I step out of the airport in San Diego to a warm, breezy April afternoon. I feel sweat begin to accumulate on my back. This, and the weight of my pack on my back remind me of what’s to come. It’s already hot, and we’re on the coast. I can’t image what the desert will feel like. Tomorrow I will be setting off from the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail deep in the desert of Southern California as I attempt to walk to Canada.
What in the hell am I doing here? How did I get here?
There’s a knot in my stomach. It’s a nervous tension that reminds me of starting high school, meeting my college roommate, starting my first job, moving to a brand new city, taking a job I feel highly under-qualified for… all at once. I’m excited, petrified, slightly confused how I got here and on the verge of puking and/or crying.
I stand with Sean, his dad Steve and a few other hikers as we group in some shade, looking for a van with a pom-pom that will scoop us up and transport us to Scout and Frodo’s house. Scout and Frodo are trail angels who for many years have been hosting hundreds if not thousands of eager hikers the night before they start the trail. They provide a place to sleep, meals, hiker boxes, a full mail station and a ride to the trail. These people are truly angels walking this earth. They do this all without accepting a dime.
Inside the van, there’s nervous chatter. We small talk. Where everyone is from. Is it our first time in San Diego? Why are we hiking the trail? Is it our first thru hike? Do we feel ready? What are we most excited about? What have we all heard about the first water carry? Are we nervous about the water situation in the desert?
The van winds through the tree covered streets of a neighborhood. We then pull into a cul-de-sac and I look to see a giant PCT banner on a lovely house, tucked at the back. This must be the place.
We pile out of the van, grabbing our packs. Why does mine feel so heavy? Is this even my pack? Sheesh. It is. What is even IN here? I grab it and follow the rest of the hikers as we file into the house. There are hikers lounging. Hikers eating. Hikers nervously going through their gear.
We’re greeted by a sweet, kind woman. It’s Frodo. She’s all business. She’s got this program down pat. She tells us to find a spot in one of the many giant tents in the backyard and put our things there. This is where we’ll sleep. We disperse, find a spot and gather back with her a few minutes later for the official orientation.
Frodo gives us the tour. It’s so. much. information. There are folders with lots of PCT information for us to take, including the massively important water report. She gives us a run down of the nearby grocery stores for last minute resupplies. She shows us where we can get drinks and snacks while we’re there. Gives us the rundown on how dinner will work. And most importantly, tells us that we must be outside with our packs ready to go (and fully packed) by 6am the following day. We’ll eat breakfast together. We’re not to talk above a whisper in the morning as we load into volunteers cars so that we don’t bother the neighbors. We’ll all caravan to the trailhead.
My stomach drops.
‘Any questions?’ she asks. I say nothing. I’m too overwhelmed to say anything. But I have SO many questions… that she can’t possibly answer. Why did I think I could do this? How will I know how much water I need? What if I hate it? How many people have been bitten by rattlesnakes? Can I really do this?
I sort of want to run away.
Instead, I walk to where I had put my things and set up my sleeping bag, pillow and quilt for the night. I then realize that I need to book it to the REI because my sleeping pad leaked for the past two nights while I used it during a music festival. But first, Sean, Stephen and I walk to the grocery store to finish off our food supply for the next several days.
I walk into the grocery store and start wandering around aimlessly. I have no clue what I need. I’ve got most of my food, but could use some snacks and lunches. I don’t even know what I’ll want out there. I’ve gone backpacking before, but nothing like this. What is going to sound good when I’m exhausted, covered in dirt and sweat in 95 degree weather? I grab a few protein bars, some salami, some tortillas and some chocolate. I head over to find SmartWater bottles, but the place where they should be is totally empty.
Hikers. They’ve already gotten to them. This is a trend that would continue happening throughout the trail. Thankfully Steve convinced an employee to check the back and she came back with a case of them. Success! We wouldn’t die of thirst after all. I pay for my things, order a Lyft to REI and wait outside.
I walk into REI and it’s total chaos. It’s SO busy compared to the one in my little Colorado mountain town. Thankfully, I know what I need, so I find the sleeping pads. Of course, they have every one except the size I need. There’s got to be one in the back, right? There’s a sales associate helping out a guy, so I wait until he’s finished. But the customer is asking every single question that one could possibly ask about sleeping pads. It’s never-ending. Normally this wouldn’t bug me, but I’m a walking ball of nerves. I just want to get out of there.
I wander around picking up a few other things that I don’t need. My pack is already heavy, after all. I head back to the sleeping pads and the questions from the same customer are still flying. So I set off to find someone – anyone – to help me. Just then, a lady whizzes by me. ‘Excuse me – can you help me?’ She stops… clearly not wanting to, but does anyway. I explain what I need and she says, “Meet me at the customer service desk. I’ll see what I can find.” She disappears for another 10 minutes. She comes back out with her arms full of sleeping pads. Every size and style of the Thermarest pads they have. We go through them one-by-one… and then she hands me the right kind and length. I squeal. I feel a little embarrassed that I’m this excited, but this is my bed for the next several months. It’s sort of important.
I make it back to Scout and Frodo’s what seems like an eternity later. I’m feeling oddly antisocial. I have no idea what to even say to anyone. I feel like a total fraud, to be honest. Some hikers seem so comfortable already and everyone seems to know everyone already. I hide in the tent I’ll be sleeping in, going through my gear for a bit. I finally force myself to rip off the proverbial bandaid and go make friends. This hesitation is so out of character for me. I typically have no problems making friends in social situations. But my nerves are getting the best out of me.
