Tag Archive: thru-hiking

It was eye-opening in more ways than one.

(This is a chapter from my upcoming personal finance e-book. Stay tuned for details!)

Unlike most of this book’s content, this chapter isn’t on my personal finance blog. I’m writing this in 2023, having returned from the Pacific Crest Trail, a giant 2,653-mile hike from Mexico to Canada.

It was… amazing. Larger than life. Glorious. I am definitely not the same person I was when I started the trail in April 2022. I could talk (and write, and reminisce) about the trail for a long time, but this isn’t what this book is about. If you’re curious, you can read my daily trail journal: the very first entry is over here, and the first entry where I actually started hiking (after a great deal of planning and training) is over here. I hope this inspires at least one of you!

The PCT took me five months to finish: that included taking two weeks off for an injured ankle, as well as having to skip a couple of wildfires in Oregon. If all goes as planned (but when does it ever? Heh), I’ll return to it in 2026 for a do-over, after finishing the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

When I returned to civilization, I was 31 pounds lighter, a bit more intense, a lot more feral, and much, much more radical in my financial views. Since then, I’ve regained the lost weight and most of my upper-body muscle, I’ve gotten a bit less feral (I no longer stare in awe at running faucets), but I haven’t abandoned my newfound financial views. Here they are, in no particular order.

Declutter. Declutter hard. I used to be a hoarder. I became a minimalist over the years. (That is, if you disregard my collections of vintage cameras, art, and gems and minerals.) The less stuff you have, the more freedom you have if you decide to move. To quote Tylen Durden, “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” Even so, even in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine the sheer sense of freedom and simplicity that comes when everything you have, everything you need, fits into a single hiking backpack and stays on your back as you hike 2,653 miles. 

At any given moment on my hike, I could give you a fairly short list of all the items in my backpack: a tiny camping stove, a sleeping bag, a very basic first aid kit, my trusty spork, etc. Losing or breaking any of them would’ve been a minor tragedy (rest in peace, Sporky), but I knew where everything was, I knew what I could or could not accomplish with my resources at any given moment, and I never had to worry about consumerism for consumerism’s sake. If I bought something non-edible, it had to justify its weight and utility. For example, a replacement spork, or a pair of shorts for hiking in July, or a new pair of pants when the old ones didn’t survive my glissading adventures in the Sierra mountains.

Coming back to my spacious apartment was strange: it’s far from cluttered, but it has thousands of little items, most of which (like, say, a hammer) I use rather rarely. It’s been almost nine months since my return, and that vague feeling of unease, of guilty exuberance, still hasn’t faded. I doubt it ever will.

Find and use available free services. This advice comes with a huge caveat: don’t be a jerk and don’t steal the services designated for others. For example, if you have a sizable investing account, don’t barge into soup kitchens that are set up for those who have nothing. If, however, there are specific free services designed to help somebody just like you, go for it. Maybe it’s a free tutoring service at your college when you decide to go back to school. Maybe it’s a free (or heavily discounted) cooking class for adults that want to eat healthier. Maybe it’s a free photography workshop for anyone who has a good camera. Search. Find. Use. (And, as always, don’t be a jerk.)

Being a PCT thru-hiker was physically, emotionally, and financially challenging: there were good days and there were bad ones. Whenever I found something that was deliberately and explicitly designated for hikers, it felt disproportionately amazing. Sometimes it was a rural bar that invited dirty, smelly thru-hikers to its annual chili cook-off. (Joshua Inn & Bar, I salute you.) Sometimes it was a local business whose owner made it a point to give each thru-hiker a free scoop of ice cream and a piece of pie. (Mom’s Pie House in Julian, we shall meet again! Toy Store in Quincy, ditto!) Sometimes it was a ski resort that gave a free 40-oz bottle of beer if you showed them your PCT permit. (Donner Ski Ranch, keep up the great work!) Sometimes, you’d find a local church that allowed thru-hikers to sleep inside. (Thank you, Word of Life Church of Burney, CA.)

All of those things were free. All of them were for us – the smelly and rowdy tribe of 4,000 thru-hikers on a strange quest, relentlessly walking north across thousands of miles. Not all of these free services were openly advertised: there’d always be some thru-hikers who walked past without ever partaking in that kindness of strangers. If you did your research before the hike, or paid very careful attention to thru-hiker messages posted in the FarOut app (aka GutHook), then you’d be able to find all of that – and more. Sometimes, the universe actively wants to help you, but you still need to take that last step on your own.

