11 February 2021
So why am I thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail all the way from Mexico to Canada this year?
I have spent six years thinking about this question. So please forgive me. This is a long post.
A Wild Answer
Unfortunately, the short answer is pretty trite: I saw the movie Wild.
I’m not sure what drove me to go see Wild at 3pm on January 31, 2015.
(Yes, I know the date and the time. I’m hopeful that this post will help show why that moment was so important to me.)
For someone who really likes movies, it was strange that I knew so little about Wild before buying a ticket. All I knew was that it was about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and it starred Reese Witherspoon, who I have liked in other films.
Even stranger, I went to see the movie by myself. I hardly ever do this, because I really enjoy sharing movies with my wife.
But there I was, alone in the dark at a matinee.
And in scene after scene, I cried copious tears. I couldn’t stop.
I feel embarrassed to admit this, because the movie has a very mixed reputation.
As a thru-hiker, the main character, Cheryl Strayed, sets a terrible example. For example, in one scene she leaves her poop under a pile of rocks, still half-exposed to the trail. And the movie doesn’t really make it clear that this is a HUGE violation of the leave-no-trace principles that most thru-hikers work diligently to uphold (6 inch cat-hole away from the trail, please).
As a person she was also hard to like. Although Cheryl has a touching and dramatic relationship with her mother who dies during the film, she seems needy and self-indulgent and makes some terrible life choices as she descends into a world of heroin addiction.
This was not a movie about me.
If anything, the one character in Wild that I related to most was Cheryl’s ex-husband, who tried very hard to help her when she was struggling. I’ve never had to help anyone like that, but I like to think that if I did, I would be able to look past a person’s moral failings to help them up from rock bottom.
Nonetheless, it was Cheryl’s experience that had the biggest effect on me. The moment she saw a photo of a pristine alpine lake on the front cover of a PCT guidebook, she realized that her life had to change. And the PCT could be the agent of that change. And somehow, in that moment, I too suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to transform my own life.
But I was not struggling with heroin addiction.
Nor was I getting divorced (more on that below).
My So-Called Life
In fact, in most respects, I had a highly successful privileged-middle-aged-white-male life. I was a social science professor in a top University where I wrote a popular book that I even got to talk about with Stephen Colbert on his old show, the Colbert Report. And as a result of all that hooplah I got to travel literally everywhere to give talks about the book and my research to tens of thousands of people.
But it was so alienating.
My travel stints got longer and longer as I tried to cram in more and more speaking engagements. At book-signings I met more and more people whom I could never get to know personally because there were just too many of them. Soon my life was a whir of cities whose names I could not recall.
I missed my family.
I began to get cluster headaches. At one point they were so bad that I had to walk out in the middle of a televised panel to the nearest bathroom, where I locked the door behind me and laid on the floor for an hour in the dark.
I felt I was getting sucked into a machine that feeds on the egos of people who only crave status. As I met more and more authors on the speaker circuit, I could see what this life does to people long term. Some of them are real jerks. But some people seemed to handle it well.
Clearly, I did not.
A Modern-Day Manhattan Project
I naively tried to use my 15 minutes of fame to “make the world a better place” (a saying that was fashionable in Silicon Valley at the time). But this would lead to crushing disappointment, too. Back in 2010 I thought Facebook could be a force for good, so I did a study with them showing that they could get hundreds of thousands of people to vote in real world elections with a single, simple message.
Boy, that went well, didn’t it? Just a short while later, the technology we documented in that Facebook study was being used to manipulate elections everywhere, with devastating effect. I kind of feel like I was a B-grade engineer on a modern-day Manhattan Project. I hope it doesn’t blow up the world and in hindsight I wish I had not helped to build this weapon.
And Facebook as an organization only became more and more corporate (evil) over time, at one point even asking me to falsify some aspects of one of my studies with them because they had a PR concern. Their lawyers relented when I threatened to go to the press, and I was able to publish the study as submitted, but that was the last straw. I never worked with Facebook again. I also deleted my account.
Status, Status, Status
I guess I didn’t realize how all this professional stress was affecting me. I got into my career to teach and to do science. But when I received a job offer at a fancy private university in 2014, I began to realize just how messed up things were in grant-funded academia. Status, status, status. For so many people, myself included, this was the number one thing. The only thing. All our review processes are about it (how many people cited you last year?) and way too many of our social interactions are governed by it (the junior faculty can leave the room now). If you don’t have status you are locked out. If you do, you are guaranteed to succeed, even if you don’t deserve it.
I said no to the offer. I’m not exactly sure why. But when I let that job go, it set me adrift. If I wasn’t chasing after fancier jobs, more famous collaborators, bigger research grants (all in the name of science!), then what was I doing?
