I sit here at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail aching, tired, and happy to be done. Although the Grateful Dead lyric comes to mind (“what a long strange trip it’s been”), Hayden Kennedy’s writing captures the experience so much more fully:
“…There is this dual nature of sublime meaning and utter absurdity in [thru-hiking]. [Hiking] harder, bigger, more badass routes won’t make you a better, more humble, more gracious or happier human—yet we often approach those [hikes] like they can. There is no glory, no real answers, in [hiking] and summits, yet we organize our entire lives around the myth that there are.”*Modified Hayden Kennedy Writing
I started the PCT in search of exceptional hiking, adventure, and the fantastic sense of awe that comes from natural beauty; instead, I found community.
The PCT is like no hike I’ve done before. Typically the reward for hiking and backpacking is the escape from human elements while in search of the “wild.” The PCT is the opposite, being a celebration of community and the individuals that make it strong.
On a trail this long you habituate to the “wilderness.” It’s certainly not a jagged mountain range of the Cascades that I will remember when I think back to the PCT. Instead, I will remember a South-bound thru-hiker dramatically spitting out mediocre coffee and running downhill at the news of nearby trail magic.
I don’t think the PCT ranks in my top 5 for hikes or backpacking trips. There are certainly more exciting trails with better adventures and more stunningly beautiful areas to hike through. It’s hard for the PCT to be considered an adventure when the route is well-documented with near real-time updates and an endless supply of apps and information to follow. While the adventures that the PCT can enable are real, the trail is strikingly straight forward. Of the reasons to thru-hike the PCT, looking for some good hiking might not be a great one.
The PCT certainly goes through some of the prettiest areas in the United States, yet the best areas are likely accessible by side trails that most PCT hikers will never take. These areas are better experienced through more intentional backpacking trips or shorter section hikes along the PCT.
So why hike the PCT? The community is amazing. In the default world, there are exceptionally few opportunities to find and enjoy strong, intentional communities. As we get older, it becomes harder to form meaningful friendships or to find strangers that genuinely care about the well-being of one another.
On the PCT, it’s perfectly normal to share a pint of ice cream or a hotel room with someone you met 45 seconds prior. When someone asks how your day was, you’re likely to give/receive a genuine answer (“oh man, it was pretty rough”) rather than a passing remark of things being untruthfully fine. The eternal nature of the trail juxtaposed with the ephemeral nature of encounters fosters emotional connections with the people you meet. On trail, people form new relationships, friendships, and family groups that can be more rewarding than what they’ve encountered elsewhere. You might be hiking with a person for only a few hours, but the conversation and connection will be deep and leave you respecting and appreciating your fellow humans.
It’s not the hiking that will be missed when off trail, it’s the hiking community. Hikers come back to the trail again and again to find community. The trail angels form strong, coordinated groups that shuttle hikers around and provide services to feed and clean hikers. Individuals that hate hiking may thru-hike the PCT several times just to be part of the community and to experience the power of strong human connection.
The trail is long, and certainly a struggle — but not because of hiking. With near-instantaneous recognition to outsiders, every thru-hiker becomes a b-list celebrity. Day hikers are amazed by thru-hikers, telling them what an accomplishment they’ll have. Many regard thru-hikers as some of the most inspiring, generous human beings in the world simply because they walk numerous miles every day for months. It’s absurd. Being a thru-hiker means tolerating an undeserved celebrity status and answering the same questions (“how heavy is your pack? Where did you start? How many miles are you doing a day?”) while being annoyed by weekenders that ask about trails to places that sound magical, yet you will never see.
The hardest part of the trail is reconciling privilege while wondering what things you could actually do that would be beneficial compared to waking up and hiking every day. As miles of reflection wear on, it becomes increasingly difficult to answer the question, “why are you hiking the PCT?”. After 500 miles or 1000 miles or 1,500 miles why are you still hiking? What do you expect to gain that you haven’t experienced already?
Although most thru-hikers that start the trail will never make it to Canada**, it’s the dream of making it to Canada that keeps the community alive. It’s this shared goal that allows for instantaneous friendships and unbelievable generosity from strangers. Without the hope of Canada, the community would falter. To keep the community alive, some of us have to wake up and hike every day. A few of us have to make it to Canada.
Greetings from Canada,
Jeff AKA Peaches (graduate from the PCT class of 2018)
P.S. details about photos and other shenanigans will be coming to this listserv soon enough. I just need to get back to a computer. Hold your horses; go hike something.
*Climbing phrases have been modified to better reflect Thru-hiking
** My statistics would peg it at less than 10% make it to Canada having skipped fewer than 100 miles of trail. Actual trail data is terrible, but that’s a different topic.