Day one on trail
Why are you hiking the Pacific Crest Trail again?
To understand why I am hiking the Pacific Crest Trail again this May – I must take you back. Back to watching the sunrise over the arid hills south west of San Diego for the first time. It was May 4th 2016. I was 26 years old. I was nervous, quiet and wild-eyed as we drove through the outskirts of Campo, California that morning.
I first glimpsed the top of the southern terminus monument from where I was sitting in the back seat of a suburban van. I was in the middle, cramped in-between two hikers I didn’t know well. As we crested a low hill down the end of a dusty road, the most intense feeling rose up inside of me and as we crept closer it swelled, but no sound escaped my lips. It was there, I was here. The beginning of it all.
And then after years of yearning for this very moment I was there – standing in the southern Californian desert staring up at the monument. I could feel the sun, which was already high in the sky, baking the tops of my shoulders. I could feel the sweat gathering all over my body and under the thick layer of sunscreen I had smeared onto my skin. I could feel my heart racing and the light shake in my hands. There I was at the beginning of a 2,650 mile journey and it was just me, my heavy pack and all my idealistic expectations.
On that first day I rationed the water that sloshed around on my back, marched for hours under a cloudless sky and took a nap curled up in the shade of a dusty boulder. When the afternoon gave way to the evening I pitched my tent among the poison ivy at Hauser Creek. I did not (even though I feared this the most) get dehydrated / suffer from heat stroke / have to get airlifted out. Which at the time a small victory for me and a small knock to my fears. I made a promise to myself before I started to keep the mileage low at the beginning, let my body adjust and be gentle.
On the second day I woke early and accepted the fact that I am glacial at packing up compared to others. I left camp in the cloud that morning. It hung low below the tops of the hills and I walked across the desert under an overcast sky. I had a few small awkward interactions with other hikers before the sun finally broke through the clouds. I walked through a flat meadow of long grass that gently swayed in the warm breeze. That afternoon I sat in the dirt under an overpass, hiding from the sun. A hiker called Katie and I melted in the shade. Between sentences Katie tended to her feet. Her blisters which had been a problem on the Camino were no less of a problem here. Her toes and heels raw already. As we commiserated our aches and pains I felt that spark of friendship and I thought maybe I would find my people here – that perhaps I wouldn’t have to walk this journey completely alone.
The days in the desert continued, revealing themselves and the challenges that lay ahead for me. Long days of stretched out sunshine and long nights of still doubting myself. I remember when the desert opened up before me for the first time. I was overcome in that moment with a deep appreciation for how all the tiny fragments of my life had come together to find me there, on that ridge, overlooking layers and layers of soft rippling mountains in the desert of California. The same feeling would wash over me again and again gathering in force each time as the trail progressed. Each time softening my heart a little and then a little more.
If I close my eyes now I can recall in vivid detail those moments. Like the first time I cowboy camped, waking up in the middle of the night looking up at the milky way that was spread out above me. It felt like I was sliding off the earth and falling into the stars. The first time I walked 500 miles, how unimaginably far that felt and how it was then that I started to understand just how big this thing was that I was doing.
Slowly I found more people I connected with and each block I had put up to protect myself in my life before the trail was lifted away – one by one. When a new friend was made I felt lighter, when I trusted a stranger I felt lighter. That shield I had always put between myself and the outside world was gradually weakening. Even though before the end of the desert this barrier I had constructed had not been completely dismantled, the trail was still chipping away at it, taking one tiny part away and then another and another.
The desert breaks you down, then slowly over the miles, through the fields of burnt trees and from over a ridge line looking out across the desert floor it pieces you together again. Then one day you look at yourself in a mirror. You are sunburned and your hair is wild. Your face is smeared with dirt and you realise for the first time in your life that you are capable of so much more than you give yourself credit for. These are small moments at first, that leak into your being and in these moments you believe in yourself. You believe that you are strong and capable and even brave and these are all of the things you may never have been told when you were growing up. All of the things you have never truly believed about yourself. You find a group of hikers that adopt you. They treat you as one of their own. You form a bond with them and you discover the inevitable, that the positive morale of others makes everything that much better at the end of a hard day.
