In literature, mentors represent a crucial source of wisdom and support.
Without them, the protagonist would never complete their journey.
My attempted thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail was thwarted due to the pandemic, resulting in me departing the trail exactly one year ago from the date of this post’s publication. At the time, this anticlimactic ending felt devastating on several levels. Over a year ago, I wrote about how every individual who attempts something as outlandish as a thru hike has their own reasons for doing so. For me, one of my main motivations to attempt the hike during a year of wandering was to combat the feeling of being stuck. What better way to become unstuck than to create the conditions to force myself to become literally unstuck in nearly all aspects of my life?
No official home.
No existence in what our culture defines as normal.
A major source of inspiration to hike the PCT came after reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. The final nudge to take that leap towards a year of uncertainty arrived the day after finishing the final few pages of Tiny Beautiful Things. The advice columns that Cheryl Strayed originally shared under the persona of “Sugar” many years ago now lives in this influential book. The pieces of wisdom shared with those individuals who reached out to Sugar are probably universal for anyone feeling the need for advice on a multitude of fronts. Taking in, and then processing another’s perspective can serve as a monumental guide in our own lives.
Meeting people becomes more challenging as people get older. Young children usually have no qualms with striking up a conversation with other young children. Adults can be more reserved. As awkward as it feels, I have learned to trust the process of starting conversations with complete strangers. Traveling solo for many years has afforded me the time to practice this skill and to be able to make the most of the awkward experience. Being in the moment and being open to meeting new people was a thrilling prospect of hiking 2,650 miles over the course of many months.
In my abbreviated time on trail, I encountered wonderfully kind and unique individuals. One of the suggestions I had read from a hiker who had previously thru hiked several long distance trails encouraged future long-distance hikers to jot down the names of the people they meet each day. Additionally, they advised to ask to snap a portrait photograph of them, if they were so willing. As time progresses, one’s memory tends to fade and becomes blurry. I am most thankful that I took the first suggestion, and regret not beginning the portrait process right away. The following descriptions are merely brief snapshots of just a few of the people who I met in the short period of time on trail. They will always be most special to me, even as I am fully aware that I will never see 98% of them again in my life.
Hot Rod: We started together at the Southern Terminus, having taken the same bus to Campo together just about an hour earlier. We took each other’s photo with each other’s cameras to document that this was not a dream, but actually reality. Hot Rod had a laminated photo of a loved one who had passed away attached to the back of his pack. I didn’t feel comfortable asking him at the time about who this person was and the significance of the hike in relation to them. I wish that I had.
Hippsy Gypsy: Hippsy was the volunteer checking people in at the Southern Terminus. Having previosuly hiked the trail several years earlier, she shared some last minute pointers. She was kind and genuine with her well-wishes for those of us departing on the trail.
Wolverine: Wolverine can only be described as a character, in the most wonderful ways possible. When I arrived at the Lake Morena campground around the 20 mile mark of the PCT, the place was desolate, except for a thin man with a beard that extended at least ten inches below his chin sitting under a gazebo. He was about to pack up and take off again on the trail, but decided that he would stay another night before hiking on since others were arriving. After setting up my tent, we wandered the quarter mile or so to the Lake Morena Malt Shop and enjoyed a meal together. This was not Wolverine’s first time on the PCT. He had made the attempt two other times. His last attempt ended when he developed a serious illness after having hiked months. His condition required him to go home and receive medical attention. Wolverine was certain that this hike was going to be “the one” this time around. When we were asked to depart the trail from the PCTA many days later, I immediately thought of him, wherever he was on the trail.
Brandon: Brandon arrived to the Lake Morena campground in the rain that developed in the afternoon. He was clearly younger than me, but definitely years beyond those college-aged years. Brandon was cool and confident. It was only after a bit of chatting that he reluctantly mentioned that this was his first backpacking experience ever after I had mentioned it was mine. We both seemed relieved that we weren’t the only ones embracing the “go big, or go home” philosophy in regards to allowing a thru hike to serve as a maiden backpacking voyage.
Kentucky Joe: Joe was a minimalistic man. I would be willing to guess that if given the challenge of guessing where Joe was from, nine out of ten people would guess a state from the Appalachia region of America on their first guess. I met Joe at Lake Morena, but didn’t really have an opportunity to speak with him in depth until we hiked together for about two hours on the way to Scissors Crossing to hitch-hike into Julian. We spoke about life and seeking new possibilities. The trail has this unique ability to encourage dialogue with strangers about ideas that most people don’t regularly discuss in their everyday life. This quality of trail life was unexpected, but wonderful.
