This is a candid, blistered, bloodied and tearful account of my first thru hike across Santa Catalina Island in September of 2018.
It was 6:45AM and I was sandwiched awkwardly between tourists and local weekend warriors on the Catalina Express, chattering excitedly of their impending Labor Day festivities on the island. A group of women sitting next to me were double fisting mojitos as if it were five o'clock somewhere and not a shade past the break of dawn. I nervously kept unlacing and lacing up my worn Vasque hiking boots to avoid eye contact with curious passengers surveying my stuffed pack and mismatched hiking outfit. When the boat docked I scrambled off the platform and into Avalon, Catalina's tourist hub and largest community, my pack hanging off the side of my body like dead weight. Other eager backpackers huddled in groups, shaking down one another's gear and confirming their trip itinerary one last time before setting off.
I let them go ahead, biding my time in town and filling my belly with snacks and a few liters of water, I wanted the trail to myself, I wanted the isolation and the screaming silence of solitude. With a trail map stuffed into my back pocket and beads of sweat already rolling steadily down my back and nether-regions, my journey on the 45-mile long Trans-Catalina Trail began. The trail starts with a road walk past the Avalon Country Club and into Hermit Gulch campground where the trail officially turns into a steep dirt path of switchbacks with minimal shade. I stopped frequently, shedding my 35-pound pack, taking heaving gulps of lukewarm tap water, and stripping off my soaked shirt to vigorously wave it in circles in a feeble attempt to create a cooling wind tunnel around my flushed face.
Prior backpacking trips hadn't left me doubled over, drenched in my own sweat and funk and considering throwing in the towel only two miles into the trek. "The fuck is going on here?" I thought, puzzled. "Why are you even letting these thoughts of inadequacy invade your mind?" But here I was, being barraged with insults that ran the gamut of, "Who the fuck do you think you are to even attempt this? You're just a girl with impulse control issues born of your bipolar disorder," and "Look, it's okay, you're pushing yourself really hard. Would it be all that bad if you turned around now, spent the rest of Labor Day weekend actually having fun in Avalon, and revisit the trail in winter? Wouldn't that be the smarter choice?"
Every 100-yards was punctuated with a 5-minute break and me wrestling with my deteriorating drive and self-worth to continue the hike. This was becoming a huge time waste. I wasn't even out of Hermit Gulch yet and it was half past 12; I still had 7 miles to go before reaching Blackjack Campground. It was time to wipe away the crocodile tears and embrace the suck. I needed to ignore the screaming protests coming from my quads and calves, wipe the sweat pouring from brow and upper lip, conserve the little water that remained, and make the final and continuous push out of this godforsaken canyon and onto the ridge line above.
30 minutes and an impressive dry heaving episode later I was sitting in a shaded gazebo on a ridge overlooking Avalon with its tiny specks of boats meandering lazily around the bay. It was a small victory, but I could only relish in it for a few moments before I desperately threw off my pack and began shedding as much unnecessary weight as possible. I pulled out my copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone and feverishly ripped already read pages away, a few luxury toiletry items made the chopping block along with a few melted protein bars sitting at the bottom of my food bag.
A steep, dusty and bison chip covered down slope later I was taking shelter under a massive oak on the outskirts of Hayduke Recreation Area, a playground situated, literally, in the middle of nowhere. Whoever had the bright idea to construct something of this nature in this remote of a location was irrelevant to me in the moment, a water spigot and ample shade from the mid-day heat made this playground a godsend. My feet were swelling and felt like white hot coals in my boots and this was a welcome respite. As I left, a Catalina Island Jeep Tour whizzed past me further down the trail and the tourists inside craned their necks to observe the lifeless specimen moving sluggishly along the road that led deeper into the heart of the island.
The remaining daylight was dwindling and at the rate I was hiking I would be arriving to camp well past dark. The landscape around me changed drastically as I gained and lost elevation hiking deeper into the island. From barren, rolling hills speckled with dry grass, dried out droppings from the island's bison population, and desert scrub to deep gulches with bright yuccas spilling onto the trail, California junipers sending their sweet aroma to comfort my senses, and blue palo verdes swaying softly in the late afternoon breeze. When I wasn't mentally flogging myself for not keeping at an aggressive pace, I bellowed Eddie Vedder bangers to any critter hiding nearby who would listen. I gargled my warm tap water to see how long I could go before I choked and was forced to swallow and I tried and failed to remember the MacBeth monologue I had performed in high school. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace..."
Hiking isn't always a consistent lashing of inspiration and the beauty of this world hitting you from all angles at all times. We see the summit photos shared by our friends, but we don't see or talk about the trials, tears, rolled ankles, scraped knees, and self-doubts plaguing us every step of the way to that high and hallowed point. People like myself are frequently asked the question we dread the most, "Why?" I provide a cop-out answer to those who don't truly care for the real reasons I'm doing this thru-hike or any ambitious peak bagging, "Because it's there."
