Whirlwind. If someone asked me to describe my 1st month on the PCT in 1 word, this would be the one that came to mind. Of course it had been many other things: magical, exciting, hot, challenging, dirty, beautiful, emotional, and so on. Mixed up in all these emotions, I have learned one of the most important lessons: that things don’t always go to plan and that is okay. One particular experience, one that was definitely not part of the plan, was probably one of the most impactful on my journey thus far. And despite how hard and unexpected it was: I am eternally grateful for it.
The incident I’m talking about happened on May 11th. It was my 13th day on the trail. Post a zero in Idyllwild filled with good food and rest, my trail family and I set off to start up Devils Slide back to the trail. I was feeling particularly strong and confident. Fueled by a morning espresso and excitement about my new insoles now padding my feet, the climb was motivating and exciting. I hit the top of the switchbacks and knew I wanted another challenge: San Jacinto.
Initially, I started the day thinking I would blow off the peak. It wasn’t trail miles and we had a long water carry ahead and plenty more peaks to go for. This wouldn’t be the last opportunity for a summit. But I was far enough ahead of most of the group that I knew I had the time. Also the thought of being on top of a mountain summit gave me butterflies, after all I did most of my training for the trail on peaks and trails in Colorado. I couldn’t imagine a better way to get reenergized for the next stretch. So I went for it. I reached the summit just before 12:30. I set my bag down and sat in the cold, letting the wind blow my hair around. I had the summit completely to myself and even took a little video to celebrate. “I’m feeling good,” a windswept and excited looking Clare said to the screen, “The hiker legs are kickin in.” I put my phone away and got ready to hop up. Now which way would be the best down?
I scooted over to the edge of the rock where the summit sat and stepped down. That was when I felt my ankle give out. It wasn’t just a roll. Spending most of my time post work trail running, I’ve rolled my ankle more than enough times to know that this was different. I gasped aloud and sank to the ground. I sat there in between the rocks, shielded from the wind. The tears began to well up quickly. This was the end. I had blown it.
Just then another hiker from the group I had been with came around the corner. After realizing that this was no small roll, he helped me down to the summit house. I leaned against the brick wall as laughter traveled from down the hill. The rest of the trail family was on their way. I buried my head in my hands, embarrassed beyond belief. I’d gone and done it. I’d been the one to get injured. And it was only week 2.
One of my absolute worst fears on trail was coming true. And there was nothing I could do to change this. There was no reversing time. I kept rewinding the tape in my head, imagining myself quickly flying back in to the places where the timeline could have split, where I could have tapped the summit and then hiked down to have lunch below tree line. Maybe I would have summited again with my friends, been in their joyful photos, and then hiked back down to meet the rest of the group and camped shortly before mile 200, crossing that milestone early the next morning and cheering as we descended into the desert again.
Instead I found myself walking gingerly with an empty pack down the mountain, trail family followed in toe, each carrying the weight of my pack. Then wiping tears away while I iced my foot with a smart water bottle filled with snow. Then at a campsite eating dinner with my trail family, with an almost awkward silence between us, everyone knowing that the next day I would wake up with more swelling and a difficult decision.
And then it was Day 14. Two weeks on trail. I packed up early and hiked slowly, splitting off from the trail to hike a dirt road (Black Mountain Road) to the highway. When I made it to the bottom, I held my thumb out, hitching alone for the first time on trail. Most cars rushed past until eventually one stopped.
And honestly, that night ended in the only way it could: with tears, a calzone, a bottle of wine. Sleep didn’t come easy, and I spent most of the night fighting off the urge to scream at the top of my lungs and call it all off. What was I even doing here anymore? I had this reoccurring dream of myself packing up my bag and hiking back up to the trail. I imagined that I could stand up and the pain will be gone or I could take off the puffy, purplish sock that had encompassed my right foot, laughing as I hiked away at how silly I was to leave it on for so long.
I would come to spend the next week or so off trail. But this week, despite being spent largely sedentary with my ankle elevated above my heart, would come to be one of my most memorable so far. I was lucky enough to spend my time in a trail angel’s home, learning about her life and sharing stories. I read two books, binged the newest season of one of my guilty reality shows, painted, refueled, and took long naps. I rested and gave my body time to heal and regain it’s strength. And I did the same for my mind too, giving myself the grace to be sad but also remain confident in myself.
Taking time to sit still has always been a challenge for me. It’s a large part of the reason I love hiking so much. But, in general, life demands we go quickly: whether it be work, school, relationships, exercise, taking time to cook, or that random group or organization we committed to, we tend, across society, to have a lot going on all the time. So you can imagine, after two weeks of easing into a new routine and life in the back country, slowing down to almost a complete stop was not easy. But it was incredibly important.
Many of us hikers get injuries. The stories are countless whether it be splints, blisters, back issues, knee pain, or a rolled ankle. You would be hard pressed to find a hiker who hasn’t struggled with some type of pain/ injury or doesn’t know anyone who has.
The big challenge is not just moving past the pain, but taking time to heal it. It may not be easy, fun, or part of the original plan, but you have to listen to your body and what it needs.
I started back on trail on May 21st, with a whole new bubble to people to fall into lockstep with. I’ve been hiking longer days, growing stronger, and falling deeply in love with the desert. I’ve met people from around the world (11 different countries and counting) and have made memories with them. I’ve grown to appreciate the slow moments, sitting in my tent as the sun goes down or resting under a bush in the mid day heat, usually snacking on some type of salty chip.
So, yes, month 1 on the PCT has been a whirlwind of fast and slow moments. It definitely was not at all what I thought it would be. But it’s kicked off the start of this new journey beautifully, and I am incredibly grateful for the challenges the trail has thrown my way and excited to take on more.
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