Arms (Michelle)

Mile 2,591

 
 
 

(1) Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Woodstock, Ontario, was living in Whistler, British Columbia before the trail, but am currently living in Fort St. John, British Columbia. To put it more simply, I'm from Canada.

(2) What day did you start?

I started on Saturday, May 5th.

(3) What day did you finish?

I finished on Saturday, October 6th.

(4) Do you have a trail name?

Yes; Arms.

(5) If so, where did it come from?

My friends started calling me Arms after I made a some silly comments about wanting to wash my arms. They accused me of always talking about my arms, sometimes they caught me. It was weird, and funny. I still deny that I “always talk about my arms”.

(6) What did you dream of when things weren’t going well?

I’m a dreamer, naturally, and day dreaming took up most of my time on trail. Often times I would get lost in fantasies of post-trail life, imagining what this moment would be like and what I could become after I finish the trail. The possibilities seem endless after you've just walked so far. But when times were tough, when I was caught up in a storm of negative thoughts and it seemed impossible to keep going, I found it most helpful to stop dreaming. Stop thinking. I would remind myself to be in the moment. Turn off my thoughts, recognize my surroundings, sometimes out loud. Notice the wind; it's direction, it's force, it's temperature. Touch the flowers; feel their delicacy, admire their uniqueness. Focus on my body; the sensation in my legs when they stop moving, and the beat of my heart in harmony with my breath. I suppose it was a form of meditation. A way of strengthening my mind. A discipline that taught me to appreciate hard times. This is why I came here in the first place. 

(7) Did you experience anything miraculous?

We say, “The trail will provide”, because it does. For whatever reason, by some grace, everything I ever needed came to me. Time after time, from small things like a good score in a hiker box or something more significant like getting an unlikely hitch. One time stands out in particular. 

It was 6:30 PM on a hot Monday evening. Double D, Gourmet and I were hitching out of Lone Pine, back to the trail, which involved a 20 mile drive up a narrow road with many blind curves and tight switchbacks to a campground and trail head. Not necessarily an easy hitch, but we had to try anyway. 

The three of us stood with our thumbs out on a busy street corner heading out of town, toward the mountains. A few vehicles pulled over but weren’t able to accommodate us. Finally, an old VW van pulled over and a friendly, young lady in the driver seat offered to take us halfway up the road to a lavender farm where we could continue hitching. She didn't trust that her old van could make the trip all the way to the campground. The driver told us her name is Puppy and that she thru hiked the PCT in 2015 and had since moved to Lone Pine. She took us on “the scenic route” to the lavender farm while we chatted about life on trail. We weaved along a curvy road, going up and down through rugged rock formations and into the mountains. The sun was beginning to set as we reached the lavender farm, about halfway up the road to the campground. Puppy turned the van around and drove back down the road; disappearing after the first bend, leaving the sound of the VW’s engine echoing against the mountains. Now, we just had to wait. 

It was now getting quite late and our chances of getting another hitch were not good. We started to scope out spots to cowboy camp just off the road. We figured we could wait until morning and then try again, hoping we would catch day trippers on their way to the trailhead. We were discouraged, of course, but we couldn't help but laugh about our situation. This was the PCT being classic PCT. Testing us. Giving us something to talk about; a problem to solve. To make things just a tad funnier, just a tad more interesting, a friendly and adorably dirty farm dog named Sweetie (as stated on her collar) came up from the farm to keep us company. She mainly just begged for a bite of Gourmet's Subway, but she also provided us entertainment while we waited. 

Suddenly, a sound grew from the mountains. A sort of loud vibration making its way up the switchbacks. We could tell it wasn't a car. The sound grew closer, and then there was Jonathon. Cycling up the road. We watched him make his way toward us and we joked that we should try to hitch. I mean, there were no cars coming so why not try our luck with this cyclist?! Sure enough, he stopped. He looked at us and said, "Hey, uh, what're you guys doin' out here...?" 

