We interviewed Carrot Quinn and she told us about hiking and writing

While thru-hiking the PCT in 2013, Carrot Quinn accomplished something more impressive than simply hiking 2650 miles. Amidst 20+ mile days, Carrot managed to keep a complete and beautifully written blog detailing her experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail.

After living vicariously through her passionate posts, I contacted Carrot to find out how to keep a blog as impressive and engaging as her own.

When did you start writing and what did you initially write about?

I started writing when I was 9 years old, poems to my mother and such. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I began writing the way I do now when I was 21, 10 years ago. Back then, we didn’t have blogs and so we made zines. A zine is a really expensive, inefficient way to get your work into the world. You basically photocopy a bunch of pages of your writing, fold it in half, and make a little booklet. Maybe throw together a xeroxed collage for the cover. If you’re lucky you had a copy hookup at kinkos, so you didn’t have to break the bank. And then you sold the zine to your friends, gave it away, and left it in random places. My zine was called Dirt and Cheese and was like a hundred pages thick, all this unedited stream-of-consciousness text. I would write it in two weeks, and include every adventure I had had that year. In my early twenties I rode freight trains across the continent several times, hitch-hiked to Alaska twice, scammed greyhound, and ate out of dumpsters. I ran with a crew of anarcho-primitivist sex-worker train-hopping shoplifters, and we thought we were going to bring down western civilization. We really thought that. It sounds like kind of a good read but my writing has greatly improved since then.

In 2008, I started my blog. My zines had grown too large for me to be able to afford to copy them, and I had this sudden realization that if I put my work on the internet I could get it out to way more people, and for free. To give myself something to blog about I rode freight trains from Portland to North Carolina, and then hitch-hiked all the way back alone. That’s how I got my first followers and some of them are still with me! Many of those stories, though, are not currently up on the site, because they’re part of a book I’m working on about my train-riding years.

Can you explain your writing style? How have you developed it?

My writing style has developed over the years as I’ve cranked out tons of writing – lots of unfinished manuscripts, lots of stuff on my blog. If you write enough, like sheer quantity-wise, I feel that you’ll start to develop your own style. I also internalize the rhythm and music of things that I read that I enjoy, and my blog acts as a sort of focus group where I can learn what sorts of things that I write really work for the reader. (The things that people love best are almost invariably the things that I’m most afraid to publish.) In order to keep my writing style consistent, I try to keep an “ideal reader” in mind and sort of direct my writing at that person. The “ideal reader” can be an amalgam of all sorts of things, and is useful when you’re blogging because all the different sorts of comments you get can start to make you confused as to who you’re writing to, or start to make you close up. Writing stories with yourself as the main character requires a consistent sort of openness that’s a muscle that you can strengthen over time. The “ideal reader” is good for this, because she doesn’t judge. She doesn’t troll. She loves you unconditionally and she always, always gets your jokes.

Isn't the PCT amazing?

Isn’t the PCT amazing?

As far as inspiration goes, I’m not inspired so much by writers as by storytellers. The kind of storytellers who nearly hypnotize you when you’re reading and you forget that you’re reading and afterward you can’t remember the sentences exactly but you feel like you went on a great journey. Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books are my favorite example of this. If you were never a little girl and so never had the opportunity to read these books, do it now. I’ve re-read them twice as an adult and they literally put, like, a spell on me. Laura had a blind sister, Mary, and she was always “seeing” things for Mary, describing the pansies in the buffalo wallow and such. “There’s a blue sky and the wagon is brown and some little yellow flowers are on the edge of the field,” things like that. They also lived in the 1800s and didn’t have electricity or access to much media, so the family spent a lot of time reading tattered bits of old newspapers aloud to each other and telling stories. Another good example is The Bandit Queen of India by Phoolan Devi, which is actually one of my three favorite books in the world for lots of reasons. She came from a culture of oral storytelling and was actually illiterate when she wrote the book, so she dictated it aloud. That book gives me that same feeling, the feeling of being hypnotized.

I also love to get weird. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is my favorite book in the world, and also a spiritual text of sorts for me. The book has no plot but is a series of observations, and people either love it or hate it. Essentially, 24-year-old Annie Dillard goes and sits on a hill overlooking some trees and birds and things and trips out. She tries to conceptualize, for example, how large you would have to build a long-leaf pine if you were to build it to scale, with all of the original details intact. She stares for hours at moving water, thinking about time and the constantly shifting nature of all things and waits for insects to die in brutal ways in order to expound on the cruel and stunning mysteries of the universe. I have no idea if she took drugs to go on this spiritual quest or if she was stone-cold sober but it is beautiful and there is nothing else like it.

