Vignettes of Pain, Homesickness, and Abounding Joy

It is utterly impossible to summarize my experience over these past ten days in a blog post. It’s utterly impossible to summarize my experience in my journal at night, and I have written upward of 1,000 words each night. So I have chosen a few moments to describe in scrupulous detail, and I hope that these vignettes will provide a framework from which you, the reader, can build a complete image of my journey.

On a side note, I have accepted the trail name Prom King, for I began the trail just 29 hours after prom. Also, I wear a bow tie with mice on it.

The Monument

Eleven days, four hours, and 29 minutes ago, I anxiously awaited the start of my thru-hike. I stood on top of the monument on that rainy day with only one point of contact. My two arms flailed, and I stuck my left leg out in the air. My mouse bow tie sat neatly in the center of my neck. My light-blue, stain-free shirt rested on my torso. My hands trembled from a combination of cold and anxiety. And raindrops floated down from the sky. Who expects it to rain on April 29 in the desert? I asked myself.

I stand at the monument, unaware of what is to come.

The Lake

Ten days, 21 hours, and 32 minutes ago, I arrived at Lake Morena. The first 20 miles had not been effortless, and the persistent rain chipped away at my morale as I walked. I missed my parents dearly—more so than I had previously imagined. My feet ached at one bone in my arches. I had never hiked 20 miles in one day before, yet I planned to do it again tomorrow. I crawled into my tent and cried. I called my mom, and we discussed the difficulty of transitions, how this change was not only one from society into trail life but from living at home into adulthood. The tears poured from my eyes and wetted my shirt. I put on a meditation, and eventually, the fatigue rocked me to sleep.

Tents set up at Lake Morena below the portentous skies.

The Crossing

Six days, 21 hours, and 24 minutes ago, I walked out from under Scissors Crossing. That morning I had struggled with homesickness and a lack of desire to hike, yet I pushed through the 13.6 miles of relative discomfort; it was the free pie and ice cream from Moms that kept me going. My body hurt a tad, though the bones in the arches of my feet hurt more, yet my soul hurt the most. I yearned for the comfort of home life and my parents. My anxiety had reached a new level since I got on trail—I was constantly nervous about injuring myself, poor weather, not carrying enough food, my gear, and many other seemingly inconsequential details of trail life.

Hikers often say “the trail provides.” And as I walked out from under Scissors Crossing, the trail provided. Although I had dreaded the ascent, having company made it more than bearable. The person with whom I had hiked for the last four days—we’ll call her Thunder (not her real or trail name)—and I had planned only to walk three miles. But we got talking with Scooby, an incredibly inspirational thru-hiker and 2019 calendar Triple Crown hopeful, and the miles whipped past. The flowers were in bloom, the weather was perfect—a light breeze and mid-60s—and the sunset was beautiful. Seven and a half short miles later, Thunder and I set up camp. Somehow, our conversation had annulled my foot pain and dissolved my homesickness. I went to bed full of ramen and joy.

Scooby turns a switchback on the climb out of Scissors Crossing.

The Meadows

Five days, 20 hours, and 18 minutes ago I entered the meadows before Eagle Rock. Full of trail magic at mile 101, the achievement of walking 100 miles, and camaraderie, I was taken aback by the sight. The sun was setting, and, for the first time, I understood why I was out on trail. I had spent many of the first five days walking questioning why I was on the Pacific Crest Trail. At home, my lists seemed to make so much sense, but trail life is so much more challenging than I could have possibly imagined. Each day, over the hours of walking, I traverse an emotional landscape as undulating as the elevation map on Guthook. I experience inexplicable pain and joy and sadness.

My main hiking partner, Thunder, walks through the meadow.

Entering the meadow was my first moment of enlightenment. Bird Song (from Veneta) played in my ears, and the combination of soul-touching music, a view that exposed the grandeur of the PCT, and my previous five days of struggle coalesced to form a spiritual experience. I cried tears of joy and understanding. I dried my eyes on the wind.

