The Pacific Crest Trail stretches from Mexico to Canada and encompasses 2,650 miles. The average time to complete the hike is five months but the failure rate is high and injuries are common. Cell phone reception is not always available. Those that finish the trail are called thru-hikers. Hikers carry their tents, sleeping bags, water sanitation kits and bear canisters (hard food lockers that hold in the scent of food). In advance of their trip, hikers will go to towns on the trail and pay for storage of other containers of dehydrated food so they may pick them up along the way. Foraging is not a reliable method of ensuring enough food.
Those are the general facts about the PCT, but what makes someone want to hike it?
While visiting my sister recently, I met one of the hikers. She had short curly hair that framed her face and probably looked perfect after a quick finger-comb. Her glasses were striking and her jewelry was simple. She explained the details of the trail in between bites of salsa-dipped chips. “Baby wipe showers”, she said, were preferred over bathing in the lakes due to the swarms of mosquitoes. She looked forward to her mac and cheese after a long day on the trail.
She took a sip of water when I asked why she had decided to do the hike. It had been the twentieth anniversary of her son’s death, she said, and she wanted to handle the year differently. Each preceding year, as that date approached, she’d become depressed. Stayed at home a lot. I sensed she wanted something extreme to knock herself out of a pattern. “It was life-changing,” she said. Hikers often claim that the trek is good for the body and soul.
Last year, my sister lost her daughter. She’s younger than me and she’s on a trail that I’m unfamiliar with so I can’t lead her or give her any advice. It’s more difficult than the PCT and, according to every other parent whose lost a child…there’s no end to this route. I’ve been worried about her. Frightened that she’d get lost or even worse, that she’d give up.
When I went to see her on the anniversary of her daughter’s death, we did some hiking of our own. The terrain was rocky with gradual inclines that weren’t too taxing for a novice hiker like me. My sister would point out plants or flowers along the way. “That,” she pointed to a small tree that looked like someone poured molten bronze metal over the trunk, “is a Manzanita tree. The wood is used in bird cages for perches and looks like driftwood.” Another plant with tube shaped deep red blooms. “Penstemon,” she called over her shoulder. “We’re seeing a lot of color with all the rains. Have you heard of the desert bloom?” San Diego has received more rain than usual and the weather was cooler too.
“We’re having a Super Bloom. It brings all the Flatlanders up.” She explained how the visitors to the region don’t always treat the natural areas with respect. “We also call them City-ots (a combination of the word city and idiot)” she said with a grin. A large swatch of daisy looking flowers in the middle of a meadow: “Chamomile.”
We spoke of Jeeps, my grandfather’s patience and my grandmother’s difficult nature, finding food when you’re a vegetarian, and what is proper hiking apparel. Stories from our childhood and aspirations for the coming years. Tales about Rachel were sprinkled over our conversations like hot sauce. Bringing a tear to your eye but also intensifying the flavor. Because Rachel lived life to the extreme.
My sister walks the trail with assurance and carries herself with a strength that I’ve not seen in her before. She still feels fragile inside and I know that the hardest thing she has done over the past year is just exist. I know that she’s pretended that Rachel is still alive, somewhere. I know that every year on the anniversary of Rachel’s death, she will feel a sense of doom that would take your breath away.
But she’s coping. Her grief may last forever but so does the love we share for each other. She’s smiling when she sees a picture of her daughter. Crying when she needs to. Getting out of bed and taking one step at a time.
Because she’s a thru-hiker.