My Journey on the Tahoe Rim Trail

Let me begin by saying that this will absolutely be one of those “the trail changed my life” posts. Throughout the writing of this blog, I found it so challenging to figure out what to write because there’s just SO MUCH that went down my 12 days on trail. Do I talk about the logistics? The day-to-day? My insights and takeaways? It’s been more difficult to write than I anticipated, so I did my best to give you a cohesive look at those 12 days and all the ups, downs, and life-affirming moments.

I made the decision to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail back in January, when I was still in my teaching job, dreaming about travel and long-distance hiking. Initially, I thought of it passively, sort of as something that I wanted to do, but probably wouldn’t actually end up doing. I day-dreamed of it in different scenarios… would I hike it with my partner? With a friend? Would I meet trail family out there that I could link up with and seek safety with? Or would I just… do it by myself? No… that thought seemed too crazy and a little too spooky. But I still told people, “Yep, I’m hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail by myself” almost to see if I believed it.

Now, to provide a bit of context, I have done another long distance trail before: The Colorado Trail. It spans 500 miles from Denver to Durango, and I hiked it with my partner back in the summer of 2020. Yes, I walked every damn step of that trail with my own two feet, and yes, I got myself up every day and found the willpower to walk 18(ish) miles each day… but when it came to logistics, planning, navigation, water and food, and picking me up when I was having a meltdown, I leaned heavily on my partner. He’s an extremely experienced hiker, having completed the Appalachian Trail (2190 miles), the Pacific Crest Trail (2650 miles) and part of the Continental Divide Trail. Subconsciously, I put a ton of stock and belief in him as my guide through my first ever thru-hike, and the result was me feeling super proud of myself, but not much more confident in my own ability to survive out in nature. I so badly wanted to feel like I could take care of myself… that I could not just survive, but thrive in a high-intensity situation like a thru-hike. Thus, I decided: “Fuck it, I’m doing the Tahoe Rim Trail by myself.”

The days and weeks leading up to my first solo thru-hike had me questioning things a lot… fluctuating between “totally fine” and “totally freaking out.” I hadn’t really planned out anything in regards to resupply, food, and water, and it was starting to hit me how stupid it was that I would be stepping on trail in an ever-shrinking number of days with little to no info about the trail. Where would I park? How would I get to town, and how often, to get food resupplied? Would there be plenty of water? Or none? Would the trail just go around Lake Tahoe? Or through steep mountains? I just had no clue. But even when I sat myself down and researched my ass off in the 2 days before I began my hike, it still wasn’t enough to comfort me into certainty that I could do the damn thing. But I still went for it. So here’s how that went:

Big Meadow Trailhead, Tahoe Rim Trail mile 106.4

While most people start the trail at the trailhead in Tahoe City (mile 0.0), I chose to begin at the Big Meadow Trailhead (mile 106.4). I made this choice for a of couple reasons, chief among them being that it would break up the 80+ mile dry section out of Tahoe City. There’s only one permit that is needed to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail, and it’s only for the section that spans trough the Desolation Wilderness. After a slightly frustrating experience trying to secure my permit that morning, I finally got it and set out on the trail around 1:30pm. I walked about 10 miles that first afternoon and met a wonderful friend, Cory, who’s mere presence was a great comfort to me on my first day of solo thru-hiking. Now, I debated about putting this story into this blog, but it’s kind of too good not to…. That first night on trail was COLD, and after finally getting warm, I did NOT want to get out of my sleeping bag to pee in the middle of the night. So I thought back to a book I had read called “Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart”, written by Carrot Quinn. She would pee in gallon sized Ziploc bags and place them in the vestibule of her tent at night so she didn’t have to get out into the cold night when she was exhausted. So, I tried this in my half-asleep daze, not remembering the importance of the size of the Ziploc… so with my quart-sized sandwich bag, I started to pee. And it worked well!!! Until it didn’t. And I ended up getting pee all over my sleeping pad, my tent, and my pants. Great first night!

