Frequently Asked Questions

Without really intending to do so, I’ve developed a trail spiel. A why-I-am-doing-this soliloquy.

I recently returned to the Pacific Northwest from a week visiting family in West Michigan. Over the countless cups of coffee, lunches, beers, and evening holiday parties with old friends and extended family members absent from my daily life back in Seattle, I honed my answers to the same Trail Questions they posed, each thinking his query unique and untested “But have you thought about–?!” Yes, I have. I’ve spent the last six months thoroughly researching the trail’s sections, trying out gear, and testing myself in the woods. I’m not a complete idiot.

Here are the FAQ from friends/family/strangers/coworkers:

THE LEGITIMATE QUESTIONS:

Pacific_crest_trail_route_overviewWhere does the trail start/end and how long is it? The trail’s southern terminus is in Campo, CA on the border with Mexico, and northern terminus in a provincial park in British Columbia called Manning Park. The trail is 2,660 miles long, but the distance actually hiked fluctuates depending on where you might hike into a town, trail detours due to flooding or fires, getting lost, or skipping sections. Check out this map for a better idea.

What are you going to eat? Food. And a lot of it. Thru-hiking the PCT is actually an exercise in self-starvation, as it is incredibly difficult to keep up intake with expended calories. I’ll mail myself (or rather have my lovely friends LeeAnne & Nolan mail me) pre-packed boxes of trail mixes, peanut butter, dehydrated soups and stirfries, and plenty of Oreos. No, I won’t be hunting (or fishing) for any of my sustenance. I won’t walk away from a ripened raspberry bush, but I’m not actively foraging for my meals. Otherwise, I’ll purchase food as I go… hitchhiking to nearby cities, or patronizing ones in the towns along the trail.

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showing my uncanny solo-pioneer-explorer pose, ala lewis & clark.

How long is it going to take you/how far are you going to hike each day? Short answer, about five months. Long answer, the PCT is different from the Appalachian Trail in that there is a specific hiking season. Section-hiking the trail or traveling southbound (SOBO) bring up different issues, but as a northbound (NOBO) hiker, I must leave in April to beat the high temperatures in the Mojave, should enter the High Sierras no earlier than June 15 to give the snow enough time to melt a bit, and should reach the Northern Cascades in Washington in late August/early September to beat the autumn snowfall. As for distance–in order to hit these approximate dates, I’ll be hiking anywhere between 20-30 miles/day. Sometimes I’ll do ten. Sometimes I’ll take a zero (a day off). Sometimes I’ll go 35. Sometimes I’ll go eight miles through the snow and it’ll feel like 28. It’s hard to say from my living room couch.

Who are you going with? No one! Going solo.

Do you have all of your gear? I sure hope so! There are a couple big things I need yet (lightweight thermarest, sun umbrella for the desert [I’m not so good with the overheating], pack rain cover, and sundry apparel). In actuality, I likely have more gear than I’ll need. I’d like to keep my base weight (pack weight minus consumables) under 20lb, and will probably ditch the items I realize I don’t really need in the first couple weeks.

What’s next? I have no idea… and that’s probably my biggest anxiety–yes, more than the bears and the cougars and the rattlesnakes. I’ll be broke and homeless and unemployed. Can I camp in your backyard?

THE STUPID QUESTIONS: (and yes, there are stupid questions).

You shouldn’t go alone. Is this a question?

Are you going to carry a gun? Wait, what? I couldn’t tell you the difference between a revolver and rifle, much less fire one accurately. Also, have you ever shot–or even just picked up–a gun?! Those things weigh at least… well, a lot. Ain’t no way I’m carrying that.

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bear! spotted in the Enchantments last summer.

But what about safety? Probably a more apt question for you, oh city dweller. You’re in more danger from motor vehicles and teenage girls on their smartphones running into you on the sidewalk. I like to think I have a good head on my shoulders. I use, you know, reason and logic, and I generally trust my intuition about people. What about maceWhat about mace? It’s not worth the weight, and I’d probably just end up stuffing it in my pack where it’d be useless against whatever/whomever you’re imagining attacking me. And bears?! Yes! Bears! They eat berries and fish, and sometimes humans. What’s the question?

Have you head of… Wild? Yes. Please see my post about this. A Walk in the Woods? Yes. Different trail.

My cousin biked from New York to LA once. You should talk to her! Right. Ok. Thanks.

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Fears & Changes & Wild

I’ve changed.

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.

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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.

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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.

wild_posterBut 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.

Committed.

After a surprisingly fruitful telephone conversation with a Delta Airlines representative this morning, I purchased a plane ticket. Well, two plane tickets, really.

Since June, I’ve put a lot of trail planning at the end of a long list of other issues, daily responsibilities, and thoughts in need of attention. I bought most of the gear I’ll need (or think I’ll need, I should say), did some cursory research, and spent the rest of my weekends scaling peaks of the Central Cascades for more experience, leaving the specifics for later.

