PCT Hiking – It’s All About the People

I’m considering thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  I figured a “shake-down” hike would help me get a sense of what to expect.

So I loaded up my pack with my new, lighter gear and set off on a solo trip along the PCT.  I started at Castella near Mount Shasta and planned on hiking north 40 miles to a road crossing where a friend would pick me up.

I had no expectations of the trip other than wanting to test out my gear and get a taste of thru-hiking.

What I didn’t expect was how social the experience would be.  Within a few miles I met a couple thru-hikers – two women in their 20’s sitting side-by-side on a log.  One of them was topless.   Okay, that’s interesting.

I continued on.

It was hot and I stopped at a stream to filter drinking water.  That’s when the topless woman walked by – this time with her top on.  We said hello and she continued on.  After filling my water bottles, I hit the trail again.

I came across the topless woman again, this time while she was talking with two hikers with dogs.  As a former Aussie Shepherd owner, I loved dogs.  So I stopped and joined the conversation, then continued on.  Within a mile, the topless woman caught up with me and we started a conversation.

What It’s Like Being a Woman of Color and Queer on the PCT

As I suspected, she was a thru-hiker.  But, because of the heavy snows in Southern California this spring, she was “flipping” – skipping ahead to do open sections, then planning to return south to do the uncompleted sections after the snow melted.

We started with the usual small talk – where she started (Campo), whether she’d “flipped” (yes), where she lived (Bay Area), and what her profession was (onsite masseuse at Google, Facebook and other tech giants).  And of course I asked her about what gear – always, the gear conversation! – she had.

Then it got interesting.

Most hikers in the outdoors are white – especially dedicated backpackers.  But she wasn’t.  We’d been having a cool conversation thus far, and I was curious about her experiences on the trail as a woman of color.

Wanting to respect her, I opened with, “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions that might be a bit more personal?  And I fully understand and if you don’t.”

She seemed to find this interesting and aid “Sure, go for it.” So I proceeded.

“What’s it like being a woman of color on the PCT?  I know it’s wholly contained within blue states (CA, OR and WA), but many of the resupply are conservative – some very conservative.  What’s your experience been like?”

She thought for a moment.

“Well, I have mixed parents, so I’m half white, half black.  But often I get mistaken for Latin.  Also, people can’t always tell if I’m male or female (and indeed, she has a gender-neutral look).”

“Most towns are fine.  But there are times when I’ve been hitching and been called nigger and spic.  Fortunately, I grew up in a family where I learned to be tough, so it doesn’t get to me as much as it might others.”

I winced and let that sink in.  As an older white male, I couldn’t even imagine what she had to go through and said so.  She said, “Sometimes it gets pretty challenging.”    

But even more rare, she was also queer – her sexual preference is women.  “What is that like? And when did you know you preferred women?”

Again, I appreciated her vulnerability.  “I knew from the start that I prefer women.  As for the trail, I don’t seem to have any problems hooking up.”

She described how she consistently came across female thru-hikers who found her alluring and wanted to hook up.  Straight women also found her – because of her gender-neutral appearance – to be attractive.

So she hooked up with them too.  In fact, she hooked up with a woman that night where we camped.

Day 2 – The Big Uphill Push

There were few campsites on the PCT section I did.  After hiking 10 miles, and with evening approaching, I joined a dozen PCT’ers in a makeshift “tent city”.  We chose it because it had enough sites and was the last water source before the trail started a long steep climb.

After setting up my tent, I settled in, cooked, and met some of the other hikers.  But the mosquitoes were relentless, so most of us finished our meals quickly and retreated into our tents.

The next morning I was up at 6 am and on the trail by 7.   Four people from the group were already ahead of me – one of them having gotten started at 5:30 a.m.

And the trail did indeed climb.  Relentlessly.

My pack weighed 40 pounds and I felt every pound of it.  It was a great reminder that “Maybe I don’t need to bring so much stuff.”

Four people passed me in the next few miles.  I then caught up with three women and a guy who’d stopped at a spring.  He said “You might want to fill up on water here, because it could be ten miles before you can get any more.”  I took the hint, pulled out my filter, and started filling them.

