We stood at the Southern Terminus in a small town on the Mexico-California border. It was April 21st, and our backpacks were neatly situated with warm clothes, shelter, a change of socks, six liters of water, a stove, and seven days of food. As we took our first step on the trail, we commenced the next stage, six months, 2,655 miles of our lives. Our subsequent two million steps would take us through vast and varying ecosystems and extreme weather conditions, from Mexico to Canada.
To hike the Pacific Crest Trail had long been just an idea—something I only dreamed about, rarely believing I would actually go through with. I fantasized about summiting the highest mountains, hiking amongst the tallest trees, and continuously exploring new territory. I saw the PCT hike as an opportunity to live in connection with nature and to accept its trajectories, rather than oppose them. As an environmentalist, I knew I would one day need to express the voice of the trees, mountains, and deserts which have over time lost their own speech. How could I protect something that I did not yet know intimately? I needed to move in with the trail.
To both myself and my girlfriend, the concept of walking over 20 miles each day, every day, seemed absurd. We both had jobs, friends, and family at home. Our roots were planted in Sonoma County. But if we let ourselves settle, we knew we would always say, “We wish.” We did not want to grow old, look back, and regret not pursuing an opportunity—especially in these short, weird lives we are given.
Almost immediately after my girlfriend and I decided, “YES! Let’s hike,” we started researching, shopping, and planning for the trip. We purchased 1,300 snack bars, 40 pounds of jerky, enough boxes of miscellaneous, calorie-dense snacks to fill a small room, and a pack full of new lightweight gear. After cooking, dehydrating, and vacuum sealing over 150 dinners, strategically packing 28 resupply boxes, and cramming our belongings into a small storage unit, we set off.
Our first section was the most daunting—700 miles of desert. We imagined a flat trail, in the exposed sun, with little shade. Fortunately, our preconceived vision of the desert was mostly inaccurate. As a matter of fact, it was often the opposite. In the desert, we frequently summited mountains, some reaching above 10,000 feet. Other days we were hit with some of the worst storms of the trail. Not even a week had passed before we were struck with 80-90mph winds and a downpour of rain atop a mountain ridge in the Anza Borega desert. A sure way to make new friends is to squeeze into the only hope of a protected campsite for the next several miles.
There were, however, several waterless stretches with very few trees. Sometimes we carried enough water to survive thirty miles of hiking. Other times, we were greeted by “Trail Angels” who provided water, sometimes food, and even rides into town. These experiences with Trail Angels, with their amazing generosity and love of stories, reminded us of the best way to behave in a community—to share, respect, and listen—a way of life about which we often must remind ourselves.
As we approached Kennedy Meadows (the gateway to the Sierras), we could sense the change. The trees grew larger and more abundant. The air more crisp. Flowing water existed—more than just a trickling spring or mud pit. We started our ascent into the High Sierra, where we would take a 17-mile side trip to summit the tallest mountain in the Continental United States, Mt. Whitney, and reach the highest point of the actual PCT, Forester Pass. We started passing Southbound John Muir Trail hikers, who were nearing the end of their own 210-mile backpacking adventure. As we passed, both groups (North and Southbound), would often declare, “You are about to experience the best yet.” Usually, both groups were right.
Each day we summited one or two new passes, as we made our way through three National Parks: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite. At the top of each pass, we looked behind ourselves at the backdrop we just accomplished and ahead at the magnificent scenery to come. Everyone at the top of any pass was always thrilled, because whichever direction one was headed, the next part of the day was all downhill.
This part of the trail is often considered the heart of the PCT, and it was obvious why. There was a new buzz in the air. Hikers seemed relieved to have made it through the desert and happy to share their experiences. As opposed to Joshua trees and cacti, we hiked amongst giant sequoias, pine trees, huge granite peaks, clear blue lakes, fast flowing streams, and rivers. It took weeks to get used to the plentiful amount of water in the area.
Soon, we left the national parks behind, but the landscapes, wildflowers, and mosquitoes remained. Late June through early July, when the mosquitoes are the worst, we hiked in the midst of some of the most wonderful fields of wildflowers: lupine, paintbrush, iris, orchids, mule’s ear, ferns, forget-me-nots, and more.
Our biggest real scare presented itself in the Tahoe area. We were hiking just west of the lake, along the ridges of familiar ski resorts—Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley. Thunderstorms were common in this area, and we thought we were used to the afternoon lightning. However, this one afternoon was different. We were on a ridge, at least two miles before a descent in either direction, when the weather drastically changed. The clouds rolled in. First, the hail. It hit us so hard that we were forced to crouch right there on the trail, just to limit the impact area. Next, the lightning. We were directly underneath the heart of the storm. We scanned the horizon for any protection and saw one small group of trees in the distance, just down the side of a cliff. We took off in a full sprint as the thunder boomed directly overhead. Sliding on the muddy side of the cliff, we made our way into the cluster. There we crouched on our packs for over an hour, wincing every few seconds, accepting our fate at each flash of lightning.