Big Meadow

The next several days were a whirlwind of beauty, pain, happy tears, and very, VERY upset tears. The trail meandered through wildflower speckled meadows, climbed steeply up mountain passes with sweeping views that my mind couldn’t quite grasp, and traversed around several stunning alpine lakes (and boy, a swim sounds super nice on a hot day until you finally get in and can’t breathe for 5 minutes). On day 2, I decided that I would push it 18.5 miles to get to camp that evening (a trend that remained), sort of just to see if I could. My journal entry for that day read, “Didn’t mean to walk this far… just sort of happened I guess.” And as you can probably imagine, I was exhausted by the end of the day, feeling overheated, sunburnt, pissed off, and with the beginnings of some overuse injuries forming in my right ankle and left knee. When you go from a relatively normal lifestyle, doing some yoga and walking about 5 miles a day, and then you suddenly jump to being on your feet for 9 hours, climbing up and over mountain passes, and walking 18 miles a day, your body may start to rebel (as mine did). The overuse injuries started getting worse, and by the 4th day on trail, my right ankle was throbbing on every uphill and my left knee felt like it was about to pop out of place on all the downhills. This led to a classic “mid-day meltdown” on the steepest part of my third sustained climb of the day. A super kind PCT hiker from the UK saw me leaning against a tree, crying and hyperventilating and kindly offered me Ibuprofen, a hug, and the reassurance that the pain is normal and part of the game. The mix of “vitamin I” and coffee had me feeling like Superman for the rest of the day and I hobbled into camp in better spirits, knowing I would arrive in Tahoe City the next morning.

Day 2, passing Lake Aloha

The ability to eat unlimited high calorie foods, drink beer, take an hour long shower, and sleep in a fluffy, quilted bed cannot be underestimated. When you’re out in the woods, covered in dust, sweat, sunscreen residue, and your own filth, sleeping on an egg-crate pad, trying to wash your hands to take out your contacts only to discover that no amount of soap and water seems to help… those modern comforts that we take for granted are like borderline orgasmic pleasure. That may seem like an overstatement… but I kid you not, my first bite of a slice of vegan pizza brought tears to my eyes. Relaxing in Tahoe City and making wonderful trail friends was exactly what I needed to wrap my mind around the next 40 miles, where there would only be 3 natural water sources the entire time. Now, the thru-hiking community is amazing and beyond helpful, and wonderful people called “Trail Angels” regularly drop off gallons of water at certain points along the dry sections so that hikers can avoid carrying more than 10-15 pounds of water at a time. There was one such water cache along this section in addition to the 3 natural water sources, so my anxiety about dehydration was pretty high going into this section.

Back on trail after a nice afternoon and evening break!

The longest water carry in those next 40 miles was 18 miles of dry, waterless trail. I made the decision to upgrade my water carrying capacity to 4 liters throughout this section, budgeting about 1 liter for every 5 miles of walking. What I didn’t account for was that this section is HOT and DRY and EXPOSED and in NEVADA, so the drinking habits I’d had in the water-filled Desolation Wilderness weren’t gonna fly out here. Those first 40 miles out of Tahoe City felt like one extended climb with very little relief, in my mind. My brain was constantly obsessing about how much water I had left, how much further I had to go to find more water, and how hot it was. The funny thing about obsessing about water is that the more you think about rationing it, the more you want to chug it… so I got into a pretty negative headspace my second day out of Tahoe City feeling like my body was giving up on me and the trail was out to get me. That evening, I began to feel physically ill, fighting waves of nausea and trying to find ways to ease the burning pain I was experiencing in my inner thighs from chafing. My climb up to Relay Peak that next morning was an intense one… I was struggling hard to remain present and focused. My sister briefly video called me so that I could say good morning to my nieces, and she found me wobbly-legged and crying at the beginning of the climb. I began to grow anxious about my nausea, worrying that I would begin vomiting and become dehydrated (given that I only had 1 liter left for the 7 miles to Galena Falls) and pass out on trail and not be able to make it out. My ability to catastrophize is truly incredible… like… if we could create renewable energy off of my catastrophizing, I could power New York City off of that alone. So the climb up became a cocktail of “shut the hell up, Morgan” and “I’m going to die.” Getting to the top of that climb felt like a breakthrough moment for me. It was amazing to me to see that I, in fact, DID NOT DIE and I actually got myself to that point through my own willpower, effort, and ability to take care of myself. I’m someone who loves to ask for help and rely on others when I feel scared or out of my element, so it really tripped me out to be at the top of that mountain and realize that this was the first thing in my ENTIRE life that I had done for myself and completely BY myself. No one was there as a backup to give me water when I felt thirsty. No one was there to comfort my anxiety when I began spinning out of control stressing about water sources and climbs. It was only me. And in that moment, my entire outlook on myself and my relationship to myself changed dramatically.

