A 17-Question (Post-Hike) Interview with a 2021 NOBO PCT Hiker
On September 22nd of 2021, my bestest friend Kara completed her 2021 PCT thru-hike at the US-Canada border. You may remember Kara from an earlier article, in which I interviewed Kara about her hopes and fears for her upcoming hike. Recently, we sat down again to get the post-hike gossip and overall lowdown on how her hike went.
I was thrilled to hear the details of Kara’s hike. While I talked to her off and on throughout the summer – and even got to see her in person near Tahoe, right after Alex and I finished the TRT! – I hadn’t heard the in-depth details on how her gear performed, how her ankle held up, and the quantity of cosmic brownies she consumed.
Buckle up, and enjoy this 17-question interview about all things PCT!
Rachel (me): Give us the stats – when did you start and finish? You started NOBO – did you stick with that? Did you jump around, skip any miles, or go out of order?
Kara: I started on May 5th and touched Canada on September 22nd, walking north the whole way! I started with a purist mindset, wanting to walk every mile. However, I quickly abandoned that idea. Due to the wildfires in California, I skipped almost all of NorCal, about 400 miles. I skipped roughly 100 miles outside of NorCal for various other reasons – fire closures, ankle pain, and wanting to make it to the hiker rave on the aqueduct (worth it!).
Rachel: Tell us how your big three performed – did you stick with the same items that you started with? Any regrets or recommendations?
Kara: I stuck with the same big three I started with. I used the Copper Spur UL 1 for a shelter. This survived the whole hike, but barely. Not due to bad manufacturing, only because of my laziness in caring for it. There was a stretch in Oregon when I left my tent packed away in my pack for over a week after it rained. To no surprise, it was very moldy when I unpacked it (and remained so the rest of the hike).
Two weeks from the northern terminus, I managed to break a tent pole as well. I had a unique strategy for taking down my tent, in that I would take it down while sitting (BIG PRO to having a free-standing tent). Anytime off my feet was highly valued, so every morning I would sit on my sleeping pad while tearing down my tent. Well, one night I got into camp absolutely exhausted. Though I typically stand while putting up my tent, on this night I decided if I can take down my tent sitting, I bet I can put it up sitting. I thought wrong. I broke my tent pole. Due to the location of the pole break, I was unable to repair it, but it still functioned enough to finish out the hike. I called it my Franken-tent after that.
Since being back from trail, I’ve replaced it with The Two by Gossamer Gear, which I’ve yet to test out. Because I cowboy camped almost every night in the desert, if I could do it again, I’d hike the desert without a tent and just carry an emergency tarp. Wow, that was probably more detail than you wanted or needed about my tent. Moving on.
I used the Enlightened Equipment Revelation 10-degree quilt. I was never ever cold – I even sent my base layers home in the Sierras. For this reason, if I could do it again, I would probably order the 20-degree (or maybe even the 30). By the way, NO ONE called me eggplant…I do have a vague memory of someone mentioning Barney though.
My pack was the ULA Circuit. I loved it. Absolutely no complaints. Super comfortable, big enough to fit all my gear, fair weight.
Rachel: You started the hike alone – were you nervous at the beginning? How did you find the friend-making process to go?
Kara: I was a little nervous before getting to trail. But, my experiences from the airport forward eased my nerves very fast. I got picked up by an incredible trail angel, spent the night at a basecamp hosted by trail angels, and met an awesome friend that I ended up hiking the first 500 miles with- all before stepping foot on trail.
The trail community is special. It is full of the kindest and most accepting people I’ve ever met, and the trail experience naturally yields friendships and community. I remember telling my mom on a phone call during one of my first weeks on trail that when I got back to the real world, I wanted to greet strangers on elevators the way people greet each other on trail – with excitement, curiosity, and non-judgement. All in all, making friends was relatively easy, and I definitely have some lifelong friends as a result of the experience.
Rachel: You were most nervous about injuries pre-trail and the readers all remember that you were dealing with ankle problems and had surgery. How did that all play out?
