Monday, February 12, 2018

Op-Ed: Why I Got Off The Pacific Crest Trail After [800] Miles; Another Thru-Turned-Section Hiker's Perspective, 4 Years Later

I’m sure by now my PCT oriented followers, if there are any left, have read Vanessa Pamela Friedman’s post,

If you haven’t read it yet, please do so now. It is an extraordinarily well written, moving, and relatable post about PCT culture and the realities of long distance hiking. But if you read between the lines, I think you’ll find her essay is really about what post-hike depression feels like for someone who has had a thru hike turn into a section, as well as the thought processes some of us non-traditional hikers face when we enter an athletic endeavor.

I've had a really hard time processing her post over the last few days because it's intensely relatable and because I'm still looking for a reason why I feel so fucking bad about hiking 800 miles. I've studied her post, gone back over my blog posts, discussed it with Josh, and when I get honest with myself I feel like a lot of the things she talked about, while triggers worth discussing, are not 100% the responsibility of the culture to change.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's awesome that Vanessa wants to raise awareness for future PCT'ers, and it inspired me to share too, in hopes it might provide hopefuls with a well-rounded perspective. While my take on her essay may contain an unpopular viewpoint, it’s one that I’m more than open to discussing.

So here we go:

As a person who has been overweight since childhood, I never felt at home in athletic circles. Even though hiking isn’t a sport in the traditional sense, there were still those times that you encountered “bro culture” from people who were athletic. For instance, I was on a popular trail in San Diego early on in my hiking career and a girl in a group of college kids poked fun at me for sweating too much. The comment took the wind out of my sails and I ended up turning back and going home not long after, never to return to that trail again. I've also had men look at Josh and ask him how he got me to agree to go backpacking when I am the one who taught Josh. Luckily, those “bro” encounters are limited to a few assholes on trails that are already highly occupied by, well, assholes. With the sheer number of hikers on the PCT in any given year, some of them are bound to be shitty. I’m glad we are pointing out that the PCT isn’t the magical fairy land it is often made out to be. It is still reality, often on a finer scale.

I transitioned into backpacking because I wanted to go further than my body could carry me in one day. My social circle isn’t particularly athletic, so I learned about backpacking from the internet and my role models were people I read about in books and in blogs. Since I didn’t have willing partners, backpacking trips were nearly always solo. Hiking solo is both liberating and daunting. On one hand you don’t have to worry about struggling to keep up or feel obligated to apologize for your pace. On the other, you have a lot of time to think about things and the nights are kind of scary!

One of my very first backpacking trips was solo up San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California. I was sporting a frameless ultralight pack that was wildly overloaded at 30lbs. This, paired with the 240lbs I was already carrying on my body pushed me into a realm of endurance I was not familiar with. By the time I got to camp everyone who’d camped there the day before was leaving and I suddenly found myself all alone, in bear country, on the side of an 11k foot mountain and it was too late to hike down. I couldn’t escape the fact that I was going to have to face feelings of being totally out of my element, even though I wanted so badly to be the badass backpacker I read about in blogs. My solution was to sit in the dirt and cry.

With my physical body so tapped, I had no ability to counter or avoid emotional triggers that were flinging open doors in my brain, letting loose those feelings of abandonment, inadequacy, fear and loneliness I’d carried around since I was a kid. Once I stopped crying I found a new, stronger part of me awkwardly mixed up with a new, more vulnerable me. I set up camp just as people started showing up and felt a mixture of relief that I wouldn’t have to camp alone, and fear that they would see that I had cried, that I was scared, that I was not a badass hiker.   

When I finally got to Campo to start on my PCT journey, I was a bit gun-shy from those past experiences and from reading the internet drama (don’t go on the PCT class pages, ever). It was also overwhelming to realize that I was actually going to do this, fresh out of a divorce and with a brand new boyfriend I might not have been ready to live in a tent with for months at a time. This trepidation was further exacerbated by the fact that I set out on the trail in a body that was about 200lbs. I had recently lost 60lbs but then gained back 20 just before departure. Even though I strive to be accepting of my size, it’s not always easy to curb those habitual thoughts, and that rebound weight gain made me feel self-conscious and concerned for injury. The first 20 miles, which I had successfully hiked multiple times before was spent trying to combat intrusive thoughts that I was going to fail. That first day, several people knew who I was from my blog and they were happy to meet me in person, but I was afraid for them to see me because I was not in “trail shape”. It was very easy to manipulate their spoken words to validate my negative thoughts, and I did so, often.

