Some time ago, around mile 300 or so, I hiked for a few days with a fellow named Cricket. During one of the mandatory inquiries of new hiking buddies (What brought you out here?), it came to light that we both got the idea to hike the PCT from someone we met while hiking in New Zealand. Mine came in the form of Brian who talked about practically every aspect of hiking the trail for the two weeks we were together. He loved thru-hiking and did so whenever the opportunity was available. I was sold. For Cricket, his introduction to the trail was marked by brevity and some disdain. The former hiker he met had thought that hiking the PCT for the summer would be an inexpensive way to spend 5 months. He could recite the caloric content of every candy and snack bar imaginable in an effort to purchase only the most fuel efficient foods. Snickers bar, 280 calories, 130 from fat. When Cricket finally asked if he would recommend hiking the trail, as his descriptors left it ambiguous as to whether it was actually an enjoyable experience or not, he paused for a moment before saying, “No. Too much pain and suffering.”
When undertaking a hike of 2600 miles, some discomfort is to be expected. You’d have to be delusional not to expect to get banged up over the course of the trip. Having said that, it’s been a remarkably successful hike thus far in terms of avoiding bodily harm. I’ve had a handful of blisters, some gnarly sunburn, a day of chafe, scraped legs, a brief bout of shin splints, scrapes to the face from low lying branches, and some minor indigestion. I usually get more hurt living in Portland for two months.
There are plenty others out here who aren’t so lucky when it comes to staying healthy. In the beginning blisters were the biggest concern of most hikers. I was asked what my secret was when it came to light that it was about mile 200 before I got a blister. Tough feet. Since then the maladies have stepped up their severity and even taken a few off the trail.
For some shin splints are so painful they can’t walk, let alone hike 20 mile days. Some come with preexisting conditions that flare up once they start pounding the trail day after day. Ankles are sprained or broken, bad spills bash knees against rocks, backs are tweaked from carrying too much weight day after day. Fortunately much can be prevented with some good planning and safe practice, but some still manage to get injured.
An underlying fear for many that runs the course of the trail is the threat of waterborne illness. Giardia and crypto sporidium are a constant threat to hikers, as our water comes from creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes (if we must) that are shared with all kinds of critters who fail to see the problem with also using the watering hole as a bidet. There are some brave/foolish souls who drink all their water untreated and laugh as they chug some toxic sludge from an old horse trough, and others who will filter and treat the most pure spring water bubbling straight out of the side of a mountain. Whether it’s poetic irony or just bad luck, most of the people I have heard of getting sick fall into the latter category.
Some people’s first aid kits look like they robbed an EMT, while others simply don’t bother with the stuff. Billy Goat, a crusty old hiker who has moved into the realm of PCT legend, is rumored to have exactly one item in his first aid kit: a bandana. My own first aid kit fits within two pill bottles (bandana not included). If I carried a few less ibuprofen I could probably consolidate to one. I rarely take pills anyway.
Some people might ask why anyone would put themselves in the way of so much bodily harm and risk life and limb to go for a hike. You can do that on your weekends and suffer much less. It’s true, but then again there’s all that suffering at your day job in the meantime. It’s just a different type of suffering.
Not everyone shares these sentiments, of course. Many are content to have their weekends off and perhaps travel for two weeks a year. There’s much less risk involved, and certainly much less pain and suffering. Is something like this worth it, when you might be grimacing in pain with every step? Depends who you ask, and how much pain they’re in at the time.
This also begs the question, do all the hardships of the trail detract from the overall experience? Again, it has to be evaluated on a hiker by hiker basis, but you can rest assured that all of us are suffering to some extent. 30 mile days don’t come easy. We are exhausted, we stink, we’re hungry, cold and we ache. Are the views worth it? Is it all that great trading in your bed and job for a tent and a pair of trail runners? One might draw a comparison to the old good without evil argument. Would the good times on the trail be as enjoyable if there weren’t some awful times to keep some perspective? Hard to say for certain.
In Yogi’s guide she says that our worst days on the trail are better than our best days at home or in the office. I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. Our worst days can be pretty damn bad sometimes. If you get sick, can’t move, and don’t have the commodities of home to help facilitate recovery, death might not sound like such a bad alternative. On the other hand, the good days out here blow all the days at home in the city out of the water. There’s just no comparison. And since the vast majority of the days out here are for the better, some pain and suffering aren’t all that bad. It makes the town food taste better too.