I never thought I would thruhike the PCT. I never thought we would finish. Even in our best moments, I was brought down by fear.
Four years ago, after completing the John Muir Trail, I said I would never thruhike a long trail. I was sick for most of that trail and re-injured an old sprain. That hike was an endurance test. I signed up for the PCT terrified that I would have to endure 2,653.1 miles of the same.
Thruhikers have a saying: “You pack your fears.” Different people have different interpretations of the adage. I understand it to mean that you carry things in your backpack that you think will protect you from the things that you are afraid of.
I was afraid of everything.
I was afraid of the dark. I was afraid of bears and mountain lions. I was afraid of sprained ankles. I was afraid of mosquitoes and bees and beetles and every creepy crawly thing. I was afraid of carrying too many things in my pack. I was afraid of carrying too little. I could go on…
A funny thing happened on the way to Mexico. I got used to my own fear.
When we night-hiked, I was so nervous that a ferocious cougar would attack us from the shadows. And then one night I heard something rustle in the bushes. I flashed my headlamp toward the animal. I saw it dash away. I don’t know what it was, but it was BIG. I called Jake with a quivering voice. And Jake arrived. The “thing” stayed in the bushes. We didn’t die.
When my feet ached during zero days, I was so sure that our trip would be cut short by injury. Then we met a triple crowner in Packwood, Washington. He told us about his hikes on the PCT, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Turns out he had a stress fracture and completed the PCT all the same. “You can hike with a stress fracture?” I asked him. “You can hike through anything,” he said. Somehow that conversation changed my attitude. Pain was part of the trail. Pain continues to be part of my life. It is something I’m managing. It isn’t killing me.
When bees buzzed us during the long hike, I always shooed them away. I was worried they would sting me. But one day in the desert, I came across a spring. There were bees everywhere, and I was alarmed. Then I looked a little closer. I saw the bees were drinking water! They were more focused on the water than on me. From then on, whenever bees came around, I let them buzz. I never got stung—not even once.
What once was aversion became a general fascination with creepy crawly things. I loved seeing the giant Pinacate beetles that stick their butts into the air when they feel threatened. I loved finding red velvet ants with their fuzzy rust-colored bodies. Around a hundred miles from Mexico, we started to see tarantulas. They moved so gracefully. And they followed the trail just like we did.
I told one of the last trail angels we stayed with about my fascination with tarantulas.
“Why don’t you pick one up?” he asked.
“Maybe I will,” I said.
Even as I said it, I knew that it might be a step too far.
After all, I still have all of the same fears. I still don’t like hiking in the dark. I am still unnerved by aches and pains. I still worry about animals—big and small. But somewhere along the way, I decided that fear was part of life. I decided that my fear was just another thing I carry. That decision made my fear a little less of a burden. That perspective allowed me to finish the trail.