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Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, WA

Last week my plans were hurried along by Jess, a friend and fellow outdoor enthusiast. She plans to visit her folks in central Arizona next March, and invited me to join her for a backpacking trip along a 50 mile portion of the Arizona Trail (another National Scenic Trail that zigzags through the desert from Mexico to Utah).

I had a vague strategy to leave for the trail mid-April, but hadn’t put much thought into precise dates. Previous thru-hikers generally recommend starting at some point in April, depending on that year’s snow fall and your own hiking speed. With my lack of planning thrown into sharp relief, I had to actually make a choice. The first concrete I’m-actually-going-to-do-this decision.

Of course I’m going to go to Arizona. How could I pass that up? I spent a couple months in southeast Utah last year and was completely captivated by the natural rock sculptures, the crackly dry trails, and the wildlife that was so alien to me.

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Along Potash Road; Moab, UT

So this morning I walked up to Herkimer Roasters near my house and got a giant cup of coffee, and traipsed back home through the cold to start planning. Really planning.

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Drafting table.

After a good hour perusing various airline websites, staring at maps of Arizona & California, sipping at my coffee, and vacillating over different travel routes, I pulled out my credit card and entered the information.

No longer tentative, I’ll be quitting my job, leaving my apartment, and finding the garage or basement of a kindly friend to store a couple boxes at the end of March and flying to Phoenix on the 27th.

Timing on the Pacific Crest Trail is a little more finicky than the Appalachian. Hikers suggest starting out in April to beat the triple digit temperatures of Southern California’s desert summers… but also recommend not pushing past Kennedy Meadows, CA before June 15. Here, the PCT rises from the desert into the Sierra Nevada. If I leave too early, I’ll get caught in the deep snowpack of the High Sierra… but if I leave too late, I’ll face the autumn snow storms in Washington when I reach the Northern Cascades.

Leaving April 5th after my hike in Arizona is still a little early to start the trail, so I’ve decided to fly into Oakland, CA. I’ve only spent several days in the Bay Area and felt like it wasn’t nearly enough. I’ll do some couch surfing, stay in a hostel or two, rent a car and check out the famed Highway 1 along the coast before meandering down the San Diego via Amtrak or the Greyhound, and eventually Campo to start my hike, closer to the middle of the month.

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Exciting. Frightening. Foolish, maybe. Adventurous.

No backing out now.

But I would walk 500 miles (la da dat da!)

One of the questions I get most often concerns how I’m preparing physically. I think most folks expect to hear that I’m running marathons (I’m not), or mountaineering (yikes!), or bench pressing my grandmother (sorry grandma). And although I try to exercise most days of the week, it’s not as intensive a process as most seem to think.

Grandma, pictured with a 4th of July pie, happily un-bench pressed.

Grandma, pictured with a 4th of July pie, happily un-bench pressed.

I like to jog through my Seattle neighborhood, usually between three and six miles, and not very fast. Sometimes I hop on my bicycle or visit the dingy local YMCA during the rainy season, but I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, think of myself as an athlete.

do focus a lot on hills. Running up them. Walking up them when I get sick of running. Or really going anywhere by foot in Seattle, which is a city of San Fransico-worthy inclines. Running down hills (just as important). Or skipping the hills altogether in favor of the myriad public stairs carved straight up the steepest ridges in the city.

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E. Roy Street on Capitol Hill in Seattle (not my picture).

It helps that I’m accustomed to long hours on my feet, between work and my commute. I know to get extra large shoes (1.5 – 2 sizes larger than usual to accommodate swelling feet. Weird. I know), and how to use trekking poles (another name for fancy walking sticks–you think they’re dorky, I think they’re incredibly practical), and how to land on my feet to minimize impact.

I also plan on being that strange lady who walks around urban areas with a full pack and a GPS as I get closer to my departure date.

Backpacking is, I think, less a physical exercise than a mental, especially when it comes to steep climbs & long distances. Hiking 20+ miles a day doesn’t intimidate me. I can already do that. (And likely, so can you).

On the PCT in the Goat Rocks Wilderness in the southern Cascades. My first solo backpacking trip.

On the PCT in the Goat Rocks Wilderness in the Southern Cascades. My first solo backpacking trip.

A drive through the mountains is full of cheap views. They can be astonishing and breathtaking, but they cost no more than an afternoon and a half tank of gas.

I like to walk. I like knowing that I can trust in my own human strength and resourcefulness.

Setting out for several days or weeks with a pack on your shoulders, finding purchase on the slippery stones leading around a basin, struggling with your tent or your stove or the incessant rain, accidentally straying from the marked path–these are the things that add value to a landscape. The best vistas are the ones that require a little extra sweat, a dedicated step, and maybe even a little fear.

Colchuck Lake from Asgard Pass in the Central Cascades... a 2200' gain over one mile.

Colchuck Lake from Asgard Pass in the Central Cascades… a 2200′ gain over one mile.