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  • Emily Hayes

How it all began

First published on The Trek.

So here I am, nine years on from the promise I made to myself about thru-hiking the entire PCT before I turned 40. With a week to go until I get on that flight to San Diego and find my way to the Southern Terminus, I’m feeling a strange mixture of emotions.

Before I started my studies as a mature student at university in 2012, I watched “Wild” with my sister. You know the film—it’s the one with Reese Witherspoon acting out the book by Cheryl Strayed. A few weeks later I went on my first wild camping trip in Ireland with my sister, I was captivated by the freedom of the wild and vowed to myself that one day I would do something as amazing as walking the PCT.

Hiking with my sister in Ireland

Eight years later, with a degree and the start of a good career under my belt, coronavirus hits, and the entire world is forced to re-think their priorities. I found myself moving away from my busy party life in London to live back home with family in the rural countryside of England. I’d like to say that I found myself again when I was walking the local footpaths on our permitted 1 hour of exercise a day but really I just needed to have something to plan and keep my mind and spirit occupied during such a miserable time. The PCT drifted back into my thoughts… should I do it? … but what about my job and London flat and friends? … I’m not capable of this… All the normal self-doubt and excuses were there, but still the idea was lingering. Then one day I told a friend of my idea and that solidified my plans, speaking it aloud made it real. Then I continued to tell my family, my colleagues, my boss, and my friends. It was happening. I’m not someone to retreat from an idea once I have committed and shared my plans.

2020 passed and I watched many PCT thru-hikers give up on their plans due to. Covid restrictions. 2021 also passed and I was the wannabe thru-hiker that had to give up on my plans and delay to 2022. The extra time gave me more money, more skills, and more experience (maybe a few extra Instagram followers as well).

I spent my time daydreaming of the mountains but not fully understanding the magnitude of what I had committed to. My first realisation came when I wild camped and hiked a few Munros (Scottish mountains) with the highest elevation at just 900m. My goodness, that was tough. I was ill-prepared with nothing waterproof or performing the function I had expected. I’d bought most of my items years before for that first wild camping trip in Ireland at discount outlets. Nonetheless, I was not deterred, and I began to invest my time and money into upgrading my kit piece by piece and putting it to the test on slightly more challenging routes.

Training wild camp and hike in Scotland

Figuring things out with work was nerve-wracking. I had worked hard at building my role and a team around me, so much so I felt extremely loyal to my colleagues and the business. Talking to my boss, the managing director to tell him about my plans was one of the hardest mental build-ups I’ve had for a while. The crazy thing is, more often than not when the subject is breached about taking six months out of “normal life” to go backpacking as a 30-something-year-old, people are hugely supportive and want to hear more about all the challenges and my plans. Too often we get trapped in societal norms which stop us from challenging our personal values and motivations. I know I’m fortunate to work for a business that can offer me sabbatical leave but from the start, I went into that discussion prepared to leave my role permanently. For the last year leading up to my arrival in the States to begin the PCT, I have been living out of a suitcase. Hopping between friends, family, hotels, and short-term rentals in an attempt to save money and reduce how much of my spare time I spent in London. I was still working in London so fitting everything in became a logistical challenge every week. Organising my possessions, bicycle, laundry, meals, and transport on a budget has become a fine-tuned procedure but it is exhausting. Surely living in a tent with just a backpack and my legs to carry me is going to be a lot easier?

Suitcases packed and ready for flight to USA

I start walking from Campo on the 28 March, I suspect that backpacking the PCT might be a little more challenging than sofa surfing in London …

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