Lost and Alone: A Solo Thru-Hiker’s Perspective

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26 days lost, alone, and starving. Inchworm (Geraldine Largay) had gotten lost while backpacking along the Appalachian Trail and had survived for at least 26 days before perishing in the backwoods of Maine. I didn’t want to imagine it, but as I read the heart-wrenching words in her journal, imploring whoever found her body to let her loved ones know that she was dead and where to find her, I couldn’t help it. It’s the kind of thing that both tragic heroes and horror stories are made of.

I’d had similar thoughts in far less dire circumstances on my solo PCT thru-hike in 2014. Deep in the high sierra, alone, exhausted, hungry, and trudging through the snow with no trail in sight, no people in sight, and surrounded by nameless white peaks I was was overwhelmed by the realization that if I was truly lost, I might die out there and my body might never be found. I’d thought that I’d come terms with the risks and solitude of solo backpacking, but the thought that if something happened to me my family and the people I cared about might not even find my body… it haunted me as I doggedly plunged through the snow, postholing along the route where I imagined the trail to be.

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As it turns out, I wasn’t lost. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Sure, I’d like to imagine that my experience, my GPS, my map, and my compass, would prevent me from ending up in a situation like Inchworm’s, but I have enough experience to know that sh** happens, the mountains are unforgiving, and nobody is perfect.

Instead of second guessing Inchworm’s decisions and her personal character (read this article in the New York Times and this one in the Portland Press Herald if you want to reassure yourself that this could never happen to you because you’re a better outdoors-person than Inchworm was), let’s take a more objective look at how prepared she was.

Bushwhacking through the dense forest in Maine a couple of miles away from where Inchworm was found.

Did she have the “10 essential” pieces of gear every hiker should carry?

She had at least 9/10 of the essentials listed on the HikeSafe website:

  1. Map (yes)
  2. Compass (yes)
  3. Warm Clothing (yes)
  4. Extra Food and Water (yes)
  5. Flashlight or Headlamp (yes)
  6. Matches/Firestarters (yes)
  7. First Aid Kit/Repair Kit (yes)
  8. Whistle (yes)
  9. Rain/Wind Jacket & Pants (yes)
  10. Pocket Knife (unknown to me)

It looks to me like she was fairly well prepared (in terms of gear). Besides, she had enough stuff so that she was able to survive for 26 days after getting lost, which is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.

FYI: Many thru-hikers I know skimp on this list (especially the map, compass, and whistle). I didn’t carry an emergency whistle on my AT thru-hike until I was gifted one by the folks at the Mt. Washington Observatory on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I’ve carried it ever since.

Did she share her travel plan?

According to the HikeSafe website you should “tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.”

Inchworm shared her travel plan. Her husband knew her planned 3-day itinerary, saw her off, and planned to meet her at the next trail intersection.

Graphic: James Abundis/Globe Staff (Note that peak labeled Redington Mountain is not the 4000 footer; Redington Mt. is unlabeled)

Did she S.T.O.P.? (Stop, think, observe, plan)

If you get lost on an outdoor adventure, the general advice is that you should stop (or sit), think, observe, and plan (STOP). All of the evidence suggests that Inchworm did stop, think, observe, and plan, although it can be argued that she should have stopped sooner. The more detailed advice provided by Hike Safe says, “if the last known location is within a reasonable distance, try to go back to it. If you can’t find any recognizable landmarks by backtracking, stay put,” and further elaborates, “you may need to be on higher ground in order to identify landmarks such as streams and ridges.”

The evidence suggests that Inchworm followed this advice, perhaps to a fault. After realizing she was lost she headed to higher ground to try to get her bearings (and to try to get cell phone service) and then she stayed put. With 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to criticize her decision to stay put, but “staying put” and “charging on” are both considered reasonable actions after a few days of waiting for rescue according to some sources.

Did she do the “5 things” you should do if you can’t rescue yourself?

According to hike safe the 5 things you should do if you can’t rescue yourself are:

  1. Stay warm and protect yourself from the elements. If possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.
  2. Try to remain hydrated.
  3. Put bright clothing on, or put out something that’s bright to attract attention.
  4. Continue to blow your whistle at regular intervals
  5. Don’t lie on bare ground. Use the equipment you brought to protect yourself from the elements.

At first glance the evidence suggests that Inchworm did all 5 things. However, there’s that second sentence in step 1, “if possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.” Inchworm’s camp was in a warm and protected space, but it wasn’t readily visible from the air and ground. It seems likely that she looked for an open space and didn’t find one, so opted for higher ground not knowing that there was a nearby ATV road. There is evidence that she tried to increase here visibility by hanging her mylar blanket in the trees and there’s eveidence that she tried to light signal fires.

A campsite in an open area near the Appalachian Trail in Vermont

FYI: Open spaces can be hard to come by in New England’s backcountry, and most of us are used to pitching our tents under the cover of trees. This is especially true since we know that the fields are full of ticks (Lyme Disease is endemic), and camping is strictly prohibited in most other open areas along the trails in the Northeast. “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you” is a helpful reminder if you’re only hope is a helicopter rescue. It’s also important to know that most searches on the ground never get more than 1/2 a days hike from the nearest road, so if you’re backpacking in a remote area you’re best hope is probably going to be getting sighted by someone in the air.

Conclusion

Based on the Hike Safe Hiker Responsibility code developed by the White Mountains National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game, I’d have to declare Inchworm a responsible (and prepared) hiker. In TV survival shows like Naked and Afraid they drop people into the wilds and see if they can survive for 21 days. Inchworm survived for at least 26 days in the wild, and in my opinion that deserves a heck of a lot of respect. Misfortune, tragedy, and death should not be mistaken lack of preparedness, lack of moral fiber, or irresponsibility. Were there things that she could have done differently? Undoubtedly. Does the evidence suggest that she was ill-prepared, or incompetent? No.

Our Role: The Hiking Community

Although there has been lots of discussion about what Inchworm did wrong, and a lot of second-guessing of her actions, I haven’t seen much reflection on what we, as a hiking community, could have done better, or things that search and rescue could have done differently. Take a look at the reduced search area where efforts were focused after the first 7 days.

Map of the narrowed search area for Inchworm

Now take a look at the location where Inchworm was found.

Though earlier searches had come very close to her actual location, later searches focused on a different section of the trail. Why? How did they end up focusing on the wrong stretch of trail? I’m sure that there are a lot of reasons, but one contributing factor could be “a tip the warden service received about a hiker who reportedly stayed with Largay at the Spaulding Mountain lean-to the night before she was reported missing.” Certainly when I hiked through the area in late September the prevailing opinion was that she had gotten lost somewhere between the summit of Lone Mountain and the Carrabassett River (and I’d thought that the river might have done her in). We were all wrong.

