My first night in California caught me by surprise. I was fairly certain that I’d be camping outside next to the mountain bike trail I was on yet in the late afternoon I decided to send a logistical text message. All of my options to get into the next major town, Truckee, were less than favorable. The roads bottle-necked, making the interstate the only road to travel on, and the other option was to walk along the railroad (through tunnels and bridges) and trespass on a disgruntled old man’s driveway. These were my foreseeable options but I hoped by contacting this local family they could provide me with alternative options. Unfortunately, the only alternative they offered was not an option for me, “back tracking 20 miles and taking an alternate road.” They did however connect me with one of their friends in the nearby area, Eric. The mileage to his place was unknown but my best guess was 4 or 5 miles and I had roughly an hour of daylight left. For that hour, I sped through the trail, never quite running, over the untimely hills and never catching my breath. When I got to Eric’s home I felt discombobulated and full of adrenaline. I’d made it in the last light of day. Within the first few minutes of arriving he asked me if I was hungry. His neighbors were cooking burgers and they had more than enough to share. Just like that, I threw myself into his neighbors gathering (7 people) and attempted to socialize while I processed where I was and what was happening around me. I didn’t know what to say and could feel myself becoming overwhelmed. All the while, everyone was incredibly kind and Eric vigilantly checked to see if I was doing okay or needed anything. We played darts, cracked jokes, and laughed and it was a beautiful opportunity to witness the love within their friendships.
I was tired of doing sketchy things. I didn’t want to walk along the railroad tracks and risk being amidst the wrath of an oncoming train. I knew it was doable but I was over it. I didn’t want to risk trespassing through the old man’s driveway and find myself in the sights of his gun. Chances were it would’ve been okay; yet, those seven miles weren’t worth it to me. So, I caught a ride with Eric into Truckee and began my approach into the Sierra Mountains. I loved the Sierras but I did not want to be there. Like entering sketchy situations, I was worn of them. I knew the mountains would bear thunderstorms and with my luck, I’d be in the midst of them. The Sierras are juvenile and playful yet they are equally merciless. I made my way up Donner Pass and spotted humans on the mountain side rock climbing. “Off belay!” I’d hear in the distance. The climbing commands were a comfort to me as I faced vehicles heading straight towards me down the windy roads. There was no shoulder and more often than not I was pinned against a guard rail. I was at the mercy of the drivers. As I continued up the mountain I made the mistake of trusting Google Maps. I didn’t examine the route and now stood at a dead end. The path disappeared and the trails Google told me to wander on were nonexistent. I regrettably had to backtrack a mile and a half. I continued on old Highway 40 until I reached a sign museum to refill my water. The elderly man inside shared some of the history of the now almost nonexistent town. When Interstate 80 was built the influx of cars disappeared and soon the businesses did too. When the hotels, bars, and restaurants closed the communities began to change as well.
The wet and chilly morning led to an unappetizing breakfast, a packet of slightly frozen, gelatinized spam. Each bite disgusted me but I knew my body needed the energy. I continued into the wilderness and stumbled upon a bulldozer with two men. They were equally surprised to see me as I was to see them. For a short while they stayed ahead of me but it became apparent that I was walking faster than they were able to go from point A to point B so they let me pass. As I began my ascent I left behind the mechanical noise and loud beeps of the bulldozers. The Sierra Mountains relentlessly gained elevation with nearby storms approaching and as I feared I was going to be in the middle of it. I picked up my pace frantically trying to out run the storms but the road just kept going up. I was short of breath but my muscles never burned. Now towards the top of the mountain, the road followed a ridge. There was no escape from the storms. Eventually, a vehicle passed me and the man, Ralph, said he’d be turning around soon and I’d be seeing him again. Slightly confused, I kept walking. When he drove back around he asked, “Where are you from?” His question caught me off guard so I replied, “I’m walking across the country.” He then looked confused and told me I looked German. It turned out he lived in the town I’d be stopping in the following night and he wanted me to meet his wife and told me I could camp in their yard. It felt good knowing I had a place to sleep the following night and gave me a sense of ease. As I kept walking I fell into a state of despair while thinking about making it to the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t want to reach the ocean alone. I wanted friends and family to be there yet, I was unsure of that happening. I eventually made it to the Robinson Flat Campground and scoped out a place to get water. There was an old water pump but regardless of how many times I pumped it, it was fruitless. I continued to wander further and spotted two women just returning from their hike. They graciously shared their excess water and gave me fancy ham and crackers. Fat rain drops started to fall from the sky and the women offered to drive me out of the storm. After originally declining, I accepted and what I thought would be a few miles turned into a 10-15 mile ride. They dropped me off at a small pullout and moments after setting up my tent the sky began to drop dime sized hail. It pelted against my rain fly and sounded like a beating drum. “It doesn’t last forever,” I told myself in a comforting attempt.
