Hiker Life: Finding Your Pace, Finding Your Place
The first week of our thru hike had plenty of challenges. It seems like everyone’s did. Some struggled to make distance (like us). Some made distance but suffered blisters from hell, along with no shortage of other sprains, strains, and pains. Some were caught out by the heat and a lack of water. For others, it was equipment issues.
As we hiked along we met many, many people. We heard their stories; they heard ours. We all made our way down the trail. Sure, a few opted out early. But for the majority of us, we settled in for the long haul… er, hike.
A Slow Start
In those first few days on the trail, the ones where I was happy we were all still alive after a couple of miles, Canada seemed hopelessly far away. That’s if I could even think about such a lofty goal. We were averaging half of what we needed to hike in a day to get there by October. But at least we were still hiking!
Though we were trying to remain positive, it was a bit frustrating to to be going so slow to start. It was only later that I learned (from multiple sources) that nearly everyone starts slower and only eventually picks up the pace or mileage. Granted “slower”, for some hikers, means only covering fifteen to twenty miles a day to start… But still, that’s less than what they end up averaging, so we were basically in the same boat. Which does make me feel at least a tiny bit better.
Ultimately doing somewhere between ten and fifteen miles a day is plenty for a number of hikers. They recognize it might not be possible to get the whole trail hiked in a single year at that pace, but they are ok with that. Heck, in a year like this one, with so much snow in California (and frankly, Oregon, as well) it was looking nearly impossible to get the whole trail hiked in a single go anyways!
Very early on we met plenty of people (particularly those from other countries with short visas) who knew they wouldn’t be able to hike the whole trail. They were out to just do what they could. We took inspiration from them; tried to stay positive that while we might not get the whole thing hiked, we too would do what we could.
It took us a week to hit our first ten mile day. After a late start out of Mount Laguna, we pressed for the luxuries of picnic tables, water, and pit toilets at the Pioneer Mail Picnic Site. PCT hikers are usually relegated to a distant corner of this nice spot, but we found ourselves camping fairly close to all the amenities. It was still early in the season, and the middle of the week, so no one bothered our growing numbers.
My mom was a bit sore the next morning for her effort, as would be expected in the early days of the hike. Many people we met at Pioneer Mail had blisters and tired muscles. Knowing she wasn’t the only one hiking on “vitamin I” (aka ibuprofen) somehow made her feel a bit better. The following day, undeterred by the lingering aches, she put on her game face and marched another seven miles down the trail.
I remember that day well, as it was the day we hiked past the trail memorial, where the names of many hikers, trail angels, and other locals are written on plaques glued to the rocks. It was a poignant moment for me; a time of reflection and contemplation. If nothing else, hiking for hours on end, day after day, not only builds muscles but also exercises the brain. It gives one time to really think about things. All of the things. More on that later.
I’ve come to the conclusion that doing something for the first time is when it is the most challenging. After only hiking seven miles for a recovery day, we made two more nine mile days back to back to get ourselves into Scissors Crossing. From then on, eight plus mile days became common place, even when making significant climbs or descents. Within the week, we had cranked out two more ten mile days, again back to back, trying to outrun a big storm into Montezuma Valley.
Finding Your Place
As varied as anything else about a long distance thru hike is the companion dynamic, also know as a “tramily” or trail family. This can simply be another person you hike with daily. Or it can be a larger group of people loosely hiking together. It may even be a person that you hiked with at one point, but separated from for whatever reason, often with the hope of seeing them again (much like a beloved family member).
You can be related to your tramily, like my group is. Your tramily can consist of friends who already know each other. Or, as is most likely the case, you can be complete strangers, at least when you first meet. Reuniting with a tramily member weeks or months after you last saw them, miles and miles down the trail is a marvelous, if not enigmatic experience.
Many people start their hike alone, but soon find hiking partners. One tramily I met on the trail started with two fellows that hit it off way back at CLEEF (the Camp Lockett Event & Equestrian Facility), in Campo, CA, the night before their hike started. Along the way several more members had joined them. Sometimes they hiked together, but typically they each did their own thing during the day, meeting up again at a predetermined camp that evening.