Mitchell: Mitchell joined Wolverine and me at the Malt Shop. Attempting a thru hike for the first time, it was evident that doubts and second guessing were at the forefront of his mind. He was seriously contemplating abandoning the hike after 20 miles and pursue riding his bicycle towards the Canadian border instead. When I moved on the following day and wished him well, I could see in his eyes that he had already made up his mind that his thru hike was over.
Nate & Joe: Nate, Joe, and I joked around on the porch in the front of the lodge anxiously awaiting our rooms to become available. When their room was ready before mine, you would have thought that they won a fortune from a lottery. Their reaction and light-hearted taunts were hysterical. Days later, I bumped into them on the side of the trail and decided to take a water break and chat with them for a few minutes. It turns out that they were a father and son hiking duo. During this short break, I recounted the time when my father and I completed a whirlwind National Park tour where we put 3,500 miles on a rental car in only fifteen days. Nate and Joe were looking forward to what the possibility of six months of hiking together would mean for them.
Theresa: Theresa and I met in the rain several miles before Mount Laguna. Almost immediately, I could tell that she was struggling both physically and mentally. When I shared that this was my first time backpacking ever, and that I was a teacher, she seemed a bit more at ease. This was not her first time backpacking, but she was apparently using gear that she was not familiar with as she decided to upgrade her tent not long before her hike began. That morning, Theresa relied on others to help her break down camp. My teacher instincts kicked in and I tried to exude as much “You got this!” energy that I could without sounding condescending. When she hadn’t arrived to the Mount Laguna Lodge hours after the rest of us had in the dangerously cold rain, I became very worried. We learned the next morning that she had arrived relatively safely later in the evening.
Werner from the Netherlands: Werner joined me on one of my “take my pack off for five minutes” breaks on the side of the trail where a conveniently “placed” waist-high rock lived. Werner had shared that he departed his family for the attempted thru hike, including his youngest child who was school-aged. At that point, he was prepared to continue the hike, despite the uncertainty of the changes in the world at large. The borders and international flights had not been officially closed when we first met. When he mentioned how his son was excited to track his father’s progress with his classmates, I offered the suggestion of sending a postcard on a weekly basis back to the Netherlands when he was in a trail town. He appreciated that teacherly suggestion. There’s no way of knowing, but I suspect that Werner left the trail, too.
Phoenix: Phoenix and I met on what turned out to be the longest hiking day of my time on the PCT. When we were hiking up an incline, we chatted about how we were both teachers. An elementary teacher and a yoga instructor meet on a remote trail. Seems like the set-up of a joke or a lame romantic comedy. We hiked in a small bubble of a group for a good portion of that day. My body was still acclimating with the newness of the long hours of hiking with many pounds of additional weight resting on my back. That night, I could feel some tightness around my knee. When I mentioned it near the campsites that we established that night, she helped out by teaching me some stretching techniques to address the areas of concern. The next morning, I felt much better and got an early start, never again to see Phoenix in those remaining days.
Rocket: In the same hiking group, I met Rocket. Rocket and I started chatting that night near his campsite about our non-trail lives. When I mentioned my nomadic lifestyle for the previous few months, he said that it is certainly something to embrace. When I discussed my dream of eventually building a tiny house, his eyes grew wide. Rocket took out his phone and starting scrolling to eventually find a photograph of a creation. Several years earlier, Rocket built his own teardrop trailer. Teardrops are minimalistic and efficient. Refurbishing a teardrop trailer has been on my radar, too. Naturally, we enjoyed the few minutes where we talked about our shared passions of living quarters on wheels.
There were many other individuals who I met in during the two weeks on trail. A year later, I can recognize the importance of these interactions to the totality of a successful thru hike, and it only solidifies my intent to return one day to long-distance hiking. These recollections help give a sense of what my life was like for those two weeks, beyond what the scenic photographs could never possibly show.
As with everyday life, there are some friendships and relationships that develop beyond just mere acquaintances. Had I not been asked to depart the trail, I know that I would have enjoyed getting to know Ian and Justin better. With my lack of hiking experience, I suspect that both of these guys would have outpaced me and I figure that we would have eventually wished each other well as they moved on. (Ian left the town of Julian before Justin and me, but I think we would have eventually caught up to him in a few days as the weather was questionable at that time.)
