One of the hardest parts of hiking the PCT is this: you can quit any time. And I do mean any time. All it would take is a single decision, likely a maximum of two days’ hiking (and usually much less) to reach the nearest road, a good hitchhiking thumb, and…I could be back in my car, driving to any place I wanted, eating anything I wanted, doing anything I wanted, in less than three or four days.
How tempting is it to do this? Sometimes it’s very, very tempting. It’s never been more so than most of these past three hundred miles or so, say, after leaving Sierra City. I’ve felt like quitting time and time again, and not just for a few minutes — sometimes for a half-day or more. It’s incredibly hot. The trail just keeps going uphill. It’s too far until the next town, and the motel there is full. There’s no water. Did I mention it’s incredibly hot?
And, above all, it feels like you’re making almost no progress at all. You’ve hiked over eleven hundred miles, and you’re still not even halfway done. California stretches on forever, and, if you’re not even close to done with California, how in the world are you possibly going to get all the way through Washington and Oregon, too? Do you really want to hike these next five hundred miles of hot, frustrating, boring trail? Or would you really rather be somewhere with air conditioning, indoor plumbing, a dozen take-out options, and laundry?
In fact, my wonderful friend Dilly may capture it best, in her blog post upon reaching the halfway point. (Seriously, go read it — she’s an amazing writer and how she feels matches my own feelings so well.) It seems like this time — these past few hundred miles — are when hikers’ spirits reach new lows. (It also seems like this is when many of them either quit, or decide that the right way to cover the next five hundred miles is to simply hitchhike past them.) Hitting Oregon feels like making real progress, like the end is actually in sight, but even that feels just impossibly far off. How dedicated are you to this crazy adventure? What are you going to do, now that it feels decidedly less “fun” and a lot more like “work”?
Perhaps it’s telling that I’m writing this only after it seems like we’re starting to pull up from that bottom. Today we hit the 1,500–mile point, which is both a nice round number and a seemingly impossibly crazy long way to have walked. Oregon is now less than two hundred miles away, which means it’s only a little over a week until we get there. (Because — did I mention? — we’re walking nearly two hundred miles a week.) Perhaps most of all, we’re considerably more than halfway through Northern California, and we’ve already hiked so much of it that it would seem completely pointless to have already done all this and still give up. It’s motivation through loss aversion, I realize — but hey, it works.
I don’t think anybody thinks hiking the PCT is nothing but wonderful times, but, if you imagined that it was even mostly wonderful times, or that there weren’t long, dark periods when it’s honestly kind of miserable — well, there are. It feels good to finally feel like things are pulling up from that kind of low, to see a possible future in which it feels like we’re…if not in the homestretch, at least able to see where it might possibly begin. But that low has been very real, and very intense, and the temptation to just call it quits has been nearly overwhelming at times.
Today may have been a case in point. On one hand: we climbed over 3,800 feet up after leaving Castella, in 87° weather, mopping my brow every few minutes from all the sweat. On the other: we’re camped tonight atop a beautiful ridge, with a gorgeous sunset and likely an amazing sunrise. And: at our next town stop, it’ll be very close to just a hundred miles until Oregon. That’s real progress, and it feels great.