For the entire length of the PCT my identity as a hiker was absolute. No one cared whether I owned a multi-million dollar business or if I cleaned bathrooms for a living. In fact, it’s almost taboo to ask a hiker what they do in “real life.” The Pacific Crest Trail is the great equalizer. Everyone is a hiker, societal baggage and questions of status are cast aside.
The PCT’s conclusion has therefore been an unsettling experience. Upon reaching the Canadian border, my identity as a thru-hiker came to an abrupt end. Instantaneously, this solid foundation crumbled, and all that remained was a vague notion of who I was prior to the journey. I’ve therefore resolved to pick up the pieces without hesitation. I’m no longer a thru-hiker. Instead of sitting around and reminiscing about the “glory days,” I have to move on. Nonetheless, I am keenly aware that I am starting this new chapter a changed man. I want to consider how this journey has been transformative.
Community is at the heart of my thru-hiking experience. I began this journey alone, expecting to grow through solitude and introspection. I quickly learned that there is no greater joy than to share in an adventure with people who you love. An experience is made more consequential when shared with others. While hiking, there are long stretches when I hike with a partner in silence — a joint meditation in the wild. We might discuss our experiences and reflections at the end of the day. At other times on trail, we would discuss random topics for hours on end. We would hypothesize about how bottling plants get liquids into aluminum cans. We shared how we want our families to conduct our funerals in the event that something were to happen to us. We contemplated whether it was a good thing to force creativity, or whether creativity had to happen organically. We debated whether humility and self-confidence need to be self-contradictory. The conversations flowed like water, without any outcome in mind. I’m not sure what it is about spending extended time in nature, but on the PCT people connected.
This connection was not only true of friends, who have hiked together for hundreds of miles, but also complete strangers. It’s easy to spot a thru-hiker- in fact, someone was able to ID me as a thru-hiker in downtown Portland. The tell-tale signs are: tiny backpack, a pair of trail running shoes, and a big smile. If I was in a restaurant and didn’t know anyone, I would feel comfortable sitting down with other thru-hikers who were complete strangers. Even when surrounded by strangers in a new town, I always felt at home. There was never a sense of alienation. We were all hikers, walking in the same single file line that stretched from Mexico to Canada.
What’s striking about the trail community is that everyone that you come across seems to be a genuinely good person. This is especially true 1,500 miles into the hike. At first, I thought that this was because only quality people could make it that far. But after some thinking, I’ve decided that my explanation needed to be flipped around — the trail itself is what makes the hikers good. On the trail we weren’t exposed to the 24 hour news cycle. We didn’t have a barrage of Facebook updates. I distinctly recall a conversation I had with Sneezle where we thought of different words that hadn’t crossed our minds since we had started atthe Mexican border. The list included: beauty pageants, interest free loans, and the housing bubble. The thru-hiking experience is grounding and my mind on the trail was uncluttered. On trail, there’s no pressure to make a positive impression on other hikers, chances are you won’t cross paths again. As a result, everyone you meet is their authentic self.
The Pacific Crest Trail traverses some of the most stunning views in the world. The High Sierras and Cascade Mountain ranges are so awe invoking, that even secular people feel as if they are in the presence of some force that is greater than themselves. In the Sierras, coming over Forrester Pass and entering Kings Canyon National Park, we witnessed a valley, 3000 feet deep, carved out by glacier. In southern Washington, we watched the sunrise at the top of the Knife’s Edge with Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Rainier jutting out of the horizon. In the North Cascades while night hiking with a new moon, I watched the glow of a million stars overhead. These moments are a holy communion with the natural world.
The trail was also transformative in that it expanded our known realm of experiences. Experiences such as joy, exhaustion, and kindness were pushed to their limits. On the trail, I’ve gone through the highest highs and the lowest lows. The trail is grueling, in total hikers climb 489,000 feet. That’s equivalent hiking up and down Mt. Everest 16 times from sea level. When times were rough, the hiking community came together. The challenges that we overcame created a sense of camaraderie and helped us appreciate the little things in life. A warm meal, a dry shelter, a bath, a day off.
Throughout our hike we were also supported by a community of incredible trail angels. This community stretched the length of the country. I want to acknowledge:
Mike and John: who spontaneously hosted 8 hikers in Idlewild and cooked a gourmet breakfast and dinner for us.
Ziggy and the Bear: who have sheltered thousands of hikers each year at their Hiker Haven.
Matt: who drove me 200 miles to Los Angeles
Michael and Susan Schwartz: who were so generous in housing Team GnarGnar on Memorial Day Weekend at Altadena.
The Andersons: who turned their home into a Hiker Haven, hosting and feeding thousands of hikers each year.
Karrie and Sean: who spontaneously hosted 30 hiker and had an enormous BBQ in Chester, CA
Piper’s Mom: who drove team GnarGnar from Domingo Springs to Chester, CA
Joe and Maggie: who also spontaneously housed and fed the GnarGnars and supported us on our 40 mile slack pack at Etna, Ca
Thai Kozen and the Trout Lake Abbey: who housed and fed the GnarGnars and lead us in a meditation session at Trout Lake, WA.
DayBreaker and Team Love- whose backcountry trail magic lifted our wet spirits in Washington.
Hundo Daily (Brandy Garcia): Who hosted the GnarGnars for 2 days in Seattle, WA
Jerry and Andrea Dinsmore: Whose hiker haven provides a final shelter before hikers make the push to Canada in Skykomish, WA.
Ravensong: who gave me a last minute shelter when I got stranded in Mazama, WA.
These are only the standout trail-angles. There are dozens of other folks who supported us in some way along the trail.
Now I am struggling to figure out what all of this means for me moving forward. As I let go of my identity as LeopardSauce, and re-discover Adam, I wonder how to maintain the best parts of myself. Back in society, it’s so easy to regress into the old modes of life. I hope to be able to maintain my sense of presence, authenticity, and non-judgement. These were qualities that seemed so natural on the trail, and so unnatural in civilization. In addition, I want to be able to mute the static-noise that is so pervasive civilized life. Most of all, I think that in order to remember the best parts of being a thru-hiker, I have to make these hikes a permanent part of my life. The next big hike I want to complete is the Continental Divide Trail. This is a 3,100 mile trail that runs from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide.
Until next time… this is LeopardSauce signing off.