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The Pacific Crest Trail is an abstract concept. Just like the number 100,000 or a weight of 12 pounds; 2650 miles is equally as inconceivable. But the PCT has never just been the length of a footpath between Mexico and Canada. Neither is it solely the places it brings you, the ridges it climbs and the valleys it mosies along. Maybe it's the people, the experience of living outside, the hardship, the joy. Whatever it is, the Pacific Crest Trail is something too large and multi-dimensional to grasp fully in my mind.
I've had some awesome conversations with some of my fellow thru-hikers already and I haven't even started hiking. I can only speak for myself, but my emotions are a roulette of 40% panic and disillusionment, What the heck am I doing? What about all the snow? Am I prepared enough? What do I do with my life if I get injured and have to leave?, 50% determination and resolve that this is what I'm going to do and what I want to do so I'm doing it despite the disillusionment, and 10% is excitement and happiness that this is what I'm going to do. I'm not too concerned about the first 40% because this is what I feel for a backpacking trip of any length, even if it's just for overnight. What is going to be interesting to see is if this feeling comes back every time I go into towns to resupply, rest, eat.
T-minus 60 days.
60 days until hiking north. Until waking up in the middle of the night while cowboy camping to see the stars through the slit in my sleeping bag, nose cold, our galaxy spilled across the sky like milk. Heat that makes me wish desperately for a clear stream of snowmelt to dip myself in to wash away my dirt and sweat, and cold that leaves me dreaming of the blanketing heat of the desert floor. Days where my head is in a fog and it becomes difficult to move my legs.
Loneliness. Boredom. Running down a pass during a summer thunderstorm with my new trail friends. The absolute freedom of being able to pee wherever I want (seriously, I miss this a lot). Hunger that makes food taste better than it ever will again in my whole life. Staying up late to play card games sitting in a circle in the dirt, with people I've just met and might never see again. Seeing Sagebrush along the side of the trail and it reminding me of home so that I want to dance and hug it and sing "Home Means Nevada." Actually singing and dancing and singing it out until my heart is full.
Getting to hug a stranger's dog because I'll miss my dogs at home. Calling my mom and crying because I don't think I can do this any longer. Doing it longer anyway, because I was just having a bad day. Breathing through my head net, my skin crawling as I frantically run from a swarm of mosquitos. Praying to run into someone who wasn't too stubbornly idealistic to bring DEET.
Seeing the sun rise and set every day, and its slow revolution across the sky being all that is necessary to tell the time. Losing track of what day it is, whether it's Tuesday or Friday, because really it doesn't matter. Seeing Meiss Cabin and knowing that I'm on my home turf and will see my family soon. Walking north from Tahoe and for the first time not walking towards home but away from it. But at the same time, knowing that the trail is now also my home.
Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll see a clear-cut strip of trees in the distance, the Canada border, and know that my journey is almost done.
I spend 30 minutes reeling in the Walmart near my work, wandering in erratic circles trying to find a card and wrapping paper for a retirement party at work. I've rarely gone into one, a Walmart, and I don't know where anything is. The cashier when I go to check out looks panicked and and overwhelmed. It's a Friday.
As I'm walking out the doors, I pass a woman who stops and looks at the mountains behind me. "Look how beautiful the view is!" she says to her husband. "How the light is coming down," she says, encompassing the mountains in the gesture of her hands.
I look back and see she's right. Frigid clouds hang in a slow-motion dance with the crest of the Sierra. The sun, behind them, makes the clouds glow. Streetlights, roads, and warehouses cut the flanks of the hills into a jumble of mountain slivers, but yes, she's absolutely right, it's still beautiful in a weird, disconnected way.
I admire her for seeing a view in a Walmart parking lot. I can't wait to be out there.
Here is the state of my preparations: between working, several hours of math homework each day, and a new puppy, not much. I read blogs, talk to other thru-hikers about resupply strategy and gear, and dream. I go into REI on the way home from work to look at stuff sacks, micro-spikes and ice axes. I lift an ice ax in my palm and appreciate the heft of it, the way the metal curves in my hand. But even REI doesn't hold my attention, and I wander through aimlessly, because even this is consumerism. I don't need any of this stuff.
