“How Was the Hike?”

The hardest question I faced when I came home from my attempted thru-hike in 2019 was, “How was the hike?”

Whether you’ve walked 100 miles or 2,650 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, you understand how hard it is to explain to the uninitiated the sheer immensity of that question. You buy a snickers bar at a grocery store and the clerk asks you “How’s your day?” You instinctively reply with something like “good” or, if you are having a particularly crummy day and want to be vocal about it, “not great”. Internally your mind may have gone through the mental gerrymandering of categorizing every single event into one of those two words to determine the proper response.

The old border wall in 2019, I wonder if you can still poke your hand through?

I remember sitting on the lawn at Scout and Frodo’s in 2019, with Barney “Scout” Mann sharing his infinite trail wisdom with all the would-be thru-hikers. He said that one of the most amazing things about the trail is that you will remember something from every single day you are out there. This was more true than I could have ever realized. Thru hiking will make you feel every single emotion you have inside of you; it is simultaneously one of the most boring and exhilarating experiences you can undertake. How do you condense it all into a response that could be genuine and honest when someone asks how it all was?

I hiked 2,331 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019. I remember just about every one of them, but if I am being honest, I remember the ones that I didn’t hike even more. I start my second northbound hike on April 20th. Why am I hiking the whole thing again? To answer that, let’s take a step back.

The Birth of Nat Geo

My name is Nathan Smith. I’ve lived in Boston, MA for the past nine years and used to have a pretty good career in banking before I decided to blow it all up to go walk in the mountains three years ago. Chances are if you are reading this blog, you are either interested in or part of the thru-hiker community, or you know me in some capacity from my personal life (hi mom). If you know me from a past thru hike, you may know me as “Nat Geo”- a trail name that I was given in 2019 for carrying an oversized camera setup for the first 400 miles of the trail which resulted in me getting shin splints that almost ended my hike early. This year I am hiking the Pacific Crest Trail heading northbound for the second time in my life.

Cloud inversion on the north side of San Jacinto, May 2019. I was still hauling my camera at this point.

Everyone who does a thru-hike is told to figure out what their “why” is and to hold onto that. I know my “why” in 2019 stems from a feeling I got when I first stood on top of Mount Whitney back in 2016 after completing the John Muir Trail. I remember waves of emotion washing over me as that was the first thru-hike I ever completed. My pack was comically massive but somehow I managed to hobble for 19 days and arrive at this peak for sunrise on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Watching that sunrise, feeling more present than I ever have in my life, I swore I was going to hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail as soon as I could manage.

Definitely not ultralight on the JMT in 2016. Evolution lake – my spoon is somewhere in those trees behind me.

DPDR… what?

My “why” this year is so much different, yet shares the same idea. To be present was the underlying concept of my 2019 hike, but that has a significant meaning to me. For my entire adult life, I have had something that is now called Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, or DPDR for short. In moments of stress or even if life becomes mundane, my mind almost completely switches off and I enter this deterministic existence, as though I am watching someone else live my life. My interactions with friends and family become automatic and my mind is stuck in an emotionless analytical mode.

One of the major problems with this disorder is that for large swaths of my life I simply have no memories. Someone close to me recently pointed out that when referring to something that happened recently (sometimes even the day before), I always use the phrase, “the other day.” I realized this is because I have a skewed concept of time when I am not regularly forming memories. As you can imagine, living in an almost purely analytical state can make personal relationships difficult and I typically keep people at arm’s length because I am afraid I will hurt them because of this. For much of my adult life I have put myself in a position where I am always “leaving soon” to go somewhere, whether it’s moving away or some big long-term adventure, PCT included. This allows me a cop-out when it comes to relationships, even those that I care about most.

When my hike ended early in 2019, I came home with the staple post-trail depression only to find out my father was terminally ill. I tore my rotator cuff and was unable to climb for a full year. Climbing is my meditation and being unable to do so with everything that was going on in my life made me revert back to my old habits of checking out. My relationship with my partner of four years slowly started to fall apart as I was no longer present. Then there was that whole pandemic thing. As months passed by, I did what most thru-hikers do. I longed for the trail. And so I started planning to leave again.

My “Why”

If you are paying attention, you may see the paradox here. I both love and hate the PCT at the same time, though I am sure most hikers do. I love it because it forces you to be present, and as Scout so perfectly put it back in 2019, “you will remember something from every single day on the trail”. At the same time, I hate it because it feels like an excuse to pull myself away from friends and family. I have a hard time letting people get close to me in “real life”, those that do usually do so by meeting me in an unconventional way whether it is sipping tea in the middle of the woods or working out beta for a climb together, again, in the middle of the woods. As you can see here, I seem to be my most genuine self when I am in nature. Climbing and hiking have always brought out the real me, but somewhere along the way over the past few years, I think I forgot who that was.

Climbing Royal Arches in Yosemite. This is just after the pendulum pitch in May 2021.

That is it. That is my “why” this year. This year for me is about finding that genuine self again and holding onto that person when I come home. I am not chasing the memories of the past, I am chasing memory itself. The presence that the trail brings. This year I can hike those miles I missed, be my genuine self again, say goodbye to the trail, and find balance in whatever comes afterwards. My hope is that I can answer the question, “how was the hike?” with a single word when I am finished. Enlightening.

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