Tomorrow, I will stand at a series of humble wooden posts at the border of Mexico and the United States. Over the next five months, I endeavor to walk 2,660 miles from those posts to their counterparts at the Canadian border. For fun.
Yes, you read that correctly. Keep reading...
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 2,660 mile-long trail spanning the width of the contiguous United States, wending through some of the country's wildest terrain: southern California's Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington. Though it was officially designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968, the history of the trail dates back to the 1930's.
People embark on this trek for a multitude of reasons, and for different amounts of time. We all--hikers and non-hikers-- come to this trail with different backgrounds and in different capacities. Due to this assortment of experiences and familiarity with all things outdoors, hiking, and camping, I'd like to answer a few of the most frequent questions I’ve received, FAQ-style:
+ DO YOU REALLY WALK THE WHOLE WAY? HOW LONG WILL THAT TAKE? WHERE DO YOU STAY? WHAT ABOUT FOOD AND WATER?
Ahh, the logistical questions. Yes, your eyes are getting wider and wider the more I talk. Yes, I realize I seem more and more crazy the longer this goes on. I am crazy (see the pursuit of multiple degrees mastering the study of rocks). So these effects actually bring a smile to my face.
Yes, I really will be walking the entire way. Mexico to Canada, step after step. That's how this works. Carrying everything I need to live on my back (well, hips, if we get technical)-- in a backpack. Shelter, clothing, food, water, maps...that's about all you need! GASP! No phone?! Yes, I will have a phone, and YES, it will be off. I will filter my own water, scouting out and planning to intersect water sources along the way--sometimes quite a feat in the desert! I will typically carry 5-7 days of food at a time, resupplying in small towns along the way (read: more planning). In more remote portions (Sierra Mountains), I may need to carry up to 11 days of food at once. Doesn't sound bad until you realize the average thru-hiker requires nearly 5,000 calories per day! I will be moving continuously on the trail for about five months, likely averaging 20-25 miles per day; sometimes more, sometimes less. Day in, day out, taking 1-2 day breaks every so often, but certainly not following a seven-day week.
+ ARE YOU GOING BY YOURSELF?
Yes and no. Yes, I am "alone" in the sense that I will get on a plane, take a car ride, and arrive on foot at the terminus without a designated hiking partner who will be with me for the entire 2,660 miles.
I envy those that have that. What a phenomenal, trying, intimate bonding experience to have with another human being. And yet, there is also an immense freedom in embarking on this project alone: at the end of the day, and in every moment-- good and bad-- I am reliant on myself. I decide where, when, how. That can be exhausting, downright frightening, and also a considerable confidence-booster. All of these feelings I have already encountered in my solo travels, though they become heightened in the backcountry, I have found.
However--and this is a big and important "however"-- I will never be hiking alone. As a lifetime Girl Scout and certified Wilderness First Responder, safety is paramount. After all, there are other things to accomplish after the trail! I intend to always hike with a minimum of one person; more, if possible. There is much to be learned from my fellow thru-hikers. I look forward to meeting many interesting people from all walks of life, while placing my own well-being and enjoyment first.
Fun fact: The safest minimum number of people to engage in a remote outdoor activity with is 4. One person to stay behind with a companion in trouble, and two buddies to fetch help. Learn it, remember it, and most importantly, LIVE IT. Seriously.
+ WHY THE PCT?
Those aware of the concept of long-distance hiking will know the "Triple Crown" of long-distance hiking in the U.S. consists of the PCT, the AT (Appalachian Trail), and the CDT (Continental Divide Trail). Each of these trails spans a different geographical region, provides its own unique set of physical and mental challenges, and possesses its own "trail culture".
The Appalachian Trail runs 2,190 miles from Maine to Georgia. It passes through a very historic (and hilly, knee-busting) area of the United States, steeped in a rich and storied trail culture, and passing through many more towns than the other two trails. It is undoubtedly the most populated trail of the Triple Crown, and for this reason, I have not been particularly drawn to it at this point in time.
In contrast, the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail follows the Rocky Mountains, and is the least populated trail of the three. It is estimated that a mere 150 people attempt the trail each year--and even fewer finish. The newest trail of the three, it is actually not completed, requiring a fairly significant amount of GPS/orienteering work in parts, and is much more difficult to plan resupply points. A large portion of the trail is spent at relatively high altitudes. For these reasons, I have assessed it is not the right trail for my first thru-hike, though I am drawn to its remoteness and time spent in the mountains.
There are many other long-trails in the U.S. and abroad, several of which I considered: the Colorado Trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail, the Arizona Trail, the Long Trail, the Hayduke Trail, the Ice Age Trail, Te Araroa in New Zealand, the Larapinta Trail in Australia, and the Grand Italian Trail in Italy. Nevertheless, my timing, desired distance and financial investment, experience, goals, and style all pointed to the Pacific Crest Trail.
The PCT. It is a trail graded for livestock, meaning that theoretically, you can horsepack the whole way. What does this mean for someone on foot? It means you can push high mileage days (>20 miles/day) while still covering significant elevation. The PCT covers numerous environments--the desolate, unforgiving Mojave Desert, the thundering Sierra Mountains that inspired countless naturalists, including John Muir--Yosemite, Sequoia National Forest, the Ansel Adams Wilderness-- the high desert of Northern California, and the quiet, forested Cascades of Oregon and Washington to wild Canada. It screams out. The draw is magnetic. Successful thru-hike or not, I need to set foot on a portion of it. Experience it. Be present in it.
