A long-ago trek on the Pacific Crest Trail is helping me survive in quarantine
By DAN WHITE | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 29, 2020
When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in the ’90s, a rattlesnake struck at my ankles, missing by millimeters.
I found black, wriggling creatures in my drinking water. Field mice nibbled my pack straps.
But the biggest obstacles were intangible things: the enormity of a 2,650-mile hike through the lengths of California, Oregon and Washington, combined with my lack of training. The open wilderness and the claustrophobia of a one-person tent containing me and my girlfriend, our elbows in each other’s faces. The inability to imagine the end of the trail and what I would do next.
I was on the trail by choice, while sheltering at home is part of a national emergency. Yet I notice many overlaps between my time on a national scenic trail and these months drifting around my home in Santa Cruz, California: the long stretches of time, my lapsed social graces and hygiene, the constant fighting with loved ones over candy bars and apples, the once-every-10-day shopping binges.
As this time indoors drags on, my thoughts return to the trail - not for escape, but as part of my search for structure and meaning. The trail has become a template for the time ahead of me, with no northern terminus in sight. My experience on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) helps me consider the endgame, and the life I want to have when this is over. Here are the lessons I’ve gleaned.
Look down, not ahead
I spent the first couple of weeks on the PCT wondering why faraway mountains did not seem to get closer. No matter how quickly I walked, they receded into the distance, taunting me.
After a while, I tried forgetting the miles. Instead, I looked at the ground, or off to the side. I noticed wildflowers that seemed to burst from solid rock, and weird antlike insects covered with thick furry coats.
I broke days into moments, ignoring the horizon line, focusing on footsteps, pebbles, desert sagebrush or the bumps on a horned lizard’s head.
Before I knew it, I was decimating vast chunks of the trail. The more I forgot the walk in front of me, the faster the miles fell away.
Now, during the pandemic, we don’t know when we’ll be able to resume normal life, but by focusing on the present — updating our plague journals, supporting local businesses, writing our own comic strips and maintaining unruly compost heaps — we can take our minds off the steep terrain ahead of us.
Walk away from conflict
In isolation and confinement, fights break out over the most idiotic things.
The PCT is so huge, you’d think my girlfriend and I would have had enough personal space to maintain equilibrium and not squawk at one another over small things. But the pathway is only a few feet wide. In such conditions, relationship flaws magnify. Quirks lose their charm and seem pathological.
We fought over water breaks, rest breaks and daunting logistics. The trail exploited our weaknesses. I spent too many hours pouting, bellowing and digging in instead of walking away or admitting I was wrong.
Though these fights seem trivial now, their lasting impact was devastating. That relationship survived the trail, but it ended soon after the hike was over.
Now I’m married, with an 11-year-old daughter. Skirmishes happen over broken eggs and mushy strawberries. We have battles and week-long investigations over missing cookies.
But I’ve learned to sequester myself when my anger spikes. Now I know that today’s outbursts can reverberate into the future, long after these strange times are over.
Nature will humble you
Out on the trail, I was amazed by the many inventive ways that nature had of thwarting me, stretching timelines and wrecking plans. In the desert, the sun was so hot I had to hike at night. Bees swarmed. Mosquitoes descended. Up north, snow and ice blocked the path. Bottles froze.
Every time I stopped paying attention to what was in front of me, hairy woodland creatures, invisible bugs or unpredictable weather put me in my place.
Once I got sick of putting iodine tablets in my spring water, so I gulped it untreated. I got so sick I had to leave the trail for weeks. By the time the ordeal ended, I’d lost 30 pounds to giardiasis and abandoned all hope of finishing the trail that season. My timeline for finishing was six months, but it took two years.
This lesson came to mind when I spoke with a friend, an emergency physician in Chicago, who talked about spikes in hospitalizations when people get complacent and relax social distancing measures or stage public revolts against them.
I can’t look at anti-lockdown protesters without owning up to occasional personal lapses, such as forgetting my mask at home, and winding up in a tight scrum of mask-free runners and bicyclists. With some distaste, I’ll remember when I tried to cheat nature on the PCT. And what I learned then: You cannot outthink that which cannot think at all.
Accept the grace of angels
The generous people I met on the trail, and in the supply towns along the trail, far outnumbered the jerks, miscreants and idiots.
So many people offered comfort, water and food that I forget their names. And yet the jerks loomed larger in my memory. They occupied my head space in ways that kind people never could. They shouldn’t have.
