Mental Preparation: Letting Go of My Job to Hike the PCT

“What do I do about my job?”

This question plagues many aspiring thru-hikers. I am one of them.

In less than three months, on May 22, I will be starting my journey from the US/Mexico border, making my best attempt to walk (vigorously!) straight through to Canada. In terms of gear and physical fitness, I am ready to go. If I had to start my hike today, I literally could do it and survive just fine. The main thing I am grappling with in these final months is the question posed above.

Me in Washington, somewhere north of Snoqualmie in August 2018.

My answer? Leaveit behind, embrace the trail, and see what lies in store for me upon my return.

Although that’s easy enough to say, I struggle deeply with the idea of taking a pause from my career. Of all my life’s anxieties, this is the only one that has actually threatened my PCT-related ambitions over the past year.

The truth is that I love my job. Currently I am a data analyst for HomeAway, which is a short-term vacation rentals company. I am truly blessed to work in a role that I find stimulating, with coworkers I genuinely enjoy, with good work/life balance, and frankly, a pretty good salary.

I actually have nothing but positive things to say about HomeAway, except that our leave of absence policy does not accommodate four- to five-month spirit quests to disappear into the wilderness. I’m not sure there exist any 10,000+ employee companies that would. (HomeAway is owned by Expedia, which is a >20,000 employee company with predictably inflexible HR policies).

My Options

Don’t thru-hike. This has the distinct advantage of leaving my career undisrupted, and the distinct disadvantage of being super sad.

Section hike using paid time off and complete the PCT over a few (perhaps many) years. This is an option, but for reasons I still can’t fully articulate, I deeply crave the extended adventure of a proper thru-hike – which means this isn’t an option for me.

Take a leave of absence. To its credit, Expedia does have a fairly generous leave of absence policy. Pending approval, I could take up to 12 weeks off to take my spiritual journey in the mountains, and come back to work in a similar role upon my return. However, 12 weeks isn’t enough for the adventure I want to have.

Quit – and make peace with it. The first part of this is as easy as writing an email. The second part, not so much.

My Anxieties

Early in January, I decided to bite the bullet and finally tell people at work about my PCT plans. I was scared.

Will people think I am being stupid?

Will they write me off as a lame-duck employee?

What will I do when I come back?

First of all, those first two questions do not matter. I am fortunate that the answer to both was “no.” People have been extremely supportive and encouraging. Furthermore, if I had received judgmental reactions, would I really want to skip a thru-hike to stick around with those people?

I love taking selfies with animals.

I love taking selfies with animals.

However, the third question is the one that gives me pause. I am trying to come around to the idea that it also does not matter. When I come out at the end of the hike, whether that’s after 2,650 miles or 700 or 100, I expect to have a changed perspective on how I want to spend my time and energy. Maybe I will return to HomeAway and more or less pick up where I left off. Maybe I will apply to similar roles all over the place and see what happens. Who knows. Maybe I no longer even want to do the same kind of job anymore and work as a bike courier until I sort myself out.

I actually can’t wait to see how I feel after disappearing into the wilderness for a while. Post-PCT Emily is going to be a different person, and I’m excited to meet her. I’ll leave it up to her to decide what journey to take next.

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