The first day I started hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1999, someone told me that the trail had ruined them. At the time, I thought it was a cute thing to say. It didn’t occur to me as a warning, I didn’t realize that I was walking the same path. I’ve often told people that the hardest part of hiking any long trail was taking that first step. I later found out, that the second hardest part was the last step. It was hard to finish the PCT. I remember walking down the forest road in Manning Park, none of it felt real. The border of Mexico, the struggles and joy along the way, the road I was walking on… The trail had become my reality, my routine, and by that it had ceased to be something I could point to from a distance with awe and wonder, the spectacular had become normal. I took it for granted, and it didn’t seem so special. But, I was smart enough to realize what was going on, that the trail was indeed special. The thought of “no more trail” made me feel sad at best, frightened at worst. I knew that nothing lasted forever, but it all seemed way too brief.
I spent the next year in somewhat of a PCT-induced daze. The hike came up a lot in my everyday conversations. I started to worry that it would consume the rest of my identity. I imagined people referring to me… “oh, you mean that guy who hiked… blah blah blah” I tried to make a conscious effort to avoid discussing it, but my efforts were often thwarted. In so many everyday experiences, I could draw parallels from the trail. “It’s like on the PCT…”, I’d try to stop myself, but it was difficult. I realized that we all drew on, and were defined by our life experiences. I just had the position, either fortunate or unfortunate, of having the bulk of mine bundled up in a 5 1/2 month whirlwind of craziness. Everything else I’d done in my life was dwarfed. School, work, family, friends… I felt lopsided.
I loved hiking, there was no doubt about it. I found that no matter how directionless or melancholy I felt, a good hike provided a temporary cure. My day hikes became little injections of morphine, I couldn’t get enough. I met a number of people who had also hiked the PCT, or were in the process of hiking it, and saw familiar stories behind their eyes. With them, it felt OK to openly express love for that thing that was so removed from the everyday experience. The trail was a secret refuge. Still, I felt stuck. I wondered if I would forever be a slave to “the good old days”.
I came up with a solution to all that was only one solution – “surrender to the flow”. Perhaps I could give the PCT some competition for control of my life – water it down a bit. Luckily, there was another long trail in the US – longer, wilder, lonelier… On the PCT, hikers talked about it in tones of dreaminess. “I hear it isn’t really done yet”. “I hear that a lot of people bomb-off (don’t finish)” “I hear it’s easy to get lost”… All those red flags looked green to me. But perhaps my biggest motivation was the fear of not doing it – the fear that I’d forever have to clench my teeth in the pain and regret of the path not taken. I HAD to hike the Continental Divide Trail.