Walking in Circles: A Tahoe Rim Trail Thru-Hike

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The author on the Tahoe Rim Trail in the Mount Rose Wilderness.

The Tahoe Rim Trail passes just above my cabin. Walk out the front door and up three miles of forest roads and singletrack and there you are – at a loop that winds through 170 miles of stunning eastern Sierra scenery.

We moved to Tahoe nine months ago, and I found the TRT a few days after that. You will perhaps remember that A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s seminal work on the Appalachian Trail, begins in much the same manner. In the opening pages, he stumbles across the AT a few minutes from his backyard in New Hampshire.

Bryson is a literary hero of mine, his book a large part of the reason I eventually set out on my own AT journey. So I rather enjoyed the similarities in our life experience. I made up my mind to thru-hike the TRT the moment I stepped across it, and it’s been an itch on the back of my neck ever since. Just existing up there, maddening, while I pecked away at a keyboard and watched through my window as the wind off Lake Tahoe tossed around the top of the sugar pines.

Maybe you know what I mean. Long trails have a way of getting under your skin. For every person who decides to do a thru-hike spur of the moment, it seems like there are ten folks who’ve been obsessing for years. Reading books and blogs, haunting forums, and boring their friends at cocktail parties. When you do finally pull the trigger on a long hike, it can feel strange, like you aren’t doing the thing you’ve been talking about doing for months, years, or decades. But you are, and it’s glorious and heady and a touch disorienting.

This is the state in which I found myself in early July as I bounced along the TRT at a respectable 3.4 mph. I’d spent the day frantically getting the loose threads of my life tucked away – freelance work put to bed, cat sitter paid, dishes washed, firewood tarped. Now I was getting a late start, but I was afoot and lighthearted in the golden afternoon light. Best of all, I was confident that regardless of what emergencies cropped up over the next week, I wouldn’t know about them and couldn’t solve them even if I did.

The arc of American life is long and bends towards obligation. And so I’ve come to value the disconnection and simplicity of thru-hiking more and more, even as near-daily Instagram updates, vlogs, and satellite communication become the rule rather than the exception. At the risk of breaking the sanctity of the “hike your own hike” mantra, it seems to me that the more thru-hiking comes to mirror “normal life,” with its unceasing connections and updates, the less reason there is to do it.

But why do we do it?  It seems like a simple question at first, but I’ve struggled to explain myself over the years – particularly as the tales of hardship and suffering end up being the best stories from any hike. A good thru-hiking yarn doesn’t go, “and then I had several pain-free days of excellent walking in good weather and no bugs, and I wasn’t even all that hungry.”

It’s the sort of thing that becomes hard to explain to relatives at family functions, and the unexplainable nuance of it is why you end up answering with “it just seemed like it would be fun” when asked why you decided to trudge through snowfields from Mexico to Canada. On such occasions, it’s easy to understand why Mallory answered with a flippant “Because it’s there,” when asked why he was making another Everest attempt. That his quote has come to symbolize badassery rather than a frustrating inability to express the in-expressible is no fault of Mallory’s. We generally like our heroes to have good explanations for their actions, and when they don’t, we assign them our own explanations.

So why schlup a pack up and down mountains when for the same money and time you could be drinking margaritas on a beach somewhere? The obvious thoughts – immersion in nature, sitting in awe of beauty, and disconnection from modern society – are only part of the total answer. This story will have its moments of hardship – it wouldn’t be good otherwise.  But I’ll also attempt to highlight the small moments of grace and wonder that comprise the answer to the ultimate long-distance backpacking question: why are we doing this?

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I made an easy fifteen miles counter-clockwise around the lake by dark and pitched my tent in the lee of some boulders overlooking the water. I watched the sunset as I ate dinner, then fell into the familiar chores: store the food, treat the water, organize the gear, look over the following day’s terrain.

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Enjoying a lake sunset on the first night.

Here’s an often-overlooked reason to hike long distances: to meet your needs you must do simple, repetitive work with a small number of tools. The relationship between you and a drink of water is immediate and tangible, not separated into a series of remote capitalistic interactions which start with you going to work and end with you unthinkingly turning on the faucet. Sure, you have to do these simple chores on a three-day hike as well. But the rhythm they form after weeks and months of repetition is lovely.

