Haleigh set out to hike the 2,600 miles between Canada and Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail because she wanted to discover something within herself. She didn’t realize that the experience would change her life.
“Your life will never be the same after this,” J told me. We were sitting on the trail having lunch. I didn’t respond — I just looked down at my cheese sandwich crackers. He insisted, “You can’t just go back to living the way you used to after you live on the trail. Think about it.”
We were resting on the brutally beautiful Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) — I was six days into our five-month journey, hiking each day, camping in remote areas, and resupplying in towns along the way. It was a radically different lifestyle than my life back in the Midwest, but I wanted to believe that nothing major would shift in my life. Although I had left my job and my community to hike the PCT, I wasn’t comfortable visualizing my life completely changing. I thought of the PCT like a vacation from my real life: it’s a nice break and change of pace, but when you return from vacation, everything is pretty much still the same.
J was telling me this was no vacation, though — and that was for the best.
My hiking crew included J and D. The three of us began hiking together on the PCT just outside of Bend, Oregon in the summer of 2019. We headed north to the Canadian border and started on what is called a flip-flop hike. The distance from Bend to Canada would cover about a third of the total trail mileage of 2,653 miles. Once we hit the Canadian border, we planned to get a ride or take public transportation back to Bend, where we would flop back onto the trail and head south to the Mexican border.
Even though it was June, the first days of our hike we were stuck in snow and only covered about ten miles a day. Once we broke out of the snow, we started hiking 20+ miles each day.
The three of us had been planning this trek for months after we met while hiking another trail the previous year. I really valued J and D’s input, as they had much more hiking experience than I did, and I considered them experts at navigating the trail. They chose the mileage, picked the camping sites, determined when we took breaks and when we did not — but I learned their choices didn’t always suit me best. I kept pushing even though I was feeling tired; I was hungry when it wasn’t time to stop for lunch. I was realizing that I couldn’t keep letting someone else set the schedule.
Our first “zero day” — meaning a day we didn’t hike — was about 12 days and 140 miles into our journey. We stayed in Government Camp, Oregon at a ski hostel. There, we were able to shower, do laundry, eat warm meals, and sleep in bunks. We took two days to rest.
During those empty days, where I had nothing really to do, I made a round of phone calls back home. I called my boss because I missed my work colleagues. “I know you’ve got to quiet those voices,” he said. Though I felt wistful thinking about my office and the comfort of knowing mostly what the next day would look like, he was right. I had been dreaming about this PCT hike for months, and I had to keep going if I was to learn what drove me to leave everything I knew behind and set out to hike in the backcountry.
“I want to be in the moment,” I wrote in my journal that day, “satisfied with what I have, rather than always yearning for more.”
Going my own way
On day 34, I made the decision to stay back at a motel and rest for a bit, while J and D pushed on into a 22-mile day. I knew I didn’t want to do that, so I rested in the room and enjoyed some time to myself. I couldn’t fall back asleep, but it was nice just to lay there alone. Although I was alone a lot of the time on the PCT, I never knew when I would encounter someone or something new. Being able to close the door to others and to more change — and know that no one could come in — was a luxury.
As I lay there, I thought about the phone call with my mom the day prior. “You know you’re not a tiny little girl anymore,” she said. “You’re not so little, and you are strong. You can do this.”
I thought about when I was younger and played softball. I was one of the smallest girls on my team and rarely would the ball be pitched into my strike zone. I got walked almost every time. My dad would bribe me to swing at anything close. “I’ll give you $20 if you just swing,” he used to beg me. I still wouldn’t swing because I knew that I was going to get on base if I took the walk. I would be safe.
I started to think about how much I’ve organized my life to stay safe: Go to a good college, take a good-paying job, make choices to find security. I wondered how long I’d been taking that walk, just to be safe.
On the PCT, there was no easy walk. I had to step up to bat and swing.
Listening to my body
When I finally left the motel that morning, I hiked about 18 miles north. It was my first night camping without J and D, and I didn’t sleep well. I was happy to set my own schedule, but I learned that camping alone was not very comfortable for me. I lay in my tent, tossing and trying to quiet my mind.
I was reunited with J and D the next evening when they rolled into camp. It was a nice evening, and we cooked together and celebrated D’s birthday. The next day I would turn 26, and we would have officially walked 500 miles.
The rest of the hike, I disbanded from the group a little. Sometimes we camped together, sometimes we didn’t. I was feeling more empowered to set my own schedule, which was important because I’d developed some horrible blisters on my feet and needed to slow down and rest.
When I made it to the northern terminus of the PCT — covering 700 miles of the trail in 50 days — I decided to take a little time off-trail. My sister flew in and we met in Portland. My body ached and my feet were incredibly swollen. Honestly, everything was swollen. I started to question whether I could get back on the trail.
I had many conversations with people I met along the way — Uber drivers, other hikers, a clerk at the running store. Did I get what I wanted from the PCT? I wondered. Was there more on the trail for me right now? And at what expense was I willing to push myself?
Those 50 days had given me the time to think, to walk all day every day, to be out in nature and challenge myself in new ways. I had thought that in going my own way, I would only alienate myself and feel isolated — I had always been a “people pleaser.”
Instead, I learned that in going with the flow on this hike, I was only hurting myself. Out in the backcountry, I was responsible for me. There were some scary moments in the beginning that made me so grateful to be with J and D, but I had grown from those moments and I needed to choose my own pace and plans.
I was ready to go home.
My PCT journey didn’t pan out in the way I once imagined it would, but in many ways, it unfolded exactly as I needed it to. I learned to listen to myself and attend to what I really need in the moment. Nearly 20 years after my dad’s bribes, I had learned to swing the bat.