Why I’m Thru-Hiking the PCT

Sup?! My name is Maddie, my trail name is Lightning Rod, and I’m a NorCal native. This is my first time being alive, so I’m kinda new to this. I thru-hiked the TRT in 2020, and this year I will be attempting a PCT NOBO thru-hike with my boyfriend, Angler. I got my trail name on the Tahoe Rim Trail because I seemed to attract lightning strikes.

Angler and me.

Why do I attract lightning strikes?

Well, to put it simply, I’ve got a fucked up back with a bunch of metal in it, thus making me a human electrical conductor (no shit, my surgeon said I have a slightly increased chance of being struck by lightning). I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis early in childhood and spent a good majority of my preteen and teenage years in a plaster back brace. I was essentially crippled and had to wear the wretched thing all day, every day, for four years.

At age 16, my doctor advised surgery was imminent, it had to be done and it had to be done soon. Scoliosis is a bone deformity. Basically, it makes the spine grow in an “S” shape instead of straight up and down. Because of this, many of my vertebrae rotated and there was a lot of concern about my warped rib cage puncturing a lung (or both).

At age 16, I had total spinal fusion – I have two 14-inch rods, 21 screws, and a bracket screwed into my spine to hold me upright. Because I was (quite frankly) too young to have the surgery done, the risk of paralysis and death was higher than the average spinal fusion, and doctors weren’t quite sure how I would even recover.

Pre and post-fusion X-rays.

Perfecting the Art of Self-Sabotage

Somehow, my spinal fusion was a great success. I had very minimal complications (other than some slight nerve damage and a few numb spots) and my recovery process began. I wasn’t used to being able to do much physically, and still wasn’t able to for a few years post-surgery. My early 20s I spent perfecting my alcoholism and convincing myself that I was still extremely physically frail. I’m a master of self-sabotage. I still wasn’t really sure what I even liked and was depressed most of the time.

Most of my life up until this point had been spent focusing on my scoliosis. Now that I was fully recovered, the world felt like my oyster and I started exploring the area around where I live.

Exploring nearby areas.

Finding Freedom in the Canyon

I spent most of my mid-twenties exploring the area around where I live. My friend lived in a nearby canyon that was full of hiking trails, so I spent nearly every weekend out there exploring. At first, I was hesitant to do too many physically demanding things, but with enough convincing, I started branching out from my comfort zone.

When my friend left for the Air Force, I spent the next few months mourning the loss of my newfound freedom in the canyon. I found it harder and harder to find people to hike with. Nobody ever seemed to want to do anything. Eventually, I got so fed up waiting around for everyone that I decided I would just go alone.

With some encouraging words from my boss at work, I started doing more and more hikes alone. I took my first solo backpacking trip in October 2018 and instantly fell in love. My pack was 40+ lbs and I did everything wrong, but that sheer feeling of freedom that it gave me was irreplaceable. That trip was the start of a whole new perspective on life and how far I could push myself – physically and mentally. Most of my life I was very cautious. I vowed to myself on that first night spent alone that I wouldn’t let anything get in my way – I was going to be a backpacker.

Waterfall chasing in the canyon fall ft. my silly knuckle tats.

One month later…

November 8, 2018 will forever be imprinted in my brain as the day everything changed. Just one month after taking my first solo backpacking trip, my entire world crumbled at my feet. On November 8, 2018, I lost my entire town to the Camp Fire. The Camp Fire went down in history as the most destructive and deadly fire in California history.

Not only did my town succumb to the flames, but I also lost my home, all of my material possessions, my three cats, and 85 of my neighbors who perished in the blaze. My entire town of Paradise, CA was destroyed in the fire ignited by PG&E along with the neighboring communities of Magalia, Paradise Pines, Concow, and Yankee Hill.

My life as I knew it felt like it was ending. How do you even come back from something like that? My grandparents lost their home and business, my family lost their business, and my brother lost his home (almost his life, he was in town when the fierce winds set the whole town ablaze, it all happened so fast that even first responders became trapped with civilians).

I didn’t have insurance and I wouldn’t consider myself financially well off as it is. “Devastated” doesn’t even come close to how I felt that day. I spiraled further into my alcoholism and depression. Throughout the whole process, I continued to work despite knowing that I probably needed some time to decompress what had just happened. I went back to work before I even had a place to live. The pressure to get back on my feet and function was overwhelming. Everyone would say “you’re strong, you’re resilient!” but I felt everything but.

Butte Strong memorial to commemorate those lost.

The SS Dirtbag

The next four months were a shell-shocked blur to me. When I wasn’t working, I was drinking. Work, drink, sleep, work, repeat. I was running myself into the ground, burnout was imminent, and I knew I couldn’t keep this up forever. My family owns and operates a horse ranch in neighboring Magalia CA, and in April of 2019, my parents allowed me to move into their (honestly pretty crappy) travel trailer to help me get back on my feet.

