We decided to record some thoughts and expectations of our experience before we set out, as a reference point while on trail and after. We both answered the same set of five questions. Tim’s answers are here.
1. What made you decide to thru-hike the PCT?
The earliest conversations Tim and I had about thru-hiking revolved around the Appalachian Trail. We’d done a couple sections, and Tim was itching for a real long-distance adventure. I had less hiking experience under my belt, however, and was much more ambivalent about the idea. Then, in 2014, we did an overnight hike in the Desolation Wilderness section of the Sierra Nevada. The scenery and scale of the geography had me yelling cusses at Tim in astonishment.
Lake Aloha, 2014. Or, as I said at the time, “Shiiiiiit, look Tim!”
It was after this trip that I decided I was game for a thru-hike, but that I was tired of the “green tunnel” of the East Coast trails, and the geographic variety of the Pacific Crest Trail was more exciting to me. We knew we’d need time to save money and sort out the details of our lives before taking on such a challenge, so we chose 2017 as being sufficiently distant. Of course, now we’re 45 days out and counting.
2. What will you feel if you finish the trail?
I’ve always struggled horribly with finishing things, so I really look forward to the enforced structure of a thru-hike. In some ways a thru-hike is a vacation, just heading out into the woods to walk and enjoy the scenery, but stripping away every luxury of the modern world also turns survival into a job that has to be taken seriously.
These are guesses, of course, but I think I’ll feel physically and mentally stronger, more disciplined, more self-assured. So often my body is just a flesh vessel that carries my brain around, so I’m looking forward to turning it into a tool, an efficient machine powered by instant potatoes and peanut butter M&Ms, that travels under its own power all the way from Mexico to Canada. I will feel confident in my right to take up space and make noise and get weird.
3. What will you feel if you don’t finish the trail?
I’d like to be able to say that I’d be satisfied with just getting as far as possible, and if some unforeseen circumstance takes us off trail I’ll still be proud of what we’ve accomplished. I wouldn’t sneeze at anyone’s attempt of a thru-hike, whether they finish it or not. For me, though, frankly, I’m a control freak and a perfectionist and I have my heart set on making it all the way to Manning Park. If I don’t finish it, I’ll feel disappointed in myself, and I’m sure that I’ll be adding it to that list in the back of my mind of projects started but never finished.
I suppose it depends on under what circumstances we had to stop our hike, but I know I’d also feel like I’d let Tim down. It’s been a dream of his for longer than it has for me, and it’s important to me that I be a strong, capable hiking partner.
This is all probably much harder on myself than is necessary!
4. What is your biggest fear, and how are you coping with it?
I have some typical trail fears, like bad weather, injury, and angry marmots, but my biggest fear is that I’ll be miserable.
That probably sounds worse than it is! The thing about backpacking is that it’s “type two fun”. It’s horrible and grueling while you do it, but exhilarating and fantastic in retrospect. I have a tendency to get locked into negative thought spirals while hiking, fixating on a pain in my foot or feeling tired and sweaty and mad, and wondering if I’m spending too much time looking forward to the burger and beer at the end of the hike instead of focusing on the activity at hand.
As I’ve gained more experience backpacking (and gotten into somewhat better shape), I have gotten somewhat better at shaking myself out of this mental loop. I have to remind myself that these discomforts are temporary, and that burger and beer will be so much sweeter for having earned it. I want to focus on this incredibly unique experience without being distracted by minor discomforts that will be forgotten in a few days anyway. The parts of hiking that can feel like grinding repetition evaporate quickly in memory, and the distilled experience is a combination of beautiful scenery, inside jokes, and a satisfied exhaustion.
I want to keep in mind something Haruki Murakami wrote in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.
I want to remember that I really can keep standing up, and putting one foot ahead of the other.
5. What are you most looking forward to?
So many things! I can’t wait to explore the scenery of the west coast, and I’m looking forward to the physical challenges of hiking, and learning about myself and the world and what I’m capable of.
I’m especially looking forward to stopping in trail towns and exploring the ad hoc communities that spring up on and around the trail. I want to see what small, rural towns are like on the west coast, and how they’re different from small towns out here on the east coast. I can’t wait to meet trail angels, those wonderful strangers who spend a good chunk of their year feeding and shuttling and housing hundreds of smelly pilgrims from the trail. The trail becomes its own structured society, with its own rules and expectations, and I’m sure the nature of that society changes each year, with each new group of hikers. I really look forward to exploring and discovering that society.
If I can be absolutely corny for a moment, I’m also looking forward to spending so much time with Tim. We’ve been married seven and a half years now, and have done tons of hiking and other traveling together, but we’ve never spent anywhere close to this kind of uninterrupted time together. We’ll surely get on each other’s nerves at some point, but we’re good at communicating and have contingencies for giving one another space if we need it. Tim’s supportive and trustworthy and I’m so excited for us to be hikin’ pals. I can’t wait to see what what little rituals we build, what new trust develops, and what truly horrendous jokes come out of this experience together.