8-29-17, PCT mile 2598.4, 25.8 miles
I woke up with a painful pressure in my lower abdomen. It was the middle of the night. I didn’t check the time, doing so would have woken Sarah who sleeps like a chihuahua in a lions den, but I knew it was too early to make it until morning. I slowly sat up and fumbled lightly with the tent zipper. The resulting noise, slightly above the volume of a mouse swallowing, jolted Sarah from a dead sleep. “What are you doing?” She demanded, 100% alert and awake.”Sorry honey I have to go pee.” I replied. “I told you so.” She retorted and angrily rolled onto her side. It was true, she had. I should have gone right before bed, but I didn’t. I didn’t know it yet, but I was on the precipice of a turning point. It was a fulcrum on which could hinge the whole experience of my trek…….
That day we had climbed up and then walked over the last pass on the PCT, a highway crossing called Rainey Pass, with little fanfare. We laid on our packs on the dirt and ate our lunch behind a trailhead outhouse. The air was hazy with wildfire smoke. Hikers had taken to calling 2017 The Year of Fire and Ice. The Record snowfall in the Seirra had been followed by a severe fire season in Oregon and Washington. We had been lucky with the timing and only had mild setbacks due to the blazes, but others had not been so lucky. It seemed now that the entirety of the Oregon PCT was burning. There were a fair amount of wildfires in Washington as well and a whole lot of smoke blowing south from infernos in Canada. The PCT, like every wild place, is under threat from the changing climate. Even one of the snowiest winters in history did little to offset the years of drought. Every so often I am reminded that what I am doing and the things I am seeing and experiencing this year will likely be unattainable in maybe only a few generations. It makes me feel both lucky and sad….
I stumbled out of the tent on my perma-stiff legs and hobbled along slowly past the tents in the clearing. I kept my headlamp off in order not to wake the other hikers and moved slowly toward a forested area I knew no one was camping in. It was pitch black and my eyes were slow to adjust so I took each step slowly and carefully and kept my arms out in front of me to feel for obstacles. I reached a spot near the trees that seemed suitable….
A few hours after lunch we began to climb up and over another ridge. I had gotten a bit ahead of Sarah but was still slightly behind the others. Every so often I would slow my pace or stop for a few minutes, but she wasn’t catching up. Every week or so , for the past ten years, sarah would mention, as I was lagging behind on with my legs on fire during a run, that it sure would be nice if I were the one challenging her for a change. Now I was, and it appeared she didn’t care too much for that after all. Me being a little faster hiker seemed to make her a tad grumpy from time to time. She also didn’t like it when I stopped for her, got to close to her from behind, asked how she was doing, or offered to help in some way. I stopped in a wide spot on the trail and leaned on my pack into the side hill in an open area where I could see a quarter mile or so of the trail behind me. Eventually I caught a glimpse of her, she saw me and shouted something inaudible. She didn’t seem happy. “Didn’t you hear me?!” she said as she got closer. I had not. Apparently she had ran out of water two hours after we filled up at lunch. We had just crossed a stream a mile back. I was out ahead with the water filter. I explained that I didn’t imagine we would need water so soon. It was six more miles to water. I said she could have what was left of mine. What I should have said was nothing. At least I suppressed the urge to express that she could have filled her platapus water bladder at the stream and we could be filtering right now. No sense in bringing that up. Best to remain silent and avoid eye contact for a couple of hours. Arguing would just make us thirstier. We hiked on in uncomfortable silence as a smoky dusk began to settle in. I tried to set a pace that she was comfortable with. I knew better than to suggest she lead. This would do more harm than good. We walked along some mountain ridges for the remainder of the evening. As dusk came the sun and sky glowed an intense reddish orange from the wildfire smoke. We came to a small meadow where there was luckily enough room for all of us. Two other groups were there. One in the meadow with us and one by a nearby stream. We visited briefly then sat in a circle on the ground to eat. After an hour or so we retired to our tents. As I was brushing my teeth in the tent, unseen to me, a fourth group arrived and made its way to a small forested area. It was very late, for thru hikers anyway, so they set out their mats on the ground and slept under the stars…..
I looked up at the stars, which were everywhere tonight. Even the debris of the Milky Way was visible. I sighed a little and pulled open the waistband of my long johns. “Hello.” A sleepy voice said directly below my knees. We were both startled. “Oh pardon me. ” I think I said. I moved away into the woods slowly and deliberately, grasping for tree branches while my heart pounded in my chest. I had almost pissed directly onto a sleeping stranger’s face.
Had she not said anything, there is no doubt it would have happened. Did she know? I wondered. I felt like I had played it off pretty cool and doubted she knew I was a second away from spewing dehydrated urine all over her. I hope that was the case. People that know me might doubt I would play anything cool, but I choose to think she never knew what I was about to do. Though writing this it occurs to me that she certainly would have stayed awake for a while after being startled by a stranger in the middle of the night. Certainly long enough to be awake when I walked only a short distance away and peed. She would probably have connected the dots on that one. Shit, there is no way she didn’t know is there? How embarrassing. But not as embarrassing as it could have been.
I have a hard time imagining the paralyzing horror of that moment if she hadn’t woken up. I have a hard time imagining the aftermath of such an accident as well. I tried to envision what could have been said after. What had to be said. I don’t know. Jesus, does anyone? Is there any code of edict for apologizing after inadvertently pissing on someone as they slept? If there is, I don’t travel in the circles that would know it. Nor would I want to. How could I apologize? How could she accept an apology? Certainly not in a dismissive way. No, there would be anger. We wouldn’t become friends later and laugh about it. Would her friend be obliged to accost me? Would I blame him if he did? There are no easy answers. It is funny how little removed a person can be, through merely luck and timing, from catastrophe. This was one of those moments for me. I was extremely lucky it turned out as it did, and luckier still that these two were headed South. In the morning we got out early, our paths would not cross again.