Why Do You Want to Do This?

In response to my post, Date With a Driveway, a reader very respectfully asked, “Why do you want to do this?”

If by “this” she means the short backpacking trip I’ve planned for the coming weekend, the answer is easy: I need to know if I can do it. There is no dance class on Thursday, so I will have a few days up in the hills (including a punishing hike up to the Pacific Crest Trail) to see what I can do. There is a campground close to the connecting trail, so that if those three uphill miles are all I can do that first day, I’ll have a place to hang out and recuperate. And shortly beyond that, there is another campground if I am too exhausted to hike very far. Besides which, it’s a fairly well-traveled part of the PCT so that I won’t be completely isolated my first time out.

If by “this” she means hiking the Pacific Crest Trail itself, that’s a more complicated question, though oddly, one I haven’t asked myself recently. It’s just something that’s been in and out of my head for a long time.

Many years ago, when Jeff first got really sick and I realized how devastating his death would be for me, I read about the Pacific Crest Trail and I figured hiking the whole thing would be a great way to lose myself after he was gone. After he died, I was too busy and too distraught (such a mild word for the tsunamis of grief I experienced!) to think of anything at all.

During those first months (and years!) of grief, I used to walk for hours in the desert. I always had to make sure I had enough energy to get back to the house, and so I wondered what it would be like to walk and just keep on walking without having to return to the starting place. It seemed as if it would be so freeing — just walking forever without a thought in my head or a care of any kind except to walk. And oh, did I want that freedom!

Then one day, I went on a search for the San Andreas Fault, and came across a marker for the Pacific Crest Trail.

I took a few steps up the trail, in awe at being on such a legendary path. It surprised me that the trail was so far inland — somehow, never before having been to any Pacific coast state, I figured any such long distance trail would follow the coastline. (The California Coast Trail is something completely different, and isn’t really a trail so much as an partially connected bunch of trails, paths, sidewalks, beaches and boardwalks with very few places to camp.)

I liked the idea of walking away from my life and my grief. Liked the idea of all the new experiences — perhaps even some sort of transcendental experience — such a long hike would bring, experiences that would buffer me from my now dead life and take me further into a new life. Liked the thought that maybe I wouldn’t be me at the end of all that, that maybe I would become strong and wise and able to handle growing old alone. Liked the idea of connecting with the universe. (Being disconnected from that one particular person left me feeling as if I had no connection to the earth or to anything, as if I were hovering uncomfortably to the side of life or even worse, eternally falling into the abyss.)

A couple of months after the San Andreas Fault hunt, I started walking in the evenings with a hiking group, and from that sprang a few day hikes on the PCT. It was during our evening walks that the topic of a thru hike first came up (thru hiking means hiking the whole thing from Mexico to Canada in one hiking season). Gradually I learned how difficult such an undertaking would be, not just the vast swaths of land one had to cover each day but also the lack of water in many places and the dearth of stores to buy food along the way. Every book/article/blog about hiking the PCT also talked about hitching a ride to this town or that, and the thought of hitching as much as anything else made the idea seem impossible.

So I gave up on the idea and instead went on a cross-country road trip.

A few months ago, I listened to the song, “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” Having an impossible dream seemed like such a wonderful thing, and then I realized I did have such a dream — to thru hike the PCT. (Such dreams seem to run in my family — though he never attempted it, I remember my father talking about wanting to walk up the coast of Portugal.)

So I started backpacking practice. I mean, a dream that goes nowhere, a dream that just sits in the back of your head seems like no dream at all. Thru hiking the PCT in a single season really is impossible for me. Multi-year thru hiking might also be impossible. But attempting any sort of hike on the trail seems worth taking a chance. It beats stagnation, right? Beats sitting alone in a rented room and reading about life. Beats fading away into loneliness and decrepitude.

And I still want the new experiences, want to see things up close at walking pace and not as they pass by outside my car window. I still want whatever changes such an experience will bring, especially physical and mental strength. I still want to walk away from my solitary life. I still want a deeper connection to . . . something. And I still want to be free.

An illusion? Perhaps.

An impossible dream? Probably.

And yet there the trail is. And here I am, at least for now. The twain must meet, wouldn’t you think?

On the other hand, all this could be bunk. It’s possible the whole PCT dream is my way of fleeing from the unthinkableness of the past decade and the even more unthinkableness of the coming decades.

Whatever . . .

I’m still heading out at the end of the week to see what I can see.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.