There was once a time where the trail was truly nothing more than a dirt path, somewhere for me to traipse around. I spent years of my childhood groaning at the thought of a hike while my parents dragged my brothers and I to beautiful, remote locations waiting to be explored. I can only imagine the stabbing pain that echoed in my parents’ hearts as their children rejected one of their most valued passions.
As with most children, I grew up and out of my dislikes and I began to explore hiking as a hobby of my own. While I enjoyed being outside and exploring new land, I lacked the enthusiasm that you could so clearly see in true, seasoned hikers. Hiking wasn’t a passion; it was just something I did to fill the time.
This is where the lines became blurred. I don’t remember the exact moment in which hiking transitioned into something so symbolic in my life. One moment, it was there, and the next, it was a necessity to who I am.
While I don’t know the exact moment, I know it began with a crisis. It was late morning approaching the beginning of fall in 2012 when my mom called. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
My mom is, debatably, the most loved family member in my immediate family. She has a connection to my dad, brothers, and I that we all naturally lack with one another. She’s rarely the center of a family feud and she’s always up for a late night drinking wine. I could go on but at the risk of her ego, I’ll stop there. Maybe all of that is a part of the role of being a mother. If it is, she’s doing her job well. Needless to say, we were all devastated by the news.
My mom refused to allow cancer to rule her life. It had taken her health, stripped her of her hair, and robbed her of the emotional stability she felt before cancer. She would sooner give up wine than allow the disease to take away her freedom.
She exercised that freedom by continuing to section hike the Pacific Crest Trail with my dad. In between treatments and doctors’ appointments, she would be out on the trail. She would battle my dad, stubbornly saying she was well enough for a long hike even when test results suggested otherwise. In those moments between my mom being a cancer patient and a survivor, my mom and even my dad relied on the trail as a way to prove themselves against the disease. The trail became an escape from life back home and a focus to get through each day.
Somewhere between feeling inspired by but fearful for my mom, the trail transformed into more than that dirt path, surrounded by mountains and open blue skies. It became a place where someone could find courage and strength to overcome the uncontrollable and to face the parts of life that we’re unwilling to let overpower us.
While I haven’t had a full backpacking experience yet, I’ve been able to feel that silent strength while on day hikes or camping trips. In dealing with some minor anxiety following the Isla Vista shooting, I’ve found a place where I can feel safe and forget the fears that I sometimes allow to rule me. When out in nature, I don’t worry about someone walking up to me with a gun and I don’t plan out scenarios of what I would do if I suddenly found myself in the middle of a situation like that. I simply am with the trail, showing one step at a time that I’m a strong person who is in control of this moment in my life.
I recently read an article from the PCTA newsletter about preparing for the PCT. The writer said that most often the downfall to thru hikers is not a lack of physical training but of mentally preparing for the strenuous task of hiking over 2,000 miles. She said knowing why you’re hiking in the first place is an important step in maintaining mental clarity while on the trail.
While I’m not sure if I would have pursued backpacking to any extent if it hadn’t been for my parents’ experience with the PCT, I do know that my mom’s experience with cancer opened doors for me to realize the depths to which a passion can truly extend. I’m grateful, not for her fight against the disease, but to have had the chance to connect with the idea of the trail and to develop a pretty clear answer to that question of why I hike.