Mountain House Meltdown and Other Episodes of Jean on the Wonderland Trail

Having just come off 13 days in the wilderness I find myself discombobulated in my real life. I am still waking up at the crack of dawn and find myself confused as I walk to the grocery store, feeling as though I somehow lost the trail again. It’s funny how (almost) two weeks is substantially different from a few days even though it may not seem so at first glance. The question you all want to know is, was it worth it? I like to compare a grueling hike to binge drinking because right afterwards you feel as if you never want to repeat the experience again and that you’ve sort of “been there done that” but then somehow you find yourself back off the wagon time and time again. Your memories self-select to erase the the physical pain and mental tedium to keep only the beautiful scenery and feeling of being connected to yourself and nature. Upon my return I finally finished “Wild” – the book I was reading before I left, and I finally felt like I knew what Cheryl Strayed was talking about- the wrecked feet, the exhaustion, the journey you embark on not only into the great unknown but more importantly into yourself- past, present, and future. The memories that surface when you are focused on moving one foot in front of the other, mechanical as a robot, are astounding. Things I had long forgotten and some that I even wished to forget, swam through my head. Dreams I had abandoned surfaced and sometimes the air I breathed was so pure and thick with life, I felt my heart literally expand, pregnant with optimism and possibility.

Coming upon the last few miles of my journey I began to quicken my pace despite the burn of the blisters on my feet that were already beginning to numb, until at the last mile I broke into a flat out run. As my pack bounced heavily on my chafed waist, I had only one thought on my mind. “Get me off of this motherf***ing trail!” Before embarking on this journey I somehow had the silly idea that the trail would be flat since it goes around the base of the mountain, but I was sorely mistaken. If we were not climbing we were descending and though the latter began as a relief, ended up being equally if not more brutal. Strayed characterizes her experience in metaphor very aptly, though in her case it was the PCT for several months which I admit is much more hard core: “Sometimes it seemed that the Pacific Crest Trail was one long mountain I was ascending. That at my journey’s end at the Columbia River, I’d reach the trail’s summit, rather than its lowest point. This feeling of ascension wasn’t only metaphorical. It literally felt as if I were almost always, impossibly, going up. At times I almost wept with the relentlessness of it, my muscles and lungs searing with the effort. It was only when I thought I couldn’t go up any longer that the trail would level off and descend. How fabulous down was for those first minutes! Down, down, down I’d go until down too became impossible and punishing and so relentless that I’d pray for the trail to go back up. Going down, I realized, was like taking hold of the loose strand of yarn on a sweater you’d just spent hours knitting and pulling it until the entire sweater unraveled into a pile of string. Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost.” When I read that, I thought, “It’s amazing! That’s exactly how I felt!” Each step I took was reluctant because I felt as though it were in vain. But how good it felt when we would finally set up camp and I could lie down and let my body sink into a blissful exhaustion. At least until it became distracted by the glare of the moon, insects, and the too insistent urge to get up for a pee throughout the night. But oh how sweet was the slice of pie our leader shared, baked with love and care in that heavy metal pan he lugged around, the fresh picked blueberries and huckleberries he picked on the trail bursting on my tongue, molten, gooey, and delicious. Though my tongue was still recovering from having been thrice burned in my haste to eat and drink on previous days, I could still taste the pure gorgeousness of Ben’s back country pie, if not as much was I would have liked. I will never forget that pie.

Speaking of burnt, I also managed to burn my hair off twice! The first time whilst binding triangle pose above our mosquito coil in the group shelter, and the second time whilst hovering over my stove trying to ignite it repeatedly on a cold morning. I had never before smelled burnt hair and I hope never to have to again! But, in case you’re wondering, my hair still looks mostly the same as before and in fact you probably won’t notice that some of it is now much shorter. Saves me having to get a hair cut to deal with those split ends!

So now we come to the subject of my Mountain House Meltdown, an account that I’m sure you have all been waiting eagerly to hear, though I suppose it doesn’t quite rival my monkey story that I have yet to put to paper. The incident occurred on Day 12 of 13, at the near end of yet another grueling day of hiking about 10 miles give or take. I had been staring at my Mountain House dinners (that were incidentally all I brought with me on the hike, much to my chagrin. Thankfully my hiking companions were able to offer me a bite or two of their food here and there), for what seemed like hours, though in fact it was probably only about 30 mins. I couldn’t bring myself to turn on the stove and cook one. The thought of ingesting even a single bite of my prepackaged, freeze-dried food filled me such dread and disgust that I wasn’t even remotely hungry though in reality I was actually very, almost desperately hungry. I was explaining this to Ben and trying to calculate if I would be able to make it through the rest of the trip without eating at all, when he sort of half frowned at me and stated firmly though with not a little exacerbation, ” You have to eat. You’re hiking another 10 miles tomorrow.” And suddenly I was so filled with despair I buried my face into my knees and just started sobbing uncontrollably. I had held it together for so long, hiking with excruciating pain and watching him cook food that was so agonizingly delicious that was just beyond my reach for days on end, but all of a sudden I felt the force of my self-pity whack me over the head so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. It felt so overwhelming I thought to myself, “Show’s over folks, move along, this time, I really can’t go on.” I have never felt so emotional about food, it took be by surprise. I venture to say I managed to really shock myself. Ok I fully admit that sometimes I can be a princess about things, and my trail nickname of “The Princess” was an accurate characterization, but even so, my meltdown struck me as ridiculous even in that context. But, as Ben later told me, the condition is not uncommon as he had previously seen young hikers in his charge suffer from “food stress” before.

So here I was, trying to muffle my sobs so he wouldn’t see me cry (yes I was embarrassed, mortified even, though I really needn’t have been in hindsight, as we had all farted and burped and snored in each others’ presence for almost two weeks), but it was no use, he could tell I was having a princess moment. He patted my arm, a little bemused at first, “Was it something I said?” he asked apologizing for something that was entirely not his fault. “No, no” I replied in between hiccuping sobs that continued for a good long while. He offered me some hot honey cinnamon milk concoction to soothe my frazzled nerves and I accepted it gratefully. It was of course delicious, as was everything he made on that trip. It was a little annoying how perfect he was, from cooking, to leading the herd, to photography, and even to listening patiently while I was being incredibly silly, but at the same time I was really happy that he was. That night I got to eat a whole meal of his cooking, a couscous curry dish, which of course, you guessed it, was incredibly delicious and Mountain House free. I will never forget it and I will never forget his kindness. And that, if nothing else made this trip worthwhile. So I think it fitting to end this entry with a tribute to our fearless and awesome trip leader. For this occasion only, I will risk sounding like a tearful actress clutching her Oscar award and say “Thank you Ben for making this whole thing happen! I couldn’t have done it without you.”


About Jean C Wong

I am a world traveler, writer, photographer, and teacher. I've lived all over the world and speak 5 languages.


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