The subtitle for Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild is “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”. For those not familiar with the story, Strayed finds herself on a course of self-destructive behavior which she attempts to redirect by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The not-too-subtle implication here is that for those whose have made poor life decisions and whose are on a path of recklessness, then just go hike a long distance trail and everything will work out. In Cheryl Strayed’s case, it seems to have. She overcame arriving underprepared, with a lack of any real wilderness experience, and a seriously overloaded pack to hike over 1000 miles.
Then Strayed wrote a remarkably candid book about the events leading up to her hike. The success of her story has made her a respected author and a wealthy woman. However for others that follow her strategy of deliberate ineptitude, things might not turn out so well.
Some enthusiasts of the trail fear that in the coming years, the PCT will become crowded with so many other ‘lost souls’, seeking some answer to their troubles by hiking 30 miles a day. While the trail is certainly open to all who wish to tackle its challenges, those that choose to arrive unprepared can quickly find themselves in situations on the trail that begin to negatively affect others, as well as the trail environment.
In the backcountry, hikers expect each other to be mostly self-reliant and follow a standard of leave-no-trace. In town, the actions of one hiker can affect the standing of all hikers who pass through the community. An influx of inexperienced, and often careless wanderers may invariably add strain to the fragile natural and human resources on which hikers rely.
Likewise even some experienced hikers are often responsible for inappropriate behavior and the resulting often sour reputation of salty hiker trash. It is important for all hikers to recognize their impact on campsites, restaurants, laundromats, stores and post offices and remember to act as ambassadors of the trail.
Hiking for Salvation
The Latin phrase solvitur ambulando is occasionally invoked by thru-hikers. It means “it is solved by walking”, and the concept recognizes that many of life’s previously big issues can melt away when we focus simply on hiking every day. By extension, it is understandable how a multi-month thru-hike can be viewed as a life-changing, often cathartic experience. All hikers certainly finish a big a hike changed person. Hiking is an experience that affects us for life.
However hikers desperate to ‘find themselves’ often embark on such a challenging journey from a mindset of ineptitude, rather than competence. This mentality of deliberate helplessness often leads to on-trail actions that can serve to endanger themselves and the trail environment, and negatively affect the experience of other hikers with whom they share the trail.
While the trail is certainly a place to learn and grow, setting out on a long hike deliberately unprepared, while hoping to find some ultimate redemption is an undertaking for the foolhardy. Our advice to would-be hikers: Grow a spine first. Then get out there and hike the PCT.