The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a long-distance hiking and equestrian trail that starts on the US/Mexico Border near Campo California and ends on the US/Canada border on the edge of Manning Park in British Columbia.
"Much after a beginning is difficult, as anybody knows who has crossed the sea, and as for the first step a man never so much as remembers it; if there is difficulty it is in the whole launching of a thing... The first step is undertaken lightly, pleasantly, and with your soul in the sky; it is the five-hundredth that counts." -Hilaire Belloc
23 days until I stop working. 28 days until I say goodbye to my family and step onto a bus for San Diego. 30 days until I start walking north.
It's all slowly settling into place.
Paperwork and starting logistics are done. My long-distance hiking permit, my California fire permit, passport, Amtrak tickets, San Diego plans, and Canada entrance permit are all finished.
My gear is almost there. I now have my food bag, Spot (GPS tracker and emergency beacon), and my micro-spikes for crossing snow. I tried on some Altra Superiors at REI to get my shoe size, so I can order a lighter color online for hot desert days ("Can I try a Men's 13, yes I have big feet, yes, these shoes make my feet look small"). Now all I need are an ice axe, my shoes, and some fresh toe socks and water bladders. It's looking like my base weight will be just above 13 pounds (not including water, food, fuel, and map weight). I'm happy with it, and it will probably drop some more once I start getting rid of things when I'm hiking. Or increase as I decide to carry dog treats in my hipbelt for chance opportunities. I'm not switching anything big out at this point, and will just wait until I start hiking to decide what I want to change; there really isn't any point to mulling over at-this-point theoretical decisions.
I'll begin constructing my resupply boxes the week or two before I start, although I have a lot already collected and sitting in a Trader Joe's bag next to my gear pile/mountain.
I haven't gotten any negative reactions so far when I tell people that I'm hiking the trail (my mom has). Everyone from friends, to friends' parents, to co-workers, to the woman on the phone when trying to figure out insurance have been positive and excited. I attribute this to the fact that I'm shy/introverted and don't strike up too many deep conversations with strangers who won't understand who I am or let alone why anyone would do this, and that because of Wild most people have at least a cursory exposure to the trail and so the goal of thru-hiking a long trail has become legitimized.
I'm excited. But I'm also nervous, a bottle of subdued nerves, and in denial that this is an actual concrete thing that I am attempting to do. This is all just fun planning, and the assertion that there is actually a trail that goes from Mexico to Canada is some elaborate ruse thru-hikers play on the rest of us; very funny, guys.
But seriously, there isn't much time to be actually excited. There is too much to think about, too many anxieties humming in the background, too many piecemeal aspects of preparation to complete. At the same time that I'm solidifying my commitment to a goal, Canada, I'm processing the reality that a traditional thru-hike of walking every section of the trail may not be as feasible this year with all of the snow. It's possible, but will involve significant snow travel and possibly additional mountaineering gear (I'm strongly averse to wearing boots, especially if they have ankle corsets) and hiking Washington into late September with rain, cold, and the threat of snow.
All I know is that I will just have to wait and see and remain flexible; it's still more than two months until I'll hike into Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the Sierra. It's all speculation, which I'm sure will get intense once I hit the trail and enter the grapevine.
I go over all of the passes that I hiked last summer in my mind; Forester, Glen, Pinchot and Mather, Muir. This time, their steep scree and boulder pitches covered in feet of slippery snow. Passes which, in summer, are traversed with tight switchbacks that make them no more dangerous than the valleys below. I can't say that I'm not a little bit terrified when I imagine hiking up through the granite-bathtub valley south of Forester, searching for the little notch in the battlements that is the pass.
My hike last summer makes these visions much more vivid and concrete. It's easy to descend into this mental fear-mongering, and the best way to stay sane is to keep thoughts and emotions about the PCT on the back burner, on simmer to keep them on a constant verge of boiling over, and focus on tasks that I can complete with my hands.
So, am I excited? Of course I am. But it's tempered, kept to a buzzing in my stomach, an automatic internal focus on things PCT. I know this won't be easy, and moments of pure excitement are rare. I'm hunkering down and fervently getting ready, while also very-slowly winding down my normal life.
Can I really only be starting in 4 weeks?
