Yes, I’ve seen the movie (I get asked that question about 75 percent of the time a friend finds out I’m hiking the PCT). And there’s no question Cheryl Strayed’s story is responsible for the trail’s recent surge in popularity. But for me, the PCT itch started in a cramped, smelly dining hall in Yosemite National Park.
My hiking buddy/co-worker Matt Vasilogambros and I had just spent a week hiking the backcountry of Yosemite in the summer of 2015. It was our first exposure to the Sierra Nevada range, and we were absolutely stunned by the landscapes around us. Our weekend hikes in the soft-sloped, tree-covered mountains on the East Coast paled in comparison to the towering granite, snow-capped peaks and alpine lakes we saw in every direction. We bought a book of John Muir short stories and read them around the campfire, picturing ourselves along on his adventures.
On our way out of the park, we stopped for breakfast at Tuolomne Meadows Lodge, a small, spare wood-frame building with canvas walls. We were seated alongside two older gentlemen who smelled even worse than us and were sporting a couple weeks of untrimmed stubble. They told us they had been hiking the John Muir Trail, a 210-mile trail that mostly follows the same path as a segment of the PCT. The pair were section hikers, meaning they were only completing a portion of the trail on this trip. Each year, they would return to check off a new section, eventually setting foot on the entirety of the trail. The old buddies had long since moved across the country from one another, they explained, but each year the JMT brought them back together.
After leaving breakfast and heading back to the car, Matt and I had roughly the same thought: “Let’s be those dudes when we’re old.”
For a while, that was about the extent of our JMT/PCT ambition: a hazy wouldn’t that be cool one day. Then, a little more than a year ago, we had a massive shake-up at work. It’s probably not wise to delve into the details, but suffice it to say a thru-hike became both much more appealing and much more financially attainable.
In February of 2016, I emailed Matt a video of the JMT; he sent back one of the PCT. “Can we actually do this one day?” he said. Joking, still thinking of the trail (and a certain election outcome) as far-fetched, I responded: “The day Donald Trump is sworn in, we're going to quit our jobs and go hike it.”
Well, here we are.
Over the past year-plus, our excitement about the trail grew steadily as it inched from a reconsidered dream to near-reality. Month by month, we started to think: “What if this is the only window in our lives we get to do something like this?” As we slowly let our inner circle in on our plans, we were met with a consistent answer of “you guys have to go for this.” Our parents — after some understandable hesitation — seem to be nearly as excited about our hike as we are. Even our bosses offered a mix of support and jealousy.
So, that explains how this all came to be. Why I’m doing it is perhaps not as easy to pin down.
I’m not hiking the PCT in search of a life-changing experience, although all the thru-hikers I’ve talked to say you finish a different person than the one who started (read Allie “Knock” Ghaman’s beautiful, introspective Appalachian Trail story in the Washington Post). I’m not doing it to escape from politics or technology or civilization, although I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about six months away from Twitter (the trail probably won’t hurt my Instagram following, though). And I have no illusions that the trail will simply be a series of beautiful views and fulfilling experiences. There will be lots and lots of misery — desert heat, mosquitoes, rain storms, frigid nights, aches, pains, blisters and worst of all, the dreaded, near-record snowpack in the Sierras.
I guess I’m hiking the trail because I love backpacking and the outdoors, and this seems like a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get my fill of both. It will be a heck of a story to tell my grandkids, and those miserable times will be the most compelling parts of the tale.
The challenge of it adds to the appeal. Not just for bragging rights, but for the sense of fulfillment that comes with testing yourself, pushing yourself and — pass or fail — coming away better for the experience. Five years ago, I showed up in D.C. with two suitcases and an $8.50 an hour internship. It was like getting thrown into the deep end, and I’m proud of the way I built my career out of that tenuous start.
The PCT will be a different kind of deep end, and not only because of its challenges. I’ll be getting thrown into a world of “hikertrash,” “angels” and “magic” — a place full of the best weirdos you could ever hope to meet. I’m excited to join this community, to learn the customs of the trail and emerge a veteran hiker, a member of the tribe.
Of course, I could sprain my ankle a week in and end my much-hyped trip before it really gets going. I could make it a few hundred miles and decide I never want to sleep in a tent again. I could hit the Sierras and find this year’s snowpack is simply impassable (these scenarios are much more tame and realistic than the bear/rattlesnake/ax murderer situations my friends and family seem to be imagining). Maybe I’ll come back and read this blog and laugh at the naive fool who wrote it.
But for now, not knowing how this will end (and deeply hopeful I get to the finish), I’m content in at least knowing I’m making an attempt. It’s possible I will regret quitting my job, saying goodbye to my friends and the place I’d called home for five years, all to try to hike 2,660 miles. But it’s a certainty that I would regret never having tried.