Ian: When I met Ian on the trail, his Scottish accent was noticeably familiar. Although my visit to Scotland was brief when I was in high school, those few days live vividly in my memories. Ian hadn’t lived in Scotland for many, many years, but his accent was clearly a permanent quality unchanged from living in Texas for a significant portion of his adult life. Ian and I spoke about his retirement and my leave of absence from teaching in the first few minutes after meeting. The concepts of freedom and possibilities were a common theme during our chat. After some time, Ian hiked on. When I stumbled down the dirt road and arrived at the Cibbets Flat campground, the place was eerily empty. The lone occupant was a familiar face. Ian offered me a corner of his campsite that he had already paid for not long before. (I had the opportunity to repay him with beer in Julian.) Once I set up my tent, we both prepared our dinner and chatted about our gear selections. Ian had very light equipment. My belongings were on the heavier side of the gear spectrum, and we had some good laughs. My decision to carry a small one-ounce packet of Epsom salts with me for my first indoor stop was almost too much for Ian. Although I passed on the suggestion, Ian offered up the trail name “Green Giant,” as a nod to my pack and gear. (Two days later, I was inspired to “bounce” a box of gear ahead, reducing the base weight of my pack by over a pound.) After seeing Ian in Mount Laguna, we were able to catch up in greater depth in Julian, where we experienced the famous hiker welcome at Mom’s Pie House and moved on to pizza and beer at the Julian Beer Company. When the PCTA asked us the leave the trail, Ian decided to remain until the request became a demand. As it never did, Ian was able to successfully complete his thru hike this past fall. It would be a blast to meet up with Ian again, should our paths be in close proximity at some point. “Cheers, mate.”
Justin: When I arrived to the El Cajon Transit Center on the outskirts of San Diego, I was trying to remain calm, despite some of those “What the fuck did I get myself into?” thoughts finding their way into my brain. As other hikers began arriving, I found myself standing near a guy who appeared to be around my age. I do not remember if we spoke much before getting on the bus, but we certainly did on the bus as we were sitting next to each other. During the first few minutes of the bus ride, I was trying to finish reading a book that a friend had given me when my leave of absence began so it could be mailed back home from the Campo Post Office. Once I had finished, I decided to take the leap and strike up a conversation. Justin was a brewer. We spoke a little about the process of his creative work, and I shared my enjoyment of sour beers ever since my introduction to them at New Belgium in Ft. Collins. Those “WTF” thoughts dissipated tremendously as I began feeling more at ease during our conversation.
The following afternoon, when Wolverine and I were walking back from the Malt Shop in the rain, I noticed Justin walking towards us. We said hello, and said we’d chat more back at the campground later on. The rain intensified, and I found myself resting in the dry environment of my tent for quite awhile. At some point, I heard a voice ask if I wanted to share a room at the Lodge two days down the trail to lessen the cost. That worked for me. The next morning, Justin and I hiked out of Lake Morena together, discussing our hiking experiences along the way. Around the time that we were getting hungry for lunch, a giant boulder appeared, and Justin introduced me to the phrase “yard sale” as it pertained to hiking. Our sprawled-out drenched gear needed less than an hour to become bone dry under the bright sun. Later that day, I called ahead to the Mount Laguna Lodge to book a room in advance. (Once a teacher, always a teacher.) It was a good thing I did. By the time I arrived the next day barely able to feel my fingers and met back up with Justin who was inside of his sleeping bag sitting on a chair on the front porch, the rooms were all accounted for since the weather was dangerously cold. Once again, all of our belongings were spread out in an attempt to dry them off. This time the process took place indoors. The opportunity to regroup before returning to the trail was greatly needed. During our stay, we continued to get to know each other. During this time, Justin gave me pointers about trail life that would certainly be helpful.
When Justin departed Mount Laguna and I stayed behind for another night, I regretted not mustering up the courage to set-off with him, but I knew it was the right thing for me to stay another night. My worry was that this awesome person who I met only days earlier was already a friend to me, and I was consciously choosing to stay behind when I could have easily changed my mind. Trail happens. People move on. As the weather continued to become problematic, it became apparent that several “zero” days would likely be needed in Julian since significant snow was forecasted further ahead down the trail.