We explained our situation to Jonathon as he sized us up. His eyes were big with excitement as we spoke and he didn’t hesitate to offer us his assistance. Moments later, he was zooming down the mountain on his bicycle toward Lone Pine where his van was waiting. It took him about forty minutes to get back to us and when we saw his headlights beaming up road we were literally jumping for joy. We didn’t have to sleep on the road tonight!

We hopped into Jonathon’s adventure rig and took off into the mountains. It was dark as night now and the four of us chatted about the trail, Jonathon’s cycling career, and living a life of intention. We had a lot in common with Jonathon and I could feel how comfortable he was opening up to us about his dreams to do great things as he shared his most intimate aspirations with us. I felt so honoured to have connected in such a personal way with a total stranger in such a short amount of time. It is so fascinating to me how, as hikers, we often find ourselves caught in a web of motivation. We were there to motivate Jonathon during a trying time in his life and he did the same for us. I love the way that this trail connects me to people I wouldn’t normally have the chance to meet and especially under such unique circumstances. 

When we finally reached the campground and the three of us walked off into the darkness, I realized just how unique and special this moment was. This was one of those “once in a lifetime experiences”. There is absolutely no chance that this situation could ever be recreated. Everything that happened that day, and trust me, this wasn’t the only unique moment that day, it would never happen again. The PCT isn’t your annual family vacation. It is once in a lifetime. Thanks to Lone Pine, and Puppy, and the lady at Subway who burned our subs and gave us the employee discount, and Sweetie the dirty dog, and Jonathon, and the couple from Idaho who gave us a ride earlier that day, thanks to all of the unexplainable, serendipitous things that happen, I just lived 153 days of “once in a lifetime” and that is miraculous. 

(8) Any memorable encounters with the elements, or wildlife?

One thing I remember about NorCal is the deer. It seemed like every day I would see them at camp, sometimes running up the trail, and I even saw a fawn that looked only days old! But there was one deer that stood out among all the others. One twisted deer encounter that changed my views on deer forever...

We were camping on the outskirts of a burn area just outside of Lassen Volcanic National Park, Double D, Gourmet and I. It was an open, fairly flat area with scattered trees. The air was thick with wildfire smoke and the sky burned orange and pink as the sun went down. Gourmet was huddled in her tent, eating a simple dinner as she always did and Double D and I were settling in not far away. A friendly deer strolled into our camp to check things out. It was pretty tame, at first, and ran away when we yelled at it. But, as the sun fell and the sky grew darker the deer became more interested in our camp. We fell into a deep sleep, resting our tired bodies, and the deer continued to investigate us. At one point, I woke up to Double D half out of our tent with his headlamp yelling at the deer. It had woken him up by licking the outside of our tent near his head. But that wasn't the last of the deer. 

We woke up to our alarm in the morning, around 6:00 AM, and began our day with a cup of coffee. Still wrapped in our sleeping bags, the sun just coming out, we laid around for a while laughing about what had happened throughout the night. Straightaway, the deer was back in our camp, staring at us. We yelled at it some more but the thing just kept circling back into our camp, so eventually, we gave up on trying to scare it off. We finished our coffees, began to organize our stuff and start the process of breaking down camp.

Like clockwork, nature calls and Double D was off with his trowel and bag of toiletries to dig his daily cathole. Upon his return, we noticed the deer slowly making its way toward Double D's cathole. As we packed up our sleeping bags and our tent we saw the deer over behind the log, rustling up the dirt near the cathole. We were in total denial of what we were witnessing. Sure enough, the deer fully dug up the cathole and cleaned it out. I couldn't believe my eyes. What the f***?!

Disgusted, and laughing, and in total shock, we continued on with our morning. Next on the agenda; a morning toke (yes, marijuana), which of course, stimulates the natural process. So, my turn to go now. I collected my stuff and went off to find a bit of privacy in this vast area. As I walked away from camp, the deer followed me. By this point it was no longer afraid of our hollers and didn't matter what we threw at it, it just would not go away. I dug a hole, did my thing, filled it back in and as I walked away the deer moved in. We couldn't believe it. Round one wasn't enough! It was back for seconds! 

