This year will be the fifth since I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.
When I reached the Northern Terminus on that freezing October morning, I worried that I had squandered the four and a half months I had spent on the trail. I had expected big changes, but I felt like I was pretty much the same person I had been before the hike. Where were the grand self-realizations? Why was I still so anxious and uncomfortable all the time?
That first year back from the trail was rough. I struggled with depression and anxiety, unemployment followed by a job I hated, and the loss of my dog.
Five years later, I can see that my life was permanently altered by the PCT. I hadn’t noticed at the time because most of the changes were small, but they were highly charged. Over time they realigned my thinking and changed the way I see myself and the culture I live in. Here are a few of the lessons that have stuck with me.
“Am I really still thinking about this after 2000 miles?”
After 200 miles I was sick of the same thoughts showing up again and again. After 500 miles I was pissed off about them. After 1000 miles I decided it was time to do something—I chose to forgive myself for those awkward and embarrassing things I said and did; I vowed to make better choices in the future to fix those mistakes I had made in my past; I focused my thoughts and began to think through the problem thoughts in a linear, rather than wandering way, and to take them through all the way to their source. That still didn’t make them go away, but when those same thoughts continued to arise at mile 1500, 2000, and all the way to the end of the trail, I learned how to dance with them, strip them of their emotional punch, and release them. Five years later the anxious thoughts still haven’t disappeared, but I’m much more aware of their beginnings, I have better strategies for dealing with them, and they don’t take me over the way they used to.
Emotional Ebb and Flow
A related idea: Rain and sunshine and snow and wind each change my mood in distinct ways. My physical fatigue and the quality of my diet affect my mood. And sometimes my mood changes for what seems like no discernible reason at all. I sort of knew this before the trail, but it was only when I had long blocks of time with nothing but my thoughts and moods, and nothing to distract me from them, that I really understood and accepted it. Negative emotions don’t necessarily mean that something is wrong with me or with my life—sometimes I just have negative emotions. The trail allowed me to become intimate with and accepting of those dips and sways in my emotional states.
Act persistently despite discomfort
Hiking with blisters, hiking with no energy, climbing into still-soaking-wet clothes at 5am and packing up your icy tent in the dark because you’re behind schedule and you aren’t going to make it to Canada before winter unless you pack on those miles—these things all suck, but I learned that dreading them was usually worse than the act itself. If I just sucked it up and pulled on the soaking wet shirt, the dreading was over faster and so was the suffering. I’ve become more aware of the suffering and dread in my own life—that project I don’t want to start; that uncomfortable conversation I need to have; that chore I don’t want to do—and more likely to just get it over with.
One step at a time
When I stepped off from the Mexican Border on that first day, the Canadian Border seemed impossibly far away. I tried to avoid the cliche of “every journey blah blah blah,” but of course it came to mind anyway. Most cliches have some basis in truth. I really came to appreciate the power of single steps when I had covered enough ground that I couldn’t remember everything that had come before. The project of finishing a PCT hike is filled with complex, highly variable terrain, wildlife, other people, unexpected weather, and billions of other variables. You can’t foresee every challenge or plan for every eventuality, but you can keep going. You can’t control the forces around you, but you can keep going. You won’t even always be aware of every step along the way, but you can keep going. The truth about who finishes a thru hike is really simple: it’s the people who keep going. (But don’t be stupid about it: I had to skip multiple sections of my thru hike due to fires and closures. My footpath wasn’t continuous, but I kept going back over the next few years until it was complete.) Yes it’s a cliche, but it’s literally one step at a time. Skills are built that way, and relationships, and all those big dreams. You can’t skip ahead or take shortcuts without taking something away from the experience.
Dreams are worthless without relationships
Just before Belden I met Mr. Tea and Altitude, and we just sort of clicked. After a few days of running into each other, we bonded over pizza and a couple pitchers of beer in Chester. We were all seriously behind schedule, each for our own reasons, and we discussed the possibility of flip-flopping together to Washington and hiking SOBO. I was determined to continue NOBO, at least for the time being, so we agreed to continue on to Castle Crags and reassess there. I left town after lunch, expecting them to catch up that evening, but I got a message saying they decided to flip flop from Chester. Did I want to come back and go with them? In the spirit of Hike Your Own Hike, I declined, pretty bummed to have lost my nascent trail family. Did I make the right decision? I thought about the choice often over the following weeks while I hiked alone, and I concluded that although I had, it was also true that I had a tendency to overvalue my personal goals and undervalue the importance of my relationships. I think there’s a spectrum, with some people favoring relationships so much that they lose sight of their own dreams and desires, and others so goal-focused that they destroy the very relationships that make life worth living. In the five years since completing the PCT, I’ve tried to create a balance that allows me to pursue my goals in a way that brings people in instead of shutting them out or leaving them behind.
We are cultural beings
Nowhere is the split between before the PCT and after more apparent than in my approach to other people. I spent most of my youth in a state of resistance. I could fit in where I had to, but mostly I saw other people as opponents who were all trying to manipulate me into conformity with established norms. I proudly thought that I was one of the few independent souls out there. A few months of solitude cured me of that notion. I began to see how deeply some of my own beliefs were dependent on the culture around me, how I had thoughtlessly absorbed unexamined cultural beliefs, including some of those very ideas around independence and autonomy.
I began to see how all-consuming culture is in our lives. Small trail towns had a far different cultural identity than the suburban communities where I had grown up, and the way those communities were organized changed the way that people interacted and identified. I was hiking during the 2016 election, and the conversations I had while hitchhiking or gathered with hikers around a water source made it clear how many our beliefs are part of a “cultural soup” in which we are so immersed that we can’t even see outside of it.
One way out of the culture trap, I realized, was to make my own choices about which cultures to identify with. There were micro-cultures within the larger culture that were more conducive to the life I wanted to live. The thru-hiker community was one such micro-culture, and identifying with them gave me different markers of status—rather than chasing dollars and keeping up with the Joneses, I chased the highs of adventure and awe, which were far more conducive to my general happiness. The realization eventually spread into a more flexible approach to culture, where I can freely inhabit whichever identity fits my goals, and choose an appropriate micro-culture. It’s not a matter of play-acting to fit in, it’s a matter of bringing the power of a micro-culture to support the authentic values I’ve already chosen.
In the years since completing the PCT, I have sometimes worried that people see me as overly obsessed with the trail. They may think I’m like the guy who dated the homecoming queen in high school and never got over the breakup. But I think the experience of hiking a long trail is more like the birth of a child: it continues to grow and change in meaning over time, and life is irrevocably altered. To anyone but the parents, the child seems just like every other child, but to the parents, this child is beautiful and worthy of the greatest love. Similarly, I fear many of these lessons may come across as straightforward and blasé to anyone who hasn’t hiked a long trail—but the true value of the lessons aren’t in the language or the understanding, they are in the depth of experience. We all realize the mood affects our weather, for example, but how many of us are aware of nearly every light breeze and change in barometric pressure? For my part, I’m glad to continue to plumb those depths of experience, even if I come across as a fanatic, and I’m grateful to all the trail workers, trail angels, and trail stewards who made my hike possible. They changed my life