Rocks are haphazardly thrust into the ground which lurches steeply downward under my feet. A sharp rock catches my left foot and my right slips down a wet, smooth one the next step. It is a heart stopping descent that lasts and lasts.
One moment I am on packed dirt and the next I am back again on the steep, uneven cobblestone, praying I won’t have a hike-ending, knee-shattering fall.
I try listening to music. I try being grateful that a trail crew was out there, stopping erosion on these delicate hillsides. I try not thinking at all.
Today was physically difficult, which was strange because it was almost all downhill: 2,693 feet down and 401 feet up. It was also only 17.19 miles. This adds up to five hours and 21 minutes of hiking — not a lot, when I usually do a full eight hours a day.
So why was it so hard? It was simply those misshapen rocks, seemingly out to get me. If I didn’t break an ankle, I thought, I was sure fall and break a knee.
As I was clambering downward, I happened to look down at my legs. I saw a new muscle bulging with each downward step. My body has changed on me. My calves are solid pieces of rock — with weird bundles of strength even moving on the shins. My quads are borrowed from a quarter horse — stocky and rippling, ready for the next push.
Looking in the mirror in Mammoth I saw my lily white upper body — waisting away with disuse. My collar and hip bones with callused skin on the points where my pack stays. My spine more prominent. My stomach less full. My arms slender, but still with some lift.
I have become a thru hiker, after 942 miles.
And I didn’t break myself on the scary decent, as you probably guessed by now (this blog would probably have gone in a much different direction). I made it to Tuolumne Meadows and then, finding it shockingly crowded, kept on going.
Instead of frantically uploading blogs and editing pictures in the Tuolumne Meadows hiker campground, I found myself sitting at a fire with a group of other hikers. There was the sweet family (grandparents, adult child, and teen grandson), the insecure section hiker (needing to always correct people), and a merry gang of other dirtballs like me. We were all drawn to the fire, to the warmth, to the friendship.
It is a thrill to share adventures with others — to see my hike through their eyes and to discover new journeys waiting for me afterwards. From day trippers to triple crowners (people who have hiked all three of the long distance trails in the USA), the people I meet out here are, without a doubt, fascinating. There are as many reasons for getting outside cited as people I chat with. There are as many experience levels as people, too. And there are a million more trips to dream of than I could ever have imagined.
The fire in a filled up campground was what brought us together, as well as my newfound need for people — a surprise to an introvert (and usually shy person) like myself.
Something more than my body is changing out here, perhaps my newfound confidence is allowing me to be more open, or perhaps it is just the hours upon hours of my waking life I spend alone. But I love it. I love feeling the freedom to talk to strangers, to connect with new people, to make single-serving friends. I love these changes. I love becoming this new person on this ever-changing trail.