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Cheryl Strayed I Am Not

by Cheryl Strayed, then watched the movie. The book had a profound impact on me. Not in the least because I am interested in hiking in grueling conditions for three months. Not at all. But it’s really well-written and perfectly blended the author’s processing of past griefs with her current exploration of the Pacific Crest Trail.

So when spending a weekend in Big Bear with friends, I have to admit, I had a slightly romantic gleam in my eye when I agreed to hike to Deep Creek Springs. I would have a glimpse into Cheryl’s world, if only for a few hours.

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Remind me never to do that again.

Deep Creek Springs, a combination of hot and cold springs, and often frequented by nudists, is reached by a 1.5 hour descent down a precarious trail. Now, I live in San Diego, and have hiked the steep Cowles Mountain three times plenty of times, so I felt prepared. Oh ho ho. I was not. Just as Cheryl had done no training or prepping before her three-month hike, I too was little prepared for the agony of this adventure.

I alternated between being scared to death that my limber 11-year-old would tumble down the mountain, and fantasizing what would happen if I did. I began to doubt that this place existed. My friends joked that maybe all the water would be gone…as I shook out the last of the water from my third bottle. (Readers of Wild will recall the same situation in the book. You’d think I would have learned.)

Paradise in Hell

Just as one would descend into the various rings of Hell, so we stuttered our way down scree. But once we got there, paradise was found. I stripped my clothes off (but not being a nudist, had my swimsuit on to cover my modesty) and jumped into the cool waters, where I panted for a good 10 minutes, trying to catch my breath. As I explored the creek, I was surprised to find pockets of warm water jettisoning up from rocks. There were man made hot tubs sectioned off throughout the area with water that felt both good and torturous in the 95+ degree heat.

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The kids floated with their pool noodles. We watched fish nibble our skin. We swam and floated, then laid on the blanket and let the water evaporate from our skin. Strange drum music emanated from the party next to us. We devoured our picnic, ready to refuel after the long hike down. It was relaxing, but the return hike had me anxious.

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Journey from the Center of Earth

I’m stubborn, and insisted that we didn’t stay until nightfall, as my friends had suggested. I was uncomfortable with the hike by daylight, and didn’t want to put myself more at risk by walking in the dark, even with the assistance of a full moon. So we left about 3 pm. Though we’d all doused our clothes in the springs, the moisture soon burned off. If I’d thought the descent was bad, the hike back up was a million times worse. And I’ll take the blame; it might have been easier an hour or two later, but quite honestly, even if it were 50 degrees out, it didn’t make that 90-degree incline any easier.

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Our dog, who has gone on just a few hikes with us before this, devised a clever system. She would run to the next shade-covered area (they were few and far between on the trail) and wait until all her humans had safely passed, then she’d trot past us to the next shady oasis. If only I were two feet tall, I could have copied her strategy, as there were only short bushes along the trail to provid any shade.

Then I felt my heels begin to chafe. I kept it quiet as long as I could, not wanting to be the whiny baby I felt like. But finally I had to ask my friend for Band-Aids. When I took my shoes off, my heels were glowing red, with shards of skin hanging on by a thread. Cheryl could have related. Not 20 minutes later, the Band-Aids had slipped to the bottoms of my feet. But my heels were my least worry.

My own survival strategy involved counting to 100. If I could just make it to 100, I could rest. I counted a lot of 100s. Turns out, it takes twice as long to get back up the trail than to go down, so nearly 3 hours later, just before my nervous breakdown would have erupted, we made it back to the car.

My sweet, well-meaning friend turned to me, sweat running rivulets down her face. “So, was it worth it?”

I bit my lip and tried not to glare at her. “At this point, absolutely not.”

I guess I won’t be hiking the PCT any time soon.

PS the kids said it wasn’t worth it too. See their tired faces?

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