We were less than 5 km away from the Canadian border when we saw the bear.
It was our first. Despite travelling more than 2,650 miles – by foot – from the Mexico border to Canada, we had not yet seen a bruin. Northern California had been full of reports of cougars. We’d seen plenty of birds and cows in the seemingly endless southern California section; mountain goats just a few switchbacks away in the Sierra Nevada, but not a single bear.
So here was our first, eating berries and standing on its hind legs – not all that pleased to see us.
It didn’t help matters much that another thru-hiker, having tagged the northern terminus monument of the Pacific Crest Trail was on his way back down the trail, essentially trapping the black bear on the narrow singletrack between our two groups.
My boyfriend and I backed up quickly, hoping to give the bear more space so it may feel less threatened. We made a racket and our strategy paid off as the bear scrambled off trail into the shaggy brush. We passed unharmed, a final spike in our heart rates before we descended to the monument, the end of our five-and-a-half-month-long journey.
There it was: the pillars jutting toward the sky, sitting a stone’s throw south of the U.S.-Canada border in a corridor of clear-cut trees. We took our obligatory pictures. We’d made it. Here we were. The end of an epic adventure. But it was anti-climactic. A writer, I couldn’t even find words to describe what I was feeling and signed some lame note in the trail book where others had left their own marks.
Even with a destination in mind, it was the journey that mattered most.
In April 2018, we’d packed our lives up into storage and with a backpack each – loaded with all the equipment we’d need to hike 2,650 miles to Canada – my boyfriend and I flew to San Diego to begin hiking north along the Pacific Crest Trail. You’ve likely heard of it before. Known colloquially as the PCT, the trail was made famous by Cheryl Strayed in her memoir “Wild,” which was later produced into a feature film starring Reese Witherspoon.
Having flown south from central Alberta, where we’d stashed our belongings with family, the desert heat was a shock to the system. Those first few days on the trail were incredibly tough. Water carries were long – not as long as they would come to be – and our pale Canadian skin wasn’t used to the California desert sun.
Stumbling into a town one afternoon, before we’d even walked 100 miles, I thought I was close to done. My feet ached. My legs chafed. I was sun burnt and tired and hungry and dirty. We took a break, showering at the town’s campground and resupplied our food at its general store, where other thru hikers were strewn about on the deck.
I remember one of the hikers saying to me, wow you look really prepared. I was surprised. I certainly didn’t feel prepared. But little by little, day by day my skin grew tougher and it soon felt stranger to be in town without my backpack – its constant weight a comfort.
The landscape changed everyday, morphing as we walked further north – home to Canada. We slept in our tent, under the stars and breathed in fresh air all day and all night. Our first night in a hotel wasn’t until we’d walked more than 500 miles and began approaching the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Now, a year later and looking back, the days have melded together, all with a familiar pattern. Wake up, pack up. Eat breakfast while walking. Get water at a source. Keep walking. Enjoy the view. Walk some more. Have lunch. Walk. Dinner. Still walking. Find a flat spot, pitch the tent. Collapse into bed.
Our days were simple. We spent a lot of time thinking. Talking. Thoughts and conversations were recycled. And even though our actions seemed monotonous at times, even our worst days on the trail felt better than normal days “at home.”
As we approached Canada, while we were ready to return to a routine, to have our bodies stop aching, to gain back some weight and cut our hair, we found ourselves looking at every opportunity to prolong our time in the wilderness.
Its effects were intoxicating. Clear minds, fit bodies. Beautiful scenery every day. What wasn’t to like?
So we took advantage of those opportunities to stay on trail. Extra stops at the bakery in Stehekin? You bet. A night in town to gorge on food before a final push into the snow? You better believe it.
You know that saying, a journey begins with a single step? It’s a cliche, I know. But guess what, it’s true. My first step was into some southern Californian dirt, back on April 7, 2018.
So go ahead, take yours. Who knows where you might end up.