They continued on and – after filling  my water bottles – continued on a few minutes behind them.

At the top of the grade they found a flat spot and took a lunch break.  So I joined them, and that’s when the connecting began.

PCT thru-hikers all seem to get “trail names”.  The rules are that somebody else has to give you your trail name.  You can decide whether or not you want to keep the name, but you can’t give yourself a trail name.

I asked them what their trail names were.  One of the women was named “Socks” because of the bright pink socks she always wore.  “Grumption” got her name because of her sheer determination.  “Pocahontas” got her name because of her long hair.  And “Hitch Bait” got his because – well, I guess because he was the one who would hitch rides for the group when they needed to go off-trail and into town.

So there I was with Hitch Bait, Socks, Grumption and Pocahantas.

We all finished lunch and I tagged on to their group.  They were easy going and hiking at a pace that – while faster than mine – still let me catch up with them whenever they stopped.

Racking up the Miles

The original plan was to go 12, maybe 15 miles.  But after gaining the ridgeline the trail flattened and we racked up the miles.  12, 14, 16 … and we kept moving forward.

All the while, the group seemed to warm up to me and let me hang out with them.  It just felt like a natural thing to do.

Because this was a shake-down hike for me, and because I’d only done two backpacking trips in the past decade, I had no idea of what sort of distance I might be capable of.

After 16 miles I was starting to wear down.  But we didn’t come across any great campsites – only small, constricted sites a few yards off the trail.

Meanwhile … “out there” at mile 21 there was a lake that beckoned with the promise of great views, lots of tent sites, and a place to not only get water – but also to swim.

At mile 18, Hitch and Grumption asked whether I felt I could go that far.  I was exhausted, but still had some energy, and said “Go big or go home, right?”  So we continued on.

For whatever reason, I hadn’t felt hungry all day.  All I’d eaten were a few handfuls of gorp. At mile 21, there was a quarter-mile spur that went to the lake.  I started up the hill and then hit “the wall”.

Toasted.  Depleted.  Done.  I sat down on a rock and zoned out.

That’s when Socks showed up.  She is a nurse by profession.  And that medical background – combined with her trail miles – enabled her to quickly diagnose my condition.

Even better … she came up with a solution: sugar treats!  Socks pulled out a honey cracker and a bag of delicacies including gummy bears and M&Ms. I took two handfuls, gulped them down and thanked her in gratitude.  Within minutes I felt the sugar rush and found the energy to continue the last few hundred yards to the lake.

Hanging Out at the Lake

It was at Porcupine Lake where my friendship with them deepened.   We were the only ones camped in our area, so we had only ourselves for company.

That’s when I learned more about them.  Hitch is from the L.A. area and designs sneakers, but he’d like to break out and do more of his own artwork. His girlfriend Grumption does industrial sales and likes the security of it, but also feels a desire to seek other opportunities.

Pocahontas is originally from Germany, but has lived in Australia, London and Canada – and her accent is curiously influenced by all of these places. She’s been job hopping around the world, and isn’t sure where she’ll end up next.

And Socks turned out to be quite the adventurer.  Her “base” is in San Diego, and she’s both a nurse and flight attendant.  But her passion is hiking.  She’s done the Tahoe Rim Trail and other long hikes in the Sierras.  She also volunteers her time for the Iditarod race in Alaska.

The four of them had quickly formed as a “tramily” (i.e., “trail family”).   Because of the heavy snows in the Sierras this year, they – along with many others – decided to “flip” northward to save the icy passes of the southern Sierra for later.

Wrapping It All Up

From what I experienced with these four, and also from watching vlogs and reading posts by other PCT’ers, the formation of tramilies is common.  Some seem to come together because of specific challenges – such as snow passes – where there is safety in numbers.  Others, like the one I connected with, found an ease with each other and hiked a similar paces.

For me, it was eye opening to see this social side of the PCT.  A friend who hiked the trail described it to me.  But experiencing it made the concept real.  And I liked it.  I saw my “fab four” again by driving north to met them again along the trail.  They feel like family.

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