Saturday, October 01, 2011

PCT interview questions

Someone emailed the PCT-L asking for answers to some interview questions. Even though I wasn't a thru-hiker and didn't hike this year, here are mine.

What was the purpose of your thru-hike?
It was something I have wanted to do since I was 10 years old. That year, 1975, my dad got a National Geographic book about the PCT. I wanted to hike it ever since I read that book. The pictures in Washington looked wet, brooding and scary so I never wanted to hike that part. I settled on hiking the whole state of California as my goal and that's what I set out to do in 2008. I didn't make it all the way. I only made it to Dunsmuir. So I returned the following year and completed the trail, including adding a little 100 mile section from my front door in Santa Barbara out to where the trail meets Hikertown, re-hiking Hikertown to Cottonwood Pass, then picking up sections I missed in 2008 due to chickening out or fires and then resuming where I left off and finishing the rest of the trail to the Canadian border. I decided to hike the whole trail because after I got a taste of long trail hiking and saw some stunning pictures of Washington, I decided I just had to see the whole thing.

What were your expectations for walking the trail? For completing it?
I honestly expected it to be a solitary wilderness experience. I was shocked when it wasn't, but not in a bad way. I fell in love with how social and fun it was, how it was like a tour of small-town California. On my second hike it was very much the solitary wilderness experience I had originally expected because I hiked outside the main body of thru-hikers. I loved this solitary experience. I enjoyed it more than the more social experience the year before. I felt like a secret wood nymph living in the forest, peering out at a curious world of cars and machines, a strange world I no longer was a part of. That was a really special feeling.

It was a very difficult experience, though. I did get lonely. I had someone back home and I felt guilty leaving him home to work and take care of my animals (parrots) while I was out having a grand adventure, not once but twice. Somewhere around Crater Lake the mosquitoes became extremely vicious and this brought my morale down. After that, I struggled every day with loneliness and wanting to go home. At the same time I was not ready to go home and I knew it.

I had this experience hiking somewhere in the middle of Oregon. I totally had a vision of myself at monument 78. I was overcome with emotion right then. I KNEW with absolute certainty that I was going to make it and I knew exactly what it would feel like. A sort of burden lifted off me. All I had to do was keep going. It was impossible to quit because I knew I had already in a way finished the trail. I just had to make it so.

That did not make it easier, though. It was still very hard. I was scared much of the time. I was starving. I was running from mosquitoes and dreading scary river crossings. Later I was running from rain. I hiked 30 mile days, sometimes two in a row, to get out of the wilderness to somewhere where the air wasn't prickling with proboscises or slapping me in the face with wet leaves. Still, through all that, I felt like I belonged out there, that I was doing the thing I was put on this earth to do.

Another story: In Ashland I was hitchhiking and someone picked me up and like many others they were amazed at what I was doing and like many others they all had some kind of big dream tucked away for that "someday". Somehow meeting me was making that dream come alive for them. It suddenly became apparent that my hike was not for me only. It was to help others awaken their own dreams. For the first time in my life I was actually making the world a better place. Knowing that I was doing something meaningful in this world helped me keep going. There was a purpose for all this.

If you didn't complete your thru-hike, what changed?
I didn't complete my first attempt to hike the whole state of California because my feet broke down. I made a mistake and bought shoes that hurt my feet. I had shooting pains that felt like my metatarsals were broken. At the same time, I was feeling lonely. I missed my birds back home. I had this strange experience on one of my final days where I was just talking out loud to my pet bird at home as I was walking down the trail. A day or two later, I went home. When I got home my boyfriend told me of this strange experience the previous day or two. He was sure he heard my bird greeting me coming up the stairs. He was so sure he ran to the front door to see if I was there. So when I went home, I really knew I was supposed to go home. In a way, I had already gone home.

At a Christmas party a few months later I was just standing there eating something when this lady, a neighbor, walked into the party and made a beeline to me. She said she was so glad I was at the party because she came to tell me that she had this sense that I needed to finish something I started and that she really needed to find me and tell me this. She asked me if there was anything I had started and not finished and I told her about the trail and she said I had to go back. I was so relieved. She sort of gave me permission to go ahead and go back. It's what I really wanted to do but I was having trouble letting myself admit it.

If you did complete your thru hike, were your expectations met?
My expectations for a great experience were met. How I thought it would feel at monument 78 was exactly how it did feel. Emerging from the trail at the trailhead in Canada was a huge enormous let-down though. It was the saddest thing I've ever experienced. There was some thru-hiker trying to hitchhike on the highway. We never spoke. There was nobody there to meet me. No celebration. Nothing like breaking the tape at the end of the marathon. Nothing. You just reach the end of the dirt and find yourself on a paved road. There's not even a sign to take a picture of or anything. I choked and sobbed over some pancakes at the lodge and felt totally lost. What now? My boyfriend was supposed to have met me on the trail and somehow we missed each other, so that was part of it, but I think I would have felt lost anyway. When he finally turned up with another hiker that I had met and hiked with a little, we had a big celebration and then it finally felt complete.

What has been nice has been all the little things after. It's like I walk around with a big secret inside. There's another world out there not like this one. There are things I've done, memories, accomplishments that nobody can take away from me. Before if a boss yelled at me I felt threatened I might lose something and bad about myself for not measuring up. I got a really crappy job after the hike where the boss yelled at everyone. When he yelled at me I knew there was nothing he could take away from me. He didn't have the power to scare me.