She’d made a wrong turn at Orbeton Stream, and was found  much closer to the Poplar Ridge Lean-to than anyone expected (GPS Coordinates of her final location: N44 59.011 W70 24.099). When you look at the time, effort, and heart that went into the search for her by both search and rescue and the hiking community it’s impossible to find fault, but it is a reminder that we should be careful when trusting our memories, and with our reporting of events.

This map shows the tracks of searchers and the location where the remains of Geraldine Largay were found.

Heartbreaking map of the search areas, with a yellow dot showing Inchworm’s final location.

Yeah, but what did she do wrong?

Let’s take a look at the things people say that Inchworm did wrong.

Inchworm hiked alone. Inchworm started out with a hiking partner, but when her hiking partner got off of the trail due to a family emergency she decided to continue on. Although there is no guarantee that hiking with others will keep you safe, there is also no doubt that there is “safety in numbers,” and Inchworm was hiking alone when she got lost.  There are lots of reasons why people hike alone. I always invite other people to join me on my adventures, but when I can’t find people to join me, I frequently make the decision to hike alone. I love hiking and backpacking, and I have no intention of letting the fact that I’m solo deter me from following my dreams. For me, the benefit is worth the risk. That said, I try to minimize that risk as much as I can… lost, alone, and starving to death is not my idea of a good time!

Inchworm may not have known how to use her compass. Inchworm’s friend Jane Lee said that even though Inchworm carried a compass she didn’t know how to use it. Regardless of whether or not this assertion is true, it serves as an important reminder that your safety gear is useless if you don’t know how to use it. If you are a hiker that carries a compass, when is the last time that you used it? Chances are pretty good that a little practice and review with a map and compass would do you good. I think that it is also worth noting that most of the “concerning evidence” reported about Inchworm’s incompetence comes from the hiking partner who had to leave Inchworm and the trail because of a family emergency. As her hiking partner is human, it is incredibly likely that Inchworm’s disappearance was traumatic for her and that she was struggling to understand her friend’s disappearance and trying to bridge the gap between knowing that her friend’s disappearance was not her fault, and feeling like Inchworm wouldn’t have gotten lost if she had still been there hiking with her… Coming to terms with those feeling in the immediate aftermath of Inchworm’s disappearance may have caused her to overemphasize her concerns.

My impromptu backcountry campsite nestled under the trees near Mt. Abraham in Maine

Inchworm stayed in one place for too long. This criticism largely seems like a hindsight is 20/20 kind of issue. Inchworm followed conventional wisdom, sheltering in place, near water, and minimizing her hypothermia risks. I haven’t seen any guidelines that say that you should abandon your camp and move on if rescue hasn’t arrived within a day or two (please comment and share if you’ve found any). Bumbling around in the woods, especially after you’re been lost and when you have a dwindling supply of food, puts you at a high risk of injury and will cause you to burn calories and eat through your resources more quickly. I don’t think Inchworm stayed in one place for too long, it is more likely that she stayed in the wrong place for too long.

Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her. The missing person’s report states “SPOT@hotel.” Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her! Why? Why would it be listed as “SPOT@hotel”? Why didn’t she have it with her? My guess is that it’s absence from her gear and her person was 100% accidental. Why she’d taken it out of/off of her pack we may never know (perhaps to replace the batteries?), but this is the most tragic example of “your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you” that I have ever heard! Would Inchworm have been found? Would she be alive today if she’d had her locator device with her and activated it? Probably. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes! Your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you!

An InReach satellite messenger lent to me by my friend Root Beer Float

What would I do differently?

If I get lost, I want to get found!! When I think about what I could do differently one thing immediately comes to mind. I can carry some sort of personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger with me. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be found and rescued, (Kate Matrosova had a GPS, a PLB, and a sat phone with her when she perished in the White Mountains in the winter of 2015), but it certainly increases the chances.

The only question is, which device should I carry? Since I’m looking for a device/technology that my life may depend on, I’ve done a lot of research on the current SOS/locator/messenger technology and devices available. Stay tuned for my analysis, gear-review, and decision based on the three main options:

For more information on what you should do if you get lost and how to avoid getting lost, check out NOHLs “What to do when you’re lost in the woods” post.

USGS Topo Map showing the GPS Coordinates where Inchworm was found along with the AT and 4WD roads nearby.

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Thru-hike Toothbrush Review (Backpacking/Ultralight)

Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different backpacking toothbrushes, and I’ve hated most of them… They’re usually too small to fit comfortable in my hand, awkward to use,  and/or messy! I also find the idea of spitting anything (even toothpaste, maybe especially toothpaste) into the bushes to be contrary to my leave no trace ethos… So brushing my teeth in the back-country has always seemed like a bit of an onerous chore… Unfortunately, going on a thru-hike and not brushing my teeth for 5 months wasn’t something I was willing to do, so I started experimenting with toothbrushes… After 5000 miles of backpacking, I’ve found a few that I like:

Colgate Wisp Max Fresh Peppermint Mini-Brushes, 24 count

The Colgate Wisp (5/5): By far my favorite backpacking toothbrush… I discovered them on my 2014 PCT thru-hike and have used them on almost all of my backpacking adventures since:

  • Usability(5/5): Easy to use, seems effective, minimal practice required
  • Weight(4/5): for a weekend trip (5/5) because I only take one… for a thru-hike with 5-7 days between resupplies I would take a few (0.3lbs shipping weight for 24 including packaging)
  • Cost (5/5): ~$0.21/each ($4.96/24)
  • Availability (5/5): Walmart and many convenience stores/gas stations
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… On the PCT where water was a premium I was loath to waste water on wetting my toothbrush, spitting out toothpaste, and cleaning my toothbrush… This little guy solved all those problems in one fell swoop
  • Hygiene (5/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when they get funky. Individual results may vary, but I was willing/able to use each brush at least 2-3 times before the minty goodness wore off (more if I cleaned them and didn’t mind the loss of mintiness).
    • Bonus: does not involve sticking your fingers in your mouth!!

Rolly Mini-Toothbrush(3-4/5): The lightest weight option, which is awesome, but seems to requires some skill to use effectively (without sticking your fingers in your mouth… Note: if you are super sensitive to strong flavors you may find its mintyness  overpowering at first.

