You Share the Trail, But the Path is Your Own

By Tristan Oliver

The author contemplates the Mojave Desert during his 2010 thru-hike of the PCT. Photo courtesy of Tristan Oliver.

I recently finished reading Falling Upward by the ecumenical teacher Richard Rohr and it resonated deeply with me. I was struck by his passage,

We are here to give back fully and freely what was first given to us—but now writ personally—by us! It is probably the most courageous and free act we will ever perform and it takes both halves of our life to do it fully. The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.
—Richard Rohr

Indeed, my life leading up to the completion of the PCT in 2010 feels like a long, winding and brutal ‘discovery’ phase. It wasn’t until recently however that I began to recognize the ways in which I have been ‘writing and owning the script’ of my life. It has been just over five years since I completed the short documentary Thru-Hike, about my inner journey while hiking the PCT. To this day, I still cannot discern which was more difficult, the hike or the documentary, but somewhere between these two events I began to settle into my true self.

Thru-Hike is about an attempt to realign my soul while discovering that moving through my past is just as difficult as the physical journey itself.

It is an intimate portrait that explores themes of male identity such as fear of commitment, military service and the loss of a father. Thru-Hike is not high-resolution, highly-produced or contrived. Shot using two compact cameras it is a raw, candid account of finding validation from within while slogging through the muck of my past.

Tristan and Carey. Photo courtesy of Tristan Oliver.

When I started my hike at age thirty-eight, I was deeply dissatisfied and disillusioned. I was working hard for other artists (as a professional stagehand and set dresser) but not towards my own aspirations to make films. I was in a long-term relationship with a woman I loved but afraid to commit. I wanted to join my brothers in the military but was against the wars they were being sent to fight.

My father had died when I was just twenty-one years old but I had not come to terms with his legacy of abuse. I knew intuitively that I was out of alignment. Recalling the freedom and healing I experienced while in Boy Scouts, I was reminded of the antidote: a long period of immersion in nature. During a timely road trip stop at Castle Crags State Park, I saw a map of the PCT on the wall in the Ranger’s office and I was struck with a powerful sense of clarity and purpose. I knew exactly what I had to do.

For me, the best part of being in wilderness is the peace and calmness that comes with the absence of noise. It isn’t the sound of silence, but perhaps a quality of stillness. It took a long time on the trail for my busy brain to empty itself of the constant thinking. Eventually, my mind began to slow down and have space between thoughts. This powerful space is where the healing occurred and it had a profound effect. The further I hiked, the more I gained perspective and confidence in myself and the less I sought validation from external sources.

The author at Crater Lake National Park. Photo courtesy of Tristan Oliver.

I began the long process of accepting that my dad had emotionally and mentally abused me, my siblings and mother. Despite being a psychiatrist, he never applied his training to himself and he exemplified the worst characteristics of traditional male conditioning: emotional unavailability, deep-seeded insecurity, unwillingness to be vulnerable or seek help, and an inability to love unconditionally. Each step I took was another step towards emancipating myself from his legacy.

I seriously contemplated the military as soon as I was old enough to join. The young man in me wanted the adventure but the independent thinker in me questioned military service. I was opposed to the wars my brothers were sent to fight but spent years trying to find a way to justify enlisting. I saw my brothers for a handful of days over the course of ten to fifteen years during their service and I realized I would never share the bond they shared with each other. It wasn’t until I was on the PCT—where I learned the meaning of ‘hike your own hike’—that I began to honor my convictions and path as a conscientious objector while also respecting the choices of my brothers.

I had been in a long-distance relationship with my girlfriend Carey for four years and yet could not seem to commit further. My parents fought throughout their marriage and it continued after the divorce. I had no positive examples of a respectful, loving relationship. I didn’t know what I was fearful of, but the idea of marriage scarred me and it understandably left Carey in an untenable position.

After a harrowing experience overcoming hypothermia on the trail, I was at a point where I had finally gotten out of my mind and into my heart. I had foolishly purchased a used rain jacket without testing or waterproofing it just as I had entered the wet phase of my hike in Oregon. Feeling the pressure to keep moving north and thinking I could somehow deal with the consequences of being soaked while hiking in precipitously colder weather, I found that my body was saying the opposite. Even after I began jogging, I couldn’t create enough heat.

I considered stopping to pitch my tent and get into my sleeping bag but was uncertain if I would be able to do this simple task because I had lost feeling in my extremities and could no longer hold on to my trekking poles. I was forced to turn back and head for the nearest shelter.

Life-threatening situations like this have a way of clarifying things. Here I was on the trail, trying to regulate my inner core temperature while Carey had been supporting me on this journey with an open heart despite knowing it might end with us parting ways. Unlike my father, she loved and accepted me as I was. This resulted in a fundamental shift towards Carey as a partner.

The physical, emotional and psychological purge I experienced over the course of 2,650 miles was nothing less than a realignment of my soul. In addition to the internal transformation, I had a clear understanding of how I wanted to apply myself. This included a renewed commitment to make my own films.

I had no re-entry plan after my hike but wish I had. Instead of applying the newly realized gains I developed on the trail, I got sucked back into the vortex of my old job and life. Although this cost me time and energy in the long run, I look back on it as another winding stretch of trail I needed to walk.

I did however move into an apartment with Carey—which was a big step for me because she became the first girlfriend I had ever lived with. Four years after my hike Carey and I got married at the theater where I worked. Since she literally waited eight years for me to commit to her, we paid homage to this in the first act of a three-act wedding. My father-in-law walked her down the aisle to an empty stage where she waited for me to enter with all my “baggage” in the form of a twelve-foot-high stack of boxes precariously tied to my backpack, which I dramatically let go of at the musical crescendo just before meeting her at center stage. Instead of having the wedding ceremony first, we conducted it last, keeping everyone wondering if it would ever actually happen?

The author at his wedding, carrying a lifetime’s worth of “baggage.” Photo courtesy of Tristan Oliver.

I am lucky my brothers came home alive from the wars they were sent into, but it came at great cost for them and our family. They will each, in different ways, spend the rest of their lives ‘walking off the war.’ We are the closest we have ever been and our relationships continue to strengthen. I ended Thru-Hike with the words “To Be Continued…” It reflects the fact that the journey is never really over and it reflects the faith I have that making another film on the trail is inevitable.

True to my renewed commitment to make my own films, I was accepted into the Documentary Certificate Program at Capilano University in 2016. It was the most intense academic year of my life but it culminated in the creation of my capstone project Thru-Hike. That fall I was accepted into the Banff Adventure Filmmakers Workshop where I discovered the subject of my next project 5040 Peak: A Hut Story. It is about the first modern backcountry alpine hut to be built on Vancouver Island by a volunteer crew of the Alpine Club of Canada. I spent two seasons hiking up a remote mountain over twenty times to document the construction under tempestuous, grueling conditions. The story can be followed using this link:

Knowing there was more to explore personally, I received my first two grants in 2021 to research my story about my dad and I am now writing a documentary treatment. My intention is to share my family’s story so that other people can recognize mental illness and abuse and motivate them to get help.

What began as honoring a calling to hike the PCT has become something akin to a spiritual path in my life. I can look back and appreciate how impactful that experience was and how grateful I am for having it.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the trail was bearing witness to the stories of other hikers and relating to them as the people they were in that moment. We shared the trail but the paths were our own. In this spirit I wish every hiker a safe journey as they navigate the challenges of the literal trail and their own sacred path.