at the precipice

I am standing on the precipice of a great journey.

Before starting such a journey, whether it be a mental, emotional, physical journey or a combination of the three, we are often tasked with finding our “why”. This way, in the tough moments, the times when we are grappling with giving up and abandoning the journey, we will have a touchstone to return to, a grounding point to hold us fast.  The two thousand, six hundred and fifty-three miles of the Pacific Crest Trail is such a journey that will invariably present such moments.  There will be struggles that will make one want to pack it up and head home.  I have been contemplating my “why” and have struggled to come up with a concise mantra that I can repeat while slogging through cold rain or arid desert.  Not that I don’t have a deep drive to take on this trail, but I simply have not found the words to sum up such a complex feeling.

My name is Melissa (no trail name yet) and I will be starting to trek the Pacific Crest Trail in a few days.  If all goes well, I will turn 40 somewhere in Northern California.  I am leaving a perfectly good job, and the security that holds, to live out of a tent for the next 5-6 months.  And there is no clear plan for post-trail; no home to return to, no job lined up.  I have never lived without a plan. I have always known what would come in the next months to years. Now, I will leave that safety net behind to become voluntarily homeless in what is left of the wilderness of the western United States.

To return to nature and throw off the choke-hold modern life has had on me has become more and more appealing.  I have worked hard through the last two decades to get where I am, but still have not felt satisfied.  I spent 10 years in training after college to become an Orthopaedic Oncologist, a surgeon who specializes in treating tumors of the musculoskeletal system.  Over the years I have accumulated a group of patients. Patients who follow me through the day, have touched my heart, shaped my choices, and kept me awake at night.  These patients are young and old, from different areas of the country and with different backgrounds. They have one devastating thing in common. Cancer has claimed their lives.  And I am left to wonder if I could have done anything differently that would have given them a different outcome.  It is a burden that I am ready to lay down.  When I think about this hike, a sense of freedom and peace comes over me and I yearn to breath in the open spaces of this world. I think those patients will come with me, for a while at least. But maybe we can all find some peace sitting under a tree by a mountain lake.  Doing what I do has taken a toll on me. But it also has given me perspective. I do not want to wait longer to start living. Too many people sit in my office and tell me they just retired only to be diagnosed with a terminal disease.  Without exception, every patient I have told about this hike have applauded the decision.  They understand all too well, that life is fleeting and we must take hold of what we can, while we can.

Every mortal will taste death but only some will taste life – Rumi

This is more than a need to escape the reality of our mortal life.  I yearn to be on my own schedule, with no one to report to or feel responsible for besides myself.  To be free of the cage my life has become. A cage I willingly built myself, constructed of the material things I thought would fulfill me.  The cage continued to feel smaller and smaller until a dream slowly began to take form.  A dream of living a simple life, stripping my life of the “stuff” that fills it, to return to the barefoot child filled with wonder that I left behind.  I want to drink in the feeling of standing on the shore of a mountain lake with the sun on my face, letting it fill me with warmth and nourishing my soul.  This is a feeling that I have never quite found in my life of fancy restaurants, the latest tech gadgets, and expensive toys. But I have glimpsed it kayaking down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with nothing but what I could carry in my kayak to live off for 8 days. It was there when I slept under the stars in Idaho with no cell service for a week. I felt it on the top of Half Dome in Yosemite and Angel’s Landing in Zion.  It is a peace that comes from being so immersed in nature, so grounded to the natural world that nothing else matters. This is the feeling I am chasing on the PCT, with the hope that I will be able to cultivate a life with a deeper spirituality and less connection to the “things” modern society says are important to own.

All of this is rooted so deep in my gut that I cannot fully bring it to the surface and translate it to the paper in front of me.  But it is there, grounding me, providing the base of support I will need in the coming months.  This is my “why”.

It is time

The start day approaches, the permit has been printed, the home is sold, and the goodbyes have been said. I am ready.  It is time.  See you on the trail.



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Comments 10

  • Jennifer Brooks : Apr 25th

    You are an amazing human and I’m thankful for everything you did for Craig. Happy trails!!

  • Tracey : Apr 25th

    Hope to get a chance to meet you when you get to the Hat Creek Rim. I provide Trail Magic there sometimes during July and August. I understand your why and can appreciate it. I wish you a safe trip and enjoyable journey.

  • Sam : Apr 25th

    Wow! As another career person I think you nailed it. Go out there and get life! You don’t get a second chance.

  • Uncle Jerry : Apr 26th

    I have always admired your zeal for attacking the adventure in nature. Enjoy as much as you can as long as you can. Enjoy God’s creation. With Love Jerry

  • Elisa : Apr 26th

    Thank you for being so raw about your “why” Prayers for your journey physically and emotionally. We are here if you need anything.

  • Scott : Apr 27th

    What a great intro. Of all of these I have read, yours is the first that was written with the perspective that only years of hard work and drive can produce. Yours is the first I can truly relate to. I am planning on a PCT thru-hike in 2024, when I retire.

    So many people like to use the word “crazy” in their intro’s. Why am I doing this crazy thing? Am I crazy for doing this? I find most of them laughable. You are doing this because you can. You have worked hard and paid some pretty tough dues, and now you are able to take some time and enjoy what your soul craves.

    Just remember, when you are having a bad day out there and hating it, you are still experiencing the amazing emotions that are part of life. Enjoy them, knowing that they mean you are feeling alive!

    I look forward to hearing about your hike. Good luck out there!

  • JP : Apr 27th

    I just finished Anish’s (Heather Anderson) Mud, Rock, Blazes about her time on the AT. Though the goals you mention (quite inspiring, btw) are very different than those she had, I thought of her journey as I read your post. It just feels like there can be something simple and pure about this pursuit – something very deeply human.

    I am on the cusp of retirement and plan to walk the Camino de Santiago this fall and the AT next spring. Here’s hoping that we both find what we seek.

  • Erica : Apr 28th

    There are no words for what you seek. That is the beauty of it all. It is a vibration. I aspire to be you someday. Thank you for going all the way and through your journey we all will become closer to freedom.

    You are the real deal.
    You inspire me.

  • Michael Flaherty : May 5th

    Melissa,you have pretty much encapsulated Thoreau’s mantra to “simplify,simplify”.You have had the trappings earned through your hard work and realized they don’t bring happiness or contentment.May you find what you need on the trail.Have fun and be safe…

  • Terry Libby : May 6th

    Hi Melissa and hubby! Dang, you are going to be ahead of me. I just finished Campo to Scissors Crossing with my dog, Dakota. I would love to have run into you during our hike. I am going to try and finish section A this week. At 72 I find that I am one of the slowest hikers, but that is OK, I am still hiking.
    I hope you have many amazing trail experiences and encounters. Terry and Dakota.


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