Pacific Crest Trail
Monday Feb. 1st, 2016
Give me a hug man!” I said to my friend Tommy, teary eyed as we reached Monument 78, the northern terminus and finish line for a northbound Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker. Approaching the terminus my friend Kayla was right in front of me and Tommy was only about 20 yards in front of the two of us. We had checked the maps at the last water source and knew we only had five miles to go. It started pouring with rain. It slowed our descent. The three of us were dead quiet. We could hear every drop of rain. An hour and a half went by uneventfully. But suddenly there was a large clearing up ahead. Tommy reached a switchback at the start of the clearing, turned and looked to us with a big Cheshire cat grin, bouncing up and down with his backpack on, waving his hiker poles in the air saying, “I can see it, I can see it!” Kayla didn’t want to believe him because he is such a jokester, but your eyes don’t lie when you see it for yourself. Tommy took off running, Kayla sung her way dancing to the monument, and I was in complete shock. I didn’t think it was real, 2,650.10 miles and 180 days and it was all over.
It was never a vacation. It was never a sojourn, or a journey, trip, excursion, or trek. It was simply a dream. I had to do it. Traveling even didn’t seem worthy to someone who had been to 27 countries before turning 27. I was bored. I was bored of my life, just seemed like repetition. I needed to break free and to set loose a person that was trapped and in need of escaping. And when a friend reminded me of the trail, I couldn’t think of anything better than to be in nature, to spend up to 150 days in a sleeping bag, and to stink to unfathomable levels to where people at McDonald’s and grocery stores couldn’t stand to be within ten feet of me. Found comfort in the most bazaar of locales, found love where I wasn’t looking, but ultimately, finding that change I was looking for.
Change came in the course of landscape and trail, but more importantly, I changed. And to say the trail changed me is as night and day as summer and winter. Change inside, change outside, change in appearance. Change emotionally, physically, and mentally. If there is a single word to describe the trail, it is, “Change.” The trail changes you as much as it changes elevation. And in looking at the total elevation differences throughout the trail, something life altering was going to happen.
I could tell you about how gorgeous the trail is and try and use all different kind of words from my thesaurus to impress you, and I will, but there is something very special to be said about what it takes to wake up after a day that gave you six new blisters, a sun burnt forehead, and a headache reminiscent of a hangover without the alcohol. Watching that sunrise up over a Joshua tree in Southern California because you should have already been walking by then if you wanted to get somewhere before the sun decides it wants to make a roast out of you. Carrying eight liters of water for a 38-mile dry section in 90-degree heat or simply freezing in a tent at 9,000 feet because you laughed at the fact a storm was going to bring rain in Southern California and ended up shivering while it snowed. And ultimately getting a trail name that is synonymous with my unfortunate lack of bowel movements in the beginning of the first section. These are the things that summed up Southern California in a nutshell. Insanely gorgeous and super surprising. To say Southern California is gorgeous is perfect. But after walking through my backyard, I was now at the doorstep of the Sierra’s itching to open it. The only way to describe what I saw when I opened that door is nothing short of breathtaking.
When my muscles start to hurt more than usual, and I wished I could literally buy oxygen, I knew I made it to the Sierra’s. Sierra’s meant granite peaks, extreme altitude, and a view that HD doesn’t know how to handle. Many lost up to an extra tenth of their body weight in this section because of the sheer effort it took to go over some of the passes. Waking up at 7,000 feet only to know last night that in 20 miles, you have another 6,600 more feet up and the equivalent down. Always huffing and puffing and cursing under our breathe about how these climbs seemed to work. Only to reach the top and hike slowly down the backside cheering John Muir about how much of a legend he is, because of the insane beauty you’re witnessing. The Orange glow of a granite wall at sunrise or sunset, and my memory card simply reminding me that I can’t take any more photos when the card is full, simply spoke Sierra. I averaged 9.8 miles a day for 20 days going through the Sierra’s. Not because I was tired or because it was hard, which it was, but it was purely because I wanted to. I let my friends go and do their 18 mile days while I basked in the beauty that John Muir inspired us to see.
Transitions were abundant along the PCT. The descent out of the Sierras was slow but obvious. When the highest elevation I hit for the day was around 7,000 feet and not over 10, I knew Northern California and Oregon were knocking. The temperatures began to climb again, but the terrain got easier. The climbs were far mellower and the days were getting longer and longer. Pretty soon my slow casual pace turned into marathons and the occasional ultra.
This part of the trip turned out to be a highlight, despite the fact that it wasn’t of the standards of what I just went through. It was because it was different. It was social hour. Here is where I met some of the most incredible humans that I still call friends to this day. Having the ability to share 20 plus mile days through some gorgeous terrain made the rest of the trail fly. Some of my fondest memories of the entire trip are from the people. Simply the passion that you share for hiking the trail is all we ever needed to strike up a decent conversation. I often joked about how I lost more weight on the trip from laughing over poop conversations than actually the walking part of the trail. It was just amazing, the outpouring of love you could give and also receive within five minutes of meeting another hiker. Falling in love with someone on trail seemed like it only needed a week to happen.
We were all puzzled through Oregon and Washington. It was such a mixed emotion part of the trip. We could all see the light at the end of the tunnel. We all noticed the differences in terrain, as it seemed like it was clear as day with every border. And once that happened, some were excited to know that it was almost over, while others, including myself, wished it could keep going. It was this never-ending chase from volcano to volcano in this bazaar game of cat and mouse. Starting back at Lassen while hiking through the sisters region in Oregon that made me think I were standing on Mars. Getting to that luxurious breakfast buffet at the lodge on Mount Hood, and finally getting my first glimpse of Rainier as I rounded around one of the fingers of Mount Adams.
But it really started to set in when I reached the North Cascades. The snowcapped spires shot up to the sky and blew all of our expectations away, but kept us all in check, making sure we had to work to get to the finish. The last ten days of the trip were by far the hardest. The terrain was even harder than that of the Sierra, and I was emotionally wrecked. I cried periodically everyday and got nauseous because my six-month dream was almost over. The feeling of accomplishment was there for me sure, but not being able to look over at my equally dirty friend every morning, or lean my pack up against a tree and take a nap because it’s that comfortable, are just examples of things I still miss, while sitting here at my desk in my cozy chair with a roof over my head.
I set off from Campo, California on April 13th at around 2 pm. I finished the trail on October the 10th at 1:20pm. Five months and 27 days or 180 days total: 2,650.10 trail miles, 2,781.16 total miles hiked, 253 trout caught, 46 passes hiked over, hitch hiked 39 times, lost 34 pounds, got 27 days of rain, took 22 showers, used 15 fuel canisters, stayed in 11 hotels, 8 campgrounds, took 7 buses, got snowed on 6 times, went through 5 pairs of shoes, saw 3 bears, climbed 3 mountains, stayed in 3 houses, 2 days below freezing, and one life changing adventure.
Sean Jansen is a Freelance Journalist/Adventurer/Thru-Hiker and sponsored athlete for Lowe Alpine and The Probar. Instagram: @jansenjournals