Hike On: Q&A with “Jetpack”
A little introduction:
I met Leah only a couple months ago. I first met her at an art show Lindsey Fox was putting on at The Lizard Lounge in Portland. *Sidenote: If you don’t know Lindsey; she thru-hiked the PCT this last year and created insanely beautiful textile/watercolors from start to finish. Check her out at @thefalingfox or @lefoxstudio on Instagram. You won’t be disappointed.
I got connected with Leah through her ex, Brian, who is a regular at the bar I work at in NW Portland. When I told him I was taking on the PCT in 2017, he insisted I get connected with Leah to ask her advice and whatnot. Lindsey’s show is the first time I met her, and I’m so glad I did.
Since July, when I announced to everyone I was going to hike the PCT, I have been asking whoever I could information about thru-hiking. It’s funny, I seem to get very different answers about things you might consider simple on the trail. When I got accepted to blog for this site, I knew I wanted to start writing immediately. However, how the hell was I going to create good content if I haven’t even stepped on trail yet? Well, I figured I would interview those who already have stories.
As this is just a small glimpse into Leah’s 2016 thru-hike, they are poignant excerpts that might inspire you to make your own trek one day. Although I have already been fortunate enough to hang out with Leah and hear her stories face-to-face, I still might have teared up a little after reading pieces from her trail journal.
Here’s just a snippet of questions I asked Leah.
What was your trail name and how did you get it?
From, The Honeymoon is Over (PCT Week 2): I am hiking with a core group and am often the last to leave camp each morning but manage to be one of the first to reach camp each evening (which I attribute to my Midwest roots’ mentality of “hurry up and wait’). This (along with my large silver Osprey pack) has led to my trail name: “Jetpack.” My co-workers will likely find this odd, since I am known for anything but my speed for seeing pts. Similarly, I have never been a standout swimmer, runner, or cyclist, but put a pack on my back and ask me to walk, and it appears I can hang.
Specifically, the crew was eating breakfast together at a restaurant outside of Warner Springs. We were teasing each other and I was getting razed about marching with a mission to get to camp each evening. Everyone came to the conclusion: “it’s like you have a jetpack on your back.” And there it was. I was named.
What made you solidify your decision to hike the PCT:
Fall 2015. Age, thirty-five. My relationship, falling apart. My ten-year career as an emergency medicine physician assistant, burned-out.
I was unhappy and had an overwhelming urge to so something, change anything, but I was unsure of what or where.
Over the next few weeks, as my SO and I were deciding if we were going to peel apart our lives, I re-read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” which sparked my interest in the PCT. I gravitated toward the idea of a journey, something to accomplish, an end destination. The PCT would allow me to be alone and experience physical pain, which was the only way I knew how to deal with the mental and emotional turmoil at present.
I confided fleetingly one evening to my SO that I was considering hiking the PCT. He nodded, having cycled across the US a few years before we met, understanding what it meant to leave everything to undertake a personal challenge, but offered nothing else.
A few weeks later, during that final conversation, when we decided that the relationship had in fact run its course, he turned to me and said: You need take the trip. You should hike the PCT.
As we divided our possessions in the apartment we shared, I was torn. I wanted to go, to suffer, to see if I had it in me, but I was terrified to go against the grain: quit my job and spend an ample part of my savings to make thru-hiking the PCT a reality.
But whenever I said, I am not sure I can do this, he would respond simply with: Yes, you can.
For that I am grateful.
So what made me solidify my decision to hike the PCT? If you can believe it, my former boyfriend. I would have never had the courage to make the jump had it not been for his encouragement and reassurance. He believed in my ability before I believed in myself. He saw the greatness of the journey and knew the financial sacrifice would be worth it, one hundred times over.
(He was right).
Hardest days on trail:
Answering these questions has me re-reading posts I made throughout my hike. These were some of my first hard times on trail. I appreciate these now more than at that moment. There were so many trying times, but finding it within myself to get through these helped me build momentum to tackle the countless other challenges that laid ahead:
The Honeymoon is Over (PCT Week 2): The typical desert temps are here. The sun hot, water scarce and strictly rationed. The map is studied nightly with logistics focused on the next water source. The tribe found ourselves at a desert oasis, Paradise Valley Case, a small restaurant one mild off trail that every hiker anticipates for days as it has the reputation for the best burger along the PCT.
There we learned that most hikers were hitching the twelve miles into Idyllwild, our next resupply town, due to a fire closure. Hitching resulted in skipping ten miles of the PCT, but doing the fire detour meant you covered those ten miles plus seventeen more with a substantial climb and sharp descent.
Most of us (myself included) would have thought nothing of hitching, as “that’s what everyone was doing” and “its only ten miles. However, my friend Laura, petite and soft spoke, firmly stood her ground stating (with her proper British accent), “I’m walking.”
The rest of the tribe decided to keep the hike pure and join Laura on the fire detour. We headed out that evening, hiking a few miles on trail to the next water source and made camp.
That night I did not sleep well. It was cold, and my foot ached. I had been hiking in boots and my feet had swelled in the desert heat creating new blisters and a tendonitis near the arch of my foot. I was stressed about hiking the extra miles and was badly regretting my decision to stay with the group, debating hiking out in the morning to snag a hitch into town.
The next morning everyone was up and loading their packs. I stayed in my tent, silent, torn with what to do. Everyone left but Animal who was running behind.
The sun came up and it was getting hot. I thought to myself, what kind of person do I want to be? Am I someone who talks the talk or can I walk the walk? Am I already breaking down at my first hard time on trail?
