We recently ran into an old friend from down the trail named Manchurian who we hadn’t seen in more than 1000 miles. It was wonderful to catch up with him, and when we asked how the trail had been going, he said, “I can only describe it as an adventure.” Adventure. This is probably the single best way to describe the trail. Using the word “adventure” invokes not only the good, triumphant, and beautiful times, but the bad, uncertain, and miserable times as well. He described to us an idea he had for a short movie compilation about the trail, which I wish we could have thought up back in Southern California: the misery movie.
When you look at online trail journals or YouTube videos about the PCT, you mostly find accounts of the glorious times during someone’s hike… photos and videos of them standing on top of Mt. Whitney, wandering in hushed awe through beautiful lush woods, smiling faces as they cross sunny meadows, swimming in hot springs and clear blue alpine lakes, hiking at sunset with stunning white snowy peaks in the background, the elation of coming across trail magic, triumphantly drinking beers in town, peaceful encounters with bears, elk, birds, etc., etc… And don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of that. If the trail weren’t glorious, we wouldn’t be out here. But this portrayal of the PCT omits a pretty huge aspect of thru hiking: misery.
For every wonderful thing that happens on the trail, there is an equally demoralizing thing that happens, kind of like the trail’s version of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Manchurian’s idea was to make a compilation video of all the bad things that happen. The constant hobbling from wretchedly sore muscles that makes us all look like 90-year-olds (commonly called “the hiker hobble”), the most insane blisters you’ve ever seen, lying awake at night because your body aches too much to get comfortable, or your air mattress has partially deflated, or your tent is dripping condensation on your face, cuts, bruises, rashes, and frequently stubbed toes, stomach problems (due to funky water, a diet based on freeze dried and dehydrated foods, or perhaps just sheer exhaustion – who can tell?), and what it means to have stomach problems when you have to dig your toilet in the ground and ration your toilet paper, exhaustion, heat, cold, wind, rain, hunger, exhaustion, mental breakdowns, putting on cold wet clothes in the morning, trips and falls, bee stings, mosquito bites, biting ants, spiderwebs in the face, food-stealing rodents that chew holes through your pack to get at your trail mix, exhaustion, anxiety about bears, mountain lions, and snakes, deadlines, exhaustion, boredom, monotony, gear failures at inopportune moments, gear repair, resupply boxes that don’t arrive in time or get sent to the wrong place, a never-ending list of errands to do in town, constantly feeling sweaty, filthy, and disgusting, exhaustion, etc. If we could only capture our comrades at their lowest points and compile the videos, it would probably make for an entertaining movie, not to mention educational material for future hikers.
This may seem like a downer of a post, but it’s not meant to be that way. Without all these low points, the highs of the trail wouldn’t feel nearly as high (as cliché as that might sound). I am reminded of our hike around Hat Creek Rim. We hiked the 27-mile waterless stretch mostly in the middle of the day, in 100+ degree weather, drinking hot water, breathing in the dust on the trail, sweating, and feeling disgusting and horrible. By the time we hit the highway and attempted to hitch into the town of Burney, it was getting dark, an hour went by without a single car giving us a glance, and we had just about given up hope. We were going to have to camp next to the highway without water. It was one of our lowest moments on the trail. But just then, a wonderful women pulled over to pick us up. She gave us homemade cookies and a ride to a motel, where we immediately showered and ordered pizza and salad for delivery. We gleefully ate pizza in bed and watched whatever garbage was on TV. It was amazing, and there is no way that eating pizza and watching crummy television would have felt as wonderful in any other context.