Thoughts on a cancelled thru-hike

By Jessica Bowman

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

—by Langston Hughes


The cancellation of my 2020 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail is just one of the many consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak. Christian and I had secured long distance permits, a one-way flight from London to Los Angeles and a start date of April 22. Fate had other ideas. As I write, it’s June and the dust has settled on my raw reaction to this surprising turn of events.

I’m starting to reflect on the peculiar irony of experiencing quarantine in place of the trail. The halting of a dream because of a global pandemic is a unique balance between personal disappointment and acceptance of its overall triviality. Frustration due to spoiled plans—and far worse—has been experienced worldwide. But it strikes me that the specifics of a dissolved thru-hike have a certain poignancy.

Chaparral in the Cleveland National Forest. Photo by Jennifer Smart.

On a surface level, the primary difference between a hiker’s intention for this period of time and the reality is the total physical difference. I intended to walk every day, all day, for a number of months. To be in motion. Yet, the UK government lockdown of March and April restricted outdoor exercise to just an hour a day. Not only had my trip been forced into a static state, I was to be more rooted. A sharp contrast to the prior expectations of this time; the familiarity of the inside of my flat instead of the novelty of new and changing environments—the Californian desert, the High Sierra, Oregon and, eventually, Washington.

I also consider the inherent meaning of these opposing physical eventualities. To me, walking symbolized freedom, challenge and the making of memories. Lockdown is arguably the opposite: familiarity, routine and repetition. An enforced placidity instead of a grand adventure.

Instead of exploring, our firm instruction is ‘stay at home’ and ‘stay indoors.’ Yet the curious hiker may be motivated by the desire to experience a different notion of home. This is expressed by John Muir, who stated “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” Similarly, Gary Snyder said “nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” Home, in the traditional sense, has never been more significant than during this crisis. With little else to do, we are all more familiar and appreciative of our personal refuges, places of belonging and safety. The more spiritual conceptualization of home remains elusive.

Photo by Rob Thwaites.

If a hike is both a literal and a metaphorical journey, living through a global pandemic is arguably a journey in itself, too. A challenge indeed. Reading around online, I came across a previous PCT finisher explaining what his hike taught him: “You can only live in the present and you have to go with the flow. You cannot control nature.” Curiously, this statement feels totally in keeping with the discourse around our collective learnings from the virus.

Admittedly, the lockdown inadvertently granted some of my wishes for the trail. A (slightly) slower, more balanced, pace of life. Fewer obligations in my waking hours. An opportunity for reflection and introspection. Patience.

Yet, there’s a bittersweet tang to acknowledging these similarities. Whatever it is that draws comparisons between the hike and the pandemic, is also reinforced by how far they are removed. Lots of people have expressed a renewed sense of appreciation for wildlife and being outdoors, inspired by the current situation. Yet, for the wannabe thru-hiker, the pleasure of a daily walk, or the back garden is followed by the desire for total immersion in nature. Sun streaming through a window, is pleasing, but wistful. The odd moment of comprehension, just a taste of the lessons of the trail.

The Pacific Crest Trail in the North Cascades. Photo by David Xiao.

I think it’s the significance of intention that is insurmountable. The Pacific Crest Trail is a cherished dream. A dream being something you wish for and long to achieve. As much as we can try and clasp its indirect silver linings, the pandemic remains a tragedy and an enforced set of circumstances. Langston Hughes’ poem, Harlem (in full, above) considers the experience of a dream deferred: “Does it dry up in the sun…Or fester like a sore.”

Or does it infiltrate your day to day, forming a backdrop to your thoughts, relentless like footsteps on a long path? Hughes’ imagery—the sun, the sore, the loaded pack—takes shape in my reading as direct symbols of my nearly-but-not-quite hike. Perhaps the closer a dream gets to being a reality, the more rooted it becomes. It feels that a dream deferred has a different quality to one never pursued. It’s tangible and becomes harder to reason out of or put to one side.

So, an interrupted plan should be just that: paused, but not forgotten. Harbor it and keep faith for the chance to walk the waiting, promising footpath of a dream revived.

Mount Jefferson, Oregon. Photo by Tim Allami.