Chemical Engineer Turned Hiker Trash

I remember crying when I finished Pacific Crest Trials on the plane ride home from Iceland back in September. I cried because I was still so conflicted about whether I wanted to make thru-hiking the PCT a reality. I wanted it so badly, but I was scared. I wasn’t scared of the trail, but I was scared of quitting my job, telling my parents, and not doing what I’m “supposed to be doing.”

I had just finished a four-day backpack of Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail and had my first taste of the thru-hiking lifestyle. The Laugavegur Trail is a 55 km (34 mile) hike from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. The hike can be extended by 25 km (15.5 miles) by continuing on the Fimmvörðuháls trail from Þórsmörk to Skogar. Even though the hike was short, we had managed to form a trail family. Because I had limited time in Iceland and wanted to explore the rest of the island, I chose to end my hike in Þórsmörk while everyone else continued on to Skogar (I regret this decision and would love to finish the Fimmvörðuháls trail someday). At the end of the hike, I remember waiting at the bus stop, eating peanut butter out of the jar with half of my broken spoon/fork plastic utensil, and feeling like hiker trash. I loved that feeling and longed to make it a reality.

During one of the nights of that hike, I was awake in my tent and couldn’t sleep. I decided to follow the advice of Pacific Crest Trials and make a list of why I wanted to hike the PCT. This is the list I came up with and is why I’ll be hiking the PCT NOBO starting at the end of April.

No. 1: Thru-hiking has been my dream for years.

I first learned about thru-hiking while staying at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) huts in the White Mountains. Thirteen-year-old me and my parents  were staying at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. As we passed by thru-hikers, my parents commented how it would suck to be out in the rain and cold for six months straight, to be tired, smelly, and hungry. To them it seemed crazy but to me it seemed awesome. I was enchanted with the thru-hikers and was so excited when I got the chance to talk to them and hear their story.

Since then, my parents and I have stayed at each of the AMC White Mountain huts. I’ve spent weekends peakbagging in the Catskills, Adirondacks, and White Mountains, hoping it would help cure my thru-hiking itch, but it’s only made it worse. I’ve spent weekends section hiking the AT in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia, but it’s just not the same as a full-blown thru-hike. I remember walking through Bear Mountain State Park at the end of a three-day section hike. People commented on the size of my pack and asked if I was a thru-hiker. While I longed to say yes and continue north to Maine, I had to say, “No, I’m just out for the weekend.” A weekend warrior.

No. 2: I’m sick of watching other people live my dream while I sit at my desk.

This was the motivation that I needed to make thru-hiking a reality. All last year I would look at people’s PCT thru-hiking photos during my lunch break at work. I followed their journeys and felt a ping of jealousy that I wasn’t out there too. While thru-hiking had been a dream of mine for years, I hadn’t known anyone personally that had done it: until a friend of mine (shout-out to “True Story”) thru-hiked the AT in 2014. Then last year, one of my ultimate Frisbee teammates (shout-out to “Two Meals”) thru-hiked the PCT. I remember half-joking with him that I was going to start on the AT and race him to see who could finish their trail first.

It became real when a friend of mine (now boyfriend), who had already thru-hiked the AT, told me he was thinking about hiking the PCT in 2019. I realized that I couldn’t just sit at my desk and look at his photos. It was time to make my dream a reality.

No. 3: It’s the right time in my life.

There’s a scene in the documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats Its Young, that really hit home for me. To summarize: John Fegyveresi (who also thru-hiked the AT and PCT and was third place Barkley Marathon finisher in 2012) talks about how his dad had always told him to get a good job, buy a house, and save for retirement. His dad was saving up money to travel the world once he retired but dies unexpectedly shortly beforehand.

Obviously, everyone has different life circumstances. Some people have life obligations that prevent them from being able to thru-hike. However, I feel like it’s the right time in my life. I have enough money saved, I’m not married, I don’t have a house, and I don’t have kids. The summers before my junior and senior year of college I spent interning at the job I ended up accepting immediately after graduation. After four years of high school and four years of brutal chemical engineering curriculum at Lehigh University, I jumped right into the work force. Three years out of college, and I’m burnt out. It’s time to go hiking.

If thru-hiking is one of the top goals I want to achieve in life, it would be pretty sad if I never got to achieve that goal. The day I decided to thru-hike the PCT was the day my friend Lynda told me, “Don’t let anyone or anything get in your way.”

No. 4: It’s beautiful.