Then the Sierra walks into your world, or you walk into it. Again, just like the desert before, it breaks you down and tests what you now know about yourself. You cry behind your sunglasses, hiding your discontent and then of course break those glasses after they have been repeatedly: sat on / dropped / crushed underfoot (hiking for thousands of miles doesn’t make you any less of a clumsy fuck). You cry because you are more tired and mentally exhausted than you can comprehend.The highs are so high and the lows are so low. You don’t realise yet how to properly loft your quilt, so you shiver yourself to sleep most nights, if you manage to find sleep at all. But still you walk on, carefully placing each new step into the snow, because you told everyone at home that you would and you feel like you owe it to someone or yourself or something greater than that to keep going. Now that your ankle has almost healed your body throws it’s next rebellion against you – shin splints. It hurts when you lie on your front at night and you try to lay on your back, but you just can’t fall asleep. The days are long and tiresome in the unforgiving terrain of the mountains, but the nights are cold and they seem to last so much longer. It breaks your heart to think that maybe this trail is not what you want to be doing at all.
When I fell on a river crossing in the Sierra
Finally, when it felt like you would be post holing into eternity, the snow ends and the path becomes dry. Your feet are not longer soaking and the water is not flowing from everywhere around you. You are no longer injured and you find after regaining your breath at lower elevation that your muscles have grown. That you have emerged out the other side of the Sierra tough and fast. You are flying down the trail and you can cover more ground in a day than you ever thought possible.
You make friends. They are open and genuine. You wish interacting could always be this honest and raw, but the world it seems prefers masks to the people beneath them. You laugh until your sides hurt with them, you talk about all the things you haven’t told other people, the parts that usually you try so hard to hide and then you lose them again – not because the bond has broken, but because it is the nature of the trail when you do not go at the same speed.
Then when you know the midpoint of the trail is close you can almost touch it, you run as fast as your can through the scratchy plants that are overgrown on the edges of the trail. You run even though you are so very tired. The midpoint marker appears. It is short, modest and balanced on the side of unremarkable trail. The air of disappointment from others hangs all around you from everyone that thought this would feel different, but you don’t feel the same way. In fact you can barely believe what you are seeing. You can barely believe you have made it this far and no one could ever quite understand everything that means to you in this moment. Right around this time is when you finally, ultimately, completely fall in love with this trail and the life you can live on it. You find peace in the person that you are when you are here. Your best self, your honest self and your true self.
The longest dry stretch in Northern California tries to test you at first, but that new inner strength sends you flying across the exposed hills under that same blistering sun. The days that come after turn over and over. Each day bookmarked with you cowboy camped, ears tucked under the edge of you sleeping bag and lying awake staring up at the same stars that have been thrown and scattered to form the milky way across the sky. Your mind can barely take in all the wonder. It’s all too much. Then you find yourself in moments like this crying again. This time not from sadness at all, but from the pure beauty of life. You realise that your soul has broken open, the doubt you held within it is pouring out and it is being refilled with the incredible state of feeling alive and vulnerable and unstoppable all at once. Because all these things can exist together.
Finding hikertrash friends in Norcal
You felt so proud of yourself as you crossed the California / Oregon border in the dark among the pine trees. You were so tired you almost fell asleep hiking that day. You curled up on your groundsheet in the dirt near a patch of mules ears until another hiker Next Time appeared and asked if you were OK. You followed him feeding off his energy and his unshakable positivity, as you were living off the fumes of two hours sleep on the lawn of the Seiad Valley RV park the night before. You had lay there wide awake in the grass spooning an empty 2L carton of orange juice that rested by your side – orange juice had become your one aching desire to on trail those days – sweet, cold orange juice. You willed yourself right then on trail and over and over again after to remember the little things. You must remember the tiny details. Keep them with you always.
