Broken By The PCT

The PCT was the first of the three Triple Crown trails I’d vowed to hike by the time I was 65. I expected to finish in peak physical condition and be in the best shape my 63-year-young body could attain. But instead of building me up, the PCT tore me down.


I came off the PCT last September hurt and broken. My legs were stiff, my left knee creaked, and my feet were sore.

I’d lost more than 25 pounds and was disturbingly thin. I’d gone from being a greenhorn plodding across the California desert, to a svelte and toned über-hiker scaling the high Sierras, to an emaciated camp inmate. By the time I came out at Hart’s Pass, stopped by fire and smoke 30 miles short of Canada, I was hurting bad. My one consolation was that I’d hiked the Washington State section from the Columbia to Canada in 2018 (that’s the photo above). So I could still claim victory.

But my body was played out. Exhausted. I felt old again.

Coming Home

Riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder back to Minnesota, I was so grateful to be sitting and doing nothing for hours on end. I spent the 38 hours from Wenatchee to St. Paul drifting in and out of sleep, gorging on leftover trail food, and watching the endless prairie slide by. It was such a relief.

I’d expected to bounce back after getting home to Wisconsin, but a month after my return I was still in rough shape. I was tired most days, my legs were stiff, and they ached on the long walks.

The whole point of retiring early was to hike the Triple Crown before my body gave out. I’d seen too many friends and relatives go into physical decline and lose the opportunity to do the things they wanted because of arthritis, cardio-vascular disease, and worse. These are the deficits and declines of aging that happen gradually and then all at once. Like the time in my early 50s when I tore the meniscus in my left knee. All those miles of wear and tear finally bore their dark fruit. Suddenly, I wasn’t training for marathons anymore, much less running them.

Coming off the PCT I was deeply concerned that I’d done irreparable damage to my body. Had my aged frame reached a tipping point? Was it too late to complete my hopeful quest? Never mind the Triple Crown, could I even manage the CDT?

The Storm That Follows

I’ve met others on trail who suffer from chronic depression. For us, thru-hiking is potent medicine. It brings solace and relief and lifts our heads to see the brighter world around us. Despair about the future and regrets about the past are vanquished by the immediate now. The miles attained, the well-earned sweat, and the hardships overcome all nurture a radiant sense of accomplishment that grows daily. Witnessing Nature’s beauty, her grace and power, is humbling and awe-inspiring. In the face of this, self-doubts whither into insignificance. One becomes suffused with gratitude and respect, and the dark clouds of melancholy burn away in sunlight.

But when the trail is done, depression can slam back with a vengeance.

A few days after returning to Wisconsin, the exultation of my accomplishment was overtaken by a malevolent thunderhead of despair. My epic journey was done, I was home with my loved ones, and yet nothing had changed. I was the same flawed person. After months of direction and purpose I found myself lost and adrift. I tried to fend it off, but in the end, I could not weather the storm. The cold rain of hopelessness came down and soaked me through and through.

So, I did the one thing that I knew would help.

I went for a hike.


l am fortunate to live in a state with a long trail close by. Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail (IAT) is a 1200-mile route of forest paths, backcountry roads and old railroad beds that snakes east to west across the state. It passes cornfields, beaver ponds, and one-tavern towns, and has a vibe more rural than wild. My hike would cover a 190-mile section starting at the western terminus on the St. Croix River and ending in the small town of Cornell, a 40-minute drive from my home. Though no PCT, it didn’t need to be. I just wanted a long trail to hike and the IAT was right there.

It was slow-going at first. My legs felt stiff and clumsy. Fallen leaves obscured the trail’s roots and rocks and I stumbled repeatedly. My pack felt ungainly. I was carrying too much food. The kit I’d honed down to bare essentials on the PCT was now overweight, stuffed with warm clothes and a fat sleeping bag to fend off the autumn chill. I was tripping down the trail like a novice.

But the awkwardness didn’t last.

Trail’s Grace

After 2 days I found my trail legs and stopped fretting about my pack weight. Gradually and gratefully, I let myself be taken up by the trail’s rhythm. Up before sunrise, on trail at first light, and putting in my miles with welcome breaks for rest and food. I relished the evening ritual of erecting the tent, preparing my bed, and enjoying a relaxing meal before turning in to write in my journal, and then plunge into restful sleep. This daily structure, the autumn’s beauty, and the trail’s gentle demands rejuvenated my body and soothed my soul.

I felt stronger. My leg issues receded. The cloud of depression dissipated like morning mist. I found myself living in the gracious present, welcoming each day’s gifts. The frosty morning’s bite, the wary deer crossing the trail, the chevrons of Canada geese overhead, and long October sunsets. Kicking through fallen leaves I encountered whispers of gratitude like those I’d experienced on the PCT. Thankful for path before me, the friendly towns along the way, and small and simple things, like the way autumn-chilled peanut M&M’s crunched delectably in my mouth.


My 10 days on the IAT renewed my confidence, quelled my fears, and helped me get stronger. It persuaded me that the CDT was yet within my grasp and reminded me that old age is as much as mental construct as a physical reality. The CDT will be tough of course, perhaps brutally so. But that is as it should be. For are not the rewards sweeter when the way is hard?

If nothing else, I’d learned that on the PCT.

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Comments 16

  • Crossword : Feb 4th

    Your writing is engaging! And good to see that you are back on track to do the Triple Crown! I did the AT last year at 61 and am planning to do the PCT in 2024, with Tour du Mont Blanc this summer, after getting some surgery to repair some hernias. Not sure if I’ll do the CDT because it has so much road walking but I’ll see how it goes with you and who knows!