“After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.”

How do you decide how much detail to include in a post? And how do you decide what minor details to include, like what you ate?

Sometimes I think that writing narrative non-fiction is like being a photographer. It’s important to notice the things that pop out, that create contrast in the fabric of what is already known, that are quietly beautiful, that are ironic. I like zooming in and out, describing a large thing and then a small thing, saying what the light is doing, how the wind smells, whether it’s warm or cold, juxtaposing something coarse over something soft. I’m always trying to find new ways to describe the stars. I guess I have a few tricks I use over and over. The saying “write hot when it’s cool, write cool when it’s hot” is important here. In a quiet moment (the protagonist is standing in a grocery store) you can flood the reader with sensory detail. Make the reader see and feel all the colors, shapes, sizes, smells, memories and emotional associations. But when the action is hot (the protagonist is being eaten by a bear) you want to keep description to a stripped-down minimum, so that the reader can fill in the empty space with their own feelings. And I don’t know why I write so much about what I eat. My question is: why don’t other people write more about what they eat? I love asking people what they ate for breakfast. I would love to document everything that a person ate for a year.

Do you have any books out currently?

In early 2013, I took all of my freight train stories and published them as an ebook on Amazon. This novella was called Ten Thousand Miles by Freight Train and was a self-publishing experiment and major learning experience for me. My best friend Tara and I dorked out about Amazon’s internal algorithms and search engine optimization and all that and I made a few thousand dollars off that book, which was cool, but I’d neglected to hire an editor and so reviewers threw some much-deserved tomatoes at me. The book was beautiful but choppy and glaringly unfinished and so I took it down after eight months in order to work on the full-length version, which hopefully will actualize the book’s full potential. Right now I’m hard at work on my PCT book, which is called Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart. I’ve been querying literary agents about it, which is really exciting. The traditional publishing world is in a state of major change right now, though, and it’s a really weird time to be trying to get a traditional publishing contract, so we’ll see what happens with that.

On your blog, you suggest that you’ll document your 2014 hike. Any concrete ideas for how you plan to do that (images, blog posts, poems, etc.)?

I don’t know! When I think of ways to document a project I try and imagine what, as a reader, I’d like to see, and I look for niches that aren’t being filled. There are so many possibilities. Last year, for example, I really wanted to start a tumblr called “Thru-Hikers Sleeping.” I might get a real camera. Whatever it is, it won’t be very labor intensive. Maybe I’ll write a haiku every day, and take a picture of my dinner? Something simple and fun.

Do you have suggestions for future hikers regarding ways to capture and convey their experiences effectively?

Carrot on the Bridge of the Gods.

Carrot on the Bridge of the Gods.

Oh man. I am going to speak to blogging here, although if you have video-editing skills or skills in other mediums there are endless possibilities with that.

Making a quality thru-hiking journal with a post for every day is a huge commitment and a massive amount of work. But how special and amazing to not only have your adventure, but to share it with others as well. I read so many trail journals before my hike and got so much pleasure out of living vicariously that way. Contributing my own quality journal to the canon felt really, really good.

I originally set out to write my entire journal while on the trail, so that people could follow along with me while I hiked. This was fun for the reader but a massive pain for me as each post was super long and took me about two hours to write. I couldn’t write while hiking because I was too tired at the end of each day and didn’t have enough battery power on my phone, so I would try and write all the posts in town on zero days. This meant I took a bunch of extra zeros and on those zeros I was holed up in a hotel room I couldn’t afford, typing manically on my collapsible keyboard, not sleeping or hanging out with my friends or relaxing, totally stressed out and freaking out in my head about it, just trying to get it all done. And still I failed, falling further and further behind. Finally, in Ashland, where I’d told my readers I would get all caught up but really just wanted to lay on the ground and not move my body at all, I decided to stop blogging until after the trail was finished, when I’d go back and write all the missing posts. That pissed off some of my readers but I knew that it was the only way I was going to make it to Canada before the snow. So then I had this little notebook and every evening after setting up camp I’d write down everything that happened that day in super abbreviated form, and how I felt about it. There are plenty of things I don’t blog about – how I felt about such and such a person, what my gut was doing that day, my secret insecurities – but having it all in the notebook helped bring the whole day back in my brain later, when I wanted to reconstruct it. I’d never taken notes in order to write before, and it was a really cool experiment. I think I’ll do it again on this thru-hike, even if I don’t blog.

