You’re Doing What? – A Filthy Casual Hiker’s Intro
Hi, I’m Alice and I’m hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in April 2021!
I’m a first-generation Asian American, Midwesterner, and soon-to-be Navy veteran. In less than 30 days, I start what’s called “terminal leave” (think of it like using up all your vacation days until your contracted time with your employer has elapsed), and will begin my Northbound (NOBO) hike in Campo, CA.
In addition to being a Trek Ambassador, I feel documenting my hiking experience and thoughts via a written blog can be beneficial for me (for posterity, or something), and also for you, the audience. This is because I have yet to tame my horrendously foul mouth, so a Vlog would yield a very…uh…unique and decidedly un-family friendly recollection of events.
How It Started, and How It’s Going:
I returned to the United States a few days ago after spending three years living abroad in Japan. After hiking Mt. Fuji and staring at a never-ending conga line of Oji-san (grandpa) asses, I asked a friend to take me on a “proper” hike and show me the ropes. Since I had never before gone on any overnight hikes, I wanted a little mentorship from a hiking sensei. I should mention a few things: she is an ultra-marathon runner, absolute beast of an athlete, and all-around badass. Meanwhile, my idea of working up a sweat is button-mashing Super Smash Brothers or puttering around the apartment trying to coax my cat out of places she has no business being.
With no experience comes no expectations, and so my first ever trip in Yamanashi Prefecture left me hoisting myself out of thigh-deep snow, navigating over and under a large swath of typhoon-destroyed forest, crying in my tent from the cold (that later collapsed on me in the middle of the night), and slogging over sun-burnt ridgelines and down an unmarked path along an alpine river to cut down time prior to sunset. As I laid in my collapsed tent, shivering and delirious from exhaustion, I solemnly vowed that I would never hike again – but I was hooked. I found myself returning again and again to the mountains despite my lack of athleticism, inexperience, and intense fear of spiders.
Over the years, I tottered up quite a few mountains in Japan (among my favorites are Tsurugidake, Kitadake, and Kasagatake), and I also hiked the French Ridge Hut Trail in Mount Aspiring National Park in New Zealand.
But Why Quit Your Job for an Aggressive Walking Expedition?
If you have served or know someone who did, I’m sure you have heard how many of us develop harmful coping mechanisms. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret joining the Navy – it has provided me many, many great opportunities. But, any insecurity or unhealthy behavior you had before joining the service is magnified, and any rosy fantasies about what life in the service would be like is shattered. For me, the service amplified my pre-existing dysthymia and anxiety, and like many other sailors, I would often come home after an 80+ hour workweek and multiple months at sea and search for the meaning of life at the bottom of a bottle (spoiler alert: it’s not there).
After five years of sea-duty, I moved to Japan to begin three years of what we call “shore duty” (where they send us to “recharge the batteries”, so to speak), and I realized that I needed to live a healthier lifestyle. It was not okay, despite the glorification of a sailor’s proclivity for booze, to continue to drink my life away between workdays. It was not okay to keep drinking to suppress my hate for myself or the life choices that led me down this path. I needed to change – I put down the bottle (mostly), picked up my pack, started counseling, and submitted my resignation.
I think for me, one of the reasons I fell in love with hiking is because it’s a literal, physical manifestation to “just keep going”. It is undeniable proof that by putting one foot in front of the other, I can reach the summit, I can walk through to the other side of the trail, I can feel the blood pumping in my body, feel the sun on my skin, and the wind in my hair. After five years at sea, it felt like I was shaking the dust off my bones and felt more alive than I could ever remember. It was so simple, liberating, and powerful – and with each mountain hiked, that feeling never faded. Even on my worst mental health days, summiting felt like I still had some gas left in the metaphorical tank.
Why the PCT?
Once upon a time, I overheard some colleagues talking about section-hiking the PCT. They would go backpacking on the weekends or after long underways, and at the time I thought it was the most baffling thing. You want to what? We just spent 2 months in a maintenance period away from homeport or floating around at sea (neither are as exciting as it sounds, trust me), operating on 2-4 hours of sleep a night, every night, getting drunk in silence with 2/3 of the crew at the mini-NEX parking lot across the street from the ship, all the while in 3-section duty. And now you’re saying you want to abscond to some deep wilderness on your only weekend off to sleep on the ground in a tent? Was squashing into a triple-decker bunk bed on the ship every night not enough for you? I begrudgingly admitted hiking the PCT sounded cool in theory – arguably badass, even – kind of like how feral animals seem “hardened”, “tougher”, or “cooler” than their domestic counterparts, but decided early that my soft and squishy body would not be up for the task.
Not too long after taking up weekend warrior backpacking in Japan, I came across Halfway Anywhere’s blog where he documented his hikes in Japan and also where he posts annual surveys and also about his own experiences on the PCT. I read his account and the surveys, did a lot more Google sleuthing and Instagram creeping, and after more of my Japanese expeditions I thought something along the lines of “you know, Alice, maybe your flabby body can actually do this. Actually, if you made it through five years at sea, surely you can suffer through five months of aggressive walking”.
The Countdown Begins
Like many others, my plans for a 2020 NOBO turned into a 2020 NO-GO. Fortunately, the stars have aligned for a 2021 NOBO! Since COVID-19 is still very much a threat, I intend on taking every reasonable precaution to ensure the safety of myself and others on the trail. I’ve already been vaccinated, and will also mask up while in town and where prolonged social gatherings are unavoidable. In the meantime, I’ll be using my few remaining weeks to assemble resupply packages, study maps, and enjoy the last few weeks of Active Duty life until it’s time to hit the trail. Thanks for following my blog, and you can also follow me on Instagram at @wucy.wu! Hope to see you on the trail!
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Hey, Alice! I retired from the USN myself several years ago…I really related to much of what you had to say…the hours are just inhuman – zero work/life balance…family just doesn’t get that…when I got to Okinawa in the 90s, they told me there were 3 possible fates: you’ll become an alcoholic, OR you’ll majorly “get religion,” OR you’ll become quite an athlete…you may find what you’re looking for & hit the reset button on your life while on the PCT…or, like me, maybe you’ll just realize you’re a nomad & “real life” is just what you “have to do” in between outdoor adventures! 😉 I thru-hiked the 442-mile Natchez Trace (Parkway & NST) in 2016 (some NPS red tape involved, took me 31 days). I finished a section-hike of the Ice Age NST last year. My daughter’s a freshman in high school…once she’s got her “sea legs” when it comes to life, I hope to try one of the long NSTs. Can’t wait to hear your updates…best of luck to you!
Name just like the film director, Alice Wu. Thanks for your posting. And a Vet. !!
Great post, Alice! Good luck on the trail. I’m sure I’ll see you out there as we start the same day.
Awesome story – you’ll be amazed at how often some of your Navy skills are useful on your hike. Former Sailor (Submarine ET) myself, Fair winds and following seas.
Fascinating background and excellent writing style!
I lived in Japan as a teacher for a year, that was plenty long enough for me. I still think of going back for hikes and Onsens though!
Your journey will be a great one to follow!