Breaking Open and Breaking Up on the Pacific Crest Trail

“I think we should spend some time apart; I’m not actually sure I want to be with you anymore.” His words, cold and indifferent soaked my heart in dread and disappointment. We sat, close as ever, on the bus from Vancouver B.C. to Portland, Oregon. From there the plan had been to pick up the car and road trip to our home in Salt Lake City.

The Summit of Mount Whitney

We had thousands of miles between the two of us on foot, and now four wheels would take us back. We’d cover the distance it took us almost five months to walk in less than two days. And here we were, stuffed into a bus, acutely aware of the noise and our smell. We had pushed and pulled, clawed and climbed, cried and laughed, walked in tense silence and screamed, made up passionately, threatened quitting, wiped each others’ tears and scraped knees all the way north to Canada and now we were on our way south and our relationship was unraveling.

I looked out the window, filled with suffocating rage, watching the I-5 corridor speed past. He was right. We both knew something unsaid: that perhaps this had been a bad idea, that maybe hiking together had done our relationship more harm than good.

“But everyone said if we could make it through this, we could make it through anything.” It rattled through my head. So much of  my life was unaccounted for now: no job, no home, no new dream (yet). I leaned heavily and entirely on Jefe and our relationship throughout this trip and now, my anchor was threatening to cut ties.

By mile 500 we had a few bumps and bruises but were feeling optimistic.

Let me lay out a brief timeline.

June 14, 2017: I moved to Salt Lake City to begin a new job as a wilderness therapist.

June 18, 2017: I met Jefe (trail name acquired on the AT in 2016) and we worked together several weeks, out in the Utah desert with a group of 12, angry, filthy, rambunctious, creative, and sometimes hellacious teenaged boys. Nothing like shared trauma to get the romantic juices flowing.

July 19, 2017: Jefe and I go on an overnight backpacking trip—he thought it was a date, I was clueless—and end up becoming romantically “involved.”

July 19-October 24, 2017: Jefe and I do the classic millennial anti-commitment mating ritual that involves a lot of texting, a lot of “hanging out,” and some excited and naive future planning: van life, homesteading, etc.

October 24, 2017: Things become official

January 2018: Jefe and I decide that he will join me on my attempt to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail starting May 2018.

Whirlwind? Definitely. Naive? Probably. Fun and passionate and exciting? That too. We assured ourselves that the time we had spent together, living in the wilderness at work would be more than enough to keep our relationship and thru-hiking dreams alive.

Kearsarge Pass; one of the many unintentional engagement photos we took.

Many people talk about the difficulties of thru-hiking with a partner. “Oh man” they’ll giggle, “you don’t really know someone until you spend every night in a tent with them.” At the time, I would laugh along with them. Charmed. Imagining our future PCT endeavor like reruns of the Newlywed Game—blushing and fake slapping as we told our friends about having to help each other apply chafe stick or just how bad our farts smelled after two solid weeks of ramen bombs. Heads back, hair tossed, laughing at how hard we worked and how impenetrable our relationship had become.

Instead there was this. A thin sieve; our relationship leaking like a sinking ship as I ran around bailing water, hoping that my optimism would plug up the holes that disdain and resentment had drilled.

Jefe looking out over a smoky Northern California

Our blame swirled around us, forming and reforming a dust cloud. We were connected, inextricably and entirely and we wanted nothing more than to rip ourselves apart; so melded that we could no longer find ourselves. My memory flashed to months earlier. Was it late May? Were we near Big Bear? We walked, lock-step, him nipping at my heels. His ease on the trail fed my anxiety. It was hot and my pack was heavy. I had always been an outdoorsy and athletic woman: tomboy. However, this experience was pushing me to the dark and gnarled edges of my mind. I wheezed and trudged up and over, up and over. And he would glide, effortlessly. I would ask him to slow and he would yield. He would yield until it became clear that no matter how slow he went, it would not be enough to prove he was truly with me. I was grasping for a connectedness—with myself, with him, and with the trail that never felt natural.

Our paces were so misaligned and our stubbornness to tough it out turned our closeness into a distorted hybrid relationship where neither of us could be ourselves. We twisted, like two rooted trees grasping for resources, choking each other in order to hold on; reach higher. Where am I? Where do you begin?