After the trail it took me three months to finish all 156 posts, but I was able to put much more time and energy into them and I think they’re much higher quality than they would’ve been if I’d written them on the trail. And I got a bunch of new readers in those months because fall/winter is when all of next year’s thru-hikers are binge-reading trail blogs, because they’re so pumped to hike. I finished my last post around the New Year and posted a link on a couple of PCT facebook pages, and my blog traffic shot through the roof. Hundreds of prospective thru-hikers were binge-reading my posts all at once. It was crazy! Definitely one of the best feelings ever.

So here are some of the things I learned from making my trail journal:

  • If you commit to writing a post every day, follow through. Even if it takes you until February. Unfinished trail blogs are places of sadness on the Internet!
  • You’ve got to hustle if you want readers. For some reason this is hard for people, especially the writers I know. No artist ever reaches a large audience without hustling a little bit. Either you hustle or someone else does it in your name; there’s no way around it that I know of. For blog writers, this means two things: Search Engine Optimization and putting links to your blog where your ideal market can find them. Even though you’re giving it away for free, your blog is a product with value that has a very specific market, and you’ve got to find that market. Who reads blogs like yours? Where do these people hang out? With PCT blogs it’s pretty simple – PCTA has an awesome aggregator on its site now that will list your blog along with all the other trail journals. I don’t know how to describe it well but check it out, it’s a beautiful machine. List your blog there and you’ll get yourself some readers for sure, and they’ll stick with you as long as you provide consistent content and don’t let them down. Other good places to post links to your blog are on the PCT facebook page (for your year and future years), and on your own social media if you do that sort of thing. Once you get some readers, if your content is consistent and high quality, they’ll share it a little on their social media, and you’ll get even more readers. But you’ve got to find them first.
  • Search Engine Optimization is essentially tagging your posts so that web browsers can find them. When I started my PCT journal, my goal was to have it come up on the first page when you searched “Pacific Crest Trail blog.” If you search this now you’ll see that I was successful. That’s because I tagged every single one of my 156 trail posts with “Pacific Crest Trail blog.” I also tagged each one with PCT blog, PCT, Pacific Crest Trail, PCT blog 2013, and Pacific Crest Trail blog 2013 – everything I could think of that someone would enter when looking for a blog like mine. It’s boring but it works.
  • People love emotional honesty in a blog. Pick a few things to be emotionally honest about that don’t make you feel too vulnerable. Make yourself into a mortal human being that others can relate to. Your reader wants to put himself in your shoes.
  • There’s a tool on wordpress that allows you to block someone based on their IP address – use it. You wouldn’t believe how many people just float around the Internet looking for a fight. As your traffic goes up you might attract a troll or two. Delete their comments and block them. Don’t feed the trolls, as they say. Anything else will make you want to pull your hair out and smash your computer with a tire iron.

Are you still planning to attempt the CDT in 2015?

Attempt it? I am going to hike it from one end to the other along with Spark and Instigate and some other members of the PCT class of 2013.

Have you made any significant lifestyle changes following your 2013 thru-hike?

Actually, I have always been like this, for better or worse! For most of my adult life I’ve lived in ramshackle structures on very little money, had few possessions and put my need for adventure before my need to, say, go to the dentist. I’ve sacrificed stability in order to feel as though anything is possible. I’ve quit jobs in order to write, lived in moldy trailers in order to write, had fifteen cents in my bank account more times than I can recall in order to write. It’s stressful and unsustainable but – spoiler — WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE. The one thing I have changed since thru-hiking is I’ve moved to the country year round. I used to spend the winters in Portland but I don’t think I can live in cities anymore. I got really close with the nature on my thru-hike. We basically spooned every night. We don’t want to be apart ever again. And Southern Oregon is beautiful! There are so many places I want to explore, so many places I want to sleep on the ground. So many afternoons I want to see, with the light coming through the trees!

Author: Korbi Thalhammer

Korbi is a long-time volunteer with the Pacific Crest Trail Association. He’s currently working in our Sacramento office between high school and a summer 2014 thru-hike of the PCT. He coordinated PCT maintenance through his high school and has travelled multiple times to Washington D.C. to advocate for congressional support for the trail.