Then you found your trail family when you least expected it – even though you had hiked with both of these people separately before. You didn’t realise at the time that these are your people, the two other hikers you have been fated on trail to find together. As you left California behind they were camped halfway down a cliff tangled in the bushes. You shouted down to them, asking them if there are any more flat spots and they said through fits of laughter “we aren’t even lying on flat spots” “we are rolling down the hill”. The next day you find them again, sitting next to a clear cool stream and you join them, not understanding quite yet you will bond with these people for life.
The friendship between the three of you slow burns. Day by day growing deeper, as the trail winds below the ridge lines in the dark lush Oregon undergrowth, until hundreds of miles turn into 1000 miles. You can’t imagine hiking without them and their kind hearts / weird humour / the comradery they provide you (and you are sure that you provide for them). You drink sparkling mimosas on the edge of Elk lake in the bright sunlight, you walk tired weary miles trail with them, you walk short enchanting miles with them, you take accidental zeros with them and then outside a roadside motel room at the edge of Oregon and Washington you comfort one of them as her heart slowly breaks under the paling light of the moon.
Then there was just one state to go, Washington. The Bridge Of The Gods gleams like a talisman over the Columbia Gorge. Cars are barreling past you and you’re laughing at the absurdity of it all. Your body finally admits that it is tired. For months and months it has done everything you have told it to do. Even when it has protested you have pushed it. Keep going you said. Now you can feel a dull lingering ache in your muscles, in your bones, in your core and it is whispering to you – we can get there, but it’s going to take everything you have. You find that even though you think you should be even stronger by now, that your body is depleted and you are learning again to be gentle with it. The views / vistas / overlooks are possibly the most beautiful you have ever seen; great bottomless turquoise lakes, fields upon fields of immaculate wildflowers and patches of blackberries. The juice stains your fingers and the corners of your mouth. You are sleeping longer and longer each night to make up for the exhaustion that your body feels. It has etched in bone deep.
Then all of a sudden and over and over again it hits you and takes the wind from your lungs. Soon this will all be over. The closer you get to the monument at the Canadian border the more the beautiful life you have made is dissolving and you know you can’t stop it. The further you walk the closer you are to losing it all, but you are determined, so determined you can barely stand it. Determined to get to the end of it, determined to see this through, determined to feel everything you want to feel about completing this amazing thing – but this terrifies you. You want so badly to feel this way about life forever and you want to trail to continue on past the end. You don’t want to lose this.
And then the friendships you have nurtured for other a thousand miles split. Not because you don’t want to hike with each other anymore, but because of the vice like grip that normal life on the other side of the monument brings. It intersects and it grabs your friends, one for a job and the other has to race off to Canada in order to not miss a deadline. Then you find yourself alone on trail for the last desperate push to the finish line.
You spent the night before your 27th birthday camped alone in a clearing high up in the mountains of Washington. You spend the day of your birth in different company than you thought you would, good company, but lacking that same bond carved out over miles of shared suffering / elation /belly laughs that you once had with your trail family. That night, when everyone else has gone to bed, you sit on smooth wooden log next to the lake in Stehekin. The crystalline lake a dark pool of blackness that is lapping at gently on the shore and you whisper yourself the happiest of birthdays and that whisper disappears into the wind.
Then there are only 80 miles left. The pockets of happiness you found all over the trail is replaced replaced with a growing loneliness. The night before the end of the trail, instead of celebrating this beautiful journey like you had played and replayed over and over in your imagination before this moment – you are instead crouched in the cold, quietly sobbing in a clearing at the burnt out Harts Pass. Charcoal from the tree stumps is smeared across your arms and the clouds have rolled in making the world around you look like a b grade horror film you didn’t want to star in. You are there hidden in the trees racing against the dying light of the sky trying to set up your tent with numb hands. Devastated that this is how you are spending the final night on trail. You are alone again, just as you have spent most of this last stretch on trail alone. Just one person you think. I just wanted one person to be here with me to share this with.
