Most people that travel across the USA do it by road trip. Not many would try to walk.
Yet that’s exactly what Greg Strachey did when earlier this year he set out to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s an epic hiking route that begins at the border between the USA and Mexico, before winding its way north through California, Oregon, and Washington, before hitting the Canadian border – that’s 2,650 miles in all.
We caught up with Greg to find out how it went.
Hi Greg! You set out on an incredibly epic trip. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Of course! Earlier this year I set out on an attempt to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. It goes from the extremities of the Southern Californian and Mojave Deserts, to the dizzying heights of the High Sierra mountains; through the rugged beauty of Northern California to the forests of Oregon, and drawing to a spectacular finish in Washington’s Cascades.
To complete the trail in its entirety is typically a 5-6 month adventure, with the window being limited by seasonal climates and weather conditions. This year around 3,000 people set out to achieve that. Although the number attempting the trail is increasing every year, there still remains less people who have completed it than the number who have summited Mount Everest!
What inspired you take on such a huge adventure?
I never did, and still don’t, consider myself to be a hiker. Before embarking on the trail I also wasn’t particularly fit or athletic, and the physicality of the trail was in all honesty more than a little daunting. The greatest adventures of my life, personally and professionally, have always been huge dives into the deep end though, and that was probably the greatest inspiration and motivation for setting out on the trail.
I’ve embarked on some pretty random adventures over the years, but I realised there wasn’t ever one that I thought I couldn’t finish. Pushing through that wall and giving everything I possibly could despite this has definitely been one of the greatest lessons and experiences of my life.
Have you done anything on this scale before? How did you feel when you first set out?
I’ve set out on small hiking trips and expeditions, and a few years ago had the opportunity to walk the most popular route of the Camino de Santiago, in Southern France and Spain. The beauty of the long distance hiking though is that no matter your background, experience or training, there’s nothing that can completely prepare you for your first experience thru-hiking on a trail like the PCT; whilst that was daunting, it was also a really beautiful and humbling thought.
Riding out from San Diego through the desert and to the Mexican border, the terror evaporated and was replaced with a complete sense of calm. I sat silently in a car packed full of hikers who had come from all corners of the world to chase their ambitions, and I sensed the same shift in them too. Setting out on something that I thought I couldn’t complete was a reminder to live in the moment, and take the adventure day by day.
Have you been travelling alone or with a group?
I set off to the USA and started the trail on my own, however on an adventure like the PCT it’s impossible to stay that way! Many of the people I met in the first week, and even the first day, became my best friends and trail family; people who come to share and understand everything from your crushing lows to triumphs, and who become vital to keeping you in one piece through the more mentally and physically challenging parts of the trail.
There’s also an amazing amount of resources and support on the PCT, including ‘Trail Angels’, who dedicate their time to hosting and supporting hikers along the way.
After traveling around 1,000 miles, you’ve decided to leave the trail. What made you take that decision?
It felt like the most difficult and also the most straightforward decision I’ve made. For me a major motivation for tackling the trail was the pursuit of living more in the moment and not always chasing the next horizon, and at a certain point of the trail I realised that the moment had passed, and I’d got what I wanted to from the adventure.
We’d tackled 700 miles of desert, and almost 300 miles of the High Sierra that we entered in the highest snow year in decades, which many others chose to bypass. It was a pretty wild ride and I saw and conquered things that I honestly couldn’t have dreamed of. I felt like ending on a high rather than battling through what I’d started to feel, for the rest of the trail to Canada, was a big step towards achieving that presence in the moment that I had set out to find.
How did the reality of the trip match up to your plans and expectations before setting off?
Looking back, I’m not completely sure exactly what I expected from the trail and the overall experience. Whatever it was, it exceeded every expectation and more. I prepared to dig in for 700 miles of hot, flat desert sands – instead we found a high desert of breathtaking mountains and valleys in bloom, for the first time after a decade of drought. I resigned to the fact that entering the High Sierra may not be wise or possible this year considering I’m by no means a mountaineer; we triumphantly posed for photos on top of the trail’s highest point of 13,200ft.
I knew it would be hard, but there were moments that almost broke us all; it was worth every one of them.
Do you have a favourite place, moment, or memory from those 1,000 miles?
It’d be easy to talk about so many of the places and physical achievements on the trail, from scaling mountain passes to tackling long and difficult desert sections. Moments like those are unforgettable, but ultimately the adventure wouldn’t have been the same without the people who shared in it.
Around a month into the trail and 400-500 miles into the desert we’d built a big group; everyone did their own thing and hiked their own hike, but we’d usually end up taking breaks, camping and spending evenings together in the same places. When we arrived into the mountain town of Wrightwood, the 15 or so of us rented a cabin and spent an amazing few days chilling, eating, drinking and celebrating together. Soon after that we all started to separate, be it some of us pushing ahead, deciding to skip past some sections of the trail, or in time taking the difficult decision to leave the PCT for many different reasons. It was great to spend that time with many of the most important people in my life on trail.
Can you tell us any particularly crazy or scary stories from the trip?
There were two days early in the trail that were the craziest baptism of fire into the incredible, unpredictable adventure that the PCT was going to become.
We’d spent a few nights riding out a snowstorm in the town of Idyllwild, a mountain town lying in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto. From there we set off to climb 4,000ft out of the town, close to the summit of the mountain at around 10,000ft. The next day involved a pretty brutal descent of 15 miles and 9,000ft in elevation; it began with traversing fresh snowdrifts high on the mountain, wound down through the clouds and hours of disorientating mist with little visibility, and eventually ended down at the desert floor in sweltering heat once again.
I’d tackled this solo, and arrived at a highway exhausted and injured. I ended up being picked up by a local trail angel called Hillbilly, who took me back to his house in the suburbs of an old Indian Reservation for the night. Hillbilly greeted hikers with shots of moonshine, and stories of how his armed and equipped home was a safe house from the pursuing Cartel. We ate and drank, tended our wounds and ended the evening sitting around while he insisted on watching ‘Moana’ on loop. Not something I’ll ever forget.
Lastly, what advice would you give to young people who want to travel but are feeling uncertain or scared?
Ultimately, to not delay in making that first step in pursuing your travel dreams and ambitions – be it committing to saving, booking that first ticket or flight, or taking whichever leap that’s needed for you. Making that first step is the biggest mountain you’ll conquer, and is the most liberating feeling from all that’s previously told you that you can’t.
Take that leap, and wherever it takes you, I promise you won’t regret it. Good luck!