That encounter tainted my view of deer, forever.

 

(9) Think back to your “pre-hike self.” Now think of yourself here at the end. Has anything changed?

My life pre-trail was great. I was probably, and without knowing, the happiest I had ever been. I was living in my beloved campervan with my beloved boyfriend in the beloved mountains of Whistler, British Columbia. I had three, yes three, wonderful jobs that I loved and I was gearing up for the adventure of a lifetime. Not to mention, I was still able to get out in the mountains to play, a lot. I was snowboarding almost every day, got out snowmobiling once in a while, even tried ice climbing and bungee jumping! Living in Whistler was a rush. 

If it weren’t for Whistler, it would be unlikely that I would have hiked the PCT this year. When Double D and I decided we would commit to this, we were high on life. It was early spring when we decided, the scent of change was in the air, we were about to begin our first summer of vanlife as we wrapped up a challenging winter and we were planning our next adventure. How long were we going to do vanlife? How long would we stay in Whistler? We wanted to travel, we wanted to be immersed in the wilderness, we wanted to keep living outside, we wanted to challenge ourselves, we wanted to live a life without sacrificing our passions, so the decision to attempt a thruhike came easy. Once we talked about it, started research, everything seemed to fall together so easily. 

We had an amazing group of friends in Whistler. A bunch of “keeners”, meaning people who are always keen to do things. We skied together, climbed together, drank together, and lived together. Needless to say, we formed strong bonds with these people so when Double D and I explained our plans for the summer of 2018 it was no surprise that our friends would be supportive. We knew one person in particular that would be stoked, maybe a bit jealous, maybe enough to come along! And we were right. As soon as we told Gourmet about our plans she immediately wanted in. From that moment, some time on a Sunday in March of last year, the three of us decided we were going to hike the PCT. 

We ended up starting our hike as a foursome; myself, Double D, Gourmet and our Irish friend, Marie, who dropped out in Idyllwild due to a pre-trail injury. Double D and I had many advantages over Gourmet in the beginning. For one, Gourmet was a heavy drinker pre-trail and was quite overweight when we started. This definitely influenced our journey but we didn’t let that stop us from accomplishing our goal. Gourmet has a strong mind, whether she knows it or not, and she overcame incredible obstacles this summer. Additionally, Double D and I had taken PCT training quite seriously. We both took an eighty hour Wilderness First Responder course, a mountain weather and navigation course, spent a lot of money to buy quality gear, we exercised daily, and topping it all off, vanlife seriously prepared us for anything. I think that our group dynamic really influenced the person I came this summer. Being here at the end, looking back on the beginning, I realize now that I was riddled with arrogance. As if there was something about me that made my adventure any better than anyone else's. I suppose I never noticed it in the moment. I was always so focused on moving, on getting to the end. But now that I'm at the end, now that this life is suddenly ending, I can look back and recognize all the moments I wish I had taken more time to appreciate my peers and less time concerned with my agenda. Maybe I should have taken that zero, or took a moment for my friend to catch up with me, but I was busy on my journey. 

As we neared the end of California we were hiking an average of 25 miles a day, my body was finally beginning to feel strong and I began to tune into this arrogance. I noticed a correlation between my physical strength and my mental strength. As my body got stronger, so did my mind. Suddenly, I was focusing less on the physical struggle of the trail which freed up energy for me to truly recognize all the beauty around me. I realized how important it is to take this time to form relationships with all the inspiring people around me. Not only here on trail, but in life. People are special, they are what makes life enjoyable, and opening myself up to them was the key to success out here. 

The last half of this journey has really been the most significant in terms of growth. I have been walking nearly a marathon a day for three months. Through rain, snow, heat, bugs, sand, rocks, smoke, forests, and rivers. My body is strong now. But being strong is only part of this. Without the encouragement and reassurance of my peers, I don’t think strength alone would have gotten me here. 

