Exploring the PCT CREST Project: A Journey with Lindsay Miller

Introducing… Lindsay Miller “Upbeat”.

Mid-shot of Lindsay Miller on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by Kevin Scott

Lindsay is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During the 2022 hiking season, she set out to create the PCT Class of 2022 Research on Environmental Support and Trends (CREST) Project. She and her research team conducted interviews and online survey data with PCT hikers to learn about their experiences with wildfires, beliefs and attitudes about climate change and wildfire, pro-environmental behaviors, and so forth. The PCT CREST Project explores whether experiencing wildfires on the PCT makes people feel that climate change is psychologically closer and motivates them to protect the environment. PCTA is proud to partner with Lindsay and share her findings with the broader PCT community to inspire and empower individuals in the face of a changing climate. As wildfires and other extreme weather events become more frequent and severe due to climate change, drastically altering the trail experience, we remain committed to our mission of continuing to advocate and conserve the PCT’s very existence for generations to come. We look forward to exploring Lindsay’s research findings with you; stay tuned!

To kick off this series, we wanted to introduce the passionate hiker-researcher behind the project—get to know her through this interview.

Lindsay standing atop Mt. Whitney.

When did your appreciation for and love for the outdoors first begin? What is the value of outdoor spaces and recreation to you?

I was fortunate growing up to spend my summers at Cheley Colorado Camps outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. I looked forward to my adventures in Colorado all year, and as soon as I arrived, I signed myself up for as many hikes and backpacking trips as I could pack into the summer. Although I was captivated by the epic scenery and sense of accomplishment that is unique to standing on top of a mountain or next to an alpine lake, what kept me coming back was the way in which outdoor recreation builds confidence, compassion, and community. Whether hiking in the Rockies or the Sierra, day-to-day worries seem to fade on the trail. In their absence, conversations become more vulnerable, people become more caring, and I can push myself to heights I didn’t think I could reach. I credit my time outside for teaching me to prioritize the journey over the destination and to focus on the group’s experience over my individual goals. Not surprisingly, many of my greatest friendships have been formed on the trail, and I’ve built relationships with people I would never have otherwise come to know.

Lindsay Miller at the Southern Terminus.

What is your relationship to the PCT?

In the years leading up to my thru-hike, I found that I wished I could stay longer every time I was outdoors. My partner had hiked the PCT in 2017, so I’d learned about what went into preparing for a thru-hike and the sense of community among the hikers. Having grown up in Oregon but adventuring mainly in Colorado, I was also eager to explore a part of the world that felt like home (and is absolutely stunning) but that I didn’t know well. When I began graduate school to study environmental behavior, I realized it was the perfect opportunity to use my thru-hike to learn about how climate change impacts are becoming more apparent and how these experiences can be harnessed to promote environmental action.

In developing the PCT CREST Project, I recognized that I could not collect any data if wildfires were not an issue during the 2022 hiking season. Ironically, I still felt utterly blindsided when the McKinney fire erupted, and my plans to continue north evaporated. It’s hard to describe the connection one develops with the trail, and the loss one feels when that place that has become your home bursts into flame. I was grateful to experience this loss, as it helped me understand the sense of grief expressed in so many of the interviews with hikers who were stopped in their tracks from the fires, some of whom were pulled out from active fires by the forest service. Although the devastation was evident, it was also encouraging to hear so many hikers describe how their time on the PCT taught them to truly value preserving these natural spaces.

Lindsay Miller heading up to Sonora Pass in California. Photo by Tayasu Hitoshi

What is your earliest memory/understanding of climate change and the threats it holds to the environment and people overall?

I experienced the orange sky of wildfires for the first time during my high school soccer tryouts. At the time, it felt apocalyptic–the idea that the sky was dark and hazy from a wildfire hours away in the mountains was surreal. Although this experience was pivotal in that it helped me remember that there were years when we didn’t all brace ourselves for “wildfire season,” I didn’t realize how passionate I was about this topic until I moved to college.

