North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail
Where is he? He should be here by now.
He should have emerged from the sea of trees and met me at this road crossing more than an hour ago. It’s been pouring all day, a bona fide deluge, and I’m not sure if he’s twisted his ankle in the mud or taken a bad fall and is sitting on a rock waiting for me to find him. I call him “Big Thump” for a reason—he’s constantly catching his size 11½ feet on some root or rock, sending his six-foot-two frame crashing to the ground with a resounding thud. Somehow, maybe thanks to his twenty-five years of trail-running experience, he always manages to avoid serious injury. But maybe his luck has finally run out.
I last saw him at a parting between two mountains, which out here in the Deep South they call a gap. Being from the West, I had never heard the term before. What Southerners call a gap is what I call a pass and the French call a col; the lowest point of a ridge, or a saddle between two peaks. At Sams Gap, I noticed he had the slightest limp, but I shrugged it off because he started every morning stiff as a board until his muscles loosened up around midday. According to our calculations, he should be able to cover the 13.4 miles of trail to Spivey Gap in just over three hours. But what I’ve come to realize over the past seven days is that every section is taking a lot longer than we expected and that a steady pace of four miles an hour is surprisingly hard to maintain, even for him.
On the Appalachian Trail he goes by El Venado, Spanish for “the deer.” It’s the spirit animal bestowed on him in the Copper Canyon by the late Caballo Blanco for the style of his running gait. But almost everyone knows him as Scott Jurek, one of the greatest ultramarathon runners ever, they say. To me, he’s always been Jurker, starting way back in 2001 when we met in Seattle. That’s what his friends called him, a play on his last name and a jab at his stereotypical Minnesotan niceness. He has accomplished things that no other male runner has even attempted, like winning the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run seven years in a row. One year he sprained his ankle mid-race; one year he chased a bear up a tree; and one year, less than two weeks after he won, he set a course record at the Badwater 135. He ran laps on a one-mile loop for twenty-four hours straight to set an American record. He won the Hardrock Hundred on a sprained ankle, and he holds three of the fastest times (behind only the great Yiannis Kouros) in the 152-mile Spartathlon race. But now he’s taking on a challenge that could permanently damage his body, not to mention our marriage. He said he wants this to be his masterpiece, but secretly, I wonder if he means it.
Jurker, where are you?
Give and Take
A Year Earlier
No matter what direction I looked, I could see forever.
And out past the place where forever ended, beyond the hazy horizon where sky and earth commingled, I knew the desert kept going: more rolling mountains, more vast valleys, more everything. West meant the Pacific Ocean and my old stomping ground in the Cascade Mountains outside Seattle; east meant my childhood home, back in the woods of Minnesota and beyond. South was more desert, more sun, more sand, less water.
North, though, felt new again.
Deserts have always been a mystifying and spiritual landscape for me. I didn’t set foot in a desert until I was twenty-two, and two decades later, deserts have retained their wonderful otherworldliness. I can see why many a spiritual seeker has chosen to walk through the desert for purification and reflection.
The still and barren Anza-Borrego Desert in Southern California could coax anyone toward enlightenment.
As I marveled at the measure of eternity, I realized it was possible that I wasn’t feeling enlightenment so much as mild heat mania. It was ninety-five degrees and only getting hotter. Almost every other living thing had taken refuge either belowground or in whatever meager shade could be found. The only creatures out and about were two bipedal mammals hiding under portable shade, rhythmically striding along the trail. Many Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikers take a break during the heat of the day, but we were short on time. We could get away from work and life for only a week, and we wanted to hike as much as possible.
Light and smooth was the name of our game. Quick, but easy. Desert hiking demands that you submit to paradoxes. You must move hastily through the sun and the heat, yet slowly enough to avoid producing too much heat of your own. You need to ration the water you haul on your back but not so much that you are burdened by its weight. Move too fast under the scorching sun and you’ll go through your water so quickly that you’ll wind up with dehydration and heatstroke. Carry too little water and you’ll shrivel up like a raisin, and the desert floor will swallow you whole. Out there, balance isn’t just a beautiful idea; it’s necessary for survival.
