Finding a Sense of Self
“You’re so brave”, people said when I told them I was quitting my job to spend six months alone hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The United States thru-hike is 4,265 km long, walking from the borders of Mexico to Canada through the States of California, Oregon and Washington. For me, bravery wasn’t a factor in deciding to do the trip. It was just time, I was ready.
As soon as I stumbled across the Pacific Crest Trail it consumed me. I thought to myself “this is so wild it might just work”. I wasn’t feeling lost or desperate when I decided to hike, instead I was curious, empowered, and adventure seeking. I wanted to know what it felt like to live in the wilderness. I wanted to meet who I’d be at the end. After 177 long days, I reached the border of Canada and can now reflect on just who I have become in that time.
The trail was rough. I survived heat waves in the Southern Californian desert, and whiteout blizzards in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I was turned around by four wildfires and forced to walk long, unmaintained alternate routes. I passed bears, snakes and spiders. I had constant blisters, pack chafing, muscle aches and fatigue. I was living the adventure.
The longer I spent away from society the more I felt myself. I was no longer influenced by edited images, but by the rise and fall of the sun each day, the animals who took no interest in what I was wearing, and my fellow thru-hikers who had also not properly bathed in weeks. I laughed often, I cried often. I thought long and hard about my friends and family. I brainstormed how I could spend more time outside once I returned home.
The further I walked down the trail the deeper I felt it was part of me. It was continuous and constant beneath my feet. For months I followed the thin dirt line to Canada, to the real me. She is grubby, grinning, sore and totally invincible.
I experienced true inner peace. Peace with where I was, what I was doing, and how I was living, in the woods, cut off from the world. There were no mirrors, or makeup and razors. No one cared, everyone was equal. Six months of learning how strong I was, what I could achieve, how happy I could be. It was incredibly empowering. It’s still hard to capture just how it feels to truly belong somewhere, but it’s nice to know that I’ve personally experienced it before.
I expected to feel lonely and isolated, to have relaxing afternoons at camp, to be scared at night and to be caught in terrible storms. This wasn’t the case. Instead, I formed strong lifelong friendships. I hiked long and hard, usually arriving at camp just in time to eat, sleep, hike, repeat. I met people from all around the world and reset my standards of what a ‘normal’ life looked like.
With so much time to think I learnt a lot about myself. I expected to come home changed, but instead I came home with a deeper understanding of my existing values. I value working with purpose, I value my family and friends, I value my body and health, I value activism for nature and the environment, and I now value what I can achieve when I try.
I learnt that it’s not always about the destination, but the journey. I would describe myself as aggressively goal driven and a finisher of what I start. When it looked like I might run out of time to finish the trail because of snow and fire delays, I made peace with that; something the old me would have never done.
I learnt to reset my expectations of myself. At the end of the day, a hill was still a hill, regardless of how many months I’d been hiking. I realised it’s a metaphor for my workload back home, an overfull schedule will still be exhausting, no matter how good I was at juggling.
The trail didn’t answer all my questions, but it gave me perspective to start asking new ones. How do I continue living this best life? How do I express the love I feel for the environment and myself? How do I stay this person I’ve become? How do I help others find this version of themselves?
Every time I sit by flowing water, or look out over a view I connect with a small part of me. She only ever appears when the air is fresh, and the soil is soft. She is kind, full of love, and she is curious. I encourage you to find her too.
Biography: Heather Porter is an experienced adventurer who has hiked, kayaked and biked in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Leaving her job and home in Sydney for six months, Heather hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in 2018.