The view from Relay Peak, where I cried my face off

I began sobbing the kind of tears that are difficult to understand. There was exhaustion behind those tears… emotional overwhelm and frustration, but also tremendous pride, gratitude, and joy at having made it to such a beautiful point on my own two feet. I changed the mantra of “This sucks. I hurt. Am I there yet? I can’t do this” to “I love you, I’m proud of you, you’re doing great.” This mantra may sound super cheesy, but it was a hugely impactful experience to say those words to myself and actually feel the comfort and release from them as though they’d been spoken to me by someone else. It was like, in that moment, I learned that I could actually believe myself and love myself fully. I’d never been so kind and gentle to my own mind and body before. I’d never given the space from my automatic negative thoughts about myself to realize that the voice telling me, “I can’t do this. This sucks” is not my own. And so, with this huge awakening and 2.5 days of dry conditions and difficult hiking behind me, I was massively ready for a break to recenter and get my head right for my last 73 miles.

A stunning morning on trail amongst the lupines and trees

I’m so lucky to have a compassionate and thoughtful partner who enjoys surprising me, and that’s just what Mike did when he made the last minute decision to come to the Mt. Rose Summit Trailhead, pick up my smelly hiker self in his car, and drive me to Reno for a 1.5 day break from nature. We spent our time being potatoes; laying in bed staring at our phones for hours at a time, drinking beer and eating tons of food, binge watching Friends (OMG TELEVISION!!!), and trying a bit of gambling down in the casino. By the evening of that full zero day, I was itching to be back in the trees and feel wind on my face and sun and dust on my calves. The complete immersion in nature that thru-hiking affords can become overwhelming at times, and it can feel like “PLEASE LET ME GET TO A CITY SO I CAN SEE SOME DAMN CONCRETE.” But once in the city, it struck me how much I was ready to get out of it and back into the forest. Ready to escape the cigarette smoke, creepy male gaze, judgement over my filthy clothes, distraction, and way-too-fast-paced living of downtown. That mental shift made those last 73 miles so gratifying and intentional. Realizing that this way of life would inherently be temporary caused me to take in every single thing; every color of every flower, every conversation with a new trail friend, every moment when my thoughts reverted back to “this sucks, I can’t do this” and changed back to “I love you, I’m proud of you, you’re doing great.” I allowed myself to take the breaks I wouldn’t take in the beginning. I sat at the views with strangers who became friends in a matter of minutes and experienced the deepest belly laughs I’ve ever had. I swapped trail stories with amazing people like Funny Bone, a man who has hiked every long trail in the United States, most of them at least 4 times, and was on his third loop of the Tahoe Rim Trail that summer. As my hike came to a close, I felt torn about finishing. I was incredibly proud of myself and emotionally fatigued at the wide array of feelings I experienced each day. I was simultaneously very ready to be done, and nowhere near ready for the experience to be over. But as I crossed the Big Meadow Trailhead and walked back to my Prius, the weight of what had just occurred fully sunk in.

Back in my Prius after just finishing the trail

I had hiked 174 miles and I had done it… alone. I went from never being fully comfortable and confident by myself to owning it and enjoying it in a matter of 12 days. I learned that I can take care of my own damn self and that I have all the same competencies that I’ve observed and admired in other people. I learned that the only things that cause me to fail are my own mental limits, and by pushing past them and challenging every single negative thought that pops into my head, I can do hard things. Hiking alone was incredibly challenging. At times I felt scared, paranoid, tremendously lonely… but the resiliency and love I feel for myself now were well worth every moment of sadness or discomfort. Being alone isn’t about never feeling lonely… it’s about feeling lonely, feeling what ever comes along with that, and then just continuing to live and experience all that’s around you. I am so grateful to the Tahoe Rim Trail and every single person I met along the way for all that I learned and experienced. These lessons are definitely more challenging to integrate back in normal life, but each day so far, I’ve woken up with the knowledge that I can take care of myself, I have all that I need, and I love myself.

And that’s the greatest gift I could have ever received.

Thanks for reading!

Sincerely,

-M

Published by the_happy_hiker :)

I am a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, turned elementary music teacher, turned full-time Hotel Prius nomad. I live in my 2013 Prius with my partner, Mike, and our spunky pup, Poppy. I revel in backpacking, yoga, spiritual connection, and music and seek out opportunities to learn new things and expand. Really just another granola hippie fulfilling the stereotype.

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