You may have heard of a book by the name of, Wild – From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed.
There is an ongoing discussion in the long-distance hiking community about what impact this book, and the upcoming movie adaptation, will have on the trail and the community. Will the PCT continue to offer a true wilderness experience, or will it turn into another Camino De Santiago or Appalachian Trail? (Each of which are beautiful trails in their own right, but they would hardly be considered true wilderness experiences.)
The book has certainly received a lot of attention after being released early 2012 and being selected as the first book for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club 2.0. Wild has gone on to become a National Bestseller, and for good reason. The story is compelling!
In fact, along with general questions like “Where do you get food?”, “How many miles do you hike every day?” and “How often do you shower?” – one of the most common questions I received while on the trail was “Have you read that book…uh….what’s it called?” “You mean Wild?” I would say, their expression changing to a wild grin with a knowing twinkle in their eyes, as if they suddenly understood every intimate detail of my experience on the trail.
Wild has and will inspire many people to consider hiking a long-distance trail, but while there may be an immediate impact as some individuals get inspired to do smaller sections of the PCT, I believe most will shy away from a long multi-month thru-hike, and here’s why.
Ten Reasons ‘Wild’ Will Not Convince You To Hike The PCT – And Why You Should Anyways
1. We Are Lazy. Just utter the length of the trail or the average daily pace, and most people will shrink back in sheer exasperation. In a famous book about another famous trail, A Walk In The Woods, Bill Bryson quoted a UC Berkeley study that concludes the average person walks a mere 1.4 miles per week, or 350 yards per day! A more recent study gave a more optimistic outlook, reporting a healthy 5,117 steps per day (a little more than two miles). Regardless of how one calculates an average, these figures are a far cry from the 20 mile per day pace of a thru-hike. (The average 2,660 mile PCT thru-hike takes 5 months, or 150 days, including approximately 15 rest days, for an average of 19.7 miles per day). Though this may seem daunting to most of us, once you commit to it and take those first steps on the trail, and spend your first night under the stars and open your eyes to your first trail sunrise, you will understand that twenty miles per day is not as daunting as it seems. After all, it’s not the miles that are meaningful, it is where those miles take you.
2. We Have Short Attention Spans. Today’s 20-somethings, the most likely group to hike a long trail, have been distracted since birth with internet, social media, ipods, iphones, tablets, X-Box’s and Play-Stations. This generation is more likely to have been diagnosed with A.D.D. and prescribed drugs like Ritalin to help ‘cure’ what we believe are psychiatric problems – even from a very young age. Can we not conceive that pushing an iPad in front of a toddler’s face, sending them to school with an iPhone, or sitting them in front of a television every evening may have something to do with these increased behavioral issues?
On the trail, you walk at a pace of less than three MPH. This the speed our species has moved since we first stood on two legs. It is the speed at which we can focus on the subtlety of life, nature’s rhythms and our own thoughts. After a month of moving at this speed, the chattering in your head will slow down. Your focus will be uncluttered. You will live in the present and begin to notice things you never noticed before. And I promise that if you climb to the top of Mt. Whitney and watch as your first sunrise at over 14,000 ft. slowly lights up the dramatic alpine lakes and snowy peaks beneath you, you will have no trouble focusing your attention.
3. Escape Alone Will Not Get You To Canada. Wild seems to appeal the most to women in their mid 30’s and 40’s who would seek to escape from the drudgeries of life, as Strayed sought escape from her drug, relationship and family problems. If you attempt to hike the trail as an escape, you will find out quickly enough that a desire to escape alone will not provide enough ammunition to put one foot in front of another for 2,660 miles. The ‘WHY’ of your hike will need to be more substantial to get you through those long monotonous days between viewpoints, the ravenous mosquitos, the blazing hot sun in the Mojave, the constant pain in your joints, the blisters and the 12,000 foot passes. However, if escaping aspects of your life is what it takes to put you on the trail, then by all means do it! Even if you only make it a hundred miles, you will have tasted a small piece of what makes a thru-hike of the PCT so special, and perhaps you will come back again.
