While I had grown accustomed to dry camping in the desert I still very much loathed it. The beautiful view atop that ridge north of Belden nonetheless made up for it and I sat reading as the sun slowly dropped and spread its orange glow across the landscape. A hummingbird posed on a nearby branch then instantly shot a foot or two straight up in the air before jetting out horizontally and zipping past me. I could hear the buzzing of its wings and convinced myself I could even feel their vibration. It shot past my head multiple times - back and forth, back and forth - disappearing into the grass to drink from a flower and then instantly reappearing as it propelled itself straight up into the air, hovered in place for a brief moment, then shot out parallel to the ground and out of sight.
The sun dropped lower and lower, fading from orange to red. A mountain range that had remained invisible during the haze of the late afternoon began to slowly materialize on the horizon as the sunset deepened. I suggested to Whitewater that we strike out west, cross over Interstate Five and traverse that far mountain range to dip our toes in the Pacific. I then watched the sun lower behind the mountains for perhaps longer than I should have, for when I shut my eyes, as I used to do as a child, I saw a glowing solar orb etched onto the insides of my eyelids. Not only could I see a ghost image of the sun but also the way its bottom hemisphere had been altered by the shape of the mountains. Partially obscured by the ridgeline the apparition was not a full circle, instead the burning sphere had been drawn down into a sharp point at its bottom. I opened my eyes and the image remained, multiplying into several suns as my eyes darted from left to right.
Just before the sun disappeared it seemed to grow into a fiery inferno. From atop the ridge I looked out at a large area of burned forest and felt as if I had solved some great mystery. The land had not been set ablaze by a wildfire but rather each night it was scorched by the setting sun. The moon hung in the sky above, small and crescent-shaped. It was beautiful yet unable to hold its own against the sun's final show of the day. I watched as three different planes cut across the sky in various directions; one of the resulting contrails cut the moon in two. Atop a nearby ridge, uniquely shaped rock formations stood silhouetted against the sunset. A sliver of clouds hung low in the sky, a deep purple edged in glowing pink, that took on almost identical shapes, as if they were consciously mimicking the rock.
The show eventually ended and I crawled into my sleeping bag and began to read, noticing for the first time mosquitoes buzzing through the air. I felt a brief sense of regret for not setting up my bug net, but closed my eyes nonetheless and attempted to fall asleep. I was distracted from time to time by the sensation that something was crawling over my skin, beneath my shirt. I tried to ignore it but soon a vivid image of ants, crawling all over my body, materialized in my mind. I struggled in the dark to find my head lamp and then directed it into my sleeping bag and panned the light across my body. I saw nothing. Then, after a few seconds, I felt the undeniable sensation of an insect crawling across my bicep. I touched my arm and could feel its shape under the fabric of my sleeve, shocked by how large it was. It was one of the giant black ants that seemed to exist along every section of the trail between there and Campo.
I felt the sting of its bite and flinched in both pain and surprise. For some reason it let go of my flesh, only to latch on to my sleeve. I took off my shirt, turned it inside out and saw the ant there, refusing to let go. I flicked it once with my finger and its abdomen disappeared into the darkness beyond the light of my head lamp. I flicked it a second time and gone was its thorax. I flicked again but the head remained - the ant had refused to let go even in death. I had to rip it off with my fingers. I took a deep breath and scanned the ground only to find it crawling with more ants. Resigned to my situation, there was nothing left to do but set up my bug net as I listened to Whitewater snore happily inside his tent. With my shelter finally set up, I situated myself within as flashes of static electricity lit up the darkness each time I brushed against the mesh walls.
The next morning I found myself at an underwhelming concrete post marking the halfway point of the entire trail. Barely to my waist, the post was etched in an unattractive font and declared unceremoniously that both Mexico and Canada were equidistant from where I stood along a stretch of dusty trail amidst a fairly forgettable section of forest. I sat and talked with Johnny Rocket. He had studied film in college and worked as a local news producer in Texas, near the Oklahoma border. Meth and crime, he told me, where the basis of most of their stories. He hoped to soon find work in a bigger market. He noticed my copy of Cannery Row and said that he had carried a book of Hemingway's short stories for awhile. They were all about death and incredibly depressing and so he had to leave the book behind. He hiked on and I soon followed, closing my eyes for a brief moment and offering gratitude to have made it that far on the trail, free of injury. Indeed I felt a noticeable mental shift as I moved along the trail. The scales had been tipped and with each step more trail lay behind me than ahead of me. I felt myself grow more and more confident. Lassen Peak appeared on the horizon - my first glimpse of the Cascades and the southernmost of its volcanic sentinels.
The desert and the Sierras had felt like such singular and iconic experiences. They had demanded all of my attention and it was hard to look beyond them and consider the rest of the trail. There was no guarantee after all that I would even experience the rest of the trail and I had hiked all the while in constant fear of injury or some deficit in mental strength. With the desert, the Sierras and the trail's midpoint all behind me and with the mellower terrain and oftentimes lackluster scenery of Northern California, it finally felt as if I were in the midst of a thru-hike. It was now simply about the slow progression north along the trail. I had hiked over 1,325 miles but it was only at that point I truly felt like a thru-hiker and with each passing day I seemed to enjoy myself more and more.
In his Steinbeck biography, Benson refers to a shift in Steinbeck's thinking, describing it as such: "It was as if he had decided to stop striving and simply be - to take a non-teleological position in regard to his own life. He had decided to focus on creation, rather than on himself as creator, concentrating on function rather than on ends." In the same way, I was now focused not on the goal or the destination, but on simply progressing. The day to day act of walking was what mattered most, rather than reaching Canada and successfully completing a thru-hike.
In thru-hiking there is a simplicity to your daily goals and overall objective. Simply making miles and progressing towards one final destination makes every day feel like an accomplishment. There is a profound sense of satisfaction as you slowly tick off the miles and proceed towards your goal. It's a simplicity of purpose impossible to mirror in normal life. The only equivalent perhaps, would be some sort of fanaticism, whether religious or otherwise. In normal life, to possess such an unyielding and narrow focus would border on the insane - it would constitute extremism. Perhaps long distance hiking is a kind of religion. Many religions of course involve pilgrimages and times spent in nature, fasting, rites of passage in the wild, etc. I was a member of a cult in a way - the small, strange cult of thru-hikers.
Having such a single-minded focus seems to make life more navigable in a way. It has been whittled down to the basic essentials of food, water and shelter, with only one more pursuit added to the mix - simply putting one foot in front of the other and covering the miles. Obsession for the most part is unhealthy and best to be avoided, but I suppose being outside in the height of summer in the peace and beauty of the backcountry, soaking up the sun and releasing endorphins allows for a more healthy mental outlook as you focus relentlessly on one specific goal.
The trail continued through the trees, alternating between National Forest Land and privately-maintained logging areas. Occasionally there would be a break in the tree cover and I would begin to sweat immediately under the scorching sun. Large clouds of dust kicked up into the air as I hiked along. It was my first taste of just how hot Northern California could get in the height of summer and a harbinger of things to come. The tree cover and heat of Northern California can prove quite the mental obstacle for the thru-hiker. As Steinbeck observed in Travels With Charley, "How can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?"