In short, the day I sat down in that dark theater to watch Cheryl Strayed’s transformation on the Pacific Crest Trail, I was at a moral crossroads in my own professional life.
I remember in the weeks before I saw the movie that I kept telling my wife over and over again that “my life is out of balance.” A life of teaching and research can be a good life. But I had lost my way. And I was exhausted. My job consumed me and it was drawing out the worst aspects of my personality.
Something had to change.
I became convinced that I had to thru-hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail.
Not Getting Divorced
I told my wife about my plan, and she tried to understand why I wanted to hike for 5 months.
But she didn’t. And with reason, she reminded me that she and I had decided to have children together, not apart.
It was a tense few months as she and I tried to work through my crazy-strong emotions about all this. I so badly wanted to transform my life in a huge way. But I also agreed that my family still needed me and the trail could wait until our kids were in college.
So I started doing little section hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail. And they were amazing.
This new hobby drew me closer to my friends and family who hiked with me. I started this blog to share how happy I am to spend time in Nature with all these great people.
And slowly, but surely, I was able to rebalance the time in my life between work and play, which allowed me to refocus on the most important parts of my professional life.
The hardest part of this transformation for me was the belated realization of what I had done to my wife. She and I have had an incredibly strong relationship for nearly 30 years, but my request to leave everything to thru-hike in 2015 shook its foundation.
In essence, she thought I was asking for something like a divorce.
But we didn’t really talk about it that way until several months later. I was so wrapped up in my own crisis I did not see what it had been doing to her. Then on a routine call from her when I was travelling for work, the dam finally burst. Through tears, she explained just how worried she had been about what all this meant about how I felt about her. I was devastated.
It was an incredibly strange phone call. When I answered I was shopping in the Trader Joe’s in Union Square in Manhattan, and I remember just circling the store with my shopping cart over and over as the conversation unfolded. I felt like I was floating listlessly in a sea of people and products, ebbing and flowing through the aisles as I tried hard to focus on some of the most important words I have ever heard or said in my life.
But weird as it was, when it was done we both had a new understanding.
We weren’t even close to getting divorced. I would wait to do my thru-hike. It was going to be okay.
Over the years since then, with my wife’s support, I have gone on dozens of backpacking trips, many on the PCT (some of them with my wife!). But I’m never away from home too long, and all these shorter trips have given me experience that makes me feel confident that I have a good shot of making it all the way to Canada this year.
Now that I am (mostly) done with my professional crisis, I am able to focus more on the positive things that draw me to spending 5 months in the woods this year. They are:
Simplicity. I’ve always been an Occam’s razor kind of guy, looking for the simplest explanation and generally trying to keep both physical and intellectual clutter out of my life (I even wrote a speech about simplicity when I was 18). My life on trail couldn’t be simpler. Walk, eat, sleep, repeat. And I have absolutely loved obsessing about taking as many things as I can out of my pack. I won’t whittle it all the way down to a bible and a loaf of bread like John Muir (supposedly) did. But it will be a relief to leave many things behind, if only to fully realize how unnecessary most things are.
Adventure. I am sure that my taste for travel originated at least in part in the national parks I visited with my parents as a teenager, but it grew even stronger when I departed Oklahoma for college in Boston, went to Guatemala to learn Spanish, and then to Ecuador for the Peace Corps. With my wife I did 6 months of travel in Latin America, and 9 months of travel in Asia, and with our kids we’ve been to all those national parks again plus Hawaii and Alaska and Costa Rica and Egypt and Italy. In that context, the PCT very much feels very much like just the next chapter.
Nature. I have spent my whole professional life fascinated by the divide between the social and natural sciences. There is so much to learn by crossing this divide, and it is even more important now as we face the existential threat of human-caused climate change. I am hoping to learn A LOT about Nature and the way humans interact with it as I pass one step at a time through dozens of wilderness areas and ecosystems. But beyond that, I just want to spend as much time as I can in the presence of awe, the kind that can only be inspired outdoors. Whether they are vast snow fields, towering granite slopes, meandering meadows, pristine lakes, devastated burn zones, or the everyday chatterings of a million living things, I want to swim in all of it so deeply that I can never forget it.
People. I am very much looking forward to meeting like-minded pilgrims who are seeking their own time in Nature or a transformative experience on the trail. This is not something I would have focused on six years ago, but after spending so much time with the JimmyJam Hiking Club, I am now sure this will be the most rewarding part of my experience.
Novelty. I’ve always liked new experiences, new cities, new food, and new music (on Spotify my obscurity score is 100%!). I’ve always preferred loop hikes over there-and-backs. A thru-hike is not a loop, but like a loop hike, every mile will be new. I can’t wait!