Experiencing Every Inch: Canada to Mexico on the PCT
I wasn’t at my finest leaving Julian. There was a stitch in my side and saliva was turning to glue in my mouth. My feet were throbbing in shoes that had lost their cushioning long, long ago. Just goes to show that no matter how good you think you’ve gotten over the course of a trail, thru-hiking is still a daily challenge. You’re constantly adjusting and compensating for each little thing that comes your way.
I was feeling better by the time we were back on a ridge, and was looking forward to the sunset. The ridge was thick with shoulder-height manzanita, and Mt. Laguna’s summit was prominent to the south. It was a perfect evening, and I resisted turning on my headlamp until I started tripping over the trail.
We did the unspeakable and blue-blazed half a mile to get water. I ate half of my sandwich and an avocado by the road at Sunrise trailhead in the dark. The stars were brilliant that night, and we enjoyed a few late-night miles. We camped in a cool boulder field. I slept fitfully, grappling with the thought that tomorrow was the last full day.
We packed up quietly in the morning. Still we followed the ridge, paralleling the highway for a while. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so many people, given that it was Saturday and we were quite close to San Diego. Mt. Laguna seems to be a popular location for the brightly clad trail running population of the area. I passed several groups who all seemed to be staring at me, possibly wondering how long I had been out there to have collected so much dust. Undoubtedly some of them knew they were on the Pacific Crest Trail, but did they identify this band of shuffling vagabonds as the rare few who had traveled its full length?
Such vain thoughts sound embarrassing and grandiose in hindsight. But in that moment I was coming to terms with the extraordinary journey of a thru-hike of the PCT. Leafy told me a story of a conversation he’d had with someone farther north, somewhere along the trail, that really hit home. They had been curious about the motivation to undertake such a long hike rather than, say, see the West Coast on a relaxed road trip.
Leafy replied that by hiking, “We experience every inch.” There is nothing between us and the environment. Every raindrop, every ant, every rock, root, pass, river, and fire scar that I encountered was important. Part of the story. Thru-hiking is a full immersion experience. It’s not the only way to see the world, but it must rank among the best ways. Humility quickly shredded my earlier vanity, as I recalled each gust of wind and thought how beautifully meaningless it was that I had been there to feel it.
I could see the interstate in the distance at the end of a classically gentle descent. Beyond the strip of asphalt, low mountains stretched to the horizon. And I knew that some of those mountains I could see were in Mexico. I had a brief, happy cry now that I was presented with tangible evidence that I was going to make it. Just one more sunset, and one more sunrise. We sat together for a while at the Boulder Oaks campground, soaking everything in.
The last sunset did not disappoint. I walked slowly as the light faded, not concerned at all about the time. Camp tonight was mostly a formality, as I figured I wouldn’t sleep much no matter what. And I knew I was going to have a big hole in my heart where desert sunsets used to live. Don’t waste any, but definitely don’t waste the last one. We’ll just get to Lake Morena when we get there.
I was walking a little before 5 a.m. I couldn’t wait any longer. I was happy, excited, and not even in a bittersweet way. The hike had been so excellent, the last day felt like the victory lap. All the snowy, ashy, silty, sandy, and dusty miles. All the peaks, valleys, and ridges in between. I felt deserving as I began the last 20 miles. Enjoy this day, you earned it.
Over the first ridge, the trail maddeningly turned north. Even knowing that every step was a step closer to Mexico, something just feels wrong when you’re walking in the opposite direction of your goal. Moving south again after climbing away from Hauser Creek, I began the last descent back to the desert floor.
I had heard Ohm Boy leave before me, and I kept speculating about whether he had reached the monument yet. I pictured the monument in my mind. Just before the railroad tracks, I once again leaped high in the air as I was brought back to earth by the familiar rattle. I passed without incident, but wouldn’t that have been a story!
A Journey from Border to Border
The southern terminus of the PCT isn’t exactly a glamorous location for the end of a journey. Thankfully it doesn’t need to be. It’s there for you to fill in the blanks. To each person who touches its flaky gray paint, it has its own meaning. For many it is the beginning. For a few, it is the culmination.
I was glad to reach the monument alone, the hike flashing before my eyes, everything from the past four months experienced simultaneously. After a moment, Ohm Boy clapped quietly from a small patch of shade along the fence. We made it.
It was approximately noon on Oct. 15. 119 days of unspeakable beauty, challenge, discovery, and happiness. My second thru-hike complete, and already the urge to do more. A library of memories to carry home as souvenirs. The feeling can’t be put into words. In the register, I wrote something like “I hope everyone, at some point in their life, can feel this way. You deserve it.” Sappy maybe, but sometimes walking a really long way does weird things to your brain and your heart.
I tore through every remaining calorie in my pack. Ohm Boy and I made bets on the order the last three would come in. I was right: Leafy first, pumping his fist, followed shortly after by Kirby and Per Bear looking casual as ever like they hadn’t just hiked the whole fucking PCT.
Watching your friends finish their hikes is maybe even better than finishing your own. The entire hike is written on their faces. It is amazing how close you can get with people in just two months. Looking around our little group, I felt proud of everyone, and glad to see them so happy. We celebrated together down at the fence for a while before walking back to town. For once, it really was just walking. The thing was done. And it was amazing.
Thank you for patiently waiting while I took my sweet-ass time to chronicle my PCT hike. I hope you enjoyed the stories I told. If you did and you’re sad that they’re over, then you’re in luck. After taking a few luxurious days off at a hotel in San Diego, Kirby and Per Bear and I made our way out to Arizona for one last hike. At 800 miles, the Arizona Trail (AZT) sounded like the perfect cooldown hike to postpone the dreaded re-entry into post-trail life. Teaser: The AZT is a beautiful, ass-kicking trail that tested me and also taught me how much I really love hiking.
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