Resetting life’s expectations on the Pacific Crest Trail

By Heather “River” Porter, 2018 PCTA P3 Hiker

I decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to meet the person I’d become at the end.

They say an experience like this changes you. You’re cut off from your family and friends and the influence of social media and left to live in the woods amongst the weather and animals. You are likely pushing your body harder than you ever have and you’re starting it alone.

Nothing could have prepared me for how hard it would be. I was ready for the challenge, but still shocked when I struggled. I often had to remind myself that I was there to learn endurance. To push through when my body wanted to stop. To take that step into the freezing cold river or to keep pushing on in the snow. My greatest learnings from the trail came from overcoming those moments.

I’m not changed like I thought I would be. I’m still Heather, living in Sydney and working in events. I still love spontaneous opportunities but hate last minute changes. I still obviously love the outdoors and wish I could spend that much time in nature again. I do have a new perspective and a very clear set of life values which I discovered on the trail. I found the direction I want my life to take and now it’s up to me to make it happen, the same way it was up to me to walk to Canada.

I feel my trail name, River, hosts the person I became on the trail. I miss River, the truly authentic version of me, the person I was at the end. River is dull in the city. The distraction of bright lights, traffic noise, screens and instant messaging makes her feel distant. River is self-confident, empowered, curious and a dreamer. She is connected to the trail, to nature, and to my heart.

She is the most me I have ever felt.

River reset the expectations I put on myself. She celebrated milestones, embraced the struggles and stayed blindly loyal to making decisions that were in my best interest. I took two weeks off to wait out snow storms, I flip flopped through the Sierras, and skipped 100 miles from Ashland to Crater Lake avoiding smoke, fire detours and the threat of not reaching the finish before my visa expired. River let go of the expectations I’d put on myself, and redefined what success meant. These weren’t easy decisions at the time, and some would let this be a failure of completing the PCT. For me, it was part of the lesson to do what felt best for me, despite the opinions of others.

I’ve been home for two months now, I feel directionless without the simple goal of “walk to Canada,” and I’m impatient to start my next big adventure. But life gets in the way, money must be saved and the body needs to recover. It’s been interesting trying to reconnect with River in the city, and by calling on her, I have started taking bold steps to achieve a life I dreamt up on the trail.

I’ve since spent time simplifying my life. Selling and donating items, unsubscribing to emails and shopping less. I’ve taken a pay cut and only returned to part-time work, seeking to balance the things I love. I spend more time with friends, and have patience for my family members as, while I was away, I learned how much I value them. I found a sense of freedom to live my life back home the way I want to, rather than the way that’s usually suggested.

I think back to the daily grind of the trail and how badly I wanted it to be over. To be able to sleep in, have weekends off and hot showers on request and, most importantly, be pain free. Now that I’m home and have all that, I think about how much I miss being on the trail.

It saddens me that no one here at home will ever truly understand the experiences I had on the trail, making them seem insignificant. It saddens me that my trail family is on the other side of the world and our time together has become the golden days.

On reflection, the trail left me on a quest to seek balance. We talk about not having a work-life balance at home, but in reality, there’s no hike-life balance on the trail either. Even too much of something you love can be a bad thing, though really, is anything done through passion ever going to be balanced?

The trail handed me the key to achieving all of my wildest dreams: taking it one step at a time. Inspired by the achievement, I’m now left to wonder: If I can hike the PCT, what can’t I do? The PCT will forever be a highlight, but it’s also just been a taste of what’s to come. We are so capable when we try. Now it’s up to me to set the bar high and keep kicking goals.

Read more about Heather’s PCT hike and other adventures at