How can I condense 159 days and 2,658 miles into words? How can I tell a story of a hike that felt like both a lifetime and a dream? The individual days became a blur of blisters, Snickers bars, washing socks in streams, pitching a tent, and taking it back down. I alternated hourly between moments of pure exaltation and pure exhaustion. And then there were the many, many miles where nothing happened—I just walked. Here are some pieces of that journey that might begin to tell its story.
June 24, 2015, Mile 906, near Mammoth, CA
This last stretch of trail is probably the most technically difficult. The elevation gains, the altitude, and the steep descents of the high Sierras put my body through a new kind of torture. After two months of hiking, I now operate on a calorie deficit, a 24/7 full-body hunger. Any issues and anxieties from pre-trail life catch up with a person right about now. I’ve left a lot behind, but I haven’t left the anxieties. What will happen after the trail? Am I getting enough sleep? Will I ever pay off my student loans? Will I ever stop caring what other people think of me? The worries reverberate off the trees and mountains like echoes. But instead of fading, they get louder, amplified by physical exhaustion and hunger.
I reach my breaking point on this last stretch. When I get here, there are only two options — push through or quit, right? But if I look harder, there is always another choice. I drop my official elite thru-hiker status (the commitment to hiking every mile of the trail) and take a week off to recharge. My husband hikes on without me because the constant call of reaching Canada before snowfall doesn’t take a break; this is a team effort by now.
Even though I look forward to the upcoming rest, I am sitting here in my tent at the end of a fine hiking day. The tent is my home now, my little slice of heaven carved into the rugged peaks encircling us. I watch the last puffs of daylight transform those mountain edges into soft pink mounds. Then nightfall fades them into nothing. I know I am not done with this trail.
May 27, 2015, Mile 566, near Tehachapi, CA
You know those mornings when you don’t want to get out of bed and go to work? Well, they happen on the trail, too. The first hurdle is unzipping my dew-damp sleeping bag. Reaching a hand out of the bag for the zipper lets the chill of the morning in. Then I sit up, exposing my upper body to the cool air, put a pair of dirt-caked socks on, and decide whether it’s a fresh underwear day or not. I change from the comparatively clean sleeping shirt to the definitely-not-clean hiking shirt that has been airing out by my feet all night. Then comes the next affront when I unzip the tent. As the cold air leaks in, I realize it was actually warm in here.
But the biggest challenge is planting my feet onto the ground and testing how sore they will be. The stiff ache will wear off as I warm up (then start again as the hiking day progresses), but for now these first few steps are brutal. Tight muscles hinder my efforts forward. A bird perched in a nearby branch gets a view of a hunched and hobbled human stumbling through the brush. I am searching for a bush adequate enough to use as a bathroom. This means digging a hole, then packing out my TP like the rest of my trash, part of the “leave no trace” deal I’ve made with the trail. I look out over the ridge at the sun’s rays slicing into the fog and think, This must be the best bathroom view there is.
Just as the pain can be amplified, little pleasures that we take for granted in our normal lives are also amplified. Like finding Mountain Dew and pickles waiting for me before a big climb, left in a cooler beside the trail by a trail angel. Later that day, while scouring the bear-proof boxes of a campsite for food weekenders left behind, we score some skunky Mexican beer. It’s warm, but we chill it in a snowbank and drink it anyway to celebrate our one month trailiversary.
Days later, the scenery has changed from forested mountains back to high desert. We end the day on a ridge. The setting sun turns the valley below into a warm orange bowl. But before I enjoy the view, I take a treacherous trail on shaky legs down to a dribbling spring, hidden amongst stinging nettle to find water. All I want to do is eat dinner and go to bed, but these last chores of the day linger: filtering water, pitching a tent, washing off dusty legs with a dirty cloth, laughably insurmountable obstacles standing between me and sleep.
May 27, 2015, Mile 531, near Lancaster, CA
There are places whose strangeness one cannot even attempt to explain, like the settlements of desert people in the Mohave. We’ll spend the next two days creeping away from them on the dusty road of the desert floor, following the LA Aqueduct. It’s flat, but the road is surprisingly hard on the feet, especially with a pack loaded down with water, since there isn’t any to be found. And of course, the heat — a constant heavy press on the body.
Bottom line is I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of it, finally starting to feel like a hiker, for better or worse.
September 22, 2015, Washington, at Canadian border (8 miles to Manning Park, Canada, the PCT’s official end)
The monument at the border is surreal. I have had months to think about what it will be like to get there. Will I laugh? Will I cry? Will I dance and shout? But once I’m there, I think of nothing. No monument can represent the journey I just took.
In the last two weeks, the days remain cool, and the ground cover of the northern Cascades turns stunning shades of red. I convince myself I’ve finally solved the mystery of why I did this: I was too afraid to do the thing I really wanted to do — quit my job, move out west, pursue a creative life. I needed something in between. The trail gave me that. It gave me courage to face the next step. This is partially true.
January 27, 2016, four months post-trail
I realize months after the hike that the journey was that bigger purpose, but it also wasn’t. I did it just to do it. And that was enough.
I don’t regret any mile I walked, even when my feet felt like they were on fire. I also don’t regret any mile of trail I didn’t walk. Those missed miles allowed me to complete the trail — complete it my way. As Pink Floyd said in that song I heard for the first time on-trail, coming through a single earbud, mixing with the sound of wind in tall trees, “I’ll climb that hill in my own way.” I always seem to do just that.
And on this next hill, I am still afraid. It is still scary, but I will climb it.
Photos by author.
In 2015, Catie Joyce-Bulay (trail name: Comet) hiked 2,100 miles of the PCT with her husband (trail name: Not-a-Bear), who completed all 2,600 miles. She is living that creative life now in Walla Walla, WA. Find more of her writing at www.passionproject.net, and connect with her on Twitter at @catiejoycebulay.