I see a great similarity in my hike and Vanessa’s: we were both fat, embarked fresh from a break up and in new relationships and both identified with communities that had little representation on the trail; her LGTBQ, and me, in the drug and alcohol recovery scene. I also see the same idiosyncrasies in our social encounters, albeit on different ends of the spectrum, specifically, the moment she received her trail name. In the Autostraddle post Vanessa makes it sound like she was named “scissors” by someone because she is gay. Really, she was named scissors because her gaiters had scissors on them. I'm not sure if that came across to people who may not have read her daily blog. The person who named her asked her if she sewed and Vanessa made the distinction that the scissors represented her being gay. I think that exchange made the person who named her feel like they had made a mistake in pointing out her gaiters at all, whereas it made Vanessa feel happy.

This is a good example of the overwhelming unfamiliarity and corresponding coping mechanisms the PCT brings up. I think it is the same thing that happened when Vanessa was given an unintentionally backhanded compliment by the "blonde lady" for being a heavy hiker. At some point I believe we all feel like I did that night on San Gorgonio; fearful others will see us and say that we’re in over our heads. So, we do our best to make contact without making waves, but with that many people in the pool everyone is going to get splashed and sometimes it’s going to piss you off.

I teared up when Vanessa discussed "when did you start.” God, I hated that question. It killed me every time it was asked because I already felt like I was doing the PCT wrong. And she’s right, it’s often asked to find out if we’re doing ok compared to other people, but it is also asked as an ice-breaker. I think Vanessa’s issue with the question is much like mine in that it isn’t really about the question, it’s about the trigger that starts my brain on a loop of “should”. I feel the exact same way today when people ask me when I’m going to be done with my degree. It's an honest question that *usually* comes from loving people, it just makes me feel bad because I'm 36 and I “should” have my degree.  Yes, it would be good for us to find a new ice-breaker question, sure, but lets be honest here; that question and cranky people at water sources are not the reasons our hikes ended, even though we can easily convince ourselves that it was.

When I go back and read my own blog from the trail, it is obvious that my feelings of exclusion, negativity and inadequacy, were really me searching for a reason to explain why I felt like I was drowning out there. It was exhausting trying to make the experience fit into the expectation I had from literally years of dreaming, planning, and longing, while I was walking around on feet that looked like raw hamburger meat. This, coupled with the desire to fit into a different hiker’s shoes, be it Cheryl Strayed, Carrot Quinn or any other hiker that isn’t you, makes the experience too big to handle.

Attempting a thru hike as a “normal” person, as in, not a bro, is challenging because you seek to strike a balance between hike-your-own-hike philosophy and the simple math that is miles ÷ winter. If you’re serious about making it to Canada you cannot avoid thinking about daily mileage, it’s just how it goes. For me, who has never experienced an athletic endeavor before, this mathematical formula weighed on me, a lot. It is all I talk about, and even with dozens of people telling me I was doing great I could not get it out of my head. I even adopted the personalities I saw out there and became judgmental and rigid, hoping it would improve my chances of success. 

The straw that broke the camel’s back for my trip was a day hiker at Rae Lakes who made me feel like I didn’t have time to swim because I was so behind I’d never make it to Canada. Did you catch that? ‘MADE ME FEEL’. Certainly, the day hiker could have minded her own business, but she has really no responsibility for the way I respond to what she says, nor does she have any idea what my mental state is at any given moment. Perhaps on a different day what she said would have motivated me all the way to Canada. Perhaps that was the intention of her words all along.

From the PCT I have learned that I do not have to pick up what other people drop, even if they stick it to me like a badge. After any given negative encounter, it is up to me to decide if I’m going to heal the wound or keep reopening it. The real problem for me, was (is) consistently comparing my insides to other people’s outsides; trying to match my feelings to other people’s words. I think to demand the day hiker at Rae Lakes change, and not me, would be the equivalent of putting safety bumpers on all the sharp rocks on the trail. For a species that learns far more from our mistakes than we do our successes, isn't that cheating ourselves out of an opportunity to grow?

The trail didn’t fuck me up any more than I was already, and it's not an epicenter for cultural failures nor successes, it just puts a magnifying glass on those things. I didn’t acquire my feelings of inadequacy, social anxiety and over-sensitivity on the trail, I brought them with me, strapped to my backpack like a bear canister filled with rocks. When I read Vanessa’s essay, I see similar weighted items in her proverbial bear can, too.