I decided to strap on my sandals and attempt to hike with Animal.
I walked the next two days in those socks and sandals, hiking the entire detour with my tribe. I have no doubt we are a small minority who have or will complete the detour.
This time I was able to walk the walk. I stand taller for it.
Snowstorm and Homesick (PCT Week 3):
The tribe hiked over Mt. San Jacinto. We got caught in significant weather, and while not emergency conditions, the days were precarious, as we were out in the elements with no option for reprieve in a warming shack or ski lodge. Due to a weather advisory we did not see the peak, which was at 10,800’. We elected for an alternate route, rising to 9000’ and camping there. We had been socked in all day, visibility nil.
We woke up to a morning of frozen tents and 26 degrees. The plan as to hike down to beyond the snow level and camp there.
Everyone had left except myself (per the usual, I was way behind getting out of camp) and Spearhead, who was waiting patiently sitting on her pack, as I still have not taken down my tent.
Spearhead suddenly felt dizzy and ill. She threw up and laid in my tent for awhile. I fed her a nausea tab and electrolyte pill. She rallied and we hiked.
We were far behind the group now, as they had all left at least an hour before. We also took a wrong turn, heading down an alternate trail accidentally.
I knew the group would be worried but there was no way to communicate that we were fine (Spearhead and I were together, and I also carry an SOS beacon should a true emergency arise).
Nevertheless, as we neared the first water source for the day (which was to be a rendezvous point for the group) we saw the boys hiking back towards us, anxious if we were okay.
Boom and Fey had hiked ahead, and the plan was to meet up at camp that evening. Dayhike, Animal, Spearhead, and myself hiked together the rest of the day, eager to get below snow level as there was threat of a snow/rain storm to hit around 5pm.
We hiked through strong winds, shoving us in all directions. We were not able to make it to Boom and Fey as it was close to 5, and we decided it was more important to make camp rather than be caught hiking on a ridge if the weather hit.
We set up our tents and hunkered down. The storm hit moments after. Hail, snow, along with thunder and lightening. It was cold and we were at elevation. My stove would not boil water, despite burning fuel for 20 minutes. I stared at my dehydrated meal that would have tasted so good, but instead ate a pop tart and snickers bar.
I laid in my tent that evening, wind howling, snow stacking up against the sides of my tent. I was tired, hungry, cold, and worried about navigation off the trail. A wave of homesickness swept over me. At that moment I wanted to be home, back to my old life. Back to my former apartment, snuggling my puppy, watching a Netflix marathon with my former boyfriend.
I cried, deep body shaking sobs. I fell asleep wondering if I will make this entire journey. Am I tough enough? Do I have the grit?
I woke up the next morning to warmer tempts and a beautiful fresh blanket of snow, sun shining.
We hiked out that morning to bluebird sky, visibility for miles. The scenery a reward for our trials the days prior.
We hiked out 20 miles that day. My first 20-mile day that happened to land on day 20 of my PCT hike.
Chin up. Shoulders back. Looking forward now, not behind.
If you were to write a book about your life on trail, what are the things you would right about:
I would write about how I feel in love with a man I met on day three of my journey. We hiked together for two months before the sexual tension overwhelmed us both in the midst of the Sierras. It was unexpected, as I was anything but looking for a relationship at the time, but it happened. We hiked almost the entire trail together, separated only for a two-week period in Northern California. It was a beautiful affair that would make Nicholas Sparks swoon. Even more so as it came to a crumbling, heart-wrenching halt post-trail, a true romance.
What was harder: Starting the trail or leaving the trail?:
Once you make the decision to thru-hike, it would seem, that changing your life to get yourself to trail is one of the hardest things to arrange. Fear almost paralyzed me from stepping onto trail. Not because I did not want to be there, but I was terrified of quitting my job, jeopardizing a future income opportunity. I could hardly bear the idea of the judgment I would face from my family over a decision to do something so “irresponsible” as leave stability to gallivant in the mountains.
But, surprisingly, my boss was overwhelmingly supportive. My family wished me well and cheered me on immediately.
The first few weeks of trail are hard. Your body is learning, adjusting. The blisters hurt. Your shoulders ache. But you slowly convert to the lifestyle. You become stronger. And then you realize, you are actually living. While it is a simple life of hike, eat, sleep, you relish it.
Leaving trail, while you are tired and malnourished, you miss it. You miss it terribly straightaway: the life, the physical challenge, the community, the emotional healing, all of it.
Yes, coming off trail, without a doubt, much harder.
What was the hardest park about being back to “real life”:
I missed my trail-mates. They had become my family. Friends and family back home were supportive and attempted to understand, but the experience cannot be explained. Only those who lived it comprehend the magnitude and how it changes you.
A trail-mate recently nailed it for me: Re-entry was almost fun at first. Now I just feel weird. –Dirt Squirrel
What was your most peaceful moment on the PCT: Washington. All of it.
This is a privilege (PCT Week 21).
The experts (whoever they are) say there are three stages to a thru-hike: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. The desert and Sierra were definitely the physical. Northern California was absolutely a mental struggle. Oregon was a transition, but now in Washington, I feel at peace. I never thought I would be able to walk not concentrating on miles, pace, and pressure to reach camp (and Canada). But now, as I walk, my mind is clear. I smell, hear, and see so much more. I walk carefree, confident in the “I can,” aware of my body’s ability. I walk thankful; acknowledging the privilege, knowing the journey is in its final turn.
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