Ten years ago, on April 15, 2013, I stepped foot on the Pacific Crest Trail to begin a 174-day journey that still blows my mind to this day. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to say to mark this 10th anniversary until Pac Man sent me a message to mark the occasion and told me he’d have a shot of Wild Turkey in my honor.
It made me think about this chapter of my unpublished memoir (that may never see the light of day) and decide why not just put it out in the world where all art should live.
So here it is, draft seven thousand of Chapter 2 of ‘Once Upon a Trail,’ chronicling my first day on the Pacific Crest Trail ten years ago. Enjoy!
Chapter 2 – Wild Turkey
I woke up fully clothed to the sound of footsteps and a voice outside my tent.
“You alive in there, kiddo?” the voice boomed.
I sat up feeling dizzy, dazed by the sunlight, as I zipped open the mesh door of my shelter.
Larry, a middle-aged man I’d met at the end of my first day, was standing above me, grinning.
“You look like shit. Here I made you some coffee.”
It was only day two, and my head was thumping. I took the mug from his hand.
“How did I get here?” I asked, searching the ground in a panic for clues.
Larry roared with laughter.
“I carried your heavy arse after you passed out on my lap.”
“Your lap?” I confirmed with horror, remembering taking multiple swigs of his whiskey while making dinner but very little after that.
Larry roared again. “You’re funny, kid. Now drink your coffee and get outa bed.”
I put the mug down beside me and curled into a tight ball, unable to face the day or any further revelations from the previous evening.
I’d arrived at the clearing by Houser Creek, a dried-up riverbed in the Anza-Borrego Desert, the afternoon before with two liters of water, stiff legs, and an appetite to celebrate my first fifteen-mile struggle along the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d begun around nine a.m., well after most thru-hikers had set off for the day due to minor navigational misjudgments and the fact I was so nervous I had to pee at least four times before leaving the house.
Relatives of a friend of my parents in San Diego had driven me to the southern terminus in Campo, a community of just over two thousand with a smattering of houses and a gas station on the border of California and Mexico. I’d only met Don and Donna four days earlier when Donna, a neuroscientist with straight black hair and serious-looking spectacles, stood at the airport holding a sign with my name like a chauffeur.
“You don’t look like a hiker,” Donna told me as I entered the front seat of her suburban four-wheel drive.
“I’m not,” I admitted, feeling disappointed that wearing the correct gear and carrying a backpack didn’t at least make me look a little outdoorsy.
“You look more like a ski bunny,” she reflected, to which I replied with a snort, unable to determine whether she was serious.
“That’s funny,” I chuckled. “I can’t for the life of me ski either.”
In the six months between deciding to hike and stepping foot on the trail, I’d saved a pocketful of cash by traveling to Qatar to work on a gala dinner for the heads of state attending the United Nation’s 18th Climate Change Conference in Doha. The dinner was hosted by His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and although I was fortunate to have the experience and skills to pick up the contract with relative ease, the millions spent on food, limousine transport, imported flower decorations, gold lettering, and Perrier alone, made me queasy.
Events, particularly in the Middle East, paid handsomely. But the effects of that lifestyle were costly. Many of my colleagues were either divorced or in distant, unhappy marriages. If they had children, they rarely saw them, and most evenings on the job were spent in flashy hotels drinking overpriced cocktails into the early hours of the morning. You could earn enough money in three months to live for a year. But once you got used to the champagne brunches, designer clothes, weekly spa visits, dry-cleaned underwear, and weekends lounging by the pool, you needed to work year-round to afford it.
I relished this lifestyle in my early twenties, having spent ten months in Doha working on the Asian Games Torch Relay in 2006. But six years later, having celebrated my thirtieth birthday on the job, I began to see this existence through a different lens. I didn’t want to end up like my colleagues, who seemed to carry around the same hollowness I’d felt since I ended my contract at the London 2012 Summer Olympics and broke up with my partner of two years, Anthony. So instead of drinking gin and tonics until two a.m. like my teammates, I spent the better part of my evenings training for the trail.
I walked approximately ten kilometers each night along the paved Corniche overlooking the Persian Gulf, imagining that in a few months, the flat, arid landscape and bright lights of the city would be replaced by mountainscapes and glittering stars. This thought alone sustained me during those challenging, artificial months, and by the time my contract was over, I was on a three-month countdown to the start of the trail.
