Central California: Sierra City to Belden

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July 3, 2003.
A morning in town in usually a lazy morning. Five thirty came around far, far too early and by 6 everyone, minus Stone, was in the PCT Express, speeding back to the trail. I let the others go out in front and began the slow, nearly 4000 foot vertical ascent along the flanks of the Sierra Buttes. I would not have to worry about solitude today, as Glory would surely be attached to Walt and Floater, at least for a while. The trail climbed up switchbacks so gentle that a sweat was barely broken in the cool morning. Yesterday the gentle switchbacks down to Sierra City were my nemesis. Today, they were my friend. Leaving the switchbacks after a few miles, the trail entered into the open terrain that I had come to love so much. Having the world at my feet always made me feel special, and it was with joy in my heart that I slowly moved around the buttes, with the others in clear sight in the far distance.

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Cresting out and leaving the sun and the views, I had to take a break just to look back and remember it all. By the side of a jeep trail, in the sun and with the mountains stretching back for miles upon miles, I was again struck by how fortunate I was to be out here. This was something that could not be purchased or prepackaged or otherwise diluted. The same experience could not be had by watching a DVD or a fancy photobook. The best experiences in life are, indeed, free for the taking. I began to move around the other side of the buttes, winding along a trail that could only be described as easy. I found all of the others resting not far off, sitting next to a patch of snow that they warned me was difficult. Being able to see the trail on the other side of the three foot snow patch, I recalled to them my wise decision not to send home my ice axe. Stepping out onto the snow, I slipped and slided a bit, my new trail runners providing little traction. While my old Asics were light and not terribly protective, they also had phenomenal traction. The New Balance 806s on my feet were protective and stiff, but had as much traction as the dress shoes I wear back in Indiana.

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Lunch found Sharon and I together, with the others somewhere in front. I had been alone most of the morning, the others powering past, except for Sharon, who had caught up to me at a confusing trail junction. I was trying to cut the strings to Glory and was hoping that Walt and Floater would provide her with the kind of company she was looking for. Sharon and I sat next to a bit of snowmelt for a hot lunch, discovering that the others were just down the hill in a meadow that we could see. It was nice talking with Sharon, as someone who understood something of the problem that I was going through. She, too, was confronting it. We separated soon after leaving lunch and I again took up the position of the rear-guard.

Thirty miles after leaving Sierra City, Walt and Floater were done. Glory had slowed down for some reason and the end result was that we were together again. Given her strength as a hiker, I could not believe that she had slowed down because she was tired. Rather, my ego told me that she slowed down because she wanted me to catch up. I wanted to be alone and when we came across Walt and Floater setting up camp, I tried to assert this right. I put my pack down briefly and Glory went to check out Floater's hammock. Shouldering my pack, I said my goodbyes for the night to Walt and Floater and headed out, by myself.

The ease of the trail ended. It was replaced by a bucking beast, or at least it felt that way after thirty miles of hiking. I wasn't tired so much as lethargic. It was only 7 in the evening and it was still warm. The sun was just turning to that yellow shade that indicates that the day is beginning to end. The yellow shade that is sure to soften to orange and pink the lower the sun goes. It is a shade that demanded of me to sit in it for a while. Just sit. Contemplation could come later, but the light wanted me to enjoy it a little more. Sitting at the turn of a switchback, my back against a downed tree, I just sat and admired how the world looked. For most of central California, by 7:30 it was cold and a break was not comfortable usually. Today, for the first time since leaving Kennedy Meadows, I had the luxury of a warm break late in the day. It was so luxurious, this lounging in the sun. I closed my eyes for a while, not wanting to sleep, but just so that my eyelids could scavenge a little warmth from the sun.

Will came by and wanted to know if I was alright. Yes, I nodded. Everything is cool, I said. Everything, my voice trailed off. He continued on. Glory came by five minutes later, repeating the same questions that Will had asked. Mumbling something that seemed to resemble an answer, she, too, set off down the trail. I could not stay here, in this place, tonight. I had to hike somewhere else. This did not disturb me, however. At a time like this, I was in a state of grace and Providence would bring something my way.

