Back to the Beginning for a Bit
I hit the 100-mile markers (there were about seven) on the sixth day of my hike. Triple digits – hooray! But also, human interference in the outdoors – nay? I sent a group text to some former co-workers from an outdoor job that focused on LNT education: “Should I dismantle ‘em?” The response was unanimous: “Of course!”
I’d suspected this would be the case. I’ve worked a few outdoor education jobs, the main goal of which has been to explain the reasons we’re meant to take only pictures – provided we’re respecting others while we do so – and to leave only footprints – as long as they’re on durable surfaces. As with any industry, an “us vs. them” mentality can develop. These damn hikers, leaving traces all over the place while we toil away clearing brush and picking up TP! Kick those rocks away! I sighed, kicked away the shittiest one, and kept walking.
Yet once my hike of the PCT progressed, I quickly abandoned all notions of being a steward of the trail. At first it was because I didn’t want to be that person: The Übermensch of the PCT, regaling anyone in earshot of the whys and hows of responsible recreation. Quite quickly, though, I realized that despite the work I’d done to mitigate damage to trails and recreation areas in the past, as a hiker I was engaging in very few on-trail behaviors that could be seen as “responsible.”
Leave No Trace…ish?
In general, I’d say long-distance hikers practice LNT-lite. We’re not committing grievous sins against the natural environment. No one (very few people) shat in the middle of the trail or left traces on the passes, blared EDM in crowded campsites or picked wildflowers to make a crown. Most of us are somewhat attuned to good outdoor practices and care enough about the natural world to be mindful about our impact. But there were people who dug catholes that were barely an inch deep. There were people who made new campsites because they couldn’t go to the next one. There’s a lot of flinging the contents of cookpots around. There’s even more feet and socks in the water sources.
My own litany of transgressions is endless. I gave up doing a proper PCT hang on day three, choosing instead to pretend that my Walmart dry bag was as bear-proof as an Ursack and hanging it on the highest branch I could reach, usually five feet off the ground on a good day. I brought paper maps to the Sierra and nowhere else; I never glanced at them, relying exclusively on The App. I didn’t have rain pants; for some of the trail I didn’t even have pants pants. I stopped filtering water in Washington. I got all up in the grill of various plants, insects, and small mammals to get that epic photo.
As much as I wish I hiked with a halo around my head and a bag of other people’s trash tied to my backpack, that was not the case. Long-distance hikers – myself included – become entitled, as though walking with a backpack and an ironic Goodwill button-down grants us immunity from being a good person. We think we’re the only ones engaged in anything worth doing.
It’s actually crazy: The phrase “Ranger Danger!” comes up dozens of times in the Guthook comments, as though backcountry rangers are these malevolent militants whose sole job is to bust long-distance hikers. You know how many rangers I saw on the PCT? One. You know what she did? Told us the weather and wished us well. Yet the long-distance hiker mentality seeks to put a divide between us and them. “No one understands!” We huff. “We’re out here alone, day after day, slogging along, putting in work!” We scan each road crossing with abject desperation, wondering if the empty bag of chips left under a scrub brush was trail magic someone else received.
There is a slight truth to that, though: People who haven’t done this don’t know what we’re doing. Yes, it’s a vacation. Yes, it’s privileged. That doesn’t mean that it’s not challenging and exhausting. But that also doesn’t mean we have the right to let numbers go to our heads, to engage in behaviors that will put those who haven’t yet hiked this trail yet have an inferior experience due to our laziness.
But Anyway, the Mile Markers
Does it really matter that people assembled a couple of numbers out of rocks that were already in the area? I don’t think so. LNT is on a spectrum and I’d argue this is one of the least egregious “interferences” with a natural space that can transpire, especially when you consider the sheer joy it brings to those of us on this (lavish half-year vacation) hike. Also, trails are constructed by beings, often humans. Their distances are arbitrary: They have to start and end somewhere. If anything, I texted the group in a not-so-discreet attempt to garner congratulations for my epic achievement. “I’ve hit 100 miles! Yay! I’m so cool!” (Thus demonstrating why searching for validation in others is a bad idea.)
At the same time, though, thinking not with my long-distance hiking brain (if one even exists in the throes of a thru-hike attempt) but with my outdoor educator one, are these mile markers innocent celebrations of athletic achievement and the tenacity of human beings, or are they just another iteration of the white compulsion to mark territory and carve achievements into the earth? Does hiking 100 miles mean anything? Does hitting a zero-ending number in the Arabic number system tingle so good because we’re conditioned to achieve things instead of enjoy things? What was I hoping to accomplish out here? Why did I want to hike?
