Planning for the PCT, or, Unknown Unknowns

The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” – Virginia Woolf

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Photo by flickr user David~O

Part of preparing for a six-month long-distance hike is clear necessity. What will I eat? What will I wear? Where will I sleep? There’s no way to strike out into the wilderness without planning for the rudimentary basics of survival.

Another huge part of planning, though, is just mitigating anxiety about things I don’t know, and the things I don’t know I don’t know. There’s so, so much that’s impossible to anticipate. Weather, sure. But also: how much will my feet swell after walking fifteen to twenty miles every day? How quickly? Will the shirt I’ve picked out for sleeping be too warm? Too cold? What does hiker hunger really feel like? Am I really going to reconcile myself with being that filthy? Am I really doing enough at the gym right now to get into shape for this? (Almost certainly not, but every bit helps, right?)

And then there are the slightly more daunting questions. I’ve been working all of my adult life, so what will it feel like to be functionally unemployed for six months? (I work for an amazing company and I’m extremely lucky, so I’m one of the few hikers who knows they’re coming back to a steady job. I can’t overstate how fortunate this is.) What form will my introversion take, on the trail? Will I totally get lost in my own head, or will talking to Trail Angels and hitching rides into town shape how I interact with people? (Probably both, frankly.) Am I going to fall off of a mountain and die? 

Throwing myself into planning- obsessing over gear and scheduling resupply points and reading every post on every PCT Facebook page I follow- is a way of not thinking too hard about those questions. It’s also a way of trying to build a system, a net, that I hope will catch me when I fall as the result of any of these unforeseeable mistakes or circumstances.

On our week-long hikes, Tim and I have developed little routines that help smooth out the tricky parts. We’ve got systems for setting up camp in the evening, for refilling water, for making meals. Once we’ve been on the trail for two weeks, or two months, we can trust that these routines will be even further refined. Those routines are the anchors on which we can hang our lives, when every other aspect is totally unpredictable.

I’m also trying to learn, for myself, the benefits of embracing unknowns. In the quote above, Virginia Woolf embraces the uncertainty of the future- darkness, the unknowable, is the best thing the future can be, she says. Then adds “I think”, because even being certain about your feelings on uncertainty is too much to commit to. My life, right now, is comfortable. I’ve gotten just about every lucky break a person could get. I’m also fairly risk-averse and hate to give up control. Right now, planning for the hike feels like a flurry of preparation and organizing, but as April 15th approaches, we’re going to have to grapple more and more with accepting the things that are out of our control. Right now, this feels like nearly as big a challenge as the hike itself. I’m looking forward to it. Dark is the best thing the future can be. I think.

 

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