I Did The "Wild" Hike—Here's What It Was Like

In case you've been thinking about tackling the same trail made famous by Cheryl Strayed.

April 21, 2017
pacific crest trail hike
Bill Edwards / Getty Images

Four years ago, I found myself at the American border with Mexico, embarking on a 2,663-mile hike up the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with one of my best friends, Brittany. I’d never backpacked in my life until 2009, when Brittany and I spent three weeks in the backcountry of Yosemite. Despite our fair share of challenges—including a faulty GPS device my mom was using to track our whereabouts, which led to park rangers searching for us because my mother thought we were lost—I was hooked immediately. Nothing compares to the excellent simplicity of waking up every day and just walking.

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On that backpacking trip through Yosemite, we crossed the PCT a few times and agreed it would be an incredible challenge. Everyone who knows me would say that I’m someone who tends to go all out when I commit to something. I fully believe in deciding to do something because your intuition leads you to it, and honoring your commitment by surrendering yourself to the experience and opening yourself to the very real—and scary—prospect of being changed. The Pacific Crest Trail exemplifies that life philosophy to me, which is how Brittany and I found ourselves plotting how to leave our “real lives” to hike this epic trail.

How I Prepared

Brittany and I were both long-distance runners in college, so getting ready from a training perspective didn’t require too many changes from our go-to workouts (which were admittedly already pretty intense). I’d run about 60 miles a week and do yoga three or four days a week. However, I did do a couple practice hiking trips where I’d load up my backpack with heavy books and wear it as I walked all day.

Related: 5 Things That Happened When I Tried To Walk 20,000 Steps A Day

Far more challenging was spending four years saving enough money so we could take five months off to complete the hike. I work as a policy advisor to the speaker of the house in the Oregon legislature. But back then, I was an intern for a city councilmember and working as a barista. During the months I was planning to be on the trail, I was still going to have to pay off my hefty student loans, as well as have enough to spend on a hotel room once a week (so I could shower). There was also the cost of the food I’d mail myself so that it’d be waiting for me to pick up along the trail, as well as money to buy extra food when we got to various towns along the trail. And of course, there was the gear to buy: hiking shoes, base layers, jackets, a sleeping bag and tent, and lots of other items to stay warm and safe along our journey. I can’t remember the exact amount I calculated that I’d need, but it was thousands of dollars.

 

Of course, as any hiker will tell you, no matter how long or grueling the trail is, there are bound to be some surprises that you just can’t plan for. Like the fact that I got giardia—a waterborne disease that causes major digestive woes—and spent a week hiking 30-mile days through the high Sierra mountains, fantasizing about being eaten by a mountain lion. I felt that bad. Yet for the most part, Brittany and I felt ready to take on the challenge. I assured my mom (and my cat, Martin) not to worry—that I would come home...but smelling like they wished I didn't!

Related: 7 Simple Exercises That Show Results After One Workout

What It Was Like On The Trail

In a word: amazing. There were a lot of triumphs. One that comes to mind is when we hiked through a snowstorm in the high Sierras, where Brittany almost fainted a couple times because of the altitude. It felt like a huge victory when we made it through that.

There were also the trying times, like the first few days hiking through the desert, which were both mentally and physically trying. For starters, we were just starting out and I felt like I was sloughing off the life I had coming into the hike—like I was shedding layers to find something new underneath. Then, there was the fact that we could only hike in the early (and I mean early) morning hours. We’d start our days hiking around 2 a.m. and walk until 10 a.m., then sleep during the hottest part of the day. We’d just sporadically start crying while hiking the desert portion of the trail. We found out from others along our way that crying through terrain like that is actually a thing; hikers call it “weep walking.”

 

Another aspect of the PCT that you’ll hear about a lot is the focus on food thru-hikers quickly develop. And let me tell you, Brittany and I were obsessed with food. We ate so much—probably about 5,000 calories a day. On the weekends, we’d go into town and clean shops out of their pastries. We’d literally go searching for pie and corn bread—those were our biggest cravings. And while we still dropped some weight during the first couple weeks of our hike, we leveled out and ended up around the same body mass as we were when we started. 

From our side-trips off the trail in search of the perfect pastries, to the times spent watching the sky turn a hundred shades of pink and red after the sun set, every little experience when we were on this trail really added up to one big, amazing adventure. Having Brittany there to witness all of it was awesome. Even though we mostly walked by ourselves about five to 10 minutes apart—after all, you need some personal space on a five-month trek—the shared experience was one I’ll forever be grateful for.   

Related: 8 Ways Nature Can Heal You

What I Learned 

Spending five months hiking the PCT from Mexico to Canada taught me how to trust myself in a way I’d never done before. I developed a sense of self and power that I believe was a direct result of surviving that experience. When you know what you need to do to survive with just your fundamentals when you’re out in the elements like that, you'll gain confidence that you can survive most things.

My time on the trail turned out to be quite meditative as well. I got in a groove of being able to watch thoughts float across my mind, rather than grabbing onto them immediately. This allowed me to more clearly see what’s important and what’s not—what the noise is in my life that I can tune out, and what’s there because I really need to listen.

Along those lines, I ended up finishing the trail and reconnecting with my childhood sweetheart, who I married about a year ago. I was in a different relationship when I first set out on the PCT, but my hike helped me realize who I am and what I want. It prompted me to separate what’s not important from the things that are, which is how I found my way back to the love of my life.

Overall, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my journey. It’s an incredible privilege to spend time outdoors. Hiking the PCT helped me develop a profound connection to both my surroundings and myself—a connection I hope to hold onto wherever I go.

The article 'I Did The "Wild" Hike—Here's What It Was Like' originally appeared on Women’s Health.