Thursday, February 13, 2014

PCT Planning: Why? and FAQs

People have been asking me questions about my upcoming hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, so I decided to answer some of them here.  If you have any other questions that I haven't addressed, please let me know.

Why do you want to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail? 
Backpacking is what I love.  Being outside is where I find meaning.  Many of you know I go backpacking (or hiking) nearly every weekend.  I never want to come home after being in the outdoors.   My room in town is more of a 'gear closet' than anything else.  I want to be immersed in the natural world.
At home right here on the trail. Photo by Sandi.
I also long to stretch my abilities.  Backpacking in the southeast on weekend trips is no longer difficult like when I was first learning to backpack.  I want to take my skills to the next level.
Water crossing with snow-covered banks in the Gila Wilderness.  I'm looking for more challenges like this.
I also want to add that I am seeking community.  I've met many of my closest friends while out backpacking, so I know how strong friendships can be forged in the outdoors.  I really hope that on the PCT, I will meet a wide variety of other backpackers- people who can teach me stuff, people with whom I can share outdoor experiences.  Maybe other people who understands what it’s like to have this crazy drive to go backpacking all the time.

Why the PCT?
I grew in Oregon, climbing trees and hiking and camping in the rain.  I've lived 'back east' for the past 20 years and I know the mountains and the plants of the Appalachian Trail better now than anywhere else.  Still, I miss being surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks and being able to see "forever."  I miss the starkness of the high desert and the smell of juniper, sage and ponderosa pine.

For a while, I though I might choose the Appalachian Trail for my first long-distance hike.  It’s what I know- from living near DC and now in Georgia.  I already have supportive friends all up and down the AT.  Despite all this, the PCT is what draws me.

One quick story.... On vacation during college, I went hiking with my dad out to Crater Lake in Oregon, very close to the PCT.  We crossed one particular snowy traverse, stomping footholds in the snow.  I vividly remember feeling terrified that I might slip down the sheer drop-off.  I felt so small on that slope against the backdrop of the grander of the clear deep blue waters of Crater Lake.  When I think about why I want to hike the PCT, I always remember that sense of smallness that I felt, mixed with wonder at the natural beauty of the place, mixed with the sense of accomplishment for taking on such a physical challenge.  That's why I want to be on the PCT.
I've kept this photo of that snowy traverse at Crater Lake, OR on my desk for many years.
Why 2014?
When the funding for my research came to an end this year, I decided that instead of looking for another position, I would take the time now to do a thru hike.  I never took time off- I went to college right after high school, then went to grad school, then got a postdoc.  But I don't want to end up working non-stop for the rest of my life, or having to waiting until I retire, never having followed my dream. 

The other reason I'm finally doing it this year is because I was inspired by my friend Renee/Pathfinder who thru hiked the AT this year.  We had a long talk about choosing to do a thru hike in our mid-30's.  The majority of thru hikers are either right out of school, or retired.  People our age are settling down or having babies.  Talking to Renee alleviated my fears about stepping off the career-track and gave me inspiration to do what I want with my life.

How can you afford a thru hike?
I've been planning to "eventually" hike the PCT for a long time (even before meeting Renee).  Over the last several years, I’ve been saving up so I would be ready.  I think the most important thing I've done to save for a thru hike is to make backpacking a priority in my life.  I've made choices so that I can have the freedom and money to backpack-- no kids, no pets, and no home.   Rejecting notions of what society thinks success looks like has also helped.  

I’ve rented and lived with roommates for many years, but a few years ago I moved into an even smaller space with very low rent.  I also cut my other expenses considerably over the years- I don't go out to eat, don't drink, don't buy nice clothes, haven't traveled for a while, don't spend much money on my car or gas since I drive a civic hybrid, I get books from the library, cook my own food, sew a lot of my own clothes and gear.

I talk to some people who say they would like to thru hike, but just have too many responsibilities.  I think if you make backpacking a priority, you can find a way to do it.  For me, it is that important.

How do you think long-distance hiking will change you?
I don’t know for sure.  Possibly in ways I don't anticipate.  It might be the first in a series of long-distance hikes.  Or maybe I will finally settle down and be content with weekend backpacking trips.  Or maybe I will find a way to live outdoors more often or as part of a job, or in an otherwise sustainable way.

Isn’t backpacking a selfish endeavor?
(OK honestly no one has asked me this, but it's something I think about a lot.)
While long-distance hiking doesn't directly contribute to society, I think taking the time to do exactly what I want in life will, somehow, be a positive endeavor.

When I look back at the last five years, one of the most meaningful things I’ve done is to be involved with Trail Dames (a description of the group I wrote for the Gossamer Gear Blog is here).  I organize and lead hikes, and served on the Board, as my way to “give back.” I believe in the transformative power of hiking and connecting with nature, and I see so few other women out when I am on the trail- I want to change that.  It’s been so rewarding when women come up to me and tell me that I led their first hike and now they have gone onto hike tons more.  Or when someone tells me they recognized a flower (or saw tree foam) that I’d pointed out on one of my hikes.  It makes me so happy to facilitate those experiences, in whatever small way that I can.

Of course I know I haven't change the world by leading hikes, just like I know my hiking the PCT isn't going to matter in any big way to anyone else.  Instead, the biggest thing was how much my experience with Trail Dames has changed me- by teaching me to be more open and less judgmental, to be more patient- to slow down and savor experiences.   The most important lessons were ones I learned about friendship, trust, and about myself.  In learning how I could take advantages of my strengths, how I could make up for my weaknesses, and how I could work in a team.  In a similar way, I think that hiking the PCT will make me a better person, and will make me better able to have a meaningful life and inspire others.
Trail Dames also teach me how to have FUN. Photo by Monica.


  1. ooh I want to check out Trail Dames or something similar. I love teaching women about the outdoors and you are right, there aren't that many of us. But I am about ten years older than you and I can tell you there are a lot more than there used to be! I used to feel like a complete freak. I don't think I will ever thru--I don't want to commit to 20 plus miles a day for five months. I like to be a little more spontaneous. But a partial thru? The Colorado Trail perhaps? Yes. Yes!

  2. Hi Mary- Definitely check out the Trail Dames, though there isn't a chapter out your way... yet! Might be something similar though- there certainly is a need for groups like it, and they always need experienced hikers to plan trips.

    I'm really glad to hear you think that there has been progress in terms of the number of women on the trails. It totally makes me feel like a freak too when I rarely see other women. Around here it depends on the area- on the AT in thru hiker season, there are other women, but some of the other places I hike, I never see solo women. I think things are better on the west coast.

  3. Joan my dear, Susan and I had a squeal via email that your blog is featured on PCTA's journalist today - so neat!! I just got caught up on your last few entries, I *love* that old picture of you on that snowy pass in OR. Such fantastic writing, you're inspiring people and making the world a better place already. :)

  4. Hey Renee- the PCTA journalist just does an RSS feed, so it sort of captures whenever a new post is entered. I admit I do think it's cool to have it posted to that site though- it makes me feel like I'm part of the 2014 class, like I'm part of something bigger.

    Oh I'm happy to hear you liked that old photo. It was a little fuzzy, but I'm glad you got the drift. :)

  5. Great post Joan! I feel like I got to know you a little better, years after the Marlbrough Manor, by reading your blog and understanding the place that nature has in your life. Thanks for sharing this inspiration, you will be great out on the trail :)

    1. Oh wow, Radha, so good to hear from you! Ah the Marlbrough Manor. Yes, still inspired by nature, even after all these years. Thanks so much for commenting, and hope all is well with you, old friend. :)

  6. Oops that last post was by Radha (it's not letting me sign in through Google for some reason!).