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 5th

      Thanks for the encouragement, Crossword!
      Glad you liked my first post. Always wanted to write about my hikes and saw The Trek as the best way to make that happen.
      Hope your hernia repair goes well and you’re back on-trail soon. The Tour du Mont Blanc will be a beautiful hike!
      Stay strong,

      • Alfred S Lutzick : Feb 6th

        I just want to wish you all the best. I will be 60 this may & it’s time to get out on the They trail myself. I have put it off long enough so no matter what I will start my journey. Before it’s to late. Thanks I will keep you in my thoughts good luck

        • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 7th

          Thanks Alfred,
          I did my first long hike — the Washington section of the PCT — when I was 59 and glad I did because I’ve gotten creakier in 4 years since. Wonder if I would have still taken the plunge if I’d waited and not done that hike. As it happened, it was life-changing, a great test, and it gave me the confidence to do other long hike (the WY section of the CDT & the CO Trail) and last year, the whole PCT.
          Bottom line: don’t wait. Do it as soon as you’re able.
          You won’t regret it.

    • Hiker on Hiatus : Feb 10th

      Todd, thanks for sharing. Your words resonate deeply even with a novice hiker like myself. Although it didn’t initially feel like it, it sounds like the PCT built you up after all. We are more resilient than we like to think. I’m a new mom in the breastfeeding and diaper changing phase of my life. I can’t wait to get back out there and set some goals for myself, even if that won’t really be for another few years 🙂 Enjoy your journey

      • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 10th

        As the they say, “What doesn’t kill us…”, and it’s true, I do feel – I am – stronger. Maybe not physically, but inside. There I’m rawhide-tough. I’m pumped and thrilled about tackling the CDT this June and can barely wait to get back on-trail again.
        But honestly? It scares me.
        The CDT is the thru-hike I most want to do, the one I dream about, yet it’s the longest, the loneliest, and arguably the toughest of the Triple Crown trails. I’m writing this blog to help prepare myself. To better understand my motivations, thoughts, and feelings about the trail ahead. But it’s also about sharing what I’ve learned, helping other people prepare, and getting feedback. From people like yourself.
        I appreciate your reading my post. Happy trails on your trek as a new mom. May your trail ahead be rewarding and full of grace.

  • Morgan : Feb 4th

    I enjoyed reading this, thanks! Maybe I will see you on the trail when you pass through my hometown Silver City, NM or in the Gila Wilderness on the CDT!

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 5th

      Hey Morgan!
      If all goes well, I’ll be in Silver City sometime in late October. It’s on my resupply spreadsheet! I’ve heard good things about the Gila Wilderness too. Looking forward to hiking its forests, mountains and wide-open spaces. God, I love that mountain and range country!
      Thanks for reading. 🙂

  • Paul Rhoades : Feb 5th

    Looking forward to following you on your next adventure’s on my bucket lists but the AT is calling me first. I retire at the end of this year and planning on starting next February, this will be my first thur-hike so we’ll see how it goes. Loved your story and hope you get that triple crown!!

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 5th

      Happy forthcoming retirement, Paul!
      When I retired early to do the PCT I thought, “what the hell have I gotten myself into?” But looking back, I’ve no regrets and am so glad I followed through. Best wishes to you on your future AT thru-hike. If I can complete the CDT this year, that will put me on track for the AT in 2024. So, who knows, maybe I’ll see you on-trail one day!
      Thanks for the kind words & encouragement.

  • Cole Baumann : Feb 6th

    That sounds like an insane journey, both on and off the trail! Not sure if you remember me, but I had you as a professor in Aquatic Ecology a few years back. Glad you were able to get out and see all the PCT! I attempted a thru-hike of the Ice Age Trail myself. Too heavy of a pack and mauled feet were my down fall but I made it roughly 525 miles on it heading West to East. I need to get myself back out as I still aim to finish the trail before eventually leaving WI. Feels weird to reach out like this, but if you ever need a trail buddy for the IAT while prepping for the CDT, I’d be thrilled to join

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 7th

      Yes, I remember you!
      You did the poster about the effects of current velocity on stream macroinvertebrate communities in Little Niagara Creek and made the “periphyton hat” for your art project, right?
      So cool that you’re a hiker too!
      Don’t know if I’m doing another Ice Age section this spring, but definitely want to do another shake-down before hitting the CDT in June. I’ll keep you in mind if I decide to do more IAT.
      Take care and stay in touch.

  • Titouan Le Roux : Feb 9th

    Hey Todd! I really enjoyed your post, and I find your story inspiring. I wish you nothing but the best (which is to go get that Triple Crown!) and I will be following your next adventures closely! Take care!

    • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 10th

      Thanks, Titouan.
      I appreciate your encouraging words. I’ll try to keep the story interesting. Thanks for following along!

  • Drop Bear : Feb 22nd

    Enjoying reading your posts. Just also read your “why I hike” one and you articulate it perfectly. The CDT is gorgeous and from what I have read in your articles I think you’ll enjoy it. My partner and I completed it last year (SOBO)…he turned 64 on trail and was a far stronger hiker than me (55). I look forward to following along.

  • Todd Wellnitz : Feb 22nd

    Hey Drop Bear!
    Thanks for the encouragement and glad you enjoyed the post.
    Just read Jenn Wall’s post, “9 Reasons You Should Hike the CDT SOBO” and got all excited.
    Can’t wait to get on-trail this summer. I’m SO looking forward to being in big mountains and wide-open spaces again, yet this winter won’t quit.
    I just want to be out there.
    Question for you: What was your start date and when did you finish?
    I’m going through all kinds of scenarios for a heavy snowpack year and trying to decide how late I can push it for my Glacier start. Am curious how it went for you.
    Thanks for reading!


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