When I thought about what it might be like to hike 15 to 20 miles a day I imagined how tiring it must be and how long it must take. I thought about how my leg muscles would ache as I crawled into my quilt cocoon each night and how hungry I'd likely be even after I'd just eaten.
Those are things thru hikers experience often, but the pain we experience is a completely different pain from anything I've felt before and anything I expected to feel. It isn't just about my legs muscles being sore and gaining strength. That pain is easy. It's manageable. That muscle pain is something I expected. It's something I'm used to. I can walk through muscle pain with no consequences.
What I'm not used to is all of the other suffering. There was no way to prepare myself for all of the other pain I was bound to experience on a thru hike. I couldn't be prepared for the pads of my feet feeling like if I take another step I'm just going to collapse into a puddle on the ground. I couldn't train for the feeling that if I have to wear this pack for another quarter-mile the knot in my shoulder is going to explode. Blisters, knee, hip, and ankle pain, and arch pain are all things that could ruin a hike, or at least ruin a day of hiking. These are things that I can't simply walk through with no consequences. They're things I have to worry about, take care of, and give my body time to heal.
My first taste of pain on the PCT came in the form of exploding knees as I hiked downhill on my very first day. From the border of Mexico we hiked north 15 miles to Hauser Creek, which was about 2,100 feet up and 1,500 feet down. The uphill was a challenge on my muscles and the fact that I was carrying way too much of everything didn't help, but it was the downhill that got to me. I didn't know it then, but it was my IT Band causing me problems and every step felt like it should be my last. When we awoke the next morning everybody was complaining about the 5-mile uphill climb it would take us to reach Lake Morena, our first trail 'town.' Meanwhile, I was so thankful to be climbing because while my quads and calves were screaming from the effort, my knees felt perfectly fine. I spent the next few days with wraps and braces on my knees, hoping for uphill days while everyone else was begging for easy downhills.
Just when my knees began improving, the blisters began. I was naively thinking I'd avoided blisters, but 10 days in I started getting one on the inside of each of my heels. I've had blisters from shoes before, but I've never had to walk 20 miles, day after day, in the shoes that gave them to me. I've never had knee pain and blisters at the same time to where every step makes me question why I'm out here.
Eventually, Frizz taught me to tie my shoes differently and all of that walking helped me to develop the right muscles to dissipate my knee pain. I thought I'd be home free on pain from then on, but the PCT never stops developing new ways to challenge me. Later I'd develop arch pain from lack of support which would turn into arch pain from over correcting, excruciating hip pain that I'd walk with for 30 miles, knots in my shoulders that had me near to tears on an easy rolling hills day, eternal sunburn and chapped lips, and mosquito bites covering my body 75 red spots at a time. Out here, you become used to the pain and suffering. If it isn't one thing, it's another. And yet you keep walking because what else are you going to do?
Someone giving me a hitch one day asked me what my worst day on trail had been so far. I told her it was the day we had hiked over Fuller Ridge down toward the desert floor and the I-10 overpass. It was downhill the whole way, descending around 7,000 feet in elevation and I was on the edge of tears the entire day. I had been chased by dogs, scratched by thorn bushes, and my knees were begging me to just sit down and rest. But I kept going because I knew I didn't want to wake up and do it all again the next day. I wanted the next day to be less painful, if only by a little. That was the first day I had thought, 'Can I really sustain this and walk the full 2,659 miles to Canada?'
The driver then asked me what my best day on trail had been so far. I told her it was the day we had hiked over Fuller Ridge down toward the desert floor and the I-10 overpass. We had woken up a few miles outside of Idyllwild surrounded by snow and clouds. We meandered our way through trickling springs and swaying pines as the scenery slowly turned to desert shrubs and boulders beneath a full moon. Over the course of a day we had hiked through two completely different terrains and the smile on my face was a mile wide. It didn't matter that the 7,000 feet we descended killed my knees or that the pain of that would last several days after. I had seen beauty in so many forms in one day and the tears I held back would have blurred that beauty had I succumbed to them.
On the PCT I've learned that you have to take the bad with the good. A nice view is only as good as the work you put in to see it and you can't let that work destroy you before you reap its rewards. Pain on the PCT is a beast like no other. It breaks you down and makes you question your abilities, your worth, and your direction. It makes you curse your body and the trail. But it also makes you appreciate every sweeping mountain view, desert sunset, and alpine sunrise more. When you push through the pain you gain pride with every view. You gain strength with every challenge. Pain on the PCT is my teacher, my compass, my confidante, my best friend, my most reliable hiking partner. It follows me wherever I go and I drag it along reluctantly, but at the summit of every mountain I thank the pain for the ways it has showed me the world.