It’s a human adaptive response, sounding the alarm at the bad and irresponsible ones. I’ll never forget the men who fired their guns across the water, close to a lakeside campground where hikers were sleeping.
It takes an act of will to remember the people who left water caches out for me in deserts, and gave me rides to grocery stores, but it’s worth it. The only other option is cynicism and despair. So stop fixating on the maskless walkers crowding the sidewalks and be grateful for all the front-line workers, volunteers and people buying extra loads of groceries for their elderly neighbors.
Send mail and care packages
When I hiked the trail, there wasn’t much of an internet, and no reliable cellphones. I called my parents from pay phones in supply towns - and when I hung up, I knew I’d be out of contact for at least another week. I got used to not seeing loved ones for months.
These days, we have Zoom, but it doesn’t ease our hunger for connection. We can’t safely visit our elderly relatives. All of us are touch-deprived, and longing for tactile things. Every time I reached a trail supply town, I’d head to the post office and find postcards with scribbled messages. Sometimes I’d find care packages containing Snickers and Advil.
Once I got a shrink-wrapped pile of inedible brownies that seemed to have been made of caulking cement, and yet they filled me with joy.
In times of isolation, it feels good to send and receive something you can hold in your hands. These days, I have a friend in Minnesota who makes me laugh with his kitschy postcards. I can’t visit my mother in Los Angeles, but she looks forward to my weekly cards crammed with cartoons about my malfunctioning washer/dryer and my exploding sourdough starter.
Ignore the super-hikers
I encountered certain overachieving hikers who were obsessed with the “right” and “wrong” ways to do the trail.
Sometimes they mocked others whose backpack loads weighed more than theirs, or could not hike as many miles a day as they could. When I tried to keep up, I developed a bad case of shin splints and left the trail for weeks, losing the time I had gained.
This taught me to beware of self-documenting “super-shelterers,” who say they are learning multiple languages, mastering impossible bakes and Peloton-ing their way through the Criterion Collection on Kanopy. The trail reminds me not to chastise myself when I can’t keep up.
When I solo-hiked the final thousand miles of the PCT, my personal hygiene became so terrible that a fellow hiker dubbed me Dirty Dan.
I reveled in filth, smearing mud on my legs and face and drinking boiled Tang with bugs and grit in the stockpot. I embraced what is now known as the “hiker trash” ethos, going without baths and wearing the same clothes over and over as signs of freedom and rebellion.
I later discovered that letting myself go was a sign of withdrawal. These days, I force myself to shave. I “dress for work” and change out of my pajamas at 8 every morning. I remember what happened when I allowed my inner slob to run wild.
Plan for the end
Early on in my hike, I could never imagine the trail ending. Then I finished, and my post-PCT life was a disaster.
During my first weeks on the trail, the days seemed bizarre and unmanageable. I always questioned myself. Are you really going to pitch your tent on that windy ridge? Will you ever fall asleep with coyotes howling their heads off, and crickets chiming in the bushes?
Somehow it just became my life after a while. The suddenness of the finish line shocked me. It was like leaving a bumpy, one-lane country road and finding myself on the Autobahn.
A thousand decisions awaited me. Where to live? What job to apply for? What to do about my depleted bank account?
The end was a joyful time in many ways. I could hug loved ones again, drive around freely and reconnect with friends. But I couldn’t adjust to the pace. My post-trail life was marked by depression, unemployment and an inability to course-correct. I wish I’d spent more time planning for the future.
It took me more than 20 years to see the ways the PCT changed my habits and rearranged my priorities. Surely our shared memories of the COVID-19 crisis will alter us in even more profound ways. I can only hope that this time of exile will drive me to revisit lapsed friendships and forget old grudges.
Considering the aftermath makes me think of the days leading up to my first steps on the trail. A postal worker in a high desert town took pity on me when he saw my overstuffed backpack. He forced me to empty its contents out on the floor.
Some of the items were ridiculous, including a kite and a pile of books. “This is going to be the most strenuous thing you’ve ever done,” he told me. “With all this stuff, you will never make it. So let’s start getting rid of stuff right now.”
That postal worker saved my walk from disaster. His words popped into my head when I was chatting with the friend who is treating COVID patients. “This just makes you think, ‘What is absolutely essential?’ ” my friend told me. “And what are all the stupid nonessentials we can cast aside? What are the things we can all just live without?”