In all honesty, I set out on this hike across an island in the middle of the Pacific to prove to myself that I could. Following through on even the most menial of tasks has presented itself as a challenge throughout my youth and into adulthood. Hiking was an activity that held me accountable and made it abundantly clear the only person who could make it to the top or the end was myself. Hiking became a language I could speak fluently and the words fell from my mouth like glistening rivulets.
The sun dipped below the switchback riddled hills I still had yet to tackle. Rounding a bend I came face to face with a kit fox blocking the middle of the trail, staring intently at my slouched figure under the weight of my pack, almost as if it had been expecting my arrival. I took a few slow steps forward but the solemn black eyes remained transfixed on my tired blues. "Dad?" I murmured at an almost inaudible level. My father had passed away in a tragic accident six summers prior and in my exhausted, emotionally wrought delusion I had convinced myself his spirit was being channeled through this stoic creature.
The fox took off into a thicket just as a massive flock of sparrows suddenly rose from the woods beyond it and flew in tight formation low over my head. Following their exit, a bison grazing on a hill nearby stopped to turn and gaze in my direction. The sensory overload made my eyes water instantaneously and every muscle in my body stiffened. Since I had stepped on the trail I had not encountered so much as a lizard scurrying across my path and now a barrage of wildlife exploded onto the scene with as much magnificence as morning's first light hitting the dawn wall of El Capitan. My eyes remained brimming with tears of frustration and finally jubilation as I made the final push into Blackjack Campground as the last warming rays of day receded behind the trees and golden hills.
A rowdy group of backpackers were gathered around a couple of picnic tables they had pushed against one another, sharing stories of blackout co-ed nights and reminiscing on their last spring break retreat to Punta Cana. They were glowing, all smiles, feeding off of one another's hyped up energy, passing lukewarm beer around a crackling fire, and playfully throwing pieces of pita chips at one another. I spied their laidback jubilation with a hungry longing until I realized I probably looked like Richard Ramirez and hastily set up camp in the dark. After letting my head hang under the cool water spurting from the only water source in camp and a half-assed wet wipe bath, I crawled into my sleeping bag and realized I had not eaten anything since the Italian hoagie I had scarfed down back in Avalon. My arm weakly untangled itself from the sleeping bag and I reached inside my pack to pull out a severely deformed king sized Kit Kat bar and a bag of salted almonds.
I wasn't hungry and I couldn't even force the salty and sweet carbo-loaded dinner of champions down my throat. I admitted defeat, tucked my snacks back into the food bag I had meticulously planned and even posted an Insta story about in the days leading up to this hike, and curled into a tight fetal position. I don't know when it happened and how it came about but at some point I buried my face into the inflatable polyester pillow and began to wail and weep and scream. I pleaded for my fiancé. I pleaded for my dad. I implored myself to find the strength to pull it together and complete the remaining 30-miles of this hike. The sound of leaves in the trees being rustled by the wind and raucous laughter rising from the group of backpackers across camp helped to stifle the sounds of the pure, terrifying reality of my solo endeavor. The sobs turned into sniffles and the sniffles dissipated to a resigned silence. I fell into a deep sleep and was whisked away to another world.
I was looking down and then up at a mountain that resembled a combination of the north face of the Eiger and signature summit of the Matterhorn. I knew I had to climb it to get to whatever was on the other side and there was no choice in the matter. Fear and uncertainty gripped me. I felt a presence behind me and I turned to see my dad, a younger version of him but nonetheless the same man, smiling at me. He gave the treacherous peak a quick once over, glanced back at me and gave a look as if to say, "Well? What are you waiting for? Get going."
My mouth dropped, "Are you kidding? I can't fucking climb this behemoth. You know it. I know it." He stared in response but Dad didn't need to speak for me to understand what the flash of emotion in his eyes conveyed. Of course you can. Just climb.
I awoke the next morning to overcast skies with tiny rays of light poking through weaknesses in the cloud cover. Cool moisture hit my nostrils as I exited my tent and began to break camp. The silence was interrupted by the occasional snore from a few folks cowboy camping on the other side of the grounds and chirping birds rising from their nests. I shoved a handful of almonds down my gullet and began my walk out of camp. A short distance later the clouds parted, the fog around me dissipated in the morning sun, and a sweeping view of the island revealed itself to me, the best view yet in fact. I could see the trail take a steep curve down and then up and over shoddy looking hillsides and I did not, at least for now, feel an impending sense of dread or the looming threat of failure. I took one step forward. Then another and another and then, I climbed. I just climbed.
Ash Czarnota is the founder and curator of Go Galavanting. She completed the Trans Catalina Trail in 2018 and is preparing for her 2,650 mile thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2020. She may be reached directly through her personal Instagram handle - @salty_millennial.