Glen Pass. As I hiked North of Bishop, my mental health took a downward turn.

We did not break up on that bus from Vancouver to Portland. It took a little over two months after walking together into Canada before we ended things. In some ways, we buried ourselves even deeper into each other. We kept hearing from others on trail, “I could never do what you’re doing; it’s hard enough to do it on my own”. I would always nod along, silently patting myself on the back for making something hard even harder. Why challenge yourself when you can suffer? Jefe and I took a challenge and added our own complex, mucky layers. Our ultra-light backpacks made exponentially heavier by the emotional baggage we expected the other to carry.

And what had I learned? I still don’t know, and will never fully know. One lesson is this: from the chaos and the suffering something beautiful can emerge. We damaged each other, willing ourselves to march through something that might’ve required grace and release rather than force. But we also reached deep into one another and asked: “Are you enough?” “Can you do any more?” “Can you forgive me and yourself?” and those are questions for which I will always be grateful.

In so many ways we did get closer; how could we not? The trail asked so much of us. But as with any relationship (and with any thru-hike), you come to a point where the question is: “Should we?” Rather than “Can we?” We still haven’t fully answered that. Time and space and tenderness and curiosity will reveal more and there will come a time, no matter the status of our relationship, where we will look back and say: “I walked a fucking long way with that dude. Hell, they’ve helped me apply chafe stick to my butt.”

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Comments 7

  • Andrew Franks : May 15th

    I do not think I would have tried it unless we had been together for at least five years.
    Given two very different paces, even that would not have been enough. I have been the faster one and the slower one. Neither role is good.

    You took an enormous risk and got burned.

    Consider doing another fairly lengthy trail, maybe five or six hundred miles, alone. That might let you clear your head—as well as your heart and spirit.
    OTOH, maybe the trek exposed issues that would have festered for years, resulting in a bitter, painful, expensive divorce, including children. Maybe the trail saved both of you a decade or more of steadily increasing misery.

    Congratulations on completing the PCT.

    I hope you find peace.

    • Caro : May 15th

      Hello Andrew,

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I definitely plan on embarking on a solo trip – it’s time I got to know myself a little better.

      And you’re right. Jefe and I have actually discussed how the trail put our relationship in a pressure cooker and maybe just sped up the inevitable. There’s so much to learn from our relationships with others and ourselves.

      All the best,

  • Travellvr : May 17th

    I don’t think you got burned. Sounds like a great trip and an incredible experience. Not all great relationships are to be lifelong. It also sounds like you do know yourself and you sound like an amazing person living a great life. Maybe you just need to trust yourself a little more and know that it’s ok to be alone sometimes – even if you don’t want to be alone. Congratulations on completing the PCT and the Camino de Santiago!

  • hillslug982389 : May 31st

    This was a beautiful write. I don’t have advice, because I haven’t trod a path similar to this. The Hubs used to be an avid hiker, but health concerns limit his activity now. When we do hike together, I chafe at his frequent chatter. I miss him when I’m out on the trail, but I’m grateful for his willingness to give me the freedom to go do these things alone.

    I recently read “Walking the Big Wild”; that author had a similar experience in walking from Yellowstone to Yukon in an effort to promote awareness of the need for & benefits of a wildlife corridor. The relationship with the partner he’d planned the trip with deteriorated, and eventually both of them continuing become impossible. I can’t imagine how hard those days must be, knowing what must happen, feeling regret while knowing it’s for the best, knowing you’re both hurting.

  • Lisa : Jun 11th

    Beautifully written Caro. Thanks for being brave enough to share your grief and vulnerability.

  • Matt Sparks : Feb 6th

    Poignant introspection that is relatable not just to hiker-trash lovebirds, but anyone having ever been wrapped up in a whirlwind adventure romance. You anwered your questions with the right questions, I think. I’ll end it with a cliche quote from a cliche author that still means as much as anything ever has to me:

    “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” -Kerouac

  • dan melenka : Feb 10th

    Great post Caro [Oklahoma] to me. Jefe and you [Songbird] were some of my favorite people on trail 2018 pct. We (Catherine and Dan) leap frogged each other a few times. Sorry to hear you didn’t work out together but to quote Ferron one of my favorite singer song writers ”life don’t clickity clack like a railroad track it come together and it come apart”
    happy trails Dan


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