  • Usability(3-4/5): Some skill required to get used to rolling around my teeth… I’ve used them 5 times so far, and with practice I expect that I will come to appreciate them more
  • Weight(5/5): Certainly the smallest and lightest weight toothbrush I’ve encountered… Just make sure you don’t accidentally swallow it! (0.3 oz shipping weight including packaging for 6 or them)
  • Cost(3/5): $0.60-$0.99/each
  • Availability(3/5): Available at some Walgreens stores and on Amazon
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… and small… nothing to complain about there
  • Hygiene (4/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when you’re done using them… the fact that you have to directly handle it to put it into your mouth (and to take it out), makes it more squeamish for re-use… for single use no problem (Mintiness lasted through 2, 2-minute uses for me)

GUM Folding Travel Toothbrush(4/5): For my 2013 AT thru-hike I eventually settled on this folding toothbrush because I found the lighter alternatives to obnoxious to use for such a long trip. I hiked over a thousand miles with it! For general travel I give this a 5/5… It is my favorite reusable travel toothbrush!

  • Usability(5/5): If you’re looking for a travel toothbrush that fits in your hand like a normal toothbrush, doesn’t break in two while you’re brushing, and still folds up nicely for travel, this is the toothbrush for you.
  • Weight(3/5): It’s not ultralight by any stretch of the imagination
  • Cost(4/5): ~$4.50 each, typically sold in two-packs, reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Available at Walmart and on Amazon
  • Convenience(4/5): They are handy and reusable… they still require water, toothpaste, and washing, but it’s a toothbrush, what do you expect?
  • Hygiene (4/5): If you have plentiful access to water and can wash them regularly then hygiene is not an issue… I didn’t have any issues beyond what I’d expect with a normal toothbrush.

Safety First Finger Toothbrush(2/5): I would call this (along with all the other finger toothbrushes I’ve tried) a failed experiment.

  • Usability(2/5): the bristles didn’t seem very effective for me, and having to put my finger in my mouth seemed dubious (especially as a thru-hiker)…
  • Weight(3/5): much lighter than a normal toothbrush, and lighter than my travel toothbrush with holes cut into it…additional weight could be saved by trimming excess bits off of it, but then you have the hygiene issue of having your dirty finger in your mouth… I’m not sure that its worth it :-P (0.8 oz shipping weight; leave a comment if you know the weight of just the brush)
  • Cost(4/5): $1.99 is not bad considering that its reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Easy to get at Walmart (or similar) at Dollar Generals along the AT, which is how I ended up experimenting with one.
  • Convenience(3/5): Required washing, toothpaste, and usual care and maintenance of toothbrush
  • Hygiene(1/5): Didn’t clean my teeth well, required me to actually put my exposed finger in my mouth to clean rear teeth, and if water etc got into it, it tended to linger… yuck!

Do you have a favorite backpacking and/or travel toothbrush? Share your favorites in the comments! (Also, if you know the individual weights of the toothbrushes I’ve mentioned, let me know and I’ll update the post… I don’t have a scale with me.

Links to other backpacking/travel toothbrushes/reviews:

Thru-hike Trekking Pole Review: Leki Carbon Titaniums

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Trekking poles have been an indispensable part of my hiking and backpacking gear for over a decade, so when I set off to hike the Appalachian Trail (2013), and then the Pacific Crest Trail (2014) there was never a question… I was going to bring trekking poles with me. I chose the Leki Carbon Titaniums for my adventures:

  • Purchased: Fall 2012
  • Weight: 16.6 oz/pair
  • Length: 62-135 cm
  • MSR: $199.95

I started using the Leki Carbon Ti trekking poles in the fall of 2012 and I am still using them today (two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles later).

  • Functionality (10/10): I use my trekking poles for additional stability (I have a history of spraining my ankles without them) and to reduce the stress on my knees (especially going downhill). During the last 2 years (and ~5000 miles of backpacking through some of the most rugged terrain in the United States) my knees and ankles have remained sprain free! I love my trekking poles and found them to be incredibly useful during both of my thru-hikes… especially in rocky, sandy, and snowy terrain.
  • Fitness (9/10): Most people lose upper body strength during their thru-hikes, but I rely so heavily on my trekking poles that I actually gained upper body strength! I use my trekking poles for more than just passive stabilization, I use them to actively propel myself forward (similar to the way cross-country skiers use their poles), which engages the muscles of my upper body and turns hiking/backpacking into a full-body workout.
  • Comfort (8/10): The grips are comfortable and the adjustable height allows me to set my poles to the length that works best for me (I’m 5’10, have a 35 inch inseam, and have had trouble finding fixed length poles that were long enough for me in the past). During thru-hikes I build up callouses on my palms from heavy trekking pole use, but the poles remain comfortable even in hot, sweaty weather.
    • Note: I get rashes on my hands when I use poles with cork handles, so I stay away from the cork handles!
  • Locking Mechanism (8/10): The clip locks are much easier to deal with, and more convenient than the older twist-style locking mechanisms. I usually use my poles at a fixed length and only collapse them to their minimum size for transportation in cars or when I’m in town (even fully collapsed I wish they were shorter and more stowable than they are). The only time I intentionally adjusted the length of my poles was on the steep, snowy slopes of the High Sierra when I wasn’t using my ice axe. For the most part I didn’t have any trouble with the locks loosening as I hiked, but during the the last ~500 miles of the PCT (after ~4000 miles of use) the lower locks seemed to loosen occasionally. Even then I only needed to re-tighten them once or twice.
    • Pro-tip: Carry a quarter or a dime in your repair/emergency kit so that you can tighten the locks if they loosen over time. It’s much easier/better to mechanically tighten them with a coin than to do it by hand.
    • Pro-tip: When traversing steep snowfields you can shorten the up-slope pole and use both poles in the snow if you don’t have an ice axe or for some reason don’t think an ice axe is necessary.
    • Pro-tip: Your ice axe is only useful if you have it out! When in doubt, take it out!!! Trekking poles are not good ice axe replacements… Having attempted to self-arrest with a trekking pole I can strongly recommend against it (1/10)… Know when to use your ice axe, know how to use it, and take it out of your pack before you need it. Repeat after me, “When in doubt, take it out!!!”

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  • Durability (8/10): I am not gentle with my gear, and that is certainly true when it comes to my trekking poles. I have used my Leki Crabon Ti trekking poles on every hike and backpacking trip that I’ve been on since I purchased them in the fall of 2012 and have been impressed with their overall ruggedness and durability.

