The Through-Hiker Ritual
Before, during and after my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, my partner and I met many people who “would love to do something like that but, really I couldn’t”.
Following that statement we were given a reason why: “my job, my family, my dog, my knees, my age”, etc.
For every reason listed, we met someone on the trail who had met that same reason for not doing it, but had gone ahead and done it anyway.
Jobs – quit or sabbaticals taken. Family – people took their family with them – on the hike, or in a support vehicle. Dogs – were equipped with small socks and boots and came along too. Knees – were braced and supported, and our 75 year-old friend completed the trail the day after us; for the second time.
Perhaps anything is possible…. Though I had no idea if it was before I started.
Sat at home, in a sunny conservatory in England, it was hard to imagine how I would walk 20 miles a day, let alone 25 and 30 miles. In fact, I didn’t really know what 1 mile felt like. I’d always walked in kilometres.
The best advice I received was to take one day at a time. So take them I did, all 166 of them. I really whole-heartedly took this on board. On that day in the conservatory, I was planning, not walking. So I didn’t let myself think too hard about it.
I read that you can walk yourself fit, that anyone can do the Pacific Crest Trail if they want to badly enough.
Some people say the PCT is a mental challenge and the Appalachian Trail (2,160 mile trail on the east coast of the US) is a physical challenge. I think there is no mental challenge without the physical challenge and no physical challenge without the mental challenge. They are entwined. You hope that when you are not mentally strong, you can be physically strong and when you are not physically strong, that your mind will keep you walking. When you have both strengths, you enjoy walking. When you lose both, you stop walking.
Having worked in the outdoors for a number of years, I felt I already had everything I would need to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. Regarding my kit I was right. The more you enter into the world of ‘thru’ hiking, however, the more you realise that walking for 5 months is very different from a one or two week excursion in the Scottish Highlands. I wanted to make myself as comfortable as I could afford to be.
The principle of being ‘lightweight’ came to me instantly in the planning stages of the hike. I had never been particularly lightweight. Having only really ever been out for a few weeks at a time, I would always choose to take comforts over the lightest possible option.
By the time I was ready to leave, my stove had been replaced by a lighter, slower option; my sleeping mat had been replaced by a lightweight, warmer pad; my pot was titanium. I had made some alterations and, by the end of this process my pack was a mid weight, not in the lightweight category but not heavyweight either.
From the moment I arrived in San Diego, at the house of our first Trail Angel’s, ‘Scout’ and ‘Frodo’, I was making more alterations to my kit, and I would be doing this for the whole journey.
In San Diego we had a pack ‘shake down’. Scout went through and weighed every single item in our packs and we discussed its purpose. Mostly, if it didn’t have more than one use, it was not useful enough.
After this we sent two boxes of surplus kit to my uncle in New Jersey. Extra dry bags, bits of extra first aid kit items, needless cosmetics and most horrifying to us – as two girls from England – layers. We sent layers away.
We put our trust in the trail – and in Scout – and hoped we would be warm enough.
* * * *
The trail is, of course, a free experience. We had no-one to answer to, no-one expecting us, no-one needing us – but within our new ‘wild’ lifestyle there was still routine, very clear routines. We left the southern terminus at the Mexican border on April 14th. There began the constantly developing, ever evolving through-hiker ritual.
My eyes would open each morning to the sky, a dim, early sky, sometimes part covered by the woods, sometimes a raging golden sunrise. My body got into a pattern: 5:50, awake, every morning. I’d sit up and I’d start the careful pack-up ritual.
Empty the big black dry bag of clothes, which had been acting as a pillow for the night (an example of items having more than one use).
Stuff the black dry bag into my rucksack – which would keep everything waterproof in case of rain.
Change from my thermal top to my hiking top, put my puffa jacket straight (back) on. Usually the mornings were cool.
Let out the air in my mat, receive the deflating signal that it really is time to get up.
Carefully fold the mat in half, roll it tightly up and put it into the dry bag within the rucksack.
Stand up, test my balance against my muscles, usually tender from yesterday’s walking. It was not uncommon for me to fall over at this point.
If balance prevailed and still successfully upright, let sleeping bag fall down to the ground, and stand there for a moment, letting the cool air wake my legs.
Stuff sleeping bag into the dry bag.
Change my thermal bottoms into my hiking shorts.
Put both my thermals into the red dry bag – which was ‘the spare clothes dry bag’.
Listen to my grandfathers voice in my head “a place for everything and everything in its place”.
Tightly close the black dry bag and place the red dry bag inside my rucksack on top of it.
