In August of 2021, I hiked for 7 days southbound on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) starting at the Washington-Oregon border (Cascade Locks), with Eva and two of her friends (who had started at the Canadian border on July 1 and had already hiked through Washington. We averaged 18 miles a day, including a 23-mile day, with about 30 pounds on my back. It was intense (“in tents”).
After getting off the trail, I quickly had the thought — WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?!?!
The experience was full of contradictions. It was beautiful, and hard. Invigorating, and exhausting. Solitary, and communal. Planned, and spontaneous. It was a renewal of a life-long bent toward being forever a beginner, always learning.
If you’ll indulge me, over the next week or so, I’d like to share some life lessons I learned from my week on the PCT.
Thanks to Putt Putt (Eva), Wiki and Lentil for letting me tag along.
Life Lesson #1 Travel light
It didn’t take long being on the trail to realize what items in my pack I actually used and what I didn’t need.
I didn’t need a pot to boil water when I could just boil water in my cup. I didn’t need my down jacket in summer. I didn’t need both bug spray and sunscreen when I also had a combined bug/sunscreen lotion.
The extra weight may not seem like much, but over time I can imagine every extra ounce making a difference. It could’ve added to the pain in my neck, to the blister starting to form on the ball of my right foot, to the soreness of my left hip.
I think of those extra things in my life that I really don’t need, that weigh on me or drain me of energy. Things like watching the news on TV. Having two cars when we really only need one. The “shoulds” and unconscious expectations that occupy my mind. Or just smiling when I don’t feel like it.
At the end of a day of hiking, it felt so good to shed myself of my pack, take off my clothes, and go for a dip in a cold, mountain lake. It was like cleansing myself from the weariness and weight of the day. I’d lie in my sleeping bag, exhausted, looking up at the stars, dreaming of what it would be like to live and travel light.
Life Lesson #2 Stop and pick the berries
Along the PCT in Oregon there are several edible wild berries, including the huckleberry (like a small blueberry) and the thimbleberry (like a small raspberry). Given the typical backpacking food of nuts, oatmeal, energy bars, and freeze-dried food, fresh fruit is always a welcomed treat.
“Stop and pick the berries” is the hiker’s equivalent of “Stop and smell the roses.” It means to slow down to enjoy the things around you. Stop to take a photo of the light shining through the trees. Look around to notice the deer quietly watching you.
I know that hikers who are hiking the entire PCT (all 2,650 miles) need to get in so many miles a day so they can beat the early snows near the Canadian border (if hiking northbound) or in the southern Sierras (if hiking southbound). And even though I was just hiking for a week, I still needed to put in so many miles a day to keep up with Eva. But there was always time to stop to pick a handful of huckleberries, to take a photo of the moss hanging from the trees, or to take a quick dip in the lake. We think that the goal is to get over “there” (for example, the northern or southern terminus of the PCT). But the goal is really the journey to over “there.” It’s enjoying the sweet berries along the way.
Life Lesson #3 Yield to the person hiking uphill
When approaching a hiker going uphill, hiking etiquette has the downhill hiker get off the trail to yield to the uphill hiker. Makes sense. The person who is sweating a bit more should have the right of way.
That’s a good rule of thumb in life too. When you encounter someone who seems to be struggling a bit more than you, give them some space, give them a hand, or give them an encouraging word. Life is hard for all of us at different times. So when you’re cruising downhill, help out the uphiller. You’ll be hiking uphill soon enough yourself.
Life Lesson #4 Take care of yourself
Except for the camaraderie at camp or the occasional conversation on the trail, thru-hiking (hiking long distances on a trail like the PCT) is a pretty solitary venture. You need to be able to rely on yourself.
You’re carrying everything you need to live and survive in the wild — water, food, clothes, first aid, cooking and sleeping gear. You’re responsible for what, and how much, you carry in your backpack.
You need to know how much water to carry until the next water source. You need to be prepared to deal with the sun, wind, rain, insects, blisters, perhaps even a bear.
So you need to plan ahead to make sure you have the right gear. You need to make sure you’re in good enough shape so you don’t burn out after the first day on trail.
You need to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. If you start to feel a blister forming on your foot, you need to stop and tend to it before it gets worse. If you’re feeling exhausted and your morale is low, you need to stop, maybe take a nap or a dip in a lake. You’re going to face challenges on the trail. Being prepared and taking care of yourself is the best way to deal with them.
Life Lesson #5 Listen to your children
Each generation stands on the shoulders of the generation before them. Maybe that’s why the younger generation can see things the older generation can’t. They’re seeing things from a fresh, new perspective.
For thousands of years, older generations have always had a hard time understanding newer generations. My parents didn’t understand rock ’n roll. They didn’t understand my interest in personal growth and spiritual enlightenment. They certainly didn’t understand why I got my ear pierced.
