Three Things I Did Right
I did a lot of things wrong on my PCT thru-hike, but at least three I got right. One I knew would be important from the start, one quickly became so, and the last I was clueless about until I was halfway to Canada. Here they are.
1. Shakedown Hike
Prior to my April 8th PCT start date, I spent two weeks in March hiking a section of the Arizona Trail (AZT) to test out gear, ready my body, and prepare my mind. I had a new pack to test, an old tent to check, food to try, and Instagram to figure out. I also wanted to make sure I was physically and mentally where I needed to be.
Older bodies are full of surprises, usually unpleasant ones. A new kink in the neck, an arthritic hip starts acting up, reading glasses suddenly need higher magnification. Younger hikers hit the trail trusting their bodies. They venture onto the AT, PCT and CDT confident their flesh and bones will perform as expected and see them through the miles ahead. Those of us in our 60s and beyond are less certain. Like an old car, we need to check the oil, test the brakes, and look for rust regularly. I wanted to take my body for a spin.
My shakedown hike would also get me in the headspace needed for my PCT journey. I wanted to phase-shift my brain from the anxiety and doubt I had about what lay ahead into the immediate now. More than testing me physically, I wanted to be sure I was emotionally prepared.
March is a great time to be in the desert. The cacti are in bloom, temperatures are perfect, and cold springs flow. The Sonoran Desert at its best. My AZT hike took me from the Gila River to the mountains east of Tucson and down into Saguaro National Park. It was an old friend I’d hiked before.
From Day One I channeled the PCT. Working my way through the low hills and open desert to the town of Oracle, I envisioned the California deserts I’d cross. I thought about the long water carries I’d do, the blisteringly hot Los Angeles aqueduct I’d follow, the way my body would respond. Climbing up the side of Mt. Lemon, I conjured the PCT’s steep ascent into the San Jacinto Mountains 200 miles from the Mexican border. Crossing the crusty snow atop Mica Mountain, I pictured the snow-capped Sierras, the difficult passes I’d traverse, and the amazing views I’d see.
By the time I reached Saguaro National Park I’d hiked the PCT’s first 1000 miles in my head. I had a visceral feel and a mental model for what my PCT hike might be like. I’d seen how my body and gear responded. My shakedown hike reassured me that my gear was good, my 63-year-old body was ready, and my mind was prepared.
Just as important, my shakedown hike reminded me how I much I wanted to hike the PCT.
2. Documenting the Journey
Journaling, taking photos, recording videos, and posting on Instagram were the ways I chronicled my PCT journey. I will do it all again when I hike the CDT. Documenting my trip quickly became an essential part of my routine. I wrote nightly journal entries, tried to take pictures every day, and filmed “trail report” videos once or twice a week for my IG followers. These activities provided structure to my hike, helped give it purpose, and at critical times, boosted my morale.
A Legacy to Establish
My words, photos and videos were tangible evidence that I was on an epic adventure. They reinforced in me that I had a goal to accomplish, a mission to fulfill — and as a Triple Crown wannabe — a legacy to establish. By documenting my step-by-step journey from Mexico to Canada, I was incrementally realizing something important, and I felt duty-bound to follow-through. Even at my lowest moments, when I thought my body and spirit were unequal to the challenge, I felt compelled to record my experiences because it was my job to do so.
And there was this: When the day comes I can hike no more, I have a record of the people I met, the wonders I experienced, and the struggles I endured. The adventure I lived. Something to share with family and friends. And for myself.
Something to remind me of the time I did something awesome.
Until he reached his 90s, my dad got by on 6-hours of sleep a night. He’d be up at dawn, do his morning exercises, work hard all day, and be fully functional until late at night. Me, I’d always been an 8-hour guy. And a napper to boot. But that changed on the PCT.
If my dad could get by on six hours sleep in his 60s, then by God, so could I. And anyway, don’t older people need less sleep?
So, I built sleep deprivation into my trail schedule. The honeymoon glow of my epic adventure carried me through the first weeks. Then there was the naked thrill of the Sierra Nevada Range. Majestic vistas, butt-puckering passes, and drop-dead awesomeness. I would start my days electrified and pumped. Sometimes snapping awake at 4:00 AM to just lie there and imagine the day ahead.
Before sleep deprivation caught up with me I was hiking 12-hour days and going to bed late. I’d be up by five, on trail by six, and hike until six or seven at night. Semi-comatose by day’s end, and it was all I could do to set up camp, make dinner, and crawl inside my tent to collapse. I’d lie there and revel in blissful inactivity before passing out. An hour later I’d struggle back to consciousness so I could write long journal entries before sleep, typically turning in around 11:00 PM. By the time I left the Sierras I was averaging 25-mile days and smugly satisfied with my rigorous discipline.
Not bad for an old guy, huh?
The Dream Darkens
Sleep deprivation hit home around the California-Oregon border. Slowly at first, then bam! The scenery became less dramatic, the adrenaline thrill dissipated, and my mind and body caved. My brain churned recycled thoughts. I tripped more. My days began to blur. I grew morose and irritated. Little things set me off, like the rhythmic tapping of my stove rattling inside my pack. My emotional volatility ramped up. I got inordinately pissed-off at loud and boisterous hikers coming up behind me, then plunge into morose self-pity as they passed because they were having such a boisterous good time. I entered an emotional low-pressure zone and felt raindrops of depression.
By the time I stumbled into Crater Lake National Park, I was in full despair mode. Things had gone from bad to worse. The heat was oppressive, the mosquitos were bad, and the Lionshead Fire closure ahead was still buttoned up tight – rangers were confiscating permits and escorting hikers out. The park store was out of mosquito repellent.
And where had all these people come from? Somehow, I’d landed smack-dab in the middle of a mammoth hiker “bubble”. The hiker campground was overflowing. All these fit, young, and vigorous hikers full of boundless energy and enthusiasm. What was I doing here? Physically exhausted, far from home, spending all this money and time. And for what? To be away from those I love? To be wretched?
It made no sense. God-damn it.
On the Verge
I called up my wife and told her I wanted to quit. She heard me out, listened to me bitch and moan, and then said a wonderful thing. She said she would support me whatever I chose to do. It was my hike.
Her loving words brought clarity. I could do whatever I wanted, and she would support me. No matter what. It was up to me to decide.
And so, I did.
What I wanted – what I really wanted – was to complete my thru-hike and not follow my crazy, sleep-robbing regime anymore. I wanted to relish the trail and be present in the amazing world I was passing through. See the sunbeams slanting through the ancient cedars, hear the forest cathedral quiet, witness the caught-in-your-throat beauty. I wanted that, not to stagger down the trail like a zombie. I was done doing hard; I wanted more sleep.
It took about a week. Seven hours a night supplemented with post-dinner naps. My head cleared, my footsteps became certain, and I felt better. Way better.
By the time I reached Bridge of the Gods I was doing fewer miles and getting more sleep. Still pulling a respectable 20 miles/day, I took more pictures, gave myself more breaks, and felt deeply grateful for the world around me.
As I plan my CDT thru-hike, I know there will be temptation to pile on the miles as I drop south to Mexico. But I’m not cheating myself of sleep again. Not Like I did on the PCT.
I’m too damn old for that.
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