I affectionately named the trailer the SS Dirtbag and I immediately got to work. I stopped drinking and started taking better care of myself. Everything that I had went into the one thing that I knew would make me happy, make me actually feel alive instead of this empty shell of a person – backpacking. All my money went to gear, and every weekend I was out bagging peaks and absolutely crushing miles. I took many multi-day solo trips section hiking portions of the PCT. The summer of 2019 I backpacked around 350-400 miles. I was physically destroyed, but spiritually I had never felt better.

The SS Dirtbag the first winter I lived there.

Fast forward to now…

So now. I’m here. I’m doing everything “right”. I have good credit, I have a job, a car, a house. But that’s not my view of success. I don’t think that those are the true things that help you grow as a person and to live a more fulfilled life. These two events did more to shape me as a person than my entire life combined, and they shared the same thing in common – great hardship.

I believe great hardship is the key to self-growth because it breaks you down and you can become who you need or want to be if you’re strong enough to build yourself back up. I believe the PCT will provide great hardships, unimaginable things for me at this moment. I also believe that the PCT will provide great experiences and a deeper appreciation for life and simply being. I can’t wait to rebuild myself.

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Comments 21

  • Tracey : Dec 18th

    Looks like you have had it tough at times but managed to get through it. I hope your trip is good and you enjoy it. I might see you as I sometimes provide trail magic on the Hat Creek Rim. Best of luck to you.

    • Lightning Rod : Dec 18th

      Thank you! I’m sure it’ll be a… time. Haha. That’s a rough dry section from what I’ve read, much appreciation in advance!

      • Richard Wallace : Jan 10th

        We’re pulling for you!


        • Richard Wallace : Jan 10th

          We’re pulling for you!


  • Joe : Dec 19th

    There’s no “cure-all” for the kinds and volume of traumas that you’ve suffered in succession. Over a relatively short period of time you’ve sustained a lifetime’s amount of traumatic losses. But, I know a bit about life after trauma, even a series of traumas and losses, and I admire the hell out of your response. I too have turned to Nature for healing. I joined a SAR Team, spent years now hiking with purpose, and have found, on rivers and trails, both peace and resiliency, unavailable anywhere else. Keep at it Lightening Rod (tho you, like all of us, may want to give up on and again): you have given us, reading your blog, courage for our own journeys. Thank you.

    • Lightning Rod : Dec 19th

      Thank YOU for reading! I truly believe that no matter the obstacle you’re faced with, it’s your reaction to it that matters. I’m sure I’ll have days that I hate the PCT, but as with everything else in life, it does get better eventually especially if you give it a really honest effort.

  • Richard : Dec 19th

    Thank you.


    Hi Lightening Rod, I can hardly wait to read your subsequent posts! Everyone is pulling for you. Post a lot of pictures of your journey. Bob

    • Lightning Rod : Dec 19th

      Thank you! I absolutely will!

  • Jhony : Dec 19th

    Gosh golly gee. How inspiring and interesting. Not to mention well written. VERY well written. Subbed her and on IG
    Looking forward to your adventure !

    • Jason Garcia : Dec 19th

      Lightning Rod, I loved this article! I relate to the alcohol abuse and am very thankful that you shared your inspiring story. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for you to have such massive losses in your life. You’re an amazing, powerful person for coming back so strong so many times!

      I’ll be kicking off my NOBO PCT thru hike this upcoming season too. I hope you and Angler the best on the trail!

      • Lightning Rod : Dec 19th

        Oh, fantastic! Hope to see ya there! Thanks, all the best to you as well.

    • Lightning Rod : Dec 19th

      Thank you so much! Seriously, means the world.

  • Travellvr : Dec 19th

    Keep moving forward and if you do look back, try hard to see the good and the happy times.

  • Just Bob : Dec 20th

    Such trauma……..Such inspiration!!!!!

  • Cindy Nielsen : Dec 25th

    You are an AMAZING being. I am in awe.

  • Ra3b3ll : Dec 30th

    Im inspired. So glad to see someone on this site that’s had a spinal fusion. I had one seven years ago after being ejected from a rollover accident and been doubting if I can even thru hike. Mine is in the upper neck and mid back. I worry about the pressure in my upper neck.

  • Reindeer : Jan 3rd

    So very well written and inspirational. Looking forward to following you on your journey.
    Good luck

  • Franjo : Jan 9th

    Hi Lightning rod, i live in Croatia, and i must say, you really are inspiring. I love hiking, and those things u said really inspired me to go and hike even more. I wish u the best of luck in the future, and wish u a happy hike! 🙂

  • Amelia : Jan 24th

    Enthralling read. Thanks for sharing.
    You’re gonna kick ass on the PCT! -Stoked, PCT class of 2021

  • Sally : Jan 25th

    Whoa girl! You’ve had it handed to you at such a young age but kept going. You are the definition of perseverance! Thank you for being honest and REAL in all your articles-especially about how backpacking is about grit, being outside your comfort zone and never giving up. I’m a believer that the “answers” are found out there- in the natural rhythm of the cycles (of which we are part). Looking forward to following your excellent writings from your PCT adventure. Onward.


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