A Purpose On Trail + After the Trail: Stewardship
This October the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) turns 50 (so does the Appalachian Trail) —along with legislation that established the National Trails System in 1968—as one of America’s first two national scenic trails.
The PCT’s half-century birthday has me thinking about what the trail means to me, someone born 14 years after it was established. In 2017 I thru-hiked the PCT and discovered a new purpose on and off trail because of it. One year ago, I reached Canada and finished my northbound (NOBO) thru-hike of the PCT.
A Facebook Comment to Inspire My Post-Trail Steps
At the end of my thru-hike in September 2017, a fellow hiker posted a picture to Facebook with me and 21 fellow hikers at the northern terminus monument where our long journeys ended. Under the photo a former colleague commented, “Go forth and use your energy to do good work and advocate for parks and protected areas!!”
I read the words from a motel room outside of Manning Park, Canada where me and a few of those hikers found ourselves just hours after finishing the trail. The comment put the past, trail life and the future in perspective. There were many “nexts” I hadn’t yet figured out–a job, a place to live, etc.–but that comment helped me decide on one– continuing to advocate for stewardship of the trail.
I called my boyfriend and mom to thank them for supporting me throughout the four and half month journey in the season now known as the “Year of Fire and Ice,” for record snowpack in the Sierra and a record number of fires from Northern California through Washington, and I sat back on the hotel bed looking through my photos, videos and journals from the adventure through California, Oregon and Washington. The images and the words reminded of the big moments and feelings the trail left with me.
Trail Memories Aplenty
In California, there were trail angels Scout and Frodo hosting and feeding me, their 900th (and counting) hiker, of the season on the eve of my hike; the day-to-day reality of water scarcity and long carries (e.g. 6 liters from Cajon Pass) in the desert; happiness in the form of apple pie at Mom’s Pie Shop in Julian; my skin covered in desert sand kicked up while walking and feeling like that of an elephant; the long, winding 18 mile descent from Mount Jacinto’s peak first through cedar trees and then through exposed, low desert reminiscent of a scene in Star Wars that had my hiking partner and me humming the film’s theme music, “Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun…”; learning to love 3am wake-up calls to be start walking before the oppressive midday heat; hiking out of Tehachapi on a 115 +degree day reported as the “hottest in California history”; night skies with too many stars to count; sharing the trail after dark with small-bodied, big-footed kangaroo mice; the lush alpine meadows and fantastical bristlecone pine trees that swirl like shapes in a Van Gogh painting in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks; raging, overflowing creeks to cross and snow and ice covered climbs over passes in the Sierra; the majesty of Yosemite National Park; a week of friendly “hellos” with southbounders (SOBOs) walking in the opposite direction.
In Oregon, the trail was flat, speedy (like people promise it will be) and surrounded by evergreens, volcanic rock and mountains with memorable names like Jefferson, Hood and Three Sisters; the smoke-filled air invaded my nose, throat and eyes like a night in a bar before smoking bans were in place; dedicated firefighters from all around the US appeared in and around the trail to post closures with orange, red and pink tape, warn us of reroutes and danger and on one occasion to give us trail magic from their leftovers; the faces of yellow and green uniformed US Forest Service (USFS) staff made me appreciate them to a new and deepened degree; the all-you-can-eat brunch at Timberline Lodge lived up to the hype; stepping onto the Bridge of the Gods which usually brings elation for NOBOs entering the final state was sobering as the Eagle Creek Fire burned behind us across the river in Cascade Locks, Oregon and people hurriedly evacuated with carloads of memories and belongings.
In Washington the trail was lush and open, the miles more challenging and the views spectacular; the days numbered and the morale bittersweet with the end of trail in site; a memorable night in Stevenson with hospitality and dinner from trail angels Mary Sue and Kurt on their 30th wedding anniversary and then trail angel Mama G who fed, hosted and arranged shuttles for dozens of us around the fire at White Pass; the eye-popping North Cascades were castles of granite peaks; the unexpected snow storm forcing us off trail for days, cyan blue water of Micah Lake, cinnamon rolls as big as my head at the Stehekin bakery, canary-hued larch trees, walking while picking and eating from the hillsides of blueberry and huckleberry bushes.
Promoting Stewardship on Trail
On the PCT, I was one of 10 hikers selected for the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s (PCTA) inaugural “P3 program.” The initiative focused on stewardship and encouraged P3 hikers to use our voices and talents to advance the ideas of preserving, protecting and promoting the trail.
