It has been five years since my thru-hike on the Pacific Northwest Trail and I’m still trying to figure out how to talk about it.
People say things like, “wow, that must have been fun” or “I wish I had time to do that.” They look confused when I can’t give them a simple explanation of what it was like. After all it was just a really long hike—how hard can that be to talk about? It turns out that hiking was only a small part of the experience on the 1,200-mile long hike. I wish I could parse it down into a quick conversation but a lot can happen in three months.
I had just graduated college with a degree in digital cinema. I knew I wanted to make outdoor films for a living but I had no idea how to actually turn my dream into a career. I decided I needed to test myself, to figure out if I had what it takes to pursue that dream. I would thru-hike a long trail and make a film about it—that seemed like a good test.
Just to be sure, I chose a trail that would be extremely remote, untamed and secluded. I wasn’t looking for a well-defined path with plenty of help along the way, so I chose the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT). Unlike its fellow National Scenic Trails like the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian trail (AT), the PNT is still young in its development. While the popular thru-hikes on the more established trails see thousands of thru-hikers every year, the PNT was only seeing a dozen. While the more established thru-hikes were well-maintained and blazed the entire way, the PNT was still wild and hard to navigate. The trail extends for 1,200 miles from the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park to the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park. It provided the opportunity to learn exactly what I needed to know—once and for all—if I should take myself seriously as an outdoor filmmaker or if I should give up on that dream and find a “real job.”
The scale of the hike didn’t really hit me until the car ride to the train station in Milwaukee. My excitement had been building over the final weeks of preparation. I had been consumed by the granular details and now that the time of preparation was over and it was really happening, the big picture of what I was actually about to do began to sink in. Excitement had been replaced by panic. All I could think about was being hopelessly lost in the mountains. Who was I to think that I could take on the PNT? People don’t recommend doing that trail as a first-time thru-hiker. Most PNT hikers had already cut their teeth on a five-month 2,000+ mile trail like the AT or PCT. Even then, they tended to struggle with the challenges to be found on the PNT.
I had never even hiked in the mountains before. My longest hike to date had only been 18 miles and it had taken me three days. On the PNT I’d have to be covering 20 miles a day. Not only that, I was carrying a bunch of extra weight in the form of camera gear. The self-doubt was almost crippling, but things were already in motion and quitting before I even started wasn’t an option, so I got on that train.
I had arranged through the PNT Facebook page to meet a few other hikers on the train, and I found them as we departed for East Glacier in Montana. Their trail names were Marathon, Spaceman Spiff and Fitty Shrimp. They were all Appalachian Trail veterans and seemed extremely confident about the upcoming adventure. I was amazed by their nonchalant attitude about it all. That slowly put me at ease during the 24-hour train ride.
Despite my seven months of planning, my pack was still obviously way too heavy. I had a 32-pound base weight, which might not seem like much but by thru-hiking standards that’s about twice as heavy as it should be. Immediately my pack felt unbearable. My shoulders were soft, and my pack was full of unnecessary things. I wasn’t even sure if it was adjusted correctly.
Eventually we came to the trail’s first named point, simply called Scenic Point. We rounded the top of the peak, and the view exploded in all directions. My discomfort had distracted me from looking around much until that moment, but that view commanded my attention. All my doubts about the hike vanished and I knew then that I could do it. The discomfort would only be temporary, and I wasn’t going to let my lack of experience hold me back.
After a long descent I stepped away from the others to fill my water bottle at a stream and when I came back, the group had something to tell me.
“Do you want to tell him?” Spaceman Spiff asked Fitty Shrimp. “It was your idea.”
Fitty laughed hesitantly and turned to me. “Uh, we thought of a trail name for you.”
It didn’t sound good but I was curious.
“Money Shot,” Fitty laughed.
This was because of the ridiculous amount of camera gear I was carrying. It wasn’t a name I would have picked for myself but it was funny, so I embraced it. From then on, I was known as Money $hot.