It can also look silly. We were the wacky-looking ultralightweight hikers—what Jenny calls outdorky—wearing long-sleeved cotton shirts and hiding under umbrellas in the bone-dry heat. We were also carrying what could pass for daypacks, each filled with only twenty pounds of gear, food, and water. We had stripped down to the bare essentials so we could move efficiently, cover more miles, and enjoy them without being dragged down by huge packs. We had even left our camp stove at home. We rehydrated our meals while we hiked.
I’d always dreamed of doing a long trail, of hiking for weeks and months on end with no specific schedule. I’d walk all day, camp where I wanted, live in the moment, feel the flow of unrestricted movement. I felt an urge to live close to the land and forget what society thought was normal. To transcend like Thoreau and Muir, with the Christopher McCandless ideals from Into the Wild, chasing a romantic goal to “move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon.”
I especially loved daydreaming about the ultralight-hiking approach pioneered by Ray Jardine and outlined in his 1996 bible on the subject, The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook. Now, fifteen years after I first borrowed Jardine’s guide from the Seattle Public Library, I was finally here, out on the PCT. It was everything I’d wanted.
But I already wanted more. We hiked the trail in sections, a week at a time, so at this rate it would take us about twenty years to finish the 2,600-mile trail. The more we hiked and hung out with the PCT thru-hikers, the more we both yearned to put our lives on hold for three months and keep walking all the way north.
I turned around and looked south for my umbrella-carrying companion. Sometimes hours and miles passed without us talking. We didn’t need to. We were immersed in the rhythm of our strides and in the wildness around us. Like the ancient Taoist philosophy wu wei, we were doing without doing. More of that desert paradox. Often, we both did our own things, lost in our own thoughts or our own thoughtlessness, only to return to ourselves and suddenly strike up a conversation as if no time had passed. I loved it either way. I loved walking with her stride for stride, telling stories of our pasts and passing the arduous miles with silly games, like quizzing each other on runners’ nicknames and Instagram handles and reciting movie dialogue and song lyrics. And then we would lapse into deep silence again, calmed by the desert.
This was one of those times we were beating our PCT drums alone, separated by a quarter mile of mesquite bushes and sand.
Her maiden name is Jennifer Lee Uehisa, but I call her JLu (pronounced “jay-loo”), like her climbing buddies coined from her initials. She calls me Jurker. People sometimes can’t believe we call each other by those casual nicknames that get hollered over canyons and campfires, but I think it’s fitting. No sappy, lovey-dovey endearments, no traditional “sweetie” or “dear.” We are buddies to each other first and foremost. Sometimes adversaries, but always best friends, even through the deep canyons and high summits of life. We are a team, and we know each other better than anyone else on the planet knows us.
Uehisa is Japanese for “perpetually rising” or “always up.” The name fits; she’s got a positive attitude no matter the situation, and, like the desert sun, she’s always rising. Hiking twenty miles a day with twenty pounds on your back isn’t typically how people recover after emergency surgery, but JLu isn’t your typical gal. Behind that cute, high-pitched voice is an absolute lion that roars past every challenge.
I’m sure she inherited some of that strength from her family. Her Japanese grandparents lost their home and farm in California and were sent to internment camps during World War II. Her mother emigrated from the barangay of Manila to the United States at age eighteen. Nothing was handed to JLu, and the only thing she knew how to do was go out and earn things the old-fashioned way. That drive is what made our lives compatible. I always chuckle when people assume I turned JLu vegan and made her into an ultrarunner, because she became a vegetarian when she was thirteen and she started running before I ever met her. And she’ll let people know it too! I don’t blame her. She has scratched and clawed her way through life, and she’s done it with grace and wit. She’s also got a hard edge, and that hard edge can be razor-sharp. She comes across all sweet and nice, but she can hang with the toughest guys. She says that she isn’t competitive, but watch out when it comes to table tennis, crossword puzzles, board games, card games, or, really, any game at all.