We made our way out of the storm and eventually into Northern California. The highlights of this section: Mt. Lassen, Mt. Shasta, and the midpoint! Lassen and Shasta were the first of many prominent mountains along the trail. Our initial glimpses of the peaks were from hundreds of miles south, and they would still be there as we looked behind hundreds of miles later. Especially while in between the two mountains, I could feel their enormous power, volcanic history, and lure to summit the peaks.
Northern California presented the biggest mental challenge. Looking back, I felt so accomplished to have hiked over 1,400 miles already, but looking ahead, I still had over 1,200 miles to go. After all this time, we were still in the same state—with two more to go. The mental test was heightened by the summer wildfires in the region. As we hiked through some of the areas that I had looked forward to the most (Marble Mountains, Russian Wilderness, and Trinity Wilderness), our views were obscured by smoke. The air became more difficult to breathe, and sometimes we were unsure where the source of the smoke was even located. How close was it to where we were hiking and sleeping? Although we missed the opportunity to experience the many vistas, we grew a new bond with some fellow hikers.
Finally, we crossed our first border. We were in Oregon! This was new territory, and we did not know what to expect. We had heard stories that the entire length of Oregon would be flat and easy. We would walk through the “green tunnel” as some hikers put it. Some declared Oregon their favorite part of the trail and others the most boring. We were set to find out for ourselves. The area around our first stop, Ashland, reminded us so much of Sonoma County: golden, rolling hills for miles. We soon approached an anticipated landmark, Crater Lake. We worried that the nearby fires, which caused frenzy among the hikers, would obscure our view of the natural wonder. Fortunately, standing on the Rim Trail, we still had a spectacular view of the deepest lake in the entire country. As other hikers took pictures and sketched drawings of their interpretations, it felt so good just to admire how far we had come.
From there, the number of on-trail lakes increased significantly. We hiked passed at least half a dozen lakes every day and almost always took the opportunity for an extra-long lunch and swim break. After a week or so, the trail once again changed, as we entered a field of obsidian and other lava rocks. The lakes gave way to the mountains—the Three Sisters in particular. It was a drastic change to now walk along the exposed, rocky trail, but the mountain views were worth it. I would highly recommend this area to any interested backpackers. For the remainder of the hike, it seemed like there was always at least one towering mountain in view, the most well known: Jefferson, Hood, St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier.
Washington, our final state, was a completely new experience. Almost immediately after crossing the Bridge of the Gods, on the Oregon-Washington border, the trail became more difficult, green, and cold. The state of Washington was the most intimidating, considering the drastic elevation changes and unpredictable autumn weather. We were blown away by this state, which far exceeded our already high expectations. Back to summiting several passes each day, there were days we felt extremely remote, isolated from everything but what existed in the backcountry. The views were hardly believable, not able to be captured by a camera lens. Even the sky displayed an unfamiliar, yet extraordinary blue. There were days of difficult weather, hiking among obscuring clouds, and one unexpected snowstorm. However, overall, we were told we had hit the “weather lottery.” To finish the PCT in October normally means hiking through days, occasionally weeks, of rain and snow. We heard several stories of hikers from previous years needing to be rescued just days away from the Canadian border because the trail was no longer distinguishable. Our experience, however, was hiking the final week in shorts and t-shirts. The timing and weather were perfect for us to witness the amazing transformation of Larch trees from dark green to lime green to gold.
The Pacific Crest Trail is a recognized national scenic trail—part of the National Park System. There are nearly one dozen scenic trails (all of which are many hundreds of miles in length) in the U.S. and many others throughout the world. These trails exist to be explored by day hikers, section hikers, and thru-hikers alike, to catch a glimpse of our enormous, yet finite, world. The PCT is one of the three longest and most diverse, making up the “Triple Crown,” along with the familiar Appalachian Trail and lesser-known Continental Divide Trail. For me, long distance backpacking is the best way to truly become immersed in nature. It becomes part of life—far more than a vacation. There is an opportunity in the backcountry to learn what is truly important. It skews the notion of reality.
We reached the Northern Terminus (Canada!) on October 1st.
Reflecting back on the last two million steps, every adjective could be used in one way or another. This was our hike: to explore the West Coast, challenge ourselves physically and mentally, and live simply with nature. After hiking 2,655 miles through dramatic and varied ecosystems and biodiversity, my passion for and confidence in understanding nature has strengthened. I will often reflect back on the PCT as an example of what is truly real in this world, a place where judgments and greed are non-existent and community is encouraged. I am now able to go forward in my life and career with more credibility in giving nature a voice, as I better know its behavior and fragility. I feel that I am poised to be a more potent advocate for the crucial importance of preserving what we have left, so that future generations are able to follow in my footsteps.
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Erik Matisek completed a 2015 "Thru-Hike" of the Pacific Crest Trail. Prior to the hike, he worked for Keysight Technologies as an Environmental, Health & Safety Representative. Erik, a 2014 Fellow, currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Leadership Institute. He is passionate about environmental awareness, equal opportunity, and the local economy.
This blog was produced as informational material for the Leadership for a Sustainable Future course. It has been provided to the public to promote community wide education on issues of sustainability. You can support the education efforts of the Leadership Institute, 501 (c)3 non-profit, by donating here.