the fire-closure. His girlfriend, Chaga, is staring into her smartphone, and her next sentence rips the depressed atmosphere apart: “This girl called 300 is going to a Bluegrass Festival nearby. You guys coming?”. 10 minutes later and the fire-closed trail is forgotten, 8 new beers are popped open and the whole party is restarted. You bet we are coming! Let the Sierras stand right where they are and let someone pray that the weather holds up and that the snow is not about to roll-in, cause I’m going to a Bluegrass Festival! As a foreigner, I really have no choice, it’s a piece of American Culture. Or at least it’s a great excuse to keep the party going and forget the challenge of The Sierras.
We all went and it was amazing and I spent all my money and my body had never felt more violated than after that week of non-stop partying. The idea of walking to McDonalds for hangover-breakfast seemed like a physical challenge.
Just ahead of us, the greatest challenge of them all was waiting: 400 miles of saw-tooth profiled trail, several 3500m mountain-passes above the altitude-sickness level and no escape-routes out of the misery if the snow decided to drop. Long, heavy 8-day stints between resupply options. Proper Wilderness, the longest draw-a-straight-line-section in mainland USA without any roads. As the month of October was rolling in, each of us were silently and comfortably hoping that the weather would forgive our laissez-faire attitude and postpone the snow, like we had postponed our walk.
As it turned out, it didn’t. It hit us all, full-scale on day 3: horizontal snow, complete white-out. But I’m still here and I’m still walking.