Training hikes happen when I have a few hours of free time and good weather to disappear into the BLM land behind our house, up into the desert and the mountains. I leave our coult-de-sac with a loaded pack and take a left, then another left up towards the elementary school, following a strip of sagebrush along a ditch. Right before the school, I leave the sidewalk and cross the ditch, re-emerge on the other side of the dip, and I'm on public land.
I follow the ATV path as it curves around the school, and then follow another one up into the desert. If it's the weekend, I can hear the distant popping of guns up near the base of the hills. It's a form of recreation that I don't fully understand. I know that this desert is riddled with dry stream beds and ATV tracks and old couches and rotting plywood, but all I can see from any point as I march to the hills is a broad, smooth sweep of Artemisia, Big Sagebrush, punctuated by juniper. I've seen some people openly call it brown and ugly, but I think it's beautiful and definitely not brown. It alternates grey, pale mint, and dusty sage: purple, straw-yellow, rose, milk-coffee and at sunset, gold. Above everything is the huge pale blue of the sky.
The desert floor tilts steadily upwards to the mountains. Before I know it I'm at the point where the mountains rise, abrupt, from the relative flatness. I look back and see the turquoise roof of the elementary school, far away and below and small. I climb up the hills, my hills, feeling my calves burn. On this trip, snow softens the hillside. Spanish Springs, the elementary school, my house, grow smaller and the view of Reno and Sparks rises above the hills behind like the moon. Fresh storm clouds stream over the darkened Sierra, obscuring Mt. Rose in white.
When I'm out here alone, I feel calm. I know that I will never understand why I'm hiking the PCT until I take the first step out of the car at the Mexican border. All of the stress about getting there, and my incredulity about leaving behind a nice mattress and real food and AC and my family, will fall away. All I know is that I want to do this, I need to do this, and I just need to have the faith to start.
Yesterday the first round of PCT long-distance hiking permits were released on the PCTA website at 10:30 PST. I got a start date of April 22nd!!!
When I hiked the JMT last year, there were all kinds of articles on how to navigate the confusing NPS permit for the JMT. We ended up having to fax a permit in every day for two weeks straight until we got our permit in the lottery. Permit denial messages littered my email inbox. The difficult permit system was a bonding experience for everyone on the trail.
For the PCT, there was almost nothing online about what it would look like once it opened. Given my experience with the JMT, I was a little bit nervous as I set up my situation room (the kitchen counter) with my laptop to get ready.
When 10:30 hit, I refreshed the page, and the PCTA website crashed. It stayed crashed for an hour. Imagine: 2,000+ people sitting there refreshing their page at a single moment. Then refreshing, refreshing... I knew that everyone else was probably locked out too, but I couldn't help but panic a little and think that it was working fine for everyone else and they were getting all of the permits.
Once you finally get in, the permit process is very easy and simple. It asks you to answer a few questions (are you starting Sobo or Nobo from near the Mexican border) then it gives you a calendar full of dates, showing how many permits are left. You pick a date and it reserves it for you for 5 minutes while you finish the application. It asks you whether you're summiting Whitney (if you say yes it's 21$), and asks you to donate 35$ to the PCTA for a membership. Both are optional, but I think it's as good a time as any to get your PCTA membership and you might as well give yourself the option to hike Whitney.
I took a quick training hike today after getting home from work. It's been raining all day, but I figured what better time to test out my cold-weather hiking layers?
Better yet, I found out that my hiking umbrella had just arrived! My hiking shorts were in the wash, so I wore some jeans (i know that's generally a bad idea, but). So, I took off through the neighborhood in my backpacking shirt, rain jacket, fleece gloves, hat, and Houdini wind pants. And my snazzy hiking umbrella. I don't know how I looked but I'm sure it was great.
The (high) desert is only a 5-10 minute walk from our house. I stayed out 2-3 hours and got back when it was getting dark; it was very muddy and wet and kind of cold but I stayed warm and dry, although I'm glad I didn't have to set up camp in the rain. My daypack was drenched, but luckily water bottles don't mind getting wet. I will have to try that again sometime with my hiking shorts and a full pack!