And then you realise the only way to describe the end of it all is the same way you described it when you first posted your monument picture:
PCT DAY 120 || SEPTEMBER 1ST || Hours melted away as I propelled myself down the trail. I discovered I was just six miles away from Canada. Six miles! I began to run as fast as I could. Five miles! I was jumping over roots. Four miles! Sliding over wet rocks. Three miles! Thick mud splattered up the backs of my legs. Two miles! I’m crawling over, under and around blow downs. Then just one mile, the tears began again. They flowed freely down my cheeks. Then the rain stopped and with it time stopped too. Then I was there, in the clearing staring up at the weathered monument. Its little flags dancing in the wind. The world was silent and I reached out to touch it. It was real. I was here. Just me and the end of everything. The journey of 2650 miles was over.
I sat down with my back against the wood, my head in my hands quietly sobbing. Waves of realisation crashing into me that it was all now slipping out of my hands. This perfect world was fading away. The one where for a moment I could be exactly the person I wanted to be. The one where my clothes were filthy, dirt was smeared on my face, my hair tangled and it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered because I knew that I had found some sort of pure happiness that I had never felt before. The trail had stolen my heart and filled it to bursting. I’m not sure what exactly I was searching for when I began at the Mexican border, but I had found something magnificent. I will never perfectly explain what this trail meant to me, but I can tell you that the journey was bold, it was brave and it was so damn beautiful.
May 4th – September 1st.
– Heaps x
And those were the final words you wrote. Even though it was around a month and a half later that you finished the trail before you posted those words, they still held so much. Your heart broke as you wrote it – pouring your entire being into that tiny glowing phone screen. Once you shared your entire soul, you realised that this special part of your life – the thing that had changed you so deeply was over and that was a dull pain that took months and months to heal.
What comes after
The magic of Washington
I was not aware when I started the trail exactly the impact the journey would have on me, no one is. When I first began I had almost convinced myself I wasn’t trying to find anything, even though I knew deep down that I was. I found at the end of it all that I had discovered not just the answers that I was looking for, but also the questions I didn’t know how to ask.
Even though after the trail I fell and I fell hard into what felt like an endless void of loss. Even though this sadness took months to navigate my way back of – to where I could smash notches in the walls of that void in order to claw myself out. Once I emerged again, squinting into the sunlight – I knew for sure that happiness, even if it is found can be lost, but that doesn’t mean it is gone forever or that we should stop searching for it. I learnt that In my darkest times, when depression gripped me so tightly I thought I might suffocate from the weight of it all, that there was still this tiny flickering ember that had been ignited inside of me. That I could always use this to navigate my own way out, even if it meant stumbling and slipping, before regaining my footing then finding my own feet again. That I could stoke that ember with all that the trail had taught me. With all the lessons I had learnt until it became a roaring fire and that fire still burns inside of me now.
I had no idea that I would be here, over a year later grateful not just for how the trail changed my life, but how I too changed the course of my life forever after it. That I sit here now and I am happy, not surface happy, not waiting in earnest for the moment that I will be happy in the future but truly happy about myself / where life has taken me / what lays ahead for me. And that dear reader is something I thought I would never find.
I bought to the trail nothing but my own vulnerability and in return it taught me the greatest lessons of my life; lessons of friendship, community, of looking out for one another, about the healing force of nature and about the way in which we have to take risks in order to heal, even if it feels like we might fail. The Pacific Crest Trail didn’t change my life, it gave me life and I will be forever grateful for that. So please, if you were lost like I was, go out there and risk it all for what you want if you have the chance. Change is good, change is beautiful, change makes life worth living. Change and grow and live and feel in your own way exactly what the trail made me feel and know that you alone have done this for yourself and that for me was the greatest lesson of them all.
So why are you hiking this trail again?
For this, for all of this. For the little girl that is still a part of me. The one who hid so much adventure in her heart, the one who would pour over books about far away places, about nature, about plants. For the girl who got lost on her way to becoming a woman. To the girl who never thought she would make it to Canada and for the woman who did. I’m hiking again because I can’t think of anywhere on earth I would rather be. The Pacific Crest Trail feels like home and I think it always will.