5 Things I Learnt on the Pacific Crest Trail
It may be hard for you to believe but whilst hiking for 5 months straight with little to no real life distractions there were unfortunately no huge, life-changing epiphanies. Like, what do I want to be when I grow up, where do I want to set up base or even where am I going to be in a few months.
Fortunately, there were lots of little learnings and interactions I had along the trail that provided me with some valuable realisations. Walking along the 20 inch wide trail did give me the time to be more present with the odd hour spent thinking and dreaming of future plans.
Many of the walking hours were spent just concentrating on moving fast with a heavy weight on my back, whilst other times just simply trying to stay upright whilst balancing on the edges of sun-cups in the ice with no obvious track (sun cups - see bottom left of the image).
I have never really been great at being present as I generally have something I am working towards or lots of micro-jobs for a bigger goal that fill a lot of my spare time. I don’t think having a goal to work towards is a bad thing but the trail enabled me to enjoy the moment, no to-do list, no influx of emails or social media distractions. The majority of the time the only connection I had to the 'real' world was through my emergency beacon which I rarely used!
My only concern was to avoid crossing the line of injury by pushing that fraction too hard or doing something stupid like tripping on the smallest, tiniest rock on the trail. Everyday the target was to get that bit closer to the Canadian border. My day consisted of 3 main things; walking ALOT, eating ALOT, and sleeping ALOT.
It was simple, and it was incredible. Now it is well and truly over, I look back at those 5 months with nostalgia. Those tough days where I was dreaming of sleeping in a bed, having a quality hot meal or just being able to soak my legs in a hot bubble bath without having to walk another 100 miles were ironically, the real days of freedom. Luxury came in the form of bathing in a lake, eating blueberries straight off the bush and going to sleep and waking up to awesome views almost every day!
It has been almost two months since I tagged the northern terminus and I wanted to share my 5 take aways from the Pacific Crest Trail…for some of you, you may not need to hike for 151 days to have figured this out...and apologies in advance for the clicheness!
1. The people are what make it!
The trail community in the US is immense! There are people taking on the hike from all walks of life, ages, countries and experience. None of these things mattered on trail, no boundaries or separations, everyone had at least one common goal - to hike. Everyday was different as you leap-frogged, passed/got passed by fellow thru-hikers. Granted it got much quieter the further north you went as people quit, skipped or flipped meaning it may have been days before coming across other people making it even more special. But what was even more eye-opening was the outside help from non-hikers along the length of the trail!
There was plenty of help from those who had no idea what we were doing and probably thought we were just homeless to those that enjoyed the odd day hike, to those that admired what we were trying to do and those legends that completed the trail a few weeks before us and wanted to help as the consistent Washington rain fell as autumn set in.
Trail magic comes in many forms - from hitches into towns, to fresh fruit and sodas at trailheads, to shelter and pitch spots in front gardens. The generosity was pretty endless and it was always a nice surprise to come across trail angels in the middle of nowhere! These trail angels did this in their own time and spent the money out of their own pockets just to give us that extra morale and energy to keep on going! I couldn't say thanks enough for all the magic I received!
2. The value of time
One thing I really thought about on trail was time. Time always seems short in normal life with work and fitting everything else in. I couldn't help but think about how I would try and balance time for when I would return to normality post-trail. How to invest time into areas where I want to improve and excel and those around me. It can be hard to balance all things in a normal day to day and find the balance. I am personally great at sleeping and for me it involves getting up a bit earlier and getting those more arduous, boring tasks done early so the more fun things can be done later towards the end of the day. In turn, feeling less rushed and pressured. Having realistic ideas of time and enjoying the moment more is also important.
3. Do I need that?
I am sometimes a culprit for acquiring stuff! When I returned to the UK in 2015, I was travelling less and had a bit more cash, I fell into acquiring more and more stuff! I should have asked myself, is it really necessary?
