One day near the end of our hike, I decided to count my steps. Walking to Mexico isn’t always exciting stuff. Turns out counting your steps is even more tedious. I only made it 0.1 of a mile. In that distance, I walked about 250 steps. If you work that out, I took around 6.6 million steps to complete the PCT—around 50,000 steps on a standard hiking day.
The last few days of our hike to Mexico I didn’t need to count steps. They were glorious days—the kind of weather I thought we would have for the whole trail. We walked through a sun-streaked desert and past pristine lakes.
Getting close to the end of the trail did not diminish the great effort it took to hike 25 miles a day. Just before the end, we decided to make a surprise detour to the Oak Shores Malt Shop, a corner store and restaurant, in Lake Morena, California. Making an unexpected stop like that felt as if we were playing hooky from school. We dashed off the trail just for a moment to have burgers and fries – they would be the last guiltfree burgers and fries of the trail. After the trail, we knew that greasy food would come with a price – extra pounds, an extra workout, an upset stomach.
We devoured our meal—like always, grabbed a six pack and returned to the trail with the glow of a town visit. We hiked up to the top of the rise where we could look out over Lake Morena. The sun was setting and I tried to take it all in—to remember those fleeting moments. Jake and I hiked on into the twilight and made camp at the bottom of a valley under the protection of oak trees. As always I fell asleep quickly—my body needing the recovery after a hard day’s work.
In the morning, I woke before dawn and heard the rustling of oak leaves above. They fluttered and brushed together like wind chimes. I closed my eyes and drank in that sound. There would not be any more mornings like that. It was the last day on the trail.
Our last day on trail felt like the first. Every step on a thruhike is like every step anywhere else. It doesn’t get any easier. If anything, it only gets more automatic.
We had planned to hike to the end. We hope to make it there by midday or early afternoon and catch a bus from the nearby town of Campo.
We climbed through sand and brush, over railroad tracks, we skirted the edge of the town. Finally, we came over the edge and we could see the border.
In the past few months, people often asked me different versions of the same question: “When did you know you would finish?”
I usually dodge the question.
My honest answer: I knew I would finish five steps from the end of the trail.
Just a bit before the Mexican border, the trail climbs a bit. The foliage falls away. There is a dirt road up to the terminus. While we hiked on the trail, an SUV and a car drove alongside us and made it to the border almost at the same time. As Jake and I hiked to the terminus, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Seeing that structure gave me a deep sense of gratitude for our great adventure and a sadness that it was now coming to an end. As I laid my hand on its posts, tears came to my eyes. I was overwhelmed the by force of 6.6 million steps.
Among the detritus at the border, there was a rusty doctor’s scale with a chipped footpad and the brand name Fairbanks. Jake found a box of Tecate beer behind the scale and handed me a lukewarm can. It tasted like heaven.
I had only taken a few sips, when a group of people—tourists, I guess—piled out of the car that reached the border at the moment we did. They had all sorts of questions. It felt like we had somehow stumbled into a living history exhibit. It felt so surreal. At the same time, I was thrilled to talk about the trail. It felt like life had engineered an impromptu cheering squad for our finish line. That was only the beginning of the serendipity.
The driver of the SUV had just completed a section of the trail. She was heading to San Diego—our destination as well. Without a second thought, she offered us a ride. “Yes!” we responded enthusiastically. Then we gave each other knowing glances: the trail provides. We posed for a few photos, signed the register, took one last look at the monument and then we were off—back to the real world of cities and jobs and refrigerators and electricity.
When we finished the trail, a friend of mine messaged me that she was looking forward to the blog post summarizing it all. “We need some closure and reflection.” It has taken me over two months. Closure is hard to come by.
Every time anything feels overwhelming, I think about how we lived on trail: one step at a time. Sometimes there are missteps. Sometimes there are great strides. They are only steps. Not great blunders. Not great triumphs. Just steps. And I have to hope that a few of them are in the right direction. After all, we managed it for five months.