And two months ago, she almost died in my arms.
I’d never felt more helpless. In the middle of the night, I’d caught her when she passed out and held her when she vomited on our kitchen floor. She slipped in and out of consciousness as I pleaded with her, “Don’t leave me now, don’t leave me now.” She didn’t.
Neither of us knew what was going on, so I drove her to the ER. After hours of testing and waiting, we finally had an answer.
“You’re pregnant,” the ER doctor said. We sat in stunned silence. “But it’s in the wrong place, so we need to terminate it.”
Unbeknownst to either of us, she was approximately seven weeks pregnant, but the embryo had been growing in her left fallopian tube. When it got too big, it ruptured the tube, and now she was bleeding internally.
After the diagnosis, everything went into hyper-speed. Before we knew it, she was signing liability waivers, being counseled on the potential risks of blood transfusions, and then getting wheeled into the operating room. I remember her in a semiconscious state asking the on-call ob-gyn, “Will I be able to get pregnant again?” The doctor replied, “The next time you see me, I’ll be delivering your baby.” JLu half smiled and closed her eyes, and then they took her away.
After hours of me pacing in the waiting room, she was back. We drove home at 6:00 the next morning and took stock of the damage. We’d lost a baby, but thankfully we still had each other.
Never being one to take the easy route, she’d refused to let me carry the bulk of our gear on the trail, even though she was still recovering from surgery. At least I’d managed to convince her to let me carry all the water—and there were long stretches without water caches on the PCT. During thru-hiker season, local “trail angels” selflessly set out hundreds of gallons of water to make the Southern California desert sections slightly more hospitable. Otherwise, in drought years, thirty- to forty-mile stretches without a drop of water would be commonplace. So would bodies, probably.
As the mercury rose and heat waves rippled off the immediate horizon, my thoughts evaporated and drifted up and away from JLu. The desert too had its hard and soft parts, its own equilibrium. Scorching afternoon heat melted into cool, pink sunsets. The apparently lifeless landscape secretly teemed with radically adapted plants and animals. Back when I was an altar boy, I often heard people repeating the verse “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” Back then, I understood it as a kind of observation.
But out here in the desert, it felt more like a law than an observation. Giving and taking. A rule of existence that people often failed to acknowledge except when out here in the marginal spaces, out where they’re confronted by it. I welcomed the give-and-take of the desert. I welcomed what it required of me. Somewhere in between was balance, and nature always encouraged me to find that stability. What would water be without the arid desert floor, and what would lightness be without the weight? And maybe that’s why JLu and I were out here; maybe we were trying to chase that balance through the desert.
I was free at that moment to contemplate the mysteries of the desert because we’d had a little flare-up a few miles back and I needed the space. The good thing about the desert and the PCT is there is plenty of open space and miles of trail to let things calm down. It all started when she asked me the age-old question “Where are you and where do you want to go?” Actually, it was more like “What are you doing with your life?” It escalated a bit after she provoked me with “I thought you retired; why do you keep saying you still have some races left? You always said you’d be done at forty, so why are you backpedaling? I’m tired of you spinning your wheels, saying you’re going to train for this race and that race. You say you have the drive, but I don’t see it.”
So I made the mistake of going after her with “Well, what are you doing with your career? I don’t see you being the next Coco Chanel. I don’t see you winning Project Runway!” Of course she burst out laughing. What was I thinking, Project Runway? As if every designer’s dream was to make it on a reality-TV show. I’m never a match for her in these blowouts.
She ate me alive the rest of the argument, and it ended in us screaming at each other in the middle of the solitude of the desert. It’s not all peace and wu wei.