+ WAIT, WASN'T THERE A BOOK/MOVIE ABOUT THAT?
Yes. Wild by Cheryl Strayed is a personal memoir set amidst the backdrop of the PCT. Key word: backdrop. Ms. Strayed hiked ~1,100 miles of the PCT in 1995. She used the trail as a challenge, a medium to catalyze personal change and introspection, and as a reprieve from "normal" life, as so many hikers do, myself included. I have read the book and watched the movie-- multiple times. These in no way represent an accurate view of the average trail experience. They are creative products of an intensely personal, and sometimes tragic, set of events that happened to a single person over a singular period of time. But you already knew that, didn't you?
Some in the hiking community refer disdainfully to the "Wild Effect"-- the marked surge in annual traffic on the PCT that followed the publication of the book (2012) and the release of the movie (2014). It is a real phenomenon. The AT underwent a similar increase in foot traffic following the publication of A Walk in the Woods (1988) and its film adaptation (2015). Such publicity has led a host of inexperienced, sometimes naïve people out on the PCT, putting themselves and others in danger, and placing unnecessary strain on search and rescue crews, park rangers, and generous "trail angels" who help supplement natural water sources and off-trail housing. And yet, it has also brought many capable people out to the trail and fostered a greater awareness of hiking trails and the immense value and restorative power of the secluded, untainted places we call "nature".
I knew of the PCT well in advance of the release of Wild-- book and movie (and its most recent feature on the Gilmore Girls reboot). I don't deign to make a comment on the net positive or negative influence of Wild here.
+ SO...WHAT EXACTLY IS IN YOUR BACKPACK?
Ha. Great question. I'm glad you asked! (This is the secret dream of many thru-hikers...many are obsessed with gear!). Eventually, I will post a picture of what I am taking with me here. I am a lightweight hiker, NOT an ultralight hiker, for those who know the difference and who care. I have not calculated a pack weight and do not intend to. My philosophy: Do I have the minimum amount of gear required to be safe, be prepared, stay alive and found, and to remain in relatively good spirits? Yes? Can I carry my pack for hours a day, for consecutive days without causing injury? Yes? It is light enough.
There are those who use the old, dismissive cliché, "If you have to ask, you'll never understand." I prescribe to that viewpoint-- to an extent. I cannot possibly convey my love for being outdoors. Staring into endless flames at a campfire, or looking out at a mind-bending array of mountains that defy the depth perception capabilities of the human eye. The feeling of laying on the ground, staring up at the endless blue abyss, feeling the massive Earth spin below. The tangible stillness as rain falls in a quiet cove, miles from anyone and anything.
I can't possibly capture the heart-pounding reality of being a speck in the middle of thunderstorm, or standing at the top of a pass with the roar of thousands of trees below, rushing winds threatening to blow you straight away and out of yourself. The heady feeling of being reduced to a temporal being with a single, fragile beating heart, two expanding lungs, and millions of minute, miraculous, zippered codes naturally engineered over millions of years, ensuring our existence. All can be compromised with a single slash, twist, or electrical shock to the shell that encapsulates them.
In the end, I don't think anyone reading this really has to ask, "Why?" Each of us can come up with something--positive or negative-- that could come from this type of experience. Rather, I think it is the enjoyment factor that seems to escape many. I can't communicate that to you. If it boggles your mind, look at my words and pictures and try to emulate this mindset. I will do the same for your mindset. We owe each other that, always. In many ways, we ask the same, "Why?" at the end of the day. Trail or no trail. And I’d like to live in that for a few months.
A Last Note: Nothing I Have Said Or Will Say Here Is New.
It has been repeated a million times over on blogs strewn across the internet and in countless private journals and personal conversations. This trail, and other trails like it, are well-tread, season after season. So why repeat? I re-frame what has been said for those who know me and want to hear my take, and for those who don't know me, but who may resonate with this particular combination of common words.
Tomorrow, I begin a walk that will (hopefully) last for nearly 5 months. With myself, for myself. I will not have a job. My job is to put one foot in front of the other, 10+ hours a day, 7 days a week. And in the grand scheme of things, this is not a significant challenge: I carry highly engineered, rather expensive gear that wasn't even available a year, 5 years, 10 years ago. My path is relatively well-marked and groomed, and should I get lost, I have a combo GPS and PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) I can use to get myself out of trouble, or to summon self-sacrificing, brave souls who will find and extract me.
In all regards, this is a very privileged journey--I was born in good physical and mental health, have been freely given (and partially earned) the financial resources to undertake this trip, and was born into a country with the sovereignty, societal stability, infrastructure, and beautiful, diverse natural resources that make this trail so spectacular and safe; particularly as a solo, unmarried, autonomous, strong-willed young woman. If you aren't reveling in the sheer, stupid, unfathomable rarity of these circumstances, I challenge you to re-read the last several paragraphs and think further.
I thank you in advance for caring and showing interest in the journey ahead. I make no promises of regularity for these blog posts, but hopefully I can deliver something of value to you, somewhere along the way. Please comment, email, PM me with topics, questions, thoughts.