I moved to California in 2005. As I was Googling “popular hikes” (searching for a weekend adventure), the Pacific Crest Trail popped up. “Obviously,” I said to myself, “this isn’t something I can do on my weekend.” I was, however, intrigued and I printed the PCT map and stuck it on my fridge to ponder. Later, after seven years and many challenging events and emotional struggles, I was finally driven to hike the PCT.
The Pacific Crest Trail saved my life, but not in the way most people would expect. I wasn’t healing from cancer or coping with the loss of a loved one. Rather, I was bored and that boredom manifested itself as depression. Feeding my depression was a fear that I had left no impact and had no meaningful legacy. I have met many fearless and amazing individuals and I admired their stories. I wondered, “How will people remember me?”
I had achieved the goals I set for my 20s. I had obtained my Masters degree; I had a job as a professional chef that I enjoyed with salary and benefits beyond anything I had imagined for myself; and I had bought a home. My life was stable and, by my parent’s definition, successful. However, I felt empty and I wanted something more. I needed something to keep me moving forward. I was lost. I was afraid I’d never feel alive again. I was afraid I would never feel as free and wild as I once did. I was afraid of complacency. As a young adult I was so driven to succeed that I had never thought of “goals” as being anything other than professional and I did not know what to look toward next or how to motivate myself. I remember thinking, “Well, you’re 30, you’ve peaked, there’s nothing left to look forward to now.” It was an irrational, but very real fear and I searched endlessly for a solution.
There were other challenges, too.
I was helping a family member overcome a drug addiction and managing his rehabilitation near my home. This took a toll on me like I could never have imagined. In some ways, I think I made his suffering my own and I had a very difficult time during his six-month recovery process. While this was happening I felt isolated at work. I had a new boss and most of the challenges and side tasks that had been previously assigned to me disappeared. I felt like I was stuck in a box, disengaged from my colleagues and useless. I thrive on having new, interesting and sometimes-difficult assignments to focus on. As a chef I need to be creative and flex the muscles of my mind. Once I could no longer do that at work, I couldn’t stay. But I didn’t know how to leave either. Additionally, I was falsely diagnosed with skin cancer, which added to the mounting fear and depression that lingered in my mind. The scare was the impetus I needed to break free and start over. It felt like an omen that I couldn’t ignore, so I made the decision to hike the PCT. The adventure, I hoped, would test my character and wake me up. To clamber out of my depression I needed to challenge myself and blaze a new path.
My Boyfriend of 10 years, Niko, and I began our hike on April 2, 2012. People always said: “The PCT will be a real test of your relationship!” Mostly, we laughed at this. A test? Really? I always thought “real” life was a test: paying rent together, managing bills, agreeing on how to spend our free time, illnesses, our families, etc. On the trail most of these responsibilities disappeared. Our biggest worries were where to sleep, what to eat, where to get water and, most importantly, what to eat when we made it to town. Niko and I have always been a team conquering our problems together so we naturally fell into a groove on the trail.
At first, it was scary being out there. There were so many things we were unsure of, but within a couple weeks we adjusted. For instance, we quickly realized there were several items we packed (extra clothing and toiletries, mainly) that we would not need and that a shower was a weekly task (at best). I appreciated this about the trail; it had stripped away social norms and expectations. I realized that many of my material possessions had been bought to fill a void, not a need, and I found that I was happiest when I was filthy, smelly, and with the same 30 lbs on my back. At the first resupply stop we shipped all the extras home and hiking the trail began to feel official.
I was in a constant state of aches and pains, but the body’s ability to adapt to adverse conditions is amazing. I was so proud of myself for being able to acknowledge the pain and then move through it. In a way, I never minded the daily joint pain or the sore feet, it was all part of the adventure and it made me feel very strong. All of the feelings I had been missing were ignited. It felt good to be afraid of something like a snowstorm or an exposed ridge. “At least you’re afraid of something tangible,” I thought, “not things like unsent email responses.” I embraced my fear and worked harder to become stronger both physically and mentally. If I felt particularly scared of an area of the trail, like a snowy or icy mountain pass, I would chant to myself “courage and strength” over and over again until I had overcome the obstacle. Turning around never entered my mind so I found fear on the trail to be a healthy motivation. Now that I’m back home, I sometimes still wish for those exhilarating feelings of physical pain and challenging fear.
Still, the Mojave portion of the PCT, in particular, was agonizing with its heat, sand and fierce wind. The sand was sharp and it cut my feet like glass. Nearly all my toenails fell off (because of high temperatures and swollen feet making my shoes too small) and the wind-swept sand scratched at my throat. But thoughts of the mountains kept us going as we ticked off the miles to Kennedy Meadows, the “gateway to the Sierras.” Arriving there was an accomplishment unto itself and ahead lay a mountain paradise.
I still remember our nervous anticipation before entering the Sierras, giddy with apprehension and eagerness of the high altitudes and mountain passes. Niko and I, along with several other hikers including Alex and Dan, whom we would come to call family, hit the Sierras fairly early by PCT standards (mid-May). It was a relatively low snow year but in resupply towns a bunch of us “hiker trash” could be found sitting in a circle discussing the snow levels and debating the use and/or need of crampons and ice axes.
I don’t possess the words to describe the beauty of the Sierra Nevada. In them we savored dramatic views, serene meadows and some of the most pristine water I have ever tasted.
The Sierras also taught me two valuable trail lessons:
- Don’t listen to everything hikers say. Every hiker’s perception is different and conditions can be exaggerated. We called this “hiker hype” and decided to use our own judgment.