Part of the problem was that I knew what she meant. Maybe I was spinning my wheels. Maybe I’d convinced myself I wanted something I used to have. It’s true that sometimes I felt washed up, and I vacillated between feeling content and feeling that I needed to do something more—or be something more. I didn’t know how much of this was my own personal yearning and how much was, frankly, keeping up appearances. Everyone wants the champ to continue winning. We all want our heroes to be immortal; we don’t want to watch them slow down or become weaker. It was hard for me to deal with the incessant questions: “What’s next for you? So what race are you gearing up for?” As JLu nudged me in the desert, “Maybe it’s time to transition from athlete to ambassador and let go of the glory days. I can’t watch you fake another half-hearted effort. It’s not the Jurker I know. Don’t you want to be somebody?”
How was it that she could see me better than I could see myself?
And why did she have to drive me crazy in the process?
I was fuming because she was right. And she was asking the right questions, exactly the kind that made me flail around mentally. My sensation of enlightenment dried up and fell away like some molted snakeskin. Later, I would be grateful to her. She was doing the thing I loved her for: being a great partner, a challenging partner. She didn’t just pat me on the back, stroke my ego, and tell me how amazing I was. JLu can give me tough love like no one else.
That’s not to say that I rushed back down the trail to thank her. All in good time.
Besides, she really had kindled a line of thinking that was burning me up. Maybe racing and winning wasn’t the challenge I needed right now, or ever again. If that was the case, I really didn’t have a good answer to the question of what I wanted. What would come next?
More trail, for starters. We were a mere twenty miles through our planned hundred-and-fifty-mile section. I didn’t want to finish. I just wanted to keep hiking toward forever. JLu made me realize I didn’t know what I wanted next, but the desert reminded me what I wanted now. Give-and-take.
I have always been fascinated with multiday adventure runs and thru-hiking. As a kid in Minnesota, I never traveled beyond a handful of neighboring states, so I was in awe of people who rode their bikes along the shore of Lake Superior and of the cross-country cyclists I saw. Later, I heard stories about people walking and running across the country. The idea of powering myself across the country—an expanse I could barely conceive of—was overwhelming. I vowed that I would do it someday, somehow. Then the rhythm and patterns of life got in the way—school, summer jobs, internships, college, work, grad school, more work. When I got into ultramarathoning, I read about the great Trans American Footrace and of records being set on long national scenic trails and on trails that crossed famous landmarks in national parks. But then my new focus on ultraracing took over, and I promised myself I would do the multiday and “really long stuff” toward the end of my career.
And then, in 2003 on a run on this same trail, twenty-two hundred miles north in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, I told my buddy David “Horty” Horton that I thought I was ready to tackle the speed record on the PCT. He said, “You were made for this, boy! But wait a little bit, do some more racing, you have time. Let me do it first, then you can break my record!” That’s old Horty for you; he’s always got some half-sage advice to offer with a little something in it for himself. He had already set a speed record on the Appalachian Trail earlier in his career, so he knew what he was talking about. I really didn’t care when I did it, and he was probably right. I had plenty of time to blow away whatever slow record he set on the PCT. Back then, I always had plenty of time left.
I also couldn’t forget what another veteran ultra buddy of mine, Rob “Hollywood” McNair, had told me when I was tempted to run the Trans American Footrace after listening to his stories. “Scotty, you run that race and that will be the last race you’ll run!” he said. “Stick to fifty and hundred milers.” Now I knew what he’d meant.
So maybe it was JLu that did it. Maybe it was her brutally honest reminder that my career was coming to a close. All of a sudden I didn’t have much time left. There weren’t years stretching out in front of me, far-off days where I could stick a dream and wait for time to bring me to it. The only thing that stretched before me now was the rock and dirt and brush of the Anza-Borrego.
We had a week out here, but I wanted more. We had only started scratching the surface of our big life questions. I wanted more miles and a firm answer to “So what’s next?” One that didn’t involve hemming and hawing and halfheartedness. I wanted to go back to those woods in Minnesota where I’d fallen in love with the idea of life-altering adventures and trails that went on forever.
Suddenly, I also wanted to get out of the heat.
