Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
By: Karthikeya Nadendla
The entire human evolution is a story we tell ourselves to make sense of our existence. That’s the fundamental’ thing of being human. For a long time we passed down myths and legends to generations around us in an attempt to understand ourselves. Nowadays, we tell a scientific story. The story I have been telling myself throughout my life was a story of helplessness and I was keen on changing the narrative.
We all know life is tough, but mine felt tougher than average. Nothing came natural to me. I always worked out in the gym for months to put on just a little bit of muscle. Similarly, I had to sit with a textbook and cram the chapters for days to understand the subject. Studying was also hard. Sports were a disaster. I couldn’t throw the ball straight and I sucked at cricket. Running was hell, I used to go home after school and cry with leg pain. So I realized I never fit in anywhere and refrained myself from doing hard things in life. I spent all my time playing computer games and watching anime. But I always felt I could do more and never knew what until I went on the PCT. This trail gave me so much in life and showed me what I am capable of doing when I set my mind to it. It left me with nothing but gratitude.
Just over 2 years ago I was on a day hike for the first time in my life and got hooked. Since then, I have accomplished several weekend hikes and have been on a couple mountaineering trips. I realized I possess an irresistible temptation programmed into my DNA to explore nature by venturing into wilderness and tap into the primal instincts of being a human. In mountaineering, I always depended on someone to lead me, a guide. However, I wanted to do something different on my own, an independent adventure. Then I stumbled upon Pacific Crest Trail. I first heard of PCT last year. A trail from Mexico to Canada, 2,653 miles long and requires several months to finish. Every year thousands attempt the trail and only about 10% actually finish it. In January this year, I accepted the challenge and took a leap of free will because there is always a sense of fulfillment in doing what you love, passionately.
The final countdown ends and a journey of miles begins
After extensive research on gear, logistics, and preparations I stood at the southern terminus of the PCT along the Mexican border with nothing but a great sense of relief. The countdown has finally ended and the excitement helped me lose all the other concerns in life. I hiked alone for the first few days and in the second week; I ran into an elderly woman about 58 years old called Buffy, the Mosquito Slayer, and got inspired by her determination to hike the PCT. She was the first hiker I had a good conversation with and she named me Gulliver which became my trail name.
The longest I have ever been on an outdoor trip previously was to Russia to climb Mount Elbrus. We climbed for 7 days. There was no counting of miles on my mountaineering trip, and we could not even make it to the summit due to inclimate weather. On Elbrus we had nothing to celebrate, but the 7th day on PCT was a day of celebration. A day not taken for granted because never in my life had I hiked 100 miles without rest days.
Over time, I observed my perspective on life shift as I continued having new experiences and several firsts. Using running shoes for hiking, setting up my ultralight tent, trusting my ultralight Feathered Friends Hummingbird Sleeping bag, cowboy camping (sleep on a tarp without a tent) under the stars, relying on my ultralight backpack to carry all my weight especially in the Sierras, hitchhiking into towns, depending on random strangers, consecutively hiking long days on big blisters, having beer for breakfast, eating the same couscous every night, not taking a shower for 12 days and in a broader scale living like a homeless man out of my backpack for 5 full months! Every experience out there was new to me, which deepened my understanding of self in this world.
A discovery that you have two hands to give back to the community
Southern California is the only section where I ran into hundreds of hikers and trail angels. I consider this part as the honeymoon phase of the trail. Everything was new and the excitement caused by the novelty of the experiences left me on a constant dopamine high.
Of everything, the service community of the trail impacted the biggest perspective change I had. I witnessed the passion of these guardians who are willing to help thru-hikers on their Journeys. No wonder they got the title, Trail Angels – the givers. I believe they are the heart and soul of the PCT experience.
Hiking days on end during a stretch and reaching a town is something to always look forward to, but knowing there are angels waiting for us gave a sense of relief. Their acts of kindness doesn’t stop with stocked water caches on waterless stretches. They invite us into their homes, do our laundry, serve homemade food, provide shuttles, allow us to sleep in their homes and this never ending service was something I have no words to explain. Every time I came across a trail angel I asked them why do they do this and the most common answer was “Because we love it, we love helping”.
Another best part of this section was the ease and flexibility of cowboy camping. On an extremely dry section without any rain, I mostly preferred to sleep in my Feathered Friends sleeping bag without a tent setup, but rather as a ground cloth for my sleeping pad. The days were long, hot, and dry but the nights were cold and misty. So after a long day’s hike, crawling in the sleeping bag and looking at the stars was the best moment I looked forward to. Though this section is considered the driest and hottest part of the PCT, it mellowed a little as 2019 was considered a wet year with record snowfall in the Sierras. After reaching Kennedy meadows, which is a town that signifies the end of dessert and the beginning of the Sierras, most of the people I know were altering their plans to skip the Sierras. I had no such thoughts, however I was concerned about using ultralight gear in the snow capped mountains and the consequences of hiking the passes in trail running shoes.