I just finished separating out my maps and Yogi town guides into portions I can send out to resupply stops. I don't know how other people have done it- I think they may be sending out more map packages so they don't have to carry as much weight. There is surprisingly little online literature on this. The portions I have weigh from as little as 4 ounces to just over 1 pound. I will probably separate the heavier packets again once I figure out where I will be getting packages from home and friends. I mainly want to minimize having to stress about getting into town before a P.O. closes, especially if all I'm getting is maps. But, I also don't want to get frustrated with carrying a ridiculous amount of weight in maps.
Right now they're separated into legs between places I know I will be sending boxes. Campo (start) to Warner Springs a hundred miles in, Warner Springs to Kennedy Meadows which is the last town before the Sierra (I need to separate this one- no point in carrying maps for 600 miles). Kennedy Meadows to Tahoe (where I will be going home to Reno for a few days), and then Tahoe to Ashland, Oregon. And finally a big map package sent to Ashland, where I will be making resupply boxes for much of the rest of the trail where there won't be as many good stores.
I started my drive home from Geometry and this was peeking out of my rear-view mirror. Parked the car and ran up the nearest mountainside.
Every day we miss the sunrise and sunset because we're inside or asleep, even though they're the most democratized form of natural beauty.
I can't wait for this to be the first thing I see when I open my eyes and the last I see before shutting them, almost every day this summer.
I grew up backpacking. My grandparents on my dad's side were backpackers, visiting Nepal often to trek, completing the Annapurna Circuit, taking my dad and uncle for trips down the Grand Canyon, as well as hiking both in the Sierra and on the east coast. My mom grew up spending summers in Washoe Valley and on the shore of Lake Tahoe, fishing, swimming, and being outside.
My early memories of backpacking are the most vivid I have. I went on my first backpacking trips when I was around 7, both to Peter Grubb Hut on the Pacific Crest Trail. It's a short 3 mile walk from the highway, up and down the ridge where a spindly, balding trail splits off to climb Castle Peak. The PCT switchbacks down through pine ringed with neon-yellow wolf lichen, the ground soft with duff and spotted by mushrooms; a softer Sierra beauty than the stark exposed granite of the south.
The hut lies right off the trail where the trees open up into a huge meadow. The small entrance, lined with split firewood, opens up into a dim room. It smells like wood smoke and dirt and people. In the middle of the room sits an old, grubby picnic table. There are mouse-proof cabinets, a wood stove, trail register, and a smaller room off to the side with another table, guitars hanging on the wall. A wooden ladder goes straight up to the loft.
And then there were the thru-hikers. I sat on the bench near them, listening, privately and shyly enthralled. There was a quiet Australian with red hair and beard, who talked about the Great Barrier Reef and accepted a Larabar saying, "I can't say no to free calories." There were two guys who formed an a capella group, and performed along the trail to raise money for troops. One was allergic to antibiotics and when he grazed his leg falling down a snow bank in the Sierra, he had to leave the trail for a while because it got infected. They had started with another guy who had dropped out in the desert because he was out of shape. They had tried bringing butter on-trail and it melted all over their packs. Both the Australian and the two guys had started on the same day from a mysterious trailhead, somewhere, I didn't know where, but it sounded enchanting and magical and I fell in love.
Those are only a fraction of the details I remember so clearly. I fell asleep on one of the dirty matresses in the loft to the boom of them talking and laughing, straining to pick up individual words and piece them together.
So, that was it. That was the moment I became hooked. I continued casually backpacking with my family, and I told my mom and dad that this was something I wanted to do some day. There were other thru-hikers: a woman who paused to look at her maps at the ridge at Castle Peak, who told me I should hike the trail, and hike it solo. Hobo and Milkshake and Milkman. I was always too shy and nervous to talk to them or ask their trail names. Outlaw, who worked at the Trader Joe's in Reno.
I guess I never really thought about thru-hikes as something real that normal people do (and so I could do, too, and not just scrawny thru-hiking super-heroes in backpacks), until another homeschooling family on the east coast, that I'd done a Skype bookclub with, announced they were hiking the Appalachian trail.
And so I decided that I was going to section-hike the Tahoe Rim Trail that summer. I started delving into thru-hiking blogs, reading copies of AT and PCT memoirs and Ray Jardine from the library. I had my mom and dad drive me up to hike 20-40 mile segments with me almost every weekend (I didn't have my driver's license at the time, and they weren't exactly complaining about getting to hike ha). I finished the Tahoe Rim Trail, and then because I had caught the bug I spent the winter planning for the John Muir Trail. And I did that, part of it solo, which I loved. It's very addictive, and not just because of the beauty or the simplicity or being outside or the people, but because planning and completing a long hike gives you a definable purpose throughout the year, even when there isn't one in your everyday life.
