When I told people I had decided to resign from my job and hike the Pacific Crest Trail there were many different reactions and questions that came up. Questions like: Are you going alone? You’re doing the whole thing? How do your parents feel about this? You’re carrying a gun for protection, right? Yes, I’m going solo. The plan is to do the whole thing. My parents are two of the most supportive people in the world and have seen me go to more dangerous places. And, let’s not engage the gun question right now (I’m only doing thirteen entries, remember?).
The most frequently asked question was, “Why?” As in, “Why are you quitting your job to walk 2,650 miles and sleep on the ground every night?” Given the place I found myself in life last winter when I made the decision to go for it, this question has to be broken into “Why” and “Why now?”
I first heard about the PCT when I was in college. I hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail with the outdoor club and learned about the concept of “thru hiking” a long trail. When I learned there was a long trail out west called the Pacific Crest Trail I was hooked. More reading on the subject confirmed that someday it was an endeavor I wanted to pursue.
I knew it would be one of the hardest physical and mental challenges I would probably ever pursue. It’s a tough trail climbing 489,418 feet and descending 488,411 over 2650 miles. As a comparison, summiting Everest is 72.5 miles (one way) and a gain of 20,540 feet (combining the trekking approach and southeast ridge route). Just to clarify, I am in no way saying I could climb Mt. Everest or announcing that I’m going to try . . . Just a little comparison here. Obviously, Everest has extreme weather conditions, avalanches, frostbite, and altitude sickness. Okay, maybe this isn’t such a great comparison.
Anyway, back to the “Why”. I honestly did not know if the PCT was something I could finish. For me, and how I am created, not knowing if I can do something is enough to push me towards it with curiosity. So, on a very basic level, the answer to this question is that I simply wanted to find out if I could hike the entire PCT! That’s it!
On the flip side of that curiosity, I spend a lot of time talking myself out of pursuing things, especially big dreams if I’m not sure I’ll excel or be able to finish. The voice in my head and voices in the world around me tell me to be responsible, to finish what I start, to create a financially comfortable life, make sure I’m saving for retirement (when I may or may not be able to pursue dreams like the PCT). You know, the things we’re supposed to do as adults. Do you talk yourself out of things that seem too big, irresponsible, or “out there” or am I the only one?
I don’t want to spend my life wondering if I could have done something. I want to know. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, I want to be someone “who at the best, in the end, knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst if he she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” So, fifteen years after the initial dream of hiking the PCT took hold, I dared greatly, not knowing if I would finish.
Another specific “Why” has to do with my spiritual life. My adult life since college has been full of wilderness experiences. Working as a backcountry guide and spending time in creation on my own has continually confirmed I connect best with God in nature. As I intentionally step away from the busyness of life in the city and the quiet beauty of the wilderness encompasses me, I find my mind, body, and soul are ready to listen. This is not usually a reality in my day-to-day life so to have an extended period of time and space for this is something I’ve wanted to pursue for a while.
This all brings me to the “Why now?”
Where to start?
In all honesty, it was the only thing that made sense moving forward. After a mostly stable and content eleven years professionally and personally, I had been muddling through a couple years of unknown and uncertainty about jobs, vocation, and direction. I had no clue where I was headed. I found myself in a situation that was affecting my emotional, spiritual, and mental health. I was angry and bitter and cynical. I had become a person that I didn’t readily recognize. At my core I’m a very joyful, playful, caring being…I was having trouble finding that person. Something had to change.
As I talked with close friends, family, and my spiritual director, it became clear that not only would the PCT be a good thing for me to pursue, it was possibly the most responsible and healthy thing to do for myself. I remember my spiritual director asking me what I felt like I needed and I said, “I just want to get outside and hike a long way.” Light bulb moment . . . Remember the PCT, Tami?!
The very basic answer to “Why Now” was I simply did not know what to do next. One of my favorite quotes from Wendell Berry is “It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” I had come to a place of unknown–baffled and impeded. My real work and journey for this stage of life was a pilgrimage of sorts on the PCT, to push over, around, and between the rocks of this life stream, finding my way.
The final decision came down to a question my friend, Erin, asked when we were out on a run. “Tami, would you regret NOT doing it?” Instantly, from deep in my soul, came a firm and definite, “Yes.” I’m a big believer in listening to those gut responses, to how my body and soul respond to something. In my Quaker community, we would refer to this as the Spirit’s movement and discernment. I’m not sure what you believe but I think God speaks to all of us in this way–in nudges, inclinations, attractions, dislikes–even if we don’t have a name for it. My role, I believe, in this movement is to be aware and attentive to those things, seeking to understand where they are coming from and where they are leading me.
Once I decided I was going to hike the trail it was like watching a line of dominoes fall into place. Even the hardest logistical pieces came together perfectly.
One thing I struggled with in my final decision-making is that my reality and freedom to pursue this trek is not a reality in which many people live. I definitely don’t take it for granted and I know it is from a place of privilege that I can choose this experience. While so many in my community could really use this type of space to get away and have desires to do something like this, I know they can’t leave a mortgage, family, and job or it’s not financially feasible. I totally get that.
The thing is, though, it doesn’t have to be some epic-quit-your-job-wear-the-same-outfit-everyday-for-four-months type of dream. It could be that you’re like me, writing secret blog entries that you think about putting out there but don’t. Or, like my sister-in-law who has spent many years caring for her kiddos and now has more space to further her education in an area of study she is really passionate about. She’s totally going for it!
What have you wanted to pursue that the voices around or inside you have shut down? How about asking your community to come around you and allow yourself to be vulnerable about what you want to do or what your soul is aching for? What’s holding you back? What do you think about doing but really want to KNOW you can do? Maybe there is a small step you can take today to dare greatly.
I would love to hear some of your answers to these questions. Feel free to share in the comments section. Maybe you just need to voice it to someone as a start! Telling people about the PCT helped me be more accountable to actually pursuing it. Send me an email if you don’t have anyone else to tell (firstname.lastname@example.org). And, please, if you respond to someone’s answers in the comments section keep it positive and encouraging. No reality checks or critique on this one. Allow the space for dreaming–for yourself and others.
Also, here is the rest of the quote from Roosevelt for you. I memorized this on the trail (more on that next time) and it’s continually a good reminder of how I want to pursue life:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man [woman] who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man [woman] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself [herself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he [she] fails, at least fails while daring greatly . . .”