Kara: Hmm. I would say not particularly well, but it definitely could have been worse. I had pretty intense ankle pain almost the entire journey. I’ve had imaging done since trail, and due to some bone abnormalities, my feet just don’t function efficiently. Given that, walking over 20 miles per day was not good for them and resulted in severe inflammation inside of my bones. The journey may have been more painful than I wanted it to be, but I’m just thankful for a body that carried me the whole way! I’ve promised myself that I will never walk another long trail with that level of pain. But it was undoubtedly worth it and I still wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
Rachel: Other than injury, what ended up being the most or couple most difficult aspects of the trail?
Kara: Oregon. Oregon was hard. They say Oregon’s the flat state, and it is. However, it was mentally and physically the most challenging part of trail for me. Because of my NorCal skip, Oregon is where I hit my personal “halfway” point. I thought halfway would feel like mile 500, where I felt invincible. I believed if I could walk 500 miles, that there was no doubt I’d make it to Canada. However, the half-way point made me feel almost…discouraged? I don’t know if that’s the right word. I remember thinking, I’m only halfway? In Oregon the honeymoon stage wore off and exhaustion set in.
Rachel: You were most excited to eat a bunch of junk food (specifically cosmic brownies), see California National Parks, make interesting friends, and have a daily routine of walking (something you love to do) – can you recap how each of those ended up being involved in your hike? Better or worse than expected?
Kara: You won’t believe me, but I actually don’t like cosmic brownies anymore…very sad, I know. I got sick of a lot of my favorite snacks – but never pop tarts or candy! Eating junk food is fun, and I definitely ate a lot of it on trail…but real life food is far better than trail food.
Seeing the California National Parks was great, but in general I’d say just spending prolonged time in beautiful, wild places was a highlight, regardless of the specific land designation.
As I said before, the trail community is so special. The people I met enriched my experience significantly.
Having a daily routine of walking. That’s an interesting one. I loved hiking, I still love hiking, but I think the actual magic of trail has little to do with hiking. The real magic is in the in-between experiences: the siestas and group naps with your friends, an unexpected burger or beer or banana at a highway crossing, a great conversation with a friend or stranger, an afternoon spent sitting on the lawn of a McDonalds, a hitch in the back of a pickup, a dance party at the VFW, a talent show at a bar, unexpectedly running into a friend after days/weeks/months without seeing them, the fresh air, the beautiful sites, the lack of responsibility, the freedom you feel, the simplicity of the whole dang thing.
Rachel: Did you end up eating even one heathy thing?
Kara: Sometimes I would pack out salad and I think I even packed out an avocado once. My friends really got on me about eating too much candy and needing a more “anti-inflammatory” diet. I tried switching out my breakfast pop tarts with ProBars and some of my candy with banana chips, but the ProBars were quickly replaced again with pop tarts.
Rachel: What was the best or couple best aspects of the trail (that you didn’t expect or anticipate ahead of time)?
Kara: The quiet. The time for just myself. In both a literal and figurative way, the real world is so dang noisy and cluttered and busy. On trail, that all fades away. Life is simple. All you have to do is walk. There are no distractions, no responsibilities, no to-do lists, just quiet. Quiet that offered me a lot of time to be with myself, to think, not think, process, reflect, and just be.
Rachel: How often did you shower? Did you break your previous record?
Kara: I broke my record, and I was so proud! Twelve days without a shower! I intentionally skipped an available shower to beat this record. I’d say I normally showered about once a week though.
Rachel: Tell us your trail name story.
Kara: My trail name is Chucks! It’s not a particularly flattering story, but it is funny. On Day 5, I was hiking into Julian, CA. It was about an 18-mile hike and water carry from our campsite to town. Because we were all so excited to get into town that day, my friends and I decided to walk through the heat of the day, instead of taking our typical afternoon siesta. All of this amounted to me rolling into Scissor’s Crossing very dehydrated. There was trail magic when we arrived, and instead of drinking water as I should have, I proceeded to down three PBRs.
After trail magic, we headed into town and went directly to the brewery, where I proceeded to drink more beer…I’m sure you see where this is going. Well, everyone I was hanging out with that night had started the trail on May 5th, Cinco de Mayo. To celebrate, we decided to go to the liquor store and buy tequila. The tequila proved too much for me. After taking a shot, I immediately projectile-vomited all over our campsite. The next morning, I woke up to my friends calling me Upchuck, Chuckie, and Chucks. I eventually accepted Chucks. Very sorry to anyone that camped right there after me.
Rachel: Would you say you have the thru-hiking bug? What other trails are you most excited for, if any?
