Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interview with PCT Thru-Hiker Anne Tully

Anne is a 2008 Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who said she’d never hike another long trail after completing the A.T. Two weeks later, she thought she might want to hike the A.T. again, but then didn’t give it much more thought. 

Four years later the urge to hike another long trail hit her hard. She started planning for the PCT at the end of 2011, and she and I met in March 2012 to talk about the similarities and differences of her experience on the A.T. and what she could expect on the PCT.

We talked again last Saturday, and I asked her about her experiences on the PCT and insights she gained on her 2012 PCT thru-hike.

When did you start at the Mexican border and when did you get to the end in Canada?
I started on April 20 and on September 4 I had made it to the border. I left through Manning Park on September 5.
Anne's trail name is Stride.
 I was talking to my aunt the other day, and realized, all of that is 2,700 miles.

What are your overall impressions of the PCT?
It’s interesting for me because I hiked a lot of it as a solo hiker. That’s a totally different experience than my A.T. hike where I had people with me. I walked at least 1/3 of the PCT alone and spent nights by myself. Northern California was the longest stretch where I was by myself.

When I look back at pictures I am taken back by how absolutely beautiful it was on the PCT. Moments I stopped in my tracks and was just literally in awe, but it didn’t make up for the fact that the trail was hard. When I talked to people before my hike, people told me I wouldn’t experience the physical pain of the trail because of the beauty. People romanticize the trail, in particular, the high Sierras. In fact, I think the Sierras were more difficult for me mentally; I became resentful because it was beautiful but it wasn’t enough to take the pain away.

At one point I was talking to [trail legend] Billy Goat, and he gave me the lesson I took away, to “take the trail for yourself.” Don’t allow other people to formulate your experience based on their experience.

There is stunning scenery, but you have to go in with the blank slate, without expectation, because it will likely be more difficult. If you go in with a romanticized vision you could be disappointed.

What was the best part of the hike?
Goat Rocks wilderness in Washington State is for sure a section that has stuck with me. When we went through the weather was perfect, the wildflowers, the lupine, were in full bloom. One fella I met had lived in the area for 57 years said he’d never seen the lupine in full bloom like that, ever. We had beauty of wild flowers everywhere and jagged rocks. You could see Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams you just finished walking around. Then, BAM!, Mt. Rainier. It was spectacular. There was lots of ridge walking there, and I liked that. 

In Oregon I liked the Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson, and in California, Muir Pass was my favorite. I was blown away. It was one of the first times I felt truly stunned with what I was able to experience and live in.

What was the hardest part of the hike?
After I left Ashland Oregon alone, I was by myself for next three and a half days. Physically I was so tired. I had been doing 30-mile days in northern California. There were hikers ahead of me and hikers behind me. I couldn’t go any faster than the 30, 32, and 35-mile days I was doing in Oregon. I couldn’t slow down for people behind me to catch up because I was on a deadline to finish so I could return to work on time. I was by myself, feeling mental weariness. I was just struggling to stay in the game. I was hard on myself too. I just wanted to quit.

When I got to Crater Lake I really wanted to stop, and ask some tourist to take me away.

It was a time of growth, because I realized that I didn’t have a guarantee to finish the trail. It doesn’t matter how tough you think you are.

What kept you motivated to continue?
When I got to Crater Lake, I got food, and picked up my mail, but my maps weren’t there. That was almost the straw that broke camel’s back.

At the same time, I got mail from friend of mine that had letters of encouragement from other people. I sat outside and read all the letters. I was truly humbled that people would write me letters, and words of encouragement. There were letters from people I didn’t know. Those letters were awesome.

After that I had to go to the hiker box at the store. While I was there I talked to this girl, Jenna, and told her I was having a hard time. She and I talked for 5 or 10 minutes while I finished packing my food. She came back 20 minutes later with words of encouragement, energy bars, and invited me to her campsite for dinner. I ended up spending the night at her campsite.

It’s those kinds of interpersonal relationships with people, either in letters, or dinner with Jenna that kept me going. It was a rich experience to share life with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met. It was a beautiful experience that just connected for me, and gave me a morale boost.

What advice would you offer someone planning or starting a PCT thru-hike?
Try to touch base with as many people as you can who have hiked the trail to learn about their experience, but recognize that the weather is so variable. I talked to you, and you had a lot of snow. I didn’t have much snow but I had a ton of wind. A ton of wind. It was scary.

Be flexible in your mind. Maintain inquisitiveness the whole way. Ask people you meet along the way questions. I learned that people on the trail are very creative with their gear.

Lastly, be aware that there’s an obsession with ultra light hiking gear on the PCT. I probably, realistically, had forty people say, “wow, your pack looks heavy.” Even into Washington where I had walked 2,400 miles, they were still amazed. Ultra light isn’t for everybody.

I had a man challenge me about my tent, then lecture me about the number of ounces over 3 pounds. Ounces aren’t going to make or break my hike for me. That’s not important to me, but it was really important to him.

I encourage people to research it, learn from people, keep some perspective, and be confident in what you decide works for you. Be ready to pop off sassy comments; because people don’t get off the ultra light soapbox, I had to have my own.

The Northern California blues actually happened. It took me three months and week to walk California, two weeks for Oregon, and three weeks for Washington.

What did you do to prepare for the trail?
I felt really overwhelmed. I had a back injury the year I decided to do this. I had a strong conviction about hiking, so I took a slow, patient approach to physical activity until my back healed up. I did some running, and I did three day-hikes up to Wesser and back with food in my pack. I didn’t do much training.

From my Appalachian Trail experience I knew that if you are slow from the beginning, the trail will kick your tail into gear as it needs to be. Nothing prepares you for the trail except the trail. If I took it slow and mindful in the beginning my body would acclimate.

It takes realizing that the first couple of weeks does feel like work and is hard.

I had to be sensitive to the transition from normal life to trail life by understanding that I may feel overwhelmed at moments, because of the east coast to west coast culture change, by going alone, walking through the desert, and the elevation of the Sierras.

I had to start by learning about the first part of the trail, and then take the rest of it as it comes after that.

It’s cool when it moves from a feeling of working, to a feeling of a lifestyle. Eventually at some point you wake up robotically, pack up and start moving. You embrace it and enjoy it.

The same thing happened on the Appalachian Trail, where I felt like I can do this forever.

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