It took only a few moments to piece together a plan. I would run one of the National Scenic Trails. There were three big ones, and we were on one of them, the PCT. We knew parts of it like the backs of our hands. The Continental Divide Trail, the longest, at thirty-one hundred miles, followed the Rockies right through our new home state of Colorado and seemed like a good choice. But something about it didn’t feel right.
As soon as the idea came to me, it started to roll downhill and gather momentum: Why not try to beat the Appalachian Trail speed record? It was perfect. I wanted a completely new type of challenge, and I’d barely ever been on trails east of the Mississippi. JLu was right; ultramarathons weren’t doing it for me anymore. After a hard twenty years of competing, that wasn’t a surprise. But a speed record in the woods and mountains, a monthlong adventure to crack myself open once again? I’d lost the passion to push my body and bend my mind to chew up miles in ultraraces. But I still loved to run and explore my surroundings on foot. I loved being out here.
Even the unfamiliarity attracted me. I instantly loved the idea of running somewhere totally new, totally unexplored, and totally unplanned. As my grandfather liked to tell me as we rambled over his back forty acres in Wisconsin, “The best way to know your land is to walk through it.” Every twist and turn of the trail, every vista and boulder, and every road crossing and trailhead, would be completely foreign to me. A new, undiscovered world around each corner.
Of course, I wouldn’t be rambling. I’d be chasing the speed record. Horty had done it years ago. I knew I could. Maybe it’s what I needed to rekindle the flame that JLu had noticed dying out.
Later on, I would work out the details, but my mind almost immediately started running through the calculations. I would run and hike an average of fifty miles or more a day for about forty-five days along one of the most rugged trails on the planet. I would cover 2,189 miles while climbing and descending a million vertical feet. Over the course of about six weeks, I would cover the entire length of the Appalachian Trail faster than anyone before me.
Well, I would attempt to.
And I knew that I couldn’t even begin to attempt it on my own.
We’d preserved our postfight silence for miles when I stopped on a switchback and let out the guttural kraa of a raven. That’s her trail name, Raven, like the color of her hair and the smartest birds around. JLu kraaed back, and when she caught up, I blurted out my plan.
“I think I want to do the Appalachian Trail, go after the record. It has lots of road crossings for you to meet me so we can hang out throughout the day. We can have lunches together and you can run sections with me. It will be a vacation, a fun adventure for both of us!”
Maybe if I kept talking, she wouldn’t get a chance to say no.
JLu stopped dead in her tracks with a look of dismay and a wince of confusion. She had heard me talk about speed records and thru-hiking, but that had been idle daydreaming. And there was a trail that was much closer to us than the Appalachian, a trail that we both loved. We’d lived in Seattle for years, so the Pacific Crest Trail felt like our backyard. I had covered most of the trail in the state of Washington and parts of it in Oregon, and I’d run races on sections of it in California. JLu loved playing “find the Pacific Crest Trail crossing” with me as we made weekend road trips when we lived in Southern California. The PCT had been my home course, and then it became ours.
“The Appalachian Trail…” JLu said with a look that I knew all too well. “Why?”
Then there was silence, a deafening silence that even the eternally still Anza-Borrego Desert couldn’t match.
Because I’m stuck.
Because I’m forty and I need to feel what it’s like to go to the edge again, and then go farther.
Because I’m so thankful for everything I have, and for just a little while I need to remember what it feels like to have none of it.
Before I agreed to go on this trip, I made Jurker promise me that we would rehearse. Not for him—all he had to do was run—but for me. I was the one who was going to have to drive a van to remote meeting locations and serve as a roving aid station several times a day. Even though I had plenty of experience, I was worried. I had been running ultramarathons for thirteen years, including two one-hundred-mile mountain races, so I knew what kind of logistics were involved. But this wasn’t a race or an event; it was more of a multiweek vision quest than anything else, and it was going to be much more complicated than anything either of us had done before. So I wanted to practice.
That didn’t happen.