Kara: Yes, absolutely! It was the most fulfilling, rewarding, and fun experience of my life thus far. Of course I want to do another. Due to my ankle issues on this trail, I want to try out a shorter trail next- maybe the Colorado or Arizona Trail! I definitely want to complete the Triple Crown in this lifetime, also.
Rachel: Did your relationship to your gear change at all during your hike? People often do a lot of detailed research pre-hike and pick out very specific items. Were you generally happy with your choices? Did you carry your luxury items the whole way (grandma’s knife, hairbrush)? What did you send home and why?
Kara: As mentioned before, I kept my big three the whole trail and was generally happy with my choices. However, a lot of my other gear items changed. I carried my luxury items the whole way and even added more luxuries, like playing cards and a cork ball for rolling out my feet. In the Sierras, I added a thicker hiking pant because of mosquitos, which I carried the rest of the way. I sent home my base layers (as mentioned before), because I was trying to drop weight and hardly ever wore them.
In an attempt to drop my pack weight, I also sent home my stove home and became a cold soaker. The worst idea. I’m not sure if it was the cold soaking or the fact that I ate Knorr rice sides every. single. night., but I began to regret my decision to send home my stove when I started feeling immense dread at dinner time every night. For a while, I was basically force-feeding myself dinner. After a few weeks of stubbornness, I finally agreed to letting my friend share her stove with me and vowed to never eat a Knorr rice side again. Life was much better after that.
My biggest gear regret was probably my rain gear. I definitely failed on that. Luckily it was a dry year on the PCT, so we didn’t see rain and cold until the last week or so on trail. I had a Frogg Togg poncho and it was simply inadequate. A short-sleeved poncho that left my legs and arms exposed was not fun when rain was mixed with cold. Luckily, the trail provides! Top-notch rain gear was lent to me for the final stretch. This gear made my life much more comfortable. Finding the right trail runner was another whole journey. I won’t bore you with the details. I’ll just say I ended the trail in Hoka’s and they were the shoes my feet were happiest in.
Rachel: Tell us about money on trail – what was stressful, if anything? Were you happy with the amount you budgeted and the amount you spent on gear beforehand?
Kara: I budgeted on the high end of what I expected to spend on this trip ($10,000). This meant I didn’t have to worry about spending money on food, hotels in town, eating out, shoes, etc., and I appreciated that. Coming off several trail days, it was so nice to buy myself a meal and drink without feeling regret or stress. For anyone using this to plan a future trip, I spent about $6,600 while on trail, including some unexpected expenditures like extra pairs of shoes and doctor appointments. I have appreciated my savings buffer, however, as I faced a few months of unemployment after trail.
Rachel: Any parts of trail, nearby areas, or towns you want to return to?
Kara: Towns: Ashland, OR! One of the side missions while hiking was to find a PCT town for my college friend group to move to and Ashland was the winner. Now, we just need to move! Runners up included: Stehekin, Mazama, Julian, and Tehachapi.
Trail: Washington was magic, I’d consider doing an entire re-hike of it one day. Goat Rocks in WA was particularly cool.
Rachel: What was the worst day on trail? (Or what were common aspects of any bad day?)
Kara: Simply put, the worst days were the days my ankles felt the worst. Pain makes hiking much less fun.
Aside from pain, I had a particularly tough few days about two weeks out from the northern terminus. Over the course of a week, I was drenched and freezing in a rainstorm (in my crappy Frogg Togg poncho), I pooped my pants, I broke my tent pole (the lesson in laziness), I placed my hand in a pile of my own poop, and within the first few minutes of hiking one morning screamed: “I hate hiking, I don’t want to do this anymore!” Those were a relatively bad, but mostly comical few days of hiking.
Rachel: What was the best day on trail? (Or what were common aspects of any good day?)
Kara: The in-between moments were the most magical moments on trail, but the best days on trail contained the extravagant, special, once-in-a-lifetime type events, like the nighttime hiker rave on the LA aqueduct, summiting Mt. Whitney and Clouds Rest for sunrise, and hike naked day.
Rachel: Anything else you want to say about your experience?
K: If it’s not obvious from my lengthy answers to these questions, I could talk about trail forever. But, I’ll keep it short and sweet and leave you with what I wrote in the northern terminus trail log: “I ran out of candy, time to go home.”
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