When I arrived back in Australia in January, however, I was offered another event contract to work on the Cricket World Cup in 2015. This would have been my dream job years before, as I’d been unnaturally obsessed with the sport since my early teens, plastering every inch of my bedroom walls with posters of middle-aged men dressed in white uniforms. I’d been unsuccessful in applying for a role with Cricket Australia a few years earlier, and now they were offering me my dream job to work on the World Cup; all I could think about was how this would affect my plans for the trail.
The sizable salary, job security, and all the benefits that came with it made me seek counsel on the matter. Most people, especially those in the event world, advised me to take the job, citing sensible things like I could hike anytime and that the trail wasn’t going anywhere. But every time I considered the prospect of delaying my wilderness dream, the sense of possibility and excitement I’d unearthed upon that rock in Malta vanished, leaving me feeling hopeless and depressed.
Something inside me had already shifted. I was no longer seeking the prestige of another high-profile event to add to my already impressive CV. I was desperate for something else, and even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, I was convinced it was waiting on the trail.
“Are you scared to hike alone?” Donna asked as I stepped foot inside her perfectly manicured home in the seaside city of Del Mar.
“Not really,” I responded honestly.
I was more scared of people finding out how little I knew about long-distance hiking and survival in the outdoors.
My preparation for the trail had included reading Yogi’s PCT Handbook, the trail’s bible, written by a well-respected former thru-hiker, and a handful of trail blogs I’d scanned for information about resupplying food. I’d camped in my sister’s backyard when I was learning how to set up my tent and cooked on her back veranda to test out meals on my alcohol stove. Then, two weeks before I left, I threw my month-old gear into my brand-new ULA pack and went on my one and only overnight hike on a trail near my parent’s house to ensure I wasn’t a total fraud.
Before arriving in San Diego, I’d flown to Vancouver to spend eight days with my friend Sarah who’d inspired the idea. I’d probed her with all sorts of questions about surviving through the desert to shitting in the woods, and after buying two trolleys worth of groceries from Cosco, I borrowed her dehydrator to prepare my first three months of meals for the trail.
A week later, Sarah drove me across the border into Washington, where I posted my thirteen resupply boxes from Bellingham to post offices in towns closest to the trail. These boxes contained printed maps, trail notes, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, sachets of electrolytes, trail mix, instant coffee, and spare batteries in addition to my dehydrated food.
“Shouldn’t I just prepare all my boxes now?” I asked Sarah while sitting between a sea of granola bars scattered across her basement floor.
“Most post offices will only hold your box for three months,” Sarah warned. “Plus, there’s always the chance you might not make it the whole way.”
Sarah’s words triggered a surge of defiance, and I had to stifle the urge to laugh.
“I suppose so,” I mumbled agreeably, though being the A-type perfectionist I was, once I’d set my sights on something, nothing short of death was going to stop me from reaching the end of that trail.
I flew from Bellingham to San Diego that afternoon and, upon arrival, attended a three-day wilderness first aid course to boost my survival knowledge. I then spent my final days in civilization, convincing Donna I wouldn’t die. Donna was more nervous than my mother, who had bought into the concept as readily as my move to Malta. My mom had been my first and only blog follower when I set up my website weeks before until Donna eagerly signed up, too, perhaps out of morbid curiosity more than anything else.
I’d hoped the information I’d documented on my blog might reassure Donna. But she wasn’t swayed as easily as my mother, and after reading about the possibility of running into immigrants along the border, Donna insisted on phoning the PCT Association to ensure my safety. I begged her not to, sensing this type of question would only demonstrate how ill-informed I was. But Donna persisted, and I remember watching nervously from the kitchen, praying she wouldn’t use my name in case they revoked my hiking permit because of my ignorance.
On the morning we left for the trail, I was feeling as nervous as Donna. It was April 15, 2013, and as we turned onto Highway 8 into thick mist and heavy rain, all I could think about were the waterproof pants I’d sent ahead to Kennedy Meadows at the beginning of the Sierra, as Sarah had advised. I’d been focused on crossing seven hundred miles of desert before needing them and was more concerned about surviving the first twenty miles with no creeks, springs, or spigots to collect water. But those apprehensions were now replaced by the prospect of hypothermia and walking with wet legs for the first two months of the trail.
After missing the exit off the highway and having to backtrack, I could sense Donna’s nerves were increasing too.
“Will there be a lot of snow?” she asked, glancing at me from the rear vision mirror, her hair looking slightly more disheveled than the day we’d met.