I read through the log book at the Northern Terminus for a long time before I added my entry. I read the hand written notes of all the hikers before me, many of them friends, and took a few moments to quietly honour their journey and everything they had overcome. I didn't want these last few moments to be about me. I wanted it to be about all of us. 

I wrote, 

“I came for the mountains, but stayed for the people. Thank you, Arms.”

(10) Now that you are off the trail, what do you miss most about it?

I mostly miss the mornings. I've always been a morning person, and I was known for being a morning person on trail. Often times I was awake and hiking as the sun rose, sometimes earlier. I found the morning hours to be the most peaceful. Especially the moment the sun hits your face for the first time that day, or the way the frost begins to evaporate right in front of your eyes. I like the way the air smelled in the morning and the way that it influenced positive thinking. The trials of yesterday didn't matter any more. Every day is a new day.

(11) Before you started, what were you most afraid of?

As I finished, I realized something. I thought back to Day 1, the moment we got picked up in San Diego, the drive to Campo, my first steps on the desert sand, I was excited. So excited. I had been planning this trip for a year and a half. I had it all figured out. I was prepared and confident. Looking back, too confident. There were so many things to be afraid of; snakes, dehydration, getting lost, Trump supporters, but the excitement of this challenge had me boiling with determination. There was no way anything would stop me from reaching Canada. I wasn't afraid of anything, except failing and the humiliation I would feel if I didn't make it.

(12) Now that you are finished, what are you most afraid of?

Now that I have successfully finished the PCT, what I fear most is never being afraid. It was fear that brought me to the trail in the first place. A fear of living a wasteful life, afraid to be static and monotonous. For as long as I can remember I have been chasing the rush of life. I didn't have the patience for school, I nearly suffocated myself working in factories, and I wasn't satisfied with a weekend trip to the lake anymore. I grew up in a town full of automotive manufacturing plants, where the highways are lined with corn fields, every one gets married at twenty-three, has babies at twenty-five, owns their own home by twenty-seven, and well, divorced by thirty. I don't want that life. That life scares me more than anything these days. This is the fear that will drive me to live a life of intention. Push me to do things like hike the PCT, go sky diving, travel to questionable places, but mostly, feel fulfilled. The PCT scared me everyday and I loved it. It made me feel human.  

(13) What’s the difference between life on the trail and life off the trail?

"I hope to see you soon." 

This is something you don't hear people say often in regular life. But on trail, hikers would say that all the time to each other. Without having reliable digital communication, we depended on physically seeing each other, most often by chance. Sometimes we would go days without seeing any other hikers, so when you finally do see a friendly face the moment seemed to last. Conversations on trail felt meaningful and when someone said, “I hope to see you soon.”, as they disappeared down the trail, you really believed them. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize just how sad life is off trail. Going home to an industrialized society, everyone blatantly babbling about their minuscule problems, never being able to experience true silence, it hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been very difficult. The boredom of life off trail can be debilitating, the loss of connection with nature is heartbreaking and the struggle to connect with people I once had strong relationships with fills me with guilt. Many of my friends and family are trapped by obligations or situations that prevent them from being open minded enough to have the experiences that I’ve had, and all I could ever want for them is to feel the euphoria that I have felt during these experiences. Sometimes, I even feel self conscious about what I’ve just done. Like, if I really express how excited I am about my accomplishments people here will stereotype me or think that I have something to prove. People here, in my small hometown, they just don’t get it.

People on the PCT don’t let each other feel guilty for their accomplishments. We empower each other. Make each other feel appreciated and we don’t waste an opportunity to tell someone, “I hope to see you soon.”

(14) Would you like to add anything else?

The truth is that these questions have been kind of hard to answer. 

Each day off trail has been just as hard as each day on trail. The physical pain of walking has subsided but the emotional pain of not walking has taken a tole on me. There seems to be a lot of time to ponder these days, a lot of time to reminisce. The more I think about how happy I was only a short while ago, the more I think about how hard it will be to ever be that happy again. But then again, after five months of nothing but time to think, I know how toxic these thoughts are and how important it is to keep a healthy mind. I didn’t give up then, so I’m not going to give up now.