Endings and Beginnings

Well, my PCT trek is over.

It’s taken me almost a month to come to terms with that in some shape or form, to wade through all the feelings that stem from that little fact. For almost 5 months, I lived outside. I woke up in my tent every morning, packed it up, walked, ate, walked, ate, slept, repeat. In-between this sometimes mind-numbingly simplistic routine were moments of absolute beauty, pain, joy, basically the full range of human emotion were felt on almost a daily basis. A long distance hike is as much an emotional journey as it is physical. That ended up being my downfall in the end I suppose.

Last time I made an update here I was telling you all that I was going to the Canadian border then flipping direction to continue my little stroll southbound. I had all my resupplies worked out, I had a different permutation of gear all set up, and I was ready to go. My dad, brother, and I went up to Hart’s Pass – the usual start point for southbound hikers (30 miles away from the border) – and I resumed my hike.

I’ve known for almost five years now that Washington is some of the most stunning terrain I’ve ever experienced in my life, even after everything I’ve walked through this summer. It’s hauntingly beautiful. While its peaks don’t reach elevation above 10,000 feet and stay at an average 5-6,000 feet, their prominence is more dramatic than anything I’ve seen. The Sierra has absolutely nothing on this state as a whole. The terrain just shifts so harshly making you feel like you’re on top of the world. One thing I haven’t experienced however were the Cascades proper. Beyond the grandeur of mountain tops lies some of the most untamed wilderness I’ve ever seen. Tucked in the valleys below were miles and miles of dense forest stretching on for eternity. Standing above them and looking down from the side of a ridge I felt as if it had grabbed me and swallowed me whole. I felt as if my entire time on the PCT was spent at some kind of amusement park and I was just now experiencing actual wilderness.

This is a different kind of hike, it was mesmerizing. Beyond that, there was no one around really sans a handful of dayhikers. I was pretty much alone for the bulk of the day which was in the end what I was kind of looking for by flip-flopping. I had everything going for me except for my mentality and how my body was doing physically. I had taken a bit too much time off to stay with family, time I didn’t spend walking all day every day. I wasn’t getting a constant rush of endorphins running through my system to dull the pain. All the walking I’d done caught up with me, the pains I’d pushed aside to continue hiking came back with a vengeance. But I’d been through worse, notably through my first week. No big deal, I’ll feel okay after a while.

Pass after pass I continued to hike until I couldn’t go on any further. I stopped on top of one of said passes in the cover of some trees. I set up my tent, pulled out my jar of food that had been soaking over the course of my day (stoveless cooking is superior, I am a believer now), ate it, and sat on a log to stare at the trees around me for a while. As I did that, dark grey clouds started to roll in and hovered just above the top of the ridge. I stowed all my gear inside my tent and jumped in afterwards, it’s definitely going to rain but I hoped it wouldn’t be too bad. That’d be an interesting first night back on the trail.

I fell asleep for about an hour until I woke up to the sound of wind roaring through the trees outside. It kept me up for a couple hours, then the rain came violently crashing against the vestibule of my tent. As far as storms go on the trail, this wasn’t too bad in the end. I put my headphones in my ears to block out some of the sound, then fell back asleep.

I woke up again a little while later. I groggily pulled at my sleeping quilt and in my tired delusion thought I felt water. That sure as hell woke me up. I sat up and started feeling around my tent and noticed a layer of water inside. Not so much that I was swimming, but enough to get my gear wet. Well shit. I tucked my quilt under me to keep it out of the water and hoped that my body heat would help dry it out as I sat in my tent. I sat there for a while listening to the rain slam against my tent and it started to hit me: I dunno if I really want to be out here anymore. In fact, I don’t know if I have wanted to be out here for the last little while. Before I left the trail at Yosemite I started to realize that the wonder of the trail was gone for me, I really fucking hate to say that because I have to go against all the wonderful memories I have and all the great things this hike has brought me, but it’s the truth.

I started to face certain emotions I had like how I started to feel claustrophobic (if you can believe how insane that sounds). I didn’t feel free, and I hit a certain point where I just kept on hiking because I had set this thing in motion and I wanted to see it through, and how I felt there was this expectation on me to finish the entire thing in one season. There were so many forces floating around me nagging at me to finish it, but none of those forces were my own at this point, and that’s when I decided I was done. But, I’m also exhausted, sleep deprived, and now the temperature is dropping like crazy and I’m freezing my ass off. I’ll make a less emotionally-driven decision when I get some more sleep. So I plopped back down on my sleeping pad and fought against the elements to get a couple extra hours before I had to pack up and either continue my push towards Canada, or hike back to Hart’s Pass and say goodbye to the trail.

