We cowered under Joshua trees during a hailstorm in the Mojave Desert, ran out of food just past Mt. Whitney, had a fight over whose turn it was to carry the tent on Mt. San Jacinto, and struggled through endless snow-covered mountain passes. We baked in the desert; we froze in the Sierras. We carried too much water near Kennedy Meadows; we didn’t carry enough water over Hat Creek Rim. We earned painful blisters from the wrong shoes; we chafed on our thighs, armpits, and shoulders. From Mexico to Ashland, my boyfriend, Andrew, and I hiked the infamous Pacific Crest Trail.
But amidst all the inevitable struggling that comes when two Midwesterners who have never backpacked before decide to walk 1,726 miles on a remote 18-inch wide path
through the wilds of the west, we witnessed so much beauty. The sunset over Mt. Shasta, coyotes yipping in the desert twilight, cerulean alpine lakes near Yosemite. We watched a down-wind bear rip apart a log for grubs, fell asleep under the clearest sky we’d ever seen, and ate lunch on carpets of wildflowers.
But through it all, a single question kept arising:
“What the #&^* is that!?”
I grew up in northern Michigan, Andrew in southern Ohio, and we went to college in North Carolina and Ohio, respectively. We both moved around quite a bit after undergrad, living in New York City, Washington D.C., Madagascar, Utah, Mississippi, my native northern Michigan, and aboard a Semester at Sea vessel. I did briefly live in Davis, CA, but never really got outside the Central Valley. So, we had effectively never before been in the mountains of California and Oregon prior to our PCT adventure. We honestly didn’t know a ponderosa pine from a Douglas fir or a Steller’s jay from a scrub jay. The first time I saw a marmot, I jumped back in astonishment, quickly announcing to Andrew that I had just seen “a beaver without a beaver tail.”
When we arrived in Ashland in July, Andrew continued hiking the trail north, while I stopped to begin taking the requisite summer courses with my cohort, one of which was Stewart Janes’ Environmental Issues class. In this class, not only did I learn the difference between pines and firs, I learned to look at the cones to tell the difference between ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, the buds to determine Douglas firs from white firs. I learned that the tempting red berries with the maple-like leaves I saw everywhere along the northern California PCT were called thimbleberries, and that they were edible. (I could have been eating them the whole time!)
I learned that what Andrew and I had called the “devil plant” due to its sharp spines was actually called yellow star thistle, an extremely virulent invasive that can cause a neurological disorder in horses if consumed. I learned that the trees that reminded me of the southern magnolias on Duke’s campus were called Pacific madrones and that they store energy in an underground lignotuber as a fire adaptation. The plant I thought of as holly on the PCT was actually Oregon grape (the state flower) and those grooves in fallen trees were made by bark beetle larvae. The carpets of wildflowers we walked through were lupine, and the blue-bellied lizards skittering beneath our feet were called western fence lizards and could rid a tick of Lyme disease.
Because we were mystified most of the time on the trail and didn’t have names for the plants and animals we saw everyday, arriving in Ashland by foot primed me for learning post-trail more than any other mode of travel could have. Yes, I arrived in Ashland with the strongest legs and the most sun-bleached eyebrows I will ever have, but most importantly, I arrived with my eyes wide open to the natural world. I came wanting information, hungry to feel grounded in the strange world through which I had been walking the last few months. The PCT taught me so many things, from how to feel pretty without makeup on to how to feel comfortable relying on just myself and one other person. But the most important thing the trail gave me was a sense of wonder for the new environment in which I found myself, a craving that let me learn about this place. To learn how to call it home.