Tuesday, April 7, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 42: An Existential Crisis

DAY 42
June 5th, 2014, Thursday
?? to 736

We woke up that day intending to make it very far, but we were slow in getting ready. The landscape had changed: we were walking through wide pine forests and landslides of tumbled boulders interspersed with trees, though we were mostly in the woods. Dramatic columns of sandstone reared up on either side now and then. It was undeniably gorgeous. But here, at the beginning of the new phase of the journey, we had our first huge existential crisis.

It started with a conversation about whether or not Christians should do dangerous things or take dangerous occupations, since it puts them in danger of dying instead of living on to share the gospel. (A very interesting debate, though I tend to have a negative reaction to idolizing safety.) This turned to the question of, “Should a Christian climb Mount Everest?” which turned into a question of, “Should anyone climb Mount Everest?” which led to, “Should anyone do something really hard even if it’s been done before?”

Which of course, led to the question, “Why the HECK are we hiking this trail?”

Certainly not to do someone no one had ever done before. Over a thousand people were hiking the trail this year alone. Not for the nature— we could do a much shorter trip, or skip around and hit up the spots we thought were most beautiful. Not to “find ourselves”— we knew exactly where and who we were, thank you very much.

We also could not pretend that we were doing this for missions. Despite being among pretty much exclusively non-Christians, we didn’t usually talk to people about God because it never came up in a two-minute conversation about how many liters of water to take for this stretch. (“And speaking of water, let me tell you about the Living Water of Jesus Christ!”)

We were away from our families, and would be for several more months.

We were aching, tired, and hungry, and would be for several more months.

We were homeless.

We were not earning money, and would probably end up in debt.

Why the heck were we doing this?!

I don’t know how long our conversation actually lasted, but it felt like it went on for hours as we talked in circles about it. We talked about our 40 days in the desert. We talked about how neither of us felt that we had learned anything particularly meaningful or spiritual on this trip— no more than we did at home. The famous explanation for why do anything, “Because it’s there,” seemed pretty lame in such a circumstance.

In the end, Zach was only able to console me when he compared the trail to art. “If you felt the urge to create art,” he asked, “even if you knew you’d never make money off of it, or never serve any utilitarian purpose with it— would you still make art?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Then we have to hike this trail.”

That answer was enough to keep me going, at least for another day.

(Somewhat failed selfie)
Sometime during this day, we reached 10,000 feet of elevation, a height we’d stay at, above or near for the next few weeks. Fortunately, we never had any adverse reactions to the elevation (although I often tried to blame my breathlessness on it). 

That was also the day when we began to realize that we were in ridiculously picturesque scenery. No matter where we looked, in any direction, we saw a scene from an outdoors calendar. Huge tumbled boulders, pinnacles of rock, massive-trunked cypress trees twisted by wind and weather, open pine forests, tumbled bare peaks with dead trees, sudden views that revealed the jagged pale gray line of snow-capped mountains in the distance, unexpected windows looking back into the desert far below. The gorgeousness, at least to my Midwestern eyes, was exhausting.

It took me ages to figure out why the Sierra felt so different from the desert forests we’d traversed before, and it finally struck me: clouds! They billowed in the sky overhead, constantly morphing, covering and revealing the blue. The desert had some clouds, but nothing like this.

We were alone for most of the day, which was quite a change after the busyness of the desert. We did hike for a while with a man who had grown up in Switzerland but lived the past twenty years in Seattle. 

People spread out a lot more in the Sierra, since camping and water were more plentiful. Also, a lot of people dropped out after the desert, because, as someone said, “There aren’t any party spots in the High Sierra.”

As we were walking along a flat stretch of woods near the end of the day, Zach and I finally got around to calculating our planned side day-trip to Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 49. We suddenly realized that we either had to do two backbreaking days, or three short days, to make the schedule line up. After some debate, we decided on the latter. After all, we’d gotten a bunch of extra food in our boxes. We felt pretty confident.

That night, we set up camp on a nice flat patch of pine needles (camping was so plentiful here!). We ate refried beans and Fritos, and I insisted that we sit several yards away from our tent to avoid attracting bears. 

We laid in bed, bundled up against the chilly onset of night, and read Lord of the Rings together, putting the troubling questions of the day aside. We had mountains to climb and a trail to finish. Maybe someday we’d figure out why this was something we had to do.



  1. I had assumed that during my thru-hike that I would contemplate my life and what I would do now that I was retired, but I was surprised that during it that I rarely had those thoughts. Instead I was present in the moment or gazing off into the distance thinking about where I was, where I was going, and where I would camp. I summarized it by saying I didn't have "deep thoughts" while hiking. Sincerely, Brian "Tartan" Watt PCT 2014.

    1. Yes, Tartan, exactly! It's amazing how hard it is to carry a sustained thought on trail. I swear I spent the majority of Oregon just thinking about different ways to eat a watermelon. :)

  2. I can see how just walking/hiking the trail would be all-consuming...so much of just getting through the day/night and surviving to see the next. And, that's exactly what you should be doing, just being totally immersed in the experience...the journey. When you're physically tired, emotionally drained, worried/exhausted in any other way, it does tend to keep "deeper thoughts" at bay...

  3. I think that the experience of living in the moment and even though you were thinking about what to eat, where is water and, where do we camp is pretty awesome and the views show pretty clearly God's hand at work. An epiphany doesn't always happen in the moment but in pondering after the experience is over.