Every person has their own idea on what kind of travel suits them most. Some like sunning themselves on tropical beaches, drinking cheap beers in their swimwear and others really get their kicks visiting a good museum. Then there are those who like to get back to nature and get amongst the local environment. I’m not talking about a 2-hour hike to a waterfall for the afternoon- I’m talking serious, cross country hiking.
Recently, some friends of mine decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail- the PCT- a 2650-mile hike from Canada to Mexico. A hike that takes five months to complete and is immortalized in books and movies. A hike that outdoor aficionados dream about doing but very few have the chance to attempt. Put simply- a gigantic and committed undertaking.
With that in mind, one of those friends- Beth- graciously accepted my offer for her to write a blog post for me about the reality of hiking the trail as they walked across the state of Washington early on in their trek. With that in mind, this is what a month’s worth of hiking on one of the most famous hiking trails in the world looks like- from someone who has done it.
“Just keep walking, just keep walking”- using a calculated combination of Dory’s (adapted) mantra, slow steps, quick breaths and much profanity, I summitted a mountain.
I say ‘a mountain’ not ‘the mountain’ because the state of Washington is a never-ending collection of 7000ft peaks to ascend and descend repeatedly. A landscape of mountains, saddles, knolls and gullies as we scrambled and traversed through unforgiving wilderness. Most of the words I just used are new words that I learnt in my crash course in navigation. I can now look at a map and the environment around me and work out what a mountain is. Great.
The next person that calls the PCT a highway though, I will slap in the face. If it was a highway, why is it so much damned hard work?!
1 year ago, I made a statement along the lines of, “I have courageously decided that we will hike the PCT”. I may not have used those words exactly, but I thought them. I made it sound more casual of course, to give the effect to those listening that I was some sort of free-spirited adventurer- tough and full of wild grit. The statement, if I were to make it now, would go a little more like this- “I have stupidly and both poorly prepared psychologically and physically, decided we will attempt to hike the PCT”, and even that is the most committal statement I have made about this hike.
How could I have not seen it coming?! Leading into thru-hiking the PCT you spend a very loooooong time planning logistics for resupply (especially as a SOBO-South Bound hiker), checking snow conditions for entry dates, researching the best light weight gear (did you know you can thru-hike with no stove?! NO STOVE!! Madness!), reading blogs and forums about which shoes, socks, tents, shirts, bear canisters, ground sheets, water filtration systems, hiking poles, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, packs, GPS devices, podcasts, hats, bug repellents, toilet/hygiene systems, hairstyles (yes hairstyles) are the best when long distance hiking.
Does this paint the picture?
You research EVERYTHING. Especially considering the longest hiking trip I’d done previously was just 5 days, research becomes all that you live and breathe as you prepare. It takes over your conversations, your spare time and your data usage. I’m surprised my phone company didn’t try to inform me that I might have an obsession and I could use some help.
Last year over four and a half thousand people registered to thru-hike the PCT northbound but only a few hundred southbound. At the time of writing only seven hundred remained on trail heading north. Most quit. They call this the ‘Wild Effect’; the result of people reading the popular book ‘Wild’ written by Cheryl Strayed or viewing the movie of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon.
So, with ALL of this… how could I want to quit after two weeks?? Was I just like all the other Reese Witherspoon fans that are attempting this walk ill-prepared and unable to muster the grit to continue?
It was a hard pill to swallow.
Countless times I unsuccessfully tried to persuade my hiking partner to quit- “We can spend the next 5 months shacked up in a beachside bungalow in Mexico with cold beer, flushing toilets and comfy beds instead!”
“No, you’ll regret it” he said as I silently wept inside.
So, I was committed to this ‘adventure’ I practically railroaded him into doing with me. That figures. My tunnel-visioned determination to get us here and hiking this spectacular trail from Canada to Mexico had backfired on me.
So, there I was, here we were… ‘Just keep walking…just keep walking’
What about the scenery, everyone asks? I get it, the wild beauty and almost complete submission to the elements (minus the fancy thermals and light weight shelter). It’s wild!
