Through Hell and High Water: My Journey to the PCT
I sit here in my cozy third-floor bedroom gazing out across space at the trees swaying through the dirty window glass. Soft white light originates from two tall skylights, setting a calm and serene mood. Joni Mitchell lyrics dip in and out of my conscious thought. Pandora bringing sweet lullabies for my easy listening.
It has been a balmy 40 F outside for the past couple of days. I feel my frozen winter self start to melt, stirring with anticipation of what is to come in the next few months. Icy winds and fluffy snowstorms make for good skiing, but not many other outdoor activities for a small, cold lady. I am itching to jump out of my hibernation to move my body and revive my soul. Feb. 27 marks my departure westward and the start of some of the longest walks of my life.
First Stop Grand Canyon: Tonto Trail with Some Homies
This hike came to conception during March 2018. On a whirlwind five-day trip to Arizona, my friends Mogan, Steve, John. I had a blast hiking routes and bushwhacking to Royal Arch and Elves Chasm in the Grand Canyon. In the same trip we hiked a section of the Tonto Trail to exit via Bass Canyon. On our fourth day, we traveled 12 miles along one of the most scenic trails I have ever walked. Almost completely flat, we weaved in and out of side canyons, about 1,000 feet above the Colorado River. Every time we came out of a side chute, the vast scenery of interior canyon would fill our vision. Colors and shapes changing constantly and taking my breath away almost every time.
I fell even more deeply in love with the magic of the Grand Canyon that day. Red and orange layers follow your eye line. Just above the rich rock lingers the electric ocean blue of the Arizona sky. I have never felt as one with this earth than the moments I have spent out of sight of others in the Grand Canyon. You turn and look forever and can’t see another human. Just you and your mother earth, may you call her Gaia or otherwise. There is a divine presence in the emptiness of a wild landscape. As I took in what was around me I knew that I had to walk every mile of the Tonto Trail.
At the end of this spring break trip there was no other option. We had to come back and complete the 92-mile trail. A combined dream of Stephen and me, and we were going to make it happen. Even before finishing our final 19 miles of that phenomenal hike we had plans in the works of when to return. Our trek would include a long walk through a huge portion of the Grand Canyon. A feat in itself. A wonderful two weeks of backcountry magic awaited our exploration, and so our Tonto 2019 trip was born.
With a lot of planning manpower put in by Steve, a trip came into form. The permits were applied for, the trip plan mapped out, and daily miles calculated. A huge rappel from Royal Arch down to Elves Chasm and 158.2 miles of walking await our start day of March 4, 2019. Some logistics include carrying rope and harnesses to rappel, and caching food for a resupply and revival on day nine.
This hike will act as my entry into the rest of my adult life. The beginning of a life full of wonder, adventure, and friendship. I yearn for a life driven by my passions for the outdoors and the identity I have created for myself in American wilderness. The Tonto Trail will also act as a shakedown hike and training hike for my 2019 Pacific Crest Trail thru -hike attempt.
2017 Was a Year of Pure Bliss: The Highest High
I had spent the second half of 2017 on a wonderful adventure out west. After dropping out for my senior fall semester of school at UNH. I moved into my mom’s Nissan Versa note and drove west. Landing in Cedar City, Utah, I worked Utah Conservation Corps for three months. Meeting some of the most important people of my entire life. I met young men and women with the same drive and passion to hike and experience the beauty available where humans had not settled. We relished the isolation and grandeur of wilderness.
Three months of being a dirty, homeless hiker between work hitches living in canyons doing watershed restoration changed the fiber of my being. I grew more confident and weird. Learned to love myself and my body for all the quirks it provided. I realized that no matter what, you can find your people anywhere. I was riding high after my time with UCC and spent a month on the road with some of the friends I had met along the way.
When I ran out of money, I headed home to Massachusetts and spent the holidays with my mother and her family. Surely I enjoyed freaking everyone out with my thickly grown underarm hair and my new weird tattoos, including an avocado on my arm and a hatchet on my ribs. I was blissfully happy, and yet also depressed that the most wonderful time spent in Utah had come to a close. I was yearning to be with my friends, not a worry in the world other than the location of the hidden liquor store in rural Mormon Utah towns.