Even though I love my trekking poles, over the course of ~5000 miles of use they’ve accumulated some damage…

  • Repairs:
    • Carbon Fiber Shaft (8/10): I didn’t have any trouble with the poles during the ~2200 miles of my 2013 AT thru-hike. However, crossing through the High Sierras (PCT 2014) the middle section of one of my trekking poles sheered in half! I was able to remove that section and fully extend and lock together the remaining sections for a mostly functional pole until Leki sent me a replacement section (no questions asked) in my next mail drop.
      • Leki offers a 1 year warranty on carbon fiber pole segments.
      • Pro tip: Call Leki directly… I had hoped that the folks at Mammoth Mountaineering (4/10) in Mammoth Lakes would help me out, but they don’t help thru-hikers with warranty issues of any kind (I was hoping for Leki and Big Agnes help at the time).pole
    • Carbide Tips (6/10): They are reasonably durable, but replacing them is a challenge. It is hard (as in nearly impossible) to remove the old, overused tips to install the new tips.
      • The original pair of carbide tips saw me through the entire AT (~2200 miles) and the first section of the PCT (from Campo to Idyllwild, CA).
      • I purchased a new pair of tips at Nomad Ventures (10/10), but the old tips were so impacted that I couldn’t remove them. I ended up enlisting the aid of the store owner, a table vice, and some pliers before we finally managed to get them off…
      • The second pair was worn out by the time I got to Ashland, OR. Once again, I needed to enlist a store employee to remove the old tips, which he wasn’t able to do successfully (even using the appropriate tools), so he just fitted the new tips over them.
      • Carbide tips are not covered by Leki’s warranty and they told me on the phone that they expect each pair of tips to last about 500 miles though they were reluctant to give an exact mileage or duration.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would put a thin silicone or rubber coating over the carbide tips to reduce the noise of the poles on rocky surfaces… Wildlife and other hikers can hear you coming from a mile away as you click across the rocks with your trekking poles.
      • Pro-tip: If you want to see more bears, put your trekking poles away :-P
    • Wrist Strap (8/10): After more than 3000 miles of use, one of the wrist straps broke. The people at the Ashland Outdoor Store (10/10) replaced the wrist strap for me with one they had lying around.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would add a quick release to the wrist straps. I like hiking with the straps, and it helps make sure I don’t accidentally lose them down steep slopes, but the physics involved in some falls (especially on slippery, muddy down-slopes) mean having your wrists locked into the straps in a way that may contribute to severe wrist injuries or stress fractures (see below).20140507-223445.jpg
  • Injuries:

Despite the damages, I would give the Leki Carbon Titanium trekking polls a very good overall rating (8/10) and would recommend them to other hikers, backpackers, and thru-hikers. If I were to purchase new trekking poles I would get these unless I found something just as rugged and durable, but lighter weight, and with a more packable profile. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts, questions, and/or trekking pole experiences!

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Even after two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles of heavy use my leki carbon ti trekking poles are my constant companions! (McAffee Knob, VA – AT section hike fall 2014).

 

 

2014 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike Photos

On my 2014 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail I was amazed by how dramatically and how beautifully the land (and everything on it) changed as I hiked from Mexico to Canada! Though I posted some of the photos I took with my iPhone to Instagram (patchesthru) along the way, I also took thousands of photos with my ‘good’ camera (a Sony Nex 5N with two lenses:16 mm f/2.8 and 55-210mm, f/4.5-6.3). Now that I’m home, I’ve started going through my pictures and am falling in love with the trail all over again! The photos below (and those on this 2015 calender) are amongst my favorites so far:

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Wild about Wild? A Thru-Hiker’s Book Review and More.

If the shoe fits?

“I am a solo female long-distance hiker, but I’m not Cheryl Strayed! Wild is not a book about me! It’s not even a book about backpacking!” was what I wanted to scream from the mountaintops every time someone on the PCT asked me if I’d read Wild.

  • Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Author: Cheryl Strayed
  • Publication Date: March 20, 2012
  • Print list price: $15.95
  • Weight: 5.6 oz, 315 pages
  • Kindle edition: $3.99

“Have you read Wild?”  It was always asked with the best of intentions. It was an attempt to start a conversation with the wild creature known as a thru-hiker (someone that had spent months on the trail, away from the world of small talk). Surely, as a solo female hiker on the PCT, I must have thoughts and opinions about Wild, right? There were just two problems: 1) I’d been asked that question hundreds of times before, and 2) I wanted to have a meaningful conversation about it, it’s impact on the trail, it’s impact on me, or it’s impact on the person asking,  but there were a lot of assumptions that we needed to sort out before we could get started…

Biography/Memoir Rating (9/10):

  • Wild is a book about grief, loss, addiction, and self-discovery. Wild is a memoir about Cheryl Strayed.
  • As I read Wild, I was amazed by the brutal honesty with which Cheryl Strayed described the low points in her life: her grieving process, her depression, her addiction, her marriage, and her incredibly flawed coping mechanisms. I both admired that brutal honesty and found it alienating. I didn’t want to be dragged through the ugly parts of her life, forced to watch helplessly as she self-destructed. That brutal honesty, however, is what made Cheryl Strayed’s character incredibly human, and made her story incredibly powerful. As the story transitioned from self-destruction to recovery, I found myself beginning to really care about her character. I winced at her blisters, her grief, and her inexperience. I shook my head and cringed at her bad decisions and incompetence. I understood her fearlessness and her solitude. I smiled at her bravery, her stubbornness, and her friendships. By the time the book ended, I was glad that I’d read it. Wild felt like a very honest story about one woman’s battle with grief and growing up, and I both enjoyed and respected it for what it was.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read this book if you like memoirs and stories about personal growth and recovery.
    • Don’t: read this book if consistently poor decision making bothers you.
    • Don’t: assume that your backpacking friends will automatically love this memoir.

Adventure/Travel Book Rating (5/10):

  • Wild is not a book about backpackers/backpacking. Wild is not a book about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
  • When I first read Wild, I was under the mistaken impression that I was picking up a book about backpacking and the PCT… As I began reading the book I was immediately disappointed. Despite the hiking boot on the cover, and the mention of the PCT in the title, Wild was shaping up to be drama, and not the adventure I’d hoped for! It wasn’t until Chapter 4 that the stage had (painstakingly) been set, and the hike was on… the story was still about Cheryl Strayed’s character development, but now she had a foil – the PCT… It was her interactions with that foil that made the book engaging and interesting to me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: skip the first three chapters of the book if you are having trouble getting into the back story. She explains enough within the context of the hike that you probably won’t feel like you are missing anything later.
    • Don’t: expect Wild to be about backpacking and/or the PCT.

Backpacking/Wilderness/PCT Guidebook Rating (1/10):

  • Wild is not a book about how one should conduct oneself in the backcountry. Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild is not the image of the responsible outdoorswoman and backpacker that we, as a backpacking community, would like to represent us in popular culture.
  • As I read Wild it seemed like it could be the guide for “what not to do” in the backcountry. For example, the famous scene where Cheryl throws her boot off a cliff… Is it good storytelling? Yes. Is it appropriate backcountry behavior? No. It’s a gross violation of Leave No Trace ethics… No matter how upset and/or frustrated you are with your gear, if you carry it into the Wilderness, you need to carry it back out with you. It irritated me that in the book Cheryl Strayed didn’t just own her bad decisions, she seemed to take pride in them!
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: Check out Yogi’s Guide if you’re looking for a guidebook for the PCT.
    • Do: Check out the PCTAs wilderness tips if you’re looking for some general hiking/backpacking advice.
    • Don’t throw any of your stuff off of a cliff!
    • Don’t wander aimlessly down random jeep roads in the desert! Cheryl Strayed was incredibly lucky that her forays down random jeep roads ended as well as they did… dehydration and getting lost in the desert are huge and potentially fatal issues!