In the year prior, 2016, I left a job at an international conservation organization in Washington, DC to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). On the AT, I saw myself and others change and mature in our connection to the natural world and a trail. On the PCT, P3 allowed me to be an active observer, listener, learner of the forests, trail vulnerabilities, land managers, trail design and maintenance and town perspectives, but also to share those lessons. I was a hiker but also an anthropologist, an advocate, photographer, a conservationist, a naturalist, a journalist and a hiker. It benefited me as much if not more than I did for it — encouraging me to hike with my eyes, ears and mind open. And I was encouraged to share those conversations, stories and sights.
As a trail steward for P3, I did four things on trail: 1) Posted photos and stories on social media of sites and tagged #P3; 2) Interviewed hikers for Sounds of the Trail podcast about the impact of the PCT on them; 3) Wrote stories for the PCTA blog; 4) Acted as trail steward (aka “a good example”) in conversations and actions on trail and in trail towns.
I interviewed Tom was from Tasmania who flew from Australia to hike the PCT. He told me, “As a foreigner I wanted to come to the U.S. to experience the culture…Maybe what I’m experiencing isn’t the whole country, but it’s been amazing. There’s something special about being here that makes you feel you’re a part of something bigger than the trail.”
I interviewed a thru-hiker who studied forestry in college and worked off trail as a wildland firefighter. He gushed about the trees, community and the hiking itself. But, when I asked if he would stay involved with the PCT after he finished his hike, he paused and said, “Probably not. Why would I? What would I do?” His response surprised me, challenged me and reminded me that walking a trail doesn’t mean everyone has the time, inclination or awareness to contribute to promote, protect or preserve a trail. But it also reminded me of the ability to encourage others or anyone that is interested to know of the many ways they can have a positive impact after their hike.
On another occasion, I interviewed photographer and filmmaker Andrew “Reptar” Forestell who previously hiked the AT. On the PCT, he volunteered for Granite Gear’s Groundskeeper program where he picked up trash throughout his entire hike, including an 16-pound bowling ball. Reptar talked about becoming more vested in caring for the PCT with each mile he walked and piece of trash he picked up.
When we talked, his passion uncovered many definitions of stewardship he discovered throughout his hike. “Join the PCTA; donate additional funds towards the organization; volunteer to do trail work; pick-up trash on trail; write about your hike: share your pictures; practice and demonstrate leave no trace (LNT) while hiking–this one is vitally important and sometimes we can be lazy about it.” He was overflowing with ideas that he said were introduced to him the longer he hiked, cared for the trail and collected trash.
Before we finished talking, he enthusiastically continued, “And most easily, share stories of your trail experiences with friends, family, colleagues and interested people! Use your talents to contribute to the trail or PCTA! Work for an agency that collaborates with the PCT! Donate funds as an individual or business owner. And if you still can’t think of something, just call them and say, ‘I want to help the PCT. Tell me how to help!’”
Of all the lessons I learned through my P3 experience then and now, it mirrors what Reptar articulated. Stewardship is paramount to protecting and preserving the trail and that can take so many forms. It can be practical, physical, inspirational, tangible, monetary, artistic or managerial. It can be a representation and reflection of one’s own abilities, interests, skills and time.
When we become stewards of the PCT or any trail, we are no longer just walking a trail, we are a part of it.
Afterglow of the PCT
My four and half months of walking the PCT were one long chapter of adventure, reflection, challenge and growth that I think about at least a dozen times a day. The lessons learned on trail inform and influence who I am everyday after. And they are lessons and a place to nurture these ideas that I will draw on for the rest of my life. The speed of my thoughts and my observations slowed to that of my feet (in fact the speed of the occasional car ride in town often felt too fast and nauseating).
The space for contemplation was always available and often unavoidable. The camaraderie between hikers as young as 16 and as old as 70 was refreshing and invigorating. The uninterrupted hours in one my own head each day were many and encouraged me to look inward like never before.
Often my mind thought about early outdoor pioneers like Thoreau, John Muir, the other 1+ million hikers that step foot on the PCT each year and the human tradition of journeys on foot —by choice or necessity—as old as time.
The PCT gave me time and space to step back from life while also living in a grand way. I thought about my past, my present and my future in an uninterrupted, contemplative environment. And I was among many people that were in the same state of mind. I learned more about the many ways to design a life from the hikers I met and the people met by hitchhiking, seeing trail towns and meeting those working on trail.
But of course it wasn’t all deep thoughts. I was reminded to be a kid everyday, find happiness in weeks of 110+ degree days, intrigue in routine, and pleasure in dirty, days old food. I was physically and mentally challenged; I had to walk myself to food, water and shelter everyday; and I had to make sure people that loved me knew where I was.
A New Purpose On And After the Trail
The trail was predictable, surprising, grand, simple, humbling, calming, intimidating, sobering, routine, social and even lonely. And the uncertainties were many–the weather the terrain, the wildlife, the water sources, the day’s end at camp or who you might meet or see. The peripatetic lifestyle taught me to explore, to plan ahead while also staying spontaneous and adaptable.