The sunset with Eagle Rock on the left. We cowboy camped there that night, and that group was soon to become my first trail family.

My soon-to-be trail family dabbing on top of Eagle Rock.

The Failure

Two days, two hours, and three minutes ago, I quit the trail. As I write this, that decision feels like as much of a jump to you as it does to me. But at that moment, it made sense. I had struggled immensely with my anxiety over the past days, and it was bordering depression. And the toll that my anxiety was taking on me was compounded by the impending storm and climb. I had to hike up to 9,000 feet, and it was going to rain for five of the next seven days. I was miserable. Rain often triggers my anxiety, for I have no control over it and when it wets. And the miles I walked every day (upward of 20) did not help me fix my anxiety but instead allowed me future-trip for hours on end.

I questioned my ability to make it to Canada. I questioned my ability to make it to Kennedy Meadows. I questioned my ability to be on trail for another week. And all of that questioning, coupled with my family’s concern for my mental health, offered me an out. People said that they were proud that I had walked 150 miles. People said that at some point challenge is no longer edifying but deleterious. So, when my feet continued to hurt and I decided that I did not enjoy the act of walking (at least for hours on end every day), I began to cry. For the next two hours I alternated between delirious walk-crying and tear-free anxiety-ridden footsteps. At that moment, it felt as if had experienced more pain than joy on the trail.

Wild Turkey, a member of my trail family, hikes in through the weather.

The Storm

Two days, four hours, and eight minutes ago, my environs shifted; it was as if I had entered the Sierra. But then came the storm. On a ridge, the wind began to whip. A cloud rolled in. Five of us hiked in a line, suffering together. I could not feel my hands. The wind grabbed our packs and threatened to yank us off the trail. We could not see more than 15 feet in front of us. We imagined that we were in Hawaii, sitting on the beach drinking piña coladas. Yet I was so happy. I was glad to be suffering and delighted to be with my friends. I smiled more fully than I ever had before.

Although the gale-force winds knocked my tent over that night, ripping a hole in it—and although four of us ended up cowboy camping—I was filled to the brim with joy. The universe had spoken up: “Your time on the Pacific Crest is not complete,” the wind boomed. So I un-quit. And in the morning, the universe smiled.

The universe smiling.

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Comments 5

  • Robbie : May 11th

    I like your style of writing . Keep it up and good hiking . I shall follow your journey .

    • Dick Christensen : May 11th

      Do not give up ! Dick

  • John Forney : May 14th

    Fight the good fight!

  • NANA : May 20th

    Go Sam Go I KNOW you’ll MAKE it !!❤?

  • Steve Shea : Jun 10th

    Hi Sam. My name is Steve. I’m about 30 years older than you. Reading your piece, i had one overriding reaction which is: Believe it or not, there’s no shame in changing your mind and ditching your journey. It doesn’t sound like you’re having much fun, or even have a clear idea why you’re doing this trail. I just think it’s way too much of a transition in many ways from what you’re used to. If you’re crying in loneliness from missing your parents, that’s a crystal clear sign that maybe this isn’t the right thing for your needs at this time in your life.

    I’m 50 years old, have spent a lot of time camping as nd being outdoors, and enjoy being in the woods by myself, or on the road for days at a time, again, alone. But even so I might not want to do a PCT through hike.

    You’re only 18 or 19 and don’t have a lot of if any experience being by yourself. Furthermore, you’ve been finding it a real struggle in an unenjoyable way (there are both enjoyable and unenjoyable struggles)

    I’d suggest considering bagging this trip, and trying a group hike or trip of shorter duration. Maybe a week or 3 days with friends you already know instead of solo. Or maybe a guided group hike. Or maybe something like the Santiago da Compostela trail which goes through settled areas and towns and in which you’ll have opportunities to meet and talk with many more people.

    Anyways, those are some of my thoughts. I hope they are helpful.

    This should be all be primarily enjoyable.


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