Conversation Starter with the Thru-Hiker You Just Met (0/10):

  • One of the most common questions thru-hikers on the AT and on the PCT get asked is: “Have you read Wild?” This is especially true if you are a solo woman backpacking in the woods. Even though it is a well-intentioned attempt to start a conversation, it often ends up feeling awkward and complicated. After the first dozen or so Wild conversations I had, I gave up any illusion that the conversation I was entering into was going to be about the book… I was probably going to hear a vilification of Cheryl Strayed, an idolization of Cheryl Strayed, or imagined horrors about the throngs of inexperienced people (especially women) Wild was going to inspire to invade the Wilderness.
  • The biggest problem I have with Wild conversations is that they are usually laden with preformed assumptions and biases about backpacking, about the hiking community, about women, and about me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read Wild if you are a thru-hiker. Lots of people are going to ask you about it, and if you’re going to express an opinion about the book, you should read it first.
    • Don’t: ask the thru-hiker that you’ve just met on the trail if they’ve read Wild. Try asking them what they love about the trail instead.
    • Don’t assume that Wild is what inspired my thru-hikes.

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Ask a Solo Female Thru-Hiker!

  • When people say that Wild is inspirational, what do they mean?
    • They mean that Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, or that her character is inspirational.
  • What goes through your head when somebody says, “Wild was so inspirational, is it what inspired your hike?”
    • Why would they assume the Wild inspired me to hike the trail? Even though Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, her hiking/backpacking skills come closer to terrifying me than inspiring me.
  • Why does it bother you when they assume that Wild is what inspired you to hike?
    1. It bothers me because Wild isn’t what inspired me to hike.
    2. It bothers me because I am an experienced backpacker (I’ve been hiking and backpacking for 30 years). When people assume that Wild is what inspired me to hike, they’re assuming that I am relatively inexperienced since the book didn’t come out until 2012.
    3. It bothers me because I am a woman. Even though both men and women on the trail end up having Wild conversations, men typically don’t get asked if they’re just like Cheryl Strayed, and men typically don’t get asked if Wild is what inspired them to hike. Why? Because backpacking is culturally accepted as something that men do, whereas women backpacking and hiking (especially) solo is contrary to traditional gender roles… Both my mom and my dad were my backpacking role models, not Cheryl Strayed.
  • Do people actually say, “You must be just like Cheryl Strayed!”
    • Yes, I’ve had it happen more than once. My immediate thought is, “Not all of the women on the trail are inexperienced, incompetent, heroin addicts, looking for sex and searching for salvation! I’m not any of those things! Why would someone think that I am just like Cheryl Strayed?” But I calm myself down and answer my own question. They think that I’m just like Cheryl Strayed because I’m a woman, I’m a backpacker, and I’m alone. Both Cheryl Strayed and I are much, much more than that… It sells both of us short…
  • Why is Wild controversial in the backpacking community?
    • The backpacking community is concerned that Wild will inspire droves of inexperienced people to explore the backcountry in irresponsible ways. We were all inexperienced once (and should always leave room for learning), and goofing up is part of learning, but we want to encourage people to learn to share our love of the Wilderness and the trail as responsibly as possible… Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild doesn’t always provide the best role model for that.
  • Are there other things that you dislike about Wild conversations?
    • Yes! I love the freedom and independence that backpacking (and doing it solo) affords me… freedom from societies rules about what I should be, what I can do, and how I should act. For many people, reading and discussing Wild allows them to experience some of that freedom. Unfortunately for me, conversations about Wild on the trail are often harsh reminders that I’m not as far away from societies biases as I think I am. Even though Wild consciously contradicts some of those biases (e.g. the idea that women shouldn’t travel alone), it accidentally reinforces others (e.g. women are incompetent and women that have sex are sluts).
  • What is your favorite thing about the Wild conversations that you’ve had?
    • I love it when people tell me stories about Wild and how it inspired and/or empowered them. Watching people grow to the love the outdoors and the sport that I love is an amazing experience. I think that it is great that Cheryl Strayed and Wild are inspiring people to get out and hike. It is one of the most amazing feelings in the world to discover that I have inspired someone to get out and hike and I appreciate anything that encourages people to share my passion for the Wilderness and the trail.
  • Did anything in the book really resonate with you as a long-distance hiker?
    • A lot of people ask me what I think about as I hike, assuming that I am thinking about the world’s problems (or at least my own), but in reality a large percentage of the time I’m hiking I have fragments of songs stuck in my head. Cheryl Strayed describes that really well when she says, “I found my mind playing and replaying scraps of songs and jingles in an eternal, nonsensical loop, as if there were a mix-tape radio station in my head.” Fragments of songs would get stuck in my head and just play over and over again as I hiked… Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose from Janis Joplin, and slight variations on The Ramones, I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my toes. Oh no no no no no were some of the most frequent offenders. Sometimes I would just re-write the lyrics to songs as I hiked, like Eye of the Tiger by Survivor, which became my hiking ballad, Heart of the Mountains or Queen’s Bicycle, which become Calories.
  • Did anything in Wild really resonant with you as a solo hiker?
    • Yes, when Cheryl Strayed wrote about one of her conversations, “You’re not alone, are you?” … “And what on earth does your mother have to say about that?”… “Aren’t you scared all by yourself?”… I found myself nodding vigorously. I’ve had even more conversations about being alone on the trail than I’ve had about Wild. I’ll have to share my thoughts and stories about that in a future post, but I will say this: I didn’t set out to do my thru-hikes alone, I set out to follow my dreams… learning to be comfortable doing that alone has been one of the greatest gifts the trails have given me.

One of my favorite quotes from Wild is, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told…” Not only did Cheryl Strayed tell herself a different story, she shared that story with the rest of the world. The fact that Wild is giving people, especially women, the courage to tell themselves new stories and to live new dreams is inspiring. Some of the backlash against Wild in the backpacking community is from fear – fear that in the aftermath of the movie the trails will be flooded with “Girls gone Wild!”, fear that new hikers/backpackers will hurt themselves, hurt the trail, and hurt the Wilderness… I think we need to stop telling ourselves those stories and start telling ourselves a different story… a story about millions of new people inspired to learn more about the wilderness, a story about people getting outside and walking, a story about renewed interest in the preservation of the PCT and other long distance trails… A story about trails where both men and women, novices and experts, old and young, can come together and explore their dreams!