This year had a lot of snow and unusual weather ? how did this effect your experience of the trail?
I only section hiked this year. I experienced some of the unusual weather. I had a great time despite the misery.

What role did challenge, sacrifice, and/or discipline play in your trail experience? In your ideas about the trail?
The day I crossed the Suiattle River over that log was the happiest day of my life. You have no idea how much that log loomed over me and scared the living daylights out of me. When I got there, I cinched up my pack tight and walked over it standing up. When I got to the other side, I felt so great! There was now nothing between me and Canada. It felt almost like reaching the monument itself only happier because I wasn't done with the trail. There was still some of the best part of it left.

I didn't really like to be challenged quite as much as I was. I had gone in hoping for a quiet, contemplative experience. I had that most of the time, but these interludes of scary stuff were often just way too much for me. After I did the section between Tuolmne Meadows and Sonora Pass in 2009, I didn't want to see any more snow or creek crossings again. I had been considering re-doing the section from Sonora Pass to Lake Tahoe, but after swimming creeks that were over my head and generally being terrified most of the time in Section I, I decided to keep to my original plan. I skipped redoing Section J and took a bus north so I could hike Quincy-La Porte road to Highway 36 which had been closed in 2008. 2009 was a high snow year but not as high as this year. I can't imagine what this year would have been like.

How much of walking the trail is Physical? Spiritual? Mental? Emotional?
It's really all these things. It is physically demanding to hike a marathon every day. It feels great to be able to do it though. That was one of the best things about the hike was feeling so athletic and powerful. I've never been athletic so it felt great to be so strong. I did have to take a lot of zero days to recover though.

The hunger is a big physical issue. I don't read a lot about this aspect, but I think the hunger and poor food damaged my metabolism. I ate as much as I could but out on the trail I was constantly hungry. I lost a lot of weight but never got real thin. I gained all the weight back and have struggled with hunger ever since. If I do anything that is physically demanding coupled with a calorie deficit I get panicky hunger like I had on the trail. I'm still searching for a solution because I would like to lose the weight I gained back and feel healthy and hunger-free, if that's even possible for a woman my age. Also, my feet still hurt after two years off the trail.

It was a huge mental challenge. The mental challenge is the hardest part. It is mentally exhausting to hike in snowmelt. You have to search for every step. It's much easier when the trail is clean and easy. You just put your head down and go. After a while, even that becomes a mental challenge. My life had become reduced to hiking and nothing else. There were so many other things I used to do. I even started missing going to a job.

Emotionally it was a challenge, especially going solo. It was probably better for me to be solo because there was nobody to project any negative feelings on. I couldn't blame anyone or dump my emotions on anyone or spiral out of control with complaining. I was scared a lot and lonely and hungry and I was alone. There was nothing to do but put all feelings aside and just keep going. So many times I would come into town and go get something to eat first thing and it would be like the world would shift from black and white to in color again. I literally could see colors again. Without realizing it, I had had to shut something down inside. At the same time, I would start crying sometimes as I woke up. Man it was so hard to be out there alone like that! But I wouldn't have done it any other way and I would do it alone again in a heart beat.

Spiritual is a strange word. I grew up a Lutheran but I don't go to church or believe in any of that like I used to. I hate when people mix up church and spirituality, too. I think they are different. But I have to say that the whole time out there I felt like I was getting Bible lessons.

Jesus said (something like) leave everything and follow me. Here I was carrying almost nothing and walking walking walking. I felt like this is how people are meant to live. I had so few possessions and needed so little to be happy. Exercise, food, friendship, hard physical labor and a relative deprivation of "things" and comforts made me incredibly content, happy, satisfied, giddy with freedom. Jesus wasn't saying something all mysterious. Literally, leave it all behind and walk!

There is also a verse in the Bible about looking at the birds for an example, how they don't store things or worry about the future and yet they are taken care of. There's the trail magic people usually talk about, the stuff like coolers and getting rides, but there was another kind of trail magic that doesn't get talked about quite as much. There's a special serendipity on the trail. Everything you need will eventually come to you, often just at the moment when you need it most. I broke my sunglasses and while I'm trying one last time to figure out a way to make them work, I look up and there's a pair of sunglasses in a tree. Little things like that. People who help you out exactly when you need help the most but they don't realize they are helping you out. Those are the real trail angels.

There's a similar verse about lilies in the field being clothed in beauty. I felt like the wealthiest woman in the whole world because I had all the wildflowers anyone could ever want. I wished that everyone could experience the freedom of living out of a pack and how the less you have the happier you are and the more flowers you see the richer you are. I didn't need money and status to be happy. I needed time and flowers.

Then of course there is all that woo woo spirituality like the vision of myself at monument 78, talking to my pet bird on the trail and having her hear me back home, having that lady come to me at the party. I can't discount that sort of thing. The trail has an energy you can tap into and for a brief time I was tapped into it. I felt it. It's a real thing. The trail is the most linear place I've ever lived and yet it felt like time and distance became non-linear, that at times I was literally in two places and times at once, that there were little rifts and I could see through to the other side. I think this energy is here in regular life, too, but there's so much noise it's hard to tap into it.

Did walking the trail change you?
Yeah, it did in a lot of ways. Mostly in the confidence and peace I feel inside.

What does the trail mean or symbolize to you? Did this change before and after your journey?
When I go back for a section hike, it's like "Ahh, I'm home".

Anything else you'd like to add?

Gosh, I hope that's enough. I talked your ears off.

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