My ten tab Excel workbook and copious amounts of pre-trail internet research on the PCT seem the 2018 equivalent to Cheryl Strayed poring over books and maps in preparation for her 1990’s hike. Strayed is the author of Wild, a popular memoir turned movie starring Reese Witherspoon, which chronicled her Pacific Crest journey. More often than not, when I told someone of my intention to hike, they struck a familiar refrain: “Like Wild.” My reaction, a begrudging, “Yeah, sort of.”
I get it. The story of Strayed looms large in the popular imagination’s knowledge of the PCT. While I will be treading the same dirt path, the differences between our drives, approach and history vary considerably. For one, banish the image of “Monster,” Strayed’s mythical 70 pound backpack. I’ve been backpacking for 5 years and have managed to whittle my load down to a base weight of 13 pounds. Base weight refers to the total weight of carried items, excluding food and water. While my pack doesn’t qualify as “ultra light” (a backpacking ethos I will not delve into- you’re welcome), it is sufficiently light to comfortably carry over the miles, day after day, without sacrificing certain creature comforts (i.e. exfoliating face wipes, camp sandals and a collapsible brush).
In further contrast to Strayed, and a majority of thru hikers (one who completes an entire, long trail with a calendar year), I am not a naive 20-something hiking North from Mexico in the herd of 4,000 or so hikers who attempt the trail each Spring. Instead, I’m a 37 year old mid-career, cubicle refugee headed South. Jason and I will be hiking southbound which, according to the PCTA, accounts for only 10% of annual hikers.
Hiking against the grain has both its pros and cons. Amid the benefits is avoiding the veritable hoard of folks and preserving a true wilderness experience. I have no interest in immersing myself in the party culture and “trail families” that are rumored to exist on the traditional northbound trek. In short, I’m too old and introverted, not my cup of tea. And, unlike Strayed, I don’t see myself as running away from personal tragedy and strife, so much as towards something more, though I don’t yet know what that “more” is.
One of the greatest challenges of tackling the trail from the North, however, is the shorter weather window. In order to make it to Canada from Mexico, hikers have roughly 5 and a half months to beat the onset of snow in the North Cascade Mountains. Taking the reverse course, that timeframe shortens to 4 and a half months. This is due to a delayed start, waiting for the snow laden Cascades to become safely passable in July, while needing to move quickly enough to complete the Sierra Nevada section before winter takes hold at higher elevations. To compound the challenge, Southbounders also begin their hike in the most rugged, challenging terrain, unlike Northbounders who have about 700 miles of relatively innocuous trail to get their “trail legs.”
This was the most motivating factor in my preparations. I was woefully out of shape and everything I read suggested that neither meticulous spreadsheets, carefully planned food Resupply strategies nor carefully selected gear were nearly as important as preparing yourself physically. When Jason and I began discussing the SOBO (PCT Southbound) possibility, I truly doubted my ability to transform myself from a binge-eating, sedentary mope into the strong, resilient athlete I needed to become.
Gratefully, my goal to SOBO was just the push I needed to get my ass in gear. Seemingly overnight, I had sufficient motivation to drag myself to Burn Boot Camp classes everyday after work. Drenched in sweat, huffing and puffing, I often berated myself for getting so out of shape, but I persisted. On weekends, I woke early to hike the mountains of North Carolina with Stuart, he’s a strong little hiker. Sundays, I shopped and prepared nourishing meals for the week.
By May, I had lost 50 pounds and felt strong. And, not surprisingly, the dark cloud had lifted and Charlotte wasn’t such a terrible place to be. By the time I tendered my resignation at work, giving 4 weeks notice, I felt a bit sad and conflicted with my decision. I didn’t question the trail, but my leaving Charlotte. I finally realized I had made a few solid friends, people generous enough to take a day off work to help me move (I’m looking at you, Alison and Ronda) and send me off in style with a sun-soaked afternoon tubing and lounging on Mountain Island Lake (Fred). I saw the life I’d initially hoped to build, one in which I fully took advantage of the state’s natural beauty and had folks I could join for a simple dinner, had begun to take root. I’m grateful I was able to see this connection before I departed on June 15th.
With the legwork complete, there is nothing left to do but loosen my controlling grip over the outcome, hit the trail and test my medal.