The first question people ask me is “So, why did you do the PCT?”
I know I wanted to travel and see incredible things, to push myself to places I have never been before physically and mentally, and to just take a break from the grind.
I think about this question often and even ask myself now why I did it. My answer always seems to change a little bit knowing what I do now that I finished. I know why I did the Pacific Crest Trail, but there are some things that I went through where I didn’t consider why I needed the trail.
Looking back, the question why is almost irrelevant to how I feel. If I didn’t experience loss and gain and go through the struggles to reach true happiness, I wouldn’t have had my moment of clarity. Not everyone understands, and that’s ok. Pushing myself to the point of extreme exhaustion and living in the dirt is just my way of doing something exciting. Although it was hard, the trail was always rewarding with the most incredible backcountry: the desert, high desert, low foothills, high mountain tops, freezing rivers and warm lakes, lush forests and even rainforests. There was always something new just over the next mountain, and there were a lot of mountains.
Hikers can either go southbound from the Canadian border or northbound, what I did, from the Mexican border. Because I was starting in the desert, I figured the earlier the better. I decided that the end of March would be a perfect time to miss the freezing temps of the desert nights and the harsh, dry heat of the days. The most common time to start is either late April or the beginning of May for north bounders.
I followed the weather forecast daily, and just two weeks before I started (March 29) a snowstorm happened within the first 100 miles of the trail. This made me nervous, so I packed all my warm clothing gear, which was heavy. I didn’t see any snow or even rain until I got to the Sierra Mountain range.
It took 710 miles to get there and almost two months of dry heat, rattlesnakes, long water carries and the most incredible views before I made it to the first “checkpoint,” Kennedy Meadows South.
I did multiple stops in towns and at trail angel houses along the way before making it to Kennedy Meadows, for resupply and to rest my swollen and growing feet. I met most of my “trail family” — who are other hikers — at these places and continued to run into them the entirety of the trail. We shared everything from camping gear to philosophies and food to Yahtzee. It was very comforting knowing I wasn’t going to be alone each night, especially in the Sierra, where there are bears.
The desert was an obstacle all its own, and though I finally figured out the logistics of how to pack my backpack and such, it was no match for what the Sierra was going to throw at me. My pack in the desert was about 27 pounds, which included 4 liters of water and four to five days of food.
The stretches through the Sierra were much longer, up to a week or more in the backcountry, and the weather was now something to worry about, as well as bears. Adding a bear canister in which to store food was required for all hikers. This and my new snow gear added about 6 pounds to my back and much stress on my shoulders. Planning weeks in advance became a full-time job, and, because the elevation climbed over 9,000 feet and under 5,000 a day, it became extremely strenuous, and caution became something I had to pay close attention to. By the time I was halfway through the Sierra I was exhausted. A bunch of us hikers had to get off the mountains because of a massive snowstorm. This storm lasted four days and dumped over 5 feet of snow on the trail. I got plenty of sleep in those four days, but the ambition to hike in 5 feet of snow was very low. This is when I decided to take a couple side trips. I traveled to the central coast of California and had a well-deserved beach day. I also traveled to a few national parks like Yosemite and the Red Woods where my mom came out to visit. It has always been my dream to go to these truly spectacular parks. I am so glad that snowstorm happened.
Getting back to the woods and several hundred miles later, I passed the mid-point of the trail and was getting close to the Oregon border, a nostalgic moment that left me crying on the side of a mountain because I realized how resilient I can be. I felt new. At that point I lost my name and was given the name Mushroom because of my obsession with foraging. My hiker friends were no longer Maranda and Steven but Rice-a-Roni Randy and Sensation. In a way it was almost like creating a new version of ourselves.
Reaching northern California bore the inevitable forest fires that come with drought and the unnatural heat wave that struck West Coast. The fires spread into Oregon and into Washington. The trail was open until Crater Lake, but beyond that it was closed until 100 miles from the Washington border. Hitching a ride and skipping around the restoration and burn areas was required.
I was about four months in at the point of crossing the Bridge of the Gods. The fires left the trail smoky and visibility was almost zero. Besides the rain, the smoke put the biggest damper on things. The air quality was making me sick, and not being able to experience and see what was around me put my morale at an all-time low. About 150 miles from the end, I decided to get off the trail and travel with my hiking friends to the Grand Canyon and Utah as one last adventure with the time we had left.
Walking off trail is when I had my moment of clarity. Finishing the trail was my overall goal, but there was something deeper I was achieving. I left parts of myself behind and gained tools to rebuild parts of myself that I had forgotten. I had achieved something great and met a new version of myself. For every mountain I climbed there was something spiritual I achieved as well. I connected to nature in such a wholesome way that it has changed my overall perspective on life itself.
— Korey Schepers, 26, is a Maquoketa resident.