Several days ago I was clicking through some photographs from earlier this year on my computer, and was struck by their strangeness. That girl in the pictures–standing next to my sister on the Oregon coast in May or backpacking with friends in the Alpine Lakes in June–she’s not me anymore.
Sure, our lives are always in flux. Our opinions and behaviors and speech and beliefs altering ever so slightly over the course of a year or a decade or a job or relationship. But I’ve never felt so completely removed from a life and a way of being as I have over the last six months.
I can’t say with any specificity what, exactly, brought this about. A handful of new, sometimes exciting, but often less so, new experiences perhaps. I think, though, that I can attribute a lot of this (most of it?) to the trail. Though I have yet to set out from the Mexican border, the PCT has become an intricate part of my daily life: I live frugally in order to put away a hundred here, a dime there for the five months away from civilization. I think about who I might meet or the days I won’t see anyone at all; about the nights under the stars or the deluge of rain or snow; about the days I accidentally stray off-trail and lose my way in the wilderness. I think about which items to include in my first aid kit as I push through another day of work, counting down the days till I can leave my job.
When I first contemplated thru-hiking the PCT, I was scared shitless. As writing helps me think things through, I made a list of my fears–the things I knew I must conquer before the trail, and the fears I’ll just have to face as they present themselves.
In confronting these things that frighten me, I’ve had to step intentionally out of my comfort zone. While, admittedly, some were abated with simple research, others murmur more insidiously in the lower recesses of my thoughts, simmering slowly and compounding other anxieties…. most specifically, going alone.
I’ve never shirked from doing things by myself. I’m not shy by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a strong streak of introversion and independence, and perhaps selfishly, I like to do things at my own pace.
However, enjoying my own company on a day-to-day basis is a far cry from committing to a five month solo journey through the wilderness. Although I won’t always be alone on the PCT, I’m learning to rely on my own intuition and my own resourcefulness, and I’ve overcome, I think, a lot of those fears I had at the outset. Or at least I’m able to face them with reason instead of blindness.
It is for this reason I’ve decided not to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. You’ve probably heard of it. Woman going through a divorce and overcoming a heroin addiction hikes 1,000 miles of the PCT. A film version of the memoir staring Reese Witherspoon just hit theaters last weekend, and there’s talk of an Oscar already. When I tell people about my plans to hike the PCT I’m almost inevitably asked if I’ve read Wild. “I haven’t,” I respond, “I hadn’t even heard of it till several months ago.” “Well, you should definitely read it,” they usually say.
But for the same reasons that most people want to read the book, I don’t. I don’t need to live vicariously through Strayed’s experience. I don’t want to read about her self-discoveries or her struggles… not yet at least. I want to have my own experience, undiluted by the musings of another. I want to make my own mistakes and have my own triumphs, and maybe I’ll come to some of the same conclusions she did. But whatever they are, they’ll be mine.
As a side note, Strayed has faced a lot of derision from hikers and backpackers for various reasons, and though some are unfounded and somewhat cruel, others bring up more serious concerns. Most notably, she failed to comply with some backcountry ethics, she began her journey without any idea what she was doing and made some foolish and life-threatening decisions as a result. With the book and ensuing film’s popularity, seasoned backpackers worry the trail will be busy with inexperienced and inept hikers unready for the challenges of the trail. Be careful out there.