What the Pacific Crest Trail is actually like...
My eyes stretch open, the assessment slowly begins. Where am I? Is the sun rising yet? Am I covered in dew? I pull the zipper of my sleeping bag for an extra inch of warmth. The zipper inevitably catches the side of my sleeping bag, it eventually zips. I squint at my wrist, 4 o clock in the morning. I bury my head back into the ground and squeeze out my final ounce of sleep. If you've ever been camping, you know these moments well. Usually this episode occurs a few times during the ungodly hours of the night. I wonder if it will ever stop. I wonder if my body will realize that I've chosen this life for the next 5 months. Time will tell. Once I've gathered the courage, I evade my sleeping bag, and if I'm not Cowboy camping, I evade my tent. Cowboy camping is when you sleep without a tent, just your sleeping bag on the ground with nothing between you and the stars. It's generally preferred, at least in my book it is. Cowboy camping comes with risk. You may wake up soggy and the creatures of the night may scramble among your unsheltered face. I'm usually only worried about being soggy. If it seems dry enough outside, and it's not too cold then it's the obvious choice. Setting up and taking down my tent usually takes 5 minutes or so, but it's the last thing you want to endure at the end of a tiresome day, or at the beginning of a cold morning. I'd rather throw my bag down, crawl in, crawl out, stuff it in my pack and be on my way. The risk is worth it, I didn't decide to hike 2600 miles to avoid taking risks...
The sun is smoothly moving past the horizon. First priority is breakfast. If you're stoked on what you have for breakfast, you wake up compelled. For me, I heat some water, break up two pop tarts (which are usually already pounded to crumbs from my pack) into a bowl, dab a layer of almond butter on top, and dump a bag of oatmeal into the mix. Once I add the boiling water, everything blends into a warm soup akin to cinnamon roll flavored cookie dough. You're welcome. We jam everything into our packs and take off. During first 10 minutes of hiking my body complains. My feet feel like one massive swollen bruise. My back is knotted, my pack feels heavier than the day before. My hip belt barely fits over my stomach. After a few miles my body adjusts. I soak my face in sunscreen, eventually my sweat swallows it up. I'm hoping my skin just gets accustomed to the sun, that theory isn't checking out so far. We hike about 10 miles or so before lunch, sometimes passing no one, other times crossing paths with our fellow hikers. Usually lunch happens at a water spot. Being in the desert, every section of hiking revolves around water. Sometimes it's 20-30 miles between water sources. Which means you have to carry extra water. Extra water is extra weight. Extra weight is the enemy of a Thru-hiker. A common topic of conversation between hikers. At lunch, it's typical to eat with fellow hikers from our bubble where we compare wake up times and miles hiked for the day. We dream of better food and interrogate one another about how to make the best possible meal.
The people we have met on The Pacific Crest trail are made up of mostly males in their mid-twenties, but there are a fair amount of women though. Everyone's story includes the usual suspects: "I quit my job", "I'm trying to figure stuff out", "now was the perfect time to do it" or "I literally had nothing else to do". Some went to college, some didn't. Everyone is relatively inexperienced with thru-hiking. In the beginning we met people who seemed to have avoided doing any research before starting, but we haven't seen them since, and probably won't. On the other end of the spectrum, we've met people who have previously hiked the Appalachain Trail. Everyone generally looks up to them and asks more questions than they probably want to hear. I'd say we are somewhere in the middle, among our peers, we have a pretty good shot. Apparently the success rate of completing the whole trail is 15-20%. This begs the question. Will we make it? Each hiker deals with this. Especially in the beginning, we all want to know if we're going to make it. So many people drop out, in the beginning but also in the middle. Apparently the highest drop out point is after the Sierra, which means you've already completed a few months on the trail. Most people drop out because hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is more difficult than you imagine. It is difficult in ways you can't possibly expect or prepare for, it's not just sore legs and sunburns, it requires the endurance of your soul. Life on the trail initially seems easier than life back at home but that's definitely not the case. Multiple reasons come to mind, but The most prominent is the inability to avoid your deepest thoughts and emotions. They come to you on the trail when everything is silent. There's no escape, there's no distractions. They must be reconciled. You have no choice but to take full responsibility of keeping yourself alive with no help from the world. To top it off, you get to drag yourself up over mountains and across deserts, hundreds of times. It's not really reminiscent of that weekend backpacking trip that gave you warm feelings of peace and comfort and escape. I think this comes as a wake up call to many of us out here. We try to distract ourselves when we aren't alone. Conversations on the trail often revolve around gear, pack weight, water weight, start dates, miles completed per day, etc. It makes us feel productive. If we aren't talking about the trail, we are talking about our past lives, telling random stories, or goofing off. We are all unified by the trail. It was mentioned that everyone here is the one person out of their friend group from back home who was crazy enough to come do this. We're all THAT person. That alone is a reason to be friends. We've made plenty but will soon be leaving them. We have a bachelor party to attend to this weekend that will take us off trail for a few days. Unless we hike insane miles and our friends slow down, we may not catch up to them again. We will be in a new bubble with new people. I'm sure this will seem petty after 5 months on the trail and after all the people we meet. This group feels close because they are all we know thus far.
The culture of the trail is starting to come to life. Not only do all of the hikers look out for one another, these mountain towns take care of us. They are called Trail Angels. Trail Angels expel trail magic. For example, they will put water in spots where there is no spring or running water, just to help us out, and it's no easy task to haul gallons of water into the middle of nowhere. If you're lucky, there may even be more than water, like a random cooler of soda or snacks (see below). Trail Angels do more than just this, they often give hikers rides to the nearest towns and even host them at their houses. The towns we've gone through have been small but overly welcoming to hikers. Most places have a hiker discount and the store workers are always interested in hearing stories from the trail. Everyone is your friend. A stark difference from San Francisco.
Everyone is on the trail because their previous situation wasn't quite what they had hoped for. Unsure of what's ahead, and often without hope. The light that was once in our eyes as we entered adulthood has gone from a shine to a dim. It's interesting to me that we've all chosen the Pacific Crest Trail as the path out of our old situations and into a new life. A new life not only because our situations will change, but because we ourselves will change. Sure the opportunities will be different after the Pacific Crest Trail, we may get new ideas of which direction to take or maybe someone we meet will help us out. We have all recognized deep down that the situations could be spun a thousand different ways and that they'd still somehow be lacking, we are personally the root of our situation, whether we acknowledge it or not, it's the truth. The trail will inevitably change us, it's hopeful. I hope to lose my habitual tendencies such as a grabbing my phone every 5 minutes or constantly finding a distraction for my mind to focus on. These have already started to change. To spend hours focusing on a single train of thought seems like a lost art but comes naturally on the trail. To treat strangers the way that Trail Angels treat hikers. It's tough to put some of these thoughts and feelings into words, I'm sure it will seem simple in retrospect. I can't possibly imagine everything I'll learn and be impacted by. For now the light in my eyes is brightened by the burning of the sun as it rises and sets, by the burning of my legs from the thousand hills ahead and from the campfires that burn our cold faces warm.
Some other general updates:
We have hiked over 150 miles total and stopped in a few trail towns. We have done plenty of hitchhiking and a tad bit of partying. Hikers love to party but we still go to bed at like 10pm and wake up at 5:30. The energy here is awesome, I don't know if it's because we're outside all day but I'm sure that has something to do with it. We haven't had any near death experiences but we did see a tarantula the other day. I don't miss life in the real world yet so that's a good sign.
Thanks for sticking around, more stories to come !