What I Didn’t Expect Along the Pacific Crest Trail

How fast time goes by. It was four years ago tomorrow that we arrived in Campo, California to begin our six month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (aka, “the PCT”).

The trail was most definitely beautiful; the stark, subdued tones of the southern Californian desert, the jagged, whitewashed spires contrasted against the intense blue of the sky and the lakes in the Sierra Nevada, and the mountains of the Cascades, rising sharply from the foothills to sharp summits covered in ice. The scenery was fantastic, but the trail provided much more than scenery, much of which was unexpected.

Before the beginning the trail, I didn’t expect to notice the transitions between landscapes; how deserts turn into mountains, how dry scrub areas change to forests, and how everything is related to each other. The transitions can happen remarkably quickly or quite subtly. On a hike of this length, you cross many environments and the constant change is fascinating. You even become cognizant of the similarities and seemingly apparent evolution visible in plants; how similar Yucca bushes and Joshua Trees are, how various trees relate to one another, and how flowers change from one mountain range to the next.

The small and charming towns sprinkled along the trail added another dimension to the hike that I wasn’t expecting. I found myself looking forward to the towns not only for the showers and non-trail food that they offered, but for the allure of old mining towns and quaint communities that seem to have preserved the charm of a previous era. Towns like Dunsmuir, Etna, Ashland, and Idyllwild, as well as many others provided additional opportunities for exploration beyond the scenery and nature of the trail.

While I fully expected to meet interesting people along the trail (which I did), we met many great and very generous people who were living their normal every day lives until we dropped into the picture. One of my favorites was a family on vacation, who cut their day trip to a mountaintop lake short to offer us a ride in their very crowded van; the young girls sitting in the back on top of their vacation bags and supplies, and us sitting in their seats with our bulky bags on our laps, smelling up their van with the stench only those who have given rides to three PCT hikers who haven’t showered in a week can know. We wound our way through hairpin and slightly nauseating turns and descended several thousand feet out of the Sierras to the nearest town. This is real generosity.

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was a transformative event, reshaping our lives and modifying our long term outlook on what is possible. In the very least, it ruined any plans of living what most people would consider a ‘normal’ life. For some, once you feel the freedom, simplicity, and sense of satisfaction encountered on such a long journey, it’s a little difficult to accept normalcy again.

Setting off on such a large adventure is unattainable by most. The financial burden and departure from children, pets, house payments, and working one’s way up the corporate ladder doesn’t offer much flexibility to take off for six months to walk. Our own decision involved selling our home, a home we had been meticulously remodeling. After two years of living in our basement, tearing open walls, and working for several hours each evening after work, our dreams of living comfortably in our newly remodeled home were modified slightly; to walking nearly all day, every day, for six months, forgoing showers and living out of a tent. It was a great decision.