The 5 Stages of Ending My PCT Thru-hike
Off trail in Julian, I can barely walk. The blisters on my feet are infected from several days of hiking; sand and grit burrowing deeper under the epidermis with every step. Feverish, red rings circumference each blister. It doesn’t look good. In fact, it looks disgusting. Several other thru-hikers have told me it will take at least a week to heal. One hiker told me to go to the doctor, stat. I sit in a quaintly decorated room of the Julian B&B and plan the next 30 miles with stubborn resolve. I’m not leaving the trail, I tell myself. I’m not one of those people. It’s just blisters. I’ll be fine by tomorrow. I did not yet know that 4 days later, and mucho $$$ lighter, I would be calling my husband and asking him to pick me up. Even then, I was in denial that my thru hike of the PCT was over.
Heading over the grapevine on my way back home to Sacramento, I am so full of guilt, embarrassment and disappointment; heavy thoughts moor like an anchor in my heart. I can’t believe I’m going home. Because of blisters. After all the planning and the money spent. And what about all the people that have supported me in this goal? My work gave me six months off. My husband changed his whole life in the last year; altered his own goals and needs in order to help me get from Campo to Canada. My in-laws paid for my hotel in San Diego, helped me with last minute supplies, and most of all, gave me endless encouragement and praise. Friends and family were rooting for me. I cringe in realization that I have not only let myself down, but also everyone I know. I obsessively check the PCT groups and read the PCT blogs, using every story of every person that has moved forward in spite of difficulty to torture myself; further twisting the knife in my gut. I stare out the window, noting every road we pass that leads to a PCT trailhead. So close to me, yet so inaccessible. I feel like utter shit. I failed. I’m not good enough. And I will have to tell everyone all about it.
I’m absolutely useless at home. At first, I can’t even walk the dog. Nineteen days pass, and my feet still aren’t totally healed. Is this normal? I have no idea. In a moment of recklessness, I beg my husband to drive me to Big Bear, thinking I can re-start the trail there. I hike four miles and don’t achieve anything except re-opening all the blisters and having to backtrack to the car, stumbling and crying the whole way. It’s just not happening for me. Once again trapped at home, a kind of despair settles in. There is a big hole where the PCT has lived within me for years. I already tend toward dark, dramatic thoughts, but this setback has me questioning all the improvements I have made recently in my life. Maybe I haven’t changed much at all. Failing the trail feels like proof of a cyclic inability to finish things. My husband tells me, “You would have finished if you hadn’t gotten these blisters. It wasn’t your mental issues. It was a physical thing, and you had to make a hard decision. And when I saw your feet, I agreed with your decision. You took care of yourself, which shows great improvement.” I nod, but I can’t quite believe this positive assessment of the situation. Meanwhile, my pack stays packed, propped against the back door, trekking poles resting close by. All my resupply boxes sit on my dining room table. It pains me to see them, yet I can’t bring myself to dismantle them. I know my husband is ready for me to feel better and move on, but I don’t want to move on. I want to watch all of “Orange is the New Black” in one sitting. I want to play video games all day. I want to eat a burger, even though I haven’t exercised enough to warrant it. I want the trail. I want the trail. I want the trail.
One day, I wake up, and I no longer feel sorry for myself. The fact that I am back to walking 4.5 miles a day helps. I need exercise- it is an effective mood regulator. When I walk along the river by my house, I am centered and able to puzzle things out. I decide that just because I don’t get to thru-hike, doesn’t mean I can’t salvage this summer. I can alter goals. I can section hike the PCT. I realize that it is nothing but pride and ego that tells me it’s THRU HIKE or NOTHING. Plus, I think with satisfaction, if I spend the rest of the summer hiking, I won’t have to go back to work. Yes, please! I spend the next few months exploring bits of Northern California and Oregon. And somewhere in there, my urge to complete the PCT re-surfaces. It was never really gone. It survived; audacious, tenacious and burning hotter than ever. I can permit myself to try again, I think. I will try again! Isn’t the ability to fail and try again up there on the emotional intelligence scale? Suddenly my life feels once more full of promise. But now comes the hard part: Breaking it to my husband that he will again have to stave himself to live alone for four to five months. Boy, am I going to owe him.
I enjoy a great summer of adventure and backpacking lessons learned and earned. The pain of quitting the trail becomes a faint ache in the back of my head. And everyone ends up being much kinder about it than I had been to myself. No one is disappointed in me. Just me. A fellow section hiker tells me, “You’re out here earning grit, girl!” and my father in law continues to message me that he is proud of me. In July, I text a friend in Washington, telling him that I won’t be coming thru this year, but would be next year, and I hope he will still visit me on the trail.
He agrees, then texts, “What you did was awesome!”
It’s hard for me to take that in. “I only did about 375 miles. Is that still awesome? I’m not sure.”
“Still awesome,” he responds.
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