Everything has a cost. While backpacking, that cost becomes concrete. And the longer you pay that cost concretely, the more concrete the world itself seems to become. To that end, backpacking is grounding.

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Day two of my hike took me through Tahoe City and out the other side, into the edge of the Desolation Wilderness. As I gained altitude, I ran across ever-growing mounds of consolidated snow cutting across the trail like the edges of a desert expanding into a forest. These drifts immediately slowed my pace – the easy-to-follow trail became a slippery exercise in aerobic route finding. Nothing gets the blood pumping like gaining and losing a thousand feet of elevation in ten-foot increments.

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The Tahoe Rim Trail was buried under three to fifteen feet of consolidated snow drifts for well over a quarter of its 170 mile length. Not as bad as post-holing, but no easy task.

As the TRT joined the PCT at the end of day two, I started coming across northbound PCT thru-hikers. Thru-hikers tend to vacillate between grim fatalism and manic joy, but these gangly individuals were finishing four-hundred miles of conditions that were already wearing me out after ten miles. It’s hard to express their mood.  Weary resignation, perhaps?

We had a hell of a winter here in the Sierra, and what is good for wildflowers and the California water table is bad for poor saps trying to make it to Canada. Sunken-eyed, hollow-faced, and thinner than they should be before the halfway point, this crop of PCT NoBos took it on the chin. They were exceedingly happy to be leaving the Sierras, and hopefully, their caloric burn would stabilize once they were in better trail conditions.

Weight loss is a pleasant side effect of thru-hiking but shouldn’t be considered in the “why we do this” category.  Particularly as any weight you lose, you are likely to gain back almost immediately following your hike. It’s challenging to transition out of the “eat everything you see” mindset once you rejoin normal life. Most people don’t manage it very well. Another thing people forget about thru-hiking – whatever problems you take with you into the woods are likely to be there when you return.

Upon meeting PCT thru-hikers, I took great pride in being mistaken for one of their own. I took it to mean my pack was well-dialed and my stride locked in (either that or my beard, cultivated all winter against my wife’s clearly articulated wishes, was sufficiently ratty). Either way, I sucked in my winter paunch at every opportunity as I explained that, no, I wasn’t a PCT SoBo, I was on the significantly shorter Tahoe Rim Trail.

I love the traditional exchange of trail conditions as two hikers meet each other from opposing directions. It’s another oft-overlooked pleasantry of life on the trail. Is there anything more basic than two travelers meeting on a path, each doing his or her best to ease the passage for the other? Our ancestors have been doing it since the first proto-humans met each other on proto-elephant trails. No doubt they were leaning on sticks, saber-tooth tiger packs slung over their shoulders, discussing water sources and upcoming elevation changes. Shortly after that, the first forum arguments broke out on cave walls as strangers argued with each other about the pros and cons of giant sloth pelts as overhead shelters (so breathable, but is it worth the weight? They had OPINIONS).

In this case, The Ritual all through the Desolation Wilderness went like this:

“How’s the trail behind you?”

“Snowy. Sketchy traverses. Twenty-foot snowdrifts. Slushy walking and wet feet after ten am. Hard going, you won’t make good miles. Streams are running though. How’s the trail behind you?”

“Same. Exactly the same.”

“Happy Trails.”

“Happy Trails.”

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Snowfield and sun cups made for tough going. These are the conditions PCT NoBos have been dealing with for all 400 miles of the Sierras.

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As day three progressed, the slow-going started to stress me out. With less than a week available on my calendar to complete the TRT, I had to top 27 miles days every day. My late start on day one had already set me behind, and now I was working twice as hard as I’d been expecting in order to make two or three miles per day less than I needed to. The brutal math of trail miles adds up quickly – this was going to mean 30+ mile days on the east side of the lake.

As I slid down my umpteenth snowbank and searched around for the trail, I reflected on my pre-hike research. My sources had indicated that this particular section of TRT was “mostly clear of snow.” It occurred to me that I must have a different definition of “mostly,” “clear,” or “snow” than the person who wrote the trail conditions on the official Tahoe Rim Trail website. I was starting to think my ambitious timeline might be coming up against the reality of mother nature. I was walking by five-thirty am every morning and setting up camp after eight every night. I’d yet to crack the 10 oz paperback I’d already hauled over eighty miles of tough going, an unconscionable sin if ever there was one.