Check out the Wild book review my friend Invictus (AT 2013) wrote!

Update: For different solo female thru-hikers take on Wild check out this article on Jezebel.com

Canada! (PCT Day 167)

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For weeks, if not months, I’d been dreaming about what I was going to do when I got off of the trail… Most of those dreams involved food… My mouth watered as I imagined the amazing cuisine that awaited me in civilization… milkshakes, hamburgers, fries, filet mignon, eggs benedict, salmon, creme brulee, cupcakes, cookies, pies… Mmmm… pies.

Even though I kept dreaming about food, a new dream started to creep in with surprising urgency… A dream of going to the Ocean. After five months of hiking along what I think of as the west coast (California, Oregon, and Washington) without catching even a glimpse of the ocean, I felt an overwhelming urge to go and see the Pacific Ocean after I finished my hike… I dreamed about wriggling my toes in the soft, cold sand. I dreamed about the sound of crashing waves. I dreamed about cowboy camping on the beach… As I hiked I realized that it was a dream, but it was also more than that… I needed to see water… big water… I needed to see water stretching out in front of me as far as the eye could see… Water so big that it felt like it must go on forever… After hiking through so much desert and fire, I just needed to see the water… The ocean would be the yin to the mountains yang… It was what I needed to round out my trip.

When the Canadian border finally came into view, however, all of my dreams about food and the ocean instantly disappeared. Canada?! Canada! Canada! That one word eclipsed all thoughts. There was no past, there was no future, there was no present, there was just one word… Canada!

I stood a stone’s throw away from the Canadian Border, staring at the PCT terminus and monument 78 in shock with the word Canada stuck on repeat in my brain… I stopped moving and I tried to make sense of that word… Canada… It just didn’t seem possible.Walking from Mexico to Canada isn’t something that people actually do. It’s just a dream, right? Yet here I was… Canada!

I thought back to the start, to the Mexican border, with all of its barbed wire and corrugated steel… to the clean-shaven border patrol officers warning us about the armed and dangerous illegals in the area… I thought back to the desert, to the cacti, to the drought, and to the heat… Even though I was facing the unknown, I hadn’t hesitated when I stepped away from that corrugated steel wall (under the careful watch of the border patrol officers) and headed off on my hike.

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However, everything about the Canadian border was different… there was no barbed wire, there was no fence, there was no border guard (no mountie waiting to check my permit for “entry into Canada via the Pacific Crest Trail”)… Instead, there was a clear-cut gap in the forest, about 2o feet wide, that extended to the East and to the West as far as the eye could see… That gap was the border between the US and Canada and there were just three things in that gap: the PCT terminus monument, monument 78, and my mom.

Here, at the Canadian border, I was hesitating… For the last five months the trail had been my world, my life, my everything… so much had happened since I left the Mexican border… I wanted all of the memories and adventures from the last 2660 miles to flash in front of my eyes before I crossed over… I wanted to have that perfect moment of clarity, of understanding, of bliss, that would neatly sum up the meaning of life, the trail, and everything before I crossed into Canada… I wanted some kind of closure.

In the story of my life the PCT was huge! It felt like it should end with a big, powerful reveal after the resolution of all of the plot-lines of my life. Unfortunately, the closure I was looking for refused to emerge from the chaos of my thoughts and memories… I couldn’t force the PCT into one simple, powerful, universal statement… it remained fractured into thousands of little stories of transformation and transcendence…

The PCT wasn’t the story of my life, but it had been an amazing chapter… A chapter that I loved so dearly that I didn’t want it to end… a chapter so powerful that it seemed like it couldn’t possible end… that it would never end… I fell into denial as soon as I put the word end into the same thought as PCT. I glanced behind me with defiance and muttered, “It doesn’t have to be over, I could just turn around and walk back to Mexico.” It was an incredibly tempting thought…

I was stuck there, within sight of the the border, my mind racing, trying to come to terms with the reality that this was it… this was the end of the PCT for me, and it wasn’t ending with a nice, clean resolution of everything, it was ending with a cliff-hanger… It was an ending that begged just one question…

“What next?” It was the question that had been nagging at me… everyone (including me) seemed sure that after 5000 miles of hiking, after countless hours of solitude with nothing but my thoughts for company, that I would have discovered the answer to that one, simple question… “What Next?”…. but I didn’t have the answer… not a real answer… not the answer that everyone was looking for, not the answer that I was looking for, so I was hesitating there at the border… The word Canada no longer eclipsed everything… I was miles and miles away, lost in thoughts of the past, the trail, endings, beginnings, and the infinite possible futures ahead of me.

As I stood there lost in contemplation my mom gently reached out and grabbed my hand, “Come on,” she said, “you can do this!” My mom had flown from Boston, MA to Vancouver, B.C., and then had hiked 8 miles from Manning Park to the Canadian border (my dad, just out of surgery, was not far behind her) to meet me, to celebrate with me, and to support me. I let her guide me over to the monument, and laughed when I thought that maybe this was the whole reason my parents had come out here… to make sure that I didn’t just turn around and disappear back into the woods… They were there to provide me with the anchor and the support that I needed… to remind me that even though the trail was my home, there was still another home out there waiting for me, a home full of family and friends that loved me and missed me… As my mom pulled me into the clearing marking the transition from the United States into Canada, she pulled me back into the now, back to that word, that place… back to Canada…

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“I’m in Canada!” I exclaimed triumphantly as I reached out and touched the monument.  I had hiked myself into a foreign country… I had hiked the entire length of the USA, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, and beyond… I was finally in Canada! It was time for hugs, for celebrations, for champagne, for huckleberry wine, and for the pastries that my mom had hiked out to me… This was it… Canada! I stood there in awe of the monument… in awe of my journey… in awe of the PCT!

I felt like I had just won the Super Bowl of hiking, which brought me back to that question, “Patches, you’ve just completed the PCT, what are you going to do next?” I had to laugh, my answer to that definitely wasn’t, “I’m going to Disney World.” Disney World was the last place on earth that I wanted to go… There were infinite possible futures ahead of me, but the bigger questions of what I was going to do with my life could wait…  Right now it was time for vacation, celebration, and recovery. “I’m going to eat all of the food and I’m going to go to the Ocean!” I was going to make the little dreams come true before delving back into the bigger dreams… I was going to eat hamburgers, fries, filet mignon, eggs benedict, salmon, creme brulee, cupcakes, cookies, and pies… I was going to drink milkshakes… and I was going to go to the Ocean!

