Why hike the PCT? It’s complicated.

When people hear that I am about to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mexico to Canada, often their first reaction is “why would you do such a crazy thing?” It will be 5-6 months of my life that will almost certainly include a lot of difficult and uncomfortable moments, so there must be some pretty compelling reasons beyond just liking to hike. Well, it’s hard to give a single, simple answer. Instead, there are layers of answers that reveal themselves as I dig deeper.

I hike because I can

My first answer is that I am hiking because I can. Four years ago I got suddenly sick, and I didn’t get better for a long time. I spent a full year too sick to work or walk more than a block at a time without resting. I was mostly too sick to travel, but on the few occasions that I did I used a wheelchair at the airport because walking took too much energy. As the months and then years dragged on, I wondered if I’d ever get better. I got lots of diagnosis and tried many treatments – everything from the strongest IVs Western medicine had to offer, to extreme diets, to meditation and wishful thinking. Time passed, and I slowly started to improve. It’s almost inconceivable that I could go from a wheelchair to walking from Mexico to Canada in that short time. My health isn’t perfect now, but it’s worlds better. There are no guarantees I’ll be able to attempt this in the future. So, why am I doing this? Because I can. Because I see a window of opportunity open before me and I know better than to let it pass me by. 

The freedom of travel

That’s the first answer that comes to mind, but on further examination, that might be more of an answer to the question of “Why am I doing this now?” Another answer goes back farther in time to a dozen years ago traveling in Europe. I started in England and proceeded to shed more and more belongings along the way – a bag left with a friend in London to pick up on my way back, another bag left in Istanbul – so that I found myself on a bus to the Turkish coast with only a small overnight bag. Setting off with such few belongings and without anyone in the world knowing my whereabouts left me feeling independent and self-reliant. The incredible sense of freedom that came with being untethered to the world was exhilarating. In retrospect, I realize that I’ve been chasing it since. 

From bike touring to backpacking

Before I started backpacking, I loved going on solo bike tours for 10-15 days at a time – down the coast of California, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and many others. It was the closest I could get to that feeling of being untethered to the world as more of my attachments fell away with each passing mile. For years I planned to go on a multi-month bike tour, but it was never quite the right time. Then, I got sick and those dreams disappeared, possibly forever. As my health has improved, I’ve done a little biking, but biking up mountains feels harder than it used to. Somehow, hiking and backpacking seem to fit in better with the current version of my body. And, to be honest, the nature and solitude of the backcountry appeals to me in a way that biking on roads never did.

2015 bike tour

Photo of me at the end of a 2015 bike tour down the California coast: tan, tired, and happy.

Letting go of baggage

Yet, there are commonalities between bike touring and backpacking: carrying everything you need to survive over long distances using your physical body to move it forward in a continuous line. The baggage you carry becomes so tangible – every ounce accounted for as you haul it up and over mountains. In normal life, we are always carrying so much metaphoric baggage. Somehow the act of making it explicit melts the intangible baggage away. Slowly, with each step or rotation of the pedals, I can feel it trailing off the back of my backpack or bike into the breeze, becoming lighter by the moment. Only by physically carrying everything I need can I feel truly unencumbered. That’s why I’m hiking: to chase that feeling of weightlessness. 


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Comments 2

  • Carol : Mar 15th

    Go Sandy! I’m so inspired by your journey, courage, and mindset. I’m sure there are so many others that join me to cheer you on and send good karma for your PCT trek. I can’t wait to hear more through the weeks ahead.


  • Linda Harter : Mar 20th

    Good luck Sandy. I excited to follow your progress on the trail.


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