Put my head torch, which was left loose by my head while sleeping, into the small green dry bag along with our first aid bits, spare batteries, and our ‘SPOT’ device (or emergency personal tracker) and put this into the rucksack.
Put my journal and documents back in its Ziplock bag and slot it in place in the front of my pack.
Shoes and socks on.
Lift the groundsheet of the tent (which I’d been sleeping on) off the ground; stuff it into the larger green dry bag.
Pack in the stove.
Then I’d shuffle through my food bag to find breakfast – a meal that evolved through the trail. We went from dry cereal to one bar, to two bars, to one slightly more protein packed bar, then back to cereal, but this time a more advanced mix of three different cereals and with the addition of powdered milk. Glorious.
After breakfast rinse out the pot and put that into my rucksack.
Take my day’s ration of snacks (bars and nuts) out of my food bag and put them in the lid of my rucksack.
Pack the food bag in the very top of my rucksack.
Put my platypus of water on top of that. Pre-sterilised from the night before, and just the right amount to get to the next water source.
Lastly, take the puffa jacket off, and stuff it around the platypus to keep it cool as I walk. The platypus tube pokes through a hole in the rucksack, and sits in an elasticated band on the strap of the pack, for easy drinking while walking.
We took it in turns to carry the map and often would double check the route over breakfast. How far to the next water, do we start with an uphill or downhill section, and if it’s uphill, for how long?
We’d lift our packs on to our knee first, then twist it round onto our backs. We’d lift our packs onto our backs several times a day, putting it onto our knee first was an important mid-step, to avoid back strain over this long period of walking.
* * * *
Once you have walked the first mile of the trail, you meet a sign that reads ‘”Mile 1”.
When my partner (Israh) and I reached this sign, I looked at her and said, “That wasn’t too bad”.
Israh smiled and responded, “only 2,667.8 more of them to go…”.
How far should we walk before our first break, before lunch? How long should we break for? When does it get dark? No-one was capable of answering these questions, not even us at the moment that we were asking them – so we just had to walk, and work it out.
In the beginning it was five miles to break, another five to lunch, five more to second break, then a final five to dinner. We then upped it to seven miles. Then it was ten until our first break, 9 miles to lunch, 6 to dinner and a final 5 or more to bed.
Our hiking routine changed with our fitness. Water, matched with terrain, our desired mileage and daylight determined a lot. It determined when we would eat, when we would sleep, stop, drink, and how far we would walk. The factor that came into it the least was how we felt, as the former variables were more important. Sometimes it was more important to walk two miles further, to get up the hill so you didn’t have to walk it in the morning, than stopping just because your feet were sore.
Every day the terrain was different, the feeling was different. New pain appeared while yesterday’s pain disappeared. The light changed, the temperature, the views. The routine that never really changed was the morning routine. And the evening routine. Sometimes I wished it would, I wished I could do it differently, to stop the repetition, and sometimes I was grateful for it; for knowing every piece of kit so intimately well, caring for it, needing it, and knowing exactly where it went in my pack.
I lost my spoon once. Disaster. It’s so hard to replicate a spoon.
We learned the harsh grips towns would have on us – and so learned to leave them as soon as we re-stocked with food. Our careful ritual was destroyed in towns. There were different ugly temptations – a drag on our bodies – distractions unrelated to the path we were on. It was too easy to get lost.
Before I left, I pondered on what I would learn from being in the wilds for almost half a year. Part of me wondered if I would become a bare foot cavewoman, with long matted hair. Would I not feel the cold or the heat and would I have a total affinity with my surroundings? Would I know all birdsongs and what they meant? Would I sing back, would I speak their language?
I was none of these things. Quite the opposite. I was cleaner and more efficient, quicker and smarter. I knew nothing of the meaning of the bird’s song but I heard it that much louder and appreciated it so much more than in the beginning. I walked faster. I dealt with pain differently. I spoke less, moaned less and felt what I did say had more meaning to me than before.
* * * *
You could tell yourself for months, years even, that it’s not the right time for a grand adventure. Sometimes things never feel wholly ‘right’.
Sometimes you only realise in those first steps, having taken a risk perhaps, that in fact it doesn’t have to feel right to be right, to be something. A movement, a change.
You can spend those same years or months planning, or you can do very little, pack a bag and put your trust in nature and in life, believing that it will all come good. I planned. I liked planning, I liked getting excited. The trail defied many of my careful plans – and so came the surrendering to the journey. Which was just as exciting.
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity and conservatism, all of which may appear to give piece of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.” Christopher McCandless.
This article is the second in a series of three. Read the first article here: Why Walk The Pacific Crest Trail?
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