I quit my job in April 2014 to hike from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. At 26, I’d spent three years in the engineering career I went to school for. I traded my salary for a backpack, the roof over my head for two hundred nights in the wilderness. I went alone. After a six-year marriage I was eager to explore life on my own terms for the first time.
My experiences were strung along a 2,650-mile ribbon of trail along with hundreds of like-minded souls. When we met each other slogging 20 miles through scorching heat to find the next water, we knew we were in it together. We hid from the sun like reptiles during the heat of the day and fully embraced our strategic laziness.
Crusted with dirt and sweat, we’d hitch into that chaos of order called town to find food, rest, and supplies; but town was never quite comfortable. We had places to go. Home was what we felt when we got far enough down the trail again to be out of sight and sound of civilization. Home was sprawling out in the sand, making our beds in the open air and trusting the weather to hold, laughing like kids at a slumber party.
We were artists, scientists, drag queens, musicians, doctors, rangers, photographers, lumberjacks, entrepreneurs, professional hobos, and retirees. Some of us were in our 80s, some as young as six. We were straight, gay, trans, rich and poor, urban and rural. We hiked with knee replacements, with kidney failures, with AIDS. We came from the USA, Germany, Israel, Japan, Australia. There was one attribute we shared: Of all the people who dreamt of hiking a long trail, we were the ones crazy enough to make it happen.
We met each other unexpectedly and broke apart just as abruptly. Sometimes our paths would cross again in a few hours, a few days, or a few months. We learned to say goodbye in ways that were appropriate for any length of separation. Reunions were cause for great celebration.
Halfway through my hike I met a woman at a music festival, and we dove into a whirlwind of a relationship which set me on a different kind of journey. We lived in cars and drove around the country for four months that winter. Our love was as confusing as it was mesmerizing. I resumed my hike the following May.
Sometimes I felt hungry, cold, exhausted, bored. I spent miserable weeks hiking alone when I started the second half, agonized by the mess of emotions I felt for the gal I’d roadtripped with. I hiked through thunderstorms, sunburns, and dehydration. My Achilles tendons were constantly inflamed. I saw cougar eyes reflecting in my headlamp and walked right through where I’d seen them. Often I was alone without cell service 40 miles from the nearest town, out of reach of help should something happen to me.
In the end, these hardships were more than outweighed by joys. I met people who showed me that age is meaningless. I befriended people with dissimilar personalities and recognized their value. I hiked with someone who made me realize I might want to have kids someday. Strangers surprised us with trailside hamburgers and coolers of beer, stashed water jugs for us in dry sections, and hosted us at their homes when we needed rest. In our community excesses were given freely to those in need, and I learned that resource distribution doesn’t always have to depend on money.
Plants and animals were teachers too. I saw how fantastically diverse the strategies of life can be — no two species make their living the same way, yet all survive, and all depend on each other. Wild creatures accept the world as it is instead of inventing fictions. They don’t waste time complaining, accumulating possessions, or fearing death. They understand that life only happens in the present moment.
My hike lasted a lifetime. These days it’s hard to immerse myself in the memories of those months; not because they are difficult to access, but because once remembered they are too sacred to put down without tearing out some piece of my heart. It’s a longing that feels like regret because what was once cannot be again.
It is said that thru-hiking will ruin your life in the best possible way. Having thrived living from a backpack, I cannot be convinced to sacrifice the hours of my life working to pay rent and buy junk. After surviving the tests of hundreds of crazy situations, I don’t strive for the illusion of security. Now that I’ve lived this dream as my waking life and discovered that my future has no limits, I’m dissatisfied with mundane ambitions. I am glad for this kind of ruination. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Joe Omundson writes about travel, philosophy and society. Read more at www.selfobservinguniverse.com.
There was one attribute we shared: Of all the people who dreamt of hiking a long trail, we were the ones crazy enough to make it happen.