Hiker Spotlight with Alice Wu: From the Seas of Service to the Deserts of the PCT
If you ask any hiker what their favorite part of a thru-hike is (besides that feeling when you see trail magic at the road crossing up ahead) nine times out of 10 they’ll say it’s the people they meet along the way. We decided to highlight that incredible part of the journey – the connections you make with others – by starting a new Hiker Spotlight Series, giving individuals on trail with unique backgrounds a chance to share their stories with us.
For our first feature, we’re shining the spotlight on Trek Ambassador Alice Wu. Alice is a first-generation Asian-American and Navy veteran previously stationed in Japan. She’s about 300 miles in on the PCT (her first experience with thru-hiking).
Alice recently celebrated her big 3-0 birthday on trail with her newfound tramily. She’s an avid reader, DND enthusiast, and cat mom with a knack for whipping up a good meal.
The following is my interview with Alice as she takes a much-needed zero on trail. There’s a lot to be said for someone willing to give me the time of day while in the midst of trekking 2,600 miles, so a huge thank you to her for sharing her unique story.
If you have any questions for Alice about her journey so far, her past hiking experience, or just her life in general, drop them in the comments below. Alice has a Trek Ambassador Takeover Thursday coming up on 5/20/21 on our Instagram @thetrek.co, so be sure to tune in because she’ll be tackling them one by one throughout the day!
So, without further ado, enjoy getting to know Alice! I know I did.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What life experiences inspired you to get into hiking?
Honestly, I don’t really know what specifically inspired me to start. I do know that it seemed so adventurous and wild and free at first, and I felt like it would be both mentally and physically rewarding. Then, when I was stationed in Japan, there was an Australian woman in my office who was really into backpacking, and I asked her to show me the ropes one weekend. Suffice to say, that initial first weekend was a disaster for me (not enough food, no experience, wild temperature changes, thigh-high snow with insufficient gear to sunburnt ridgelines and typhoon-leveled forests)… but I was hooked.
What initially drew you to the idea of thru-hiking the PCT?
I had heard of the PCT a few years back and the mental and physical challenge sounded appealing to me. Also, I think after years of abiding by a strict routine I wanted to decompress and let go of living each minute by a schedule and this sounded like a great opportunity to do that. I needed to learn to let go and go with the flow.
I know you’re only just beginning your journey, but how is the PCT different from the hiking that you’re used to doing? How is it different from the hiking that Japan offers?
Language barrier aside, I feel like the trails in Japan are more suited for day hiking and weekends rather than long thru-hikes. The terrain is also very different – Japan has a LOT of mountains so most trails get vertical pretty fast versus the long, slow, and HOT slog through the PCT desert with fairly minimal incline/declines. Additionally, mountain trails in Japan have lots of little huts along the way that you can either camp or stay at (for a fee), which can help lighten the load on your back because you don’t necessarily need shelter. There also isn’t much opportunity for trail families in Japan as the hikes tend to be shorter.
Lastly, (though this is more of a Japan vs American culture as a whole thing), I felt much safer both on trail and in town in Japan. It’s not that I feel particularly vulnerable or unsafe on the PCT, but there tends to be less predatory behavior or petty crime overall in Japan.
Have you gotten a trail name yet, if so what is it and how did you get it?
I did, it’s Tiger Blood! On Day 2, I sustained a fairly deep cut to the back of my leg. A hiker by the name Chaparral gave me some bandages and a pep talk (I was pretty distressed that this happened so early in the trail). Before she showed up, I had used my buff and a carabiner to staunch the bleeding but it had already trailed down my leg. After she left, a little orange kitten came up out of nowhere and licked the blood off my boots. She then flopped over and let me pet her and sat by me for about half an hour, purring. I’ve thought about this kitten every day on trail so far!
How are you practicing good trail ethics while on the PCT and why is it important to you? Can you share a specific story about your experience with this on trail?
I’m packing out everything I brought in (sans bodily fluids)! It’s important to me to leave the trail as I found it because this is the only planet we have and we need to take care of it for ourselves and future generations. Besides, who wants to hike a trail littered with garbage and toilet paper?
As for a specific story…here is the tale of my first ever feral poop. Before the PCT, I had never pooped on trail. However, due to the long stretches without porcelain thrones, antibiotics, and trail food, my digestive system is extra robust these days. One evening, I made sure to dig my first ever cathole far enough off trail and away from campsites. However, unbeknownst to me, there was a higher rocky ledge where other hikers had amassed to watch the sunset… and me taking my first ever feral shit. What a view!
Why did you decide to keep a blog of your journey on The Trek? How are you enjoying the journey so far?
Honestly, I have mixed feelings about the journey so far and I’m only on Week 2! I feel very much like an imposter or a poser because I’m not in love with this thru-hiking lifestyle. I don’t hate it, but it’s not something that I’m absolutely in love with either. I like hiking, I sort of like camping, but day after day after day is a different ball game. I know I have the mental and physical fortitude to complete this hike, but it also feels strange to me to not be as in love with this as so many others I have encountered on trail.
I’ve met (or seen on social media) so many people who seem to love thru-hiking and everything is sunshine and rainbows, and it makes me wonder if there is something deficient with me to not feel the same way. It feels disingenuous to represent myself as loving every moment and every aspect of this when I don’t. To be clear – I like this most of the time, I’m generally having fun, but I wonder why I don’t love this as much as I thought I would.