Life as a PCT thru-hiker was even monastic. My routine was just that — wake, break down camp, eat, hydrate, walk, eat, hydrate, walk, set up camp, eat, hydrate, place bear can or hang food, sleep…repeat. In a world with so many choices, there are fewer on trail– move forward or not; stay in town or hike out; siesta or walk on; be happy or not; camp here or further down the trail; swim in the lake or not; ford the river at the trail, up or downstream; eat now or later; get water here or –well you probably should get it here.
No one walks the PCT for you but you. The physicality humbled and surprised my body and my mind of their resilience, potential and limits–100+ temperatures day after day; 20-30 miles a day for months on end, heat exhaustion, lack of water, never tiring of peanut butter for breakfast and macaroni and cheese for dinner.
The landscapes were places I had seen on paintings, postcards, films and hiking blogs. There are rare moments when the PCT is anything but grand wilderness, less a few wind and solar farms and crossing the occasional highway. Nowadays many people can’t say they live in wilderness, but I feel lucky to remember those days where I did –soothing, awe inspiring, empowering, even intimidating. The trail changed me and made me understand the positive impact of extended time outdoors on visceral level. Traffic, big buildings, and frenzied pace of big cities can come to feel far away and other worldly. Don’t get me wrong, restaurants, grocery stores in towns and the occasional bed and shower are nice, too.
The desert section of southern California posed thoughtful and timely learning about renewable energy sources, like wind and sun, but also non-renewable resources, like water which is scarce for the first 700 miles of trail. The environmental vulnerabilities to the trail including forest fires, water scarcity, climate change, human impact and threats of reduced federal protections on public lands were no longer stories in the news; they were concerns in my backyard and on a place I loved. But so were the presence of amazing potential–renewable energy potential, passionate trail stewards, committed people and a trail that unites people and causes.
The people I hiked with taught me that value of sharing great moments in the wilderness with others, partnership and humor in the desert, loyalty and teamwork through the Sierra, and motivation and friendship throughout. They taught me to seek out and befriend people from all around the country; to ask them about who they are, what they care about and their journeys, especially about the trail’s impact because the answer was always the same–”the trail changed me.”
Zip codes, background, corporate hierarchies matter little and kindness, caution, spontaneity and persistence matter. Instead the values of kindness, patience goodness meant everything. Trail angels extended generosity to me over and over and over again in the form of free water, rides, meals and even what woman called, a hug from your mom who loves you.”
Going without modern amenities and conveniences taught me to appreciate them, reduce or rethink when how much I need or want to use. Refilling my water bottle or bathing wasn’t a simple turn of tap; groceries were carried on my back and to be rationed for days at a time or for the perfect moment; regulating the temperature was not a thermostat nearby; and taking care of myself was critically important because a reliable connection, hospital, road or family were usually a few hours (or sometimes days) away.
The support of my boyfriend and family taught me that no major undertaking happens alone, and that supporting the dreams of loved ones is something that can never be properly thanked but we should try. Having their support also reminded me to be grateful and to tell them so, because not everyone is so lucky. Some hikers I met said they had little to no support from home. Calling home also reminded me to keep perspective on my own life and not let the PCT feel like the center of everything. It was equally important to call home and stay in touch with the lives of loved ones.
The PCT teaches real lessons of setting goals and then reaching or falling short of those; there are literal and physical ups, downs, setbacks and recoveries; the notions of friendship, wisdom, loyalty and partnership from the people we choose to surround ourselves with. The PCT teaches one to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter how small the progress seems. Now one year after finishing the PCT, I have learned that nearly all of these lessons can apply to life off trail, too.
On a basic level, the PCT is a line in the sand and dirt. It is an American idea. And it is a place and an experience that became a part of how I think, who I am and a value that represents me. It was built by passionate advocates, human hands and hard labor and continues to be that. Sometimes walking the PCT it is easy to lose sight of that because the trail is so neatly designed, so meticulously manicured.
With so many memories and impact, I wanted to continue contributing to promoting, preserving and protecting wild places, trails and public lands.
A Once in A Lifetime Experience
Sometimes my thru-hike felt as much as an adventure as it did a dissertation. What I learned on trail I had not experienced in a classroom or the office as a conservation professional. A day hiker who I met at Carson Pass outside of Lake Tahoe reminded me, “Don’t for one second forget how special and once-in-a-lifetime this experience is.” I told her I wouldn’t. I don’t think I ever will.