One of the reasons why I’m choosing to hike the PCT this year is because it’s just so darn beautiful. While I would still love to hike the AT one day, it feels familiar, and I am looking forward to experiencing the beauty of the West Coast.

No. 5: The hiking community is awesome.

I’ve met so many awesome people through the hiking community these past couple years. After a rough breakup, I had the irrational fear that I would have to give up hiking because I no longer had a partner. As a shy extrovert, I was nervous about the idea of hiking with complete strangers, but I eventually mustered up the courage to join one of the AMC’s group backpacking trips in the Adirondacks. I ended up hiking my first Adirondack High Peaks (Gothics, Armstrong, and Lower Wolfjaw) and am now on my way to becoming a 46er. I also joined an AMC hike on the Pennsylvania AT where I met my friend Rand, an AMC hiking leader. Rand is working on section hiking the AT, and I’ve since joined him on hikes in Southern PA, Massachusetts, and my most recent PCT shakedown hike in Virginia. Like me, Rand enjoys hiking big-mileage days and often jokingly asks if the hike is too short for me.

Since I started winter hiking I’ve met hiking partners through Facebook and Meetup and now have a solid group of hiking partners. It’s bittersweet because many of my hiking partners have just finished their winter Adirondack 46 or NH 48, but it’s a great feeling being there with someone for their celebratory finish.

To people outside the hiking community, it seems crazy to meet up with a complete stranger from the internet. While you should certainly use caution (especially as a young, solo female), most of the hiking community is awesome. It’s interesting to meet so many people of different ages and backgrounds all working toward a common goal, and I’m excited to experience more of this community on the PCT.

No. 6: Hiking is good for the soul.

Whenever I show my parents pictures from my hikes, they always comment that I have the biggest smile and seem so happy. It’s true that I’m never happier than when I am outside in the mountains. As a big fan of type 2 fun, even a bad day out hiking makes me happy. Experiencing bad weather and difficult trail conditions makes getting through one of these hikes even more satisfying.

I have started hikes feeling sad, anxious, angry, and/or annoyed but all of those emotions faded away after a few miles. Mountains have a way of lifting the spirits and clearing the brain.

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Comments 7

  • Fegy : Mar 28th

    Very good to hear you are taking the leap and going for it. Thru-hiking the PCT (or any long trail for that matter), is absolutely transformative. You will return a different person…..a person with a greater sense of awe for the world, and wonder about our place in it….a person with a greater appreciation for the relationships we have and that we make along the. Experiences you have that may seem insignificant on the trail, will only later reveal themselves to be instrumental in reshaping your entire mindset about life. It’s hard to maybe imagine these things now…but they will all become apparent in time as you walk. Do enjoy your journey, both on the trail and within.

    Reading your post, I’m reminded of the quote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” ― John Muir

    Good luck on your journey,

    -John “lakewood”

    Reply
    • Liz Archibald : Mar 29th

      Thank you! This is a wonderful comment and I love the quote.

      Reply
  • Justin : Mar 31st

    Hiya! I only made it 2 weeks on the PCT before I had to cut my thru hike short and head home due to a tragedy back home. But, I can confirm that number 4, 5, and 6 are true. I’d rewrite number 3: there is no right time or wrong time, instead, you “have finally made time for yourself to chase the things you want”. So, remember that, and go have a blast!!

    Cheers, and go Lehigh, ultimate playing chemical engineers 🙃

    Reply
  • Donna Dutton : Apr 5th

    Will you be posting regularly via FB or blog?
    I really enjoyed following some women thru hikers last year!

    Reply
    • Liz Archibald : Apr 9th

      Hi! I’m going to try my best to blog regularly… but I’ll definitely be posting on my instagram: adventuresofdotdot and facebook. Thanks for your support!

      Reply
  • Mike B : Apr 7th

    I too have a degree in Chemical Engineering, though many years before you earned yours. I whole heartedly endorse your decision. I wish I had hiked the PCT or something similar when I still could have reasonably done it. I still enjoy my smaller adventures, but I also wish they didn’t end so soon. I will also say you certainly picked a tough year to do it. Lots of snow throughout California. Skipping the Sierra like the 2017 hikers won’t help. We’ve got much more snow up here in NorCal than 2017, and it keeps coming.

    Reply
  • Emily : Apr 21st

    This is amazing Dot!!! I am so happy for you and so proud of you ! You inspire me to follow my dreams while I still can!!

    Reply

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