I found Glory resting about ten minutes further up the trail and said hello. I think she understood what I needed just then and let me pass on by. Climbing and descending in the now yellow-orange light, I came upon Bunker Hill Ridge. The trail ran along its spine, much like the long ridge leading toward Donner Pass just a few days ago. The weather was perfect, and I knew I was home. With Will ahead, I speculated that I might be able to camp alone tonight. Alone wasn't the right word, I thought. I was never alone out here, even when others were not around. This is a living thing, this earth of ours, I thought. It could not be given human qualities, except by the short minded. But, it was nonetheless alive and had quality. The sun, the moon, and the stars gave wonder, the flowers and shrubs and tree scent and texture and sensory stimulation. The wind brought hope and promise. Even the dirt and rock seemed alive. They would be closest to me of things when I slept.

I found a sheltered place behind a large clump of bushes with a vast view off the ridge and into the distance. Although only large enough for one, I knew that Glory and Sharon might be tempted to camp here, and I could not do that. Not tonight. Providence would provide, I kept telling myself. A few minutes later, the trail began to divert and descend off the ridge. Looking up the ridge, I saw a few solitary, wind beaten trees up on top. A steep climb, but there had to be something aesthetic and comfortable on top. God does not place dice with the Universe, Einstein once said. With that thought in mind, there was going to be something good up high if I just took the trouble to climb up. Ascending through the wind beaten sage plants and other smaller shrubs, it only took a couple of minutes to make it to the top. On the top was a large, lonely and gnarled pine, at whose base was a plush carpet of tall grass. Three hundred degrees of views while I sat up, and wind protection from the tall grass and the tree when I lay down. It was a soft bed, and it was perfect. I was camped by myself for the first time since June 7th, the day I climbed out of Walker Pass.

And so I sit here, with the sun going down and the world moving about me. The sun is still warm and pleasant, even in its fading light. A Milky Way, used as a spoon for peanut butter, is in my hand. My mind is quiet and content, my heart still and happy. There is nothing but contentment here, in this peaceful place. Glory had declined to climb up here, leaving me on my own, as I later found out. There is nothing more important for me to do right now that to finish my snack and watch the sun go down and then the stars come out. I was wrong in my thoughts at the start of the day. This journey, this moment, does cost something tangible. It costs time, the one resource over which we have no control. I am spending something important right now: A part of my life. But, unlike time spent in front of a television or sipping beer at a bar, this time will be forever etched in my being. It is time well spent. When I die sometime in the future, I will not remember the hours I've spent watching TV, nor would it ever occur to me to do so. No, I will remember this place and this light. The way the grass moved about in the wind and how its texture changed with the light. The softness of the wind, blowing in from some distant place, bringing the hope of a new day. I will remember something of value.

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Will, Sharon, and Glory were camped perhaps a quarter of a mile from where I left the trail to find my Eden last night, in the process of packing up when I strolled by a waved good morning. I was feeling more refreshed and relaxed than any morning I could remember. Even on zero days the rush for breakfast or some other delight seemed to take precedence over peace. Last night did me a lot of good and as the day would go on I would crave more. Today was July 4th and it was truly feeling like summer. The heat was up as I made the long descent toward the Feather River and I was actually sweating while walking downhill, in the shade. This was an experience that I had not had before, even in southern California. On the long descents there, even when exposed to the full sun, there was usually a cooling breeze. Here, I was in the middle of a deep forest and no breeze was felt. Will, Sharon, and Glory had all gone by me early in the morning, due to my slower pace and my insistence on taking breaks every few hours.

The small group that I had called a Family for so long was beginning to break apart, perhaps for the better. We would definitely see each other again as the summer wore on, but now more as individuals meeting, rather than a group rejoining. At least I hoped so. Glory had seemed content for most of yesterday to hike either by herself or with others and I hoped that this was a sign of good things to come. Will and Sharon were, and always had been, committed to hiking in their own way. Even if Sharon was madly trying to keep up with Will for his birthday (two days from now), I knew that this would not last and that she would settle into a more natural mode of walking soon. A spring, pouring out of the mountainside, gracefully appeared to me just before reaching the river. Hot, sweaty, and thirsty, the icy water was a boon. Cupping my hands to catch the flow, I drank long and deep. Even now I took pleasure from drinking untreated water in the woods. I'd been doing this since leaving Kennedy Meadows with no ill effects and was determined to continue, at least until I reached cattle country in southern Oregon.

