This isn’t some prophetic piece of writing where I tell you all the ways to change your life, its more so me decompressing my experience on the PCT and looking at it from an angle where my emotions are less raw than in the original writings. Some of my stories of the PCT left out the emotional experience of the whole thing, cause at the end of the day its personal. The story below contains bits and pieces of information from the hike I didn’t necessarily include in my blogs, I hope you enjoy my writings and reflection, thanks for reading.
For four months I walked from Mexico to Canada. I stumbled, I struggled, I almost quit a few times, but I also grew, experienced and ultimately succeeded. The person who stood at the southern terminus and the one that walked away from the Canadian border aren’t the same. I thought the PCT would give me this clarity of mind and the stars would magically align to show me my path through life but it’s affects have been more subtle. It’s only been after being off the trail for three months that I can finally start to see how I’ve changed and also begin to see the next parts of the path of my life start to fall together.
When I started in Campo, CA I had rose-colored glasses. I was naive, I thought this journey would be this easy, fun, magnificent thing and it was but it was also a bitch. By day 4 the desert was kicking my ass and the reality of what I was doing set in, I sat in a pie shop in Julian, about to vomit all over my table when my friends Leapfrog and Nanners helped me get my shit together and get back to walking. I realized in that moment that if I was going to make it, I needed a strong system of support and my stubbornness was not gonna be enough to stop me from quitting if it came to it.
For the next three weeks I continued walking, from town to town, 444 miles to the oasis of Acton. There was a KOA there, with a pool, where Leapfrog and I took our first zero. It was a welcome break from moving, my body was tired and starting to breakdown for the first time. There was still so much more of the desert to go, and my mind was faltering again. It would’ve been so easy to walk away there, and I came very close. I sat on a swing and cried for a long time the night before we left. I had a voice telling me to be done if I wasn’t enjoying it anymore and I had another telling me to shut up and walk.
I kept walking and after 700 miles, arrived in Kennedy Meadows. It was a moment of celebration; I was finally about to be rewarded for my desert struggles with a three week walk through the High Sierra. I had good people with me, my body felt good but I also felt like I was rushing forward. The week before I had broken up with my girlfriend, done my first 30-mile day and completed one of the longest, driest water carries on the PCT. I was mentally exhausted, again… I think this was the first time I feared a possibility of being in the mountains alone. I felt so unsure of what I was heading into but I knew I’d make it work.
That fear of being alone was something I ended up conquering on the PCT looking back on it. It’s hard to put into words but the fear was both physical and mental. I had been in the mountains alone before and I ended up walking most of the 500 miles through Washington alone but I hadn’t done anything this big or long alone at this point and I was relying on the support of the team (Leapfrog and Sheriff) that I had with me to keep each other safe and calm. I’ve also relied heavily on certain friends to help me process what’s on my mind throughout my adult life (you folks know who you are, thank you more than I can ever tell you), the extent to which I was doing that didn’t hit until I no longer had them there. I became stronger on the trail because I figured out how to cope with my doubts and fears but I also figured out that there’s always people out there that will listen, there is always a support system, you just need to keep your eyes open, find it and be willing to share when you do.
After 1,100 miles I arrived at Lake Tahoe. Leapfrog and I had walked the whole way together and Sheriff had been with us for close to 900 miles at this point. We were a solid team, we’d found our way through The Sierra, supported each other and even fed each other when my dumbass did bad math on the mileage and we didn’t pack enough food. After so much time, I still wasn’t even halfway done and I hadn’t had this epiphany that I’d been waiting for. I thought for sure that I would come out of that section and the rest of the trail would be fun and games, it’d be vacation for the next two months. I sat with Sheriff near a beach one afternoon eating some greasy burgers and just lost it all of a sudden while shoving my face full of fries.
We talked for a long time about how we both felt about the trail. We talked about life. We talked about ideas of what we’d do after the trail. Now, months later, I can’t remember exactly why I lost it and literally started sobbing into my french fries…. I think, again, I was just tired. I was learning how to push my body and mind to the brink and keep going. I was learning how to live with less and less and experience more and more. I was getting comfortable with my ideas of what a life outside of “normal” could be and I think that scared me at some level. I also think I remember my knees screaming like a son-of-a-bitch on the way into town… All I know was that for the next two weeks in my trail diary I wrote every day, “I will keep walking”.
