We’ve arrived in Old Station, CA on time and under budget after another 94 mile chunk in four days from Belden through Lassen National Park. We were delighted to meet a cookie care package from Teri and the amazing luxury of hot showers.

Feet are tired, ankles limp and weak, blisters screaming, footfalls heavy and towards the end of the day a bit sloppily dangerous. I’m sure not “Dances with Granite” (I wanted someone to give me that trailname, but sadly no one ever did). That’s the way it feels a lot. Then something random occurs. It could be anything: a favorite birdsong, wind in the trees or a breeze cooling the back of my neck, noticing the beauty of the sun dappled trail, a wildflower that we haven’t seen in days or the bear wandering in the woods 15 yards off trail two days ago. While the latter was the most dramatic, all of those things have effectively snapped me out of the pain, the focus on self and my self-inflicted misery. Yes, I am heaping some abuse on my body; hopefully none of it is causing any lasting damage. There’s nothing so good, so heart opening, so get over my silly little self as a solid dose of connecting to the present moment and the beauty it has to offer. The universe is rich, this planet ripe with abundance and beauty, but only if I’m here for it.

The solo hikes that Jen and I do every morning for an hour or two can be full of grace and deeply meditatively rewarding. They can also be disconnected, distracted and disjointed, full of worry about the future, fretting about the past and consumed with the physical pain of right now and wondering why the hell I’m subjecting myself to it. Sometimes it takes a long time to snap back, other times it is easy and fluid.

Through it all are minor bits of pain. Every time we get up and start walking without stretching is gimpy and strained. It takes 15-30 minutes for the walking to feel fluid/normal again. Stretching helps a lot, but it can be easy to forget, especially when we stop and flop down, grateful to simply be off our feet. But it’s just pain. After all, “not all pain is significant” as ultramarathoner Scott Jurek reminded us often in his book Eat and Run.

Does that make you jones to be a long distance thru hiker who cranks out 30 mile plus days? According to ultra light backpacking pioneer and legend Ray Jardine here’s how you do it. An average fit person can pretty easily hike 2 miles/hour. We’ve been using that as our backpacking benchmark for years and that math always seemed to work pretty well, except in that parallel universe that is backpacking in Alaska without the benefit of trails. In that situation, all bets are off and you can simply defenestrate the theory that follows. (The joys of hacking through willow and tundra buns of steel workouts in Denali are second to none and means you can pretty much count on halving mileage you’re used to being able to do). But back to the PCT, ultra light and ultra hiking. The gospel of Jardine for a 30 mile day is pretty easy: 10 miles from 5:30 am to 10:30 am followed by a brief 30 min respite and foot break aka lunch, five more hours of cranking out a tenner from 11 til 4 pm, interspersed by an hour dinner on trail and then you saunter off dinner for an easy peezy ten more miles (don’t want to let those precious dinner calories just get burned off in your sleep!) before finding camp and collapsing. Jardine makes it sound not only doable, but fun, right? Yeah, us neither. We still haven’t netted our first 30, and prefer to beat ourselves up eith plain old marathons. Even still that’s plenty enough “type II fun” (type I= fun while doing it and fun to talk about later, type II= not so much fun while doing it but fun to talk about later, and thankfully we’re bot transgressing into type III = not fun during or afterwards).

Rog is kinda interested in cranking out a 30. Why would we want to pummel ourselves with 30 mile days one could rationally ask. Well, all the cool kids are doing it. Marty and Heather passed us on their way to spin out 3 30+ milers in a row, because the food for 3 days weighs less than the extra tonnage to go the 94 miles from Sierra City to Belden in something sane like 5 days. Anish has been popping off steady 40-50 mile days on her way to break Scott Williamson’s unsupported speed record of the PCT. Yikes!

Maybe because we’re meditatively in our own worlds or in our own pain (I make it sound worse than it actually is), Jen and I talk to each other less these days. We really don’t have tons to say. There are logistics to be dealt with (“You want to cook or set up the tent?”, but mostly I do the latter and she the former). Routines are established and work well. The days flow and we talk about the quality, tenor and techniques of our solo meditative time, sometimes dream out loud about what life will hold for us post hike and, of course, we gripe about our feet. But we can only talk about where we’d like to live next, what jobs we’d like to be doing, which friends and family we’d like to hang out with and bodily pain just so much before we bore each other and ourselves. We can’t do, or at least think we aren’t able to do, much about any of those things while we’re out here (except the feet: we *could* take days off). That conversational limbo leaves each topic a bit suspended in time, all aspiration and no decision or action. Eventually, that gives each theme an air of “Well, we’ve talked about that as much as its worth doing so…next!” Until we can do something about them, it may be simply best shelved for a little while. When that happens in enough areas, we start feeling a bit like an older couple (okay, we have been together 18 years now) who’ve had a lifetime of saying things of all sorts to each other, but who just don’t need to say much to each anymore.

At the same time that the conversational font has run dry, I feel wonderfully connected to Jen. We’re sharing in a quest, on that at times feels like what our friend Doug Johnson would call an “epic suffer fest,” but our relationship is, to my delight, not suffering. Au contraire, we’re both grateful for having each other in our lives, expressing that to each other and feeling richly abundant for that and the other little gifts that come our way each day. Do we need much more than that anyway?

Most of the time, we don’t *need* more, but sometimes, the trail is, well…not so much boring as we’re ready for the empty space to have something in it. There’s only so much of this enlightened being present all the damn time crap that we’re capable of handling. The lull in our conversation is one reason we’ve resorted to outside entertainment. Yes, as antithetical as it may seem to being deeply present with our wilderness experience, we’re often listening to music or podcasts on our phones. We mostly do it in the afternoons when the going has gotten rough and the 20-26 mile day is really feeling like a slog. The outside stimulus is lovely, intoxicating even, and helps take the mind off the feet and makes the miles zip away. Mostly this far we’ve been listening to stuff off of National Park Radio: This American Life, Planet Money, Freakonomics, Fresh Airas well as some dharma talks, but really c’mon there are only so many hours straight that one can listen to Ira Glass or Teri Gross or Buddhist philosophy. Got any suggestions? Maybe something sciencey or psychological or funny or newsy or with a folksy-hip hop-Finnish-goth-metal rock twist. We’re open to a lot of stuff. Suggestions?

Now for the photos:

Epic’s dirty feet hanging out at Lower Twin Lake in Lassen National Park

Buckwheat’s got the wildlife eating from the palm of her hand. Also at Lower Twin Lake in Lassen.

Northeast side of Lassen. This is as close as the PCT gets to that mountain. If it was closer, we would have done a side trip to bag the peak, but extra miles=extra days and we’re not sure we’ll make it to Canada before the snow as is…

A recent burn zone east of Lassen. Still hauntingly beautiful despite the lack of green.

A good reminder whether you’re hiking or not. Hope you’re having a great day no matter where you are!