If you observed our Instagram account (that we scrambled to upload pictures to when around the comforts of WIFI and internet) you’d see a tale of beauty and colours- an almost glamorous experience. Oh, how filters and the ‘right shot’ can paint the illusion of ease, hiding the true dirt bag existence that is long distance hiking. Despite the dirtiness and breathlessness (which poetically I want to say is because of the scenery, however truthfully is more because of fitness levels), the immense size of the Northern Cascades was an incredible sight to wander amongst. At times, I didn’t know what to look at. Surrounding you are views of such magnificence, you spend your time spinning around on the spot just to take it all in. Every aspect of the landscape is impressive, as if earth flexed its muscles and BOOM, huge mountains burst from its seams. Not just the soaring snowcapped cascades, but everything!
We walked past trees in the first week that Gumby couldn’t stretch his dangling, green arms around. We were ants scampering humbly beneath giant, silent creatures, that make our lifespans seem meaningless. We came across creeks listed on our water source maps, only to find that the word ‘creek’ had been lost in translation from one western discourse to another. Instead a raging torrent of impossible measures of water existed.
As much as I seem to sound wimpy and ungrateful, the beauty did seep in, even through watery eyes, sore muscles and deflated spirit. There were times where all the struggles were forgotten in a single moment. I noticed the outstanding beauty of what I was seeing, it was just so much harder on my mind and body than I could have imagined. I’ve been told you find a rhythm after around three weeks. That’s when everything begins to feel natural- your pack, your pace, your routine. Surely that would happen any day now… I hoped.
We all want to feel that we’re different. Maybe a little tougher than the person who came before you. I certainly did. “I won’t take 3 weeks to settle into hiking every day. I’ve got some sort of super-human adaptive strength,” I thought.
Almost like a switch was flicked, our third week ended and hiking had become so much easier. This may have coincided with my increased daily intake of ibuprofen, but who cares! I was a thru-hiker baby, look at me go!! Bear Grylls watch out! The pain was still ever present, but it was just background noise now.
As we explored the rugged landscape, I now smelt the fresh, sharp conifers and the needles that crunched as we walked. I noticed the life around me, from the confetti of tiny wild flowers over the alpine fields, to the marmots popping their heads out and checking to see if the coast was clear as we walked past. I felt involved with the environment around me. I remembered once again why I spent a year planning this, why it is so good for the soul. I felt a song coming on- maybe I’d skip and sing the ‘The hills are alive’. You know you’re a real long-distance hiker, if at the end of a 40km day you can still muster up the energy to sing whilst skipping.
Hiking from dawn till dusk, day in and day out is a lot of time to spend in your own head. It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts and miss what’s around you. Pushing these jumble of thoughts aside was the next challenge. Who would have thought the Victorian Road Safety campaign for kids could be a fabulous hiking mantra, Stop-Look-Listen-Go. We found it important to follow this. Stopping, looking and listening to the noises or silence of our surroundings. I’ve learnt that the silence of mountains is the most magnificent sound in the world. John Muir seemed to be able to speak mountain stating the sound wasn’t silence, it was actually ‘the mountains calling him’ but I haven’t heard them speak to me just yet.
We were beginning to pass more and more Northbound hikers, all coming to the end of their walk. Some walk so fast, with music blaring (or headphones in), their heads down and their eyes blurred. I wondered what they were seeing or hearing around them? I wondered what drove them?
We were often asked our mileage. It had gotten to the point where it’s the most discussed theme. I wasn’t a very speedy hiker and decided my trail name should be ‘Turtle’- hiking any more than 20miles (32km) a day is really my limit. Some graciously encouraged my efforts and share that they’re averaging closer to 25-30miles (40-50km). I graciously encouraged their madness in return.
Hike your own hike. Whatever that may be.
My attitude and strength changed as much as the scenery over these weeks. I wondered what changes would happen when we came to the boarder of Washington and Oregon. We had walked our first state of the PCT. A whole state. Gosh. Look at us go…
Just keep walking…
Just keep walking…
Wayward Tip: Prepare. Get fit, get permits, get researching and know your limits.