Slow and steady always wins. I was hiking through the windy mountains near Tehachapi when I learned that important lesson – and, more importantly, took it to heart. I’d hiked 600 miles by then, and I averaged about 27 miles on a good day. My hiking style was sporadic: I would use a burst of energy to hike fast for a mile or two, then slow down, take a quick break, and rush again. Then I met two older guys – Hal from Houston and Kevin from London. Their strategy was radically different: they’d just keep walking, slowly but inevitably, even despite the powerful wind bursts that threatened to tip you over. They were, in short, like a pair of 60-year-old Terminators: they simply didn’t stop.

They passed by me during one of my many breaks. A few minutes later, I raced past them and thought I wouldn’t see them again for a long, long while. Lo and behold, they hiked past me again on my next break. It went on like that all day long: I’d use up way more energy but in the end, I’d always fall behind. (Not unlike that story about the tortoise and the hare.)

I learned a lot that day, and I adjusted my pace afterwards. That made me a better hiker, and the parallel with personal finance is obvious: slow-and-steady investors who go with stable and reliable index funds will almost certainly outpace those who try to jump from one lucrative-seeming investment to another. You’ll never set a speed record if you follow Hal’s and Kevin’s example, but chances are, you’ll outpace your competition.

When the bell rings, run. It was the opening night at the Vermillion Valley Resort, deep in the Sierra mountains. There were dozens of thru-hikers, all of us waiting for the dinner bell in the large dining room. The routine was simple: hear the bell, walk up to the counter, get your giant serving of meat and veggies and mashed potatoes. (They cooked in bulk. It was delicious.)

And then the long-awaited bell finally rang. You’d think that all the hungry hungry hikers would follow their Pavlovian conditioning and run for it. You’d think wrong. There were a few seconds of silence. There was the slow stretching of limbs as other hikers slowly (ever so slowly) started to get up from their benches. And then there was me, nonchalantly speed-walking to the counter the moment I heard the bell. I was in the back of the room, and yet I was among the first 10 hikers in that line. The three cooks did their best, but the line still moved slowly. I inhaled all of my food and got back in line for seconds (hiker hunger is real!) while 30 or so hikers were still in line, waiting for their first serving.

In the end, we all got plenty of food. Nobody went to bed hungry that night. And yet, the sequence matters: if I took all your food from you and then returned it (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all the in-between snacks) at the very end of the day, you probably wouldn’t be very happy with me, even if your caloric intake for the day ended up the same. It’s similar in personal finance and in life overall: even though you’ll eventually get what you’re after, you can make things a lot easier for yourself if you pounce on that opportunity as soon as possible.

When you hear the bell, or the signal, or whatever it is you’re waiting for, don’t wait. Don’t try to appear cool or sophisticated by taking things easy. Run, speed-walk, pounce – do whatever you must, but seize the opportunity when you can, while you can. And then, of course, go back for seconds.

Act early to avoid huge expenses. The PCT goes through dozens of tiny towns, standalone gas stations, and resorts. Some of them were friendly and welcoming. Some of them treated PCT thru-hikers as if we were just wallets with legs attached. There was quite a lot of shameless profiteering. There were tiny gas stations or towns that wouldn’t just charge you $4.50 for a 20-oz bottle of soda – they wouldn’t even put up price stickers, and would seemingly make up the prices on the spot. Let’s just say those places weren’t too popular with the thru-hiking crowd, but if you had no other choice for your food resupply, and if the next store was 50-80 miles away, what else was there to do – hike on an empty stomach? (In philosophy and economics, this is known as Hobson’s choice: an illusion of choice where only one thing is actually offered.)

I’d done a lot of research before the PCT, and I sent a few food packages to my future self along the trail, but I hadn’t expected those levels of price-gouging. (That remains one of the very few things I didn’t like about the trail.) If I could go back in time (or if I’d researched better), I would’ve sent out many more food packages ahead of time to all those tiny towns, all those little resorts, all those borderline-illegal tiny stores with no price tags. That would’ve saved me a lot of time and money, not to mention anguish.

It’s similar in personal finance. Perhaps there’s a recurring event or an annual holiday: you can save 70% or more if you buy all the decorations and accessories on sale after the holiday, and they’ll be just as good a year later. (Well, maybe not the Easter Bunny chocolates, but you get the point.) If you buy your plane tickets at the last moment, you’ll pay a high premium. If you shop for them months in advance, you’ll be able to take advantage of price glitches, ticket sales, etc. If you plan on getting to the airport early, bring some snacks and save a ton of money on overpriced airport restaurants. The list goes on: there’s almost always some advantage, some way to stack the deck, or to at least minimize the damage if you act early enough, if you do more research, if you think ahead.

