As Rick and I prepare to set out on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I find myself thinking about last year’s trek on the Appalachian Trail (AT), and how things can and will be different this time around.
For those of you who did not follow our progress last year, the short version of the story is that we set out from GA early last April, intending to “thru-hike” to ME, but were unable to complete the journey because of injuries, inexperience and interpersonal strife: Rick developed tendinitis by the time we reached VA. I struggled with iliotibial (IT) band syndrome throughout the summer. We skipped large sections of the trail while trying to recover. We had never backpacked before, and grappled with differing physical abilities (e.g., hiking pace), as well as differing levels of comfort with life on the trail…Still, we both managed to hike significant portions of the AT. I hiked roughly 1,100 miles and Rick completed over 1,800 miles. It wasn’t all bad—in fact, it was pretty damn good.
And so here we are again, days away from embarking on another long hike, contemplating what will be different this time. Here are a few things that come to mind:
Shared vision. Last time, our goals got out of sync when we returned to the trail in VA after taking a weeks-long break for Rick to recover from tendinitis. He resumed hiking with a new resolve to walk to ME, whereas I still struggled with the demands of the hiking lifestyle, hesitant to move beyond the “we’ll see how far we get” mentality that flavored the first ~6 weeks of the hike.
This year, we’ve agreed on a new thru-hiking philosophy centered on the following goals:
- Savor the sights. Being a Southern California native, I am probably biased, but the scenery that awaits us on the PCT will almost certainly outshine what we had on the AT. Do no misunderstand me; The AT is lovely, but you’re below treeline more often than not, and there are only a handful of regions where you can delight in the kind of open spaces and dramatic vistas that characterize the PCT. I’m looking forward to the vastness of the western backcountry more than anything else.
- Meet in the middle. Now that we have backpacked over 1,000 miles together, we have a much better sense of our capabilities, both as a couple and as individuals. It took me a very long time, but I finally made peace with the fact that not every town stop needs to involve a hotel room; a campground shower is a damn good amenity on a long hike. Rick, meanwhile, has learned that some things—like your hiking partner—are worth slowing down for. In short, I am going to toughen up, Rick is going to chill out, and somewhere in the middle we will meet.
- Bend the rules. Rick hiked with a “purist” mindset much of last year, meaning
that he wanted to hike every single inch of the AT, which is only possible because of how well-marked the trail is from start to finish. By contrast, the PCT is less well-marked and frequently requires hikers to follow alternate routes around burn areas and other parts of the trail that have become too difficult to traverse. In other words, there is no purist route to take on the PCT, which frees us up to define our own thru-hike. This does not mean that we intend to diverge significantly from the trail; it does mean that if, for example, we get a ride into town from one trailhead, and our hitch out of town takes us to a slightly different trailhead, we’re not going to lose any sleep over it.
Home turf. A good chunk of the trail runs through what we consider “home turf.” We will visit towns and cities that we have been to before while hiking through a landscape and climate that are not foreign to us. Unlike hikers experiencing CA for the first time, we understand the weather fluctuations in the desert and mountains, appreciate the severity of the ongoing drought, and know how different hiking an exposed trail is than hiking a sheltered one. Up until last year, I had spent more time hiking in these conditions than in the wet, green, tree-shrouded wilderness of the East Coast. Whereas the AT felt miles away from home (because it was), I think that the PCT will feel more familiar—at least through much of CA.
There are also logistical advantages to hiking through your own backyard: Friends and family can come out for visits, and until we clear the Sierras, we’re a car ride away from home, as opposed to a plane ride. This proximity should help put our minds at ease. In the event of injuries or delays, we can bribe someone to pick us up instead of worrying about airfare, hotels and rental cars. By the time we’re too far north for an easy bailout, we should be firmly in the thru-hiking groove.
Advanced planning. We had no resupply strategy for the AT. We showed up, started hiking, and planned our resupplies and zero days on the fly, which contributed to some of our disagreements about how much time and money to spend on any one pit-stop. The PCT, however, requires a certain amount of advanced planning. You spend more days in the backcountry in between breaks, and most resources are further from the trail than they are on the AT. On average, we’ll have to hitchhike about 10 miles into PCT towns, whereas hitches on the AT were frequently half that distance.
Given all that, I’ve spent the last few weeks meticulously combing through our guidebook (Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook, 2015-2016, by Jackie McDonnell), developing a resupply plan that will keep us fed from mile 1 to 2660. In formulating this plan, I had to come up with rough estimates of our daily mileage, figure out how many days we would go between pit-stops, choose a resupply method for each stop (resupply box or shopping in town), calculate how much food we would need in every box, find the most cost-effective way to fill those boxes (16 of them), divide our guidebook and map set amongst all the boxes, and so on and so forth. It has been a lot of frakkin’ work, but with one very distinct advantage (besides the obvious one): The time that I have spent planning our resupplies has put me in the mindset to hike the whole trail. Because if we don’t, I’ve wasted a lot of time and money on resupply boxes we’ll never use. And on top of that, planning has given me a preview of what to look forward to in the coming months. It’s helped me jump-start my hiker mindset in a way that I didn’t get to do when I showed up on the AT last year, without any experience or much knowledge of what was ahead.
Of course, when I’m aching on an exposed ridge line on a 95° day with the next water source 12 miles ahead of me and the last one 16 miles behind, all of that planning and anticipation will probably slip my mind…But maybe not.
Physical preparation. My “training regime” for the AT involved eating lots of ice cream, popcorn, and other treats. I figured that I did not need much physical preparation to go for a really long walk; I was wrong, and I ended up injured and miserable because of it.
This year, I am not making that mistake. I spent several months going to a physical therapist/trainer one to two times per week, doing therapist-approved exercises at home, and walking around Irvine with a 10-, then 15-, then 20-, then 25-lb pack on my back. None of this makes me injury-proof, but it has made me stronger and more aware of my hiking form. Physically, I am starting out on the PCT in better shape than I started out on the AT.
All of this just goes to say that things will be different this year, and that’s a very good thing. The perfect PCT hike is one that we finish in good spirits and with minimal friction between the two of us. Hopefully, acknowledging what went wrong last time and being more proactive this time will help us get to that goal.