2018 Was a Year of Loss and Sorrow: The Lowest Low, A Catalyst for a Long Walk
Christmas and New Years flew by. We had to say goodbye to my grandfather Bonstrom, who passed on Jan. 2, 2018. He was an old man who had lived a full life. It was certainly his time to go. He passed as we all wish to pass, in his home surrounded by loved ones. I was able to say my goodbyes on the phone the day before he passed. It was sad that I no longer had a grandfather on this earth. But I was grateful that he had been in good health for so long, and that I got to know him well before he was gone.
He was my father’s father and therefore went to the funeral to be with family and say our final goodbyes. My brother and father flew out separately to Minneapolis and I begged my mother to let me make another road trip west. She understood my itch to drive and gave me her permission to take her car west again.
And so I drove, making a pit stop in southern Indiana. Visiting a friend again since our departure from each other at the end of our time together post Utah. What a wonderful visit with his warm and loving family. I was on cloud nine again, just as I had been in Utah.
As I left his house I remember feeling nervous about what I was driving into at this funeral. Despite this feeling, the three days in Minnesota are some I will look back on in great fondness.
A Funeral as a Goodbye to More Than One
I wish I had had the foresight to realize that when I said goodbye to my dad in Minnesota, post funeral, that it would be the last hug I would ever receive from my father. The last coherent conversation we would ever have and the last real moment we shared. I was focused on the 24-hour drive ahead and getting on the road. I was in a rush and so I told him I loved him and my brother, and I drove away.
On Feb. 18, 2018, my father passed away from complications after a freak accident and a traumatic brain injury. My entire life crumbled around me. I was already struggling to return to a normal school schedule. To function as a non-dirty hiker part of society after my adventure west was difficult. The feeling of being hit by a train overwhelmed me. Becoming manic depressive for that semester and hid my father’s injury and death from my friends until after his funeral. I couldn’t bear to share my pain. I yearned to be the cool, happy, calm, and adventurous girl I had come back from Utah as. But she felt far away.
Pushing Away the Pain with Movement
I started pushing my body, looking for endorphins or anything to make me feel better. I would skip class to run, or do yoga, or climb. Anything to keep me from falling apart. When I wasn’t on the move I barely left my bed. I made it through my senior spring with the support of teachers and friends. I used creative outlets to process my loss and work with my grief. Spending time writing short stories and listening to old albums my father and I shared. Talking openly about my loss, I spent time alone in the woods and smoked a lot of weed.
A Haircut and a Commitment
Around the end of April 2018, my friends prepared to graduate and I felt restless. I had been in a profound state of disarray. Feeling trapped by the fall semester that remained between me and the rest of my life. A semester without the friends that had helped me through. I began to think actively on a long walk to heal my damaged soul and process some of the grief holding me down.
I remembered the reason I knew anything about the PCT to start with: Aspen Matis. The wonderful women who had given a talk about rape on college campuses at my school in 2016. Her experience walking the PCT to regain her power and control of her body after tragedy inspired me. I actively thought back to this talk, realizing that my only option was to walk off my tragedy and take my dad with me. I was going to hike the PCT in 2019 and carry a small bit of his ashes the whole way.
Pacific Crest Trail: A Dream Come True in the Making
On May 1, 2018, I woke up from a nap, put on some pants, and walked to the barbershop down the road. Without telling anyone other than my mother I cut off my long, wavy brown hair and opted for the complete opposite: a short crew cut. I was feeling antsy and spontaneous and did the only thing I could think of. I completely changed my physical appearance and therefore, my identity. In the same breath of inspiration I publicly announced that this time the next year I would be taking my first steps on the PCT, something that I had dreamed of for three years prior.
I am now just months away from my start date of May 4. I have graduated from the University of New Hampshire. My hair has grown a lot since I cut it. It will continue to do so until May 1, when I will cut it once again for the longest, most difficult walk of my life. Who in their right mind would worry about brushing that shit?
I relish in the idea that I have a full life with endless adventurous potential ahead of me. I am 22 years old and I am just getting started. Less than a month of cold New England weather sits between me and a long walk into the rest of my life. Who knows, maybe I’ll even walk from Mexico to Canada.
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