Reflections at the Intersection of 1000 Miles: Whew!
Thus was my brain on the night of Day 59 as I closed in on the 1000-mile marker. I, like so many people, had arrived in Campo in a public transit tizzy after a five-day packing frenzy. As much as I’d like to say I pontificated and meditated about the whys of the hike, I really just wanted to do it because. Because I knew I’d like it, because I knew I could do it. It wasn’t really a third-of-life crisis, though deciding to step out of “regular” life for an extended period of time suggests, if nothing else, a want or need for a shift, perhaps a period of reflection. It wasn’t because of a professional crisis, though I’d ended a seasonal job less than a week prior to my start date and wasn’t quite sure what I wanted the next one to be. It wasn’t because of a breakup, although my desire to do this more than anything else was a jumpstart to my own relationship ending. I wanted to test my fitness. I wanted to hike more efficiently than I had on past hikes. Mainly, though, after two years of living in a couple square miles as dictated by the global pandemic, I just wanted to do something.
You start out thinking you’ll have time to ponder these “whys” as you amble along. In reality, though, grinding becomes the grind and chores take priority over contemplation. Also, the longer I hiked, the more ludicrous everything seemed to be. In a flash-forward to a downhill stretch of trail in Washington, there was a conversation about fashion: What’s fashionable, what was fashionable when, how fashions come to be. I don’t know why or how this transpired. I recall that emotions were quite heightened, that somehow, in the heart of the least fashionable locale in the entire world, we had decreed ourselves post-modern sartorial geniuses with much to say about the subject. It was wacky. I think we concluded that the only thing that would never go out of style was black jeans and turtlenecks? So…Paris? What the fuck was going on? None of us had touched a pair of jeans in months. I might never be able to leave the country again. Trail conversations sound like high conversation but with a tinge of the unhinged. I’m getting ahead of myself, though…
A Dignified Celebration
Crisis and I had been gunning for that 1000-mile marker but after 27 miles, the excitement of the achievement quickly dissipated and we realized we were exhausted. We’d set our sights on a 4-tent campsite just a couple tenths of a mile further,
Upon arrival, we peered around the campsite using our polite red lights as opposed to the glaring white ones and saw that someone – a selfish motherfucker, to be precise – had set up their big ass Big Agnes Tiger Wall in epicenter of the campsite, essentially occupying a quarter of every potential tent site. If LNT practices are on a spectrum, which is more egregious: Arriving at a tent site just before 11 pm and quietly skulking around for a place to sleep, or getting there at a normal hour, surveying the scene, and deciding to co-opt the entire area? You be the judge.
We started to hike on but then stopped: Who knew what the next sites would be like? We were, after all, in the bubble! We threw our stuff under some flimsy pine trees and cowboy camped in a horrendous cloud of aggressive mosquitoes. I slept for three hours total as I tried unsuccessfully to find a comfortable temperature on a warm night without exposing any skin to the malicious creatures.
Besides this campsite, you know what the hardest part of hitting 1000 miles was? Realizing that I still had 1653 miles left to hike! The PCT is, like, five Colorado Trails or Caminos. It’s two PNTs. It’s the Appalachian Trail plus the Superior Hiking Trail plus seventeen five-mile day hikes. It’s a hell of a long way.
Yosemite National Park
Throughout the desert and Sierra I felt slower than slow, as though everyone around me was a better hiker. This isn’t impostor syndrome or anything: Many of the people around me were better hikers. They’d hiked the trail before, they were triple crowners doing a victory hike, they were aiming for sub-100 day hikes. I chatted with a group of guys in Idyllwild who’d started in Campo four days before. IN IDYLLWILD. After our 40-mile Tehachapi night, I felt proud of myself…until I was sitting at Kohnen’s Country Bakery and a group of people who’d gone the extra 10 miles – a grand total of 50 – to the highway pulled up.
Post-Sierra, none of this mattered: Yosemite was magic. The meandering trails looked like someone had come through with a straight razor and fixed the edges five minutes before we ambled through. Glittering streams flowed in perpetuity through high grasses, making it impossible not to take a break in the evening glow. Our lungs took in fuller breaths of air. Our legs sped across dirt-packed trails. On a quantitative level, we hiked 166 miles over the week, an average of 23.5 miles per day, six more than the previous week’s average of 17. Everything clicked.