- Be flexible! Most things won’t go as you’ve planned. The trail is as alive as a hiker. It will provide and it will take away. Due to the high elevation and the physical energy it takes to move through the Sierras, Niko, Alex, and I had to make an unplanned resupply stop in Bishop. We lost several hiking days as a result (which would drive some hikers mad), but we were hungry and our unplanned side trip resulted in full bellies, inside jokes, and laughable adventures that have been recounted many times at length. We got back on trail a few pounds heavier and I would not trade those memories for anything.
We met all sorts of hikers on the trail: retired servicemen, kids just out of college, people just entering retirement, and veteran hikers who knew all the good places to make camp and stop for food. But while we met a wide variety of people, we found that we all had two things in common: a love of hiking and a desire to push ourselves. I also think most people were also looking for something like I was — something like inner strength or enlightened guidance.
Of course, there would be days when we didn’t feel like hiking at all. Maybe we’d see a lake that was just too beautiful to pass so we’d swim, eat, reminisce on recent trail happenings and make future plans. We’d bask lazily in the sun and glory in the fact that this was our life. We called these days “Dan Days” because Dan would find himself a sunny spot to stop whenever it suited him. Sometimes we would pass him reading a book by a rushing river or stretched out on a sunny rock. He knew how to savor trail life and make each day count, especially if it included “trail magic.”
If you haven’t heard of it before, “trail magic” is selfless generosity that occurs along long-distance hiking trails. For instance, an act of trail magic could be a person bringing treats for hikers at a trailhead or road crossing. Some of the best trail magic we ever received was from a hiker called “Fun Hog.” After being rerouted because of a forest fire in Oregon, we did a miserable stretch of trail to get to the nearest road. As we read the notice board we realized that while the detour had originally been 22 miles, it had subsequently grown to more than 40. My pack had never felt heavier than at that moment. We started trudging down the road, discussing camp and rations of food when a car pulled up. It was Fun Hog with roast chicken, grapes, fresh vegetables, candy, and soda. Our worst day had suddenly become the best day!
Like Fun Hog and her trail magic, “trail angels” are also a vital part of the PCT community. These people help hikers out of the goodness of their hearts. A trail angel can be someone who gives you a ride, lets you stay in his or her home, does your laundry, provides shower facilities, or anything in between. These are beautiful people! They are as much a part of the trail as the trees and the mountains. Not only do they provide a warm bed or a hot shower, they also heal! If you become disappointed with the human race just hike the trail. Trail angels will restore your faith in humanity and show you that good people still exist and that life is not just about money or what’s on the news. Accepting hikers into your home, letting them recover, cooking them meals, and going above and beyond for complete strangers is truly uplifting and noble. It warms my soul to remember all the hospitality that was shown to me on the PCT, especially in the towns of Warner Springs, Quincy, Agua Dulce, Packwood, and Skykomish.
Accomplishing a thru-hike, meeting people who inspire and nurture, and seeing so much natural beauty saved me because I was finally able to envision a whole world out there with plenty of challenges left for me to conquer. I could finally fathom another path in life. I realized that there are many ways to live and that I didn’t have to follow any particular social norm. The PCT opened my eyes to the beauty the world holds and it healed me. It restored my faith in humanity and the universe and it took away my pain and regret. It gave me a vibrant new outlook on the possibilities of life.
The PCT was a total cleanse for my soul. It enabled me to clean out all the gunk I had been holding on to. I purged myself of my frustrations, anger, sadness, bitterness, pain, and anxieties. There were days when I cried for 10 miles in anger; days when I cursed myself for not standing up for myself and letting myself be treated poorly. I cried in sadness over putting my family member through rehab. I cried for family I had lost, for relationships I could not salvage, and for all the mistakes I had ever made. And, after all those tears, I felt light and relieved. A huge weight had been lifted from my heart and everything going forward was new.
I can now define my life in two stages, before the PCT and after the PCT. After the PCT, everything is different. I am different.
Those 2,650 miles of insanity and bliss made me realize my potential and still drive me to seek out new adventures in my everyday life. My age and the characterizations of others no longer define me. I have grown to love who I have become. I continue to dream, accept change, face challenges, and embrace adventures. I encourage everyone to do the same. If you have a million excuses holding you back from living life at your highest potential, do yourself a favor and go hike the PCT.
Like many hikers, after the trail I decided not to return to my same old routine. Niko and I have been working seasonal jobs in the National Parks, first Yosemite (because we fell so in love with it on the PCT) and now Glacier National Park in Montana. I can never stop being a chef and people need to eat, so now I feed them in National Parks. I didn’t have to give up my passion for food or my professional career and I am able to combine it with my love of the outdoors. We bought an RV and live in it so we aren’t burdened by many financial obligations. We spend our off-seasons hiking, climbing and traveling. Everything seems so obvious to me now, because the PCT allowed me to clear my mind of clutter and worries. I am free. I don’t struggle with choices. I know what I need and what I want to do. Maybe I’m closer to the soul of the earth now. Maybe the universe, which I stared up at for so many nights recognizes me and helps me along my way.
In the summer of 2016, Niko and I have plans to hike the Appalachian Trail, and while I can’t wait to feel the freedom of the trail again, the PCT will always have my heart!
Liane Herrick is a professional chef at Glacier National Park in Montana. After working in Montana in the summer, Liane adventures in California in the winter. She loves to travel and explore new places and believes that hiking is one of the best ways to see the soul of the world.