Tag Archive: PCT


Pacific Crest Trail: the aftermath

I figured I should probably post this update before the year ends. The 9-month gap between posts is strange enough as it is – no reason to stretch it across 2 years. All is well, and I finished the PCT in one piece. I had to skip a section in Oregon because of wildfire closures, but I’ll come back and finish it at some point in the future.

The whole experience was… strange. And beautiful. And a little dangerous. Sometimes, the trail would try to kill you, but it was so beautiful that you’d forgive it soon after. That’s how relationships work, right? Right?

I walked mostly alone. At one point, I walked through the snowy Sierra mountains for 3 days without meeting a single person. Turns out, dozens of other hikers were deliberately staying 1 day behind me because they wanted to get to the nearby campground resort on the opening night. I had no idea about any of that, so I just kept on walking and wondering what the hell happened to everyone else. Heh.

There were a couple of scary moments… The time I started sliding off a mountain and had to use my ice axe to self-arrest. The time at the notorious mile 169.5 (a hiker died there last year) where I had to make One Perfect Step on an incredibly narrow and ice-covered mountain path. Even with my microspikes and ice axe, that part was sketchy. There was the time I underestimated the strength of the stream current and got knocked over. It wasn’t very deep, but it was ice-cold, and my phone was never the same afterwards. (I walked with just my compass and a backup paper map for the rest of the day. Good times.)

But there was also so, sooo much beauty… I never did see the Milky Way in all its shiny glory, but I’m pretty sure I saw its pale outlines, and that’s good enough. I adopted the routine of waking up at 3:30am (and getting up at 4am, and walking by 5:30am) – I cowboy-camped as much as possible, and seeing all those beautiful bright stars against the black velvet of the sky… It was amazing, each and every time. There were also the giant wind turbine fields of Tehachapi, and miles and miles of ridiculously bright wildflowers, and far too many encounters with wild critters. Shameless deer who would steal anything you put down, and shy and timid young deer, and fluffy marmots, and a blue-hour cougar near the Vasquez National Park, and incredibly lazy birds that might have been related to the dodo… Also, a couple of bear encounters: one of them ate my entire food bag at a certain campsite which will remain nameless. (Mostly because we made a deal: I don’t mention them online, and they pay me back for my lost food, since they’d had zero warning signs or bear boxes.)

I got a trail name, too – about a week in. It was “The Godfather.” I recited the name’s origin story hundreds of times, and it pains me to type it up here yet again, but what the hell: my buddy and I set up camp next to 2 girls who were hiking toward Mexico. We started talking, and the girls started describing their life after college – all the towns where they’ve lived and worked since then. Well, it turned out I lived and worked in all of those towns, or I had family there. We were up to 6 or 7 towns, and it was getting funny, and ridiculous, and a little weird. Finally, one of the girls snapped: “Are you in the mafia?!” My buddy replied with, “Nah, he’s the Godfather!” And then we laughed and laughed and laughed – and I think that girl got better. Heh. Other trail names (off the top of my head) included Oracle, Turtle, Chef, Alaska, Basecamp, Yeti Legs, Socrates, Forklift, No Brakes, Star Camel, etc. Also, if you’re reading this in preparation for your own PCT thru-hike, keep in mind that there are tons of hikers who end up sharing the same trail name. If someone gives you a simple noun like Chef or Turtle (or, gods forbid, names you after a state), make sure to add a cool adjective to it. (See, for example, Rocket Llama from 2013.)

The nature was beautiful. So beautiful… Even the Sierra section, which I ended up hating due to lack of bridges and/or guideposts at the mountain passes, was gorgeous in its own way. I ended up hiking up Mount Whitney (the highest mountain in the lower 48), and that was the most physically challenging experience of my entire life. Toward the end, I had to take breaks every 3 minutes or so. It was worth it, though. So very, very worth it.

Toward the end of the Sierra, at Kennedy Meadows North, I had a bit of a health scare: I thought I sprained my ankle (it got cartoonishly huge), but as it later turned out, that was just plain old hiker inflammation. I’d switched my wool socks for synthetic ones a few weeks earlier, and since my feet had swollen from size 13 to size 16, those synthetic socks bit into the skin and started acting as compression socks. No bueno, eh. I ended up taking 2 weeks off and chilling with my family in Seattle – and that made for a strange intermission that split my trail into the “before” and “after” parts. The same thing happened again in Ashland, but by then I (finally) figured out what was happening, and managed to stabilize my ankle in just 4 days.

It was odd to walk the (almost) entirety of the PCT without any rain… My hike lasted from April 3-September 1, and there were only 2 days with rain – and even then, that was just a drizzle. There were pretty long stretches in NorCal, during a heatwave, where I was chugging my electrolyte water like some land-dwelling fish. I think there were some days where I drank almost 7 liters… (That’s particularly awful since you have to filter all of your own water, and that can take a while.)