“Probably in the High Sierra,” I replied. “But it should be gone by early June.”
“What about bears?” she probed.
“Oh yeah, they’ll be bears.”
By the time we arrived at the southern terminus, Donna had run out of questions, and the rain clouds had dispersed, causing me to breathe a deep sigh of relief. Once I stepped foot outside the air-conditioned car, the desert air warmed me instantly, and after Don opened the trunk, I attempted to lift my forty-pound pack without breaking a sweat before buckling beneath its weight. Although the bag itself was lightweight, the contents inside it were not. I’d made use of every spare inch, cramming in six liters of water, and all the gear I prayed would help keep me alive through every scenario imaginable.
I could tell Donna was observing my struggle, so I walked as straight-backed as I could towards the monument at the southern terminus, marking the start of the trail. I’d seen countless photos of these five wooden posts before, with groups of hikers striking animated poses on or beside them before setting off on their journeys. But because of our late arrival, all my companions had left, leaving me to stand beside the tallest post alone with my arm around its shoulder like a stranger, feeling awkward while Donna snapped photos with my iPhone 4.
Once the moment was sufficiently documented, I went to sign the trail register to complete formalities, but I couldn’t open the metal box that housed it. After Don failed to pry it open, too, we concluded it must have been rusted shut, and I had to quash the immediate feelings of incompleteness that plagued my inner perfectionist.
“Are you going to be okay?” Donna asked, attempting to hug me around my pack, which had already become an extension of my body.
“I’ll be fine,” I assured her. “Thank you both for getting me here.”
“Hike safely,” Don urged.
“I will, I promise.”
“You look like a hiker now,” Donna said with noticeable pride, and as they walked back to their vehicle, tears of gratitude began welling in my eyes.
After losing sight of them, I sucked in a breath of warm air, wiped my cheeks on my sleeve, and turned my attention to the trail. An endless stretch of desert plants stood before me, but there was no clear direction to move in, and after a moment of contemplation, I was forced to pull out my maps. When I’d printed them back in Australia, I hadn’t realized they presented a 1:75,000 scale, displaying approximately one mile of trail per inch of paper. This meant all I could decipher from the red squiggly line was that the trail headed north, yet there was a clear junction ahead, forcing me to walk right or left.
I stared at the footprints in the sand and followed a pair to the right until they disappeared. Scrunching my nose, I backtracked and walked the other way until I was back at the road we’d arrived on. I was shaking my head at how absurd I felt when I spotted a white wooden sign standing beside a narrow pathway carved in the dirt.
Pacific Crest Trail, it read. Lake Morena – 19.5 miles.
“Thank god,” I sighed.
Within my first short minutes, I’d learned what it felt like to be lost, along with the overwhelming sense of relief of finding my way back.
As I stepped onto the sandy footpath for the first time, I squealed with excitement, unable to fathom I was standing on the trail I’d been picturing every waking hour for the past six months. I was giddy, grinning from ear to ear, feeling the new chapter of my life beginning while snapping photos of every new sight that surrounded me. Desert flowers with pink and white buds sprouting from the top, a sachet of barbeque sauce someone ahead had either dropped or donated, a carcass of an unidentifiable animal, and the pathway itself, an uneven mix of rock and sand which would serve as my home for the next six months.
I was so immersed in the novelty of the trail I completely forgot about the prospect of other hikers, and while searching for an appropriate place to poop around the two-hour mark, the swift sound of footsteps behind me made me jump.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” said a man’s voice as I leaped over an ankle-sized cactus to vacate the trail.
The man, somewhere in his mid-forties, with greying-blond hair, wore a chequered bandana around his neck and a smile larger than mine.
“That’s okay,” I replied, though being overtaken so soon had bruised my ego.
“They call me Legend,” the man introduced, stretching out his hand to shake mine. “Got the name hiking the Appalachian Trail a few years ago,” he added.
Trail names are a unique part of the thru-hiking experience, allowing hikers to abandon their civilized identity while adopting a trail persona instead. They’re designed to develop organically, though some basic rules govern their creation. You cannot name yourself, though I suspected Legend might have, and you don’t have to accept the name bestowed on you either.
I tried not to pre-empt what mine would become in the weeks leading up to the trail, although I prayed it would be something I could be proud of. It had taken me years to come to terms with the name Rozanne, especially as the only Roseanne anyone knew of was a controversial American comedian to whom I hated being compared. I’d pictured numerous scenarios of the moment my trail name would spontaneously reveal itself and the unlikely person who would bestow the title upon me. But on the eve of my departure from Vancouver, my anticipation ended.
