When I arrived in Cascade Locks last summer, officially marking the end of my hike of the Oregon section of the PCT, the only thing I could say for certain was, “Never again. Never, ever, ever again.”
The 26 days I spent on my first long-distance hike were the hardest and most miserable of my life. I cried almost every single day, and I have never felt more fragile and insecure and deeply uncomfortable than I did over the course of those 460 miles. I felt proud of myself for finishing, yes, but as I took those final few steps up to the Bridge of the Gods I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that long-distance backpacking was a one-and-done experience for me.
It was just so hard.
But here’s the thing about hard things: they change us. As miserable as I was all throughout my first long hike, I also felt alive and awake in a way that I have come to crave.
And so, over the winter, my conviction of “never again” soon became “well, maaaaybe one more time,” and I am now less than a week from setting out to solo-hike the 800-mile Arizona Trail. Is this a good idea? Who knows. I guess we’ll find out!
Over the past month, as I’ve been doing final prep for this adventure, I’ve been thinking a lot about both my fears and my “why”, my reasons for doing this incredibly hard thing all over again.
So first, the fears.
I am afraid of the pain. Physically, I was in an unexpectedly brutal amount of discomfort last year, to the point that I couldn’t begin hiking each morning without first taking ibuprofen. My hopes of reaching peak hiking fitness before setting out for Arizona fell apart -first by being house-bound with some seasonal mood disorder episodes, and then by the rampant wildfires here in Oregon that created unsafe air quality for weeks on end. So no, I am not nearly as fit as I had hoped, and that makes me very nervous.
I am afraid of the solitude. I had never known true loneliness until I started solo-hiking. Last year’s trip helped me to realize that I am, in fact, an extrovert, and the moments of connection, laughter, and commiserating with other hikers are my favorite memories. The Arizona Trail is much less traveled than the Pacific Crest Trail, especially in the fall, and I have been warned that I’ll likely go multiple days without seeing or speaking with another person, which is something I have never experienced in my life. Being this isolated and alone will be entirely new for me, and I do not know what to expect.
I am afraid of the water scarcity. Water is hard to come by in the desert, and most hikers choose to do this trail in the spring, when the winter snowmelt makes for more plentiful water access. From my meticulous research, it’s likely that I’ll often go 20-30 miles between reliable water sources, and in some sections it’s even longer than that. This scares me. First, because rationing water was mentally exhausting the few times I had to do it last year, and I foresee a feeling of low-grade water-related anxiety for the duration of this hike. Secondly, water is heavy. I am already not nearly as fit as I would like to be, and once I add five days worth of food and 6+ liters of water to my pack it will weigh over 30 pounds. That will be my heaviest pack weight to date, and I’m scared that I won’t be able to handle it.
I am afraid of the harsh conditions, and of all the sharp/poisonous things. This is where my beginner status in the wilderness really shows, because I am intensely fearful of bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, scorpions, tarantulas, lightning storms, flash floods, hunters, and hard-to-navigate/heavily overgrown trail. I have researched these things, and I know that the only way to get more comfortable is through experience, and yet I hate that that’s true and, to be honest, I am just absolutely terrified.
I am afraid of my own weakness. I suppose I could have just shared this one fear with you and skipped everything else, because this is the most honest thing I can say as I head into this hike. I am afraid that I am not strong enough, tough enough, or resilient enough to do this. And the truth is that I might not be able to do it. There is a reason why such a high percentage of those who set out on thru-hikes do not end up completing them. Failure is a real possibility, and that scares me. How will I feel if I fail to finish this hike? What will other people think? Why, after 32 years on this earth, do I still fucking care what other people think?
So yes, I am afraid. I am afraid of lots of things. And I think that part of my desire to do this hike is because I am afraid, but I also know that the “why” behind this second attempt at a long-distance solo trek is more complicated than just a chance to face fears.
I want to do this because I feel stifled by the comfort of modern life. This is a privileged problem to have, but it’s the truth. I have recently realized that the opposite of courage isn’t fear, it’s comfort, and I want to be someone who regularly chooses courage over comfort in all areas of my life – in my work, my activism, my relationships, and my personal development. And as Annie Dillard says, “You can’t test courage cautiously,” so here I go.
Another driving motivation for me is that I love the simplicity of hiking, the fact that life is drilled down into its most essential components: walk from point A to point B, find water, don’t die. There is something immensely powerful about having that kind of singular sense of purpose.
And then, of course, there is the age-old curiosity about the world and desire to explore. What’s out there in the wilds of Arizona? How does it feel to walk amongst cacti all day every day? What will it be like to stand at the bottom of the Grand Canyon? I can’t wait to find out.
But overall, I don’t know what to expect from this hike. It’s not my first time anymore, but there are still so many unknowns. Will I be as miserable as last year? If I am able to finish, will I finally feel tough and self-sufficient? Will I care less about fitting in and being liked? Will I be strong enough not to need validation?
I suppose we’re about to find out, huh?
Along the way I’ll be posting to Instagram, telling honest stories of the experience in real time whenever I have cell reception, and then when I get home I’ll take all of my notes and photos and turn them into blog posts for you.
Until then, here are two quotes I’m keeping with me throughout this journey:
“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don’t.”
— Stephen King
“Here’s the truth about telling stories with your life. It’s going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you’re not going to want to do it. People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. Joy costs pain.”
— Donald Miller