There were many, many more lessons learned, but these are the main ones. I’ve returned from my thru-hike a lot more radical than I’d ever been before, and I don’t see that going away. That’s an interesting change in perspective, if nothing else. At this point, I view shopping malls as profligate temples of mindless consumerism. Fancy cars are still aesthetically pleasing, but they’re also hilarious: they get stuck in traffic just like all the clunkers around them. My own consumer footprint became almost non-existent: I’ve just double-checked my online order history, and the only non-edible things I’ve bought over the past nine months were a few books, a new pair of jeans ($12 USD on sale), and an otamatone, a hilarious miniature synthesizer that cost $51 USD but brings me a lot of joy. (Can’t say the same for my neighbors. Heh.)

You don’t need to go on a gigantic cross-country through-hike to gain your own financial insights – you can learn from just about any situation, if you’re so inclined. These are just a few of my own

I’ve decided to post something useful for all the future PCT hikers: the sum total of my PCT advice. This isn’t gospel, just one hiker’s take on stuff. I hope this helps, and happy hiking!!

  1. If your trail name is just one word, and if it’s a common noun, be aware that others will probably have the same one. I encountered tons of Turtles and Chefs. 🙂 It’s okay to shop around for a trail name. It’s also okay to have no trail name at all. It’s your hike, and no one else’s.

2. You will not survive off hiker boxes alone. It’s a worthwhile goal, but some towns have no trail boxes at all. Also, your diet would be limited to mysterious Ziploc baggies full of unidentifiable powders. Either way, not nearly enough calories.

3. Eat a lot. I promise you won’t gain weight by the time your thru-hike is over. I devoured 4K calories a day, and still ended up losing 18% of my body weight by the end. O_o

4. If you spend a zero day in a campground/resort, you won’t have as much fun as you would with a town zero. There’s just… not a whole lot to do. That’s something I wish I’d changed on my hike.

5. A lot of resorts/stores, especially starting in the Sierra, will not have price tags… VVR is the worst offender – they don’t quite tell you their tiny beers are $6 each. O_o Don’t be afraid to ask for prices.

6. Don’t chug olive oil if your digestive tract isn’t used to it. Yes, that’s the most efficient way to get your calories, but… At least one hiker shat his pants after he started chugging oil. (He will remain nameless hahaha) As life hacks go, this one may have some severe consequences.

7. Send resupply boxes to tiny towns along the trail. After South Lake Tahoe, and basically for the rest of the trail, there’ll be a ton of tiny towns with tiny stores: even when they have price tags, it’ll be ridiculously expensive to resupply. If you’re not sure about a town, look it up with the Google Maps street view, and you’ll see if it has a Safeway or just one tiny-looking store.

8. Send yourself a variety of supplies. A lot of hikers get tired of the food they’d sent themselves in resupply boxes. (I ended up hating peanut butter pretty fast lol)

9. Take tons of pictures and videos. 🙂 Also, this will sound elementary, but use a microfiber cloth on your phone/camera lens. If you forget to do that once in a while, your pics will come out duller than they should be.

10. Don’t carry $50 or $100 bills. (This is especially applicable to foreign hikers.) Most stores on the trail are small, and they usually wouldn’t be able to break you a big bill. Carry an assortment of $1, $5, and $10 bills.

11. Have a secret cash stash in your backpack in case you really need it. Some places (like Hikertown) accept only cash, and there aren’t a lot of ATMs.

12. This one is just my personal opinion, but Platypus-brand water bladders are poorly designed. You can accidentally yank out the main water tube, or they could develop a micro-leak because of all the friction in your backpack… I ended up carrying my water in SmartWater bottles instead.

13. Dudes, this one is for you (women already know this stuff haha) – after you put sunscreen on your face, wash it off before going to sleep… I miiiight have ended up with 4 days of sunscreen slowly getting inside my eyes and irritating the hell out of my eyes for 2 days in the Sierra. Zero stars, would not recommend.

14. Outside your face, sunscreen generally stays on for several days. You can make it last, and still get enough protection from the sun. (If your skin starts turning pink, reapply as needed.) If you sweat a lot, this tip might not work for you, but in my experience, all the trail dust combined with the sunscreen to form a nice protective layer around my legs.