Shortly after the refreshing spring, the trail split in two with no blazes to show the true path. A arrow made of rocks pointed downhill, toward the river. Without any other sign, I followed this down to the river, where I found Will, Sharon, and Glory eating lunch. I had not planned on stopping at this moment, but with the river there it seemed like a reasonable enough place. Will had built the stone arrow to indicate that that was where he was having lunch. Glory frolicked about in the warm river while I started my noodles cooking and rinsed out my socks. It was hot here in the gorge, and the afternoon promised to be tough. There was a long climb out of the gorge and the temperature would not begin to abate for several more hours. Walt and Floater arrived, apparently making the same mistake I did, and decided to stay for a break. We swapped stories about the difficulties of the stretch of trail immediately after their campsite, although I did not mention my encounter with the yellow light.

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The bridge. The climb. The heat. The dust. It was 3000 vertical feet to the top of valley walls and Lookout Rock and the heat of the day was hurting me. My pace slowed to a crawl as I went up the never ending switchbacks in low gear. I could hear the voices of the others high above me, echoing down the mountainside. They seemed to be unaffected by this new heat. I was unsure why I was, as I had gone through southern California with no real problems. I wasn't breathing hard and my legs were not hurting. I was just a little tired and moving slowly to compensate for it. With 6 o'clock nearing, I was almost there. Traversing through a forested gully, I heard a loud squawk. Then a series of them. Paying no heed to the upset bird, I took a few more steps and heard the flutter of wings and more shrieks. Becoming slightly annoyed with the bird, who was no doubt annoyed at me, I stepped up my pace a little. The bird seemed to follow. More cries and shrieks and squawks, followed by a much louder swoop of wings and a rush of air past my head. The damn bird! It dive bombed me. I looked over to a close by tree and saw the bird sitting there. A good sized hawk, it seemed to me. I stopped, to show that I meant business. I gave it a good, solid threat, cautioning it to keep quiet and not to swoop me any more, or I would do grievous bodily harm to it. The threat was somewhat more colorful and the bird seemed to understand: It sat on its branch, quiet, and watched me walk off into the distance.

I thought this an altogether funny story at the time, or at least it was amusing to myself. I have a good way with animals it seems. Speak to them in earnest, as you would another human, and they seem to understand what you are getting at, if not the details. Just like another human. I found Glory less than a mile up. She, too, had been attacked by the bird. Only, the hawk had not stopped with her as it did me. Glory ended up crawling along the ground with her sleeping pad over her to try to protect herself from the bird's talons. That, I thought, was much more comical than my story, given that she came out of it unhurt. I told her of my encounter and she recalled hearing my threat. Continuing the last bit of climbing, I came upon a bit trickle of water coming out of the mountainside and stopped to fill up my water bag, with the intention of hiking on for another hour or so. Glory continued on, where I heard her talking with Sharon. Odd. They should have been almost an hour in front of me, I thought. Sharon made her way over to the spring with a clutch of water bottles, her face deeply scratched in two places and bleeding.

At first, I thought she must have take a branch in the face. No, she told me. The hawk. The hawk had attacked her as it had Glory. This time, though, the hawk had drawn blood, or at least caused it to flow. Sharon had been wearing her sunglasses at the first strike and it was unclear if the scratches were from the talons or her sunglasses being ripped off her face. She seemed to be okay now. My story was no longer funny. We talked for a while and it turned out that Will was somewhere ahead, while Floater, Walt, Glory, and her were going to camp on an overlook below Lookout Rock, just ahead. She was sure there was space for another. After my night before, I was heading on. I would hike until I found something pleasant and secluded and would see them tomorrow.

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Having filled my water bag, I walked up the trail with Sharon to see where they were camped and return a scrap of a data book that I found on the trail and was probably Walt's. When I saw the camp, there was no going on. My mind vacillated between staying and going, but my heart was set. The overlook was a island of rock, jutting out into the air over a deep, deep valley. Part of the valley, in fact, that we had climbed out of this afternoon. There was a pleasant breeze blowing and one could see forever. While it would mean camping on hard, solid rock, this was as aesthetic as it gets. I found of spot near Floater and plopped down, trying to think of my favorite campsites so far. Last night was the best one, and I was having a solid argument with myself as to whether or not this was the second best. At worst, it was the third.

