“Good afternoon, everyone! On behalf of Southwest Airlines, we’d like to welcome you to this Boeing 737 non-stop flight to Tahiti…”
I was sitting in my seat gripping the armrests and the plane hadn’t even detached from the boarding ramp yet. The flight attendant paused in his speech, looked down at the papers in his hand, then looked back up at us with a sly smile.
“Wrong paperwork.” He said with a wink, tossing the papers over his shoulder, which got a random assortment of chuckles and disappointed “awww”s from the passengers. After his initial welcome speech he asked which version of the safety procedures we wanted to hear, the short one or the long one?
“The short one? Good. Sit down. Shut up. Let’s go!”
I’ve decided that Southwest flight attendants are like a box of chocolates (name that movie reference). Every time this particular flight attendant picked up the mic, we knew we were in for a little light-hearted humor, and that helped calm my nerves during the long flight to San Diego.
When we finally landed, I hoisted my partially-filled ULA Circuit onto my back and headed for the baggage claim area. There’d been mixed reviews online regarding whether or not it was possible to take your trekking poles on the plane in your carry-on luggage, so I’d opted to play it safe and check them instead. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a long, narrow box that would hold my poles even when they were collapsed, so I had to pack them diagonally in a large box and pack things around them, though this also allowed me to pack sharp objects like my pocket knife so I wouldn’t have to buy a new one when I arrived. I was out of regular packing tape, so I used a roll of purple duct tape that had been sitting in the emergency roadside box in the trunk of my car for the last three years. As a result, the adhesive had melted a re-formed several times and now left a coat of stickiness on both sides of the tape. Terrific.
So there I was standing outside the San Diego airport, my ULA Circuit backpack belted snuggly onto my back and an enormous cardboard box covered in sticky purple duct tape in my arms, waiting for my ride. I had arranged via Facebook to stay with Judy and John Schmidt, a couple who live in San Diego and host thru-hikers for a day or two when they first arrive and then drive them to the southern terminus on their start date. John arrived shortly to pick me up and had another hiker riding with him. I greeted him enthusiastically.
“Are you starting your hike tomorrow, too?” I asked.
In a heavy German accent, he explained that he started his hike about three days ago and had decided not to continue. “I was looking for something out here, some answers to things. I think I need to go back home to find them.” He said. He seemed comfortable with his decision to quit so soon, if a little sad, and I couldn’t help but feel a weight in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t imagine quitting so soon barring an injury or something. Was it really so easy for some people to decide not to hike? Hadn’t every hiker been dreaming of the PCT since they decided to embark?
John and I chatted amicably during the short ride to his home. Although I’m not sure how much chatting I did, to be honest. I was so nervous I kind of let him do all the talking, telling me how he and his wife had once been long-distance hikers and were now retired, and how they’d been hosting thru-hikers for many years.
When we got to their house I was introduced to two couples who were also staying there and would be starting their thru-hike the same day as me. I’d already met one of them online, a nice younger gentleman named Lee. He and his wife Sarah had met during a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and were now setting out to conquer the PCT. Lee had added his name to the list of hikers on the PCT Class of 2018 Facebook page. The list was a Google document anyone could access to add their name, trail name if they had one, start date, and contact information. I’d connected with Lee when I saw that his start date matched mine, partly because connecting with other hikers pre-hike made my upcoming adventure feel more real, and partly because I was hoping I wouldn’t be hiking on the first day all by myself. Not that I needed to worry about that, but first-time thru-hikers find all manner of things to worry about.
Back in November when I’d first applied for my permit, my start date was going to be March 12th and I’d connected with another hiker who was starting that same day. Her trail name would later become River, so I’ll just refer to her as River from here on out. River is Australian, about my age, and would be starting her hike solo. We talked a lot on Facebook in the months leading up to the start of our hike, but then I had to push my start date ahead by about two weeks for family-related reasons. I told River I’d catch her up, though I doubted I’d be able to. River was an experienced backpacker already and, based on her photos, was also clearly in better shape than I was at the time. Changing my start date, in my mind, meant that I’d probably never get to meet her in person. Oh well. Back to the Schmidts…
When I entered the house, it was fairly late in the evening. Everyone had already had dinner, gone through a shakedown of each others’ packs, and were just getting ready to call it a night. Lee and I had been chatting a bit in the days leading up to our arrival at John and Judy’s home and I was thrilled to finally meet his adorable wife, Sarah.
It was a cold reception.
To this day I can’t put my finger on why I felt this way. The two young couples and our hosts were friendly enough, but I felt a sharp disconnect. I mean, I know I probably looked way too green to be starting a hike of this magnitude, but I’d expected at least a little warmer reception from Lee. At the time I attributed it to everyone probably being tired from traveling and anxious to begin their 6-month hike, and so I shrugged it off.
Everyone watched with what I felt like was an unnecessary amount of poker-faced attention as I hauled my oversized box into the dining room and plopped it on the table. I self-consciously explained the trekking pole predicament, at which point all the other hikers looked at each other and confessed that they’d had no problems bringing their poles with them on the plane, tucked neatly inside their packs. Well, I thought, the internet said I couldn’t, so I didn’t. How was I supposed to know? I didn’t let it bother me. I was, however, a little embarrassed by how much stuff I was starting with. I’d been planning this hike since the previous January, so I’d had over a year to read and study and choose my gear. There were just a lot of little things I wasn’t sure I’d need or not, so I erred on the side of over-prepared and tried not to be rattled as people watched me organizing my things with what I felt like was a mixture of amusement and concern.
Judy offered to give my pack a “shakedown” but I politely declined. I already knew my pack was heavy and that there’d be things I would decide to get rid of, but I wanted to learn as I went, for now. I was still too new to this to fully trust someone else to tell me all the things I would and wouldn’t need on this hike. Judy was marvelous, though. She readily answered all my pre-hike questions and offered lots of great advice for starting out. She even pulled out all the leftovers from dinner than evenings and poured me a glass of red wine! The other hikers had disappeared at some point during all this and I didn’t see them again until the next morning.
The two married couples had claimed the bedrooms, so I got the RV parked outside all to myself. Maybe it was the red wine, or maybe that the flying part of my travels was over for a while and I was now safely on the ground, but I slept surprisingly well that night. I took a gratuitous pre-hike selfie, curled up on the RV bed, read a little from the paperback book I was packing with me, and went to sleep.
Sorry for the lack of photos. I was too nervous and exhausted, I guess.