I grew up backpacking. My grandparents on my dad’s side were backpackers, visiting Nepal often to trek, completing the Annapurna Circuit, taking my dad and uncle for trips down the Grand Canyon, as well as hiking both in the Sierra and on the east coast. My mom grew up spending summers in Washoe Valley and on the shore of Lake Tahoe, fishing, swimming, and being outside.
My early memories of backpacking are the most vivid I have. I went on my first backpacking trips when I was around 7, both to Peter Grubb Hut on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s a short 3 mile walk from the highway, up and down the ridge where a spindly, balding trail splits off to climb Castle Peak. The PCT switchbacks down through pine ringed with neon-yellow wolf lichen, the ground soft with duff and spotted by mushrooms; a softer Sierra beauty than the stark exposed granite of the south.
The hut lies right off the trail where the trees open up into a huge meadow. The small entrance, lined with split firewood, opens up into a dim room. It smells like wood smoke and dirt and people. In the middle of the room sits an old, grubby picnic table. There are mouse-proof cabinets, a wood stove, trail register, and a smaller room off to the side with another table, guitars hanging on the wall. A wooden ladder goes straight up to the loft.
And then there were the thru-hikers. I sat on the bench near them, listening, privately and shyly enthralled. There was a quiet Australian with red hair and beard, who talked about the Great Barrier Reef and accepted a Larabar saying, “I can’t say no to free calories.” There were two guys who formed an a capella group, and performed along the trail to raise money for troops. One was allergic to antibiotics and when he grazed his leg falling down a snow bank in the Sierra, he had to leave the trail for a while because it got infected. They had started with another guy who had dropped out in the desert because he was out of shape. They had tried bringing butter on-trail and it melted all over their packs. Both the Australian and the two guys had started on the same day from a mysterious trailhead, somewhere, I didn’t know where, but it sounded enchanting and magical and I fell in love.
Those are only a fraction of the details I remember so clearly. I fell asleep on one of the dirty matresses in the loft to the boom of them talking and laughing, straining to pick up individual words and piece them together.
So, that was it. That was the moment I became hooked. I continued casually backpacking with my family, and I told my mom and dad that this was something I wanted to do some day. There were other thru-hikers: a woman who paused to look at her maps at the ridge at Castle Peak, who told me I should hike the trail, and hike it solo. Hobo and Milkshake and Milkman. I was always too shy and nervous to talk to them or ask their trail names. Outlaw, who worked at the Trader Joe’s in Reno.
I guess I never really thought about thru-hikes as something real that normal people do (and so I could do, too, and not just scrawny thru-hiking super-heroes in backpacks), until another homeschooling family on the east coast, that I’d done a Skype bookclub with, announced they were hiking the Appalachian trail.
And so I decided that I was going to section-hike the Tahoe Rim Trail that summer. I started delving into thru-hiking blogs, reading copies of AT and PCT memoirs and Ray Jardine from the library. I had my mom and dad drive me up to hike 20-40 mile segments with me almost every weekend (I didn’t have my driver’s license at the time, and they weren’t exactly complaining about getting to hike ha). I finished the Tahoe Rim Trail, and then because I had caught the bug I spent the winter planning for the John Muir Trail. And I did that, part of it solo, which I loved. It’s very addictive, and not just because of the beauty or the simplicity or being outside or the people, but because planning and completing a long hike gives you a definable purpose throughout the year, even when there isn’t one in your everyday life.
This fall, because I was applying to colleges, I was planning to do a 300-mile section of the PCT from Sierra City to Yosemite Valley. All of the college stuff was making me a little miserable. I told myself I wanted to do something “normal” for once with my life and start college right away. I’ve been taking several college classes each semester for three years now, and going to college for real sounded so banal, so un-different. While I enjoy them, college classes feel so mundane to me, while for normal teenagers they would be an exciting shift to at least mark the change between the 15 years of primary school and the next 4 years or more of college. Not hiking the PCT was a constant thread of disappointment being passed through my mind.
And then I started a job and suddenly the PCT started to become something feasible. I cornered and barraged my parents with statements like “what if I do the PCT this year,” deranged laughter, “What do you think?” A few days in I decided that I was making it happen this year, no matter what. I told my parents- who weren’t at all surprised- and then got in my car for a jubilant drive to work.