15. Trail magic is amazing, but don’t rely on it or expect it. Less disappointment that way, and you’ll appreciate any and all unexpected trail magic that much more. 🙂

16. If you’re going through the bear country and don’t have your bear can yet (or anymore), hang your food off a tree branch. It’ll take just a few minutes, and you won’t end up with just a can of Pringles (bears *hate* Pringles!) to last you to the next town.

17. Get a small compass, learn how to use it. Phone apps can get accidentally deleted, electronics can run out of power or drown, but it’d take physical force to smash a compass. There are quite a few confusing spots along the trail.

18. Speaking of backups: National Geographic maps are awesome. 🙂 I actually navigated with one (and my compass!) after I fell into Bear Creek just ahead of VVR. It’s a good idea to have non-electronic backups like that.

19. If your phone drowns and stops working, keep it in a ziploc filled with dry rice. That stuff really works! (But not on DSLR cameras. I’m so sorry, Great Dingleberry…)

20. Don’t pack your fears. I’ve seen a hiker who carried a hatchet (he claimed he saw a lot of violent people in news clips about California…), another hiker with a pistol, etc. In the entire history of the PCT, no one died of human violence or animal attack. Leave the fear (and extra weight) at home.

21. Don’t be an asshole – pack out your toilet paper. There was quite a lot of it along the trail… Just yeet it into a ziploc, and into another ziploc, and put it deep into an outside pocket where it won’t touch anything else. It’s as simple as that.

22. Glissading is awesome, but it tends to randomize your gear. Everything that’s not secured to your backpack can fall off – and even if it’s secured, who knows. One guy hiking next to me ended up losing his sock (it was hanging and drying) but found a bottle of water instead. :))

23**. Don’t glissade in short-shorts…** One girl ended up getting named “Road Rash” – apparently, there was quite a lot of damage.

24. After you get a hitch, always – **always** – make sure you don’t forget your electronics and your hiking poles. Those were the top items folks forgot, from what I’ve seen. (Hell, I forgot my own poles at Kennedy Meadows South. 😛 )

25. Don’t start political debates, and don’t join them if some other idiot starts them. Leave the drama and the politics at home. Enjoy the beautiful nature instead. 🙂

26. A small mylar emergency blanket can be super useful. It can protect your exposed skin from mosquitoes when you’re filtering water next to their natural habitat. It can also keep you warmer at night if you wrap yourself in the emergency blanket while inside the sleeping bag. (It retains a lot of the heat your body radiates.)

27. Try to journal. Days will merge into weeks into months, and a lot of small things (and hiker names!) will be forgotten.

28. If you order Altra Lone Peak shoes from their site, keep in mind that they don’t deliver to post office buildings. (Ask me how I know!) They ship by Fedex, so that won’t work out. You can try shipping them to a local trail angel’s house instead.

29. Your feet will expand. Probably by a lot. If you put new shoes in your resupply boxes, plan accordingly, or you might not fit in them.

30. If you have large (and flat) feet like myself, don’t buy synthetic socks. Wool socks expand relatively well, but synthetic socks… My feet went from size 13 to size 16 (yes, really), and when I switched out my wool DarnTough socks for synthetic ones in Bishop, the synthetic socks started biting into the ankle so much that I ended up with so-called “hiker inflammation” aka fluid build-up in the ankle. Keeping it iced and elevated helped fix it, but I still ended up missing quite a few days of hiking. So, either stick with wool socks only, or keep rolling your synthetic socks up/down throughout the day. Keep them from staying in one place.

31. PCT is a very expensive adventure. Plan accordingly. In my experience, by mid-point, a lot of hikers were walking more miles than they were comfortable with because a) they were tight on cash, or b) they had minor injuries and wanted to reach the finish line before they became **major** injuries, or c) both.

32. Don’t be too cool for an ice axe/microspikes. They can save your life, or prevent a major injury. It’s better to have them and not need them… (I ended up using my ice axe when I started sliding off the hard packed snow on the damn Mather Pass. Best investment ever!)

33. Please don’t try trail-running up a mountain in the dark and/or when there’s ice.

34. You’re gonna have to get good at math, or become comfortable using a calculator. When shopping for food in town, you’ll end up doing tons of math to find the best “calories per $” deal.

