The Pacific Crest Trail is not just a physical challenge. It's not just a mental challenge. And it's not even just an emotional challenge. The PCT is the combination of all of those and more.
To put it briefly, it kicks your ass.
Each day had its ups and downs, but while I was writing daily Instagram posts for my friends and family, it was hard to express the deep moments of doubt and anger and homesickness. Maybe I didn't want to scare my parents or maybe I didn't want to scare myself. But it would be untruthful for me to cast a rosy tint over my adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail and not note the moments when I wanted to stop.
Day 2: The Day I Thought, "What Have I Gotten Myself Into?"
Day 2 was Indigo's birthday. I had packed out an extra Snickers bar and birthday candle for the occasion. Snickers eventually became just like a regular bar, but at the time it seemed like a treat. I was excited to spend the day with my friend on her birthday hiking the PCT.
But a few miles into the day, I noticed that I was starting to have trouble breathing. I was growing congested, and I could start the feel fluid in my chest. This is not good. As someone with asthma, I am hyperaware of breathing difficulties. I've had my asthma constantly hold me back in high school rowing. I've had my asthma thwart months of half marathon training. I was not going to let my asthma take the PCT away from me.
I took a few puffs of my inhaler that day, but it didn't help much. As I struggled up the hills on day 2, I kept coughing and wheezing. I started to review any possible culprits. Was it my new diet? Was it exertion? Was it the dry air?
At one point, I declared that I couldn't make it up the current hill and I asked Indigo if we could stop. So we did, in a random spot on the side of the hill. I then passed out for an hour and a half. Indigo was a gem waiting for me, but I felt really bad for forcing us to stop. On top of that, she offered to carry some of my water when we continued up the hill that afternoon. Again, she is a gem.
Eventually, Indigo suggested that I might be having an allergic reaction. I replied that it couldn't possibly be that. I had taken an allergy test when I was a kid and the only thing that came up was a slight reaction to juniper tree. Juniper trees, as it turns out, are very common in the Mojave Desert. Culprit found. After I took a Benedryll, we continued on. In total, we did 18.9 miles that day and I was absolutely spent. Even though I figured out the allergy, breathing would still be a challenge for the next ten days as I coughed the fluid out of my lungs.
In my tent that night, I started to wonder whether I could really do this. Whether I could make it all the way to Canada, still over 2,000 miles away at that point. It was overwhelming to think about.
Why I Didn't Stop Hiking
When something seems too big to comprehend, it's helpful to break it down into smaller chunks. This applies to studying, to planning a trip, and, of course, to hiking the PCT. That night, I resolved I would focus on making it to Lake Isabella which was less than three days away. Small, achievable goals turned the impossible into possible.
Day 58: The Day I Attempted to Sleep While Walking
Northern California was probably the most challenging part of the PCT. You're off your high of the Sierra Nevadas, yet you still have around 700 miles of California to push through before reaching Oregon. In fact, the official halfway point on the trail is in California. Slowed down by the epic snow of the Sierra Nevadas, we had to really push ourselves in NorCal to eventually make it to Canada before October.
This required work. Hard work. And lots of it. When this photo was taken, we were well into our routine of hiking 13 hours a day through heat and hills. On Day 58, we were coming out of Drakesbad Guest Ranch, our bellies full of fresh breakfast food and our bodies showered. To top it off, the next 10 or so miles were relatively flat, a treat after hundreds of miles of hills.
But walking through this flat, sandy burnt forest, I was kicking myself for not appreciating this terrain. I was tired – eight hours of sleep (if we were lucky) doesn't cut it when you're pushing your body this much. And my feet hurt so, so much – my shoes had around 500 miles on them at this point and were worse for wear. And my pack felt heavy – we had just loaded up with a fresh resupply of food.
As I walked, a thought popped into my head: "What if I just closed my eyes and tried to sleep? The trail is flat and straight. Maybe I could sleep and hike at the same time."
That's how a delirious hiker thinks.
I tried out this plan. After a few minutes, I realized how insane this was. And then it hit me like a wave. I was fatigued. I couldn't eat enough to satisfy my body. I was carrying over 25 pounds on my back. I felt all the pain in my feet. I felt the pain everywhere. Then I started to cry.
I cried because I couldn't think straight. I cried because I was tired of being in pain all the time. I cried because I wanted to stop walking. I don't usually cry.
So, not knowing what to do and a mile away from the creek we were all going to meet at, I stopped hiking, tossed my pack on the ground, and sat on a log with my head in my hands. A few minutes later, my hiking family approached and asked me why I stopped early. I told them that I just had to stop, and they understood.
Why I Didn't Stop Hiking
It was a simple fix, really. I changed two things after this experience:
1. That was the first day I took a "tylie" (AKA Tylenol). I'm not saying you should pop pain medication like candy, but Tylenol changed my life on the trail. I would take it as needed which was almost daily. Not great, but it helped me persevere.
2. The next day, we were in the tiny town of Old Station where I inspected my shoes. Turns out the factory insoles had been worn down to nothing. In a moment of desperation, I duct-taped restaurant paper napkins to my insoles to provide some added cushion until we reached Burney, a town that would have a drug store. That's where I invested in some Dr. Scholl's gel insoles that changed my life forever. My feet (and mood) felt instantly better.
Day 81: The Day After My Dog Died
I learned that Teddy, my dog, died via text. A few miles outside of Crater Lake, I turned off airplane mode on my phone out of boredom and received this message from my dad: "Teddy is at rest now. Mom and I held him til he was asleep. Matt knows."
I stopped in my tracks. I knew that Teddy, our family dog of 14 years, had been a bit sick lately, but I didn't think much of it. He had always pulled through. I read the text over and over and over again. I couldn't face calling my parents then, so I did the only thing that made sense: I kept walking. While I walked, I cried. I had lost my friend. I wasn't with my family. I should have been with my family.
When Indigo caught up to me, I told her the news, and she hugged me close, letting me decide when I would let go, and then I called my parents. Tears. It's unnerving to hear your parents cry, and I didn't know what to say even though there was nothing to say.
The next morning at 5:00am, my watch alarm went off like it had the past few months. But unlike the past few months, I had absolutely no desire to hike. All I wanted to do was be with my family. I wanted to hug them. I wanted to be home so the house didn't seem so eerily quiet without Ted click-clacking across the hardwood floors. On top of this, my legs were incredibly sore – that felt like a cruel joke.
Why I Didn't Stop Hiking
You should choose your hiking friends carefully. You'll want people that make you laugh and will share their wisdom with you. You'll want people who deeply understand what you're going through. Fortunately, I had that during this awful time.
Indigo cared for me that day, checking in, offering me homemade treats. She understood. Sam, who I had met the day before, talked with me. He expressed empathy – one of his dogs had died while he was on trail as well. And Isko? Well, Isko ate nothing but candy bars and instant mashed potatoes that day, like he did every day. That made me laugh.
The people around you can help lift you out of your deepest sorrow. Choose wisely.