Leaving Oregon, I was surprised by how many environmental behaviors that were normal to me were not common outside of my eco-friendly bubble. I realized then that combating climate change would take a lot more than simply educating people about environmental threats. This experience opened my eyes to how complex it is to encourage sustainable behavior when everyone is embedded in social, economic, and political systems that often work counter to environmental goals. The more I recognized the immensity of this challenge, the more I felt that I needed to help understand the most effective ways this could be done.

What do you most enjoy about being a researcher?

Researching human behavior feels like putting together a 10,000-piece puzzle with pieces that are turned upside down and are constantly changing. Luckily, I enjoy doing puzzles and finding a piece that fits feels both rewarding and incredibly meaningful. Studying people means that I get to focus on what we all have in common and also what makes us unique. From this perspective, I get to assume that most of the world is made up of “good” people who act in different ways because of our diverse experiences and opportunities. My job is to figure out what can most successfully encourage environmental action among individuals from all different backgrounds and values simply by understanding them better.

Many people ask me why I focus on individual behavior change when environmental threats so clearly need to be addressed by corporate, technological, and political action. My response is simple: At the end of the day, politicians are people who are voted into office by people; technology is created, funded, and adopted by people; and people run corporations. Individuals should not feel responsible for fighting climate change one plastic straw at a time, while corporations are allowed to run rampant burning fossil fuels. However, understanding how to encourage people to behave sustainably is integral to combating climate change, regardless of how we go about it.

Lindsay Miller in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

What do you hope people will take away from this research?

One of the participants said it best: when the PCT becomes your home, and flames engulf it, the urgency of fighting climate change feels crystal clear. But if we hope to mitigate climate change, we can’t wait for everyone to become a thru-hiker, and we definitely can’t wait for climate change impacts to become so severe that people pay attention.

I hope that sharing the findings of the PCT CREST Project with the broader PCT community will help people understand the gravity of climate change without needing to (or in addition to!) spend months outdoors. At the end of the day, my research is only meaningful if it can inspire environmental action, and the first step in that process is making sure that the research is accessible to anyone, regardless of their experiences. Across 67 interviews, I had the privilege of hearing hiker after hiker describe how important outdoor spaces are to them, but also how daunting it is to feel responsible for fighting climate change when the world favors cheap polluting practices. I hope this research brings us together in this fight so that we can work together to save the places we love in the same way that we support each other to walk across them.

From left to right: Morgan Judy “Snoop,” Lindsay Miller, and Lauren Ortosky. This photo was taken in Joshua Tree, California.

Where do you hope to take your research next?

When people think of sustainable behaviors, what first comes to mind are often things like recycling, turning off lights, and buying eco-friendly products. Although these actions do help to a certain extent, they are only tiny drops in the bucket compared to more high-impact actions such as eating a plant-based diet, avoiding gas-powered transportation (planes and cars), and reducing consumption. These high-impact changes are hugely important for mitigating climate change, but they’re also much more difficult and can require bigger lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, low-impact behavior is much easier to study, so most published research has been conducted on behaviors that will do little to help us meet sustainability goals. Through my research, I hope to understand better situations that can promote transitions toward high-impact sustainable behaviors as quickly, effectively, and equitably as possible.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Although, as a graduate student, I spend way more time in front of my computer than I would like, when I have some spare time, I’m often out in the garden trying to grow my green thumb, going for runs through Santa Barbara, exploring some of the MANY amazing outdoor spots in California, and cooking fun vegetarian recipes. Some of my upcoming adventures (one day when I have more time) include learning to paraglide and scuba dive, finishing the northern half of the PCT, and biking the TransAmerica trail.

Lindsay Miller near Everest Base Camp, Nepal.

With Linsday’s help, we’ll be sharing the collected research from the PCT Crest Project in the coming weeks and months. However, if you’d like a sneak peek, we encourage you to visit @pct_crest_project on Instagram for an inside look at how Lindsay documented her experiences on the trail in real-time.

Author: PCTA Staff

The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians, and for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.