During my 7-day hike on the PCT, I had some good conversations with our daughter Eva and learned some things. Even her “sweet, kind dad” is not always up to speed with where her generation is. I think the “generation gap” is just the older generations not keeping up with the younger ones.
Things like the latest apps and technology, gender and sexual fluidity, work-life balance, pronouns, social and racial equality, the ability to see through grown-up BS. It’s all second nature to them.
Sure, the older generation has gained some wisdom and perspective from experience. We have a lot to offer. But as Whitney Houston sang in “The Greatest Love of All” — “I believe the children are our future; teach them well and let them lead the way.” So it’s a good idea to constantly keep learning and growing. If you want to see where things are going, listen to your children. And try to keep up.
Life Lesson #6 Embrace the unfinished nature of things.
We’re always in the middle of something. Things are always in flux. We never get it done. Even when we complete something, there’s always the next thing.
Just driving out to Oregon from Colorado to join Eva on the PCT, there was always road work going on. There’s always going to be pot holes to be filled; old roads to be re-paved.
After hiking three days from Cascade Locks to Mt Hood, there were two trail closures due to fire, so we had to skip those sections. Thank goodness for our very own trail angel, aka Myriam, who drove us to Bend for the night, and then dropped us off the next morning in the middle of a lava field at McKenzie Pass.
And then 4 days later when I was done with my hiking, Eva and one of her hiking friends decided to forgo the terrible smoke from all the fires, and skip a large section of southern Oregon and northern California. (Bonus: I got to see both of my sisters in one day — Kathy in Jacksonville, OR and Susie in Truckee, CA). So Myriam and I dropped off Eva and Clare in Truckee before heading back to Colorado.
Eva was planning to hike the entire PCT continuously from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. But things happen and plans change. She hopes to reach the Mexican border by the end of October. Then weather permitting, she may go back and finish the sections she had to skip earlier. If she finishes the whole PCT this year or not, doesn’t matter. She’ll finish it sooner or later. Then there will be the next adventure to begin.
Life Lesson #7 Stripped down to our essence, we’re all pretty much the same.
What I like about backpackers is that they consciously choose to do something uncomfortable. Especially thru-hikers who are hiking 15 to 25 miles a day.
You’re tired. You’re sore. You’re dirty. You stink. Some part of your body is hurting most of the time.
But the discomfort, the physical and mental challenge, the slog that is inherent in backpacking, strips people down to their essence. Your needs are basic: water, food, shelter. There’s no energy left for pretense, affectation, snobbery, superiority.
There’s an egalitarianism on the trail. A feeling that we’re all in the same boat together. Or in this case, on the same trail, dealing with similar things like exhaustion, hunger, bug bites, heat, smoke. (OK, maybe there were a few NoBos — North Bounders — who seemed a bit cocky because they had hiked longer).
Imagine if all the leaders of the world went on a week-long backpacking trip together. Mutual respect would start to grow. Empathy would seep in. There would be little energy left for conflict.
Backpacking, and its accompanying discomfort, gets you out of your head and into the aliveness of your body. What’s left is simply a human being, doing the best they can. Just like you.
(photo below: Looking like how we sometimes felt)
Life Lesson #8 Hike your own hike
Hiking is not a race. It’s an opportunity to enjoy the presence and beauty of Nature. It’s a chance to get away from our normal, over-stimulated lives with deadlines and traffic and artificial things.
Being in the wilderness, you start to attune to the stillness and silence around you. You slow down and begin to get into your own natural rhythm.
Some people are fast hikers. Others are slower. I was the slowest in our group of four. “Slow and steady” is how I’d respond when hikers going northbound would ask how I was doing.
When you’re thru-hiking, usually everyone is hiking at their own pace, oftentimes by themselves. But we’d all end up at the same camping spot each night.
It’s nice to hike your own hike, at your own pace, but still enjoy each other’s company at the end of the day.
Life Lesson #9 It’s never too late
Except for a 3-night practice hike a couple years ago to try out my new equipment, I hadn’t backpacked in over 30 years. Especially with both hips replaced, I didn’t think I could, or would want to, backpack ever again.
But when Eva asked if I wanted to join her for a week on the Pacific Crest Trail, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. But could I do it? Nothing like preparation to, well, get you prepared. I spent several months hiking with my backpack around Boulder County every chance I had, from walking the dog around the neighborhood to hiking around the city and in the foothills.
Once on the trail, I realized I could do it. Don’t get me wrong. It was hard. But I was able to keep up with Eva and her friends by the end of the day.
Sometimes when I’d be huffing and puffing up the mountain and crossing younger hikers cruising by in the opposite direction, I’d think “well, I’m probably twice their age.” But then I’d see some person who was definitely older than me who was hiking the whole frickin’ PCT. So age is no excuse. If you’ve got the desire, you can do pretty much anything. And it’s never too late to start.