I didn’t get to Oregon fast enough to avoid wildfires… There were a total of 3 closures in Oregon, and hundreds of hikers ended up forming a gigantic hiker bubble as we all hitchhiked (or got shuttled) to the next part of the trail. And then, at the very end… I was concerned about new wildfires popping up, so I picked up my pace. Normally, I walked 25-30 miles per day. (Take that, marathon runners!) By the end, I was doing 37 miles per day, walking from 5:30am until the true dark at 8pm. I never moved fast (~2.5-3 mph) but when you walk almost 15 hours a day, that adds up. In the end, that made all the difference.

I was one of the last hikers to touch the Northern Terminus on the Canadian border. I did that around 6pm on September 1. The following day, at 2pm, the Forest Service rangers closed off the last 30 miles of the trail due to 3 separate wildfires that started to spread in that area. (Walking back from the border, there was a section where flakes of ash drifted on the wind… It made for a lot of coughing.) When I made it back to the tiny ranger station 30 miles south of the border, the mood was mighty mixed. There was confusion, there was anger (a lot of hikers were from overseas, and had put a lot on the line to get there), there was free food provided by the amazing trail angel volunteers.

That night, after I caught a ride to the nearest hostel, the mood there was mixed, and more than a little toxic. There were no celebrations, no singing, no fanfares: some of us had walked to the finish line, while others got screwed by fate and blind chance. That was a very strange experience, but maybe that’s just life. There are no perfect happy stories – everything is ambiguous and at least a little bit morally grey. For every 10 selfless trail angels who give you a ride and go out of their way to help you, there’s a store owner in a tiny town, shamelessly robbing you with inflated food prices. (There usually aren’t any price tags.) For every amazing hostel, there is a campground where a power-tripping owner threatens to call the police on an RV resident who throws a free BBQ in our honour. (Rot in hell, Acton KOA’s owner.) It was a mixed bag. Mostly amazing and beautiful, but mixed.

Fun sidenote: I’ve just checked that campground’s reviews. One of the reviews, dated June (a month after my bad experience there), states there are too many homeless people. Heh – I guess they never bothered to ask, or they would’ve learned those were all PCT hikers.

On the definite plus side, I went wayyyy outside my comfort zone with all the hitchhiking I did, and I got to experience the greatest form of travel (in the back of a pickup truck!) a couple of times. Also, I crossed an actual waterfall. Twice. Uphill. The navigation in the Sierra section gets a little wild, what can I say.

There is a whole lot more I can say, but gotta draw the line somewhere. Suffice to say, it was beautiful. Also, I finally proved to myself that my body can cash the checks that my mouth writes. Having returned to civilization, nothing is quite the same anymore. The clean water, and hot showers, and easily accessible food are nice, sure (I lost 31 lbs and ended up at 6’1″ and 144 lbs by the end), but there’s so much mindless consumerism and waste. My heart breaks a little each time when I see all the plastic packaging my groceries are sold in, and shopping malls seem even more ridiculous than they had before. It’s been about 100 days since I returned, and I still dream about hiking. I dream of it a lot. This experience has greatly deepened my thirst for adventure…

Right now, I’m enrolled in a year-long francization course here in Quebec: they promised to make me completely fluent by the time that’s done, so I don’t think I’ll get to hike again next year, but after that… I’m thinking the Appalachian Trail in 2024, and the Continental Divide Trail in 2025 to get my coveted Triple Crown. (In the whole world, only 530 or so people have finished all 3 trails.) We’ll see how things play out when I get closer.

For now, though, you can read my detailed daily trail journal over here (it’s a lot like my daily pandemic journal, only with beauty instead of death), and you can check out the pictures of my trail adventure on Instagram: I go by @hellamellowfellow there.

Cheers, y’all.

About three weeks from now, I’ll board a one-way flight to San Diego, spend a day shopping and sightseeing, then four days getting used to the desert at an AirBnB backyard, and then I’ll walk 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. The whole thing shouldn’t take more than four or five months.

The PCT has always been one of those things I’m tangentially aware of. Not something I could give up a speech about, but something I’d recognize in a conversation, and nod and smile along. This decision has been a weird end product of a lot of recent developments…

To start with, even with omicron presumably waning (though there’s that new sub-variant to keep an eye on), we might get a new challenger: to quote a brilliant movie, “safety not guaranteed.” It’s worth keeping in mind that none of the previous big variants – omicron, delta, the ones from Brazil and the UK, etc – were one another’s direct descendants. From what I understand (and please correct me if I’m wrong), they’re cousins, not a direct lineage.

On a more shallow front: even without new variants of concern, tourism will suck in 2022. With omicron still out and about, and with so many anti-vaxxers (or good, sane folks in other countries who want a shot but cannot get one), all the landmarks will still be there, but your experience will be subpar. The Coliseum, the Louvre, the Costa Rican rainforests – all of that will still be around, but with all the precautions and regulations (and possible shutdowns), you won’t get as much enjoyment and happiness as you would’ve before the pandemic.

