Five years ago, at this very moment, I was on a flight somewhere between Chicago and San Diego. It was the first time I’d ever been on an airplane, but that was hardly the most significant event of the day. In the belly of that aircraft stacked amongst piles of luggage sat a brand new ULA backpack, and in it all the material possessions I would need for the next five months to survive. I was on my way to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and about to embark on the greatest adventure of my life.
It’s hard to believe it’s been that long, and even more perplexing to grasp how, in this brief span of time, so much has changed. In reflecting on these events, I recently revisited my old trail journal and came across an entry that absolutely floored me. The following was written on April 23, 2007, as I nervously sorted my gear and prepared to head out for the PCT.
“-Wow. This is really happening. I can hardly believe it, but after talking and focusing on this for so long, the time has arrived. In roughly twelve hours I’ll be leaving for Chicago. I’ll spend the night there and hop a plane for San Diego Tuesday morning. Crazy.
This past week has been every bit as hectic as I’d anticipated, and then some. And still is. I’m ready to go, but my gear doesn’t seem to be. All strewn across the floor in one massive pile, maps and guidebooks somewhere beneath. Do I have everything? Am I forgetting something? Where should I send that new pair of socks? Will I need my sleeping bag liner in the desert? Wait a minute, where’s my backpack?!!! It will all come together. I hope.
As nuts as this short stay in Iowa has been, it’s been good to me. I’ve gotten to see some friends, some family, often saying hello and goodbye in the same breath, but that’s okay. I got to take in an Old Crow Medicine Show concert the other night in Iowa City, which was awesome. That alone will keep me slapping my knees and stomping my feet through the first couple of hundred miles, (That and the early morning numbness I might encounter if in fact I did need that bag liner!) I also spent a gorgeous night gazing up at the stars, sitting and visiting around a campfire, reminiscing, as in many nights gone by.
Best of all, I got to spend some time with my nephew Grady. I love that little guy, he’s only two but I swear he’s ready for kindergarten. Grady and I have always been very close, so it was pretty hard for me spending this past winter away from him. Maybe even harder than I’d realized. At that age, he doesn’t really understand why Uncle Josh has to go away, just that I’m gone. I try and find explanations that he can relate to. For instance, this past winter I wasn’t working the ski lifts, I was “in Montana scooping snow.” The boy’s got a vivid imagination. He likes to make believe, piling pillows on my parents bed then proclaiming that he’s “climbing a mountain.” So now, I’m not setting off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. “Uncle Joshy has to go climb some mountains…”
Grady seems to approve. The term highest peak in the lower 48 may not mean anything to him, but in a few months when I summit Mt. Whitney, I’ll be doing it with my little buddy in mind.
Ironincally, on the verge of this grand adventure that’s going to require total focus and concentration, being at home has caused my mind to drift, wondering what lies beyond. Where will this hike take me, what am I going to do once it’s all over? The easy answer is I finish this and get set to return for another season on Big Mountain. I don’t know if I’ll go straight to Montana or come back here first, I do plan to return to Iowa for at least a couple of weeks in the fall. As much as I love this place, love my friends and family, miss them while I’m away, I’ve come to realize that at this point in time Montana is probably where I want to be. So that’s the plan.
However, there is more to it. For instance, do I settle in for awhile, or turn around and start planning for the next excursion? Here I am torn. My mind races with the possibilities. Other trails, finish the AT, hike the CDT, complete the Triple Crown. Other endeavors I’ve been toying with, perhaps even more extreme. At the same time, I’m kind of starting to feel like I might like to stay put somewhere for awhile. For the past three years it’s just been one trip after another, always saving, always planning, always looking ahead. I’ve had some great experiences, but have made a lot of sacrifices. I’ve had to scrap for everything I’ve done, and it hasn’t been easy. Maybe it’s time to take a break. For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me I need to write a book of my travels, and honestly, that’s always been the plan. Maybe I should allow myself the time to work on that. Perhaps I should get back in school, but then again, maybe not. I learn more out on the trail. Maybe I should get serious about finding a relationship. Despite my nomadic lifestyle, I do still hope to one day find a girl and settle down (and you’d better believe my Mom and Aunt Debbie just breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief!) It’s kind of hard to find someone when you’re constantly planning on leaving. Who knows.
Okay, shake it off. I don’t know where that all came from, just some of those passing thoughts that somehow tend to arise amidst the chaotic whirlwind of life altering moments in time. I have more pressing issues to be concerning myself with, like bear spray and the San Diego transit system, and saying goodbye to Iowa once again. That’s what’s at hand, but I know, though temporarily put to rest, these thoughts always remain. Maybe I just need a nice long walk to figure things out…”
The following afternoon I got off that plane in San Diego and took a series of connecting buses to where I would stay for the night. Stepping off the last shuttle into the blaring California sun, I glanced up to see a pair of guys who looked like ZZ Top on vacation. They sat casually on the ground leaned against a fence, each dressed in earth toned cargo shorts, buttoned sun shirts, had an impressive head start on their hiker beards and wore dark sunglasses. The two stood to greet me. “Dude” I had met three years before and hiked with for several weeks on the Appalachian Trail. We hadn’t seen each other since, but he’d been instrumental in convincing me to come out and do the PCT. He greeted me with a smile and introduced me to his younger brother Tracy. I turned and shook hands with the man who would one day officiate my wedding.
I can’t even begin to express the magnitude of events which would unfold from that point on. In the weeks and months to follow I would make some of the best friends I have ever known and meet and fall in love with the girl who would eventually become my wife. I would stare down rattlesnakes, savor fields of wildflowers and climb plenty of mountains with young Grady in mind. Putting one foot in front of the other along that simple dirt path I came to not only realize, but appreciate, all that is extraordinary in life.
Looking back that early trail journal post seems almost prophetic. Somehow I managed to touch on several topics that set the tone for today. I would go back to Montana, and later Iowa. I’d found that girl, would go back to school, and I guess for the time we’ve settled down. I suppose it’s common for us as hikers to think back on the start of a journey and feel we’d give anything to turn back time and be in that moment again. Really, that’s common for anyone reflecting on the fonder moments in life. However, I don’t want to dwell on that now. Instead I choose to celebrate this as the anniversary of new beginnings. From the moment I left to hike the PCT, each step has brought experiences and confidence that has directly influenced the person I am today. I wouldn’t change a thing.
As I write this, a few hundred adventurous, intrepid souls are in varying stages of making their way to California to join the ranks of those of us who have poured our hearts into the Pacific Crest Trail. To this year’s class I wish luck, safe travels, and all of the magic that this sacred path has to offer. You have an amazing journey in store, but in setting out I encourage you to pause and consider the moment. From this point forward, you will never be the same.
And that’s life…