For our group, things are a bit different. We obviously knew each other before the hike started and knew we’d spend the majority of our time hiking together. Since we tend to hike slower than most, we’ve had very few people hike with us. On occasion, though, we have had “guest hikers” join us.
In the craziest turn of personality traits, I’ve become the one getting up early in the mornings and encouraging my hiking partners (typically my mom, sometimes my aunt, occasionally a guest hiker) to meet the day. As I carry many of the things for my mom, I hastily help her get packed and out the door, preferably before the sun is up. Once they are on their way, I can leisurely enjoy the rest of my early morning.
I prefer hiking at a bit faster clip than my mom and aunt, so the mornings are nice for me. I let them get an hour or two ahead, then play catch up, stretching my legs. My compatriots have taken to calling this “Dulce time”. By lunch, we are always back together, hiking as a group again.
While this method of moving down the trail works for us, and the other method worked for the other group, these are not the only options out there. For some, they never really look for nor find another matching their pace, so they typically hike alone. Some prefer it that way. They are out for the solitude.
I’ve also known solo hikers who long for companionship, at least if only in the evenings. Some have even changed their hiking routines to accommodate others. I’ve heard of a few who have left the trail for want of a hiking partner. I’ve known people who have lost their hiking partner to injury, but continue on for awhile. For other thru hikers, the hope was to find a tramily, but it never quite worked. Ultimately, they just weren’t feeling it any longer and stepped off the trail for the season.
The development of your personal feelings towards a tramily is one of those surprising things that can evolve with time on the trail. It can bring you closer to completely random people than you could have imagined possible. Of course, hanging out with the same people, day after day, can also cause friction. While I love my family, we’ve definitely had our share of major disagreements, usually over mundane things. Arguments and annoyances have certainly driven more than one person out of a tramily.
Even though we hike slow, it has not stopped us from developing what I consider to be an extended tramily. These are fellow hikers we’ve gotten to know out on the trail, who keep popping up here and there. We’ve hiked bits of the trail with some of them, but mainly our time together has been in the evening at camps, a dinner table, sharing a ride to town, or sharing a room among other things.
Why A Thru Hike?
The longer I’m out here hiking, the more I come back to the question, why am I here on the PCT? Why a long distance thru hike?
At first, before I’d even left home, the answer was pretty simple. I didn’t have a good reason other than I could. I mean, sure, it was a great opportunity to spend a lot of quality time with my mom and aunt building incredible memories. Sure there would be obstacles to overcome. But there are other ways to achieve memories and merits. So there I was back to hiking because I could.
What I wasn’t expecting was the comradery and friendships created on the trail. Sure, I figured I’d make a friend or two, but this goes beyond simple friendship. The level to which other people, the members of your tramily (extended or otherwise), climb into your life is fairly astonishing to a first time thru hiker.
You start going out of your way to help them when you can. They do the same for you. You wait and worry for them when they are overdue. You rejoice with them when they meet a particularly exigent goal. You work to lift each other up, supporting their journey even if your own is not going the way you’d like it to.
This is perhaps one of the things that keeps people coming back to long distance thru hiking. Sure, there are always the rigorous demands of the trail; the breathtaking views from the top of a mountain; the pleasure of an easy walk along a flat path carpeted in pine needles. The hiking part is definitely satisfying. Knowing what’s just over the ridge is satisfying. Watching the sun set from the top of the mountain you drug you sweaty, tired, aching booty up is satisfying.
But us humans never seem happy with just that. Our species, with our big brains and a penchant for abstract thought, always seems to need something more. We long for a connection to where we came from, a connection to others, to get it and be part of the group. Thru hiking offers the chance to truly leave the rest of everything behind and find those connections. Find that group. Fortunately, it seems like a pretty good group to want to be a part of.
Thanks for sticking around. See you down the trail!
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