The Truest Things about Hiking the PCT
I have been struggling with what to write after getting back from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017. Not for lack of things to say, but rather out of some inability to say them. Like the way you are rendered speechless when you receive an immense surprise, or after experiencing something emotionally draining, or having the most beautiful expanse show you your place in the world. That kind of speechlessness has led me to write nothing so far.
Sitting with a friend, who two and a half years ago summited Mt. Shasta between storms despite his rare energy disorder, he tells me, “I am trying to write about it now. Before, I was constantly worried that if I did not write it immediately it would be gone, but I have found it is still there and I can still write about it.”
“I just need to start,” I said pathetically.
“Why don’t you just start with the truest things about your hike and go from there.”
How It Felt
I did not really set out knowing I would succeed, because I had never done anything remotely like this before. Never before had I set out to try to walk over 2,000 miles. I also did not really expect to fail, because I am stubborn, competitive, driven, and in love with nature and exercise.
At the beginning, every day felt amazing, full of this constant sense of wonder that I had just managed to walk 20 miles and that I was going to do it again the next day. Most of all it was amazing to me that I could do it and time and time again I found that I could.
Soon this shear delight, often associated with “baby thru-hikers,” changed. I no longer felt shocked every day that I could continue, but rather I felt accomplished. On the PCT’s often open ridge lines, I could look back behind me and see where I had been earlier that day, or yesterday, or perhaps even a few days before, and all those places were so far away. They were distances that seemed impossible to travel and yet, I had just done it. I had just traveled them by foot. Accomplishment, something that perhaps is hard to find everyday in the real world, was as easy to find as looking at your shadow.
Looking forward, everything was simple. My goal was to walk and there it was right in front of me and so long as I was walking, I was chipping away at that goal. Right there was my purpose and with it came challenges and the most epic of rewards, but always it was clear what I had to do was just keep walking and keep making forward progress.
I built a home, albeit a mobile one. I had all the items I needed to sleep in the most beautiful places. I could stare at the stars, perch on the edge of a cliff, listen to the rush of a river, or fall asleep to the sunset. I could feed myself like any child would dream of with lots of candy, gravy, and ramen. I had friends who cared about how much water we needed for the next day, what the views looked like earlier that afternoon, and what the elevation gain would be first thing in the morning.
They Told Me It Would Change My Life
Before I hiked, people told me the trail would change my life. Some people said this merely as a guess, but other people said this because they had hiked a long trail or knew someone who had. I smiled at how cheesy I thought that was. The idea that somehow I would return home knowing who I was, understanding society and figuring out my purpose, seemed all too simplistic. And yet, despite my laughter at this preposterous idea, I think I still kind of hoped it would be true. And I think many of the people I met hiking hoped for it too.
I did learn about myself. I learned that I like chocolate candy better when it’s cold and fruity candy better when it’s hot, and that my brother was right, I should have packed Skittles. I learned that in town I always want burgers. When I am hiking, I like going fast uphill to get it over with. I never tire of watching the sunrise and sunset. I love swimming in cold lakes, cowboy camping, and singing old Cat Stevens songs at the top of my lungs into the valleys below me.
I learned about society, too. I learned to be more open to people from different backgrounds, that people really do change, and that all sorts of people can hike for all sorts of reasons. I met college graduates, professional bums, career changers, retirees, parents, job hunters, ex-addicts, past petty criminals, ultrarunners, veterans, foreigners, and locals, and everyone was out there doing the same thing. We were all just walking. And as we, the hikers, walked I was able to look at the hikers too and see who was missing among us, and how monochromatic we were. While we walked, the trail took us through parts of the West with such small populations that jobs were hard to come by. Some of the only work available for people clashed with my environmental dreams of protecting the land. I saw the conflict of the beauty I was appreciating and wanted to protect and the people wanting to find means of supporting themselves in small economies. I walked through areas where I was avoided and accused of being a thief. I had nights of not knowing where to sleep because I had been driven off the trail because of wildfires. I had homeless people think that I was living just like them and come to me for advice, whereupon listening all I could do was offer them food.
I learned about nature, its way of creating and destroying. I watched areas that had been burned by wildfires in years past starting to regrow, while hearing of wildfires engulfing areas of trail. I saw flowers bloom and smelled animals die. I felt strong, yet crossing a snowfield I realized my immense venerability as my feet slid from beneath me. I desperately tried to bring myself to a stop while gathering momentum and watching a boulder take shape below me. My knees dug into the snow beside the boulder that almost ended my life, and I looked up at the openness of the sky as it filled with the sunset’s colors.
All this happened but I came to no all-encompassing conclusions. I have no more answers now then I did when I started.
The trail did change my life, but not in some deep and profound way like I thought everyone expected. It changed my life because now all I want to do is hike.
Someone who asked me to give a talk said, “Share one of your hardest moments, like, was it cutting off your hair, or starting out?” The thing is, it wasn’t. None of that was hard for me. Of course I was nervous, of course I had doubts but it was not hard.
The hardest moments for me were not when I was in pain, nor when I was tired, nor when I was hungry, not even the few moments when I was scared.
The hardest moments for me were flipping (going from the halfway point up to Canada to start hiking south toward halfway), the wildfires, and realizing I was not going to complete my thru-hike and coming home.
Flipping was hard because I had a vision of one continuous northbound hike and flipping meant spending time off trail. Being off trail weakened me mentally and physically. My first two days back on trail were the most physically painful days of my whole hike. I cried for a mile straight because all of my body hurt. It was finding a lake surrounded by mountains, getting in and just swimming that made me realize it was all going to be OK.
Hiking between two wildfires was terrifying. About four years ago both my feet were burned in a grease fire and I received skin grafts on both feet. They have healed now, but fire can still make me uneasy. When between two wildfires, I thought every sudden movement, like a bird flying out of a tree, was fire. I would jump each time and at night I would lie awake trying to coax myself to sleep. After getting out of the woods, I found parts of the trail I could hike that were not burning. It became clear, though, that I would not be able to hike every step of trail. The wildfires had damaged so much and as the fires were being extinguished the early snows were beginning. As I hiked, I cried about not being able to finish. I hiked faster. I hiked in anger. I hiked in disappointment. I hiked in failure. I hiked in sadness. And finally, I hiked myself into acceptance. I would hike as much of this trail as I could before the snow slowed me down and I would come back for the parts that had been on fire.
Coming home has been by far the most challenging part of my entire hike. I lost the home I had made on trail, my purpose, my friends, my sense of accomplishment, my endorphin highs, my freedom to scream lyrics at the top of my lungs, skinny-dip, pee wherever and whenever, pay attention to my body, retreat inside my brain, and look at how beautiful our Earth is at every point of every day. Without meaning to, I have become an addict searching to get that feeling back. I hike as much as possible, often alone but also with others. Day hikes don’t feel the same, but they help. All that motivates me is the next chance to hike. I am not alone. I know about half of the people who hiked feel the same. People tell me my addiction to hiking is wonderful, that I have found my passion. I have found my passion, but I don’t know that it is all wonderful.
My passion is all encompassing, it is destabilizing, it is motivating, it is – as they told me it would be – life changing and so for now I bid farewell to normalcy and I embrace this passion because I wouldn’t have it any other way. Right now, this is the truest thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for me.
See you out on trail.
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