35. Make sure you have some food variety when you buy food for the next few days of hiking. It can be **very** tempting to just buy a ton of peanuts (800 calories for $1, wooo!) but you’ll hate yourself afterwards. 😛

36. It’s okay if your hiking routine is different than other people’s. Maybe you like waking up at 3:30am and stopping at 5pm, or maybe you’ll get up after dawn and walk till dark. Maybe you want to take 2-hour siestas in the afternoon. Totally up to you.

37. There’ll be **a lot** of fallen trees (aka blowbacks) along the trail. Just mentally brace yourself ahead of time. 🙂 The hike into Idyllwild was basically an obstacle course, and then there were roughly 50-70 miles of blowdowns on the way to Etna… Quite a few in Washington, too. They’ll slow you down, and there’s no escaping them, so just make peace with that fact.

38. There will be loooong stretches without any cellphone reception, especially in the Sierra. Tell your friends/family not to worry. If you use a Garmin GPS thingy, make sure the folks back home know how to see your location.

39. No internet means you won’t be able to do a lot of time-sensitive online stuff. This is a very niche tip, I know 🙂 but if you decide to sell monthly covered calls to nonchalantly sponsor your hike, you’re gonna miss out on a week or two because, again, no internet. Or if you’re selling your house, maybe. Or negotiating with your crappy accountant. Plan accordingly.

40. Be nice. For a lot of regular people you encounter, you might be the first and last PCT hikers they’ll ever meet. You’re a PCT ambassador. Try to leave a good impression.

41. For fuck’s sake, don’t run off without paying. At least one NorCal hostel shut down in 2021 because the owner was heartbroken that hikers kept slipping away in the morning instead of paying for their bed + dinner. According to Guthook, at one point 15 hikers did that as a group in September 2021. Your actions affect not just this current hiking season, but future years as well.

42. When you’re in town, the most efficient calories = buying a bucket of ice cream. 🙂 a 1.5-liter bucket of ice cream = 1,800 calories. I used to just buy it and eat it with a spork on the nearest flat surface. 🙂

43. Trust your intuition. If all of a sudden, you notice that the path looks kinda faint and not very PCT-like, stop and check Guthook. I’m positive that every PCT hiker got turned around at some point. There’s lots of tiny forks you might not notice. It takes just a few seconds to double-check your location, and if you ignore your intuition, you might spend an hour or more heading completely the wrong way lol

44. Learn to use Guthook’s features – especially the altitude display that shows what ups and downs are ahead of you.

45. If you have doubts… You don’t need to be a super-experienced veteran hiker to do the PCT. I sure as hell wasn’t. 🙂 I’d never spent a night outdoors of my own accord (aside from Search & Rescue training earlier), and never hiked for fun, but I picked it up fast and finished the PCT in one piece. Just pay attention and don’t do dumb stuff, that’s all there is to it.

46. Yes, the Timberline buffet really is as awesome as everyone says it is. 🙂 Their strawberry smoothies were amazing!! Don’t skip the buffet, is what I’m saying, or you’ll miss out on an amazing experience.

47. In the Sierra, most bridges are located in the JMT section. Before and after it, not so much. Be **very** careful when crossing creeks and streams. Even a relatively small creek can kick your ass if it’s strong enough. (Damn you, Bear Creek!) Use caution and common sense.

48. Gloves vs mittens. Gloves give you more dexterity (good for setting up/taking down your tent, etc) but mittens are warmer since your fingers are together and share the warmth.

49. If there’s stuff (water bottles, etc) in your backpack’s outside pockets, at some point it might fall off and get lost. If your stuff is secured by a strap, that strap might fail – for example, if you’re navigating a lot of branches while climbing over blowdowns. To make sure you don’t lose, say, your tent poles – secure your stuff using 2 straps. It might still fall off and get lost, but much less likely that way.

50. Carry an emergency tampon. Human bodies can get weird on a giant endurance hike like that: at a tiny highway rest stop, I met a hiker whose period started wayyy earlier than expected. She always used to buy tampons just in time, and none of the other PCT hikers had a spare… She ended up asking all the locals that hiked by. Fun fact: most women who go out for a day hike on a weekday morning are on the older side, so they don’t have spares either. I used to pride myself in being able to help almost anyone, but I was completely useless in that situation.

51. The JetBoil cooking pot&stove combo is more expensive than generic pots, but it’s wayyy more efficient. It really does boil water faster than your basic aluminum/titanium no-name pots. Just make sure you have a lighter or matches to start the flame – it’s not piezoelectric.