Sonora Pass and KMN
The following day we hiked out to Sonora Pass, traversing a genuine snowfield for the first and only time in the Sierra, and hitched into Kennedy Meadows North: The end of the Sierra, or at least of the canister requirement (though I held onto mine until South Lake Tahoe for a little more misery). Kennedy Meadows North was the polar opposite of its southern counterpart. The place itself is lovely because it’s not only a hiker hub but an actual vacation spot for civilized human beings. When I was at Kennedy Meadows South, lest we forget, there was no running water. The bathroom was locked, the shower was unavailable, and the porto-toilet had a fecal cone so high you had to stand on the fucking seat to take a shit. (To be fair, the cleaning truck did come the second morning I was there to rectify the issue.)
Another main difference between KMS and KMN is that in the former, everyone is terrified about entering the Sierra. The vibe, though certainly merry and boozy due to everyone finishing the damn desert, has a layer of seriousness. THE SIERRA! People are organizing their gear, freaking out about base layers, and coming to terms with the fucking bear canister in a very real way. Did the cook go on a lunch break at lunch time at KMS, leaving everyone’s dollars cramped inside their wallets, begging to be spent on The Ubiquitous Hiker Burger? Did some people stay for three days because they were too wasted to leave? Yes. But there was something so charming and unifying about the place. Regardless of start dates or pace, we’d all made it that far.
At KMN there’s a pleasant restaurant with stable hours, a separate saloon with beer and liquor, and a bustling lobby with leather couches. When we got dropped off and entered the premises from the front door, we were excited for a relaxing evening of calm fun and light celebration.
Then we went to the hiker area behind the main building.
The hiker section of Kennedy Meadows North was a beer-soaked, sweat-stained den of debauchery. I’ve been to dive bars on the Lower East Side at 4 am that smelled better than that tent, which is outrageous because all four sides were open to the elements. Most people hadn’t showered despite the availability of a shower. Some people didn’t have all the usual pieces of clothing on. At 6:30 in the morning, a dude came up to me and shouted, “I LIKE YOUR FUCKING CARHARTT, MAN,” with the type of aggression I dream of summoning should anyone ever try to throw me in the back of a white van. People were Super. Fucked. Up. It was awful.
We quickly realized that the mid-thirties money move would be to stay in the hostel, which was $50 a night and therefore anathema to the dirty bros draped on the picnic tables outside. The wooden door to the inside was a portal to the chill evening I’d dreamed of and a good time was had by all of the adults inside. I stayed in the women’s dorm where everyone went to sleep at a hiker-appropriate hour. Nobody vomited on me. Success!
A Quandary of Sorts
We got back to Sonora Pass in the late morning and managed to hike 17 miles despite being in the dolorous state of extreme suffering that transpires in one’s mid-thirties after imbibing two alcoholic beverages (one was whiskey, okay? I didn’t say I wasn’t debauched, too!). Once the hangover calmed down, I felt pumped. I hadn’t switched to the next map or ditched my canister yet but as we climbed out of Sonora Pass the trail was different – open and winding and exploding with wildflowers. The granite spires were gone, replaced with mule ears and lupine and green green green! My Yosemite legs were ready to roll. South Lake Tahoe was less than 60 miles away, an easy three day/two night stretch that would get us into town early. But SLT seems to be the Harper’s Ferry of the PCT, the spiritual and psychological halfway point of the journey, if not the numerical one. I wanted to get there STAT – one night only. Crisis, on the other hand, did not.
Friends? Where I’m Going I Don’t Need Friends!
I’ve mentioned I’m not a fan of the tramily. Groupthink, campsite domination, frenetic searches for hikers who are zero point one miles away…not my thing. In an attempt to be intelligent and cautious adults, Crisis and I had decided to hike together through the Sierra. Now, however, the Sierra was over! We could henceforth abandon the idea of hiking “together,” a dirty word to two people who, despite claiming to be progressive New Yorkers, were indoctrinated into good old American individualism and low-key obsessed with doing this “alone.” In short, if we were indeed A Loose Alliance of Similarly-Paced Hikers, a discrepancy in desired mileage should have meant that we would no longer hike together. Goodbye, good luck, etcetera!
I am self-aware enough to understand that this is psychologically problematic. A righteous desire for independence – the need to be able to finish and say “I did this myself!” – is emblematic of an insecure person who is missing the point. Also, like so many elements of the American Persona, it’s a fallacy. One does not do a long-distance hike alone. We rely on friends and family members to send packages or check on things, on strangers to give us hitches into town despite our wretched state of being, on trail angels who set up water caches in dry stretches of trail. We rely on well-timed words of commiseration from a fellow hiker when we’re feeling desperate and alone. We rely on phone calls from people back home to remind us that there is another side of life. Nobody hikes the Pacific Crest Trail alone.