It was only 7:15 and my body was still feeling strong. Will was apparently pushing hard for a road that led into Buck's Lake, where there were some stores with some food. Pat would be there and Will would be able to get a ride back to the trail, if he made the 5.5 trail and 3 road miles tonight. The effect of the others around me diluted the calming sensation of the world around me, somewhat, but only by a degree or two. The Sistine Chapel is still the Sistine Chapel, whether you are there alone or with a hundred others. As the stars came out and the land grew dark, Floater wondered whether or not we might see a fireworks display from up here. How perfect would that be, I thought. Alas, I was never to know if there was or not. The stars were the last things I saw through my eyes until morning was to come.

I hate racing. I really do, but nonetheless I found myself racing this morning. The PCT express was going to be waiting at the road to Buck's Lake for Walt and Floater and their was talk of going into town and having some breakfast. A cooked breakfast was perhaps the supreme luxury out here. I usually started my day with two sleeves of pop tarts or three granola bars or four yogurt and cereal bars. While providing enough energy to get me going, the thought of an omelet, hashbrowns, and pancakes, with cup after cup of coffee sounded really good. Maybe I'd tack on a pint of ice cream after breakfast. Plus, I could buy enough supplies to get me to Old Station, thus skipping Belden. Belden was right on the trail, but had a rather poor reputation among PCT hikers. The store was supposed to be very tough to resupply out of and hikers seemed to get weird vibes at times. Hence, I was racing.

Walt is in the his 60s and Floater in his late 50s and I was having to push to keep up with them. I was pretty sure that if they went in for breakfast, they would wait until I had shown up. But, thoughts of Roy just kept driving me forward, not wanting any excuse to come between me and the eats in my mind. Sharon and Glory were far behind, as we sped through the woods, chatting away. No profound thoughts or even simple observations could I make at the rate I we were moving. I could keep up a conversation and move my legs, and that was it. In a most odd turn of events, Walt and Floater slowed to examine a bush or a sign or something that passed by my interest, and I kept sailing along. Coming out onto the road, I saw the PCT Express, and a very sleeping looking Pat sitting inside. She had just been woken up by some day hikers and some motorcyclists, but was as cheery and friendly as ever. Would I like a pastry? Perhaps some juice? Munching on an apple pastry of some sort, I told her that the others were not far behind. we chatted about the terrifying drive she had the other night on a small backroad, and I told her about the hawk attack. Pat told me that Will had made it in to Buck's Lake last night, but didn't find the supplies to his liking. So, he spent the night and pushed on an hour ago. Walt and Floater arrived and announced that they didn't need to go into Buck's Lake and so were pushing on also. I would not get my breakfast.

Trying not to appear crestfallen, I sat on the ground to eat another pastry and drink some juice. A banana came my way, as did an offer to pick up some food by Pat. All of us had the same impression of Belden, and so Pat offered to buy some food in Quincy for me if I would write out a list for her. Unlike at home, where I can think out my meals for a week easily, make up a list, and then go to the store, it was hard to visualize what I wanted sitting there in the parking lot, with Lassen staring at me. Stage fright, I suppose. I settled on a motley collection of foods, then changed it, and gave it to Pat. A few things were added and the list returned. I looked at Floater's list and added a couple more things. The agony of buying junk food without being able to look at its pretty packaging.

The day was hot. Hot like the Mojave, but with humidity. In the Midwest and South, summers are very humid and would never have noticed the faint water in the air here normally. But, after the bracingly dry air of nearly two months of hiking, even the slightest wisp of water vapor was suffocating. I had long since separated from the others and was, as usual, bringing up the rear. Will was vastly far ahead, I assumed, and Sharon and Glory were enjoying hiking with Walt and Floater. I was not going to race anymore, I swore. Just like I swore a few days ago. The heat of the day and the humidity coupled with a general lack of trees, bringing the full power of the sun upon me, to stimulate the lethargy that everyone who walks through a hot countryside must feel. I had loved the openness of California before, for it provided long vistas and sweeping views, but now it was punishing me.

