Over the most recent holiday break I reconnected back up with a friend that I had met earlier in the year while northbound hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. He asked me what was the most frequent question I’d been receiving since returning to civilization, and after about two seconds of deliberating, we both agreed that “how’d it go?” was always the most common, if not even the most irksome.It was the easiest question to ask, but summing up roughly 2,600 miles of hiking couldn’t be done in a few short words. As I told my friend, if people have the time, I much rather tell them about just two days I had while the hiking the PCT that nearly sums up the total 166 days it took me to walk from Mexico to Canada.
It was on day 139, and I was at the tail end of a three-day stretch covering 90 miles of trail. I found myself lying in a small patch of grass near the edge of the Winema National Forest, completely unable to move another muscle with tired thoughts circling like buzzards above my head. Adding a few choice expletives in the mix, assessments like “what am I doing here” and “how did I get myself into this” were common, and while the answers were obvious enough, the rhetorical nature of the questions leant towards vague memories of a life before the trail, when picnic tables weren’t a luxury and hiking all day seemed like a good life choice.
I felt like an injured animal, waiting for the wilderness to swallow me up, and if any airports were located nearby, I would have easily booked the first flight back home to Iowa. Instead, nothing was nearby, not any amenities that could help me out in that way at least, not even a water source to fill my bottles. Stuck between the choice of setting up a waterless camp, and moving my feet forward, I dragged my trekking poles and broken spirit the final five miles of the 90-mile stretch, crossing Highway 62 and landing in the Mazama Campgrounds
Having arrived late the night before, and feeling ready to give up on a goal I was once determined to achieve, I didn’t rush out of the sleeping bag the next morning. Instead, I ate six raspberry-filled glazed donuts bought from the Mazama Camp Store and smoked bummed cigarettes out of my vestibule. I was not in good shape, and if any of the other upstanding citizens visiting Crater Lake National Park saw me at that moment, surely they would have been turned off from ever hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Somewhere in the pool of self-pity that flooded my tent floor, I thought about Crater Lake itself, and how even though I had entered the park, I was stuck down below at the campgrounds with no views of the actual namesake. It took me the entire day of scrounging through the hiker box for food, keeping my legs inclined and talking with some southbound hikers who had seen the lake that day to finally recover some of my senses. I knew that I could give my adventure one more day, one more early morning before I booked my flight home, and that I had to go see Crater Lake before any more decisions were made.
I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. the morning of my 141st day on the Pacific Crest Trail, and I started hiking the three miles up to Crater Lake by 4:30 a.m. with the intentions to catch the sunrise. My legs were still not feeling it after the big miles and consecutive days it took to get there, but as the sun crept up over the horizon and I hiked up towards something I had been looking forward to since planning the PCT, the blood in my legs began to circulate with a familiar rhythm.
And then, there it was, almost like it was waiting for me.
I would be less of a man to not admit the tears that were swelling in my eyes. The overwhelming feeling of Crater Lake waking up to the morning sun, it’s sparkling shores catching the new day’s spirit, it filled every bone in my body with an understanding of this, this is what I came out here for.
I spent nearly two hours having Crater Lake to myself that morning, taking in everything the clear view had to offer, and I rode that high for the rest of the day as I made my way around the entire rim, and eventually across state lines into Washington, where I would continue all the way to the border of Canada to finish my 2016 thru-hike just before winter touched down on the Cascade Mountains.
Maybe it wasn’t even those two days of hiking that could define my entire experience of the Pacific Crest Trail, really it could be boiled down to those two moments. One snapshot of me laying down in the grass, ready to give up on every goal I had ever set for myself, and the next standing at the rim of Crater Lake in the morning, seeing for myself my exact place in the physical landscape. That was the Pacific Crest Trail for me, the good moments made great by the bad ones, the self-doubt and sunrises, and an acceptance that the cumulative experience of the whole thing will ruin any simple answer to the easy question “how’d it go?”