“I’ve got something for you,” Sarah announced after I sealed the last of my resupply boxes.
She pulled a note from her pocket, which was rolled into a small tube and tied with a frilly pink ribbon. I was sitting on a stool in her kitchen at the time, and she tapped the parchment on each of my shoulders ceremoniously as though she were knighting me. As I unfurled the note, I noticed Sarah’s blue eyes glinting with delight.
“Read it aloud,” she urged, bouncing on the balls of her feet, barely able to contain her excitement.
I cleared my throat as I straightened the rectangular piece of paper in my hands.
“As you set off on this adventure, I want to send you with something that won’t weigh you down, doesn’t need to be mailed, and will see you through to the end. Trail name, Muk Muk.”
My heart skipped a beat as I read the name over.
Muk Muk was a mascot I’d loved from the Vancouver Winter Olympics, where Sarah and I had met. Sarah’s note explained that Muk Muk was a Vancouver Island marmot described as ‘small and friendly,’ whose name came from the Chinuk Wawa word ‘muckamuck’, meaning ‘food’ or ‘to eat.’
“Muk Muk is rare like an Australian hiking the PCT,” Sarah beamed. “He is good in the mountains, light on his feet, resourceful, and likes to eat. Plus, he indirectly brought you to Canada, which is where you learned about the trail.”
I stared at the cartoon image of Muk Muk on the page, trying to imagine repeating this explanation to every hiker I met.
What do you think?” Sarah burst excitedly.
“Muk Muk,” I repeated, trying the name on for size. “I like it,” I responded automatically, though, in truth, I wasn’t completely sold on the idea.
After years of being associated with the voluptuous mother of Becky, Darlene, and DJ, I would now hold the name of a pudgy, naked cartoon marmot wearing a blue and orange beanie. It wasn’t exactly the name of the wilderness badass I was picturing, but it was so thoughtful and full of meaning I couldn’t refuse.
“I’m Muk Muk,” I mumbled awkwardly in response to Legend, who seemed not to hear.
“I’m planning to hike the entire trail without maps,” Legend continued unsolicited. “I’ve been training for months without drinking water too, so I only need to carry two liters between each stretch.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” I replied politely, thinking neither his approach to maps nor water was a legendary idea.
“Well, I better keep moving,” he chirped a second later. “I want to make it to Lake Morena before dark.”
With that, Legend tipped his cap to bid farewell, leaving me to pray he would not prove to be the quintessential hiker I was going to meet along the PCT.
By six p.m. that evening, I’d only hiked fifteen miles, though it was further than I’d ever walked in a single day carrying a pack. I still had five miles to make it to Lake Morena, but I decided to tackle the climb on fresh legs in the morning and camp at Hauser Creek instead. I knew from the water report the creek would be dry, but I had two liters of water remaining, which I figured would be enough to get me through the evening and over to the lake the next morning.
But that was before I met Larry.
On arrival at the campsite, I discovered two tents and their male occupants standing beside them as I hobbled by. The younger of the men eyed me suspiciously while his counterpart, a tall, broad man in his mid-forties, bounded over to greet me.
“Hey there, I’m Larry,” he said with an iron handshake, his radiant smile exposing a glow of white teeth.
“I’m Rozanne,” I replied, feeling too awkward to use my trail name again.
“Nice to meet you,” Larry grinned, still shaking my hand. “You continuing on?”
“Nah, I think I’ve had enough for one day,” I sighed.
“Good decision!” he said, releasing his grip and giving me a friendly slap to my shoulder. “We stopped here to celebrate our first day, too, right, Lucas?”
Larry looked towards his younger companion, who nodded in silent agreement.
“A bunch of hikers kept going, but we’ve got nothing to prove,” Larry continued.
“Like that Legend guy?” I smiled.
“The jerk hiking with no maps?” Larry snorted. “Yeah, what a loser. He came strolling through here like he owned the place.”
“Is anyone else camped here?” I asked with mild suspicion, surveying the surroundings.
“There’s some antisocial chicks down there,” Larry said dismissively, pointing towards another clearing. “But there’s plenty of room for you here,” he offered, his bright blue eyes glinting while his smile spread the width of his reddened cheeks.