As I did all my morning chores my body was violently trying to shake off the cold. This got worse as I pulled my warm jacket off and threw on my rain shell. If I get stuck out here for some reason, I need to keep my more valuable items of gear dry. Putting away my biggest source of warmth was a depressing ceremony as I fought the urge to act irrationally and risk getting it wet as I hiked on.

I realized I had picked a bad spot for camping. I set my tent up in a little bowl that just collected all the rain water and some of that seeped into my tent through the night somehow. Mystery solved. I should have been more attentive about where I was setting up camp, but it’s a lesson learned I suppose. I put my rain fly on the outer mesh pocket of my pack in desperate hope that the sun would come out at some point today so I could lay it out to dry.  However looking at the clouds around me, I didn’t think that would happen.

I stood at my camp site for a while staring at the trail, continuously looking north, then south, then north, etc. Time stood still as I debated the pros and cons to whatever direction I took. The skies were still dark gray, the temperature was still incredibly low, I was soaked and freezing my ass off.. I listened to my inner-most impulse and made my final decision on that: I’m going back. As I hiked back this turned out to be a good call as it was starting to snow. Hiking/hiking as hard as I could was only just bringing me enough warmth to keep a safe distance from hypothermia, but not enough to actually warm me up. I just hiked on and on without stopping to maintain warmth passing by people who had become accustomed to this and I thought for a moment how insane it is that I’m being chased out by weather when I live here. I live in this state, I hike in conditions like this all the time.. what gives? But of course it’s not just that, it’s everything else. I want to see other things, go other places.. to me at that point I felt like my time wasn’t being spent in the best way.

The snow came and went as I hiked. At some points it was a slow flurry, sometimes it would drop hard and the wind would pick up throwing the icy shards into whatever skin that was exposed, stinging me numb. When I got back to my meet-up point where my family would come get me, I hiked down to an abandoned campground and locked myself in a bathroom to get out of the wind. I put down my sleeping pad and crawled up in a corner next to the toilet (funny enough this was the cleanest spot) and shivered uncontrollably for a good hour until I felt normal again. I spent that hour recuperating mentally, my thru-hike attempt is over. I failed. I failed I failed I failed I failed. What am I going to do now? What is there to do? The PCT was all I’d known for almost the last year and a half. I never put any real thought into what I’d do when I finished, let alone if I ended it early. I’m fucked. Of all the emotional moments I’ve had on the trail, this was the hardest one for me. I wished I could go back to when things were simple, like facing a 40 mile waterless stretch in the ruthless desert heat. That I could deal with, but this is huge and incredibly unexpected.

My family showed up, and as much as I was ready to hop into a hot car I kind of wished they had taken longer because I wasn’t ready to leave that campground bathroom. As gross as it was I wished I could have stayed there a night to just process everything running through my mind. Getting back in and heading back down to the town of Winthrop, hanging out there for a couple days, heading back, and staying with family was just a blur. The whole “What’s next” problem was nagging at me internally and externally as my family needed to know what the plan was.

I wasted a lot of time just staring at my laptop screen trying to will something into existence, and eventually I just kind of decided that the desert was my next move. At that moment I realized that the desert, despite its cruel nature, was absolutely my most favorite part of the PCT. All of the obstacles and challenges it threw at you forced you become a better version of yourself, or rather brought out your better qualities occasionally. And man, it was just so beautiful and raw. The desert was the exact adventure that I set out for. As much as it took away from you, it also gave you something more in return. The Sierra didn’t have that, and as beautiful as it was I kind of feel like that may have been the end for me. I didn’t expect that to be the case at all, I thought I’d be one of the people walking the entire length.

So, now I’m back in the desert. I’m currently in Utah and just left Zion National Park where I had a great time, but left quickly as the crowds became really overwhelming. It’s good to be back in the dust again, but it feels wrong. I’m not waking up every day in my tent and hiking 15-25 miles every day. Despite the hiking I’ve been doing I can’t even come close to hiking that far due to trails having limitations (a weird concept to deal with right now). I almost didn’t want to continue a lifestyle where I’m just moving from place to place without a permanent home, I felt a lot of personal pressure to get a job and go back to school, but I knew I needed this and I’m glad I did it because I’m still very torn about how this all ended. I know I made the right call in leaving the trail, but I miss it so much. But I think I just miss the idea of it the most.