My perspective now, is that if it genuinely helps me day to day then fine but I found that the more stuff I had the more I felt I had to loose, metaphorically and literally. I felt more comfortable, free and less worried when I had less. Personally, I quite enjoy living out of a backpack and having everything that I needed with me. There were things on trail that I thought I would miss that I left behind but actually, I didn't need them, all you need are those things you used every day, nothing more.
4. Take some time out…
I often say, (mostly to the humour of others that know me) how I enjoy getting up to stretch or (attempt) yoga. It does make me feel fresh for the day and there is something about stretching after being horizontal for the night. Unfortunately, very rarely does this happen as I am not the greatest morning person. As I was hiking, I had to concentrate on stretching, warming up and cooling down. Transferring this over to normality was something I have set out to do and doing a bit better at. The trail gave me the opportunity to just stop, sit and take it all in when and wherever I wanted. It is important to just stop and enjoy the moment and not just rush through the day, which is something I have always done. Take that time for yourself, stretch and chill!
5. Figure out how you work as an individual and work with it
For me, a big question for years has been…what am I doing and why do I keep moving around on a pretty regular basis? The trail actually helped me to accept that these questions are ok. I am still young and although purpose isn't clear everything is linked and experience is valuable.
I met and spoke to lots of different people out on the trail, people of different backgrounds, careers, ages and perspectives. Those that had recently retired and finding their way, others fresh out of college and finding their way, those that had had a blossoming career but still finding their way. Get the link?
When conversation ended up on this topic I enjoyed talking it through, gauging other peoples’ personal philosophies, perspectives and methods of supporting such adventures. Something I wish could be a full-time job as I'm sure many others do too. The words of Tolkien; ‘not all who wander are lost’ is pretty spot on!
For me, I have been searching for that ‘base’ and feeling of fulfilment with work but the trail just established the realisation that it’s going to be a give and take. I think it is important to figure out how you work as an individual and work with it.
After finishing the trail I had a few weeks before delving into my reflections as it was a strange adaption getting immersed back into normal life. I began to think about times in life when I have thrived, felt zoned in and felt most alive and energetic. It was pretty clear that, I love a big challenge. The first being selection and training with the Royal Marines. The next being on the Pacific Crest Trail after getting through the snowy Sierras and being faced with the realisation of having to do well over the miles I had just done in about half the time (1,650 miles in about 2.5 months). As daunting as it was, I loved the challenge. I had a clear focus and determination was on a high with a goal that was tough but achievable!
Now, I know it isn't realistic to do big adventures like this often and I am not saying I need to do big challenges to thrive as smaller challenges are also great. Personally, I have set myself the goal of having a 'bigger' adventure every decade-ish, the common theme will be enjoying nature and elements but for now it is back to work and reality!
If you ever want to take on a challenge, figure out how you work and use it to your advantage, think about your why and go for it. Do it in your own style!
As I mentioned earlier I have been off trail for almost 2 months and it has been a slow introduction back to real life. I spent some time in Canada living cheaply, before returning to the UK to catch up with family. Now I find myself in NZ, the land of the long white cloud for the summer season amongst the Queenstown guiding balancing the outdoors and work. Admittedly, it has been hard implementing my reflections into my day to day but now things are a bit more settled I will be doing so and not letting the things I learnt slip away as the trail becomes more distant!
I hope you enjoyed reading through my take-aways, maybe you didn’t need to walk 2653 miles to come to these realisations but it was a pretty epic way to do so :)
The Northern Terminus of the PCT - 30th September 2019
A big few days through fresh snow we finally made it to Canada! 151 days and 2653 miles.
This is JP (trail name: Sourpatch (left)), we hiked ‘together’ for the last 1,600 miles. A solid hiking partner although I was solo 98% of the time we spent most nights camped in the same area. He was faster uphill and slower downhills, my speed came on the downhills so we generally crossed paths later in the day! Sourpatch was one of the many awesome people on trail!