At the start of this essay, I mentioned that a common reason for long-distance backpacking is a chance to be “in nature” for long periods. What I believe most people mean when they say this is “to be surrounded by the beauty of nature,” and that it is wonderful and soothing to the soul, of course.

But another aspect to being “in nature” is to be at the mercy of nature.  All the research, preparation, and expensive gear in the world doesn’t change the fact that if it rains long enough, you will be wet. If the cold is cold enough, you will be cold. If you are hungry, you will be hungry, because you just can’t carry enough food with you to not be. If the going is sufficiently hard, you may not accomplish your goal, no matter how hard you try. If you push yourself too far past your limits in the wrong situation, you die.

Dealing with these realities is one of the hardest things about thru-hiking for type-A first-world humans. We are used to getting our way with the push of a button or the swipe of a finger across a screen. “Hard work and preparation will bring you success,” is so deeply ingrained in our American mythology that it’s disorienting when mountains turn out not to give a damn about your hard work. Even worse, mountains sometimes don’t care how much Dyneema and carbon fiber your high-paying white collar job affords you.

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A brief respite from snow-walking.

So long as it isn’t fatal, the occasional kick in the ass is one of the best things that can happen to you, as crusty old grandpas everywhere are fond of reminding you. And so it turns out that being uncomfortable and sometimes failing is an excellent reason to go on a long hike – but this can be hard to remember sometimes.

On the morning of day four, I arrived at the Echo Lake Chalet, a mountain hotel with a well-provisioned general store. I took the opportunity to grab a candy bar and a cup of coffee and settled down to text my wife. After I complained about the conditions and my swiftly compressing timetable, my wife responded with the obvious.

“You know, you don’t have to finish. Maybe conditions are just too hard for the time you have.  Just do what you can and take an Uber back to the house at the end of your seven days,” she texted.

I grumpily pondered this wisdom while I dunked my Snickers in my coffee and glared up to the mountains.

A few minutes later, she texted again.

“But you are a bad-ass, and I believe you can get it done,” read text number two.

Clearly, she was unsure which tactic would make me feel better, so she decided to toss both out there and hedge her bets. In truth, both ideas (that I didn’t HAVE to finish, but it was likely I COULD finish, but also just as likely that I COULDN’T finish because the trail is what the trail is) soothed my mounting gloom. I would give it my best shot, knowing that the reality of the mountains might defy me regardless of how hard I tried. Thus buoyed by expert philosophical wifery, I finished my snack and slid back into the slipstream of the trail.

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We are lead to this: thru-hiking (or any long-distance backpacking) is a contradictory experience. Clearly, the point is to be in the wild, in the woods, in the mountains, for long periods of time. Clearly, the point is also to get from point A to point B. It isn’t about the journey, it’s about the destination, although it is simultaneously very much about the journey.

Trying to hold both of these ideas in your head at the same time is an exercise in mental gymnastics that is best assisted, in my opinion, with a deep study of the Tao Te Ching and some of the more Zen focused branches of Buddhism. Failing that, you can always go southbound on the Appalachian Trail. The southern terminus of the AT is famously just a plaque bolted to the ground, overlooking a pretty but unremarkable collection of low, soft Georgia ridgelines. The “Oh. Well. I did it, I guess,” feeling this plaque engenders is such a contrast to the Instagram-worthy epicness of the Katahdin northern terminus that it boggles the mind. It will teach you to think correctly about the act of walking long-distances, that’s for sure.

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By the afternoon of day four on the TRT, I was enjoying my longest snow-free stretch of trail yet, feeling lean and strong and locked in.

As I rounded the southern tip of Lake Tahoe and started north on the eastern side, trail conditions continued to improve. I made up some lost time, knocking out twenty-nine and thirty miles on days five and six respectively. As day seven dawned, I was thirty miles from finishing the TRT, with an additional three miles after that to walk back to my cabin. At this point, I was determined to finish on day seven because I’d neglected to pack a dinner for that evening, to say nothing of breakfast or lunch for a hypothetical day eight. Philosophy considerations almost always take a backseat to the realities of the stomach.