This fall, because I was applying to colleges, I was planning to do a 300-mile section of the PCT from Sierra City to Yosemite Valley. All of the college stuff was making me a little miserable. I told myself I wanted to do something "normal" for once with my life and start college right away. I've been taking several college classes each semester for three years now, and going to college for real sounded so banal, so un-different. While I enjoy them, college classes feel so mundane to me, while for normal teenagers they would be an exciting shift to at least mark the change between the 15 years of primary school and the next 4 years or more of college. Not hiking the PCT was a constant thread of disappointment being passed through my mind.
And then I started a job and suddenly the PCT started to become something feasible. I cornered and barraged my parents with statements like "what if I do the PCT this year," deranged laughter, "What do you think?" A few days in I decided that I was making it happen this year, no matter what. I told my parents- who weren't at all surprised- and then got in my car for a jubilant drive to work.
“Hiking and happiness go hand in hand (or foot in boot).” ― Diane Spicer
I started of on February 8th with a dull ache in my left foot. A trip to the doctor confirmed I had an old bone chip floating around. There was nothing they could do, and they recommended I stay off of it, wrap it, ice it, and ultimately....rest. That's counter-intuitive to a training thru hiker. REST? Ha.
I did hobble around at work for the remainder of the week and much into the next, but eventually the pain began to subside. I purchased a pair of Vasque Breeze boots, the ones I planned on using for my hike. They seemed to keep my foot stabilized while at work. Thankfully, the pain began to subside toward the end of the week. Crisis averted!
Living in socal, we've had quite the storm in the past week or so, with more rain on the way. That leads to gorgeous seasonal waterfalls and the streams the feed to be very plentiful within the San Gabriel Mountains. I took my days off to do two short hikes to test my boots and my now pain free foot. The first trail was located in Tujunga Canyon, and I was no prepared (foolishly) for the deeper water crossing that turned me around about 2 miles in. But a short 4 mile hike after 2 weeks off was enough for me to realize that my foot pain was in fact gone, and not going to flare up on short hikes. The next day, Max and I explored a more popular trail closer to home, with much more shallow water crossings. He was definitely happy to be out and about instead of cooped up at home with me. Again, we only did about 3 miles that day as well, but i'm easing back into mileage again. I'm hoping, weather permitting, to get a good 10 miles in hiking Saturday, with a moderately weighted pack.
I can definitely feel a little pre-hike anxiety kicking in. Will I have enough money saved up in time? Will I be ready, physically, mentally? Will everything work out? Will Max be ok? It's more of his hike, than mine, after all. I feel like I have so many loose ends to tie up before I begin, and time is ticking. With my permit officially approved, it all just seems so much more real. This is happening, and I can't wait. Time to fine tune my gear list and start logging miles!
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.
Training hikes I attempted Mt. Wilson, a fixture of the San Gabriel mountains. From every area of the San Gabriel valley, the large towers and observatory are visible.
But the trail, it's gruelling and not for the faint of heart. My first attempt was a success a few years ago for my birthday, despite the cold temps and hail that began at Manzanita Pass. I've hiked it in it's entirety 3 or so times since.
A 7 mile climb with 4,000'+ elevation gain is sure to help you figure out where you stand fitness wise. Needless to say, this past Sunday was a certain reality check for me.
Max and I hit the trail at 6:45 Sunday morning. LA had quite a bit of rain the week before and Sunday was clear, the pollution levels finally down a bit, also. Water was flowing through various seasonal water fall and canyon streams. It was an ideal day to tackle my favorite trail.
Max did great, as always. I did not have him wear his pack for this trek, as we've both been slacking on training. I carried my pack, with a few items to add weight to 20lbs including water.
This trail kicked my butt this past weekend. I made it to Manzanita ridge before the familiar twinge in my back started to make an appearance. I figured instead of pushing myself and potentially injuring my back, I decided to call it a day and head back down. I was very happy to tackle 10 miles and a considerable amount of elevation. I work all weekend this week, but plan on trying again the next. We'll see if there's any improvement.
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