Stumbling toward the Pacific Crest Trail

imageI dream of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (also known as the PCT). At night when I’m asleep, and my mind can go in any direction it chooses, I dream I’m hiking the PCT. I daydream about thru-hiking, often when I should be concentrating on something else. Sometimes, when I’m out for a short hike, I imagine that I’m really walking from Mexico to Canada on the PCT.

I have always lived within a two-hour drive of the Pacific Crest Trail, but I have not always dreamed of hiking its length. My interest in the trail began in 2002, when an acquaintance completed a solo thru-hike of the PCT. She stayed with me and my husband (then boyfriend) for a few days in Ashland, Oregon, on her way to Canada, and her journey planted the seed of thru-hiking in my own mind.

Back then, I didn’t fantasize about hiking the whole trail. I had no interest in suffering through the desert for 700 miles. I thought I might start at Kennedy Meadows, at the base of the Sierra, and hike from there to the Oregon border. I didn’t need to do the whole trail. The cold rain of northern Washington was as off-putting to me as the heat of southern California. And I was terrified of hitchhiking, which thru-hikers must submit to in order to re-supply with food and other gear. All in all, the PCT sounded like a fantastic adventure, but maybe more than I wanted to take on.

But the seed was still germinating. I was lucky to grow up in a family that values wild places. As a child I went backpacking with my family every summer. My husband and I spent our honeymoon backpacking. I found myself yearning to tackle a long trail, to stay out in the wilderness for weeks on end. I began reading about the John Muir Trail (JMT). This 220-mile trail leads hikers through the heart of the Sierra Nevada and sounded, to me, like a dream come true. I realized that I could do this. I could make this happen. The idea of a long hike moved from fantasy to possibility, and finally to a plan.

In the summer of 2013 I informed my parents that I intended to hike the John Muir Trail within the next year or two. To my surprise, they were as excited about the idea as I was. We soon made a plan: we would hike the John Muir Trail in the summer of 2015.  2014 would be dedicated to training. 

Backpacking with my parents in the summer of 2013.
Summer 2013: backpacking with my parents and making plans to hike the JMT.

All too quickly the plan unraveled: I fell ill with a mysterious disease, first plagued by troublesome recurring symptoms, then becoming so sick that I was effectively bedridden. Months later, a diagnosis came: Lyme disease.

Instead of training for the John Muir Trail I was now working up to walking to the end of the block. There were days when I was so sick that I couldn’t walk from my bedroom to the kitchen. Some days I stayed curled up in bed, willing myself not to fall to pieces. You’re going to be ok became my mantra, repeated over and over in my brain when I felt myself slipping. It’s going to be ok. 

May 2014: in the hospital, hoping for answers. I was told
May 2014: in the hospital, hoping for answers. I was told “Everything looks normal,” despite having been brought into the ER in a wheelchair. I asked my dad to take this picture. I thought I was smiling for the camera, which shows just how out of it I was.

I was terrified to find myself locked inside such a devastating disease and I was desperate to find a way out. In such a situation it is not enough to simply say, I am going get well. What does getting well feel like? What does it look like? Sound like? How does it smell and taste? To pull myself out of darkness I needed to visualize what was on the other side. Where was I going? What did getting well mean to me? 

Confined to the house, I started reading blogs by PCT hikers. I followed them as they stepped onto the trail at the U.S.-Mexico border, struggled with the heat of southern California’s deserts, found the promised land in the Range of Light, sped through northern California and Oregon, and strained to get through Washington before winter arrived. 

Descriptions of the trail often brought me to tears. I longed to be out there with them. I imagined hiking 20+ miles per day, day after day. I knew I could do this. Not today, obviously, but I could do it. Getting well meant the freedom to do something extraordinary. I could hike from Mexico to Canada. 

The long trek through the desert now seemed like a worthy challenge, the High Sierra like a reward for surviving those first 700 miles. The hardest parts of the trail would make the best moments even brighter. 

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Labor Day 2014: taking my first step toward a PCT thru-hike with a 1.2 mile (round trip distance) backpacking trip with my parents. I was taking the antibiotic doxycycline, which made me highly susceptible to sunburn, but I refused to stay indoors. I wore long sleeves, long pants, gloves, and a bandana over my face.

I will say this for chronic illness: having been in its grip, I never take anything for granted. I take full advantage of, and give thanks for, every moment that I feel good, because I know how easy it is to lose everything, and how quickly it can happen. On the journey toward recovery no achievement goes uncelebrated, however small. Priorities become absolutely clear. In my case, I realized that I will be devastated if I am never able to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail is my brightest guiding star on the path back to health. 

I still intend to the hike the John Muir Trail with my parents (and hopefully my husband too). That trip will not take place this summer as originally planned, but it will happen. Completing the JMT will be a grand achievement in my battle against Lyme disease. It will also be excellent practice for my ultimate goal: the Pacific Crest Trail. 

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October 2014: taking advantage of feeling good between symptom flares and cruising along the trail on a backpacking trip with my husband.

I’ve noticed that most of my readers are interested in my blog because I write about the autoimmune paleo diet. If you are following AIP I think it’s safe to assume that you are struggling with a disabling disease or an unpleasant chronic condition. How do you get through the dark days? What are you looking forward to? Please share what inspires you to keep fighting!

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