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I was never much of a believer in fate or life-changing epiphanies until last summer when I decided to section-hike the infamous Pacific Crest Trail. I had a series of events in my life that seemed to funnel me into this trek in a way that many might argue too much to be deemed "coincidence." But let's back up for a moment so I don't get too far ahead of myself.
It was an uncharacteristically cool day in early May. I had recently returned from an emotionally challenging deployment with my unit in the Army Reserves, and my boyfriend of a year was leaving that morning for an ambitious 2,650 mile hike from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. I'd always been outdoorsy, but this seemed an overwhelming goal—even to me. I was supportive initially, but a little leery about how our relationship would proceed considering the long-distance and scarce cell phone reception that would imminently follow.
My boyfriend, Colton*, was someone I'd been hung up on for the past seven years. We had dated briefly in high school, and I was unable to forget about him. He had appeared back into my life via Facebook message on my walk home from class one day, and we hadn't stopped talking since. That being said, my relationship with Colton was far from perfect. He was fiercely independent, and had no issue with going a month without seeing me or a week without speaking. I found this endearing initially, but the luster faded fast. He refused to define the relationship, stating he found the term "boyfriend" to be unnecessary and confining. Despite my better judgement, he promised me we were exclusive and acted like a boyfriend, so I had a hell of a time trying to walk away.
I woke up at 4:00 AM to send him a text full of well-wishes and "hope to see you soon"s. His response wasn't cold, but it was one that left me hoping for more. He set out on his way, and I mentally prepared myself for the long emotional journey ahead.
That same month, I had one of those classic I'm-only-twenty-two-but-I-swear-this-is-a-midlife-crisis moments where I realized (just weeks short of graduating) that I loathed the career path I was on, and changed my major—committing myself to yet another three years of college.
I was struggling with money, unsatisfied in my personal relationships, and at a crossroads in my career to top it all off. I knew something had to change.
I've always loved reading, and was drawn to inspiration stories of adventure. There was something about people reinventing themselves through struggle and hardship that just fascinated me, and after Colton's bold spur of the moment quit-his-job-and-hike-for-months decision, I had a similar idea. I didn't have the time to hike the entire trail because of my monthly training commitment to the Army, so I settled on a 300-mile solo hike heading north from Trout Lake, Washington.
I planned minimally. I knew the route I wanted to take, and I knew where I could stop to resupply on food and equipment. I made sure I had the appropriate gear, I told my family, and that was it.
In August, I packed up my car and drove 2,000 miles to what I had planned to be my end point. My plan was to part at my "finish-line" and hitchhike hundreds of miles to the quaint hiker town of Trout Lake—population 557. After talking with locals, I discovered that the highway connecting the two cities had be flooded years prior and was closed due to the damage. This nearly doubled the distance I needed to travel, but I refused to give up.
I stood outside with my thumb in the air for 30 minutes before I started to get discouraged. I took my pack off, and say on it, thumb still raised, for another hour before deciding to walk into a nearby shop and take a break. I must have looked disgruntled, because a construction worker approached me asking where I was headed.
"Trout Lake, or anywhere along the route you can take me!" I replied.
The man informed me he was heading to Packwood, which got me more than halfway there, so I thanked him cheerfully and threw my new REI backpack in the bed of his truck. The man seemed friendly, and chatted with me the entire drive. It was an over-all pleasant ride, though exhausting to maintain constant conversation—being the introvert I am. After dropping me off at a gas station in Packwood, he bid me adieu and we parted ways.
I went into the gas station for a snack and to purchase a map (in my lack of planning, I had never purchased one) to try to determine how far I had left to travel. The clerk informed me it'd be a 3 hour drive, yet, with the main highway being closed. Discouraged but determined, I thanked her, threw my pack back over my shoulder, and walked back to the road with my thumb to the sky, yet again.
It had been another agonizing 2 and a half hours before an outdated, beat up Chevy Cavalier pulled over. The broken-out windows were covered in plastic, and the destroyed fabric on the seats was mended with duct tape. The driver was disheveled and dirty with long mangled hair. He was smoking a joint and insisted I get in. At this point I was desperate, so I got in—insisting I keep my pack (with my knife in the front pocket) on my lap. I climbed in and hooked my left leg around the shotgun leaned against my seat.
"You mind the bud?" he asked in long drawn-out words.
I needed his help, so I assured him I had no issue with it. He offered me some and I declined. The man drove me an hour into my trip, alternating between smoking marijuana and cigarettes the entire time. He told stories about how he and his girlfriend had been on the run from the law and lived off the land along the Pacific Crest Trail for some time a few years ago. He dropped me off in the middle of Gifford-Pinchot National Forest where there was no walking route in or out, and negligible traffic. I wrote down his license plate number as he sped off—just in case.
