What I Got
In 1995, Cheryl Strayed set out to hike some 1,100 miles—from the Mojave Desert to the Washington State border—on the Pacific Crest Trail. She chronicles her journey in her New York Times best-selling memoir, Wild. In this excerpt, she describes a day on the trail.
As I hiked, I tried to force myself not to think about the things that hurt—my shoulders and upper back, my feet and hips—but I succeeded for only short bursts of time. As I traversed the eastern flank of Mount Jenkins, I paused several times to take in vast views of the desert that spread east below me to the vanishing point. By afternoon I had come to a rockslide and stopped. I looked up the mountain and followed the slide with my eyes all the way down. There was a great river of angular fist-sized metamorphic rocks—in place of the once-flat two-foot-wide trail that any human could walk through. And I wasn't even a normal human. I was a human with a god-awful load on my back and without even a trekking pole to balance myself. Why I had neglected to bring a trekking pole, while not failing to bring a foldable saw, I did not know. Finding a stick was impossible—the sparse low and scraggly trees around me were of no use. There was nothing to do but to push on.
My legs trembled as I stepped onto the rockslide in a half squat, fearful that my usual hunching in a remotely upright position would upset the rocks and cause them to slide en masse farther down the mountain, carrying me with them. I fell once, landing hard on my knee, and then I rose to pick my way even more tediously across, the water in the giant dromedary bag on my back sloshing with each step. When I reached the other side of the slide, I was so relieved it didn't matter that my knee was pulsing in pain and bleeding. That's behind me, I thought with gratitude, but I was mistaken.
I had to cross three more rockslides that afternoon.
I camped that night on a high saddle between Mount Jenkins and Mount Owens, my body traumatized by what it had taken to get there, though I'd covered only 8.5 miles. I had silently lambasted myself for not hiking more quickly, but now, as I sat in my camp chair catatonically spooning my dinner into my mouth from the hot pot that sat in the dirt between my feet, I was only thankful that I'd made it this far. I was at an elevation of 7,000 feet, the sky everywhere around me. To the west I could see the sun fading over the undulating land in a display of 10 shades of orange and pink; to the east the seemingly endless desert valley stretched out of sight.
The Sierra Nevada is a single uptilted block of the earth's crust. Its western slope comprises 90 percent of the range, the peaks gradually descending to the fertile valleys that eventually give way to the California coast—which parallels the Pacific Crest Trail roughly 200 miles to the west for most of the way. The eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada is entirely different: a sharp escarpment that drops abruptly down to a great flat plain of desert that runs all the way to the Great Basin in Nevada. I'd seen the Sierra Nevada only once before, when I'd come west with Paul a few months after we left New York. We'd camped in Death Valley and the next day drove for hours across a landscape so desolate it seemed not of this earth. By midday the Sierra Nevada appeared on the western horizon, a great white impenetrable wall rising from the land. It was nearly impossible for me to conjure that image now as I sat on the high mountain saddle. I wasn't standing back from that wall anymore. I was on its spine. I stared out over the land in a demolished rapture, too tired to even rise and walk to my tent, watching the sky darken. Above me, the moon rose bright, and below me, far in the distance, the lights in the towns of Inyokern and Ridgecrest twinkled on. The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight. This is what I came for, I thought. This is what I got.