Walking on Empty
Photo taken by the author
As I pulled my phone out of my hip-belt pocket, I propped my heaving body up with my trekking poles and shifted the weight off of my left leg; my navigation app estimated one more mile still to go. Worn, rancid clothes stuck to my equally soiled skin, and the gaiter on my left ankle dug into the ever-swelling leg it covered. The overgrowth that hid the trail kept me from bracing myself as I descended the mountain. Every clumsy, blind step felt like a sucker punch to the gut. Other nights on the trail I’d sail through just one more mile, but this night I broke down. It was past 10:00 p.m. I hadn’t seen Lily since dinner at 5:00 p.m., and no doubt she was sitting at camp wondering when I’d show up with the other half of our tent. I was glad for once that she was so far ahead, that she was so much stronger than I was. I couldn’t let her know how much I was falling apart—how much I doubted I could finish with her. With soggy, uncharacteristic tears I slumped to the dirt in the dark. I had suffered so much to reach our goal. How could more still be asked of me?
April 8, 2021, I began hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in Campo, California, with Lily, my best friend since third grade. Originating at the US–Mexican border, following the mountain crests of California, Oregon, and Washington, and terminating at the US–Canadian border, the Pacific Crest Trail stretches the entire length of the United States. The 2,650 miles of trail traverse hot, water-scarce deserts, snow-covered mountain passes, dense forests, brambled burn zones, and rocky ridges. Finishing the PCT is a crowning accomplishment for avid backpackers—second in length and rigor only to the Continental Divide Trail within the United States. According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the trail generally takes about four and a half to five and a half months to complete. It remains unclear what percentage of the couple thousand permit holders actually makes it all the way to Canada in one hiking season (“Thru-Hiker FAQ” and “Visitor Use Statistics”). As part of our gap year, in order to hike the entire trail before starting college in August, Lily and I had to finish in just four months and a week. We decided to take on the challenge a mere three months before the adventure began. Lily had never backpacked before, and a two-month trip to Costa Rica gave us about a month, all days combined, to plan and “train.” We embarked come victory or toil in a spirit of haphazard spontaneity.
Although I had never through-hiked before, my relationship with backpacking in general began long before Lily’s. When I was nine years old, my dad won a place in the lottery for a ranger-led backpacking trip along Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps. Summer 2011 my dad, my older sister, and I donned packs for the first time and went out into the Sierras with a small group of fellow backpackers lead by Ranger Phaedra. My father fell in love. The Sierra Nevada mountains revealed more raw beauty on our trek than he could resist. He decided then and there that this trip would become an annual tradition. My sister, more horse than human, raced down the trails. Beside my dream-drunk father and long behind my athletic sister, I managed meager step after meager step. Nicknamed “Abba-snail” in my family, speed was never my strong suit to begin with. On multiple occasions on the trip my dad carried my pack for me because I was too tired and hiking too slowly. A few days in, I refused to talk to everyone in our group out of spite. My initial excitement turned to aversion; I hated backpacking, and most of all I hated that I was dragging everyone down. It drove me crazy that I was always exhausted, lagging, and shoring up the rear. Backpacking tore my childhood pride to pieces, and I raged against it internally.
A few years down the line of annual backpacking trips, I began beating everyone in my family to camp. I could hike through an uphill without pausing while my siblings, father, and cousins trailed farther and farther behind. Although both my older sister and younger brother outmatched me in any other physical activity, no one could hike as long and far as I could. On my own, I started to drink from the mountain draught that first intoxicated my father. Every break I couldn’t take in the past, because I walked too slowly, spurred me on with a mulish stubbornness and new-found endurance while the natural beauty propelled me forward. Leaving Lily far behind on our training hikes, I had faith in the legs and lungs I’d built as a cranky child. All my loathing and struggling with backpacking and the strenuous trail had morphed into a loving of and seeking after unfrequented nature in its rawest forms.
Looking forward to the PCT, I had few pressing concerns about the physical toll it proposed given my hiking history. That confidence was shattered on day two of the hike. From that day onward, the trail took every ounce of me, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. On bleaker stretches I wondered if there would be any person in me left if I finished. My right hip and left knee hurt continuously for the first six hundred miles of desert, and it was under these conditions I began to fall in love with PCT. One of my journal entries during the desert section describes my contrasting feelings:
At times every day I will wish for some random, natural occurrence to take me out of my suffering and then at other times I will be walking back from a mile-long, off-trail water detour unable to withhold my smile. I don’t know if I will get the chance again to be more wholly miserable or more perfectly delighted. A lot of this trail, I gather, will be balancing the two. You feel quite at the mercy but of what I cannot say. (Moore)
I was undergoing—to a greater degree—the ordeal of my very first backpacking trip, and, with each strained step, simultaneously deepening my love for hiking. It was my strongest desire and greatest misery to complete the PCT. Although I never hated backpacking with as much fervor as I did as a child, the rage against my incompetence rose again. I would like to say that once I got my feet under me in the first desert section, I experienced that confidence of my later childhood trips, but that was not the case. I grew exponentially in capability, but the trail always asked more of me than I could give. I felt every mile I was battling against the PCT just to keep hiking it. There is no award or prize for completing the PCT—all I can say is that I loved it more than it destroyed me.