Larry looked like he’d just stepped off a Hollywood set, make-up and all, with his tanned face and glowing features. He was dressed head to toe in day-old hiking clothes, and his tent looked like it had just come out of plastic, which meant he likely knew as little about thru-hiking as I did. He seemed playful and gregarious and didn’t seem to take the whole thru-hiking thing too seriously, which is why I felt an immediate fondness for the man.
“I’ll take a quick look around,” I concluded, wanting to weigh up my options before accepting the first hand of friendship.
“No problemo,” Larry replied casually, but as I headed towards the other clearing, his voice echoed behind me.
“There’ll be a shot of Wild Turkey waiting for you,” he called, waving a bottle filled with golden liquid above his head.
The two women Larry had mentioned were already inside their tent and appeared to be preparing for bed.
“There’s another spot over there,” one girl said mid yawn while pointing to a small exposed patch of dirt only a few feet from theirs.
“It’ll be fine if you’re up before sunrise,” the other advised.
“Cool, thanks,” I replied, surveying the dusty space they’d suggested.
I knew the smart thing to do would be to set up my tent and sleep. But I could hear Larry’s boisterous laughter from the other side of the campsite, and the Australian in me was ready to party.
Larry had his back to me when I returned, so I crept up behind him while Lucas pretended not to see.
“I’m back,” I announced in an ominous whisper.
“I knew you would,” Larry crooned, swinging around and throwing his arm around my shoulder. “Now set down your things and have a goddamn drink.”
Larry had already made space for me between their tents, and after accepting his offer, I took a long swig from the bottle. The whiskey burned my throat, but I felt instantly buzzed, noticing my energy skyrocket while my muscles turned to jelly. I became chatty after my nine hours of near-solitude, and by the time I’d set up my tent, I’d already taken two more swigs.
“What’s cookin'”?” Larry asked as I rummaged through my collection of Ziplock bags.
“Dunno,” I replied. “Maybe this,” I said, holding up a bag of couscous and dehydrated vegetables.
“Looks revolting,” Larry scoffed as I pulled out my alcohol stove. “How long does that thing take to boil?” he continued, staring in horror at my lightweight soda can and windshield contraption.
“Dunno, fifteen minutes maybe?” I guessed.
Larry almost spat out the whiskey he’d just sipped.
“Jesus!” he hollered. “Seriously?”
I laughed and shrugged my shoulders.
“Boy, you don’t know much, do you?” Larry observed. “Wait, I think ‘Dunno’ should be your trail name,” he suggested, jumping to his feet and beaming the same way Sarah had in Vancouver.
“Maybe,” I chuckled, lacking the heart to explain the story of the one I had.
By the time I’d finished dinner, the bottle of Wild Turkey had been in my hands three more times, and each story from our first day was becoming more elaborate, while the fact we were in the middle of the desert, miles from water, became less of a concern. My last memory was of Lucas retiring for bed around nine p.m., but following Larry’s rude awakening the next morning, he filled in the rest of the blanks, including me crawling into his lap like a drunken cat.
I’d passed out shortly after, and although I was relieved I hadn’t set aside all my inhibitions on day one, I still felt ashamed of my loose behavior as I staggered out of my tent into the blazing sunlight in front of Lucas, who looked eager to leave with his pack strapped to his shoulders. I tried standing, but I started blacking out the moment I was vertical.
“You guys go on without me,” I conceded groggily, returning to all fours. “I’m going back to bed.”
“To hell you are! We ain’t leaving a wounded soldier behind,” Larry insisted.
“But I don’t think I can,” I moaned, crawling over to the tree branch that had served as my armchair the previous night.
“Pack up your tent, and I’ll give you something to settle your stomach,” Larry offered.
I raised one eyebrow.
“Pack. Now!” Larry ordered before I could argue.
Twenty minutes later, I’d shoved my belongings into my pack, and on cue, Larry pulled out a small pipe and a tub filled with finely chopped marijuana.
“No way,” I refused, taking a step back and shaking my head furiously. “That stuff will have me on my arse.”
“Shut up, will you? This is medicinal shit. You’ll be flying up that mountain in no time.”
I’d smoked weed throughout my twenties, but it never mixed well with me. I’d greened out the first time as a teenager and fainted in the middle of a supermarket after smoking bongs at university. I couldn’t imagine being high and hiking with a forty-pound pack on my back in the sweltering heat. But I couldn’t imagine baking inside my tent in the midday sun either, which eventually swung the vote.
“Fine,” I conceded, accepting the one-hitter from Larry and inhaling a long puff.
And you know what? Larry was right.