In August, my boyfriend James and I decided to hike the state of Oregon via the PCT. This section of the trail runs 460 green miles from the border of California to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington. We had taken a month to road trip through the lush, lively Cascade Mountains. Upon reaching Portland, we looked at each other and realized we needed to see Oregon a different way- by foot. So we scrounged up a ride on Craigslist and headed down south to where the state lines meet.
I never really thought about what we’d do on our month-long walk before we left. I guess I thought, without really thinking, that we would do more than walk. I guess I thought we’d swim in high mountain lakes, or watch the dark-eyed juncos scatter and flick their secretive way through the Oregon understory. I thought we’d sit up in the cool summer nights and watch galaxies of the past, long dead supernovas, make their slow way across the bowled, wild sky, that small piece of the universe we can look up and see. In short, I thought we’d have loads of idle time in which we’d connect to the vibrations of our Earth.
However, we had set our sights high for the first week, aiming for a pace of 25 miles daily. I had never hiked 25 miles in a day but was confident I could handle it. That is, until our first day on the trail, sunset. We were still a mile off our goal and I sat by James, near a creek, chugging the freezing water, almost shaking with exhaustion.
I knew, when setting out, that the trail would be a challenge, but had never considered that 25 miles, practically a marathon a day, would take 10-12 hours of walking. I didn’t know it would be blisters and sores, knees that kind of crackled when I curled up to sleep each evening. I didn’t know my feet would expand by a full size, swollen and purple. Instead of watching stars, we would collapse into our sleeping bags at dark, wherever we were, sometimes right on the trail. Many nights we didn’t bother to set up the tent; too much effort.
“Maybe we should just quit!” I screamed to the lodge pole pines one day. It was noon and we were stopped by a gorgeous mountain lake that lapped gently at my throbbing toes. I was scarfing down half a jar of peanut butter, starving as usual. The sun slanted just right through the emerald trees and a grey jay swooped before us. Everything was perfect. Except how I felt inside.
The world seemed a moving treadmill of large Douglas firs and ferns. It was a blur. Always a few miles to walk. Constant pressure. Stop for dinner at 6 pm with four miles to go. Each day I longed to sit and watch the creeks pass us by instead of running past them. This was worse than a full time job, which I had left behind years ago! We had read that almost every thru-hiker completes 25 miles a day. We were passed dozens of times by thru hikers who looked cheerful and calm. Why shouldn’t we be able to keep up?
And, more importantly, why weren’t we having fun? Where were our afternoon swims? Our time for pondering the sounds of the forest? A week in, we were sick of it, all this work for no pay. Or play.
The sounds of the woods came to a halt, silent in the aftermath of my outburst.
“Come on!” James said suddenly, getting up and pulling off his sweaty clothes. He ran and dove into the cold clear water of the lake, letting out a strong whoop as the water engulfed him.
I sat, still and stunned. Then, without even bothering with my clothes, I sprinted in and flung myself into the water.
“It’s freezing!” I said, laughing hoarsely with shock.
“Just enough to knock some sense into us!” he answered dipping again below the surface.
That swim changed everything. The water cleansed our tired minds and bodies. We emerged into the air, cold and invigorated, full of clarity. This is what our journey was all about. This was why we wanted to travel Oregon by foot.
The next day we hiked until we needed to stop. We swam again in another crystal lake. We paused to watch a flock of feeding nighthawks in a recently burned clearing. The sunset called from the top of a pass, and we marveled at the gradient of color in the sky. We checked in with our map at the end of the day; eighteen miles logged.
We began taking the trail as we felt each day. Nineteen. Twenty-three. Twenty. After a few days, we hit our sweet spot at twenty-two miles. Depending on water sources and pretty detours, we stuck to that. Sometimes more, sometimes less. We weren’t meeting our initial goal, but that was okay. Truth was, that goal had ruined our first week. Truth was, also, that we probably wouldn’t have made it the whole state at that pace anyways. I relaxed into the PCT and Oregon became vibrant before my eyes.
The PCT taught me that goals are useful only if they’re open to modification. When I became aware of my own journey, I realized that trail stats only led me to blind, blurring feelings of inadequacy. A long trail should not be reduced to numbers; it is alive, ever changing, in flux. Once I slowed into my flow, the trail conversed with me in deep, vibratory ways.
Hike according to feedback from your body and soul. A long trail is an opportunity to find your pace.
And, please, always go swimming. That cold, clear water is calling and it wants to remind you why you’re out here!