On Returning to the PCT

Home Journal Entry

June, 2020

When I sat in my tent sobbing silently, desperate for the pain to stop; when it felt like there was literally fire coursing through my legs and my lungs felt like they were imploding; when I sat wrapped in my quilt, despondent and alone in Hikertown, one foot oozing smelly puss while I weighed my options; when I sat by the trail taking breaks alone because I couldn’t catch up to my friends, or when I spent hours cursing and crying and postholing, just praying that I wouldn’t break my leg in the process. I’m pretty sure I knew, even during those darkest moments, that there was literally no where else I wanted to be but out there living and hiking in the wilderness – that I’d look back and miss it, miss all of it, and that I’d prefer the simplicity of all that pain and the daily goals that seemed so hard at the time but were really quite simple.

I think I might be a bit of a masochist.

When I went back to the trail in Washington, it was different. All my friends were gone. The community was gone. The vibe was gone. I got disconnected, cut off, and even being reunited with my trail family couldn’t fix it. I wanted to get off the trail because it wasn’t the same. Nobody knew me. Nobody cared. I didn’t care. I’d let myself get overburdened by expectations – that I had to finish the trail, that I had to show everyone who was watching me that I could do it. It was a relief to finally let go of those burdens.

For a while, my confidence in my decision to get off the trail remained strong. I was home in Idaho for a few weeks and then I went to Costa Rica to visit some friends. After that, I flew straight to Indiana to work a temporary job – a job I hated, but one I knew would be financing my next attempt to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

Costa Rica was a wonderful, beautiful distraction, but shortly after returning to Indiana, I began to sink into the worst sort of depression I’ve ever experienced, and I wasn’t prepared for it. I thought, because I’d made the best decision I could at the time, what with the fires everywhere and being almost a month behind schedule, that I would somehow avoid being depressed about leaving the trail.

I was wrong.

It didn’t help that I was back in Indiana. I personally have nothing against the state itself, but I carry too many negative memories of living there. Anywhere outside of my parents house seemed to have a dark cloud hanging over it, so I didn’t go out. There were too many people from my past I didn’t want to accidentally run into somewhere. Every trip to the grocery store was a cause for anxiety. Every visit to my college town to visit my few remaining friends there made me feel small, worthless, helpless. This is the weight of my past, and while it doesn’t define me, revisiting old “haunts” can’t NOT bring with it anxiety and pain. I moved to Idaho to start again, and the only reason I’m not back there now is because my housing situation there is…fluid. I’ll explain in a moment.

I managed to ward off depression by keeping myself so busy with work and CrossFit that I didn’t have time to think about the fact that I wasn’t hiking, that I wasn’t actually doing anything I really wanted to be doing. It worked for a while.

But I was still hiking in my dreams.

For the better part of a year, my dreams were filled with mountains and river crossings, dry desert landscapes, and an 18″ wide path and the clicking of my trekking poles, coffee so laced with carnation instant breakfast, hot cocoa, coconut oil, and whatever else I could stomach that it tasted more like dessert than breakfast. In my dreams, I opened my eyes and look up at the mesh ceiling of my tent, the canopy of trees, the gray sky beyond as the light faded into night. In my dreams, I was nestled in the silky material of my sleeping quilt, surrounded by the sounds of the woods, of the wind, of water rushing by.

Then I’d open my eyes and remember where I was, and more often than not, I wished I could just sink back into the oblivion of sleep. Sometimes I did. Knowing I had a CrossFit class at 9:00am and that I would need to keep attending these classes to prep for another hike was the only thing that got me out of bed most mornings for a long time.

But it was a struggle. My depression became the worst it’s ever been. I have a history of SDD and anxiety, but this was different. Everything about my life felt wrong, my presence where I was and what I was doing (my presence on earth in general) felt…wrong. I felt trapped, unseen, not misunderstood so much as not bothering to BE understood by the people around me. I began to shut people out.

It was a very dark time in my life. I didn’t know if or when I’d ever be able to get back to the trail, or to any trail, or if that was really what I needed.

I decided that what I needed was a plan, so I got my permit and began making preparations to hike SOBO along the PCT in 2020. I updated my gear and managed to shed several pounds off my base weight. In addition to Crossfit, I started running again in order to shed extra pounds before my start date in July.

But then COVID-19 happened, followed by a string of violent protests in cities large and small across the US. Then more COVID-19 related shutdowns. As I’m typing this, there is a lot of violence and unrest in the world, particularly in the US, it seems, and I decided to postpone by reunion with the Pacific Crest Trail yet again. I know there are several hikers holding SOBO permits who are still going to try for it this year, and the decision not to join them was a very difficult one.

When I return to the trail, I don’t want my experience to be marred by all that’s going on in the Front Country. Attempting a thru-hike is challenging enough without having to worry about wearing a mask and gloves into every resupply town and store, finding that many of the hostels are closed for the season because of the fear, potentially meeting violence and dissension because of political differences in towns…I could go on. Those things are not my primary reason for waiting, though.

Even though I don’t really like my job, I’m thankful I have one. Because of the pandemic and the nationwide shutdown, our unemployment rate is at an all-time high. I have been fortunate enough to be able to keep working through it all, and it seems foolish and irresponsible to leave a perfectly good job in the midst of all this pandemonium. So, I’m biding my time and saving my money. I purchased a vintage airstream last fall and am in the process of rebuilding the interior so I can eventually call it my full-time home. After living out of a backpack for a few months, downsizing to a 23′ Airstream just makes sense. I never had much “stuff” to begin with.

All of this sheltering in place has reminded me just how precious time is, and how we only have so much of it. I’ve been obsessed with hiking the PCT since 2017, and while I haven’t lost that desire even a little bit, I’ve started to remember all those other things I used to hope to do one day. There is a lot of traveling, learning, and doing that I always planned to do but just never did, for one reason or another. A job was too good to leave, a relationship required my full attention, a family member was in need of long-term care, or I was just afraid to put myself out there and go.

The ability to shed all of life’s cares and disappear into the bush for 6 months is a luxury, and when those plans are interrupted or changed, you’ve got to make new plans. You’ve got to give yourself something else to get excited about.

Living in the midst of this pandemic and fearing to travel lest I get caught in the middle of a violent protest has taught me just how much I took my freedom of movement for granted before. Once the borders open back up, I’m gone. I’ve got some plans in the works for international travel and I hope to be able to start sharing those experiences with you all soon. As for my return to the PCT? When the time is right, I will get back out there and make my second attempt. But I’ve decided I’m no longer going to prioritize that dream over the many others I’ve kept locked away all this time.

See you soon!

Published by rogerssj23

I'm a long-distance hiker, an audiobook producer, and an amateur writer. I live in the woods in a renovated 1972 Airstream with my Golden Retriever Zoe. Read more about my hiking adventures at sarahhikes.com.

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