My Thru Hiking Fantasy vs Reality
190 miles into my hike of the PCT, I’m setting up my tent above cloud level on Mt. San Jacinto. After reaching 9004 ft that day, I’m wondering why I’m just not feeling excited. I chalk it up to being tired. I wake up early again after sleeping poorly because of the wind and am packed and ready to hit the trail by 6:30. I start my way down the mountain, and after a few miles of spotty snow, it disappears and is replaced by granite. It towers above, below, and is strewn about on the trail.
I reach a sharp corner with some large slabs that make me pause to evaluate the best way to get through. I notice the huge drop off to my left and think for a split second what a horrible fall that would be. I stick my poles and step forward. What happens next still makes my heart constrict. In the blink of an eye, I realize my right pole is stuck and the strap is holding my arm in place while the rest of me is continuing forward. I lose my balance and slam onto the granite with my left knee. My right wrist slips out of the strap just in time to grab the top of the slab with my fingertips. I’m literally hanging there by one hand trying to right myself before I lose my grip on the rock and go over the edge.
My left pole finally comes down with my left hand and I’m able to grab the other side of the rock and scramble around on my stomach pulling myself to safety. I stood up as quickly as I could to get away from the edge and take inventory of myself and my equipment. My knee was throbbing and scraped up but I wasn’t at the bottom of that drop-off. I think I was in shock. I got emotional and couldn’t stop crying. I finally got moving again trying to ignore the pain in my knee. A mile down the trail I stopped for lunch, and when I tried to get up after eating I knew there was a problem. I could barely move it and it was beginning to swell. That’s when I started a very honest conversation with myself.
Back up to three years prior, when I committed to doing this hike and started planning. I had never done anything longer than six nights of backpacking but I was very fit and loved being in the wilderness. I enjoy a lot of solitude and gravitate toward things that are challenging. After thinking about the PCT endlessly, researching by reading, watching youTube, and talking to people I decided this hike was the perfect fit for me and I was all in. My entire life revolved around preparing for this adventure. As I continued to watch and read everything I could get my hands on I never felt like it was something I wouldn’t be able to accomplish and fantasized about being completely absorbed in nature for five months. I knew it would be a dream come true.
Now back to that honest conversation with myself. What if this knee injury ends my hike??!! Oh my God!!! Then I considered how I had felt every day since starting my hike. After the giddiness of seeing the Southern Terminus for myself and taking those first steps away from my life into this new world wore off, I was left with the reality of it. It was hot, windy, and the trail required my constant attention. I started thinking after seven or eight miles what a bummer it was not to be able to look around and take it in. I also felt the pressure of achieving a certain milage. No time to stop and smell the roses, gotta go. I kept telling myself, “it will get better, you just aren’t used to hiking in the desert,” or something along those lines. I wasn’t enjoying myself.
As the days and miles ticked by, I entered the mountains hoping that would change something for me, but it didn’t. Hours of hiking brought me none of the satisfaction I had experienced on previous hikes. I was trudging, not hiking. My thoughts were consumed with milage, water, and generally feeling beat up and exhausted. I fought internally, telling myself, “you do love this!!! You have to love it!! How could you not??? What is wrong with you! You know how hard backpacking can be!”
I had read that people who end their hikes always regret it and miss being out there. I asked myself if I did have to end my hike what things would I miss? I could come up with nothing. Even the stunning views were somehow less beautiful because I couldn’t take the time to enjoy them and the brief moments of “wow” were clouded with what it took to get there and what I knew was ahead.
I have done really hard hikes and loved them. I’ve set crazy goals and achieved them. I’m strong and persistent. I love the forest and the night sky and the silence away from cars, houses, and people. I had myself convinced thru-hiking was my nirvana. How much longer I would have continued hiking trying to convince myself I was going to enjoy it I don’t know, but I do know the emotional and financial investment I had made in this adventure and my stubbornness made it very hard to let go of until I almost went over that cliff. I thought, “what the hell are you doing??!!”
I remember thinking how ridiculous it was to be risking my life doing something I wasn’t delighted to be doing. The harsh reality of those 10 seconds so close to peril wiped away the games I was playing in my mind and brought me nose to nose with the disappointment of seeing my dream fizzle out.
Even after those realizations I still had to push it, I had to be 110% sure that what I was feeling was real. I had 18 miles to go to get to a road and meet up with people bringing my food. I did the first nine miles, which was all downhill and absolutely battered my knee. I finally had to stop for the night. The next day I did another nine, which got me to the road. By then even if I wanted to continue I couldn’t have. My knee was a total mess, but I think that injury saved me from myself.
I wanted to share this story because I am still totally shocked by how completely different thru-hiking was for me than any other hiking I’ve done. Maybe I wasn’t realistic in my planning and maybe I over-romanticized the hike, but I don’t recall reading or seeing much of anything about the struggles out there. That could have been because one, I didn’t want to see/hear about the hardships, two, because most people don’t struggle and love it, or three, because people don’t want to share deflation and disappointment. Whatever the reason, hopefully, this information helps someone else’s process preparing for and making decisions about doing a thru-hike.
To sum it up, I thought this hike would be 20% grueling, 80% enjoyment. It was more like 90% grueling, 10% enjoyment for me. Also, a thru-hike with a critical end-time like the PCT felt like racing to me. I did not like the constant pressure of having to keep moving. I also wasn’t prepared to be looking down constantly. I feel like I didn’t see what I was hiking through because I was hiking quickly and had to pay attention to where I put my feet. Lastly, I thought I was in good shape and ready physically for the challenge. I very quickly felt completely out of my league. Maybe it was the pace I was keeping, the heat, the wind, or all of it combined. Nonetheless, I struggled constantly.
I’m grateful to be alive after my near miss on that cliff, and I’m really glad to be home. I’m also grateful I had the opportunity to try thru-hiking. It was something I really needed to get out of my system. I feel a very welcome calmness now that my thru-hike isn’t looming out in front of me, and the best part is I can’t wait to hike again, on my terms and time frame. Be safe out there my friends.
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I am sorry you had to go home but it was a good choice. I walked for only about half hour on a broken kneecap and am now disabled for life. Knee injuries are nothing to continue on or fool around with, and I’ll always regret it, no more thruhiking for me, in this life. Sometimes we learn hard but important lessons about we just can’t or shouldn’t do. Hope you have a speedy recovery!
Thank you for such an honest post. I’ve been baffled by the enormous emphasis placed on thru-hiking, as opposed to section hiking, which seems much more attainable, fun, and reasonable. There’s a place for epic adventures, but it is certainly not for everyone, and there’s a good reason the majority of people don’t finish an attempted thru-hike. I hope your post will help other hikers decide which is right for them so they can spend time doing something they enjoy. I hope your knee heals quickly and fully and you can get back to doing the type of backpacking you love! And I, for one, would love to read more posts from section hikers, and hope you can write about that, too!
I am sad to read of this turn of events, and truly grateful you heeded the lesson. Prayers that your knee fully recovers and this isn’t a lifelong thing for you. I’m truly happy that you got to pursue this dream and have some memories, even if they aren’t the ‘fantasy’, I’m sure there are any good ones still. Speedy recovery Friend, and all the best to you through this and always. Love you