Glimpses of Beauty: A Summer on the Pacific Crest Trail

Colin Arisman hiked the PCT in 2013. I shared dinner with him at Der Baring Store and was really struck by how peaceful, introspective and passionate he was. I saw it as the classic effect of months spent in nature. Colin will be releasing a film about his hike soon. You can see the Only The Essential trailer here. How does one capture the experience of walking from Mexico to Canada? Here’s his shot:

On Sept. 6, 2013, I completed my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. All I have now are fleeting glimpses of the beauty, joy and adversity of “getting there.”

I touch the tall-corrugated metal fence of the U.S. side of the Mexican border, turn and step northward without an idea of what’s ahead. Beaten by relentless desert sun, I learn to value shade as dearly as food and water. I sleep under a bridge, pass the next day curled up under the shade of a sage bush. I become nocturnal and walk on silver sand reflecting the full midnight moon, cowboy camp under the diamond stars.

Thirty-mile dry stretch, water fixates body and mind; sleep in an “empty” campground, nearly run over by a drunk in a pickup at 2 a.m. I walk for days through blackened skeletons of trees torched by ravenous fires of summers past. A coyote and I cross paths. We pause and glide away.colinarisman1

I climb from the dry, desolate expanses of Southern California onto the mighty plateau of the High Sierras, into its rich, deep, wet folds and onto its snowy crests. The first light of dawn greets me on the highest point of the continental U.S. I cross a crystalline stream reflecting sunshine, trout darting upstream. A yellow-bellied marmot, oblivious to my presence on a 12,000-foot pass, gazes out on the earth far below. A hundred mosquitoes simultaneously suck my blood and my sanity as the last rays of sun catch a bald eagle’s arc above an alpine lake. There’s lightning, hail, then a blizzard at 11,000 feet. I cross waist-deep torrents in 40-degree rain.

I wake at dawn and walk til dusk. The endless forest begins to dull my mind and spirit. I am a machine, my body strengthens and 40 miles pass beneath my feet in a day. Deer browsing feet away serve as my alarm clock. A cinnamon-colored bear raises its head in the brush and for a moment we freeze before it crashes off. Then I finally reach a sign that tells me I am no longer in California.

Seven days of wildfire smoke chokes my lungs and vision. I have a solitary 24th birthday. I wake to rain drops on my face at 5 a.m. and its time to start hiking. A stranger hands me a trout, a beer and a bag of groceries, pure generosity, pure gratitude. I realize that the shirt on my back has transformed into nothing more than a shredded rag. I trip, limp, run, walk across Oregon and the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River.

colinarisman3

I munch on snow in August. Three mountain goats lounge on a snow field a thousand feet below. I grace the shoulders of massive glaciers and descend into the primeval creases of a humbling rugged land. Rain begins to fall, ceases, returns, then mist, cloud and sun again. Six elk pause as I round a bend in the trail. Five minutes pass then I inch forward. The herd explodes into motion, snorting, thundering into the woods. Rain is colder each day, summer is ending with the month. A shin splint causes searing pain, but I keep walking. I’m almost there now. It’s my last night before the border. There’s an all-night monsoon and thunderstorm. The next day lightning cracks above the ridge and hail begins to fall as I crest the final pass and descend to the border. Three hours of cold rain bring early hypothermic shivers, so I begin to run. I round a corner and there it is.

colinarisman2

Nearly five months of hiking have brought me 2,660 miles from the Mexican border across California, Oregon and Washington. A wooden monument stands in the middle of a 10-foot-wide clear-cut that marks the Canadian border. The ground is covered in hail, the dark green pines shimmer with afternoon downpour, the sky is grey, cold and quiet. The chill rain has broken for the last few minutes, welcoming me to the end of this incomprehensible summer. Fellow thru-hiker Spoons and I scream wildly, we hug each other, we kiss the monument, we fall silent, our hearts still pumping with adrenaline. All is quiet and still again. The journey is done and we don’t know what to say, what to think, or what to do. There is no great realization, no epiphany, no feeling of bliss. Those moments rest in the life of the journey, not in its ending.

Complete strangers offered countless rides, sodas, beers, meals, words of support and random acts of kindness. On the trail I made some of the most unlikely friends and met some of the most determined, unique, intelligent and kindly people I have ever known. I hiked with Swiss, Germans, Canadians, Brits, Israelis, Scots, French and New Zealanders. We laughed, cried, danced, swore, spit, slept under stars, woke wet and cold, but mostly just walked. I wore my shoes until they fell apart and then wore through four more pair. I felt bored, crazy and exhausted, but somehow never once did I wake up and think, “I don’t want to hike today”. I dropped out of society during the longest summer of my life, put all my heart, soul and strength into something that my culture sees as useless. I performed a feat without any concrete value that most folks can’t quite seem to grasp. Somehow with each day I fell more in love with the wild, with the journey, with humanity. And people must have seen this in me, for if they couldn’t understand what drove me, they saw the grin on my face that neither rain, nor boredom, nor pain, nor loneliness could seem to wipe away.

Take a moment and watch the Only The Essential trailer.

colinarisman4

Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Manager, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.