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It was with relief that I saw the trail finally reach the edge of the rim. The rim of the valley where sat Belden. Five thousand feet below, on the banks of the North Fork of the Feather River. Yesterday's jaunt down and up to the Middle Fork had been tiring enough, but this was going to be too much. Looking down the mountainside, following the switchbacks, I saw nothing but open fields and burned out trees. A fire had swept through here several years ago and the land had not yet recovered. The shade had not yet returned. I could see that somewhere near the bottom trees returned, but it would be a long walk. On the other side of the valley, I could see the trail switchbacking up the other side. It climbed and climbed, until it topped out at an elevation approximately equal to my own. Five thousand feet down, a mile across, then five thousand feet up. Damn.

With the gently graded trail and my desire to be out of the sun and resting, I would normally have expected myself to sprint down the trail. The lethargy was upon me, and I moved down the trail slower than I would normally have walked up it. No wind, not even a breath of cooling air was coming up from the valley. This just isn't possible, I told myself. There are laws of thermodynamics being broken here! Why isn't there wind high above a valley? My pace slowed. Every forty minutes I found some shade under a tree and rested.

Without realizing it, I bottomed out. I found the train tracks and found the campsite. I found the road and the cabins. At each of my breaks I had read the guidebook and had memorized the features that I would see before reaching the bottom. I had missed them all, but now that I was down I did not care. Straggling in the heat, I entered the town of Belden. A few shacks with numbers on them passed by. A long building, or rather sequence of connected buildings, seemed to be the only real structure in town. A covered porch of sorts, like you might see in a ghost town out West, graced the building and underneath was everyone, including Pat and the PCT Express. They were eating something out of boxes, but I did not really care at this point. I wanted something to drink and a share of their shade.

The store looked pretty good for resupply. Most of the basics and a few luxuries. I bought a soda and went up to the cashier, who proceeded to do nothing. I was standing at the register and he sitting on a stool a few feet a way. A few seconds passed, with him looking at me and sitting on his stool. I waited patiently, in silence, for a minute, with nothing happening. A young man returned from a corner of the store with a case of beer and put it down on the counter. Apparently, he was in front of me in line. Maybe 18 or 19, no ID was asked for and the man took the kid's credit card with a snatch. The machine didn't seem to be working. The kid ran to his car for some money, but didn't come back with enough. I was about to pay for the beer myself, just so I could pay for my soda and rest, when the credit card machine flickered to life. But, now the kid wanted to overpay for the beer and get some cash back. A short argument ensued and the credit card machine stopped working. More fuss, and still no soda for me. Honestly, I thought, all I want is a damn soda! Is that so much to ask for? Memories of Richard Skaggs came back into my head, and I told myself it was of no use to get aggravated. Twenty minutes after coming into the store for a soda, I finally left with one.

Pat had gotten to Belden around when Will came into town and, finding that the grill closed at 3 pm, had bought a large collection of food from it for us. A bacon double cheeseburger with fries was waiting for me and, even though I was not hungry, I was really pleased that Pat had thought of me. I wolfed it down while the others went over to shower. I stayed on the porch to eat and rest a little before showering, and was treated to a most odd spectacle.

Chewing away at an ice cream bar that I had bought from the store after the burger (ok, thruhikers are never not-hungry), I heard someone shout, "Go home nigger!" Looking about, I didn't see much of a commotion, but I was sure that I heard the words. A minute later, the same phrase was repeated. A heavily bearded man was walking down the street. I had seen him about town, but was unsure if he was the one who had shouted the offensive phrase. Looking around, I could not see who he could have been talking to and was a bit puzzled. A few minutes later, the ice cream bar all gone, he came back down the street, stopping at a shack with numbers across from the store and grill. "Go home nigger! We don't want you here!" Assuming he was yelling at someone in the shack, I figured the mystery was a solved. When a white guy came out of the shack, followed by his girlfriend, I was more than a little surprised. "You don't deserve the air you breathe, nigger!" The bearded man shouted at the shack's occupants. "Nigger go home" came out of his mouth, as he kept going. The shack's occupants seemed to be conferring with another man-about-town as to what was going on, when the bearded man returned again, this time very irate. More racial slurs echoed through the hamlet, followed by a scuffle which was initiated when the bearded man put out a cigarette on the white guy's shaved head. The scuffle only lasted a minute or so, and was ended by the white guy being tossed out of town by other town dwellers. The evicted man seemed somewhat confused and kept saying, "But I didn't do anything. I don't understand." The town inhabitants kept telling, "He doesn't want you here. Get out." And so, he drove away and the street was quiet again. I was not staying in Belden tonight.