A more mundane (and less capitalist-shark-y) reason is that Quebec is decidedly not fun these days. I gave it a good chance and the benefit of the doubt, but with more and more lockdowns, and all the real-world social meetups being shut down indefinitely, it’s kind of miserable. The final insult was when they cancelled the New Year’s Eve celebrations with a surprise curfew announcement even though they’d let all the Christmas celebrations proceed without a hitch. For all the talk of secularism, I guess they still didn’t want to offend Baby Jesus on his alleged birthday. Heh. (“Alleged” because there’s no way that was in December. Aside from a lazy CIA spook, what kind of shepherd would be out and about that time of year?)

The curfew ended after about a month, and restaurants re-opened a few weeks ago, but in this here third year of the worldwide plague, my patience with hypocritical governments runs extra-thin… And so, that leaves us with fun places outside Quebec, but the kind that have very few interactions with (justifiably) concerned people. That cuts out most of the tourism sector, and leaves us with wilderness.

First, I looked into the Trans Canada Trail in early January. It stretches for 15,000 miles from coast to coast, and it sounds pretty amazing. Unfortunately, if you do just a little digging, you’ll see that the whole thing is overrated: only 32% of the trail is in actual wilderness. The rest of it is on or near roads. Somehow, the allure of walking 10,000 miles on the side of the highway just doesn’t do it for me… Speaking purely as a lifelong cynic, and with zero data to back me up, I strongly suspect that all the different provinces and districts got “voluntold” to set up some sort of trail – any trail at all – to connect two separate points in their jurisdiction. And then, the human nature being what it is, most of them collectively half-assed the assignment. So, no hiking in Canada, then.

I still have my notes from staying up late that night, looking at other (and more legitimate) long-range hiking trails, and then I had it – the Triple Crown. The Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest trails. A bit more googling showed that the PCT is probably the least difficult (though by no means easy) of the three. The timing was serendipitous, because the annual free permit giveaway happened just a week later. I snagged one for April 3rd: no particular significance, except that my complicated taxes would probably take until late March to process.

…I don’t miss my old job, but I do miss having an ocean of data to dive into, to learn, to master. This thru-hiking affair is a pretty good substitute. By now, my plain old .txt file probably has enough notes to rival some of the legitimate guidebooks, and all the days spent comparison-shopping and researching the optimal (weight/price) gear… Delicious. Positively delicious.

This adventure will cost me a pretty penny, since I’ve had to upgrade just about every piece of hiking gear I had, aside from my compass, headlamp, and thermals. (Even my trusty old power bank is too bulky and heavy by modern standards.) On the other hand, seeing people’s reactions as I hoofed around in the snow with my weighed-down 40-lbs backpack (I’ve since downgraded it to 33 lbs) – that’s just priceless. It’s a bit too cold here to camp overnight (at least if you have the intention of waking up), so I’ve had to make do with practice sleepovers using my sleeping pad+bag and tent indoors, inside my bedroom. Practice makes perfect, eh? (Also, ice axes look badass. So very, very badass. Seriously, spend $100 and get yourself a badass anti-zombie weapon. You’ll be the envy of all your friends!)

On a less mercenary and more fun level, this will be awesome. I was an absolute nerd during college, so that whole opportunity was wasted on me. This feels like a second chance… (Followed by the AT and CDT trails later on, assuming I ace this one.) New lifelong friends, a cool trail name that will follow me everywhere, and a hard reset from all the fucked-up news and social media. (The war in Ukraine makes me glad I left Russia behind and never returned… Hang in there, Kyiv!)

And hey, I’ll finally get to see the stars – the Milky Way itself – without any light pollution. And hang out in my beloved desert. And then the Sierras, and Mount Whitney, and speedwalking through Oregon to escape the notorious swarms of mosquitoes. Heh.

This will be a fine chance to flex creative muscles, too – assuming there’s any energy left at all by the end of each day. My sole luxury item will be a small harmonica, and my brain will be soaking up all the new ideas and experiences as fuel for short stories I intend to write. (A 2022 resolution I’m actually following up on: currently shopping around my 4,500-word sci-fi story.) That should be fun.

I’ve already promised myself (out loud and with a straight face) that I won’t quit the trail unless there’s a severe medical emergency. The data is vague, but it looks like only 20%-40% of the starting PCT hikers ever make it to the Canadian border. I intend to be one of them.

There’ll be zero blogging here between April-August, but I’ve set up a little trail journal I’ll try to update with my field notes and pics. Here it is.

Just over three weeks to go, and it can’t come soon enough… This time next month, I’ll be crushing 15-mile days (start slow, then work up to 20-30), pooping in holes like a pro, and back in my favourite element, the southwestern desert. I’ll be a very different person when I return from that adventure: that future self will be as strange and alien to me as I – here, now – would be to him. Just three more weeks to go…