52. Nothing wrong with taking multiple consecutive zeroes, but after about 2-3 zeroes in a row, your body will have to readjust to the hiking mode. Keep that in mind if you take a long detour to Vegas, San Francisco, Portland, etc. 🙂

53. Your water filter will **not** help you if the water is chemically contaminated. (Fertilizers, industrial runoff, etc.) If the water source looks/smells funny, try to wait until the next water source.

54. Wildfires in Cali/Oregon start in August. Keep that in mind if you have a late start.

55. If you plan on night-hiking, be aware that you’re sharing the territory with predatory critters. One time, a dude woke me up at 4am because he was **convinced** he was being stalked by a mountain lion. (“Too insistent for a deer, too small for a bear.”) He was just so damn happy to have some human company – I had a quick breakfast and we hiked together until dawn. 🙂 (His strategy was to nap during the day, then walk at night – that was during the heatwave.)

56. You probably won’t finish that large pizza you order in town. 😛 You’ll be hungry, yeah, but those large-sized pizzas are HUGE, y’all. Order a medium, or be prepared to walk around town with a to-go box full of cold slices hahaha

57. Bagels are awesome. ❤ Each bagel is about 220 calories, has 10 grams of protein, and they don’t really go bad. Bagels were my must-have carryout food in every town.

58. New to hiking? Or never hiked in the desert? I did a 3-day “rehearsal hike” and I highly recommend it! I rented a cheap campspot in Potrero through AirBnB, just 5 miles or so west of the South Terminus. (There’s a bus from San Diego that goes there.) It was a really laid-back way to make sure my body adjusted to the climate, humidity, altitude, etc. Also, a great way to get last-minute practice with all your shiny new gear. 🙂

59. Don’t carry huge knives. A small folding knife and/or a tiny flat one-piece metal multi-tool will do just fine.

60. There are many trail angel groups in towns along the PCT. You can find them either through the main trail angel group on Facebook, or if you search for the town name + trail angels. Not every town has them, but it’s a great way to find a free (or cheap) place to crash when you’re in town.

61. Cowboy-camping is indescribably awesome. Hands down one of my favourite parts of the trail. Waking up in the middle of the night, looking up at the stars (and the Milky Way, if you’re lucky) amid the velvet-black background of the universe… There is nothing like it. ❤

62. Leave no trace – carry out all your trash. Yes, that means you’ll have a tons of plastic packaging and food wrappers by the time you reach the next town in 3-5 days, but if all 4,500 hikers started throwing their trash around… Just don’t do that.

63. Electrolytes are your friends, especially during heatwaves. You will sweat **a lot**, and you’ll need to replenish the salt you sweat out. Experiment with different electrolyte powders. Include them in your resupply boxes because PCT-adjacent stores often sell out.

64. Yes, Oregon mosquitoes are as terrible as everyone says. There are literal swarms of them. Pack a head-net: it weighs just a few grams, and you won’t regret it.

65. Take a few minutes to google, read, and understand the symptoms (and treatment) of heatstroke and frostbite. You may end up needing that information in the desert, in the Sierra, and during heatwaves. It could save your life. (Or somebody else’s.)

66. When you’re in town and all the electric outlets are already taken, check the back of the building! Always check the perimeter, y’all. 😉 More often than you’d think, there’s an empty outlet (or more than one!) in the back, out of sight and all yours to use.

67. I already mentioned the blowdowns – mentally prepare yourself for some really frustrating days. There’s a section (near mile 200) where the trail got swept away by annual flooding, so you’ll spend 15 or so miles wandering from one tiny stone cairn to another – no trail, no signposts. 🙂 In the Sierra, especially along the JMT, there’ll be virtually no PCT signage, no way to tell where exactly the path to the summit lies under all that snow. You can’t change that, but you can change your attitude. Just keep in mind that it really is wilderness out there, and not every stretch is easy to navigate.

68. The farther you get from the PCT, the fewer people will know what that is, and hitchhiking might get difficult. When I had to leave the trail to nurse my ankle, I got a ride from KMN all the way to Modesto. (2 hours away.) Coming back, the locals all thought I was a homeless person and not a thru-hiker. 😦 I tried and failed to hitchhike, and ended up spending roughly $150 on Uber and Lyft to get from Modesto to Sonora, and from Sonora back to the trail near KMN. Keep that in mind if you plan to hitch back to the trail from a city 50+ miles away.

69. Have fun out there. 🙂

(Crossposted on my PCT-2022 trail journal)

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…