Siren’s Full PCT “Shit Hitting the Fan” Story
Aches and pains appear and vanish regularly on a thru hike, so I usually don’t get too concerned. But the pain that started in my left foot on the road walk into Seiad Valley was different. I hiked a painful 25 miles to the Oregon border the next day, and 24 miles to the road to Ashland the day after, moving so slowly I told my friends to go on ahead.
I took lots of ibuprofen, spent the day limping along, and set up camp alone at dusk near the road. I hitched to Ashland in the morning and forced myself to get all my chores done, even though the pain was getting worse. I got my own motel room to rest in private and spent the day distracting myself with TV, trying to believe nothing was seriously wrong.
In the morning, pain shot through my foot when I put weight on it, and I knew that one zero day was not going to cut it. Between looking up my symptoms and knowing of other hikers with the same issues, it seemed I had metatarsal stress fractures, a relatively common thru-hiking injury.
I decided to keep going, planning to give it a few days to the next resupply and see if the pain got worse. I hitched back to the trail in the afternoon with a large supply of ibuprofen and hiked around 11 miles. In the previous days, my limp worked itself out after a mile or two, and taking ibuprofen helped. This day, the limp and the pain persisted, despite taking as much ibuprofen as the label allowed and stopping for long breaks. To make it worse, my altered stride to protect that foot had started causing aches and pains in other parts of my legs and hips.
I camped alone that night and debated whether I was being incredibly stupid by continuing. Was I making it worse? Could I turn possible stress fractures into real fractures, or was the pain superficial enough that I could walk through it?
Some injuries are game changers and some injuries are game enders. I’ve had experience with both.
I’d had a game-changing injury on my NOBO Appalachian Trail thru-hike two years prior, breaking my big toe in Vermont. I limped a few miles to the next forest road where a trail angel friend met me with cheeseburgers and a trip to the ER. After a couple days off, I learned how to walk in a post-op shoe on uneven trail, and ended up slackpacking for a week. By the time the hospital-provided shoe fell apart, I was okay enough to continue cautiously in my trail runners. The toe didn’t fully heal until several months after I finished hiking, and it still hurts occasionally thanks to injury-induced arthritis.
The game-ending injury happened on my attempted Colorado Trail thru-hike the year before the PCT. I took a bad fall, breaking and spraining my ankle in an instant. I knew as soon as I went down that it was bad—the ankle had bent way too far, it hurt to touch, and I rapidly lost any range of motion. Another hiker appeared and stopped immediately when he saw me sprawled in the middle of the trail. He splinted my ankle, and I got to a road crossing by taking literal piggybacks from another group of hikers.
I couldn’t help but compare my current foot pain on the PCT to my past experiences. Could I work through it like on the Appalachian Trail, or was this Colorado Trail Part II? A few friends caught up to me in the morning and their casual comments about my stress fractures made it more real. My heart sank and I knew I needed to get off trail.
I am the type of person who likes to have a plan, and suddenly I had no plan… that was almost worse than the injury. Not only was I getting off trail with no idea if or when I’d return, but I’d be losing the group that I had been hiking with for months. To make matters worse, I wanted a continuous NOBO hike, but I needed to complete the northern half of my remaining miles first, to beat the winter weather. As I left the trail, I told my hiking partners that I’d see them again, but deep down, I wasn’t sure if that was true.
I planned to stay a few weeks with friends in Oregon, then meet my hiking partners at Cascade Locks to head north into Washington, which hopefully would give me enough time to heal. As much as I wanted a continuous NOBO hike, I knew I needed to complete the northern half of my remaining miles first, to beat the winter weather. I would return to Oregon after completing Washington. As I left the trail, I told my hiking partners that I’d see them again, but I wasn’t sure if that was true.
I spent the first 10 days staying off my feet as much as possible, then slowly started walking around again. The foot was still painful, but I could now walk without a pronounced limp. I went back to the trail at Cascade Locks in time for PCT Days, and although my main hiking group had not yet made it there, I did run into other trail friends. When the festival was over, I hiked north into Washington.
I had promised myself that I would limit my miles for the first week out, even if I felt well enough to do more. My pace didn’t take long to get back to normal, so I had to take long breaks during the day to make sure I didn’t walk too far. It was incredibly frustrating to watch the hikers coming out of PCT Days blow past me. I wanted to be able to hike like normal and keep up with the pack, but I knew I was doing the right thing by taking it slow.
I lowered my ibuprofen dosage over the next few weeks and hiked very carefully, especially in rockier sections. After a month of being back on trail it was like the injury had never happened.
As a bonus, I had started out so slow that my original hiking partners caught up, so I was able to arrive at the Canadian border with a fun group. However, most of them were finishing their hikes, and knowing I still had to go back and hike Oregon made the event less momentous for me. Instead of finishing at the PCT’s northern terminus, I’d be finishing at a random road in Oregon. It felt like a let down. I had reached the traditional end of the trail, and I had been on trail long enough that I was starting to look forward to going home, but I still had 400 miles to go. I’m stubborn and don’t like to leave things unfinished, but even for me, mustering the motivation to get back down to Oregon and start hiking was difficult, especially when everyone around me was ecstatic with the joy of finishing.
It helped that two of my friends had to go back and do sections of Oregon themselves, so I had company for part of my remaining hike. Companionship was nice, since there was hardly anyone else on the trail that late in the season. We were pretty mentally done after having already hit the northern terminus, but having other people to keep motivated helped me stay motivated, and I became the group’s unofficial planner.
By the time I reached the road in Oregon that marked the end of my thru hike, I had been alone for several days, and happy to have had time to myself to wind down, think about my hike, and what came next. The excitement had returned as I neared my finish, and although I had no other thru-hikers to share my “summit” with, it felt more momentous than arriving at the Canadian border at Monument 78. That random road was my terminus. I was glad I had stuck to it and finished my thru hike even though it was not in the order I’d planned to hike it in.
Just as I was getting ready to start hitching, a truck pulled in and two men got out. I asked if they could take my picture since I’d just finished my thru hike, and it turned out they were former thru hikers. Instead of starting their day hike, they insisted on driving me all the way to town. I got to share my hike completion with some other hikers after all.
Get even more inspirational stories in our guide for thru-hiking the PCT, Pacific Crest Trials.