Facing the Challenge – Week 1
I didn’t know how to feel as my plane landed in San Diego.
People told me that I must be excited, yet I wasn’t. Mostly, I felt trepidation.
In 2020, I had felt nothing but ready, but in 2021 I felt anything but ready, what’s more, I was untrusting of the time, and the day. Was it really going to happen this time, or was I going to be sent back again?
For all of my concerns, my worries about my performance, the drumbeat that rang loudest in my mind was that I shouldn’t get my hopes up.
Still, the night gave way to the day, the sun rose and there was no stay at home order that had come down, there was no email, telling me to go home, all systems were go as my husband and I loaded into the rental car and drove the last thirty miles to the Campo trailhead.
There was a volunteer signing people in, and other hikers setting off on the trail.
Suddenly, it was all too real. I was going to be left here, while my husband returned to the airport to fly home, leaving me to walk to Canada.
This is what I wanted. It’s what I had trained for, but there was still no joy, just worry, and a sickly resolve. Instead of excitement, I had to see my way through the anxiety, see my way through the concerns that it somehow was all going to come crashing down.
There I dwelt in the liminal space of wanting to go and wanting to stay until, after pictures, videos, hugs, and tears, it was finally time to set out.
In my first quarter-mile, the elation rose in me like the sun shining through the clouds. I was on the trail, I was hiking the trail, it was all happening for me.
Finding my joy and my confidence, I dug in with my trekking poles and increased my pace.
Of course I could do this, I had trained for this, worked for this, seen through every setback, and now I was here.
Twenty miles? No problem, let’s do this, on to Lake Morena!
It was somewhere around hour eight that those heady and ephemeral aspirations collided with cold, hard reality.
The trail doesn’t owe me a damn thing.
The day got more brutal, and it was only the first of many to come. My first long hard day of pushing through, at times, punishing elevations, gave way to a night of terrible leg cramps breaking up my sleep, only for a water bladder to burst open in my tent, flooding my gear, and soaking my clothes leading to a cold and shivering morning.
What’s more, those challenges only continued. My days swung like a pendulum as I progressed, at one moment joy and elation, only to fall, or to be chilled by a gusting windstorm, or challenged by a rattlesnake blocking the trail.
The trail owed me nothing but was determined to take everything I could give it and more, including my hopes, my fears, my effort, and my resolve.
By day four I was hauling myself up steep grades, while my pack bit into my shoulders, making my arms feel numb from the weight. My first real gear failure.
Things weren’t working out, every day was harder than the last, and this was only week one.
Could I really do this? I’d call my husband when I had a signal, in tears from exhaustion, from exposure, and often, sheer loneliness, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. A few hours would pass and then I’d find myself in a particular patch of trail where the beauty made me forget my misery as my relationship with comfort, hygiene, routine, and success became brutally redefined with each passing moment.
The PCT is a type of anhedonic treadmill, pushing you to new understandings of what levels of misery you can tolerate. Because at the end of the day, it’s all a choice. It’s a choice to continue, it’s a choice to go up that hill, it’s a choice to not turn back and go towards what you know, what is comfortable, and familiar. It’s a choice to continue to chase the dream.
This is life at its most brutal and its most real. Are you willing to suffer for what you feel in your heart? Because make no mistake, the trail will take you at your word, and put you to the test. Yet it has not been all brutal, it has not been all a misery, and that is what makes it not only tolerable but wonderful.
The connections you make out here with people are forged out of that same fire. No one has an easy first week on the trail, or an easy final week on the trail, much has been said of the routine that develops, how one grows accustomed to the rigor, but that doesn’t diminish the challenge of it.
With each resupply town, with each road intersection, there is another chance, another whisper, that it can all be left behind, that you can go home, get a shower, have a meal that’s not crunchy from the dirt blown in by a gusting wind.
Normalcy and ease wait just beyond that paved horizon, and it can feel like such an easy choice to turn away from the rocky ascents and punishing downhills, but it comes at the expense of the dream, of the goal, it’s turning back from everything once hoped for.
So we press on, the PCT hikers of 2021, towards Canada. Not all of us will make it, many will find that this is not the challenge for them, or their year to face it, and there is no shame in that. But while the trail is here, while the challenge is surmountable, it is much like life itself. To quote Bukowski “Your life is your life, know it while you have it. You are marvelous, the Gods wait to delight in you.”
Onward, towards the farthest star!
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