Unbalancing Act: Reflections on Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

By Kara Kieffer, PCTA P3 Hiker

Outside the windowthe North Cascades roll past as the bus travels south to Seattle. A verdant green valley stretches away toward craggy cliffs which jut skyward to be capped with low grey clouds. Seen from the enclosed glass bubble of a Greyhound busthis otherwise expansive view feels distinctly minimized, small, removed — as though I am being sealed off from the natural world. With every traffic-laden mileI roll back hours of walking and this, more than anything, makes me realize that my thruhike is truly over.

Nearly six months agoI stood at the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail outside the minuscule town of Campo, California. Hemmed in on all sides by rolling desert hills and nervously laughing strangersI took my startday pictures. I remember thinking that if it were not for the PCTno one would visit this particular stretch of border wall, chaparral sand and sky. But there we stood, 35 pale, squinting strangers assembled under a flat blue sky looking north and pretending we could see all the way to Canada. All the way along this wild stretching journey laid out in front of us. The plan: to walk the land between Mexico and Canada. An act which on that day in late March felt more feasible than it does now, some 168 days later. Bizarrely it is only upon completion of the PCT that I have come to realize how absurdly improbable the task of thruhiking is. 

At its most basic levela PCT thruhike is an exceedingly long logistical and physical challenge set against the backdrop of some of America’s greatest natural spaces. Which, when compared to the romantic notion of what people believe a thruhike to be, may sound overly reductive. But the most basic elements of thruhiking are precisely what drew me toward it. Like a thread tied deep within my chest tugging me forward through the months of preparation, it was the thrill of the challenge that sustained me. I have always been drawn to being physically challenged beyond what is expected, or assumed that I am capable of. Furthermore, this hike was an opportunity to spend an extended period of time backpacking in very remote places — something which is central to who I am as a person and seek to do as often as possible. I didn’t want to hike the PCT as a means of suffering my way toward a life realization, but because I believed I would genuinely enjoy it — the sleeping in the dirt, the hours spent walking through wild places far away from the next human animal, the self reliance and accompanying logistical planning.

And this, dear reader, is what I want to tell you about the PCT. It is not the romance you expect it to be. Nor is it the suffering which one can imagine it to be, nor the constant elation that many wish it to be. But as with every dream turned accomplishmentit lies somewhere in the middle. More indescribable, more nuanced in the ways it will effect you. More prone to leaving you staring at your keyboard in frustration as you attempt to express an entire world of roiling emotions into the cumbersome, imperfect things we call words. Early on in my hike, as I stood panting atop Mount Laguna and looking down onto the vast beige desert below me, I remember thinking I wasn’t sure if the PCT would be a lifealtering experience or simply another experience in a life. Now that it has come and gone and I am left standing along the shores of the aftermathI can say it feels more like the later. Looking out at the great forward expanse that will be the rest of my life, the PCT stands behind me as part of who I am, not the entirety of who I am. An experience that has left me changed, but was not life changing. That’s a sentiment I tend to feel a little guilty about, as though I should have a deeper moral to this story, a more meaningful culminating event. I should want to leave my life in the city, throw everything in my backpack, and wander into the wilderness where I would be my deepest and truest self. I know this is the story that many people want to read. But for me it is simply not true, and I have never been a person capable of dishonesty simply to placate others.

You see, there is a prescribed narrative splashed across the pages of books and the screens of social media, a story that says thruhiking will radically change your life or else thruhiking will become your life. For there are a small but highly vocal minority for whom longdistance hiking has become the central pillar of their lives. They post YouTube videos about gear and food in the winter. While during hiking season they fill our Instagram feeds with stunning images of wild places and wax rhapsodical about the purity of life on the trail, how the simplicity of living from a backpack and wandering through the woods will lead you onto a higher plane of being. This narrative is so pervasive, that to the uninitiated it feels preordained, expected, anticipated. In the days after I finished the PCT I was subjected to the constant refrain: what’s next? Strangers who had followed my hike inquired about my next big hike. Would it be the AT? CDT? Something abroad? The online peanut gallery has read the script and in witnessing my success looks to cast me in the roll of thruhiker for life.

