BIG QUESTIONS. SOLID ANSWER FROM THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL
Words & photos by Kaitlyn Cramer
One hundred days. I tried to banish the words from my skull with nothing more than fleeting success. I could hush them only briefly when I stopped to pull my sunglasses off my nose and bask in the vivid pink of cactus blossom or squint into the distance to imprint a hazy vista into my memory. But after each reprieve, without fail, they soon resurfaced, ringing and echoing: one hundred days. Three words, three digits, just over three months. One hundred days was what loomed between me and my radical goal: to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mexico to Canada in a span of time that, in the frank and uncaring glare of the desert, seemed impossible.
I quieted my doubts and listened instead to my breath, which was the only thing to listen to in the stillness of the mid-morning Southern California heat. Everything looked awfully familiar - more familiar than I had anticipated. I knew I would recall generalities: a steep climb here, a dry streambed there; but every bush and boulder felt as if it were placed precisely where it unequivocally should be, where I startlingly recalled it had been before, two years prior, on my first Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike.
I reached Lake Morena in the late afternoon and thought back to my first-ever night on the PCT. In place of the thru hiker tent cities I remembered was RVs swarming with children and grills and sizzling burgers–it’s Memorial Day weekend, I realized, jostled by the sight of so much life after a day of silent stillness. I hiked a few more miles past the lake and camped alone in the inauguration of a solitudinous trend that would continue for virtually every single night to come.
I didn’t meet many other thru hikers on my hike, as most PCT plans had been canceled in March and April due to a global pandemic you might have heard of. By May, the country had begun to reopen, but most hiking hopefuls had been forced to resume work and life and write the trail on a someday list yet again, rightly uncertain and unable to postpone indefinitely in a capricious world. I would meet many of these people later, in Oregon and Washington, section hiking bits of trail to alleviate the crushing loss of foreclosed dreams. The few thru hikers I did meet however, I didn’t get to know. I might leapfrog with someone for an afternoon, or even, on occasion, the majority of a day–but the 200-plus mile weeks I was hiking to reach my goal were detrimental to any sort of trail community I might have had.
As I made my way out of the desert and into the Sierras, the three words eroded from a swelling terror into simple calculations: “How many miles today? How many this week? They were no longer overwhelmingly terrifying, but only sporadically so. One evening, after climbing Mather and Pinchot passes in a single day, I gave in to exhaustion and collapsed in my tent at 7:00 P.M. instead of pushing until 10:30 as I had planned. Panic overwhelmed me. One hundred days. Suddenly, the light illuminating my tarp was impossibly alluring. I needed to be in it–to walk–to quench the desperation that was hardened by the sunset into a lump in my throat. But I couldn’t. I was spent. I slept twelve hours that night, haunted by a number, until I woke up and pressed on, all doubt carried away with the previous night’s moon.
When I did chat with an occasional thru hiker or day hiker (or human of any kind) for more than a fleeting moment, one question always seemed to spring up: “What made you want to hike the trail in 100 days?”
The question was innocent enough but desperately dismaying. I couldn’t say, “Because hiking the PCT has always been a dream of mine,” because I had already done it. I also couldn’t say, “To set a record,” because unlike most who pushed for speed, I wasn’t attempting an FKT. So, why had I returned to this magical trail? Why was I in such a hurry? Why was I sitting in the theater long after the credits had rolled on what, for most, is considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience?
I pushed myself to hike back-to-back forty-mile days through Oregon, rising before the sun and setting up camp in the haze of twilight. I often thought of my first thru hike four years prior, on the Appalachian Trail, where I unintentionally began the arduous and confusing journey of reclaiming my neglected self-worth. The AT shone an unflattering, painfully honest light on what I had forgotten, for the sake of survival, was wrenching me apart: a decade of disordered eating, self-harm, and worthlessness; it taught me I deserved better, and that better was possible, albeit a long way down a rough road.
Two years later, after stumbling and struggling to navigate what I’d learned, I hiked the PCT, where I decided to recommit fully to recovery and put into practice everything the trails had taught me. Since then, I had made enormous strides: I ended a toxic relationship, prioritized my own dignity, and discovered a world beyond the confines of the eating disorder that had robbed me of over half of my life. I realized how beautiful life could be when you fight for your own freedom. But now– “Now what? Why was I here, again? What lesson was waiting for me in the rivers and pines of the West coast? What was left for me to learn?”
“I wanted a challenge,” I told a man and his wife from the backseat as their SUV swung and hinged around winding cliffs, trail-bound when they asked the dreaded question. I was fresh and clean from a shower and laundry in town, but, as always, I knew it wouldn’t last; I would be trail-worn and filthy once more by sunset. “Since I’ve already hiked the trail, I thought it would be too easy the second time around if I went at the same pace. I wanted to see how far I could push myself.” It was what I had decided sounded like a good enough reason, and it was the exact same answer I gave each time someone asked. Not to say that it was not the truth–it was, in fact, very honest. But I knew something was missing.
“So, do you think you’ll make it?”
I rested my forehead against the delightfully chilled glass of the window and watched miles pass at fifteen times the speed it took me to hike them. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m ahead of schedule, actually. I think I can do it.”
My goal cowered before me as I drew nearer to Washington, no longer looming. One hundred days. I was more than a week ahead of schedule, so I set my sights on a new challenge: ninety days. I crossed the Bridge of the Gods and clutched my trekking poles to my chest, dozens of feet above the greyish peaks of the Columbia River as it raged, and felt a few tears streaking my cheeks. It was one of the few times I cried the entire trail, unlike my previous thru hikes when it felt as if I bawled every day.
As the Washington miles dwindled and the end of the trail grew larger and more imposing, so did the question that still lingered: “Why?” I racked my brain for meaning, for purpose, for a shred of light that said: “You are moving, you are growing, you are right where you must be.” But I found only muddled, fragmented bits of answers, pieces of a whole that I didn’t know how to begin putting together.
I recalled the tent city that surrounded Lake Hopkins on the final night of my first PCT hike as I switchbacked down toward the water. There was no one there this year, save for a few section hikers. There was no buzz of excitement mixed with apprehension; no celebratory hoots and hollers; no steam rising from ultralight cookstoves. I passed by the eerily quiet lake and pressed on, climbing over downed trees and brush and scraping myself up badly in the last few miles to the border.
I felt warmth streaming over my lips and realized my nose was bleeding badly, along with my battered shins. I laughed to myself at the irony – “My first nosebleed of the trail, and it’s right before I have to take border photos?”–and washed up in a stream a mile before I reached the Northern Terminus monument, where all too suddenly I stood, wide-eyed and un-bloodied and aghast at its presence, but not a bit stunned. It was an old friend, a pleasant sight, a warmth. I stood beside it exactly 88 days and five hours after I began my journey at its mirror-image, its twin, the parallel monument marking the Southern Terminus 2,653 trail miles south.
I didn’t cry. I felt nothing but overwhelming exhaustion, relief, and joy. I was battered and beaten and dirty–just like my pack that sat beside me, leaning up against the monument, thin and weathered after two PCT thru hikes. I gathered it up into my arms, feeling the feather-light weight of all the memories woven into its creases and mesh as I slung it onto my back for the umpteenth time.
“I did it,” I thought, and the question that had burdened me suddenly seemed so insignificant as I strode away from the border. It melted away along with the weight of needing to know and the weight of the other questions that suddenly didn’t seem to matter. Of whether I was strong enough to choose a goal and achieve it; of why I had been sick for so many years; of why it had taken me so long to get better; of who I would be without the trail.
Now, when I am asked why I hike, I say this: “Because hiking saved my life.”