4. We Are Caught Up In A System That Will Not Allow Six Months Away From Work. When was the last time you tried to ask for five or six months off from work? If you plan on keeping your job or moving up in a career, than probably never. It takes an off-the-grid kind of lifestyle or much planning and sacrifice to successfully achieve the time off from jobs, mortgages, bills and other responsibilities. The experience of the trail is more than worth this sacrifice, but unfortunately, few of us have the means or the desire to make it happen. Speaking of having the means…
5. We Are In Debt! The first step to planning for an extended trip such as a thru-hike is getting out of debt. You will already be unemployed for six months or more, and you do not want the specter of debt to be hanging over you while out on the trail. Sadly, most Americans are saddled with school loans, car loans, mortgages and credit card debt. We are a nation enslaved to our creditors, and thus enslaved to our jobs to pay off those creditors. If this describes you, I highly recommend that you do everything in your power to get out of debt.
6. American’s Have Been Conditioned To Look For Short term Fixes To Life’s Problems. Many will catch the Saturday afternoon matinee of Wild and be inspired for a short time afterwards. But instead of walking in the woods for six months, they will wake up on Monday morning and take a pill for depression, a Five Hour Energy for lack of sleep, or they will see a therapist for anxiety and go shopping to fill the lack of purpose and meaning in their lives. A thru-hike is a long-term commitment that doesn’t fit into a short-term solution mentality.
7. We Live In Fear. Our society breeds fear of anything out of the ordinary. If it requires getting out of our comfort zone, stretching beyond our normal routine, or requires sacrifice in other parts of our lives, we will avoid it. It is unlikely that Wild will elicit more than just a temporary tug at people’s heart-strings while they sit comfortably in their favorite movie theater, a box of popcorn and a soda at arm’s reach. The only way to break the hold that fear has on us, is to confront it. Let this be the one time that you refuse to let fear direct your life.
8. We Are Unhealthy. So much of our population is simply not healthy enough to undertake a trip of this magnitude. Studies show that our physical health is closely linked to our mental well-being. But think about this – the trail can be a solution to your health issues, not an obstacle. Imagine reaching the monument at the Canadian border after a 2,660 mile thru-hike, 30 lbs thinner and in the best shape of your life. Imagine hiking for over an hour up a several thousand foot pass and not once feeling out of breath. Imagine a world of experience opening before you because you now have the body, and the mental stamina, that will take you anywhere your mind can conceive.
9. We Want Convenience. This is why many of our parks are mostly drive up experiences. The average person will not go more than a few miles from their cars in a National Park. Walk outside of this range in most parks and you will find yourself alone in the wilderness. Hiking the PCT is certainly not convenient, but that is a major attraction of the trail. You will experience true wilderness, unspoiled by the drone of car engines, the whining revving of ATV’s and motorcycles, and the distraction of crowds of tourists. You will experience solitude. While the weekend tourists rush home on Sunday afternoon to fight traffic back to the city, you will be the only one left sitting in your backcountry campsite, waking up on Monday morning to the sound of birds singing and the soft babbling of water from the nearby creek. All of this because you were willing to give up convenience and step a little farther down the trail for a true wilderness experience.
Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while. ― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
10. We Won’t Get Paid. Not only will we earn no income while hiking, but there is a large opportunity-cost for taking the time off from work and losing those bi-weekly paychecks. Forget about money. Forget about the things money buys. Experience is worth far more than money at the end of a life well lived. Be smart about it – pay off your debt and put plenty into savings – but beyond having the basics, more money does not equal more happiness.
I urge anybody reading this to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, but I know most of you will not, and that’s ok. Maybe you have no compelling reason to hike a long trail. If nothing else, I hope Cheryl’s story settles in the back of your mind and begins to stir up questions and possibilities.
Do you plan on a future thru-hike of a long distance trail? Did Wild influence your decision one way or another?
Unconventional Life. Live It. Own It. Quit Worrying About It.