I am not alone in grappling with the trail and growing to love the struggle. Naturalist John Muir, who spent decades of his life paving the way for the Sierra Nevada trails Lily and I traversed, explained how the beauty and strife interweave for the dedicated backpacker and how the result is a blessing: “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest!. . . Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day” (Muir, Ch. 2: June 23). The mountains incite us, says Muir, “at once to work and rest.” They raise a menacing challenge while simultaneously offering the purest respite in beauty. The strife increases the worth alongside the value inherent in witnessing natural beauty. As the worth of the accomplishment grew, the more I strove after it—the battle and the beauty together in a wild, constantly compounding, feedback loop.
Returning back to the collapse with which I began this essay, I leaned on the pack—still strapped to my shoulders and waist—sweaty and shivering against it. The fear that the trail had finally vanquished my strung-out limbs, pinned me down in the dirt and brush, and wrung the begrudging tears from my eyes. One hundred miles unhiked, unfilled, and wanting—I had suffered too much to quit, but too much dirt grinds holes in wool toe socks, sometimes your trekking pole just snaps in half, and muscles finally give out. The evening before, while maneuvering over a felled tree, I had injured the tendons that operate the dorsiflexion in my left foot—it too has a breaking point. The leg that carried me had betrayed me, and yet a minute later I heaved myself to my feet with a wince and hobbled, shaky breath and shaky body, one more mile. The next sun rose far too early for me and my injured foot but, with some Advil and a few more teeth marks in my bottom lip, I ventured onward, Lily right behind me. Our first break we perched on the sheer cliff of a gorge. Three massive waterfalls cascaded into each other two-hundred feet below my dangling legs. The misery of the night before had skinned me to receive this moment with total openness. The suffering stripped me; the view transfixed me; through both together I overflowed with delight for the trail. I could not restrain the wild, joyful animal it made me.
My experience could be mistaken for an expression of fighting for what you love, which I define as the act of being courageous enough to stand and defend your passions against opposition. Often times the adage is used to instill activism in the overly passive who might, otherwise unstirred, lose their passion or zeal. It’s the idea that if something matters to you, you will do battle in its name, despite the strength of the opposition or the possible suffering you will inflict in your war—or a little more crudely: “This is the hill I’m willing to die on.” Fighting for what you love is a poetic image that connects warlike striving and what it means to find a sense of purpose beyond oneself.
Similar to this well-understood connection there is another less commonly lauded relationship between fighting and love and that is the direct war between you and the beloved. It is what I confronted on the PCT. I did not protect or defend or endure the trail in the face of external opposition but rather suffered, kneeled, and stretched with the trail as my cruel teacher. Annie Dillard in her essay “Living Like Weasels” offers a vivid description of what living for this kind of love looks like:
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.
With a locked jaw and shredded flesh, we have not defined our love by what we would do to others for it but by what we would let it do to us. This seizing necessity is why I was walking on empty in the first place and why I kept on walking.
The danger of this kind of love is apparent. Certain manifestations make it appear ultimately harmful or dangerous. The consequences of a love ferocious as a weasel are severe, according to Dillard. I will not deny that such a love forgoes or, more precisely, supersedes reason. Abandoning reason puts you at risk if you are not careful about what or to whom you are submitting. This irrationality leaves the lover exposed to potential trauma that does not add worth to the relationship but, instead, makes it toxic. However, can the dull eyes of the reasonable compare to those gleaming with the weasel’s fervor as they burn from the socket? You must be careful with such powerful devotion; it becomes terrible to the extent the beloved is a brutal rival. I cannot say where things get the most raw and real; for me it is some two thousand miles of backcountry in the West. Whatever eagle you sink your teeth into, the emotional and spiritual wilderness you experience may leave you questioning whether you’ve lost your mind. The external wilderness the PCT forced me to learn how to forge ahead in the uncharted territory of the soul.
Now having successfully hiked the whole 2,650 miles, I can thankfully say I am not entirely a chewed-up weasel—at least not anymore. Had I not made it, like many of my fellow hikers, the significance of the trek would be none the less as long as I still exceeded my capacity or personal best. The worth is in the degree to which you love. Those who could not finish, at least the honorable among them, clearly battled to their max: a point only known by and specific to each individual. The love, and consequently the worth of one’s deed, is equal even if the miles are not. You do not have to be hiking the PCT to experience such ferocious love. It abounds in any ruthless passion, in weasels and eagles. My journey, in particular, revealed to me how deeply worth is tied to finding the will to endure love, which will be great to the extent you give yourself up to it. A savage love depends on the beloved’s shrieking a war cry against the lover and the lover’s charging into battle against it—this played out as a war directly between me and the trail itself. The relationship develops meaning and intensity with conflict. The more of you that you can kneel down, unreserved to be taken up and ravaged and enlightened by the beloved, the more you have learned to love.