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Not letting go: NorCal blues, life lessons and why I chose to quit my perfect thru hike.

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Don’t expect it to heal you. Those were the words that a colleague said to me back in Aotearoa. He had walked the trail in 2019. It’s funny, a lot of people know of nobody who has completed a long distance thru hike, but in the circles I run in of seasonal workers, travellers, hikers and skiers, it’s not uncommon. The advice came thick and fast, but those words always stuck with me, and often come back to me throughout the trail.

I’m over half way now, and I can’t help but wonder, had I expected the trail to heal me?

Had I?

I think back to the original reasons I had decided to walk. Of course there was the initial and all consuming pain of heartbreak, PTSD from a previous trauma and the pandemic, but the main reason was I felt so bored of life. At the age of 30 I had travelled the globe, had a career and sort of done everything I’d wanted to. I fully recognise how privileged this is, but really it was a deep depression of pointlessness and when I decided to attempt the PCT, it gave me a reason to go on, a purpose, a goal. I’m over half way now, and every day I ask myself the question, what is next? How can I possibly top this? For me, this is the crown jewel of long distance hiking trails, the only one I really, really wanted to do. How will I ever figure out what to do when the trail is over? Had I thought it would heal me?

Not really sure how it happened but did I just walk 1500 miles?

I don’t have to do this.

There was a time, only about 2 weeks ago, that I considered quitting the trail. I’d heard that NorCal was where a lot of people chose to end their hike. I had thought I was immune to this. That I’d wanted the trail so badly that it would never happen to me. I was determined to push on no matter what it took. I desperately wanted that title of ‘thru hiker’. But it did happen to me. I did briefly consider quitting.

I was mid deep in NorCal. I had a fungus infection on both feet and with every step I took, a burning sensation would happen (I didn’t look after my feet with multiple water crossings in the high Sierra so what did I expect?). I had taken 1 zero day in the last month and I was exhausted. I hadn’t rested after the Sierra Nevada and I was mentally, physically and emotionally weakened. I kept pushing on because I knew soon I had to get off trail to renew my ESTA by flying to Costa Rica and back. Suddenly I had a realisation. I was at the bottom of a 0.5mile climb. Nobody is making me do this. I was choosing to do this. I don’t have to do this. It had taken me 1200 miles to realise this. Suddenly I thought about how it would look if I quit. A lot of lounging around, eating fruit, returning to the cafes, bars and restaurants that plagued my previous life. I’d return to work. I’d return to day hiking, yoga classes, and most of all, boredom. The thought of that boredom scared me so I pushed on. I climbed up that small mountain and at the top I called a friend and complained bitterly to her how much pain I was in. A few days later I tripped and fell and smashed my hand badly. For a week I thought it could be broken. I couldn’t bend my thumb or use it. In that moment I realised that I really, really still wanted to be on trail. Hurting my hand made me realise that if I was forced to quit I would be heartbroken. Then I flew to Costa Rica and back. There I spent 2 and a half days barely leaving the hotel staring at the ceiling wondering whether immigration would let me back in. Hardly daring to miss the trail. I slept, I ate, I read a book, I got a very painful but successful sports massage, I rested and miraculously I healed. I thought listlessly of what it would look like if I didn’t make it back. I kept wondering, what my life will look like post trail. I panicked about post trail depression. Thankfully the immigration officer didn’t question why I’d only spent 3 days out of the US and before I knew it, I was back on trail where I got off, at Belden. I’d lost my trail friends, the bubble I’d been in and it seems every other NOBO hiker. Whilst I was thrilled to be back on trail, there was a loneliness to my solitude of walking through the burn areas, not having a single conversation for days on end, reaching the half way point and not having anyone to celebrate with. Onwards I walked. Wild fires had closed huge sections of the trail ahead across Oregon and the bubble I had walked 1250 miles in had broken, hikers heading to different sections and trails. I began to accept that it was unlikely I would see any of these people again. I challenged myself; hadn’t I come out here for the solitude? Hadn’t I want this loneliness? It didn’t feel right. I called another friend and talked about it. She pointed out that perhaps this was a big part of my learning on trail. Wasn’t that what Alexander Supertramp had realised on his journey across the Alaskan wilderness? That as humans we need other people? I suddenly realised that perhaps this was indeed one of my biggest lesson’s from the trail. I don’t have to do everything in life alone. It’s ok to want or to even need other people. Perhaps after over a decade of fighting against the grain, feeling like it was always me against the world, I could finally allow myself to want other people and to need human connection. I understand now that this is normal. It is not a weakness.

My perfect thru hike.

A thru hike looks different to everyone, and I didn’t know what mine would look like until I started. I didn’t know that my goal would be to follow every step of the trail, that I would choose to not skip any. In the end I realised that thru hiking is not that different to my time working as a chef. There is the endurance, the pain, the lack of sleep, huge amounts of caffeine consumed and pushing your body to its physical and mental limitations. I wanted to be the best, the most diligent, I’d only work in restaurants with Michelin stars. But that ended up breaking me. I realise now that I quit partly because I’d made it too hard for myself. When the fire closures were announced I thought about walking the road around them, the hardest way. Punishing myself, but to prove what? That I was a purist? A thru hiker? Would this ever matter to anyone apart from me? It was the trail I was in love with, not the interstate. I decided to let it go. I would try to compromise. I would only skip official PCTA closures. I have always been headstrong, always wanted my decisions to be harder than other peoples. I realised after years of therapy that I lack the ‘risk limitation’ and it’s never done me any good. I don’t see risk where other would. In Nicaragua I fled when the war broke out by running to Honduras into Tegucigalpa. After a series of unfortunate events, I realised I had taken the stupidest pathway out of the country and It was too late to back out. Here, on the PCT, even though a huge part of me wants to road walk, I’ve decided to try to have limitations and understand risk in order to protect myself, to value my life. Could this be another big life lesson? I quit my perfect idea of a thru hike, in order to protect myself and to be kind to myself. I’ve never really done this before.

I made it back to trail from Costa Rica! I hope nothing can stop me now.

So I will continue to walk North towards Canada. I will not be road walking, I will try to not be hard on myself for not road walking. I have dealt with broken gear, a visa run, injuries and loneliness. I believe more than I did before that it is possible to could get to Canada now. I’ve already decided that after 1500 miles I can call myself a thru hiker. I have some friends to visit in Oregon and Washington. I am so, so excited to see them. Especially with my new understanding of human connection! But before that I have 100 more miles of beautiful California to walk, to love, to learn from.

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