In Northern California I began to feel the trail blues that I had read from so many hikers about. I had this weird sense of a lack of progress, I was in my head that what I was doing wasn’t progressing me in life any. I thought that this was just a fun and games vacation before I had to go back to the real world. I was confused about where I was going and what I was doing, but with that confusion came my first sense of clarity. I realized that I want something of my own, a place, a business, whatever it may be. I crave something that I can mold into what I want, this was the first time that the thoughts of my next phase in life began to be goals I want to move my life towards. It was a magnificent feeling, after guiding my life towards doing the PCT for almost 6 years, I didn’t know what I was doing next, I had no next goal…. In NorCal that changed though, and I finally had my first guess of something I might want to work towards next.
Around 1700 miles in, at the end of July, Leapfrog, Sheriff and I had reached Etna and were a few days from the California/Oregon border. It was an amazing feeling, to be so close to being done with one phase and moving on into the end game and some of my favorite terrain in the entire country. As we hiked out of Etna Summit, Sheriff decided that she needed to slow down her pace, bad tendonitis was talking a toll on her left knee and making it hard for her to walk. We had become best friends out there and then some at that point. She was an amazing person to talk and walk with, her attitude kept me excited to walk even on the crappiest of days. On the morning of July 30th we said goodbye and Leapfrog and I continued ahead. I think that day of walking was one of my hardest mentally.
I spent the day somewhat assuming I might never see her again, this person who I had met and spent so much time with would fall behind and have her own journey as I continued mine, after all, we were both out there to hike the PCT in our own ways. I still had Leapfrog but now a big part of my support system was gone and I was curious how I’d do moving towards the finish line.
I did end up seeing Sheriff again, 3 days later in Ashland, Oregon. She had been 5 or 10 miles behind us each day and made it over the California border on her own two feet but that had seriously pissed off her leg. By the time we saw her again she could barely walk and her knee was swollen to the size of a small cantaloup. It was tough seeing her that way and I wanted to help the person that had helped me however I could, but I also still had my hike ahead of me. It was a difficult place to be in and I had an impossible decision to make, stay with her while she figured her leg out or hike on with Leapfrog.
I ended up getting up the next day, packing my things and heading up the trail again. Sheriff was a bit pissed at me for that one, and she had a right to be but I still had more to do. She would never walk out of Ashland on the PCT, the injury would end her hike and 43 days later I would be done. This is probably one of the toughest decisions I made on the PCT, it affected the rest of my hike, how I felt about my days, how I saw the landscape, the miles and the people. Even now, almost 6 months after the fact I still think back and wonder what my journey and life would be like had I decided to stay awhile longer instead of rushing on ahead. I often had this feeling that whenever the three of us would be around a group of people for a bit and start to become friends, we would at some point just blow by them and not see them again (we’d just done that with one of our own group members). I craved consistent people to be around and only having Leapfrog (as much as I love him, his company and his discipline) wasn’t recharging me in the ways I needed. Oregon was tough for me because of that.
The next month went by quickly, somewhere in northern Oregon, my hike changed. I awoke in late August and the weather had changed; fall had set in just as I was walking through the Three Sister’s Wilderness. I talked to my friend Emily, who was beginning her own hike on the Colorado Trail. I remembered my nervousness and excitement at the start of my hike then and I decided I wanted to be on my own to try and get back to that. I reached Trail Days at Cascade Locks, and spent the weekend trying to decide if I’d keep going the way that had gotten me so far or change my pace. I ended up hiking out Cascade Locks into Washington alone. I made as many friends in my final month on trail as I had made in the first month in the desert. I went my own pace, I made memories that are still crisp on my mind and had the first moments on the trail where I was actually making my own decision about continuing forward when things got tough instead of just hanging on. I never came close to quitting after Tahoe, I had tough days, but I had become stronger and nothing seemed as tough of a challenge anymore.
