Puzzling the PCT together
Veering away from the Tuolumne river, I have only 2 miles left to walk in the forest with duff underfoot. 1:00 PM, I know I will finish barring some extraordinary event. My legs move like a machine, left, right, left right. Swinging my arms, I pole my hiking sticks in rhythm. My breathing is easy. Yet, I feel a bone tiredness deep inside.
All Things Change
Is it my body? Is it my mind? Elation I’ve felt in the last 3 weeks passing through jaw-dropping beauty, cheered on by a super wildflower bloom, up and down rugged passes, has left me. The forest, once a refuge and comrade, is now just a bunch of trees providing shade as I move along. The white granite rocks lining the path in tribal-like groupings, once a delight to touch, rock to lay my body on, are a sprinkling of stones strewn around by an otherworldly force no longer holding me in awe. My last moment with nature was 15 minutes ago, sitting at the bank of the Tuolumne river as it glided over these massive stones toward somewhere unknown, telling me that everything passes. Telling me that all these moments on the trail pass.
Reaching the Goal
In an hour, I will have hiked 2650 Miles on this trail, year after year in periods of two to five weeks. An hour from now, I can say that I finished hiking the whole Pacific Crest Trail. A goal I set myself 3 years ago as finishing became a possibility if I kept my health, if I could keep up the training, and if I could hold on to the desire.
Teachings on the Trail
Every year when I hiked a section, the trail taught me something profound. I like profound. I reach for experiences that are transformative. This deepens living. I learned I was not afraid of being alone in Big Nature. I felt connected and free. I learned I can hike with pain and still appreciate my body as it moves through this world. People want to be helpful if you ask. Otherworldly forces in high altitude places got my attention; forces that protected me, forces that guided me, that told me what was in my future. Forces I don’t understand, but certainly can’t ignore. There is more to life than meets the eye. The mystery of life is a thing.
I found out my body and mind can do a lot more than I expected. When a difficult climb looms, my body obeys my mind and works together in rhythm with my breathing beyond the point when I feel it’s been enough but when I’m still not at the top, as long as I remember to just put one foot in front of the other, take breaks at regular intervals and feed myself the fuel this body need. It’s a simple formula for living.
Only 2 more miles. Day hikers pass me going out on the trail, excited, looking for adventure. I’ve lost interest. My mind is done. My body needs a rest. I walk on till I get to the end point of this section, Tuolumne Meadows, store, stables, parking lot, people milling around.
“Congrats, amazing, well done!” The words spill over me. Our support person hands me a leis of marigolds; a friend gives me a gift, a puzzle of the PCT. I can go home and put the pieces of the puzzle together on long winter days, she says, relive the places I’ve been.
The Hiking Puzzle
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is like solving a puzzle, with many, many pieces. Pieces of life, opportunities, purpose. Mental pieces of wishes, grief, elation, wanting to get lost. Social pieces of needing connection. Hiking the PCT is living a life within a life. Separate from normal day-to-day living, hiking the PCT provides an alternative for living, a simplified form that enhances awareness and teaches skills we’ve lost in our comfort-rich environments. “Back to Nature” is exactly that, a return to original being, a stripped-down version of living, with only your mind, the environment and people you meet to entertain and support you ( I don’t listen to music or podcasts when I hike).
Finding and organizing the pieces is a big part of putting a puzzle together. The obvious pieces of miles to be hiked, accessible places for entry and exit that will mark the sections, get laid down first. The not so obvious ones as meeting just the right person who becomes a friend or support on the way, or turns into a friend for life, form the connecting piece to other parts and sections you still need to sort out. The pieces that spell the right gear, gear that supports and doesn’t weigh you down, make or break the puzzle. A lightweight tent that keeps you dry in a downpour, a sleeping bag that keeps you warm on freezing nights; shoes or boots that support your feet to walk all those 2650 miles without being heavy, without cramping your style and your toes. These are the pieces you find slowly and sometimes painfully through experience. Food and getting food are ongoing pieces of the puzzle, the pieces that fill the holes in the hiking puzzle, that provide the energy to keep going on a tough day; that keep your body hiking, day after day, all day, carrying a 30-pound pack. You have to figure out what kind of food works for the body you have been given as you hike.
The hike is done, the goal reached. The puzzle is complete. Or not? Are there pieces I haven’t discovered yet, the aftermath, the pieces of how this "life within a life" affects my future, my outlook on life?
I will hang up the pack that traveled with me for 2650 miles. I no longer want to carry a heavy pack. My body is asking to go lighter, not to have to work so hard. I’m listening and obeying. I trust my body to tell me what it needs.
I’m not done living, but I’m ready to live lighter and use the things I learned from hiking the PCT. Even though the trail seemed endless when I hiked day after day, there is an end to it. So it is with life. The yearly section, the daily mileage hiked, done with vigor, with presence of what happens in the moment, each step, every mountain top, river crossing, meadow view and desert wasteland adds up to a hike I can look back on with pleasure and gratefulness. I hope I will live out my life the same way.