(1) Where are you from and how would you like to be identified?
My name is Justin Kernes and I'm originally from southern California, but now I find myself ski-bumming it in the mountains of Colorado. People on the trail might know me as 'Tiny Slice'. Always ask for a large slice of blueberry pie.
(2) Thinking back to your “day-1 self,” what is going through your mind at the start?
On the first day, I don't think I had many coherent thoughts. I've always been an excitable and anxious person when embarking on new experiences. Mostly, a pervasive feeling of, “it's starting” coursed through me, constantly making my heart pound and flutter. I was fully stoked and only a little hung-over from last night's celebration.
(3) Do you feel ready?
A life in Scouts has taught me to “Be Prepared”. With an entire pack full of squeaky-clean gear, shoes I didn't bother breaking in, and one liter of water (my lessons started early), my brother and I set off from the Mexican border. I felt ready, but I don't think any part of me knew what that actually meant. It wasn't until mile 1,000 that I felt like I was a true thru-hiker and “ready”.
(4) What are you most afraid of?
I remember being afraid of only one thing, openly, at the start: a bad injury resulting in failure. For me, failure was having to leave for the rest of the season and not be able to reach the terminus. This seemed like a very rational fear. Quickly, I lost that fear and it turned into a nagging conscience, constantly reminding me to make less-risky decisions while hiking in order to avoid breaking an ankle or blowing a knee. Galloping down a scree pile is a recipe for getting off-trail. But if I really confront myself and take deeper look, I think a major fear was being alone. I like solitude in the outdoors and being independent, but I was scared I would just make a bunch of half-hearted acquaintances and feel lonely for five months. Not a rational fear at all. I feared my brother would get tired of me and hike ahead, never to be seen again. All-day physical exertion in the sweltering desert led my brain to some dark places.
Eventually, after hiking day after day, the fear left. I kept seeing familiar faces from the pace I was keeping. More and more lunch breaks were spent with other hikers, more nights were spent in a group. As I discovered the hiking community, my fear left me. I made friends. And when my fear left, so did my brother; we both needed to experience the trail as individuals—hike your own hike. When we met back up for the last 750 miles to the border, I think we valued our time together a lot more.
(5) What are you most confident about?
I was confident about embracing the potential-suck. Rather, I was confident about my state of mind in difficult physical situations. Sure, backpacking is enjoyed by people around the world, but there are times where every outdoor enthusiast thinks, “this sucks, I want to stop, I want to be indoors.” Type-2 fun. Maybe they won't freely admit to it, but I know it's true. Having a ton of prior outdoor experiences from Scouts, I was aware of the things which could sap my morale and I was confident they wouldn't best me.
(6) Does anybody not want you to go?
Nobody said explicitly that they didn't want me to go. My mother will probably recoil and kill me if she reads this, but she gave one of the most unique responses to finding out my brother and I were going. “I've decided I'm OK with you hiking [the PCT]”, she calmly said after sleeping on it for a night. And Dad's comment about “don't break a leg” also caught me off guard. A close friend of mine also gave what I imagine to be a more standard reply; “the whole way?” It was easy to view responses like this as negative, but I soon realized everyone has their own mental hangups and sometimes they project those insecurities onto you.
Shockingly, this question doesn't seem surprising. I had a few AT thru-hiker friends before I set off who had emotional social media posts about 'not listening to the haters'. I was fortunate not to have any haters, or at least, I didn't view anyone as a hater.
(7) What made you decide to take this hike?
There were a few factors which persuaded me to hike the PCT. I've always been an outside cat kinda person; living in the great outdoors genuinely appeals to me. As an adolescent, I was heavily involved in Boy Scouts, reaching the rank of Eagle, and did a slew of overnight and three-day weekend backpacking trips during my tenure. Very quickly, I learned to love the outdoors, so much so that I worked eight summer seasons at Philmont Scout Ranch; a high adventure backpacking/activities youth camp. Living in log cabins for three-month summers pushed me to look for alternative lifestyles.
But the biggest reason was my brother, Adam—people on trail know him as 'Shocks'. Over the years I had seen friends from Philmont attempt the trail and post their progress online. Jealousy was the first feeling I always had. Charming. The spring before we started, Adam approached me and declared his intentions to hike. I remember thinking there wasn't anyway in hell I was going to allow myself to be jealous of my brother. Rather than try and find a way to be proud of him at home like a mature adult would do, I decided it was time to realize my dream and take the leap as well. I owe him everything.
(8) What do you expect to get from it?
“Sow the seeds of expectation; reap disappointment” is one of my favorite quotes. I didn't set many expectations before I set off. I knew I'd be hiking all-day, every day. I expected to buy very few hotel rooms. I knew my feet would hurt. I knew at some point I would want to quit, like really, really want to quit. All of those things met my expectations. Other non-hikers seemed to have the expectation that this experience will be life-changing, personality-altering. I didn't start with the intention of radical personal change, nor do I think I got one.
(9) Have you ever done anything like this before?
I have never done a thru-hike or any other long distance trail before. I had done a few 30-mile weekend trips and 120-mile week-long trips, but nothing compared to the PCT.
(10) What have you done to prepare?
The most frequently asked question I received was “what did you do to prepare?” I never had a good answer. I didn't do any physical training. I didn't test any gear. I just relied on my prior outdoor experience, a few blogs, and successful hikers. The biggest thing was upgrading my gear to be much more lightweight. Halfway Anywhere's survey of successful thru-hikers base weights really stuck with me. I remember thinking about bringing a Nalgene water bottle. That was an item that kind of unraveled the way I thought about gear, weight, and necessity.
Also, I committed myself to working a lot of overtime during the preceding winter. I had been living as a seasonal employee for a few years and I knew a summer of not making money would make a rough transition into next winter. One of the biggest challenges of the trail was getting through a ton of hours at my mediocre job and saving enough money.
(11) What are you looking forward to the most?
The Sierra. Bishop, California and the high Sierra is some of my favorite landscape in the world so far; I couldn't wait to get above treeline. But above all, I was looking forward to completing my goal: become a thru-hiker.
(12) When/where did you leave the trail?
On May 5th, even though both of us didn't realize our permit was registered for the fourth, Adam and I set off from Campo, California. On September 11, we stepped into Canada, completing our thru-hike. I didn't leave the trail for any extended periods of time, completing all 2652 miles in 129 days. My double-zero in Cascade Locks for PCT Days was legendary.
(13) What caused you to leave the trail?
I became a thru-hiker.
(14) Would you like to add anything else?
The time is now. Whatever it is you want to do, now will never be a better time. If you even remotely think something like the PCT might be for you, it is. Go now or something is bound to come up. It always does. Get the buffet. Hike that six-pack. Do the sunrise summit. Say yes to strangers. Drive your flesh spaceship flat out.
And if you need any more reasons, you can follow me on Instagram for all my best photos and stories from my trail experience: @photogjman
1) Go Fast 2) Commit.