I’ve been mulling over a post like this for quite some time. If you followed my PCT blog while I was hiking, you probably got a good sense of the day-to-day life of a thru-hiker, but I don’t think I really reflected on the trail a lot, or my feelings towards hiking and being on trail. And I’ve posted some Instagram posts with captions alluding to the end of the trail, but I wanted to write more, especially since my first “trailiversary” (anniversary of beginning a long hike) is today.
There is not a single day that goes by where I don’t think back to my time on the PCT. Whether it’s a flashback to a specific moment, or more of a sentimental “big picture” reflection. It comes up a lot at work, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s wonderful to talk to people about the trail, but I resent the fact that I’m stuck in a store for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, talking about this grand adventure I had, instead of living it again. And it’s hard to explain the hike to people, because they’re just interested in my “safety”, how many miles I hiked, and how long it took me. Not that I really want to talk about my feelings about the trail to total strangers in my place of work, but still. There’s only so many times you can give the same answers over and over again. “I wasn’t alone.” “2,650 miles.” “Yes, the whole thing, from Mexico to Canada.” “5 months, 9 days.” “It was great.”
So, what do I really want to say? I don’t know. I’m not an eloquent writer, and I feel like my vocabulary has taken the biggest hit of my life since starting the trail (a phenomenon that thankfully, isn’t something that only I am experiencing). I usually just think of the trail in a stream of conscious thought, and from behind rose-colored glasses. I also don’t know if it’s the trail I miss specifically, or the general lifestyle of the trail: feeling free, self-sufficient, taking each day as it comes, constantly moving towards a singular, set goal, not worrying about “real world problems”. Will I instantly feel these happy feelings when I start another long trail, or was this a once in a lifetime opportunity - a fleeting set of emotions that will never rise again?
It’s hard to explain the gravity of walking 2,650 miles to someone who hasn’t done it before, and how that changes you as a person. It’s hard to even say how it’s changed me except that I just want more. More dirt, more rocks, more uphills and downhills, more fresh mountain water (heck, I’ll even take tank water), more quiet mornings and chirping birds, more simple hiker conversations, and even more windy passes because even though the wind makes my eyes water, it feels like being alive. And I can find some of these things on a day hike or weekend trip, but it just doesn’t feel the same as out on the PCT, where you’re living in it, not just visiting.
I think the trail gave me permission to embrace trying new things, and being ok with those outcomes being less than perfect. I never thought I’d be a person who went rock climbing outside immediately after earning their belay cert. Pre-PCT Emily was afraid of being a burden on more experienced friends, afraid of looking stupid or failing or getting hurt (ok, I’m still scared I’ll get seriously injured). I want to try more things, especially things I’m afraid of in the outdoors: off-trail travel with a map and compass, sport climbing, packrafting, mountaineering, skiing.
I love the trail and I love thru-hiking. Being dirty, letting go of a little control, being surprised by what’s around the corner: whether it’s an amazing view, a picnic table, trail magic, a surprise downhill (or uphill), or a trail register, waiting for hitches, filtering water, and just walking all day, every day. There’s a comfort in the monotony of thru-hiking. And the monotony doesn’t feel agonizing because even though you’re doing the same things every day - wake up, get dressed, pack up, eat, walk, filter water, eat, walk, set up camp, sleep, repeat - every day is different. The scenery changes, the smell of the air changes, you see a different lake or mountain or animal, the soil is slightly different. And you are attuned enough to your surroundings to notice these things.
But I also grapple with the selfishness and privilege of a thru-hike. I dropped everything that I had (which in my case was just a job since I’m young and without many other responsibilities), and went hiking for 5 months. I spent almost all of my savings on the hike, and complete strangers helped along the way. I completely disconnected from the harsh reality of the world around us and blissfully trounced through the wilderness. Most people in the world can’t even begin to think about doing something as “irresponsible” as a thru-hike. So, these things weigh on me sometimes. I know they shouldn’t, but sometimes I find it hard to be really proud of something that literally impacts no one but myself.
I miss my hiker friends and feeling the camaraderie with other PCTers even if we had never met before. Social media and texting is convenient for keeping tabs on each other, but it obviously just isn’t the same as being out on the trail together. There’s a reason we call our hiker friends our “tramily”. There isn’t really a grace period with trail friendships. You quickly see each other’s highs and lows, and like family, we all tend to love each other, forgive the lows, and revel in the highs. And it’s hard to describe the feeling of when you get to see a friend again at a later point on the trail, when you hadn’t seen them for hundreds of miles.
So it’s true what they say: thru-hiking can ruin you. I came back to an identical life as before my thru-hike: same job, house, clothes, car, etc., except I walked over 2,600 miles, and my identical life no longer feels like it did before. I’m not going to pretend that all the internal change was good change: I can feel really isolated at times, my personal grooming could probably use some more attention, and my relationship with food is back to sucking. But, life is what it is, and like a thru-hike, it’s going to require adaptation, and I haven’t quite figured out how to adapt yet.