I also love my umbrella and have named it Baron after the character in The Cat Returns.
After one decides to attempt a thruhike, the logical progression of one's thoughts turns towards planning. You ask questions like: What will my resupply strategy look like? How do I get down to Campo? What do I still need for gear? How do I get a permit and what should my starting date be? What is my plan for when I stop hiking? How am I funding my hike?
And you know what puzzles me the most? Solving these questions does not seem to be that more difficult than last summer for the John Muir Trail. Is that scary? Reassuring? I don't know. This simplicity is one advantage of doing a hike like this now, young, while I don't have to worry about bills and am not tied down to a career or a mortgage.
I am both gluten free (which I'd like to change but can't) and piscetarian (which I don't want to change but can), complicating resupply a bit. I am still planning on resupplying the main bulk of what I eat as I go, but with "care packages" from home to supplement with things I probably won't find on trail. Gluten free crackers, bread, tortillas, licorice, rice noodles, mac n cheese, cookies, dehydrated veggies, instant refried beans, instant curry lentil soup, etc. But, largely I think I'll be fine, even if I have to employ the "Basically I Eat Potato Chips" strategy outlined in Carrot Quinn's blog. I know that on the JMT I wanted to give up just doing one resupply package, so I'm not doing that to myself. I'll probably just plan for specific packages at Kennedy Meadows and MTR/VVR, and figure out the rest of the trail after Reno/Tahoe as I go.
I am getting Amtrak tickets down to San Diego, where there are trail angels who shuttle hikers to the trail. I've taken the California Zephyr before (which goes along the Transcontinental Railroad line) from SF to Reno and it's nice, and also a whole lot cheaper than plane tickets. And I probably will freak out the Amish with my hiking clothes.
The only things I still need for gear are my Halfmile maps, an ice axe and microspikes, shoes, and a few other small things like something to write in, a compass, a food bag, and my mom wants to get me a Spot or Delorme. I promised if she got one for me I would take it. I also am taking an REI beginning mountaineering course to learn how to use my ice axe. With all of the snow we're getting, I'm aiming for a late April/early May starting date. The permits should be easy peasy after the nightmare that JMT permits are. I also need to renew my passport and apply for entry to Canada.
My plan for after I stop hiking? Who knows. I don't know how far I will make it, if I will get an injury in the first 500 miles or in the last 600. If i will go fast or slow. At this point I am abandoning my UNR plans until next spring.
Everything is in limbo. I will see what happens...
I had an epiphany two days before the new year. I am going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail this year. This is the summer.
This is how it fits together: I had just started a part-time job as a clerical assistant at my Dad's work. So now I can make some money for my hike. I wouldn't let myself hike and not help pay for it, even though I know my parents would. It just in a sense wouldn't be my own hike, not in the same way. The Pacfic Crest Trail is in some sense for me about gaining independence, and it would feel false if I was entirely dependent on someone else. I was already judged by people on the John Muir Trail for not having a job, for being young, for having light gear - even though I work hard at my college classes and at home, paid for a fair portion of my gear myself, and was the driving force behind my hikes.
I am taking two classes this spring at the community college, both of which end early (one is compressed into a half-semester, and the other is self-paced, at least so I've heard). They are both courses necessary for me getting into college. If that's confusing because I just said I'm in community college, it's because I also homeschool and it is confusing. So, I am faced with the opportunity of being able to start earlier, and not late in the season due to the semester ending May 12th. When else do I see myself being on this schedule while in college? Non.
The other thing that was holding me back was me transfering from community college to a university this fall. You know what? There will never be a perfect time for a thru-hike. If I end up finishing off early, I can still take classes at either TMCC or UNR, the local colleges. Plus, I've already been doing community college classes for 3 years. Time for a break before another long stretch for completing my major.
So, why am I hiking the PCT in general? Other than having always wanted to do it, other than growing up backpacking on the PCT around Tahoe, here is a list of reasons:
A final note: I will brandish my long-handled titanium spoon at anyone who tries to talk to me about Wild, Cheryl Strayed, or Reese Witherspoon. Just kidding.
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