How Thru-Hiking Made Me Less Independent
It is often assumed that the type of people who walk from Mexico to Canada and live out of their backpacks for five months are solitary nomads. These thru-hikers have everything they need to survive in the wild, only popping into town briefly to replenish their odd collection of beige food and candy before evaporating back into the trees. Otherwise, they need for nothing. Trail crests mark their path, but they leave no sign of their passage other than footsteps. Do they speak? Can they speak?
While it’s true that it takes a high level of independence to survive alone in the backcountry, not to mention cover 20-30 miles a day while doing so, any thru-hiker will tell you that learning to let go and receive is as important to success as being ‘good’ at backpacking. “The trail provides,” is both a common and true saying that thru-hikers like to toss around, and it describes an overlooked corner of the long trail picture. Thru-hikers are largely independent, yes, but not completely.
An Independent Woman
Before I set off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, I considered myself to be an independent person. I would often go off on solo adventures for several days at a time and took pride in my ability to spend time alone. I started the PCT solo and figured I would be fine if I stayed that way for the majority of the journey.
The first week was easy. I would jump in and out of trail groups, enjoying the freedom of hiking as far as I felt and camping where and when I wanted to. I liked not adhering to anyone else’s agenda unlike so many others that I met along the way.
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Then Came The Realization
And then I had to get my first hitch into town and quickly realized that this was something I definitely did not want to do solo. I had never hitchhiked before, and when an older man wearing a wife beater pulled up slowly in his rusted old sedan I was more than grateful to have another hiker with me.
Also, it turns out that town is more fun when you have a buddy. Annoying chores like washing my underwear in the public bathroom became a hilarious experience to laugh about later. Additionally, it was nice to have someone to share a meal or a beer with.
These realizations didn’t exactly spur me to join a big trail family, but I did find a consistent hiking partner. Together we crushed our first 26-mile day, survived hail storms, and dodged rattlesnakes. The company made all the difference during these ‘interesting’ experiences.
The Kindness of Strangers
The other aspect of thru-hiking that shocked me was the expansive network of trail angels. These people dedicate their time, money, and resources to help hikers. And they do it all for the joy of it, expecting nothing in return.
I stayed with my first trail angel in Cabazon, CA. Nitsy’s number was posted under the I-90 underpass, and after exchanging a few messages she gave us her address along with an enthusiastic invitation to come stay in her home. We soon pulled up to a small house in the suburbs and were immediately greeted by a happy dog and ice cream bars. We walked through a gate into the backyard where we were met by nearly a dozen other hikers. Being welcomed into a stranger’s home took some getting used to, but a hot meal and real bed are impossible temptations to ignore when the alternative is camping behind a gas station or below an underpass.
Solo Again: Thanks, 2023
I was coming around to my new perspective of this long trail ecosystem, then the desert ended. Because of 2023’s record snow throwing the concept of a conventional NOBO thru-hike in the garbage, everyone instead patched together their own plan for getting to Canada. Unfortunately, this meant that my hiking partner and I would split ways.
So when the desert ended, I flipped up to Northern California and was alone again. Very alone. Not only had I left behind the familiarity of the desert, but also my familiar desert community. I felt like I was on a whole new trail, in a strange landscape filled with new faces.
Initially, this shakeup had me looking forward to some solo time on trail. However, my first night alone in NorCal was terrible. I climbed up a steep, rocky trail as dark clouds loomed above, feeling like I was the only person around. First, the rain started. Then came the lightning, at which point I quickly set up my tent and got inside.
I will never forget how the fabric walls shook as thunder boomed around me. Having other hikers around would have transformed the experience into a fun story, eventually. Instead, the life-threatening ordeal was lonely and bleak. I put my earplugs in and tried to go to sleep, hoping to wake up in the morning.
Unexpected Kindness: A Turn For The Better
The lonely days prevailed until I got to Etna, CA. I wasn’t planning a town stop, but needed more food. Even though I was terrified of hitching alone after hearing rumors of the crazy drivers who picked up thru-hikers on that windy road, I hiked down to the pavement and stuck out my thumb. To my surprise, I was immediately offered a ride from a guy who worked at the local youth camp. Sweet!
Once in town, I found my way to the laundromat and struck up a conversation with a kind older man. The long-time local owned a bike shop, and we chatted about the trail, about family, and about biking. When I saw him again the next morning at the local bakery, he invited me to join him for breakfast. Next, he offered to give me a tour of his shop. Me, a complete stranger!
That man had no idea how much those small gestures of kindness meant to me. It might seem small, but this experience in Etna completely turned my mood around. Alone and out of it, I desperately needed a friend that day. The trail provides. Leaving Etna, I resolved to find a group. Independence was overrated.
Finding My Trail Family
When I learned that some friends were only a couple of days ahead of me, I hiked back-to-back 30-mile days to catch them in Ashland, OR. Being around familiar faces was refreshing and just what I needed. With the accompanying morale boost, hiking became enjoyable again and I was overcome with resurgent excitement for the trail. It was also nice to slow down, stop and swim, or enjoy a beautiful vista. While solo, I never really took the time to enjoy these parts of the PCT, and having friends to enjoy them with gave me reason to indulge in the serendipity of trail life.
Misery Loves Company
Thinking back to our time in Oregon, I truly don’t know if I would have made it without the camaraderie of my trail family. What we encountered was far worse than the NorCal Blues. Walking through the peak spawn of mosquito season, every day felt harder than the one before it. We hiked fast to avoid them, itching and swatting as we walked. Stopping for a break was out of the question, for we would instantly be swarmed.
The constant buzzing was maddening, and I felt it in my ears, my eyes, my nose. My instincts were that of a panicked animal as I scrambled and tripped over the many blowdowns, sharp branches, and bark that tore at my legs. Exhaustion and frustration took their toll, but even then, I never considered quitting. However, I can’t help thinking that there would have been a different outcome if I had been hiking solo. Misery loves company, right? My trail family kept me going — we kept each other going.
Creating Connection Over Crushing Miles
Now that it’s all done, I often think about how different my experience on the PCT would be without the trail community. This dream would have been unattainable without the kindness of strangers and the camaraderie of my fellow hikers. Despite my expectations, the trail never got easier, and it felt like each new section brought a new battle. It was the people that made those hard times bearable. Some are now even my fondest memories.
In contrast with how I started the PCT, once I found my people, I felt the tight grip on my independence slip away with each passing week. I was still living for myself with the ability to survive on my own, but I was no longer flying solo for the sake of being alone. Instead, I chose to live with friends, which enriched my experience even if I sacrificed some independence for that benefit.
I also noticed my intentions shift. My thru-hike became less about crushing miles and more about creating connection. An African proverb was recently shared with me, and I feel the message acutely after my PCT experience:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Featured image: A Gillian photo. Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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