A PCT thru-hiker walks through 25 national forests, seven national parks and land managed by a variety of different agencies and partners –the National Park Service (NPS), the US Forest Service (USFS), National Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, state of California, state of Oregon and state of Washington. All of these agencies collaborate with one another and with the PCTA but also the trail towns, the emergency services, the fire crews, the trail volunteers, trail angels, et. for water, fire, rescue, trail magic, trail maintenance, wildlife issues or otherwise. Those agencies become more than a name or an acronym. They are a living breathing entity protecting the trail.
But it also was a study in human happiness and satisfaction. It taught me that one of my happiest places in the world is in the woods (or the desert) with a backpack, a pair of trekking poles, water, food and a good friend. Because out there my mind discovers some things it can’t find in a city or buy in a store; my imagination dreams up ideas that aren’t created elsewhere; my feet take me to places no vehicle can reach; and the beauty is more beautiful than anything I can watch on a screen; the people, the spirit and the simplicity are disconnected from the 24 hour news cycle; the challenges and empowerment it brings is something that no bank account, degree or hierarchy can; and the trail reminds me of something so American in tradition.
Spreading Stewardship Off Trail
After the trail, I found myself back on my native east coast, far from the PCT. I thought about the comment under that picture at the terminus urging me to be part of stewardship. I wanted to do this. When thinking about the opportunity of a lifetime I had, I am often reminded of the old adage, “To much is given, much is expected.”
Organically I decided to continue my P3 stewardship—not in a rearrange my life way, or live on the trail way; instead I decided to do a lot of what Reptar suggested–little acts in different ways. I continued promoting, protecting and preserving – for the PCT but also US trails and public lands. It gave me new purpose after the single track focus of hiking the PCT ended.
I dove into memories, researched the history and current management of the PCT and the national trails system to educate myself a bit more. I wrote. I talked. I blogged for gear companies. I became a trail maintainer on the east coast for the AT; I volunteered at advocacy events like Hike the Hill with trail groups and policymakers; I appeared on a couple outdoor podcasts, including Backpacker Radio, to talk about the trail and P3; I volunteered with youth and outdoor experiences; I talked to conservation groups and submitted stories about my trail lessons to other journalistic publications; I mentored a couple aspiring PCT thru-hikers preparing for the trail; I volunteered my time at hiking talks at local REIs; I even suggested that other groups replicate the model of P3. In retrospect it became the thing I was focused on. It is fun and even feels patriotic.
Continuing the Trail After Its End
For one spring, summer and early fall, I lived out of a backpack and saw the American West on foot. Mine is a story like estimated 1+ million of others who hike some or all of the PCT each year–a lifetime’s worth of experiences, moments, friendships, accomplishments and challenges in captured a few short, intense months. It has been one of the grand adventures of my young life.
By the end of my hike, I had a list of 110 people to send “thank you” notes; I took 3,644 pictures and videos; wrote 115 journal entries for every night on trail, one for each night on trail; posted 124 stories on Instagram; interviewed 26 people for Sounds of the Trail podcast; lost 7 pounds; slept 103 nights outside under the stars and 12 nights indoors in a bed; rerouted around 6 wildfires; took 15 showers; made hundreds of friends, some who will be memories from the PCT and others that I’ll keep in touch with, like Snow White, a fifty something Navy veteran, who dreamed of hiking the PCT for three decade and inspired gratitude by often and rhetorically asking me, “Hey Girl, how lucky are we (to be out here)?”
When I look back at the photos and numbers, it’s not the elevation climbed or the miles hiked each day that matters. Of course there were moments on trail when it seemed like they did; but, it’s so much more. It’s keeping the PCT a part of me and staying a part of it.
50 Years of PCT & America’s Trails
This year’s 50th anniversary of the PCT and the entire US trails system is a reminder for all of us that our trails symbolize an American idea, an invitation to get on trail and a tradition that changed my life for the better and does every year for millions.
I fell in deeply, madly in love with the PCT and the AT over the last two years. They gave me a once in a lifetime experience and a new purpose — to be a part of protecting, promoting and preserving it. When he signed the legislation naming the PCT as one of the country’s two national scenic trails, President Johnson said the US trail system was for, “…Old and young alike can participate for fitness and fun.” Now 50 years later, the same tenants apply.
One of the my final nights on the PCT, I wrote in my journal of the impact of the trail on me. “The PCT allowed me to see some of the most gorgeous and grand landscapes in the US, to think about who I am and who I want to be…It made me appreciate the people who dreamed up this trail, built it and maintain it…My core character and values as a person were tested and strengthened out here. I have big plans to get after I finish the PCT and look forward to those and to make the decisions to get after them. I aspire to live a full, meaningful and active life with good people around me. And I want to hike often and give back to the trail and trail community.”
I probably should call my old colleague to thank him for that comment on Facebook…
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