The Finish Line

by Gillian Larson | posted: August 31, 2014

Believe it or not, I finally did it! On Sunday, August 31, I rode into Vermilion Valley Resort from the south, completing the last remaining stretch of the PCT in the Sierras. I've now officially gone from the Mexican border to the Canadian border on horseback, beginning on April 4, 2014 and ending on the 31st of August--just shy of five months. By the end, I think I was down to just hanging on by my fingernails: I dropped my phone and broke it (thus no photos to accompany this entry, though I hope to get it repaired and to be able to fill in some additional entries and photos), so I had no GPS or maps; my DeLorme had stopped functioning, so I had no emergency communication; I had managed to leave my headlamp at home, so I had very limited visibility at night. Yet there I was, in the dark, with only the stars and a rapidly setting crescent moon overhead and a tiny flashlight in my hand, finding my way along the last few miles of the PCT then navigating the turnoff to Vermilion Lake across the dry bed of Edison Lake, determined to get to the trailhead--and a warm bed, a shower, and dinner for the horses and me. It helped tremendously that I had already traversed that last part from the PCT to Vermilion less than two weeks ago when I rode south from Agnew Meadow, so I was familiar with that portion of the ride, now that I was "connecting the dots" from the other direction to finish the ride. It's not the way I imagined completing this adventure back when I first was inspired to ride it--I thought then I'd be going steadily northbound, section by section, from southern California's desert and chapparrel to the Sierra Nevada's peaks to the forests of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington to the border of Canada--a straight, steady trek up the spine of the west coast. Little did I know of the obstacles and obstructions (mainly snow!) that would make that idea an utter fantasy, nor did I realize how completely unrealistic my August 20th deadline was, given the fact that the snow-melt in northern Washingston wouldn't even really be complete by then; when Alina and I were on one section in Washington, we camped by a completely frozen-over lake and had to take my axe to the ice to get water for us and the horses, and this was in mid-August! Some stretches of the trail are snow-free for only few weeks, late August or early September to sometime in October or so when the first snows begin again. And I was lucky that it was a low snow year--I'm sure there are some years when it might never quite melt at all. Of course, it did turn out that even in this low year, much of the snow came late in the season, and there was a cool spring, so the melt was delayed, but then the summer heat set in with a vengence, and once it did begin melting, it went fast--which was a good thing for me, because I was definitely running out of time.

All in all, this was a life-changing journey, one that was so much more than I had ever dreamed it would be, in so many ways. I've learned a great deal--about snow especially! I feel very intimately aware of snow, to an extent I never even thought was possible, and I'll forever look at the landscape and the relation between elevation and latitude and snow levels in a manner that never would have occured to me before. I had high moments that made me feel accomplished and competent and happy--and low ones that almost broke me, moments when I questioned whether I could or should continue or if I could even make it through the next few miles, or over the snowbank ahead, or to the next water source. I found I was stronger and more resourceful than I ever knew, but also that I needed and depended on some of the people in my life, and the new friends that I met, in ways that I hadn't realized. And when people ask me, "So, what did you do this summer?" and I say, "I rode my horses on the PCT from Mexico to Canada," and they reply, "Oh, that's nice. I visited my family in Texas" or "I spent a week in Hawaii," I realize they have no idea what I really did, or what that even means. Sometimes it seems as if they think I was out for an amble down a bridle path or something, perhaps stopping for tea and sandwiches along the way. And I realize they never will know, and I'll never be able to tell them, either, because it's something so deep inside me there really are no words for it. And maybe it's better that way. Everyone's trail is a different trail; this was my journey, and it will always be mine alone.


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