How does your background as a Navy veteran affect your day-to-day life on and off trail? Was it jarring to transition directly from active duty to life on the PCT?
I think the most difficulty I’ve had in this realm has to do with letting go of my ego and a strict schedule. I’ve lived this past near-decade with a very controlled regimen, where not only was pretty much every moment of my day planned, but also months and years in the future, both personally and professionally. Switching from that mentality to a day-by-day approach is very hard for me. Prior to trail, I had written down a very strict mileage plan and it was pretty ambitious. This would have worked well if I was a weekend warrior, but isn’t the best approach for a thru-hike attempt because there are so many variables that you can’t control.
Additionally, I’ve struggled my whole life with being “good enough” or “tough enough”, which I think in a predominantly male-dominated field exacerbated this preexisting feeling of having to prove myself, to show that as a woman I was competent enough, that I deserved to be there, that I wasn’t weak, that I was stronger and smarter and better.
One of my earliest memories as a Naval Officer was walking into the wardroom and being told that as a woman, I would have “an easy time getting qualified”, that the bar was low, and that I would have to prove to the rest of them that I wasn’t a liability. I brought that mentality to trail too, and it’s one that I am still learning to resist.
I started the PCT with two day-hiking former colleagues, one of whom was a former infantry guy who was used to carrying mega weight over huge distances and the other was a former Search and Rescue swimmer, and I felt like I *had* to keep up for 20 miles even though I was physically exhausted and my feet were blistered to hell in the wrong shoes. It’s still something I have to unlearn, but I don’t have to prove myself by logging mega huge miles every day and keeping up with the faster hikers. I don’t have to be the best, I don’t have to be the fastest, I don’t have to be the prettiest, I don’t have to be the wittiest. I just have to be.
In your intro, you allude to having struggled with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Are these ongoing issues and has hiking affected how you manage them?
Yes and no. These issues will always be something I have to live with for the rest of my life, but I think most importantly leaving the toxic sea-duty environment I was in was the first step in the right direction for me. I didn’t have time for hobbies then (I was working 100+ hour weeks) – the first thing I would do when I got home was take off my work boots, feed my cats, and then proceed to drink myself to sleep.
Hiking has generally helped with the anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, but I also wouldn’t attribute it to the sole factor of bettering my mental health. Seeking counseling and having a strong support system, in addition to being outside, has been a tremendous help as well.
I’d even offer that right now, I still feel a lot of anxiety about how many miles I am doing (or am not doing, rather), and compared myself frequently feeling like I wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t good enough, fast enough, knowledgeable enough. It’s been an active process of combating those feelings of inadequacy.
How does your experience as a first-generation AAPI affect your day-to-day life on and off trail?
I think for me, from the AAPI perspective, it’s mostly cultural difficulties of trying to live up to my family’s expectations of what I should be or should be doing. I’m a daughter of working-class immigrants, where it’s unfathomable to follow my passions since my parents spent so much of their lives working for survival. I turned 30 this week and I should be a doctor or engineer or lawyer by now, I should be married, I should be having kids, I should be all these things that I’m not. No dutiful daughter would dream of joining the Navy, much less taking time between careers to go on an aggressive walking campaign.
What piece of advice do you have for someone following along with your journey that identifies with a part of your story or background? Do you have any advice to share with fellow minority hikers breaking into a predominantly white, male sport?
Life is short – enjoy it and pursue your passions despite or in spite of it all. This isn’t to say to shirk all responsibilities and abscond into the mountains (“Goodbye, small kids! There’s a freezer full of chicken nuggets and PB&J’s, I’ll be back in 5 months!” or “Hello, crippling credit card debt to fund my walking campaign!” is not the most solid plan), but don’t be afraid to be one of the few, and don’t be afraid to be unabashedly yourself.
Name a book, movie, podcast, song, etc that inspires you as a hiker.
Books: The Revenant (Michael Punke), The Alchemist (Paulo Coehlo)
Songs: The Lumineers (Cleopatra Album)
What hobbies do you have outside of hiking?
I love playing Dungeons and Dragons, video games, cooking, and reading!
Follow along with Alice’s journey through her blog on The Trek or her Instagram @wucy.wu. Don’t forget to tune in to her Takeover Thursday 5/20 on our Instagram @thetrek.co and drop any questions you have for her in the comments below.
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It’s so great to see another Asian out and about in the wild! Representation really matters!
My question: How did the conversation with your parents about your “undutiful” decisions go? Did they ever really accept what you decided or was it more of a “We won’t talk about it ever again” sort of thing?
Has your relationship with your parents improved with age?
More important question: Why didn’t you adopt that kitten? IT TASTED YOUR BLOOD.
I enjoyed the interview — congrats on 30 days on trail. I appreciate your frankness and honesty. My wife and I laugh that so much of hiking is kinda miserable yet we go back and hike again and again. I think it’s normal to not love every minute of it.
Thanks for your service in the Navy. I’ve got a lot of friends who are SWO’s as well as some Sub officers and I know it’s a tough job. I hope your hike helps you relax and enjoy life in a new way.