Yet, thruhiking is not something I wish to build my life around. I believe the act is simply too unsustainable for that — you can’t thruhike forever, no matter what social media portrays. And beyond that, neither my body nor mind have the desire to do so. To thruhike repeatedly at the exclusion of all other activities would be to trim oneself into a mere shadow of the multitudes we contain. I am a thru-hiker as much as I am a writer, a skier, an adventurer, a traveler. And substantially less than I am a daughter, a sister, a partner and a individual with myriad desires and flaws.

Please don’t be disappointed, dear reader. For while my months long walking vacation has not made me into a new person for which unabated hiking is the only path to happiness, it has gifted me a great deal. 

Thruhiking the PCT taught me that there is a great joy in unbalanced, unrelenting forward progress toward a singular goal. The very nature of thruhiking gives us that. singular pursuit to which we can commit fully and in doing so strip away the banalities and distractions of a more complex life. To realize that balance is rarely at the center of great achievements, but conversely is required for us to be full and complete humans. That balance should be sought in the long game, not the cause for strife in the minute workings of a day. 

In the unbalanced volume of time spent walking I was afforded a chance to think, to wander and wonder about my life, to leave space for realizations about what is important. In the broadest sense I came to realize that I do not want to spend my life working toward things to which I only feel the most obligatory passions. Namely, dedicating my life to a career. I have struggled most of my life against the highly American notion that our work lives should be placed at the center of our whole lives. I believe this is most obviously seen in the question we all deem most important to ask new acquaintances “what do you do.”  To which it is implied “for work.” Not what do you do for joy, or to relax, or to challenge yourself. But what do you do to earn money, who are you in relation to the way you feed your ever hungry bank account. And in the drive for transparency I must admit that it scares me to write this. You see, upon leaving the trail I am also unemployed and will need to seek work, and what if some future employer reads this and in doing so discovers that a my career has never found a home in my heart? But rather, only next to it. It is subversive in the most basic way to not want to work. America believes itself a country of hard workers and capitalists. But thruhiking gave me the time to fully step outside that narrative and see how artificial that idea is. To reframe my life’s long struggle to figure out what I want to do with my one wild and precious life, and begin to frame that question outside of a career. What do I want to do with the rest of my life if my job is not the most central part of it, but instead a facet of who I am?

Maybe in some ways thruhiking the PCT simply gave me the space to recognize the full measure of myself. It gave me time to see what I thought was important, and most invaluably, why those things were important to me. To have the time and space to fully observe why I choose to do things, even the somewhat silly things like thruhiking.

In truth my beautiful reader, I didn’t hike the PCT for any real reason other than I wanted to. There was no burning desire to memorialize a loved one, nor did I expect the trail to somehow solve all of my problems. In the most literal sense there was no point to it, no purpose other than that I thought I would like it. In so many ways, walking the whole PCT is a pointless, deeply absurd endeavor. To walk the land between Mexico and Canada along a set line between two arbitrarily decided borders and to what end? To live a life of social conformity and to what end? If I don’t have my own own reasons for doing something, then why are am I doing it? If I am not finding joy in the process or working toward a goal, then what am I doing and why? Why, I was given the time to ask, does one choose to anything in life? 

There was really no intended purpose behind my thruhike other than the fact that it was a challenge that appealed to me and gave me the time and space with which I could do the one act I am drawn to above all others: to shed the gaze of the world and play freely in the outdoors. And that, maybe more than anything, is what the PCT was to me. A chance to honor myself by doing something that was so purely selfish and joyful. Yes, maybe that is the real truth of it — to me, the PCT was an act of joy.

For joy is not something that is without pain, or suffering, or strife. Joy is electing to go through that pain because what is waiting on the other side is so much grander and more beautiful than comfort and conformity could ever be. To bleed, to ache, to hurt in pursuit of something that you want that is joy. To peel back the layers of your skin like a wild, feral, inhuman beast, to dig deep within yourself for no other reason than the thrill of adventure that is joy. To choose how you suffer, to look far into the distance and recognize that this ridiculous idea of walking to Canada is nothing but an expression of want that is joy, and it is a privilege to be given the body, time and world in which that is a possibility.

So no, the PCT did not change my life so much as it was an opportunity to step away from how we are told to live and open up to the ways in which I would prefer to live.