Immature or not, though, this is how I felt. Neither of us wanted to tether ourselves to the other in a definite way. This isn’t to say we hadn’t enjoyed hiking together. Rather, we were leery of falling into the negative situations we’d observed in so many of these big, tight-knit tramilies: People are going slower than they’d like and getting frustrated, faster than they’d like and getting injured, or simply not having a good time because they want to do something that deviates from the majority ruling but don’t want to lose their friends (again, the friends they met nine weeks prior). We were confused. Everyone comes to the trail alone and of their own accord, with their own goals and hopes for the next few months. Choosing to uproot a life, to leave what is familiar and comfortable, does take some strength and confidence. Yet day after day we watched people sacrifice their own desires for someone else’s, albeit on small scales: When to eat lunch, where to camp. Where is the strength and confidence in following a leader?
But who knows? Maybe Shoehorn and Sugar Pants and everyone else who had linked up with others on day three and were now rolling nine-deep into NorCal were more evolved than us, less ego-driven and more community-minded. Maybe we were just two human products of late-stage capitalism, oozing with notions of superiority to mask our desire to belong, obsessed with the destination and not the journey! Regardless of the why, though, it seemed we’d soon part ways.
Establishing a Pattern
Yet that is not what happened. What happened was we spent an excessive amount of time debating the merits of taking three days to get to SLT (Crisis) vs. the merits of taking two days to do it (me). Why all the efforts Because spoiler alert: I think we were actually having fun hiking together. It came to a head when we set up camp 28 miles from South Lake Tahoe, a very attainable distance, and I presented my friend with a list of reasons we should absolutely arrive to town the following day, including but not limited to, “if my boyfriend camped five miles from the road and I was in town waiting, I would be livid.” (Add Disobeying “Principle #7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors” to my list of LNT infractions above.) I know! Terrible! I was blinded by miles and milkshakes and motels! Consider this my apology.
A Welcome Morale Boost
Though the negotiations had been tense and I’d hit below the hipbelt (#gearpun), we decided to go for it. Life is cruel, though, no? Crisis, now motivated, left at what I would call the ass crack of dawn. I left late, as per usual (there was cell service, okay??). Finally motivated, I hiked for about three minutes before I had to poop. I had to go deep into the woods to find a non-rocky area, thus losing more time. I needed water. 28 miles seemed stupid.
When Crisis and I met up at a water source after about eleven miles I was first pleased – misery loves company! – and then not pleased – zero motivation could mean goal abandonment! – to find him in poor spirits as well. My fervent need to pull a longer day and get to town had been overridden by the fact that I actually had to hike there. It was hot out. I was tired. I think I was nauseous, or not hungry, or some form of blah. I’d impulsively booked two non-refundable nights in the EconoLodge and I was now worried about getting a hitch into town with enough time to make paying to stay worth it. What was the point of getting into town late, anyway? Just to do it? Morale was universally low.
And then we saw Quincy La Porte.
At Kennedy Meadows South, we’d met another hiker who I’ll call Quincy La Porte. That’s not his trail name but is a damn good trail name. We’d all had a hilarious time at KMS, hiked together for the first two days in the Sierra, and then lost track of each other during the Infamous Snow Event of June 22nd, 2022. He’d been hiking on and off with another group in the larger bubble we were floating around, though he too was a proponent of Loose Alliance Hiking Methodology. We’d wondered about his whereabouts over the last few weeks but hadn’t run into him again.
As we sat at the water source, whining loudly and aging rapidly, Quincy La Porte strode down the trail. The mood and day were transformed! I’ve experienced few things in life that bring as much unfettered joy as seeing someone you genuinely like on a trail when you don’t think you’re going to see them again. Puppies? Money? Not even close! We went from being two sad sacks on the verge of abandoning a plan that had taken about nineteen miles to solidify to being reinvigorated and ready to roll. I’d rather hike in boots and long pants than utter the phrase “The Trail Provides” but damn did that work out well!
We hiked fast, chatting loudly over one another, talking about everything that’d happened since we’d last been together. Things that had seemed bad or challenging just a few days prior were now, wrapped up in adjectives and transformed into stories, ridiculous adventures within our larger shared journey. Everything was happening to everyone! The miles peeled away and we hiked faster in spite of an assortment of aches and pains that accrued on the steep descent.
After over 1000 miles, I’ve learned there are quite a few hikers I cannot stand, but who I cannot outhike. You may as well forge a loose alliance with similarly paced hikers who you can, in fact, stand. So thus it was. After all this drama about not hiking with people and not sticking together, about hiking alone and being a stoic individual, I rolled into South Lake Tahoe with not one but two friends. We arrived at the highway and got a hitch within minutes, bound for the small little city next to the biggest little city in the world.