Day 85: On the Pacific Casino Trail?

Hitting civilization full-blast after spending weeks in the mountains is a profoundly dislocating experience. We woke up this morning in our tent at 8,500 feet, five miles south of Echo Lake on the PCT, yet tonight we’re falling asleep in a swanky hotel room, twenty-six floors up from thousands of slot machines, blackjack tables, and roulette wheels at a casino in Reno, Nevada. As I lie here at night, it’s genuinely hard to believe that those are actually two ends of the exact same day, the experience is so different. It’s just really weird.

The other really bizarre experience of today? Driving. We rented a car in South Lake Tahoe to get to Reno, and it’s the first time I’ve driven in three months. Everything happens so fast. I was driving 25 and it took all my attention just to make sure I didn’t do anything dangerous or profoundly stupid. (Don’t worry — after thirty minutes in the car, it all came back to me and took no effort, but it was a surprising experience for that first thirty minutes.) After all, that’s about ten times faster than I’d been moving under my own control for months. But there’s also an ultimate sense of freedom and power that comes from having a car now, too, because it means we can navigate cities and get to the things we want quickly, instead of relying on hitchhiking or buses to take us around. It feels like we’re suddenly so productive, and that feels great.

OK, but to answer the question that’s on everyone’s mind: why, in god’s name, are we in Reno? One word: pack. My first pack from ULA, a Circuit, failed hundreds of miles ago when the stay broke through the bottom, causing me to send it back and trade it in for a Catalyst, their next larger model. Recently, though, that pack failed with the exact same problem — it has two stays on the sides instead of one in the center, and they’ve started to break through the bottom, too. Talking to other hikers on the trail, this is apparently a pretty common problem, which makes me really disappointed in ULA — these packs are supposed to last much longer than this. To their credit, they agreed to refund my money if I sent the pack back. So, we’re headed to Reno because that’s the closest REI, for me to get a new pack (and decidedly not a ULA pack).

There was another motivation for heading to Reno, too: around the holiday weekend (fourth of July) in South Lake Tahoe, things get really, really expensive. The Motel 6 was $180/night, and everything just went up from there. It’s not that we’re against paying that much as a splurge on the PCT — it’s that if we do that, we want it to be for someplace nice, not the Motel 6. Reno is a completely different world: swanky rooms at casinos are less than $50/night…so Reno it is!

Because we got off the trail early, we were even able to accomplish a lot of this stuff today. I am now the proud owner of a Gregory Baltoro 75, which is pretty much the opposite of the pack I just came from. It isn’t ultralight at all (although, having said that, the weight difference between that and the ULA Catalyst, size XL, that I’m going to get rid of is actually not that big); the wonderful woman at REI who helped me described it as the “Lincoln Town Car of backpacks”. After the amount of hip pain I’ve had from the previous pack (I have no butt or hips, which means hipbelts get really tight to support weight on me, which means they can hurt a lot), I think making a different tradeoff — weight is not so much the issue, but bad suspension and padding is — makes a lot of sense. As you’d imagine, your backpack is one of your most important pieces of gear on the trail, and I think that it’ll take a while to get used to any kind of change, even a positive one…but I’m optimistic and really hope this one works better for me.

It feels really good to have gotten to Reno early and taken care of so much already: showers were, of course, our first priority, followed by laundry (while wearing nothing but our raingear — which was, I’m sure, a spectacle on a 90° afternoon in Reno), followed by REI and other errands. It was a long afternoon but I’m excited about everything we’ve accomplished, including getting new socks, a new hat, and even a new hiking shirt. As I’ve said before, even small additions or replacements of gear can be really exciting out here, since these are all the possessions you live with for months on end.

Staying in a casino is also, of course, hilarious. We drove up at about noon on a Tuesday to these enormous parking lanes — the hotel registration here bears resemblance to nothing so much as an airport dropoff zone — and walked under giant purple neon into a dark, dark interior with one of the biggest registration counters I’ve seen in ages. (And, of course, slot machines everywhere.) To their credit, the hotel staff didn’t visibly register any panic at our state of filth, and helped us get the room we wanted pretty quickly. It’s fun being such a fish out of water; we have zero interest in ever gambling a single cent, but we do have an awful lot of interest in their cheap-but-nice hotel rooms, equipped with showers and wonderful king beds. Being on the 26th floor just makes it even more hilarious — you mean we don’t have to climb up all 26 floors already? (For what it’s worth, my iPhone tells me that, on average, I’ve climbed 110 flights of stairs a day over the past month, so 26 really isn’t so bad.)

We’re planning on staying here to take a full zero tomorrow, and leaving on Friday, putting us back on the trail for the holiday weekend. I hope we get to see, or at least hear, fireworks on the Fourth, but, either way, we’ll probably enjoy it more than actually fighting crowds in tourist towns. We have plenty more to do tomorrow — but we’re also hoping to throw in a whole lot of eating and even some napping, too.

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