Before I even had time to set my pack down again, a car pulled up and stopped (This is the first of a few times I feel I evaded imminent danger on this trip). The man driving was older, and somehow reminiscent of my grandfather. He asked if I was alright, stating he was following the Cavalier this whole time, and grew confused when he saw it turn the other direction. I told him where I was headed, and he offered to drive me the remainder of the way.
After arriving in Trout Lake in the evening, my plans to start the trail that day were modified. I rented a campsite and pitched my tent. I'd have to start the next morning.
After waking up and eating breakfast, I got a ride to the trail head and began on my merry way. The first day was brutal—15 miles of steep uphill. Hiking all. day. long. When it began getting dark I decided to find a place to pitch my tent. I set up camp, and got out my camp stove to make supper. The water wasn't even boiling before the plastic from my $300 Jet Boil began melting onto the gas canister. Thinking it was going to explode, I ran 100 meters in bare feet to watch my stove detonate from a safe distance. Feeling defeated, I ate cold dehydrated food and laid down for bed, assuring myself tomorrow would be better (it had to be)!
I awoke sore and tired, but optimistic and ready for another day of soul-searching. The second day of hiking went on without a hitch, as did the third. I felt like I was finally getting a hang of this.
It was short-lived.
The fourth day, after crossing a rapid and frigid river where I was nearly swept off my feet, I passed a group of men heading the opposite direction I was. They each had a rifle slung over their shoulder with silencers attached, and they gave me a smirk as I passed that sent chills down my spine. I had no idea what they were hunting—or even the legality of what they were doing considering we were in a National Forest. I had already trekked 15 miles that day, but I was insistent on getting as far away from them as possible.
After another hour of walking (which felt much longer, let me tell you!) I set up camp. It took me what felt like an eternity to fall asleep, especially considering how exhausted I was. This is the second time I felt like I had escape danger during this trip.
When I woke up, it was because I heard a sound outside my tent. Not the typical little critter sound, and certainly not something that can be written off as "just the wind." Something was circling my tent. My mind immediately flashed back to the crooked smile the men with the silencers gave me and my heart sank into my chest. I didn't want to become another tragic store told as a lesson-to-learn similar to Chris McCandless.
After listening awhile longer and peering out a slit in my tent cover, I figured out what the sound was... A cougar.
Thankfully, one thing I WAS well prepared for going into this trek was how to react to specific animals, so I began speaking quietly and raised my volume gradually so as not to startle it. After a few minutes, the footstep sounds ceased, and I unzipped my tent timidly to check.
It was gone.
This is the third opportunity for death I encountered that I feel I evaded.
That same day, I twisted my knee on the rocky terrain and re-injured a prior trauma. I had had knee surgery just 9 months prior, and was now unable to put any weight on that leg. It was at least 30 miles to the next town, and I was moving at a pace of 1 mile per hour. I would run out of food well before I hit town.
My only option was to turn back and hike 6 miles back to a dirt road I had crossed the day prior in hopes of hitching a ride (yet again) back to my car.
I made it back after a grueling morning. Lightheaded from pain, I sat near the road, ready to hitch hike one last time. The only issue was no cars were going past. I sat there for hours, and hadn't seen a single vehicle go past, but there was nothing more I could do. It was physically impossible for me to trek any further, but it was getting dark. As my eyes were welling up with tears caused by frustration and fear, I noticed a red SUV parked down the road. I decided to walk near it in hoped the driver would return shortly and be willing to give me a ride into any town.
A man in his mid-thirties appeared a few minutes later with a dog on a leash and began walking toward the car. I explained my situation, showing him my swollen, ace-bandage-wrapped knee as proof. He hesitantly agreed to bring me back to my car. I was so relieved.
I made it back to my car safely, and despite the disaster-ridden journey, I was immensely proud of myself.
I had worked through my inner demons without consciously thinking about them. I had used my knowledge and my wits to keep my save numerous times. I had survived a week on an unforgiving trail, with nothing more than I could carry on my back.
I gained so much from that trip—how to leave someone toxic, how to stay calm in dire situations, how to trust other people (and when not to). The experience I took away from this trek is invaluable, and most importantly of all, I'm now a firm believer that one week can alter your life and impact you for the remainder of your time on this planet.
The Pacific Crest Trail and Trout Lake, Washington are forever in my heart, and don't think for one second I'll leave what I started unfinished.
I'll be back with a vengeance.