I think it is important to explain here that I am not trying to invalidate Vanessa’s accounting of trail life. Her experience has been an invaluable tool for me, as it made me go back and reevaluate my own hike to see if I was taking blame for things I really shouldn’t. I often take responsibility for things that aren’t mine, it’s a deeply ingrained co-dependent behavior. I studied her post and waded through the comments and I want to believe that maybe my negative thoughts and perceptions were a result of that toxic masculinity she was talking about. But if I’m honest I know that the underlying issue here is the weird stories we tell ourselves about where we do and don’t belong.

When I set out on the PCT never did I think an accomplishment like hiking 800 consecutive miles would make me feel SO FUCKING BAD ABOUT MYSELF. But it did, and it does, every. single. day. But I know in my heart of hearts that not making it to Canada was the point of the PCT, for me. Those feelings of inadequacy I had during the PCT are a real, recurrent problem in my life. They are the reason why I am on psych meds, why, after my ex-husband told me he wished I was thinner I sat in my kitchen and tattooed “starve” on my wrist so I’d see it anytime I put food in my mouth; It’s why I can’t raise my hand in class when I know the answer, why I disassociate talking in a group, and why I feel homesick when I’m sitting in my living room. It’s that whisper in my subconscious that drives my anxiety. It’s that thing that makes me want to die.

As painful as it is, I am grateful that the PCT turned up the volume on the fucked-up dialogue playing in my head so that I can finally deal. While my cognitive distortions may be an acquired adaptation to the failures of a male-dominated society, and fixing those failures will help future generations avoid feeling my pain, it won’t fix what’s already broken in my brain, only rewiring my thought patterns will do that.  I challenge that microaggression cannot exist in a vacuum, and the day we learn how to replace being offended with genuine communication is where the real change will occur. 

I’m not saying there isn’t work that needs to be done in the trail community. I saw weird shit, like trail “angel” greed, people pressuring others to do the 24 in 24 wherein hikers drink a case of beer to the head while enroute to the The Anderson's, and I even talked with a group of hikers who were ostracized over what sounded like gossip and rumors (The A.T. crew 2014). But it’s my experience that much of that drama swirled around groups who did 30/40-mile days, and the internet seemed to be the heart of that seedy underbelly. Vanessa is right, though, that kind of behavior is not ok, and I am all for putting in the work to change it. But again, we cannot help create a safe space if our own head isn't one already. We can, however, do our best to accurately describe what the trail is like for each of us and act as representation to our own niche communities:

It's my experience that The PCT is not the road to Candyland. It’s not some egalitarian other worldy dimension. It's life on overdrive. IT’S FUCKING HARD. It’s a crash course in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It's a glimpse into the real world. If you let it, it will shake some of the entitlement off you; I haven't been able to look at water on tap, food on demand or bathrooms with clean, shiny tile as anything short of luxurious, since.

The relationships we have with others are heightened too. I think often, the bonding between hikers that so many people talk about comes out of survival, not because the community is set up in such a loving way. I think this quote sums up “trail families” perfectly;

“We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful. We are like the passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck, when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to Captain's table. Unlike the feelings of the ship's passengers, however, our joy in escape from disaster does not subside as we go our individual ways. The feeling of having shared in a common peril is one element in the powerful cement which binds us.” – The AA Big Book

Maybe I’m wrong in saying that I don’t think Vanessa’s experience dipped into the “bro culture” arena as much as it did the mental tribulations of the trail. After all, I wasn't there in 2017 and I didn't hike by myself in 2014. But I honestly think the mental aspect is far more of an issue to the average PCT hiker than toxic masculinity. It is real and it’s a huge reason why people don’t finish. I think Vanessa missed an opportunity to discuss the extra emotional work many of us non-traditional hikers (and regular hikers for that matter) must endure on the trail. I really wish she would expound more on her experiences with combating and healing the mental-fallout of years of being stereotyped and struggling with a lack of representation, not just how those things need to change. I wish we were putting in the same amount of time exchanging real strategies to combat self-hate for being fat, as we do combating people who engage in fat-hate. 

When I think about the PCT today, 4 years later, I see it as a ribbon of dirt that acts like a magnifying glass to your insides. It leads you to your own truth. The truth I found at my own personal terminus is summed up in something I heard in Program: "All of my problems may have other people’s names on them, but the solutions to those problems have my name on them." For that insight I am eternally grateful to the PCT experience, and I hope others will get out there and experience their own PCT, too.

But, just like the trail, your mileage may vary.