I walk out to the backyard and sit in a plastic chair that is sitting in a giant circle with lots of other hikers. It feels like summer camp. I ask the guy next to me where he’s from. Seattle. We start chatting. He and his wife are doing the trail together. We small talk about all things trail…and about living in cities… what we did professionally before this. Cool. I got this. Friendship! Fellow hikertrash!
Frodo appears from the kitchen, announcing its time for dinner. There’s a tall, wiry, smiley gray-haired man standing next to her. He has a resting-pleasant-face. It’s Scout. He says a few words. He’s funny. I like him. She introduces us to a volunteer that made much of the meal that we’re about to eat. We applaud. There’s probably 30 or 40 hikers there, so it’s no small feat. I don’t feel hungry, but I line up to eat. This is, after all, my fuel for my first day on the PCT!
I sit down with my plate and seem to have forgotten how to use my hands. I’m ungracefully fumbling around with my fork. I can’t believe how nervous I am. I need to snap out of it. It’s just walking! I came into this feeling so prepared… and that’s all gone out the window. After a minute, I remember how a fork works and begin scarfing down the delicious lasagna, garlic bread and salad that’s in front of me. We’re told we can go through and get seconds, so I do. And then out comes the cookies. I feel like it’s my last meal on Earth.
After we finish eating, Scout and Frodo sit in the circle and give us a little talk about the trail. The goal is to get us started off on the right foot. They talk about Leave No Trace. How to graciously accept trail magic and how to interact with trail angels. They talk about the PCTA. They tell us funny stories about when they did their own PCT thru hikes. Everyone is giggling. The collective nervous energy is relaxing.
We help with dinner clean up. Now what? I’m not really sure what to do with myself. I’ve unpacked and re-packed my pack 10 times. I don’t have any more chores to do. I walk into the living room. There are quite a few hikers sitting in there, nervously chatting. So I situate myself on the living room floor, near a few other women. We start talking about how excited but nervous we all are. We talk about why we’re hiking the trail. These girls are nice. I like them. Talking to them makes me realize I’m NOT the only one having a complete internal freakout meltdown. We laugh about it all and I can feel myself start to relax.
Scout walks in with a guitar and sits down. He starts telling stories about the trail. He asks us to go around the room and say what we’re most excited about about the trail. He then starts singing. He sings an unfamiliar, beautiful song. Then sings a couple of songs the group knows. We all join in. Frodo sits down with him and they sing the sweetest duet. It’s clear they’re very much in love. I find myself with an unconscious, genuine smile plastered onto my face, slowly swaying back and forth. I’m fighting back tears. I look around at all of the unfamiliar, smiling faces that I will eventually become friends with. These are my people. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m happy.
At about 9pm (aka ‘hiker midnight’), we all head to bed. I brush my teeth and crawl into my brand new sleeping pad and quilt. I lay there, unable to sleep. I immediately notice how hot it is. Sweating. I fling my quilt off to the side. I drift in and out of sleep all night. I’m too excited. And hot. So hot.
Tomorrow, my whole life is going to change.
I wake up at 5am. It’s my birthday. I quietly pack up my things and put my pack out front. There are already quite a few packs lined up, ready to go. I head into the house for breakfast. Everyone is sleepy but cheerful. Scout and Frodo take attendance, to ensure everyone who is heading to the trail is ready to go. Once this important task is finished, Scout says “Everyone, we have a birthday to celebrate this morning! It’s Sarah Wallace’s birthday. Let’s all sing to her!” And the room sings – all 30 or so hikers. I’m slightly embarrassed, but so, so touched. I’m trying hard not to burst into tears. We finish up and everyone makes their way outside. Hiker after hiker comes up to me, wishing me a happy birthday. Coolest. Birthday. Ever.
We pile into cars somewhat haphazardly. It’s an organized chaos. I load my pack into the back of a truck and crawl into a nearby car. I’m slightly uncomfortable with being separated from my pack. It’s my life for the next few months, after all. I’m sitting next to a girl named Alexis, one of the girls I was chatting with the night before. We talk about our lives. The landscape quickly changes from the city to rolling desert hills. It’s starting to feel very, very (way too) real.
After an hour and a half or more, we pull onto a dirt road. We’re in the middle of nowhere. The car stops. I get out. I can’t even tell where the monument actually is. I then notice people walking up a hill – it must be up there. I’m ready to go… but my pack is nowhere to be found. The truck with my pack is still behind us. A few of us stand around awkwardly waiting for the truck to arrive. So anticlimactic. I silently laugh to myself. The truck finally pulls up. I grab my pack and head up. Oof. It’s even heavier now with the four liters of water.
There it is. The Southern Terminus. The monument I’ve seen a million pictures of. It’s surrounded by desert with the boundary wall to my left. One by one, each hiker takes their obligatory picture. And a final group picture. Everyone stands around for a bit and one by one, people walk down the hill. I put on my pack and follow. I fumble with my trekking poles a bit and start clumsily trying to use them. I’ve never used them while hiking before, but know they’re going to save my legs and knees (Foreshadowing: I had NO idea how invaluable they would be to me…). But for now, I look like a drunk praying mantis. I take my first few steps of the PCT. It’s a beautiful, sunny morning. I’m smiling and feeling good. I can do this. I WILL do this.