Covering the ground was going to be no easy task. My route for the day would take me into the Mt. Rose Wilderness and over Relay Peak, the highest point of the TRT. The Wilderness was a section of trail I knew would be completely socked in with snow, which is why I’d saved it for last. I was banking on the somewhat silly hypothesis that an extra six days of sunshine would vaporize the twenty-foot snowbanks.

Feeling like an Everest mountaineer on summit day, I broke camp and drank coffee by headlamp. Five miles later, I was in the snow, and my pace dropped from 3.5 mph to under .5 mph.

I had a few new problems with which to contend. Firstly, the TRT had split from the PCT forty miles earlier, and I no longer had even the hesitant footprints of previous hikers to follow. So I spent even more time route finding than I had in the Desolation Wilderness a few days earlier.

To add to that, the sheer volume of snow at this higher elevation had created a quasi-glacier.  The weight of the ice had pushed giant pines over like matchsticks. Soon enough I was engaged in a sort of vertical scrambling bushwhacking with slushy late-morning snowpack underfoot, fighting hard for every scrap of elevation gain. When I finally cleared treeline, I was met with even more challenging tread – sun cups that were two feet deep.

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A trail marker near the top of Relay Peak in the Mount Rose Wilderness. At times, the TRT was more of an idea than a trail.

Both the final ascent to Relay Peak and the descent on the other side were replete with the kinds of traverses that make your mother extremely unhappy. Halfway across one particularly exposed traverse, I stopped for water and thought to myself, “I’d better mentally rehearse my self-arrest technique.” On the very next step, my fragile toe-hold gave way and down I went, suddenly subject to the forces of friction and gravity and pants-pissing fear. I managed to halt myself about ten feet into the slide, though it felt more like ten hundred. Terror inducing traverses are the sort of thing I never had to deal with growing up backpacking in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.  In the southeast, snow is (generally) less murderous, and it’s easier to find decent post-hike barbeque.

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Sketchy traverses were the norm in the Desolation and Mount Rose Wildernesses on the TRT after a huge winter in the Sierras.

All in all, it took me about eight hours to clear six miles of trail, and I ran into periodic snowbanks for another five miles after that. But finally, blessedly, I was out of the Wilderness and into elevation that snow had given up on weeks beforehand. Digging deep, I cranked up my pace and pushed into the final leg – fueled by my final few almonds, a chunk of parmesan cheese, and some lemonade soaked chia seeds.  My reward was truly jaw-dropping ridgeline vistas beneath a bluebird sky. Beyond the ridge, Lake Tahoe was a surreal ultramarine. After a day of unceasing snow-glare, everything seemed over-saturated. Under my feet, the trail was solid and real.

I like off-trail travel – the problem solving, the adventure, the sense of being “out there” – and it always makes for a good story.  But what I truly love is the steady, rhythmic, boring walking that a good section of trail provides. It’s my meditation and my prayer, and the thing that’s allowed me to stomp most of the poison out of my soul over the years. In his essay “On Walking,” Henry David Thoreau provides a Latin quote that sums it up nicely.

“Solvitur Ambulando.”

It is solved by walking.

What is solved? Well. Lots.

Herein lies my final thought on the matter of why we participate in this odd pastime of long-distance backpacking – a pursuit that is arguably the least sexy of all outdoor sports.

It’s just about walking. That’s it. Everything else – the beauty, the solitude, the camaraderie, the routine, the life lessons – all of it takes a back seat to what happens to your mind, body, and soul when you spend a good chunk of your day just plodding along.

Thoreau, that keen observer of the human condition, didn’t need modern double-blind studies to tell him the benefits of traveling by foot at two to three miles per hour. He saw the rewards made manifest in his soul, and as such was no fan of how locomotives, with their noise and their speed, shrunk and cluttered his world. We can only imagine what he’d have to say on the state of things now, although, come to think of it, his words would probably be much the same as they always were.

“Simplify, Simplify, Simplify.”

What’s more simple than walking?

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In his book “On Trails,” journalist Robert Moore explores the concept of pathways as a kind of collective species memory. All sorts of animals from sheep to elephants follow trails because trails go somewhere. If a trail exists, the logic goes, it must be worth following.