The store tried to close an hour early, stranding Glory, Will, and Sharon who had not yet resupplied. Glory was able to talk her way into the store and got Will and Sharon in as well, but the register worker seemed most put out by not being able to close at 4 instead of at 5. I ambled over to where the showers were to rinse off, sure that there were some hidden cameras inside and that my picture would soon be making the rounds on the internet. Clean and well fed, I decided that maybe I was being too hard on Belden. Maybe the bearded guy was just the village idiot and the others were only humoring him. No, the was not the case, when I described the earlier events. The bearded guy, she told me, owns the buildings and runs the "Belden Resort." He was the one who opened up the showers, she said. The keys were missing and he had to take a screwdriver to the locks to get the doors open. Sorting the food that Pat had picked up for me, I was unsure what to make of Belden.

Clean as I was, I might as well get a beer from the bar. A Sierra Nevada cost me $2, and two motorcyclists, of the HD variety, joined me, while the bearded man worked on one of the keg machines and kept up a running dialogue with the two scholars next to me. Everyone was perfectly nice to me, but I had a bad feeling. It was as if there was some secret here in town and the inhabitants were waiting for the hikers to leave. There was nothing inconsistent with the bar or the town. I was just out of place. The feeling in the air, the feeling that crept up my spine, was one of incongruity: I was not supposed to be here, and the longer I stayed the more the chances were for something bad happening. I finished my beer and left the bar to itself.

With my pack ready to go, I was not planning on walking very far. Maybe until 7, then dinner. Will had set out a few minutes before. Sharon, Glory, Walt, Floater, and Pat were all going to stay in town tonight and camp at the national forest campground I had walked by to get to town. I said my goodbyes to all, and especially Glory, and walked out of town, crossing the Feather before gaining the highway. I did not think I would see Glory again. She seemed happy with Walt and Floater. We had spent enough time together and I needed to be on my own for a while. I was sure that I would see Sharon the next day, as she was planning a birthday party for Will like she had given to Glory before, and she would have to go by me to get to Will. Moreover, I had told her that I would make sure to celebrate with Will and her. Tomorrow was his birthday. He would be all of 20. The summer when I was 20 was spent welding in a factory in Tennessee.

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The sun was going down and I wanted to cook some dinner before going to sleep. Simple, I thought. It is a little after 6 now, so why not get some water, walk for an hour, and then camp? Even with the long break in Belden, I would still have hiked nearly 30 miles today, so why not stop early? The plans vanished in the face of the climb up and away from the Feather. Steep, long, and wooded, the trail clung to the mountainside, never deviating into a meadow or field or leveling out as it transitioned from one mountain to another. Up and up and up I went. The heat of the day was gone, and the hiking should have been pleasant. But, once I had an idea of what I wanted to do, it was very hard to persuade me that it was not to be. I wanted to stop at 7, so every second past 7 I felt like I was working overtime. Every step upward that I took was accompanied by a glance around to see if maybe there was some place to camp. I only needed about 4 feet by 7 feet of flat ground. The trail wasn't even flat, and on my right the mountain rose up steeply, and to my left the land dropped off to the valley below. Nothing was to be done, and I should have accepted that from the first.

At 8:15, I found my flat ground just before Williams Flat. Will was camped there for sure, but I just didn't feel like hiking for another 10 minutes. There was a little pull off from the trail that was just large enough for me and was perfectly flat and covered in pine needles. A soft, fragrant bed for the night and the first flat ground since leaving the Feather more than 2 hours before. Munching on some summer sausage, rather than cooking, I watched the world grow dim once again. Sitting and watching this change had become one of my favorite activities on the trail. Just sitting and watching the light change. Such a simple and seemingly stupid pastime, but one that always made me feel better for partaking in it. There was nothing out here except for me and the mosquitoes, the trees and the rocks. I was not alone, I thought. I never was out here. And I was happy.