The days marched on, each one wildly different from the last and packed to the brim with novel experiences. By the time I crossed the border from Montana into Idaho I was less than a quarter of the way to the Pacific. So much had happened already, I could hardly fathom how much more adventure lay ahead.
The PNT is famous for its unmarked trails and frequent bushwhacks, but there is one bushwhack known simply as the bushwhack. Every PNT hiker is aware of this six-mile-long test in Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains. We all knew that there was no alternate route around this one.
Our directions were to simply round the peak behind Ball Lake and descend from the ridge line. From there we would follow Lion’s Head Creek for four miles and—in theory—the trail should appear eventually. I can’t speak for Marathon or Fitty Shrimp, but I was excited.
We followed the ridge and looked for a safe place to descend; it was nearly vertical in most places. Our decision was hastened when thunder began rolling through the canyons, and a dark wall of clouds approached from the south.
“This bush ain’t gonna whack itself,” Fitty said. We chose a path that looked doable.
I put my rain gear on and descended into the brush. By the time we got to the river, my rain pants were shredded.
From then on, there was no point in even trying to stay dry. Huckleberry bushes crowded every square inch, and the fastest way to follow the creek was to walk in it. At least there was an infinite supply of huckleberries to feast upon, helping to keep me motivated.
I was determined to get through the bushwhack in one day, so when Fitty and Marathon lagged behind I didn’t wait long. Throughout the afternoon, I’d find an occasional game trail to follow, but my hopes of a continuous trail were always crushed.
When the rain finally let up, I came to a secret little series of pools in the creek. I sat down on the wet rock and smoked my last clove cigar. The built-up stress from the day melted away. Raindrops appeared on the far side of the pool and then made their way across the surface towards me. My immediate reaction was disappointment because the rain was back. But to my surprise, it felt pleasant. I was soaked all the way through, yet somehow I felt completely at peace. I didn’t even know where I was but I knew I was where I needed to be.
The daylight was fading and it was looking like I wasn’t going to make it through the bushwhack before nightfall. Pretty soon I was going to have to start looking for a place to sleep.
“It would be really nice to build a fire tonight,” I thought to myself. But there was no cleared ground for it. The second I finished that thought, I looked up to see a perfectly prepared campsite with fire pits at the end of a trail. The bushwhack was over.
Completing the bushwhack gave me confidence. I felt like I could take on anything that the PNT was going to throw at me—which was good, because the challenges were far from over.
In Washington I encountered 100+ degree heat with no water, sudden snowstorms, wildfires, two 160-mile long sections, running out of food, and of course more bushwhacking. In addition to all the external adventures, I was exploring my own mind along the way. I finally had the time and the freedom to dig deep into my psyche and figure out what I was all about. I analyzed events in my life, thinking about how they had shaped me. I began to let go of the things that were holding me back, and ponder my true potential.
When we reached Cape Alava, it took a few minutes to decide if we were even in the right spot. There is not a marker of any kind to recognize the end of our 1,200 mile journey. It is just another point on the coastline that happens to be farther west than any other point in the contiguous United States.
In a certain way the fact that Cape Alava was so unremarkable proved to be a metaphor for the whole experience. The end goal had been merely a dream to keep us moving, but all the value lay in the middle. I had already experienced the highs and lows of the PNT. Reaching the terminus just meant that it was over. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel—a mixture of massive relief and inchoate sadness that canceled each other out.
The three of us hugged and congratulated each other, but again, there wasn’t a whole lot to say. We had all come out here for different reasons, but we had sought the same intangible thing, a better perspective on life. That perspective doesn’t come easily. It must be found through a deliberate and difficult journey. In that search, we had built a mutual respect for each other that will last a lifetime.
I chose to hike the PNT because I saw people living passive lives: running on the momentum of unconscious decisions. They were on auto-pilot most of the time and they wondered why nothing ever changed. I had found myself slipping into that same pattern and I had realized that I needed to make a deliberate change. I knew that life wouldn’t be the same when I returned home.
