PCT Southbound

Go your own way

Grahamps

Backpacking Experience
Had done long (3+ weeks) trips, though with only moderate (10-15 miles/day) mileage. Had experience in a variety of environments (e.g. desert, high alpine, rainforest, etc.) 

Training
Was comfortably completing trail marathons in the months before beginning the hike. Plagued by injuries for most of the hike. Perhaps more weight-bearing or specific-strength exercises (including hiking, obviously) would have helped.

Start
July 4th at Rainy Pass, with no border tag. "I skipped the border because it simplified logistics, and because I was worried about time. Perhaps it is because I had already hiked that section of trail previously, but I did not (and do not) regret skipping the border tag.

Date Reached So. Kennedy Meadows
October 8th

Hike Result
Reached the southern terminus on November 3rd.  

 

LIFE NARRATIVE

Grahamps was (and still is) having a hard time balancing his love of mountains with his love of neuroscience research. The latter demanded that he live and work in Wisconsin, while the former demanded that he get the hell out of Wisconsin. He decided that taking a summer off to hike the PCT might be a nice compromise. Spoiler alert: After finishing his hike, Grahamps continues to feel the exact same tension between his inner selves as he did before the trail. The PCT is not a panacea. Grahamps convinced his friend from college, Pippi Longstocking, to join him on the hike. Graham chose to go southbound because of time constraints, and because he wanted more of a wilderness experience than northbounding would have offered.

THE DESERT

"I thought “the desert” had a unique charm, and generally enjoyed it. I was one of the few that felt that way, though. Indeed, SoCal was psychologically rough. It was monotonous and hot, the heavy water carries were a chore, there was too much skipping in-and-out of civilization, and sand got precisely everywhere that you didn’t want it to be. It wasn’t like there were any great trials, it was more that all the little things combined could get you down. But for all that, I still saw beauty in what was around me, and that was enough to make me love where I was. After 2000 miles, I also recognized that indulging any negative feelings about the desert (or any feelings of self-pity about having to be there) were just pointless and maybe even counterproductive, except insofar as they could build camaraderie with other discontented hikers. So I just shut down those thought-loops on the rare occasions that they cropped up."

FINDING A HIKING PARTNER

"I spent the first 21 years of my life living and hiking along the AT, and never once wanted to do the whole thing. A friend of mine once asked me if I would ever hike any other long trail, such as the PCT, and I said “probably not.” Then just last year that same friend asked the same question, and I was surprised to find that my position had completely changed. Can’t say why, honestly. At some point I started researching the trail, and that was the point of no return. Reading trail journals and listening to podcasts got me fantasizing about the hike, and I started actually preparing for it 6 weeks before my start date. Which might sound like a lot of time, but it really isn’t when you’ve got to worry about moving out of your apartment, finding a place for all your stuff, asking for time off, and working 50-60 hrs/week. I finished writing an academic paper and handed it off to my co-author the day before my hike started. It was a sprint.

Recruiting a hiking partner went like this: I basically just mass-emailed out to everyone I knew who might be interested, and said “I’ve pretty much done all the planning and logistics and research. If you trust me, I can give you some gear recommendations and double the portions in my resupply boxes, and you’ll be good to go.” I was totally fine with hiking the trail solo, and was actually operating on the assumption that I would be, so it wasn’t like there was any pressure to find someone. But I was really happy when Pippi agreed to come along."

REASONS FOR HIKING THE PCT

"On reasons for thru-hiking: I started the trail because I wanted to (1) experience as much beauty as possible, (2) have loosely-defined “fun”, both Type-I and Type-II, (3) feel super fit, (4) test myself, and (5) do something that I could feel proud of. Ultimately, I ended up finishing because of reasons (4) and (5). I believe that it’s possible to have more fun, see more beauty, and treat your body better by not hiking the trail, and instead opting for e.g. vanlife. At some point on the PCT you will probably be hiking along a buggy, muggy, boring, dusty horse-trail and ask yourself: “Why don’t I just skip this bit? I could take this day and spend it hiking somewhere else. Why here?” Sometimes the answer will be something like, “the people I want to be with are here,” but if you’re an isolated SOBO then that often won’t be the case. At some point you will probably keep hiking just because you don’t want to quit. There are many reasons that people choose to start the PCT, but I think that there are far fewer reasons why people ultimately choose to stick with it."

POST-HIKE BLUES

"Being done with the trail was hard for me. I felt totally purposeless without an explicit long-term goal to hold in mind, and ended up pouring my energy into anything I could. I got super antsy and had to walk around a lot; one day I walked 15 miles from Mission Beach to Del Mar. Having to screen out sensory stimuli for the first time in a while was tough. Finding out that the things which had been my primary concerns for the past few months (getting from point to point, getting clean water, getting enough calories, staying warm and dry) could now be accomplished in 15 minutes or less each day, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of free time that I had. Losing the steady, all-day drip of endorphins and dopamine that I had become reliant on didn't help. I felt like someone trying to quit smoking cold turkey. But mostly, I felt alienated and out-of-phase with the rest of the world."

FINISHING THE TRAIL

"My heart started to race as we hammered out the last couple of miles, but actually finishing was anticlimactic. There was a little exultation, a little pride, and a little joy. But no more than you might experience after winning a pickup game of pond hockey. The significance of the thing wouldn't set in until days, maybe weeks, later. It was just sort of like, "Well, I guess there's nowhere else to walk." A friend asked if it felt like the end of Forrest Gump's run, and I think that's pretty much dead on."

A GREAT TRAIL STORY

"I don’t normally eat commercially dehydrated meals (e.g. Backpacker’s Pantry, Mountain House, etc.), because they’re prohibitively expensive. But my mom, bless her well-intentioned heart, sent me a couple “gourmet” meals from a backpacking food startup in Maine (where I’m from). The minute I ate one, I knew something was up. I spent the whole next day puking my brains out. As I was racing to catch up with Pippi and beg her to slow down, I saw a group of 4 weekenders headed down the trail towards me. They were beaming at me and I could tell that they wanted to talk, which I was very much not in the mood for. So I smiled back, puked on the side of the trail *without breaking stride*, smiled at them again as their faces changed to horror, and sped by as they scrambled off trail to give me as wide a berth as possible. That night, after I thought that the worst of it was over, I climbed into my waterproof bivy sack and zipped it shut. Well, it turns out that the worst was still yet to come. I puked inside my bivy before I could get the zipper open. The force of my emesis caused vomit to rebound back into my face, and the waterproof fabric traped my mess, marinating both my down sleeping bag and all of my clean clothes. I stumbled out into the drizzling cold to strip naked and wash my stuff in a nearby river, then shivered the rest of the night in the remains of my own puke. It sucked, but I laughed even as it was happening."

HIS TRAIL ADVICE

"It’s not advice, but it has to be said somewhere: There’s a very good chance that the trail will drastically improve your opinion of humanity. The kindness of strangers is powerful, and you will experience a lot of it.

My greatest regret with respect to my hike is that I didn’t keep a journal.

People will tell you to do things like swim, make fires, stretch, eat right, etc. The reason that you have to be told to do these things is that you will become exhausted and find them laborious. Yes, even swimming and bonfire building. It’s easy to see anything that isn’t putting in miles or sleeping as “extra work.” Do the extra work. It’s (almost) always worth it.

I was very glad that I minimized my zeros (the number of days when I didn’t hike at all). I often felt “pressured to relax” on zero days, and rarely felt like I needed to spend two nights in the same place to feel recharged. Zeros also interrupted the trail experience, rarely at times when I actually wanted the experience to be interrupted.

Going stoveless was a great choice for me. Consider it."