It is hard to write on the pct. In the limited moments when I’m not hiking I’m busy with eating, filtering water, admiring the landscape, socializing with fellow hikers, or hanging out with Shaina. There is also the issue of being exhausted beyond belief, where as soon as my body ceases to move a tiredness sets in that’s all consuming. Lifting myself up from a cushioned sleeping pad requires effort and will power of monumental strength.
This post is about Day 1 of the PCT. Over a week has passed, with many occurrences during the 110 miles walked so far. This post is to give some idea of what Day 1 of a five month long hike feels like.
I hadn’t slept well. It wasn’t nerves or excitement, just the disruption caused by constant cross country travel. The alarm shrilled at 4:45am, stirring Shaina and I from our bed located in the loft of a tree house which is reserved for couples. We descended the metal spiral staircase onto the astro turf lawn, and navigated ourselves past the other hikers recently roused and now packing. We were all guests of Scout and Frodo, an older couple who hiked the pct some years ago and now offer their home to hikers as well as a ride to the trail head.
After breakfast we loaded into vehicles and head towards the border. The weather was rainy and misty, which was disheartening being so early in the hike, but luck was on our side as the rain ceased as we approached the border and the wall that declared it. Metal, dull, featureless, and numbered, the wall followed the contours of the hills as far as I could see in either direction. People who are on board with the Trumpian ideals of a border wall should know that what they desire is something ugly, a sinister blight that casts a unappealing shadow. There have been enough dystopian novels and movies demonstrating that this is a bad idea. The border wall also creates a sensation of being boxed in, and once I began hiking north of it I felt like I was heading deeper into a giant box.
There is nothing dramatic to the beginning of the PCT. There is no Springer Mountain at the start of the Appalachian Trail to kick it off. There is a grey painted wooden monument, where Shaina and I were photographed with the 20+ other hikers who were starting that day, most of which promptly took off never to be seen again by us. Shaina and I waited till everyone had left, before shouldering our packs and tightening the belts and straps. The man we had stayed with, Scout, approached us to offer some advice, as we were the only couple starting that day. With his characteristic hand gestures that were expressive, and priest like, he told us to be kind to each other. He left it at that and drove away and we started to hike.
It was cool and overcast, perfect conditions for a first day and preferable to the high heat that comes with southern California. The environment was different from what I expected. It was not the Mojave-esque desert of Utah (it becomes that later but not until day 5, and damn was that a hot day). We were moving through a place that was lush and vibrantly green. It was treeless, just dense undulating hills of tall shrubs. Almost tundra like, without any flora I was familiar with. The scent of the air was fresh, with a hints of the reefer like smell of sage. It’s been a year of heavy rain so the streams were plentiful and frequent to use as a water source (the days of 16+ mile stretches without water were only days away, along with disorienting heat).
The start of hike, for me anyway, was a stuttering stop and go routine. Walk a bit, stop and adjust backpack. Walk a bit, stop and fiddle with water nozzle. Walk a bit, stop and pee. In a couple of days I would be able to take care of these adjustments without stopping (except peeing of course, hard to walk and do that). I felt good for a couple of miles, then the pack started feeling heavy. A simple, gradual up hill would have me gasping for breath as sweat streamed down my face. It seemed harder than I remembered.
Now that the pct has started, memories of the AT, such as how hard it was, the pain and struggle become tangible and I remember “Fuck, thru-hiking the AT was fricken hard!” And the length of time. The realization of how long this is going to take is unsettling. Knowing that five months is not going to fly by. That all the aches, pains, discomfort and frustration will not be interrupted by some fantastic HBO show. I questioned if this is what I want but knowing that quitting is not an option because, well, I’d be too embarrassed to quit. Day 1 came with a grim acceptance that this is going to be hard, and that’s it’s going to take a long time. An acceptance that this is now my life.
On day 1 it’s hard to focus on much other than the pain. Muscle, tendon, and bone grind and groan in ways that weight lifting never induces. And my feet, oh those poor feet. Never have feet experienced such an assault (they have, 7 years ago, but memory is a selective process). Imagine suddenly gaining 35 pounds and walking long distances up and down rocky terrain. The body screams “what the fuck!? When did we become so fat and want to immediately endure such exertion!?”. On that day, if you were hiking and feeling light and limber, you would have come across Shaina and I, collapsed on the ground, sweating, panting, chugging water. Once you walked passed, averting your gaze so you didn’t feel anything like sympathy, you would miss the dialog that transpired between Shaina and I. An acknowledgement of “this is hard, what were we thinking?” followed by a series of sarcastic deprecating jokes and fits of laughter until we’re able to pick up those heavy packs and hobble on down the trail.
We made it 14 miles that day, camping at the base of a steep climb we would do first thing in the following morning. The camp was along a stream bed lined with towering trees. After setting up our tent, we laid our sleeping pads next to each other in soft patch of ground beneath a tree and laid down. For awhile I watched the canopy above me, swaying in the breeze in a way that’s hypnotic. I turned and looked at Shaina beside me, her gaze meeting mine, a small smile playing across her lips. “That was fun” I said. She started laughing and agreed that it was.
Those of you reading this may be wondering why I am doing this, putting myself through all this. The first day was hard, very hard, and it’s the only day that will be a shock to the system. If this blog continued on I would tell you how on day 2, Shaina and I crushed a steep mountain with strength and vigor to spare, and how every day we’ve gone farther and grown more resilient and dialed in. But there is a long way to go on this hike, plenty of times where you’ll read about surviving adverse weather, and tackling the highest peaks we’ve ever experienced. Breaking out of comfort zone is tough, and keeping in mind that it gets better (which it has) is the only way to accomplish something such as this.
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