For Me, Starting the Pacific Crest Trail Was Half the Battle

·6 min read

This article originally appeared on Backpacker

Editor's Note: Patricia "Blackpacker" Cameron is the founder of Blackpackers, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to the outdoors, and Backpacker's 2022 Pacific Crest Trail correspondent. Here, she explains what it took for her to get to the trailhead for her attempt at a flip-flop hike.

There's a certain privilege in being able to step away from my personal life to thru-hike for months at a time. But that doesn't mean it's been easy: Back home in Colorado, I am the mother of a 15-year-old son (plus two cats and a dog), the executive director of a nonprofit called Blackpackers, and a full-time philosophy student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The intersections in my identity that make my frontcountry life difficult don't disappear when I step into the backcountry. I am a queer Black woman, unpartnered parent, and a thru-hiker who's living without a monetary safety net, or even financial stability.

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail has been a desire of mine for years, but for most of that time it felt like a distant one. Thru-hiking is expensive, and I didn't think it would be feasible to leave my life and work for as long as I would need for a thru of the PCT. After my hike of the Colorado Trail in 2020, section-hiking didn't necessarily appeal to me; what I missed were the community and the vibe of long-distance hiking.

And the obstacles kept piling up. In October 2021, I had a rotator cuff repair from a full thickness tear I suffered in the previous summer. I had a lot of time to daydream during my convalescence; I spent hours in an immobilizer brace with my arm at a rigid 90-degree angle, scrolling the internet with one functional hand. It was then when I stumbled across a tweet about the upcoming PCT permit lottery date. On a whim, I set an alarm for the day the permits would go online. By luck, I managed to snag one.

At first, I couldn't think about the PCT too seriously; I was busy rehabbing my shoulder and finishing out a semester in my senior year of university. But soon, my mind started churning, trying to figure out a way to make something that seemed impossible possible. Who would my son spend the summer with? Who would watch my pets?

PCT Sign
A sign on the Pacific Crest Trail (Photo: PatrickPoendl / iStock via Getty)

When I hiked the Colorado Trail in 2020, the relatively short distance--486 miles--made finding care for my son and pets relatively simple. My son was homeschooled during this time, which gave me the flexibility to pick a departure and return date that worked for me. This year, my son is finishing his freshman year in public high school and I couldn't leave in the middle of his final quarter of the year. This meant my PCT launch date had to accommodate his schooling schedule as much as possible. A May start was my only option. I would start at Kennedy Meadows and begin walking from there.

Before my decision to hike the PCT, I had signed up to take a mountaineering course on an Alaskan glacier with the National Outdoor Leadership School; with the trip falling just before my departure, it would be a test of my recovery. I went to physical therapy twice a week, every week, with Adam Schwerdt, my running coach from Colorado Springs' RunMental.

Like most surgical recoveries, my rotator cuff rehab became increasingly difficult as I went from immobility, to mobility, to passive range of motion exercises, to gently building flexibility and strength. Holding a single pound in my hand left my muscles exhausted; there were times where just sleeping on my arm was incredibly painful. It was hard to picture myself using an ice axe or toting a backpack. But slowly, over months of rehab, I began to feel the function come back to my shoulder.

Slowly, my murky plans became clear. First, money: I was not in the financial position to forgo a salary for an entire summer, so I would have to make my trip work for my nonprofit. I first turned to my board and asked if I could have a reasonably short sabbatical. As we bounced the idea around, we decided it would be possible for me to leave for the entire summer with the expectation that my hike would become part of Blackpackers summer programming. That worked for me: I was ready to spread the word of outdoor equity while I made my way from California, through Oregon, and into Washington. My presence alone on a long trail is a form of activism, a protest of its own kind; it felt like a natural progression to incorporate my equity work into my trail life.

“Though thru-hiking is an exercise in tolerating a certain sort of lack, it is still an extraordinary privilege to be able to set aside my life to live outdoors.”

Being able to draw a salary while I hiked made my plan feel more realistic. But I would still need help. Luckily, during a Blackpackers ski and snowboard trip to Colorado's Arapahoe Basin, I met a great candidate--a Black woman, recent college grad, and accomplished outdoor leader--who was looking for a summer job. After a virtual interview process, we scheduled a training for two weeks before I left.

Alaska itself was phenomenal. If you've never spent days sleeping and navigating crevasses on a glacier--and too many people never have the privilege of doing something like that--it's hard to describe the experience. Importantly, it gave me a chance to practice self-arresting on an actual snow-covered slope. I may or may not need traction and an ice axe, but now, at least, I knew how to use them if I had to.

By the time I arrived at the trailhead I had spent months setting up summer plans for my son, figuring out ways to make money while hiking, completely rehabilitated my left shoulder after a rotator cuff repair, arranged for a pet and house sitter (my amazing neighbor), successfully trained a summer employee to run Blackpackers programming in my absence, and transitioned most of the administrative duties to our executive assistant. My bills are in a spreadsheet and what couldn't be auto paid I would keep an eye on and pay as soon as I had service.

Everyone I know has been asking me how I feel about my impending trip, if I could grasp the enormity of what I'm about to do. In a very abstract way, I could: I still remember the nerves I felt leaving for my first thru. But buried underneath the anxiety of leaving my family and work behind, I knew it would feel like home again as soon as I stepped foot on the trail. Though thru-hiking is an exercise in tolerating a certain sort of lack, it is still an extraordinary privilege to be able to set aside my life to live outdoors. I'm grateful it has become accessible to me and I hope to continue my work to make it accessible to others.

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