My trail went exactly where it started – an unassuming fire road in the middle of the woods and from there three miles downhill to my home. When I stumbled into my cabin an hour later, it was eight-thirty pm. I’d covered thirty-three miles on the single toughest day of hiking I’d ever foisted upon myself. I’d finished on time, though I like to think I’d have been okay with not doing so.

More than that, I’d walked in a giant loop, a great irony to anyone who’s ever spent time in the woods expressly avoiding that navigational feat.

But to walk in a circle only to arrive home again seemed appropriate (and a touch Tolkien-esque), a final manifestation of my ponderings on the nature of thru-hiking. As the old saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Maybe it’s all a little too esoteric, a bit too hippy-dippy. That’s okay. Just go on a long ramble, that’s all I’m trying to say. Follow a trail somewhere, and do it for more than a weekend. There are worse ways to shrug off a burden than to shoulder a pack and go walking for a long time. And few better.

Here are my notes about some of the more significant pieces of gear I took on the Tahoe Rim Trail. My base weight was around 17 lbs.

  • Mountainsmith Zerk 40L – 28 oz – My current favorite pack. Foam frame, 30 lb capacity, with a thick, extra-cushy trail running inspired suspension and tons of well-designed exterior storage. I was able to access my camera, phone, bear spray, sunscreen, chapstick, 4 Liters of water and 1,500 calories of food without taking my pack off – and I had room to spare. See my First Look review here, and stay tuned for a full review coming soon.
  • Big Agnes Fly Creek HV1 Carbon – 21 oz – An interesting double walled Dyneema Composite Fabric / sil-nylon hybrid with carbon poles. Light for this style of tent, but not nearly as roomy as similarly weighted single wall Dyneema trekking pole shelters. Seems to handle condensation well but my climate was very dry for this trip. Full review coming soon.
  • Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite – 8.8 oz – Still probably the best sleep you can get for the weight. Check out my extensive review here. I managed to avoid sleeping on snow on this hike. If I had to, I’d have needed to use my pack as extra insulation under the UberLite. This pad is not without its limitations.
  • Therm-a-Rest Vesper 20F Quilt – 19 oz – I’ve cooled slightly on this quilt since my initial review. Love the weight and packability as well as the premium materials (950 fp down!), but the pad connection system leaves something to be desired.
  • MSR Pocket Rocket 2 – 2.6 oz – Hard to believe something so powerful and light is also so affordable, but here we are. The Pocket Rocket 2 may not have the chops of the Pocket Rocket Deluxe or Soto Windmaster, but it blazes along well enough to earn it high honors in our Upright Canister Stove Gear Guide.
  • Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultras – 16 oz – I purchased these rugged puppies after reading and editing Emylene VenderVelden’s enthusiastic review. I was not disappointed. I found the aggressive traction and double-weld durability to be just what I needed on this particular hike. I did have some issues with the toe section slipping out of place occasionally. Could be an issue of improper sizing on my part.
  • Joshua Tree Hiking Salve – 2.4 oz – I’ve been hearing about this stuff for years but never pulled the trigger on it. Now I’ll never go on a long trip without it again. In the future I’ll be applying it for months before a big hike, as per the advice in our recent podcast.
  • Just because my muscles and cardio system can handle 30 mile days with little build up, doesn’t mean the structure of my feet can. Training in the future will entail less days mountain biking and trail running and more days spent hiking under load and slowly working up mileage. I’m currently dealing with some foot injuries incurred on this hike as a result of going too far too fast.
  • I’ve increasingly been eating real food (nuts, dried berries, hard cheeses, legumes, brown rice, and soaked chia), over bars, chips, fast-carbs (tortillas, bagels, ramen), candy, and other junk. The performance benefits are worth the extra weight, especially on thru-hikes. Additionally, I space all my lunchtime calories out over a full day as I’m walking. I like the steady flow of energy. This system is made easier with a pack like the Zerk 40L.
  • As much as I love hiking in shoes like my Altra Lone Peak 4 Trail Runners, I worry about the environmental cost of choosing a footwear strategy that has to be replaced every three to five hundred miles. My Altras only have about three hundred hard miles on them (half hiking, half trail running) and are showing significant wear, especially in the midsole cushioning and outer mesh fabric. Food for thought.

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