There is a photo that has always hung on my wall. This snapshot from 1991 holds the story of how I find myself on the wind swept, California - Mexico border one April morning. This old Polaroid captures a different morning, on a different border, in an entirely different landscape. Instead of shouldering a backpack, I am a passenger in one. I hang from my father's back on the Vermont – Canada border embraced by the lush forest of Green Mountains. We stood on the northern terminus of the Long Trail, the nation's first long distance hiking path. My father had hiked this trail, all 272 miles from end to end, one timeless summer in the 1970s. My Dad’s stories instilled in me at a young age a powerful longing to wander the wilderness. Growing up tromping through the Vermont hills I dreamed of snow-capped peaks and endless horizons of wild country. I waited for the day when I would follow in his footsteps and make my way across my home state on foot. I managed to do so at the age of 19, arriving exhausted and lonely at Canadian border after three weeks of hiking.
Despite the hardships of my first foray in long-distance hiking, I discovered the potent medicine that is waiting for us in the core of such a journey. Enduring fatigue, hypothermia, and raw blisters, I touched strength within myself that I had not known before. In solitude and isolation I found a deeper connection to my self. Through immersion in the wild I began to feel the humbling realization that as a human I am a small yet worthy member of a much grander web of life. A year later, another influential photo came into my life, a photograph of a tent illuminated in the golden sunset of the Southern California desert. There was a freedom in this expansive landscape, and it captivated me. When I read the caption, I knew with certainty what I needed to do. As my college classmates began their career path and landed their first “adult” jobs, I struck out on a different path called the Pacific Crest Trail. I was 23 years old, anxious, optimistic, and eager for a test that I had been craving since my father first wove his thru-hiking yarns into my life. With a camera in hand and 19 miles worth of water in my pack, I set off into the dusty steppe.
Five months later I stood soaked and hypothermic on the Canadian border. I had 24 hours of footage, over 4,000 photos, and a total inability to describe what had just happened over that long, long summer. I found myself again and again unable to answer the questions that came my way. What did you learn about yourself? What was it like? What was your favorite moment? It seemed words couldn’t touch the core of the wild world I had entered up there on the Pacific Crest. In truth, what you come to experience and what you feel shift in yourself on the Pacific Crest Trail is not something suited for words.
The closest I have come to being able to share the heart of my journey is through words that came to me in the final weeks of my journey. As I crested a pass in Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness I was flooded by waves of memory. These vivid snapshots of poignant crossroads that had awaited me in my journey were distilled into words as I frantically fumbled for my notebook. What flowed out onto the pages was something between a poem and a run on sentence.
I touch the tall-corrugated metal fence of the U.S. side of the Mexican border, turn and step northward without an idea of what is ahead; beaten by relentless desert sun, learn to value shade as dearly as food and water, sleep under a bridge, pass the next day curled up under the shade of a sage bush; become nocturnal and walk on silver sand reflecting the full midnight moon; cowboy camp under the diamond stars.
A six foot rattlesnake boils in a pot of yellow broth on a fire of pine sticks; thirty mile dry stretch, water fixates body and mind; sleep in an “empty” campground, nearly run over by drunk in a pickup truck at 2 AM; walk for days through blackened skeletons of trees torched by ravenous fires of summers past; a coyote and I cross paths, we pause and glide away.
I climb from the dry, desolate expanses of Southern California onto the mighty plateau of the High Sierra, into its rich, deep, wet folds and onto its snowy crests; the first light of dawn greets me on the highest point of the continental U.S.; cross a crystalline stream reflecting sunshine, trout darting upstream, pause, reach under a rock and feel the wild wriggles in my hand, pluck the golden trout from the stream and its bright eye catches mine for a moment before it returns to the torrent; a yellow-bellied marmot oblivious to my presence on a 12,000 foot pass gazes out on the earth far below; a hundred mosquitoes simultaneously suck my blood and my sanity; last rays of sun catch a bald eagle’s arc above an alpine lake; lightning, hail, then a blizzard at 11,000 feet, cross waist-deep torrents in 40 degree rain.
Wake at dawn and walk till dusk; the endless forest begins to dull my mind and spirit, I am a machine, my body strengthens and forty miles pass beneath my feet in a day; deer browsing feet away serve as my alarm clock; a cinnamon-colored bear raises its head in the brush and for a moment we freeze before it crashes off; then I finally reach a sign that tells me I am no longer in California.
Seven days of wildfire smoke chokes my lungs and vision; a solitary 24th birthday; wake to rain drops on my face at 5 AM, time to start hiking; a stranger hands me a trout, a beer and a bag of groceries, pure generosity, pure gratitude; realize one day that the shirt on my back has transformed into nothing more than a shredded rag; trip, limp, run, walk across Oregon and the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River.
Munch on snow in August, three mountain goats lounge on a snow field a thousand feet below; grace the shoulders of massive glaciers and descend into the primeval creases of a humbling rugged land; rain begins to fall, ceases, returns, then mist, cloud and sun again; six elk pause as I round a bend in the trail, I pause, five minutes pass then I inch forward, the herd explodes into motion, snorting, thundering into the woods; rain falls colder each day, summer is ending with August; shin splint, searing pain, keep walking, almost there now; last night before the border, all-night monsoon and thunderstorm; next day lightning cracks above the ridge and hail begins to fall as I crest the final pass and begin the descent to the border; three hours of cold rain, early hypothermic shivers, I begin to run, I round a corner and there it is.
Nearly five months of hiking have brought me 2,660 miles northward from the United States-Mexico border across California, Oregon and Washington State. A wooden monument stands in the middle of a 10 foot wide clear-cut that marks the border from the Pacific to Atlantic oceans. The ground is covered in hail, the dark green pines shimmer with afternoon downpour, the sky is grey, cold and quiet. The chill rain has broken for the last few minutes, welcoming me to the end of this incomprehensible summer. Fellow thru-hiker Spoons and I scream wildly, we hug each other, we kiss the monument, we fall silent, our hearts still pumping with adrenaline, and all is quiet and still again. The journey is done and we don’t know what to say, what to think, or what to do. There is no great realization, no epiphany, no feeling of bliss – I understand that these moments rested in the life of the journey, not in its ending.
Complete strangers offered countless rides, sodas, beers, meals, words of support, and random acts of kindness. On the trail I made some of the most unlikely friends and met some of the most determined, unique, intelligent and kindly people I have ever known. I hiked with Swiss, Germans, Canadians, Brits, Israelis, Scots, French and New Zealanders. We laughed, cried, danced, swore, spit, slept under stars, woke wet and cold, but mostly just walked. I wore my shoes until they fell apart and then wore through four more pairs. I felt bored, felt crazy, felt exhausted, but somehow never once did I wake up and think, “I don’t want to hike today”. I dropped out of society during the longest summer of my life, put all my heart, soul and strength into something that my culture sees as useless. I performed a feat without any concrete value, that most folks can’t quite seem to grasp. Somehow with each day I fell more in love with the wild, with the journey, with humanity. And people must have seen this in me, for if they couldn’t understand what drove me, they saw the grin on my face that neither rain, nor boredom, nor pain, nor loneliness could seem to wipe away.
I have an instinct to share my journeys - to tell my story. A photo I stumbled across online inspired my journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. I hope to pass along this inspiration and provide a spark for someone else to follow their passion, take a risk, and experience the wild places. This is the goal of Only The Essential, the film I produced about my Pacific Crest Trail experience. Below you can view footage from the last 500 miles of our journey on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Learn more and purchase the film at pctfilm.com.