Gnats swarmed me as soon as I began walking. They floated in my face and waited for the perfect opportunity to dive bomb into my eyes. It was horrendous and was quickly turning me insane. I tried anything I could think of. I covered my face with sunglasses and a bandana yet the little buggers crawled into the crevasses. Bug spray did nothing so I tried putting Icy Hot on my face. All that did was make my face burn. The whole situation just made me want to cry. I envisioned myself using my bug spray and lighter to burn them all yet I quickly dismissed that idea. I didn’t want to burn down the entire national forest. That would’ve been hard to explain. Instead, I settled on using “wax on, wax off” hand motions to keep them out of my face. At this point, I deeply wanted to escape the national forest but knew nothing would readily change when I crossed the boundary line. In fact, the only things that did change were that there were more cars and less places for me to pee. After 13 miles I walked into Foresthill and found a cafe. I now had the dilemma of continuing to walk another 10 miles or stopping to stay with Ralph and his family. I knew he was excited for me to meet his family yet I couldn’t allow myself to waste half a day. I had schedule to keep to if I wanted to make it to the Pacific Ocean on my end date. I left Ralph a voicemail and continued on.
I walked across Foresthill Bridge, the highest bridge in California- 730ft, and noticed numerous call boxes on the bridge. They were put there for crisis counseling and to help individuals there to commit suicide. As I walked past each one I couldn’t help but think about how much courage it’d take to use one. In their deepest, darkest moment they’d have to see a smidgen of hope in order to ask for help. I wondered how often that actually happened. As I entered town, I stopped at a park to stretch out my hip and rest. A woman approached me with her dog, “Dos.” She’d seen me walking down the road a few days before. It was one of those opportunities where I saw my purpose in listening. She told me about conflict in her family and the turmoil surrounding her boyfriend. Her parents didn’t approve of him and later in the day she was going to meet with her mother to talk about it. Without even thinking, the words, “Think first to understand and then to be understood,” popped out of my mouth. It was one of the seven habits of highly effective people, something I dreaded learning about in high school. As I kept walking I began to enter hill country and with that, an overwhelming sense of familiarity. It reminded me of Maryland. The next town I entered was where I’d stay for the night. I arrived a couple hours before dusk and as I entered the city limit I couldn’t help but notice all the shiny, new cars. I was on the wealthy side of town. I noticed a man in a suit and tie watering his lawn while talking business on the phone. I felt like I was on a different planet. However, as I reached the city park I noticed that there was a heavy transient population despite all the children blissfully running around. I knew it wouldn’t be a suitable place to sleep but I didn’t really have anywhere else to go at that point. I sat down at a picnic table and a guy soon approached me. He just started talking and then came and sat across from me. I tolerated the conversation, trying to be polite, but it was strange. I continued to investigate the resources in the town while he talked and then he asked, “Do you mind if I take a bump?” I had no idea what he was talking about and after inquiring he made a snorting motion. “Ah, cocaine,” I thought. I appreciated his thoughtfulness but told him it probably wasn’t the best place with all the kids running around. In hopes of finding a place to sleep, I called the police department and when I mentioned I was at the park he told me, “Be careful. There are lots of transients around.” I thought humorously, “Yea, I know. There is one sitting across from me.” He didn’t seem dangerous so I remained polite and wished him well before I left to try to find a place to sleep. The officer told me there was a city ordinance against camping on public areas so I had to keep searching. I reached the outskirts of town and noticed two guys standing near their fence gate. It is always easier to approach people about camping on their lawn when they’re already outside so I approached them. I asked about camping on their property and he looked at me and gave me a hug before saying, “Did you know this was a Burning Man after party?” He welcomed me to his art studio and showed me the art car he and his friends had used in the Burning Man festival a few weeks before. As more people arrived to the gathering, my tired spirits were rejuvenated and I had amazing conversations about traveling around the world, mindfulness, and biking across the country. One of the women I met was Susie. She wanted to connect me with her friend in the town I’d be walking through the next day or so. “We’ll just pick you up in the helicopter and drop you off at her place.” “Wait, what?” I thought with a slight excitement rising in me.