You’ve Never Been as Ready as You Are Now
Some Quick Context
Let me introduce an Elephant into the room so that we can talk about it. I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail last year. There, I said it. I don’t want it to seem like I’m being irrelevant. This is a blog about the PCT, after all. The reason I bring it up is because a lot of what I want to talk about in these posts, regarding my experience on the PCT, might reference last year’s AT thru-hike. Not in a comparative way. I think comparing the AT to the PCT (or any other hiking trail for that matter) to deduce which is better, is like comparing an apple with an orange, to see which one is the better banana. But, I do feel that it is important to know about my AT thru-hike, so you might understand why I might bring certain things up in these PCT posts.
My AT Tramily
On the AT, I hiked in a group three. We met right at the start. I met Holy Roller in the car of a trail angel that was kind enough to give us a free ride from Atlanta to the start of the Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls State Park.
Holy Roller is a young West Virginian woman, who was hiking the AT in honor of her recently deceased father, whom she had loosely planned to one day complete the trail with, before his sudden and unexpected death. The Trail runs right by her family home, so it seemed natural that they would one day hike it together. Sadly, that opportunity had been ripped away from her, so she was hiking alone, in tribute to him.
We started hiking together straight away and met Red Panda at the shelter on top of Springer Mountain that night. I tell people that he looked like a little lost puppy. He was too shy to say hello and kept his distance from everyone. When I saw him slowly approaching, I said “Hi”. To which he replied, “I’m… I’m sorry.” And went back to his tent.
A Man Called Red Panda
Hailing from North Carolina, he stands around 6’2″, was overweight, and seemed completely out of his element, as if this were the last place he’d hope to find himself alone.
Red Panda on Day Two of our 2022 Appalachian Trail Thru-hike.
The next morning, after a stormy night, Holy Roller and I were shivering in the cold while eating breakfast. Red Panda tentatively approached us again. We talked to him and invited him to sit with us, which he didn’t, constantly maintaining a little distance, as though he was wary of harm.
He confessed that he had thrown out a lot of his food because his pack was so heavy and was worried about making it to the next resupply. Holy Roller and I were more than willing to donate some of our many meals to his cause. We had overpacked and were pleased to shed some weight. A mutually beneficial situation.
You Wouldn’t Believe the Difference
Over the following few days, Red Panda slowly made his way along the trail and reached all the same shelters we did, albeit a couple of hours behind us. We continued to invite him to join us, but he was wary of becoming too attached.
After a few days, he became a solid member of the tramily. His confidence grew, and we started to get to know one of the most selfless human beings I have ever met. Someone who has a wicked sense of humour, and a gift for coming up with Comedy-Rap songs on the fly.
By trail days (a hiker festival in Damascus Virginia), 45 days into our hike, Red Panda was on stage for the first time in his life, singing one of his Comedy-Rap songs, “Cornbread and Pinto Beans”; an ode to redneck stereotypes. He performed in front of an audience of hundreds of strangers, who joined in the chorus, and he was buzzing with adrenaline after his act.
Up and down trail, his good nature was becoming more renowned with each passing day. People gravitated towards him, and we joked that he was the most popular person on trail.
It Wasn’t All Sunshine and Lollipops
Despite his confidence growing, there were some moments when his will to continue waivered.
The first such time came when he reached a point on the trail that was near his home town, he considered calling it quits.
Many of his doubters at home had told him that there was no chance he would make it past this point. He was also worried whether he would have the funds to continue or whether his gear would make it to the end.
Then, a chance meeting with a pastor, who just so happened to had taught his father in high school, helped him reconsider.
Red Panda’s father had passed away when he was an infant, so he has no memory of him, only stories from people that painted him in a negative light.
The pastor shared stories to the contrary. He instead spun tales of a charming, outgoing, happy-go-lucky lady’s man who had a large group of friends and loved life.
The next day, before we left camp, and with Red Panda still debating whether to take a bus home, the pastor found us and confessed that after a night of prayer, God wanted him to tell Red Panda that if he placed his faith in God, He would provide everything Red Panda needed to continue and finish the hike. Red Panda had faith and carried on.
A second moment of struggle came around mile 1800, in New Hampshire.
Suffering from some awful foot injuries and not enjoying hiking anymore, Red Panda confessed to myself and Holy Roller that he was planning to go home.
After a long talk where we didn’t try to convince him either way; we just listened to his reasons, he took a night to consider his options and, once again, elected to continue. By the end of the following day, he was thankful he had stayed on trail and said the day had been the best he’d had in weeks.
The Greatest Climb of Our Lives
Almost 400 miles later, we were climbing the final 5.2 miles to the top of Mount Katahdin; the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The temperature was beyond cold, the sky was beset with clouds, and as we got above the treeline, the wind was easily strong enough to knock us off of our feet.
Red Panda didn’t have any gloves, and at one point in the hike was so cold he looked as though he was really sick. He sat on a rock that sheltered him from the wind, rocking back and forth, pale faced and shivering. All around us, ice wrapped anything it could cling on to: My beard, our coats, and all of the alpine vegetation. Despite this, he didn’t turn back. He kept going, and a mile later, we reached the famous wooden sign that told us we had made it: Mt. Katahdin. Our thru-hike was finished.
