What Led Me 165 Miles Around The Tahoe Rim Trail

Oct 8, 2019

When I was a little girl, my grandfather, whom we call Papa, would sit us on his lap and tell us bear stories. He grew up in Montana, and being around bears was (and still is) a part of life there. 

At the trailhead, moments before I took my first steps.
Credit Benjamin Payne

In one story, during a family camping trip in Canada, a bear was following them as they went along. To scare away the bears that were stealing the family's food, he would yell and bang pots and pans.

Papa would show us how he stretched his long arms up like a boogie man, and gargle at the bears.

I knew I wanted to have bear stories of my own someday, so I geared up, and decided to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail--165 miles in the mountains and a full loop around Lake Tahoe.

MILE 62 - DESOLATION WILDERNESS

I was alone on purpose. I wanted to see how much I could push myself, but I was having doubts.

I hadn’t stopped to eat my dinner yet, and it was getting dark.

Four miles to Richardson Lake.

I wanted to set up camp there. I had one day left of hiking until my halfway point in Tahoe City. Maybe two.

And then, through my headlamp, I saw it. Almost stepped in it, really.

A giant pile of fresh poop.

It matched one particular profile in the guide book that I meticulously studied before I set foot on the trail: black bear.

‘Maybe I didn’t want to have bear stories after all,’ I thought to myself. 

***

Everything I carried on my back.

THE PREPARATION

I have always felt I’ve had to prove myself to the people around me. Maybe this was a part of that. The angsty kid part of myself was resurfacing--the part of me that’s still jealous that my younger brother got to learn to mow the lawn before I did.

Or maybe I was trying to prove something to just myself. I hadn’t quite figured out what that was yet. I knew that I just had to do it.

I was aware of the risks involved.

My parents tried to hold back their fear when I told them I was doing this, at least at first. My dad told me I should bring a gun. My mom, who always has good things to say about what I choose to do, furrowed her brow and was silent--a response she’s developed as I’ve grown into adulthood as a replacement to the childhood lectures she would give me.

People who hardly know about camping would stop me and lecture me about what to bring and what not to bring. Plenty of people were concerned with how many or how heavy-duty my knives were. Or if I was bringing bear spray. (For those concerned, I did bring both a small pocket knife and bear spray.)

However, no one was concerned if my sleeping bag was warm enough, if I was bringing enough food and water, or even if my pack was light enough for me to carry for nearly two weeks. Statistically, those factors would have a greater chance of exposing me to life-threatening trouble than being attacked by a bear or mountain lion or person.

Passing by a lake in the Desolation Wilderness.
Credit Bree Zender

MILE 1 - KINGSBURY NORTH TRAILHEAD

My first few steps on the trail were familiar ones. I’d hiked near Kingsbury Grade south to Star Lake last summer with a friend. But this time, I was ready for it. I had a 16-pound backpack and brand new trail shoes. And I had a lofty goal: 17 miles for the day. 

But soon, my feet began to feel achy.

The pain reminded me of the migraine-like experience I had in my legs as a child. It felt like my shinbones were being pulled by the ends in both directions by mad spirits. I used to scream from my bed at night when my leg aches came. And now, I wanted so badly to scream.

Once I got to Star Lake, I soaked my feet in the mountain water. I knew I had to treat them like queens. They were my vehicle for my journey, and it worried me that they hurt this much so close to the beginning. I was in pain, but I tried to soak in the beauty and the distant view of Lake Tahoe’s south side.

I bucked up. I had to, either way. It was continuing on or going back after nine miles. I would also have to live with being the girl who couldn’t last half a day on the Tahoe Rim Trail. I’d be proving the people who doubted me right. And so, I slid my dusty socks back onto my wet feet, and tied up my trail shoes.

I switched to my Tevas to give my feet a breather.
Credit Bree Zender

MILE 63 - DESOLATION WILDERNESS

Every step I took I held in my winces. The weight of my own body, plus my pack, plus the force of going up and down so many mountains--each strike of my foot shot pain through my corresponding heel and leg.

‘Am I actually cut out for this?’ I thought to myself.

“No, you’re not,” I replied out loud.

My anger at myself had manifested itself atop my exhaustion. And now, there’s this big pile of bear crap in the middle of the trail. I was so angry I couldn’t think.

And so I stopped in the middle of the trail.

And I screamed.

I screamed that scream that I’d been holding in for 63 miles.

I needed to make more noise to keep the bear away from me.

The best trail practice is to not play music out loud so it doesn't bother other hikers, but I needed something to keep me sane and focused on my goal.

So with tears streaming down my face, my shaky, dirty fingers selected Lizzo’s ‘Juice' on my phone.

And I marched toward Lake Richardson. I set up camp. I massaged and cleaned my feet. And I slept, wrapped in layers--a sleeping bag, dirty clothes, skin caked with days of sweat and an exhausted soul beneath it all.

And not a bear nor a monster bothered me.

I get up very early to host Morning Edition at KUNR every weekday morning, however I don't get to see sunrises because there are no windows in the studio. I made it a point to wake up and catch a few of them.
Credit Bree Zender

MILE 85 - RELAY PEAK

Each day became a schedule, but a schedule based on my basic needs.

Wake. Eat. Pack up. Walk. Eat. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Try not to go crazy.

I was nearing 100 miles, and faced my biggest climb yet: Relay Peak.

Once I got my momentum, the uphill was the easiest part. It put less pressure on my heels, which caused me less pain. I was walking with a beat, like Dorothy down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz.

As I reached the top of the highest point in the trail, around 10,000 feet, I was surrounded by thousands and thousands of butterflies. They swooped down toward me like fighter planes.

I wasn’t aware it was butterfly migration season when I got to this section of the trail. They were flying so fast, it was easy for them to hit me in the face, but I didn’t mind.

I had forgotten about the pain and how bad I smelled, and how sunburnt my hands and legs were. I took a deep breath. I had forgotten about everything altogether.

I was just there--atop a mountain with views of nearly all of Lake Tahoe and Truckee. Again, I felt like Dorothy , but this time, at the end of The Wizard of Oz. With swarms of orange and red creatures abounding, along with melting patches of snow on either side of me, home was all around me.

MILE 164 - SOUTH OF KINGSBURY GRADE

I had one mile to go. I walked through a dry ski area. Nodded to a couple of day hikers. I thought about the cheeseburger I was planning on ordering once I reached the trailhead.

Instead of trudging through every painful step, I cherished those final moments.

I was limping because of the weight I was carrying, but I was smiling wide.

I’d wanted to do this for years. And I had finally done it. I put my focus on something that was long--something I often have trouble doing in real life.

I planned this trip for three years, before I had even moved to Nevada. I gave up on my plans twice. I felt incapable of accomplishing the things that I set my mind to.

But the third time, I did it. I did what others told me women should not do--hike alone.

And not only did I survive with only a few scratches, but I grew, and I accomplished something big for myself, and no one else.

I finished my hike in 11 days, plus a couple days' rest.
Credit Benjamin Payne