Predictions and surprises
By this point I made friends with a couple fellow thru-hikers and technically, we were a trail family. They facilitated my journey of finding comfort in accepting surprising opportunities. Being on the trail is usually a weird feeling because most of the time we have no idea where we sleep for the night. Every morning when I woke up, I have no idea where I am going to end up despite setting a mile goal for the day. I never had an idea how that place or weather is going to be until the time I get to the camping site or some random open places.
Some predictions and surprises were fascinating though. It’d been just over a month on the trail and by this point, I had been hiking with a guy from Israel called Tank and a woman from Colorado called Soul Train. We were fast approaching a town called Acton. It was still the desert but closer to L.A. Just like any other day in the desert, I woke up early to escape the heat and prepared myself to hike a long waterless stretch. Out of the blue, my buddy Tank threw a surprising offer which I could not refuse. He shared the story of how he made friends with an American Pastor while working in the Israeli army. So, that morning he received a message from the Pastor, Eddie who asked Tank and us to visit his church in L.A. Tank told me he met Eddie several years ago and added him on Facebook but did not really keep in touch. He continued; it’s really surprising that Eddie kept up with the updates online and offered to stay in L.A. for the night at the Church. When Tank told me that Eddie will come to KOA Campground in Acton, pick us up, let us shower and sleep in the Church, show us around L.A. and Universal studios, I thought he was joking. First of all, Tank was a new friend of mine and he invited me to someone else’s place whom he met just once for a brief period of time. Even though none of us were religious, I technically came from a Hindu family and Tank came from a Jewish family and we both were spending the night in a Church. I never spent a night in a church before nor hang out with a Pastor. Contrary to my expectations, Eddie had a great sense of humor and we all had a great time together. It still baffles me to think how my day began rationing water concerned for the hot dry desert section and how it ended with utmost peace, drinking sprite with Eddie in the Universal studios. I always found prayers and blessings to be a joke. But when Eddie the Pastor prayed for our safety and successful journey, it moved me and I did not take it lightly anymore. I still have a hard time to process these moments and it felt like the universe unfolded itself in front of my eyes. I had experienced how chaos and comfort go hand-in-hand. I call this momentum generated by hiking – ecstatic rapture of being on the trail.
The day I entered the South Sierra National forest, I noticed the sudden change of the scenery from desert cactus to greenery, big trees and snow capped mountains. It was a refreshing feeling. The sudden change in the surroundings in just a single day made me feel like I was in a different country. The Sierras was the most wild, remote and adventurous section of the trail. 500 miles of pure bliss; crossing mountain passes, fording rivers and staying conscious of bears was a unique experience to this particular section of the trail. Though my daily mileage had significantly decreased in this section, I was still able to face all the hard challenges and help others along the way. Leaving Kennedy Meadows I was part of a group that was willing to hike the Sierras together and out of them I was the most experienced in the mountains. I took the initiative in leading our group over passes, helped build the group’s confidence, and ultimately everyone succeed in traversing the steep terrain. I thoroughly enjoyed mentoring them and from that experience, I realized I have a mix of mountaineering and project management experience.
Northern California was a mere walk on the trail even though there was a significant altitude gain and drop. This section was the most challenging mentally. Maybe because there was no dopamine hits from fording a river, no pleasure hormones triggered from climbing a mountain pass.
It was a great sense of relief reaching the Oregon border. Morale went up knowing I was done with all the difficult sections of the trail and the race to Canada had begun. I started hiking big mile days, sunrise to sunset, and a few days I hiked late into the night as well. As a result, I ran into a mountain lion near Crater Lake one night and felt lucky to come out alive. Overall, Oregon was a cruise.
The warmth in the Humming Bird
Washington had entirely different plans. The day I walked past Cascade locks, the border, was the day it started to rain. It literally poured on us every single day and that’s when I recognized how reliable my gear was and noticed how efficiently it held against the cold and rain. Along the trail to Canada the pouring rain turned to snow as the temperature continued to drop as an early fall approached. I had to pitched my tent in adverse conditions for a few days straight, unable to get my gear dried properly. The biggest challenge in this section was how to stay warm and dry. My biggest concern in Washington was to not get my down sleeping bag wet. One night the rain storm got so severe I soon had pools of water inside my tent and everything got wet. To my horrific surprise I failed in keeping my bag dry. There was nothing I could do about it except change into dry clothes and crawl into the wet bag. Luckily my Feathered Friends Hummingbird kept me warm despite being wet. In the entire trail, Washington was the most challenging mentally and most of the time I longed for comforts. It changed the day I reached Stehekin, the last town stop on PCT before reaching Canada. I just couldn’t believe it was going to end and all I wanted to do was start the whole trail again.
Nothing came natural to me
On September 28, after spending 152 days on the trail, amidst a snowstorm I made it to the northern terminus of the PCT along the Canadian border.
We long so much for the final product, the end goal, but just getting what we want doesn’t mean anything. It’s the process involved, the journey undertaken, the people met, the memories made, the lessons learned and the experiences lived that are most meaningful.
I am grateful for all the experiences I had on the trail, people I met, memories made, relationships built and of all, I am grateful for the opportunity to share my experience.