Devouring books, blogs, Instagram updates, and every piece of media I can on thru-hiking has gobbled up countless dozens of hours this year. There are resonating patterns that keep emerging in these accounts, and I know completely that I want a thru-hike to be a part of my life's story. I don't know yet if that involves a single state, a month, the AT, CDT, or PCT, hiking with a partner, hiking alone, or what—I just know that it brightens my smile, makes my heart lift, and fills me with optimism.
I have a few friends who smile and nod or even share some of these dreams, but it's difficult for me to impress upon them how much I can tell this is what I need. These thoughts were at the forefront of my mind on my trip to Lake Valhalla, heightened by the intersection of trail 1590 and 2000 (the PCT) partway. I kept my eyes on the dirt, spotting (probably imagined) imprints of a pair of trail runners every hundred yards. Each set of prints marks the culmination of a 5-6 month long trek to the Canadian border or the beginning of a less traveled route that ends in the California desert. These tiny pit stops in the dirt make me dwell on my ignorance, and that there is so much about thru-hiking and why people thru-hike that I can't begin to understand yet.
For the majority of my time out to the lake I am alone. At this trail junction I stop and I can't seem to be breathe. I entertain the thought of heading to the right, and walking north as far as I feel comfortable. I reluctantly head left and my feet feel heavy. I was just rejected from an from an amazing professional opportunity and it hit hard. Rejection can feel like a dead end—it puts your motivation into question, you feel inadequate, and can easily forget any progress you'd made.
As I reach some small patches of snow left from the previous weekend, I try to force myself to stop thinking about it. I turn up my earbuds and focus on the words streaming out of them and intently hike upward. I crest and turn around a small ridge and spot the first glimpse of the saturated water of Lake Valhalla. A smile spreads itself across my face and with a whoop, I run down to the campsites. I am immediately overwhelmed with a desire to tell my husband and our friends that we need to come camp here as soon as possible, and maybe never leave. I love this place!
I click away so I can show the campsites to them when I get back, and make my way to a rock on the waters edge. Five beautifully quiet minutes passed. I can't believe how quiet it is, and I can see fish below. The only sound here is the wind, an inquisitive bird, and my breath. It's like magic. It has to be magic.
And then a group of three very loud hikers decide to park on the beach, cook lunch, and feed the wildlife. My moment of bliss crashes down around me and I find myself resenting them. This is an ugly part of myself I’ve been working to change. All my doubts rise to the surface and I become defensive, and it's these moments where I have to be faced with my own humanity. I need to ignore the things I don’t like and cannot change and not let my perception of how things should be get in my way.
After they leave I decide to finish taking a panorama and buckle my pack. My walk back to the parking lot is like walking headfirst into a highway. I pass a couple dozen people—far too many for a Thursday morning. I'm patient and step aside, say "good morning!", and I make myself smile to all of them. When I'm almost back at the junction, an older man stops me and asks me excitedly "are you a thru hiker?!" Without really thinking, I respond "No, sorry, I'm not." Then I hesitate as he walks away, and I add "Well... not yet!" He smiles at me and gives a wave as he turns a corner out of sight.
That quick interaction excited me, and it still excites me. I know that launching yourself into a long distance trail does not solve life's problems. I know that it isn't a beautifully shot biopic, or the highlighted moments I see on social media. But I know that I need the room to unravel myself and push the boundaries of my own comfort and I hope that I find myself out there soon. For now, I'll hold onto these mornings and afternoons to step onto the pieces of trail near home and let that take me where it needs to.