Red Panda smiled, laughed, cheered, and had his frozen hands out in the icy-cold 50 mph winds. Any physical discomfort took a back seat to his elation.
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same…”
Red Panda, a small town boy from North Carolina, who started with a 65lb, 85 litre pack that contained, amongst so many non-backpacking items: A wool blanket, an $85 Walmart fishing tent, a 0°C sleeping bag that when folded down was the size of a large watermelon, and winter jacket that looked like it would fit someone twice his size; had done what very few people believed he could do, he had hiked the entire distance of 2194.3 miles along one of the world’s most challenging hiking trails. On the way, he dropped his pack weight to half of what it was, hiked further than anyone he had met before, and lost more body weight than his starting pack weight, reaching a number on the scale that he’d not seen since his junior year of high school.
Red Panda the day prior to finishing the Appalachian Trail, 68lbs lighter than at the start.
I like to say he didn’t have the best of anything, but he made the best of everything.
I’m eternally impressed by what he was able to achieve. I will forever be in awe of how strong his mind was to commit to finishing, despite everything being against him.
He sustained himself on what he could find in hiker boxes, used hiking gear that cost a total of less than $200, was doubted and discouraged by a lot of the people he knew, and he still did something apparently four out of five people who start, are unable to do: He completed the entire Appalachian Trail. Every mountain, valley, and creek crossing. Every freezing cold night and scorching hot day. Through snow, fog, wind, rain, and hail. Despite injuries, prolonged discomfort, and self-doubt. He made it through it all.
Red Panda confessed to me that his longest hike prior to the AT was a 5-mile day hike, and he had never slept outside before that first night at Springer Mountain. He said he cried himself to sleep that first night. Yet he still pushed on every single day.
There was a quote I once heard, which I feel sums him up:
“Courage isn’t being unafraid; it’s being afraid, but doing it anyway.”
This Is Your Moment
The night before my PCT hike started, I was at CLEEF campground, half a mile from the Southern Terminus at Campo, CA. Some hikers were understandably nervous. It’s a massive undertaking. 2653 miles is a challenge in anyone’s book. We are embarking upon a life changing adventure.
Talking with them, they had spent hours conducting an immense amount of research. They had their gear dialled in and yet were still doubting themselves. It seemed to be that they were comparing themselves to some imaginary super-experienced ubër-hiker. They questioned their carefully selected gear and asked each other questions about how many months of training they’d completed, as if their own preparation was lacking.
Suddenly, they didn’t feel worthy of being there; Imposter syndrome turned up to eleven.
I told them the story of Red Panda and his successful thru-hike; his struggles, injuries, and battles with self-confidence. His lack of ultralight equipment, training, and finances.
He kept going because he found himself on trail. He didn’t gain strength in his gear; he grew it through his experiences.
He is a testament to the belief that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
We’ve All Felt It
The one thing in common between Red Panda and every thru-hiker I met at the start of the PCT was that despite what doubts they had, they had never been more ready than they were at that moment. All the research, gear, and YouTube “Top 10 Hiking Tips” videos have no bearing if you have it in your mind to finish, and are lucky enough to have the resources (and avoid serious injury).
If you are at the start, then you are closest you’ve ever been to doing it.
You are ready. Don’t doubt yourself. Your time is now!
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After years of reading various trail journals, hiking stories, etc, I can easily say that was the best entry I’v ever read. Have fun out there.
What a great story. I agree with Alan Saunders, an excellent entry. Thanks so much for taking the time to post it. I’m sure many others will enjoy it.
Agreed. Preparing for a 2023 PCT NOBO. This is has been the most helpful article I’ve read. Exactly what I needed right now.
Thank you and Holy Roller for being his friend. You all are probably one reason he was able to complete the trail. Praises to yall for helping and believing in him. Everyone needs that. Good luck on your next hike.
Red Panda is hands down the most humble, honest, and giving person I met on the trail. He would give his own supplies away when he was barey making it by, just to place a strangers comforts above his own. He met me on my southern flip flop section to set up trail magic after he finished the trail. He even lent me his own trail guide to finish the trail when I ran into a rough spot, a guide that was full of personalized notes and special comments that most people would never trust in someone else’s hands. He knows that experiences are more valuable than gear, and he never hesitated to give back to ANYONE in need. Everyone I knew on the trail loved him. Seriously, I never heard one bad word about him. Any mutual friends of Red Panda would have a new story to tell about his selflessness and hospitable nature. I am blessed to have met him.
He made a massive impact on so many lives in the AT 2022 community. Thank you Lookout for giving Red Panda a showcase he deserves. <3
Loved this article so much I went back and re-read it today. It is truly inspiring and,like previous comments, excellent writing. Thanks for the uplifting reflection on life and how to handle it’s challenges with grace and perseverance. Sounds like your AT tramily turned into the three musketeers, “All for one and one for all”!
GREAT story! Red Panda, you are truly an inspiration! Congratulations on completing the AT!
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