Elina Osborne leaves the comforts of home for the unforgiving climes of the Pacific Crest Trail
I had been told to prepare my mind.
To know my "why", to understand my motivation, because this would be the thing that would pull me through those tough days. Because there'd be plenty of them.
It was a question I faced before I left, a question I loved asking others, and a question I continue to face now that I'm back home. Why?
It took me 137 days - that's roughly four-and-a-half months of walking more than 30 kilometres a day.
When I look at that sentence I can't fathom it either. Why would anyone carve that amount of time from their life… to walk?
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For me, I've always loved the outdoors. That's almost a given growing up in New Zealand. The trail had only ever entered my mind as a fleeting impractical thought after I read Cheryl Strayed's Wild, seven years before.
But in 2018 my mum was diagnosed with Myeloma, a treatable but incurable form of blood cancer. Her world was flipped upside down. So was our family's. It was in this moment where I took a step back to recognise how finite life truly is. Admittedly, it took the classic tale of heartbreak for me to take the leap. After some healing I realised I had no real commitments or expectations that I'd once let shroud my decision-making. So I set off.
The Pacific Crest is a trail still relatively unknown to Kiwis, spanning 4270km in length from the Mexican border, up through California, Oregon, then Washington into Canada.
The first section is desert. It's here that hikers are usually given their "trail name." It's a rite-of-passage, a gift of new identity and in my case Tip Tap for supposedly having an odd way of using my trekking poles.
2019 was an unseasonably wet year that saw rain, hail and snow. I was told I wouldn't need my rain jacket out until the last sections of the trail. But I pulled it out almost every other day in the desert alone. We called this stretch "training wheels on fire".
It was also a year of "high snow", a phrase that meant nothing while I sat comfortably at home reading about it in preparation. But as a through-hiker, the weight of these words came down on me like a freezing cold river traverse, water above my waist, fighting against the current in pure concentration to avoid falling to my demise. A year of 200 per cent snowpack. It. Was. Rough. There's no other way to put it.
There were 3am starts to avoid walking through afternoon slush, wet shoes, wet socks, wet feet all day, cold evenings, and even colder mornings when all I wanted to do was curl up in my sleeping bag and eat rationed food I knew I shouldn't. Elevation, climbing, river crossings. A month of this, and we all emerged from the sierras feeling like the most bad**s humans alive.
A bit like home
Next came the milestones. We were out of the sierras and in the latter half of our hike, but it felt like we'd lived multiple lifetimes. More forgiving terrain and lush green forest came next, more like New Zealand.
Finally, we crossed from Oregon into Washington over the "Bridge of the Gods" and this was where it started to hit home. With the vast mountain range ahead and the promise of the biggest climbs and descents on the entire trail, it still wouldn't hurt as much as the feeling that it would all be over soon. As much as I wanted to reach the end, I equally didn't want to let go of this complete connectedness, the beauty around me, and the people that I now called family.
All the preparation, all the research, all the logistics. As quickly as the beginning had come around, it was also coming to an end. All to return home and face what is known as post-trail depression. What is home now that we know we can survive out here, now that we know what our bodies and minds are capable of? What is home when we know we've built a new family of people who are spread across the world?
Just a walk... all the way to Canada
Yes, the Pacific Crest Trail is a long walk through the desert, snow, mountains and valleys, but it becomes so much more. Everyone out there has plucked themselves from their soft-pillowed beds and made the decision to work towards this single purpose of walking to Canada.
It's a concept so far removed from what the "real world" is like. My sanity was most certainly questioned as well as the likelihood that my body could withstand walking almost every day for months on end.
It's easy to assume that people are out on the trail to find themselves. That concept deterred me from doing it in the first place - the stigma that I needed finding and the idea that I didn't know myself.
But when I made the decision, it came from someplace else. I realised it wasn't to find myself. I was going to do the Pacific Crest Trail to create myself. To create a life I could look back on and be proud of.
The Pacific Crest Trail is so much bigger than a nature walk.
How can I explain what this experience meant to me? I can't.
How can I describe the childlike wonder, openness and trust I've regained? Or explain the sense of finding and building a new community, one ever-connected through our time out there?
Because that's what I found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
"He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata."
It's always the people.