Giving up on a continuous footpath
I learned of the McKinney fire trail closure at a picnic table just outside of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
I’d just spent the last week hiking through the burn scar of the Dixie fire, and settling into my seat, I felt relief to be finally surrounded by green trees. I wouldn’t have to search for the few safe campsites and my eyes would stop watering from the soot. Buoyed by the triumph and thrilled with the treat of a picnic table, I started chattering about how I was excited to finally be nearing the end of California. Then I noticed everyone was quiet.
“Have you heard about the closure?” Another hiker asked tentatively. My panicked face must have communicated that I had not. “There’s a fire near Etna, and the trail is closed by the Oregon border.” Oh. I didn’t know what to make of this news. I could feel adrenaline kicking in, my body tense and ready to problem solve, but it quickly became clear that without cell service we didn’t have much more info to go off of. We sat quietly, eventually moving to other topics. I wasn’t too phased, nor worried about missing a few miles. I told myself I’d hike everything that was open and that was what the trail was in 2022. There’s always something that sets apart each year. I sent Jeremy, my partner, a heads up via Garmin and hoped he’d be able to do some research.
Then, at Subway Cave, a lava tube just off trail, the next day, I was asked “have you heard about the closure?” again. This time the trail was closed in Oregon, just north of Crater Lake. That’s when the panic sent in. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but I hated every minute of hiking the cave alone in the dark and tripping in the uneven ground. The rest of the day was hot and exposed with difficult to access water sources. I could barely wrap my head around what decisions I needed to make in the heat and exhaustion.
I don’t remember when I heard about the third closure, or about the options for rides, buses and trains.
Jeremy was texting me options and encouragement, but it wasn’t until we got on the phone that I was able to process the choices I had to make: would I try to find multiple difficult hitches around the closures? Did I want to hike through smoke? Did I want to hike the length of Oregon but on the coast? Could I flip up the northern terminus and hike south, hoping it’d all reopen? Some of the options were more difficult than others, but none felt inherently right. For all the thinking and journaling I’d done about why I wanted to hike, I hadn’t seriously considered how I’d handle these decisions. I’d been feeling lucky, hoping it’d hold. I never pulled out my nicely bullet-pointed list of Why I Want to Hike the PCT, but two goals stood out to me: I wanted to act on my dreams to build the confidence that I’d continue to do so the rest of my life, and I wanted to practice giving my all despite the risk of failure.
Neither said anything about a continuous footpath to Canada.
Eventually Jeremy suggested that he could drive me past all the closures during the visit we’d already planned that weekend. Considering the simplicity, I felt my body relax. I could skip the lightning and weird logistics. The relief was so great I knew I’d accept the offer, and asked Jeremy to crunch the numbers on miles and a new projected end date. But when he called back to say it was nearly 600 miles of trail missed I fell apart, sobbing into the phone. “That won’t feel like a thru hike to me. That’s so much to skip.” Patiently he listened to my crying, trying to remind me how far I’d hiked, and that 2,000 miles is still a lot. But all I could think was what story will I tell? How can I explain this decision? I refused to commit to anything until I calmed down.
After several more days of tearful hiking, phone calls, and conversations with other hikers, I decided to skip from Mt Shasta to Timothy Lakes, Oregon, just over 70 miles before the Washington border.
Now, writing just days away from the northern terminus, I know this was the right decision for me.
Hiking bits and pieces of Oregon would have been stressful and unsatisfactory to me. I wouldn’t have been reliably able to hold commitments like attending the wedding I took a week off for. And, truly, no one cares except a handful of particularly die-hard thru hikers.
Dealing with wildfires felt like a crisis for my thru-hike. Given that they are a regular part of the PCT, alongside other itinerary shifting factors like snow, heat, and injury, I could have anticipated this. Most hikers will face some similar dilemma. I started my panic by trying to define what constitutes a thru hike to me. That was a miserable process and didn’t bring me clarity. When I went back to my why I was able to let go of the perfectionism. It doesn’t matter if there’s a neat story to tell, or if other hikers make a different plan. I wanted to go home earlier more than I wanted to hike Oregon, and that’s ok. I’ll go back one day with Jeremy, not because I need to complete this adventure but because I love this trail. And I’ll be ready for whatever curveballs the PCT throws our way.
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