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A Mountain Personified

A Mountain Personified

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“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey

The mountains are my mentors, and my most trusted advisers. They constantly challenge me, forcing me to think, to learn, to explore, and to grow in unanticipated ways. When I take a wrong turn, or stumble and fall, they patiently wait for me to regain my footing and continue my journey. They demand respect, and through their silence, force me to gain confidence in myself and in my own voice. When I get to the peak, they proudly share their beauty and understanding, all the while reminding me of the vastness of the world, and the infinite possibilities awaiting me as my journeys continue.

The mountains of the Appalachian (2013) and Pacific Crest (2014) Trails have been my most recent mentors, but long before those mountains, I had the privilege of having a different Mountain as a mentor: David Mountain. Like many mountains, I have to admit that I was intimidated the first time that I met him. I was a Ph.D candidate studying the mechanics of hearing and I was in his office asking him (one of big names in the field) to be on my thesis committee. He had slightly disheveled curly white hair, and a white beard and mustache to match, but it was the intensity of his gaze that made the biggest impression on me. When I sat down and proposed my thesis he fixed me with that gaze and just waited… the quiet intensity of his gaze cut right to the heart of things, and made me squirm… he didn’t say anything, he just waited as I explained my project, my thoughts, and my ideas… his gaze never wavered, his expression never changed… It was incredibly nerve wracking! As I gained confidence, however, his intense gaze was broken more and more frequently by his smile, a smile that had the same intensity as his gaze and was just as memorable. It was a smile that lit up the entire room. I successfully convinced him to be on my qualifying exam committee and thesis committee and have been proud to consider him one of my mentors ever since. He challenged my assumptions, and forced me to think, learn, and grow, both as an engineer and as a person.

As with any journey, my scientific journey was fraught with unforeseen challenges, challenges that at times seemed insurmountable… it was in these moments that I would turn to Mountain for counsel… He didn’t hand me the answers. Instead, he reminded me that we were explorers in uncharted territory, and that the unforeseen was part of what made the journey so incredible, so worthwhile, and so beautiful. After I finished my dissertation I wrote thank yous to the people that had advised and supported me on my epic scientific endeavor. For David Mountain, I thanked him for reminding me that “complications and unexpected outcomes often lead to the most interesting results.”

The idea that “complications and unexpected outcomes often lead to the most interesting results” is relevant not just to my scientific journey, but also to my thru-hikes… The most amazing experiences I had on the trail were not things that I could have predicted, they were the result of complications, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Earlier this week I learned that my mentor, David C. Mountain, Ph.D., had passed away. It was impossible for me to envision the scientific landscape that I had grown up in without Mountain there, in the middle of it, with his steadfast gaze, his brilliant insights, and his heartwarming smile. As I struggled to wrap my head around the news I decided to go for a hike… I hiked into and above the clouds… Standing there on top of the mountain with the vastness of the world spread out around me my thoughts wandered… they wandered to Sir Isaac Newton’s cannonball thought experiment in which he envisioned a very tall mountain with an imaginary cannon at it’s summit launching things into orbit, things that would keep circling and moving long after the cannon and mountain were gone if only they had enough velocity… It made me think about the robot that landed on a comet earlier this week… It made me think about humanity and the way that ideas propagate through time… It made me smile, and I launched into a thought experiment of my own… envisioning David Mountain there, at the top of Newton’s imaginary mountain, adding more and more gunpowder to the proverbial cannon, giving his friends, family, colleagues, and ideas the extra boost that they needed get into orbit… We are the cannonballs, still moving forward on our journeys, even after the Mountain is gone.

My sincere condolences to David’s family. He was an amazing person and he will be missed. His funeral will be held at the Conte Funeral Home at 193 High Street in Newburyport on Saturday afternoon (11/15) with visitation hours from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. For more information about David Mountain’s life and scientific contributions see this article in Boston University’s BME news.

No One Left Behind…

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Over the course of the last two years I have had the privilege of hiking 5000 miles on two of our National Scenic Trails (the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails), and I’ve gotten to know veterans from all across the country… They don’t always share my politics (my facebook feeds can attest to that!), but I’ve learned that we have one very important thing in common, our willingness to drop everything and go the the aid of a fellow in need… We strive to leave no one behind… Growing up I associated this “leave no man behind” ethos with one of my heroes, my dad, a Vietnam combat veteran, but it wasn’t until my AT and PCT thru-hikes that I began to associate it with the military and with other veterans.

Though different branches of the service phrase it differently, “I will never leave a fallen comrade”– US Soldiers Creed, “I will never leave an Airman behind”-Airman’s Creed, “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy -Ranger Creed, the basic idea remains the same… No man left behind… To me, it is a dedication to our humanity even in the most inhuman of circumstances… It is a way of life… It is a willingness to make sacrifices in honor of a commitment to your comrades, a commitment to your family, to your friends, to your community, and even to the stranger that reaches out to you… To me it is an acknowledgment of, and a dedication to, our shared humanity and it transcends politics and religion… It is a sentiment that makes you a part of my family, whether you know it or not.

Saying thank you to our veterans feels like a start, one step towards acknowledging the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women, one step towards welcoming our veterans back into the civilian world, but it is just a beginning. I want to do more than just say thank you… I want to recognize all of my friends and family that have served… I want to remind them that I am interested in their stories… I am interested in their lives… I want to take the time to recognize our shared humanity, and I want to grow our relationship based on that humanity, as perfect or as flawed as that may be… I want to hear the stories that you want to share, I want to respect your right to silence… I believe that no one should be left behind (in any sense), and I will strive, today and everyday, to renew that commitment to my friends, my family, my community, and to the veterans that I have had the privilege and honor of knowing.

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For other posts I’ve written about veterans: Getting Thru and The Silence.

The End is Nigh (PCT Days 165-166)

The End is Nigh (PCT Days 165-166)

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I’ve stopped, in the middle of the trail, and am bursting into tears. I’m not ready for it to be over… I don’t think that I will ever be ready for it to be over. I’m just 25 miles from the end. I’ll be at the border within days, but my legs have turned into lead weights. Each step is a struggle. I don’t want to hike. The scenery is absolutely stunning, the trail is amazingly beautiful, and there is no where that I’d rather be… I just want to stay here in these mountains, savoring every sunrise, every sunset, every songbird, every tree, and every blade of grass, forever.

This isn’t how I felt at the end of the AT, but I was in a very different place then… Both emotionally and physically. The AT had been a dream, but it was also more of a struggle, more of a required transition period… This has been more of a vacation, a brutal vacation at times, but a vacation none the less. Unsurprisingly, I don’t want my vacation to be over… Especially since I’ll be stepping off of the trail and into an uncertain future.