I was no longer afraid of the unknown. It would be a long and difficult process to incorporate this new perspective into my “regular” life, but if I could do that, I felt sure, my future was bright and filled with promise.
Rather than the end of something, it felt like a beginning.
What makes a thru-hike such a rich experience is the unceasing novelty of the undertaking—each day filled with new wonders.
Normal day-to-day life in modern society consists of a lot of repetition. We wake up in the same bed, drive the same route to work, do many of the same tasks at work, then come back to the same home and run the same nightly routine. Trail life is the opposite. We wake up in a different place every day and spend every minute of that day in new and unfamiliar territory, encountering constantly changing weather and trail conditions. What little routines that do exist on the trail are always taking place in new locations and under different circumstances. It’s often said that a day on a thru-hike can feel like a week in regular life because the amount of unique experiences one finds out there might take a week—or a month—to experience in regular life.
It’s a fundamentally different way of living, and it opens our eyes to the way things could be. The rigid and abstract structures of civilized life fall away. The tyranny of the clock is lifted. There is no schedule—only a very simple goal; to get to the end of the trail. That goal is clear, and success or failure is unambiguous. In the end, it’s completely up to us. That level of clarity is hard to find in our “normal” lives. The effect it had on me was to instill a very strong sense of self-awareness and confidence. Now I know who I am and what I can handle. In a world that’s increasingly unclear and chaotic, those traits seem more valuable than ever.
Alex Maier graduated from college with a degree in digital cinema and a dream to become an outdoor filmmaker. Following your dreams usually means going down a poorly defined path. He rarely knows where the path is taking him but after seven years he’s confident in its direction. Learn more: fiveacesmedia.net.
PNT: The Untrammeled Thru-Hike
By Ainslee Dicken
The Pacific Northwest Trail, sometimes called “Crown to Coast,” is a stunning 1,200 mile continuous, mostly non-motorized scenic route that starts at Glacier National Park in Montana, and ends in Washington, at the Pacific Ocean. The trail has been dazzling visitors since 1977, when the first thru-hikers completed the route. However, there was no official trail until Congress passed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act in 2009, thus declaring it the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail.
The trail itself extends through three states and sixteen protected areas. There’s no better way to become acquainted with the beauty of the Pacific Northwest: the trail passes through the Rocky Mountains, Okanogan Highlands, North Cascades, Puget Sound region and Olympic Peninsula. There are eighteen “trail towns” either in the direct path of, or very near, the PNT, which allow hikers opportunities to resupply. The PNT has averaged 60-65 thru-hikers per year in the last few years and does not require a permit.
To put that number into context, the Pacific Crest Trail issued around 5,000 permits each year for 2018 and 2019. Because of the lack of human interference, there’s more wildlife than usual, ranging from grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, moose and elk.
Ainslee Dicken is a freelance writer, poet, and aspiring novelist. Born and bred in the Pacific Northwest, she harbors an obsession for fantasy and science fiction. When she’s not writing or reading, she’s moving, whether on hikes, travel, or walks around the neighborhood.
The Pacific Northwest Trail Association
Since it was founded in 1977, the non-profit Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA) has worked to develop, preserve, and protect the Pacific Northwest Trail.
Today, the Association provides opportunities for all to experience the wonders of the Pacific Northwest Trail through outdoor recreation and service-learning opportunities. The PNTA Performance Trail Crew program employs local youth and young adults along the trail corridor in the maintenance and construction of the PNT. The Association also coordinates volunteer opportunities and partners with a wide variety of local trail-based organizations in the stewardship of the trail.
To help improve access to recreational opportunities along the PNT, the Association offers free trail maps and other helpful trip-planning information. Their work to provide up-to-date information on permits, regulations, and ‘Leave No Trace’ principles helps to protect the visitor experience and the qualities that make the Pacific Northwest Trail so special for generations to come.
Learn more at www.pnt.org.