Washington was beautiful, the scenery, the people, everything. Its somewhere I would very happily spend my life. The days could go from rainy and cloudy to sunny and bright in the snap of a finger (and vice versa), the volcanos towered about the trail, asking to be climbed. The trail crossed raging glacial rivers and snuck by sleepy mountain towns. It was a great part of my hike and when I think back on it, it still feels as if it happened a week ago. The Glacier Peak Wilderness was probably the hardest part of Washington. I wanted to get to Stehekin so bad, to be a few days from the border would be (as was) an incredible feeling. The trail in Glacier Peak Wilderness essentially circumnavigates the peak, you see it from all angles and you drop in and out of some of the steepest and largest canyons I’ve ever been in. Honestly it rivals the Sierra in its vastness and remoteness. Even that challenging environment I made it out of, and I made friends while I was doing it. I remember one morning, walking by Smokey, he was sitting on the side of a hill (on top of a mountain) just looking off into the distance. The view was incredible, the clouds sunk in the valleys and all you could see for miles around were snow capped peaks. I was jealous of his ability to be at peace when my mind had my body racing forward.
My final week I hiked with Chopper, Smokey, Fullmoon and a bunch of other amazing people. I went into my final day with a challenge to myself, run/hike my biggest day of the trail. I ended up doing 45 miles, I enjoyed the day with amazing people and I still met someone new on my final day (thanks for the hug at the terminus Keeley). My hike had changed in the fact that I was doing what I wanted and enjoying every moment I had those final weeks. It made me worried to be done, only half knowing what I wanted to do next but the sense of accomplishment and completion was overwhelming. The hike back to Hart’s Pass and the real end of my journey happened in the dark, I was tired and wet but I was so full of emotion; happiness, accomplishment, excitement, all of it. My final night before getting a ride out to Seattle I cowboy camped alone under a bathroom awning as the rain pitter pattered on the metal roof and the mist surrounded me.
I got home after the trail and began the process of telling everyone what I had just done, of trying to breakdown this portion of my life into words. I quickly came to the conclusion, as have many other thru-hikers, you can’t. There is something about the freedom, the goals, what walking and being around a bunch of like-minded people does to you that you can’t describe unless you’ve lived that life. Even if people say they understand, they probably don’t. We had these sayings on trail, my favorite was “The trail provides”, if you put in the work, everything will work out, it’s a trust in life that I’m trying to bring back to my everyday life.
I still talk to many of the people I met out on the trail, some daily, some weekly, some just every now and then. I have plans to visit some, I imagine there’s other’s that I’ll never see again, but they all had their own impact on me. I look at all the people I met and talked to and try to see how I could take what they had found in their life or their way of being and use their lessons to make my life better. One of my best friends on trail, Naners, stopped working an office job as a PT and now works as a ski patroller and medic in Lake Tahoe. Every day I see him post a photo in the mountains reminds me to never lose track of what you want in life and work towards it, to always do what makes you happy. The trail showed me being outside is just as much about the people you go with and the inspiration you draw from each other as it is about the places you visit.
I finished the trail and I was full, my seemingly ceaseless appetite for adventure had been quenched. Now, months later, if you offered me the opportunity to go out and walk again, I would. I would do it much differently than I had before, with less of a plan, a lighter bag and the freedom and willingness to break from a group when it felt right. I think an eventual hike of the AT is still on my radar, but I’ll wait till it feels right to do in life, I’m in no rush.
I’m back in Cincinnati now, already starting to look for the next adventure (Presidential Traverse, Iceland backpacking and a summit attempt of Kilimanjaro are all in the books for 2022). I have a good job, a nice place to live and spend my nights cuddled next to Wicket again. I started dating Sheriff the day I left her in Ashland, we relive our moments on the trail constantly and are currently trying to figure out how our lives fit together. Leapfrog and I still see each other occasionally, he’s not far away in Cincy, working at Roads Rivers and Trails where we first met. The trail gave me a sense of direction and a way of living that I’ll carry into my life for years to come, even as I finish writing this there are things popping into my head that I hadn’t noticed before. I look forward to the next grand adventure I get to share with all of you and as always, thanks for reading.
"Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind. Always."
The PCT stands for the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,653 route extending from Mexico to Canada along the west coast of the United States. Every year several thousands attempt it and only a few hundred finish.