When I eventually caught up with Justin, and had a blast in civilization. (Pie, pizza, and beer. Oh, my.) Although the town of Julian was great, we both were excited to return to the trail and get back to hiking. At this point, I had already ordered a new tent to help shave some additional, and quite significant, ounces off of my base weight. After an incredibly rewarding day of hiking, we found a campsite that was suitable for two tents. After dinner, I settled in to check on the news and read my emails. That is when the shock of seeing the PCTA’s request for all hikers to cancel or suspend their thru hikes was initially discovered. The following morning, I made some upsetting phone calls to see what my options were and begin exploring the possibilities of my contingency plans. (That morning sucked.) As we all know by now, those last two weeks in March last year were most unsettling, and events unfolded at a frenetic pace.
The final morning on trail was absolutely beautiful, despite the realization that my hike was over just as it was starting. The decision to depart was made the night before, fearing that if I did not leave when I could, I might be stuck on the West coast without the means to get home should anything terrible happen to a family member. When Justin and I reached an open field with a unique PCT marker on its edge, I asked him if it would be okay to take his portrait. He obliged, and afterwards he then took one of me. (The hiker who suggested this practice was correct. There is a power found within the one moment in time captured in a single photographic frame.)
At this point, Justin was still planning on moving on with his hike for at least a few more days. I had offered to share some of my cold weather gear that I had no need for at this point, since the trail had experienced snowfall in the miles that he would encounter ahead. When we eventually reached Warner Springs where my cousin John was already driving towards to “rescue” me, Justin still planned on continuing on. This would eventually change after speaking with his girlfriend back at home.
The airport felt strange and surreal. When we arrived, neither of us had tickets. We spent time outside near the passenger drop-off lane getting our belongings in order. The whole situation felt as if I was waiting for a local train back at home and remembered that I should pick up a ticket before I forgot. I am not sure if I will ever be in a situation like that ever again. Once we checked our bags in with the agents, we wandered back and forth, and grabbed some food from the only fast food place open. Not long after, I walked with Justin to his security gate. Just like that, Justin became both the first person and last person I interacted with during my short time on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Those first few days back home in New York were rough. I tried to maintain a good outlook and perspective, especially in the face of such uncertainty that permeated all aspects of our society. Still, I instantly regretted leaving the trail. Logic told me that I made the right decision, but my emotions were still raw. Confirmation that my decision was justified was something I was desperately looking to receive.
The universe never ceases to amaze me.
Two days after returning home from the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed shared this on Instagram:
Within a minute, I started typing. In hindsight, taking the extra minute or so to read my email again for clarity and grammatical syntax would have been wise. Regardless, my thoughts and questions were submitted.
Days later, a surreal experience joined a growing list of surreal experiences that have accrued during the past several years.
Sugar responded to my question, providing some much needed perspective during this confusing and sad time.
The universe acts in strange ways.
The decision to step away from teaching for a year might not have occurred when it did if I hadn’t welcomed in the wisdom from Sugar.
Cheryl’s words intended for others indirectly helped me find clarity in respect to my own questions.
Now the words and advice were directed towards me in a moment of need.
They came at a time when only the advice of a hiker would have been acceptable.
“I think it was wise to stop this hike.”
“You’re not alone in being disappointed about having a dream being crushed.”
“There will be another day. There are adventures to be had when this pandemic is over.”
“More will be revealed.”
The question that Sugar answered on the radio show following mine focused on the practice of writing. Cheryl’s thoughtful response served as another confirmation that my seemingly bizarre decision to step away from daily life was the right decision for me. More will hopefully be revealed one day.
The people I met during my brief stint on the Pacific Crest Trail are part of an experience that will always hold a special place in my heart. Although my vision of hiking 2,650 miles did not turn out as I had planned and hoped for, the events that have taken place in my life during the year since departing the trail have been important, yet challenging.
Those that we meet in life can affect who we are and who we become. Some are more influential than others, but those who we ultimately let in to our world help contribute to our perspective and enrich our journey.
In life, mentors represent a crucial source of wisdom and support.
Without them, our journey would not be possible.
*The radio broadcast from March 27, 2020 where my question is answered can be found wherever one searches for podcasts. Cheryl Strayed begins answering questions around the 30-minute mark of the episode. The name of the podcast can be found at the very end of this post.
(Blogger’s Note: Although the Pacific Crest Trail will undoubtedly be referenced in future posts, this is the last official PCT blog entry until my hopeful return one day. In several weeks, a post entitled “Delineations” will be published. Although it will exist as its own writing piece, it will also serve as a companion piece to this post.)