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Lows Are a Part of the Highs

By Megan Wilmarth

“This isn’t just a walk in the park after taking another walk in a park!”

Photo: Ethan Hardacre @ethanhardacre

As attainable as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail may seem for an experienced thru hiker like myself, it goes without saying that I did have low moments throughout my 123 days on trail. I do not believe that anyone in their right mind would actually think that there would not be uncomfortable miles along a 2653.6-mile path stretching from Mexico to Canada through some of our country's most stunning, yet intimidating backcountry. 

As I dive into the detailed descriptions of my own personal low moments, it is important to remember that everyone deals with pain in different ways. Every hiker comes to the trail with a wide range of experiences, as well as varying levels of tolerance to physical pain, emotional turmoil, environmental factors, innate drive, and acceptable hygiene standards! I have met hikers who have never been on a backpacking trip before as well as those who live along the trails full time, proving that everyone should be welcomed into these outdoor spaces of recreation. 

“Everyone deals with pain in different ways. Every hiker comes to the trail with a wide range of experiences, as well as varying levels of tolerance to physical pain, emotional turmoil, environmental factors, innate drive, and acceptable hygiene standards!”

I consider myself kindred to the ones who seem to have an addiction to miles and a knack for living among the mountains. By the time I began hiking north on the PCT on May 2, 2022, I had already logged roughly 4000 miles of long-distance backpacking in my previous years of discovering this wonderful way to experience the most beautiful places and people. But even with a sense of familiarity, I was nervous the evening before being dropped off at the southern terminus. 

Thankfully, I met two other hikers whom I connected with rather quickly and they helped to calm my anxieties. One secret about long-distance travel that I will let you in on is that most of, if not all of, your worries can be calmed down by simply being around others who are going through the same emotions that you are. Almost all of my uncomfortable moments along the trail seemed less intense when I had my friends, or “Tramily” as we call each other, next to me in the same situation. 

Physical pain is never fun to experience, and when I began to feel as though my body was working against me just 500 miles into my hike, I had a hard time trying to make good decisions as to how I was going to continue hiking for the next 2000-plus miles. In this particular case, my feet were crossing the threshold of being sore over to the point of possibly causing long term damage with each added mile. My shoes had lost all of their cushion and I could feel each rock digging into my heels, as well as the balls of my feet. These sharp sensations created symptoms of Plantar Fasciitis to occur and pain from a previous ankle injury to reappear, so I arranged for a new pair of shoes to be delivered to the next post office along the trail. However, that post office was another 100 miles away! 

Unfortunately, I had brought this hardship upon myself because I knew very well that the shoes I was wearing would not last much past 500 miles of hiking. I should have planned ahead better, but there I was sitting in the desert sun rubbing my abused feet to try and bring any type of relief to them. My friend Thuginz had put himself in the same situation, so the two of us shuffled our way north together the best we could. As uncomfortable as those few days were, we now laugh about them fondly and I have yet to make that mistake again!

I am curious as to the main cause that shifts people's intentions of completing the entire length of a long trail to something else. Most hikers learn how to push through the physical pain to a certain extent, but when the mental battles begin, I have seen some of the strongest hikers pack it up and go home. Motivation and sheer determination are not easily learned growing up in our modern and comfortable world today, which is why I theorize that the number of people who complete a thru hike stays relatively the same each season, even though the number of people who set out to attempt one has doubled if not tripled in the past few years. The mental strength it takes to stay out there is not something one can easily train for, and it takes a slight case of insanity along with a little bit of luck to push yourself along. Luckily, I come from some crazy genetics and I have never seriously considered leaving a trail due to a bad day or week. Whenever I have felt the urge to leave the dirt behind, I either take a shorter mileage day and use my spare time to reflect on why I am struggling or I walk myself to the next closest town and indulge in a few comforts like a shower or a beer, or even better, a shower beer! 

Besides out-hiking fire season, dealing with a few very annoying post office logistics, constantly being worried about running out of money (but still spending my budget on whatever I want…!), and sometimes being tired of just walking all day; my biggest mental low point came when my best friend had to leave the trail. 

If you have a brother or someone in your life that you consider a brother then you understand what a special relationship that siblingship is. The very first hiker I met this summer quickly filled this role in my hike for the next 1500ish miles. Red and I first bonded over the fact that we had completed other long distance trails prior to this one, the Appalachian Trail being our favorite, and the belief that one should travel light; Red being extremely ultralight. We also craved hiking bigger and bigger miles as we grew stronger. We also fought like siblings and put a lot of energy into being as frugal as possible when in towns! One specific memory I have to clearly illustrate our relationship comes from the first few days after leaving the Sierras. The other six hikers in our trail family were ahead of us after Red and I stopped in the town of Markleeville for a day and the rest pushed on to South Lake Tahoe. We stuck together closely for four days before we were all reunited and honestly almost grew sick of each other! Both of us love to talk, are slightly competitive, and have little to no filter as to what comes out of our mouths. At several points during these days, I wanted to strangle him or just plug in my music so I wouldn’t have to listen to every one of his thoughts all day long. And I can tell you for a fact that he, too, sometimes wanted to gently toss me off a cliff or luko tape my big mouth shut! But we always camped in the same spot and would even wait around for each other throughout the day's miles so we could take snack breaks together. One day, just north of Echo Lake, we met another hiker who seemed friendly at first but became increasingly annoying as he followed us each separately and worked hard to inform us that he was “humbly” a better hiker than most people out there. 

Red and I were not impressed, so after making a few unnecessary bathroom stops and waiting for this “cool cat” to hike on ahead of us, we gratefully took off as only a team of two again. At this point during these days, I realized that Red was my best friend and even though I will forever nag him for some of his silly extreme ultralight ways or dumb podcasts that he won’t stop suggesting I listen to, I love him dearly as another brother I didn’t know I would find out there on the west coast!

But sometimes the trail will taketh away what it gave you in the first place…

The town of Mt. Shasta, CA is a popular resupply stop for many hikers and is a place that draws some of the most unique people to its area. It was such a great visit for my friends and me, but as we left town, something felt off. Red had been complaining about pain in his hip as well as some digestive discomfort but it wasn’t bad enough yet to do anything about it. As I hiked away from the trailhead where a nice man and his dog Sandy dropped us off, Red paused and put his pack down. He told me that he wanted to stretch before taking off and that he would catch up later, but I never saw him again.

“Red paused and put his pack down. He told me that he wanted to stretch before taking off and that he would catch up later, but I never saw him again.”

I held onto hope for the next two weeks that the doctors would finally figure out what was wrong with him and that he would somehow be able to catch up, but when I finally received a text from him saying that his hiking season was over and he was headed home, my legs grew weary and my bright sunshiny thoughts became filled with clouds. How could one of the strongest hikers I know be taken out by a microscopic GI infection? Why would the trail allow this affliction to interrupt our adventure? Red is someone who greatly respects the trails and cares about the simpler aspects of the nomadic life, he deserves to have another complete trail added to his hiking resume the way he wants it to be completed! 

I was forced to remember that many aspects of this lifestyle are just out of our control and that no matter how unfortunate this situation was, I had to hike on. I added Red to my list of reasons that I use as motivation to keep going, not only on trail but in life. 

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