by Katie Poore
A few weeks ago, one of my closest friends finished a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,650-mile footpath that snakes its way from Campo, California on the Mexican border to Mansfield Park, a few miles into Canada. It follows—as the name suggests—the crests of some of the West’s grandest mountain ranges: the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest, the Sierra Nevadas further south. It meanders through the Mojave Desert in southern California.
Ever since I read Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail as a fourteen-year-old, this footpath has occupied something of a sacred space in my imagination. And I am, evidently, not the only one. The trail granted 4,000 long-distance permits in 2016, the majority given to those intending to thru-hike—or walk the entire length of—the trail. Outside Magazine reports that the release of Wild’s 2014 film adaptation resulted in a 300% increase in web traffic on the official PCT website. If you’ve watched Netflix’s new installment of Gilmore Girls, you might recall a few scenes where Lorelai decides to remake her over-complicated life by following in Strayed’s footsteps. As she staggers to the PCT trailhead, however, she is greeted by a hoard of middle-aged divorcées and otherwise unsatisfied women with precisely the same idea. “Book or movie?” they ask each other. Gilmore Girls paints this journey as a kitschy one, the modern woman’s cliché strategy for shrugging off a mid-life crisis and walking off crappy ex-husbands. But here’s what’s true about those women, and the real people who hike this trail: most of them are there to remake themselves, to realize something, even if they don’t know what that something is just yet.
One can believe or not believe in this kind of spiritual journey, but it’s nonetheless an idea whose roots run deep in American soil. Think of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir, of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Consider Annie Dillard. Wendell Berry. Mary Oliver, whom the New York Times calls “one of the best-selling poets in the country.” Narratives of a redemptive natural world are everywhere. American wilderness, it seems, is nothing if not a spiritual and intellectual treasure trove. Where the flora and fauna run wild, these writers suggest, so may our souls.
But I am interested here in the revisions the American wilderness idea has undergone since Thoreau published “Walking” in The Atlantic a century and a half ago and espoused “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” It is of course not a linear—or monolithic—idea, but redemption is, for better or worse, inextricably linked with past and present American wilderness ideas. So what has changed?
The PCT, as ostensibly as it may be in keeping with Thoreau’s championing of the redemptive and rejuvenating art of solitary sauntering, casts redemption in a bit of a hazier light. Where much early American, and chiefly Transcendentalist, literature speaks of nature’s purity and sublimity, 2019 PCT thru-hiker Elina Osborne calls her hike, among other things, “the ultimate junk food tour of the United States of America.” I have a hard time believing Cheetos, had they existed, would have been somehow a part of a Transcendentalist’s ideal wilderness.
There are other differences, too. Those 4,000 permits granted to aspiring PCT hikers ensure a certain lack of solitude. The trail, as sprawling and meandering as it may be, is nonetheless manmade, wandering through federally-owned and intentionally preserved land. Hitchhiking into towns to enjoy a bed or shower is a common practice. Hikers frequently need resupply boxes filled with food and other necessities, often sent by loved ones, and must pick them up at nearby post offices. The trail is peppered with “trail angels,” or locals who devote time, money, and energy to welcoming hikers at various points along the trail. As much as it might begin as an individualist endeavor, the PCT is its own community and world, a human ecosystem containing social complexities and norms, friend groups and language. It is a curious mix of contradictions, a simultaneous attempt to grasp Muir’s vision of a transcendent world available should an individual want to “break clear away…and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods” to “wash [their] spirit clean” and an immersion in a society of its own making.
This is, I think, a crucial cultural revision in a wilderness idea that often seems to prioritize a clarity that can only be achieved through scrupulous attempts at cultivating total solitude. Osborne’s account of the PCT is titled “It Is the People,” a clear tribute to a certain form of humanity she found out west. My friend’s anecdotes and blog posts are filled with accounts, certainly, of her stunning surroundings, but she talks most about the people she met on the trail, and those faraway friends and family members who supported her from elsewhere, writing letters and sending packages as she walked to Mexico. She ends most of her posts by thanking those who have supported her—emotionally, financially, physically—during her pilgrimage.
I love this practice and the posture it takes toward the human’s place in something much larger. Although it would be quite difficult for me to describe the manners in which living so many months and miles in a tent, dirty and stinking and tired, change the fabric of social relation, it seems clear that the transient and seeking communities that form and disperse, that walk to Canada or Mexico together, that see each other at mile 24 and perhaps again 2,000 miles later, are as large a part of what makes the PCT pilgrimage as entirely enchanting as the Sierra Nevada vistas you might see on your way wherever you’re going. The views are sublime, thru-hikers swear, showing the pictures to prove it.
But so, somehow, are those unshaven, dirt-crusted wanderers with blistered feet, shoving Snickers into their mouths and giving off, I’ve heard, a formidable stench. They’ve remade themselves, adopting new names called “trail names” and leaving behind most worldly possessions and comforts.
I don’t know if these hikers all found what they were looking for. But I do think this shift in at least a small subset of American minds belies something infinitely valuable: an understanding of the human as part of the vast wildernesses of the world. An understanding of community and companionship as interpersonal grounds for self-discovery, revelation, and redemption. A willingness to look beyond the petty and trite aspects of human relation to see the bottomless and sublime experiences and thoughts meandering through each of us.
We’re a part of this wilderness, these thru-hiking communities tell us. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from each other, too.