I’ve been thinking about it as I hop from place to place and kill time on the internet when I have service, looking at all my options. Today I realized that hiking the PCT was a mistake, but the best one I could have possibly made.  I ruined me in the best way possible.  I don’t feel trapped or shackled to ideas anymore, I feel like I can make decisions for myself now, that I don’t have to let societal pressure weigh me down. The only reason I felt like I needed to get back to work and go back to school is to make sure I secure a future for myself, but I kind of realized that that’s just one vision and happens to be the one the popular majority follows. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it just doesn’t feel right to me. It feels like an absolute injustice that people live their lives being owned by their employers working towards the light at the end of the tunnel that is retirement. You work a lifetime to gain a couple decades of absolute freedom if your health holds up. That’s.. wrong and I want no part of it, at least not for now.  I still have a lot of walking in my system to do.

So, the burning question of “What’s next” has been solved. I have my eyes set on a hike from Colorado to Indiana along the American Discovery Trail. Actually I almost ditched the PCT to at least hike through the state of Nebraska to test the waters but ran into a financial wall, so I just kept walking along. This section covers a section in the trail where it forks, leaving hikers to decide whether or not to hike north or south. I’m tackling the northern fork this time to clear it out before I make the big decision on whether or not to try and thru-hike the thing. The ADT goes from coast to coast through the United States and runs over 6,000 miles long. The section I’m looking at is just a couple hundred miles shy of being as long as the PCT. The trail isn’t even finished yet and there’s almost no external support in the way of mobile apps or hoards of trail angels. There’s only a very small group of people who take it on. It’s so full of unknowns to me that it’s overwhelming, and that’s exactly what excites me about it. It hits the same heartstrings the PCT hit when I found out about it, only it’s more intense.

So I’m going to finish up what’s left of my summer adventuring, then I’m going to go get a job somewhere to save up for my section hike of the ADT. As I’m out here I have a million ideas of what else I could do running through my head, but I am for sure doing this next summer if I can swing it financially. I learned so much from my time on the PCT and it will always hold a very special place in my life. I could return to it next summer to finish it, but the honest truth is I don’t know if it was for me in the long run. I mentioned earlier that once I got dropped off in the Cascades I felt as if I occasionally my time on the trail was spent in an amusement park of sorts (the Sierra is the biggest offender of this), and that’s really kind of the biggest problem I had with it. The trail is groomed for thru-hikers (I don’t know why this was a surprise to me, but hey whatever) and the walls eventually closed in. I don’t see this as a negative necessarily, it’s just not what I was looking for and I feel like taking on an incomplete trail next time will scratch the itch that I went out for in the first place. Then one day I can go back and hike the PCT and love it for what it is.  It’s very much a natural experience, but it’s also the second-most popular long distance trail in the US after the AT, so… you know.

I don’t want you to think I look at my time on the trail negatively. I miss it so much and the hand of post-trail depression really has had a strong hold on me ever since I got off it. I have to fight the urge to drive back and start hiking it again every so often. I’m better off doing what I’m doing right now and being free of a single track running across the western states. It’s not the same by a long shot, but I’m starting to enjoy it just as much.

I lived outside for almost five months (and counting, in a different way). I hiked a little over 1,000 miles. And as a bonus I got to finish the John Muir Trail. I’m learning to be happy with that now. I’ll have more gathered thoughts on the overall PCT experience at some point, but I’m still really scatter-brained about the whole thing and I’m not sure I’ll ever find the words to describe it. And as usual I’ll also have neat pictures to show soon when I find myself in better internet territory.

To everyone that followed along, I hope you were able to gain some kind of perspective on this whole thing and I hope you decide to go out and do something similar if it calls to you. If the idea of hiking the PCT or any long distance trail calls to you in some way, follow your heart and just do it. I didn’t finish, but I don’t regret trying at all, and the initial feeling I had of failure went away quickly when I reminded myself that I was doing this for me and me alone. Do not let fear hold you back, after spending as much time as I did on the trail and meeting all kinds of people, I firmly believe that anyone can do this, or you can at least get yourself to the Southern/Northern Terminus and hike. The PCT is so accessible, resupply points are a-plenty, the community is abnormally supportive, the only thing that’s missing from the equation is your willingness to give it a try. You can do it, and you should do it.

As for me, I’m not finished by a long shot.  The PCT was one step of many.

I have hundreds of video clips from my hike to throw together that I’ll probably tackle when I settle down for the winter.  The footage is shaky at first but I got the hang of filming while I walked pretty quickly and I’m really happy with how it turned out.  I can’t wait to throw it together as I’ve done in the past.  Until then I’ll continue uploading pictures when I can of all the cool desert things.

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