When You Underestimate the Desert 

I am going to be honest.  This is harder than I thought it was going to be. A couple of months ago I wrote an article for the PCTA’s summer magazine. It was about how I hike to push myself outside of my comfort zone.  Which is true.  But I had some reservations about the PCT. We had already done a thru hike and it had been really hard so part of me honestly thought: what else could the PCT possible teach me? Part of me really thought this was going to be a more beautiful easier version of the AT.  I was so wrong.

This trail is hard and despite my love of the desert the desert is challenging.  I’ve already said it is hot about a million times, but the impact of that heat on our systems and our schedule was not something I saw coming.  Our new method of taking a big break in the middle of the day is SO different from the way we hiked on the AT.  I didn’t think entertaining myself was going to be one of my challenges on this hike. I love walking all day, I love that movement, seeing what is around every bend, seeing the country roll by.  But right now the hike feels like an undertaking, like a marathon, like a race again the elements. You wake up at four when your alarm goes off and jump out of your sleeping bag, motivated by the glowing orb that is waiting just beyond the horizon, looking to make your life a living hell. I pack as fast as I can and Kyle makes breakfast and we shovel down some food.  Already the sky is looking lighter. We sling our packs on our backs and take off at a blistering pace. We practically run the first ten miles.  Six miles by six o’clock, ten miles by ten.  Sometimes twelve miles by ten.  It begins to get hot so you slow down the pace, but try to keep squeezing in the footsteps, the further we can get the better.  In the cool morning you chug your water and stop to pee every couple of minutes, but as soon as the sun is up your body starts hoarding your water.  I notice that I go longer and longer without peeing, even though I am drinking at the same rate I was in the morning.  We dart from bush shadows to tree shade until finally it is too hot to keep hiking.  It would be unwise to keep hiking.  So we stop at the next shady spot and rest for hours.  

To me it feel counterintuitive to stop hiking in the middle of the day. It feels like the thing I want to enjoy, the hiking part of the day, is rushed through and then we are forced to lay around and “relax” for hours on end. I know I should be able to enjoy it, who wouldn’t want an excuse to read and lay in the shade and drink water and nap? Maybe I will be able to change my mindset and learn to love long mid-day siestas but right now I just want to keep moving, all day. 

At night it finally cools off and we make dinner and pack up and head to camp. Once in camp we throw up our tent and fall onto our sleeping pad and eat dessert and pass out, knowing that our watch will beep again in a couple of hours.  

The bottom line is, this trail is different. And I am coming to realize how good that is. I am not going to lie, those first few days, when the hiking felt unfamiliar and scary, I was a little freaked out. I still feel kind of stressed and like a fish out of water when I think about what is ahead. And that stress, that discomfort, that unsureness, that is all good. Before we started this hike some little part of me assumed this was going to be inside my comfort zone, and now I am realizing that was a stupid assumption to make. Some little part of me would ask myself, “Is this really the right next step? Wouldn’t you rather do something that really pushed you?  Isn’t this going to be just like the AT? Why repeat something you have already done? You won’t find any growth out there…”  That little voice was wrong. What I am truly looking for when I adventure are challenges, things that scare me when I first start doing them but when I look back I can see how far I have come. Maybe we will never really figure the desert out.  But I have no doubt that we will learn and we will improve.  
Every day out here a new challenge that I didn’t expect or foresee is lobbed at us by this immense landscape. The night before we came into town we hiked seven miles to camp after resting all day. It was a gorgeous sunset hike, so cool and mellow, winding in and out of giant boulders. Every turn in the desert reveals a new shade of flora and fauna, a slightly different geology, different sand underneath your feet. From far away it all looks brown, from up close it is beyond diverse. When we finally got into camp gale force winds attempted to thwart our attempts to put our tent up.  Multiple times our stakes were ripped out of the soft sand by a particularly savage gust. We filtered water out of a horse trough and put the full water recepticals into our packs and used them to weigh down our tent stakes. We adapted. 

My little voice’s concerns about not learning and not growing have been silenced by the wind and the sun, by the long water carrys, and every time I push myself to ask a stranger for a podcast interview. This is why you thru hike, even when you think you have seen it all there is something new around the next twist and turn in the trail. And because you are a thru hiker you commit to tackling each hurdle, even when they scare you. 

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

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