This week, Angel and I have the opportunity to volunteer as hosts at The Mountaineers Hut at Stevens Pass, WA, which is hosting Pacific Crest Trail hikers as they're nearing the end of their journey, just a couple hundred miles shy of the Canadian border.
By the most literal measures, PCT hikers at this stage are genuinely disgusting human beings. This far in, hikers (and the clothes they're wearing) have been walking for months, and it's easy to adopt the attitude that showers can wait for Canada. So, they can smell the hay in the barn, as the saying goes, but everyone else just smells them. (We know, we were them as we wrapped up our PCT thru-hike about this time of year in 2015).
But in more metaphorical ways, this point is when PCT hikers have been distilled to their most beautiful and compelling essence. The hikers arriving at Stevens Pass have already proved their mettle through 700 miles of desert sun in SoCal, 500 miles of treacherous snow through the Sierra, an endless 500 mile grind in NorCal, and 700 miles of encroaching forest fires and beckoning microbreweries in the Pacific Northwest. They're the hobbits at the gates of Mordor. They're fit. They're smart. They've killed a few orcs. All they have to do now is ride out the home stretch - 200-ish miles that seem like a victory march.
As a corollary, hikers setting out from here are also beginning to wax nostalgic, and to think about the significance of their hike: what role it has played in their larger life, whether it's been a positive or negative experience, and whether they'll be able to reintegrate into normal society. They're prone to reflection on the meaning of it all.
I say all of this basically by way of introduction, to explain how I ended up in a conversation in a cabin with a couple of smelly European thru-hikers that sent me into a nostalgia spiral that led me here, to a reflection on the core values of the outdoor community.
On Sunday, after sampling, and then discussing the relative lack of merits of various cheap American lagers, and the hikers' plans for what's next after the trail, a brilliant Swiss kid who goes by Stats and has the facial hair of a young lion asked a question that started me on a monologue that still hasn't fully ended: "What sticks with you after the PCT?"
Immensely grateful to be given the opportunity to share my veteran hiker learning with this skillful cadet on the cusp of graduation, my initial response was that it turns you into a committed minimalist: when you literally have to carry everything you need to live, you realize that you don't actually need much, and that you're better off getting rid of the things you don't. And that it makes it really difficult to give up small freedoms: months spent with no commitments beyond moving a few miles forward makes it hard to make decisions that tie you down - getting a real job, or signing a lease that will keep you in the same spot for a long period of time.
That conversation moved on before I could impart more invaluable wisdom about how the trail changes you forever, but the next day the topic came back up when I went out hiking with a good friend from the PCT - Rob, aka Danger Muffin - who was in town by sheer coincidence and stopped by the cabin to catch up. Since the PCT, both of us have done a lot of drifting both geographically and in our careers, and Danger summarized the impetus behind the wandering well: (and I unapologetically paraphrase...) "I've realized more and more that I want to really own my life, and live rather than just giving up and doing what somebody else tells me to."
Danger has amassed at least as much wisdom as me, and back at the cabin, in another conversation with the hikers that night, we hit them with knowledge about humility - that doing something as big as the PCT puts your life in perspective, and living in an immense wilderness helps you to get a more realistic sense of your own importance. For a lot of people, that translates into something like a good sense of humor, because you learn not to take yourself, or any individual situation, too seriously.
Bear with me now, as this post veers in an unexpected, and probably unwelcome direction, because that idea - the relationship between humility, humor, and the experience of wilderness - was on my mind when we were hiking again yesterday, and Danger Muffin's brother Tom (also randomly in town for a visit), told a story about a guy he met on a climbing trip in Kentucky who bragged about discovering, unexpectedly, "200 ticks on his testes". And who, after unsuccessful removal attempts, suffocated them in carburetor fluid.
I won't pretend that the tick anecdote is much more than a horror story that demands to be told, but the rest of the stuff here adds up to something important, at least to me. (And I hope you're paying attention here Stats): two years on I think the biggest thing that has stuck with us from the PCT is a desire to surround ourselves with the outdoor community, whose collective experiences reinforce those types of values.
The reason being that the PCT was an immersive experience in the outdoors and the community that forms there, and a crash course in the lessons that it teaches. The ongoing experience of gathering people together from across the community is continuing education that helps to define outdoor culture (if there is such a thing), and communicate to each other the lessons that "stick with us". And all together, outdoor values like minimalism, freedom, perspective, humility, and a good sense of humor, are things we want to reinforce - both in ourselves, and in the people around us.
Among other things, this week's podcast features a story from Portland crowd favorite Constance Ohlinger that reflects all of the above values in a remarkable way, and concludes with maybe the best finishing line from any of our events. It's a story with an incredible history that made it into international news, so listen and check out the back story here.
And we're excited to find out who is going to show up at our next event, which is happening in Seattle on Monday, September 18th at Naked City Brewery. It's the kickoff to "Season 2" of events, and it looks like there will be an exciting announcement and potentially fabulous gifts and prizes along with normal mix of gnar, inspiration, and good times. Tickets are $10 through next Monday (Sept. 4), and this event has sold out consistently, so we encourage you to buy early!