In 2014, I had lofty ambitions to walk from Mexico to Canada, 2,700 miles, in 102 days, on the Pacific Crest Trail. As it turns out, the days were longer than I expected and so was the trail.
In the end, I hiked 1,200 miles from the US-Mexican border to Sierra City, in Northern California. I carried “only what I needed”, which initially weighed more than 50 pounds and, by the end of my trek, totaled less than 20, including food and water. Along the way, I traversed deserts, mountains, highways, rivers, and a million of the less traveled paths in my mind.
Apprehensive that I might be abducted, or even dehydrated, my parents met me at my starting point in Southern California. My dad and I hiked the first 87 miles together. We traveled through dusty, barren desert, with far too much gear on our backs. Our paper maps were unreliable, and water sources were available, at best, in twenty-mile increments. There was incessant sun, gusty desert winds, and ceaseless stretches of land in every direction. There was no shade. There was no running water. There was no grocery store.
After a tumultuous week together, my dad decided it was time to stop hiking with me. He was optimistic that I’d move more swiftly on my own and he was ready to eat steak dinners at will. The training wheels finally came off; my dad gave me confidence, then he let me go.
As my parents departed, I set off on my own. For the first three minutes hiking by myself, I cried. I was afraid that I wasn’t capable of having a safe or successful trek. I felt forlorn. The time stretching ahead of me seemed as immeasurable as the desert. I hiked for a month before reaching the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I thought my spirits would rise with the hills, but the desolate ranges and relentless incline only further anguished my soul (and feet).
Occasionally, I met another Pacific Crest Trail hiker and, oh boy, was I mighty grateful to see a human. I’d be trekking along in a militant style, staring through the zone ahead, hiking poles stabbing the dirt in procession, when suddenly, I’d stumble upon a bearded man wearing tattered, filthy clothes sprawled beneath a bush. In any other circumstance, the only reason I’d stop to converse with a guy like this would be to say, “I don’t want to buy any marijuana, thank you.” I quickly discovered, however, that my fellow wanderers were often quite unlike what their appearances implied. They were nurses, physicists, artists, fire fighters, realtors, college students, and even a few remarkably spry senior citizens.
My encounters, and my solitude, on the Pacific Crest Trail changed me. A hunger within me was sated. An anxiety was calmed. I stopped constantly planning for the future. I was fully and completely in the moment. I quit eating too much sugar when I was sad or cold. Instead, I took comfort in my surroundings. I created mental recordings of bird songs, and learned the names of unfamiliar plants. I absorbed the warmth of the sun on my face – a fact confirmed by my freckle count.
The Pacific Crest Trail had become my home, which made it difficult to leave. Nevertheless, I departed the trail near Sierra City, a little short of halfway to my goal. I left the trail to honor a commitment to attend a best friend’s wedding. But my reality was that I was out of money and snow was expected to fall soon on the trail ahead. Still, withdrawing from the trail left me with feelings of confusion and pain – the sting of a Band-Aid quickly removed.
For the past year, I’ve mentally processed those months spent on the Pacific Crest Trail. I feel that my yearning to be one with nature is as fundamental as my body’s need for nourishment. I’ve decided to return to the Pacific Crest trail and continue the journey northward. I do so with all the eagerness (and recklessness) of a girl hungry to renew my connection to the wilderness.