After all, it involves several thousand dollars' worth of expenses and quitting my job; a physical commitment of several months of protracted physical exertion; and a social commitment of several months of isolation from virtually everyone I know. Given all that, what drove me to the idea? What will keep me going when the trail gets harsh?
The short, incomplete answer is that hiking the PCT is one item on a very short list of 10-year goals I set myself back at the tender age of 25.
2002 was a year of crisis; I broke my arm, went broke, and got broken up with, and in the midst of all of that, I hoped that committing myself to some long-term goals would help pull me through the short-term suck. Setting a 10-year timeframe seemed convenient at the time, especially because many of my goals would take some advance planning and/or research.
I don't know that I ever actually publically listed those goals, which now seems strange because for the last four years they've been the big, shining beacon I've been steering my life by. The short of it is, I wanted to set my priorities, and accomplish some specific tasks toward my continuing development:
- Fully overhaul the Draconity FAQ.
- Participate in (and win) a NaNoWriMo.
- Write a complete novel that was not produced for NaNoWriMo.
- Get a (very specific) tattoo (with spiritual significance -- from an artist I trust to handle it).
- Walk the Pacific Crest Trail.
- Hitchhike across America.**
(Progress has been mixed so far -- but I've got six years yet, and the fact that #2 is complete and #5 is happening is an extremely significant accomplishment in my book.)
Although the goals list might seem something of a hodgepodge, what it all boils down to was basically two areas of focus as my life took a grand new turn: Spiritual growth; and honing my writing. They actually split about down the middle.
#2 and #3 were meant to prod me to actually write something of significant length instead of my scattershot short stories; #6 was meant to dramatically increase my exposure to new and strange people and thus enrich my characterization (which I've long considered my weak point). #1, #4 and #5 were my spiritual goals.
So: Hiking as spiritual experience.
The Pacific Crest Trail was meant to be my chance to reconnect, really reconnect. When I first got the crazy idea of walking the PCT in my head, I had some romantic idea that this would be a chance to spend six months in solitude and use the time to rebuild my ties to dreamflow and the other spirits that have made my life so rich.
To some tiny extent, I imagine that will happen. But long before I got serious about the planning, I had the obvious reality check: Six months on the trail is brutal, punishing. Speaking from experience, you don't have much time to focus on abstract connections; you're dealing too much with the world in front of your face.
That having been realized, I would have forgiven myself for deep-sixing the trip. The goals were meant to help me develop in specific ways, after all. But ... the idea refused to go away.
I slowly began to realize that, subconsciously, I never intended for the trip to be restorative. I was looking for it to be transformative.
The summer I turned 18, I pushed my parents into sending me on an Outward Bound trip sponsored by the secondary school I attended (for their high school students -- I didn't go to high school there, but I got a rare special inclusion as a junior-high alumnus). At the time, everyone else on the trip thought I was nuts; they were just there as a condition of graduation, and I was specifically campaigning to go along?
I explained it away by saying it was either that or sit around playing video games for a month.
But the trip was hardly a whim: Something inside me burned for a trial. I wanted a tough, exotic ritual to make my passage into adulthood memorable. I got it -- and learned a lot about myself, and spawned a lifelong love of the outdoors, in the process.
I'm not shooting for the PCT as a rite of passage, per se. But with my unexpected wedding this New Year's (and by unexpected, here, I mean its complete lack of priority in my pre-kadyg life plans), it might well become one.
And in the meantime -- some of the most incredible memories of my life came from that month. Little pieces of raw, crystallized experience, the sort of thing it takes Going Out Into The World And Doing Really Stupid Shit to achieve. Scaring away a bear by screaming like a little girl. The most perfect, transcendental defecation that it has ever been my pleasure to take. Composing "Knight in Blue Armor." Learning the constellations, even that little dinky one buried in the brilliance of the Milky Way. Jogging over 1,000 vertical feet up a steep switchbacked trail, with full pack, on the last day and barely noticing the exertion. Kicking snow steps for hours up a ridge, climbing scree slopes, walking through burnt once-forests -- and inescapable beauty, everywhere you looked, in every breath you breathed, in every silent, still night.
If these six months to come are even half as awe-inspiring as those moments that turned me into an adult, I expect this won't be the last time I throw myself out onto the trail.
* And last month wasn't even my first mention! Extremely observant readers may recall that, in fact, I broke my silence on this in November 2004. Not that anyone noticed at the time, thankfully.
** Given the turns my life has been taking -- such as marriage -- #6 is going to end up being stricken from the list. It's the only casualty so far. If I'm feeling ambitious I may find something similar (but less dangerous and isolating) to replace it, but I'd be happy turning in a 5-star performance.