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I sit down in the dry grass beside the trail and try to collect my thoughts… On the trail I live in the now… I am supremely present, and I can give my full attention to the butterfly that lands beside me, to the bird calling from a nearby tree, to the subtle variations in how the light filters through the trees as the day progresses from dawn to dusk… I get to experience the joy of living in the moment and I love it… Both the past and the future are worlds away and feel almost irrelevant… I am here. I am exactly where I want to be. I am exactly where I need to be. Though life on the trail is fraught with hardships, the challenges tend to be very tangible and immediate. Where am I going to sleep? How am I going to stay warm? Where am I going to get water? How much food do I need? Why am I so hungry? Where am I going to get more food? When can I get more food? Can I have more food now? Is it going to rain? What kind of bird is that? Where am I going? Is there food there? (Yeah, I may be more than a little hungry.)

As I approach the end of the trail, the past and the future encroach upon my now and the questions are getting more complicated… What am I going to do when I get off of the trail? Where am I going to go? How am I going to reconnect to all the people and places that I care about? What do I need to do to find a job? These questions feel big and complicated and don’t have easy answers… The future is coming for me! I am both excited and terrified at the thought.

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The trail has been all consuming, it has been my everything for months (though it feels like an eternity), and I’m grieving for it… It has shaped me in ways that I didn’t know were possible, it has forged me into the person I am now… I have fallen in love with it, but in two short days it will no longer be my now, it will be my past… Another swell of tears burbles up to the surface as I think that thought… The PCT is going to be in my past… I’m going to have to leave it… I take a deep breath and I give myself permission to cry, to grieve, to worry… I also give myself permission to eat a snack… I’m hungry. Oh so hungry.

With that thought, I remember that there are lots of amazing things that will come with civilization and the end of the trail too, like food! As I eat my protein bar, I daydream about filet mignon, milkshakes, fish and chips, root beer floats, soft beds with pillows, warm showers, and the friends and family I’ve been away from for so long… There are definitely a lot of positives that will come with the end of the trail.

As the last of my tears begin to dry, I resolve to enjoy the remaining time I have on the trail… and to stay here, in the now, as much as possible, for as long as possible. There’s a mountain with incredible views about a mile away from the trail, that’s where I’ll head for tonight… another sunset, another sunrise, another day on the PCT!

I get two more nights on the trail… Two more nights of vacation… Two more days to luxuriate in the now! The trail still stretches out in front of me, and I look forward to the adventures that await me!

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Thru-Hiker Power! (PCT Days 163-165)

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Little white plumes of moisture puff up into the air in front of me as I hike… It makes me think that I’m like a train, like the little engine that could, as I hike through the mountains of the North Cascades in Washington.

It’s the first hard frost that we’ve had since June, a clear indicator that fall is on its way… Before long, snow will blanket these mountains, but I’ll be gone by then… I’m less than 70 miles away from the Canadian border… I’m almost there!

I take a big sip of water, but the water feels thick as it hits my tongue and it crunches as I roll it around in my mouth… It isn’t until that crunch that I figure it out… The water in my water hose is beginning to freeze! The last time this happened was when I was on top of Mount Whitney!

Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, I feel great. I have always loved the fall… the crisp, cool air… the changing colors of the leaves… the art that Jack Frost leaves behind… every step I take this morning reminds me of how much I love this life!

After hiking 2600 miles, I am in the best shape of my life… The trails from Stehekin to Hart’s Pass are well designed and graded, so I lengthen my stride on the uphills and the downhills and the miles just fly by… I feel powerful, I feel strong, and I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be… Here, in the mountains, on the trail, where my body and my mind are at peace with each other and with the rest of the world. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling…

I remember feeling this same way at the end of my AT thru-hike… A kind of thru-hiker confidence… Knowing that your body can just do it… You look at a trail, you look at a mountain, and there is never a doubt… your body will allow you to do amazing things and to go to amazing places! It has been a miraculous transformation for me… a transformation that was more than I’d dared to imagine when I set out for my first thru-hike in the spring of 2013.

At the beginning of my AT thru-hike I’d been sick for so long that I’d stopped trusting my body, and my body had stopped trusting me… Asthma had slowly, insidiously, crept into my world, and over the course of five years it felt like it had stolen my body and my life away from me. I fought it every step of the way, but my body and my lungs wouldn’t let me do the things that I wanted to do anymore. When I discovered that the job I loved was the source of the problem, that I had occupational asthma, I was heartbroken. I knew that I had to leave my job, but I just couldn’t do it… It had been my dream for so long, and I’d invested so much into it… how could I just leave? Besides, I wasn’t a quitter! Every fiber of my body rebelled against the inevitable truth… I was going to have to walk away from everything if I wanted to get my health back… Was I strong enough to do that?

Eventually, I figured out a way… I would exchange the old dream for a new dream. I’d always wanted to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail… Sure, it was a non-traditional approach for dealing with asthma, but I was confident that I could make it work. Knowing that I was going to live my dream of hiking the AT gave me the strength to do the impossible, to leave my job and my old life behind. My doctors had been skeptical (and so had everyone else), but I had faith… I had faith that I could do it… I had faith that I would get better… I had to!

I had started slowly, but over time my lungs had gotten stronger, and a new relationship was forged between my body and my mind as they learned to operate as one… It was the best feeling in the world! Standing on top of Katahdin last October I was filled with elation, it had worked! I’d let go of the fear that had consumed me for so long, the fear that my body, my lungs, and my asthma would prevent me from living my dreams. I thought that I had vanquished asthma from my life. I was powerful! I was strong! I was a thru-hiker!

Here, on the PCT, I had to come to terms with the fact that my asthma wasn’t completely gone, that I was an asthmatic. It was a rude awakening at first, but I gained a new respect for my body… I learned that I could manage my asthma, and that when I did, I could still trust my body to do amazing things and to take me to amazing places. I could be an asthmatic and still live my dreams!

A cold wind brings me back to the present as I climb the next hill. Thinking about how my thru-hikes have transformed my body and my life brings tears to my eyes. It’s been an incredible journey. Even though I feel great, I don’t want the miles to fly by… I want time to slow down… I want to take it all in, to savor it all, to catalog these happy thoughts, these happy moments… I want to stay here forever… I’m like Peter Pan, I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to leave the tail!

When I get to the top of the hill I stop and look around. It’s beautiful here in the Cascades. I take a deep breath of the cold morning air and smile as I let it out. Even though I’m asthmatic, even though I’ve been hiking uphill all morning and it’s cold, I can still take a full, chest-expanding breath of the fresh air! I can breath! I can hike! I can dream! These are the memories that I’ll keep for the rest of my life… 10 years from now, 30 years from now, 60 years from now, I’ll be able to come back here… to these powerful and happy memories… These happy thoughts, they’re going to help me to fly, and to keep flying, as I head into an uncertain future!

frostymornings