Turtle (Kristen)

Mile 2,591


(1) Where are you from?

Chicago, IL

(2) What day did you start?

March 15, 2018

(3) What day did you finish?

October 7, 2018 (I took a 28-day break in May, however, to deal with a work thing/wait out the late season snow in the Sierra.)

(4) Do you have a trail name?


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

I have a pretty short torso and a standard 60+10 liter pack... so, in the desert, when we had long water carries and I was lugging up to 12 pounds of extra weight in water, and we were walking on loose sand... well, I fell backwards a lot and couldn't get up by myself. The friends who came across me struggling prone on my back in the middle of the trail so many times thought Turtle was an appropriate name. 

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

I dreamed of food, food, food. Not just eating it, but cooking and baking and serving it to others. One day, I got obsessed with the idea of peanut butter and jelly: the way the textures complement each other, the way the tartness of the jelly cuts the saltiness of the peanuts, how nostalgic the combination is for many generations of Americans. In my imagination, I created a fancy restaurant that only served peanut butter and jelly, and I explained its significance and history to myself like one of the prestigious (and somewhat self-involved) chefs on Chef's Table. Of course, I made my own jelly out of exotic fruits every day, hand-picked from the local outdoor market. I served multi-course meals all made from peanut butter and jelly, including savory dishes with add-ons like cilantro and portabella mushrooms. Liquid nitrogen was definitely involved. My philosophy was to boil down the complementary tastes of peanut butter and jelly to their purest form by representing them in new forms, like truffles or foam or bruschetta or cocktails. This fantasy lasted all day. I asked my friends what dishes they would add to the menu. My hiking partner said he would open a cheaper, competing restaurant where there were toasters at the table and diners could mix and match their own bread/jelly/nut butter combos, Korean BBQ-style. Needless to say, I was dying for a PB&J all day, and bought an entire jar of jam for the purpose next time we were in town. 

(7) Did you experience anything miraculous?

That depends on what you mean by miraculous. I'd say that there was nothing mystical about my thru-hiking experience; it was, rather, grounding to be immersed in the visceral reality of nature. That's not to say, though, that the PCT wasn't a spiritual journey. It is miraculous to me, for example, to be able to relax and be myself when I'm backpacking, though that's not limited to my thru-hike. I have struggled with my mental health my whole life and nothing else makes me feel more at home in my own skin. I could also say that many of the things I saw felt like miracles, even though I know that they're more simple and true than most encounters I have in daily-life: the dense fog of the Goat Rocks Wilderness lifting in the morning to reveal a fresh coat of snow on the peak looming above my tent site, a relaxed doe gazing at me fifteen feet from the trail like I was the wildlife worth watching, trout leaping three feet above an alpine lake to catch flies, the sudden appearance of a cactus flower... I could go on forever.  

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

So, so many. 

My partner and I split off from the rest of our group one day because we realized that, if we hiked hard, we could make it to the Timberline Lodge in time for their legendary breakfast buffet. Some hikers could crank out 40 mile days like it was no problem, but that was not us. It was to be our longest day on trail, but we wanted to push ourselves while we were still in the relative flatness of Oregon. The biggest problem was that we didn't decide to do this until halfway through the day, which meant we would have to hike late into the night. Around 1:30 am, I was strolling along, extremely sleepy (normally we were asleep by 8:30) when I saw what I thought was a headlamp just ahead, next to the trail. I walked up closer to say hi when my partner called me back. I slowly realized that I was not looking at a headlamp, but the bright, reflective eyes of a mountain lion, perched like a house cat on a fallen log not ten feet away. My heart dropped to my feet and I started trembling in a way I'd thought was a Hollywood exaggeration before this moment. The lion wasn't agitated and slowly pranced away when we yelled. When I got my legs working again, we broke through the trees and into a clearing lit by millions of stars and a pink moon rising slowly over the peak across a small canyon. I'm sure that hike would have been gorgeous in the daylight, too, but it's burned into my memory by the incredible starlight as a world of brilliant shadows. 

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

I don't think anything essential to me has changed, but I think I've become much more comfortable with who I am. I am more confident in what my priorities are and the choices I've made. I am more open to different interpretations of "success." I think I'm less easily upset by little things, like plans going awry or what other people think of me. And, I've experienced so much kindness at the hands of trail angels and feel much more hope for humanity than I did before the trail. I've come to want very much to give that same kindness to others, on the trail and off it. 

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

I desperately miss the intensified sense of appreciation I had on trail - the rawness and vulnerability of my body and emotions and how rewarding it felt to be satiated. The sound of a stream on a blisteringly hot day; a cool wind on my forehead during an arduous climb; the juice flooding my tongue and cheeks with a bite of a citrus fruit; hot coffee on a frozen morning; a beam of sunshine after rain; the last steps to the top of a difficult mountain pass; a town meal that leaves me feeling truly full; the release of finally lying down after a tough day; slowly drifting off in the comfort of my sleeping bag; a brisk and shocking alpine swim; the music of birds in the trees and my shoes crunching on the trail; the ecstasy of witnessing the change of life zones and seasons. And if all that sounds hyperbolic, you're not wrong. The experience of stripping yourself down until you're just a creature of the earth makes life so much LOUDER. 

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

I hadn't planned to thru-hike this year until about a month before I had to start. So, I didn't have much time to think about fear. My first day on trail, though, I finally analyzed what I had done - quit my jobs, broke my lease, and flew to the desert without a second thought - and that's when the fear kicked in. I remember stopping dead in my tracks and thinking, "I'm going to be out here for SIX MONTHS??" I couldn't fathom doing just one thing - hiking- for that long a period of time. I've multitasked all my life, and I was going to have to let go of my need to keep my brain busy for half a year. I was afraid I'd drive myself crazy. Sometimes, I did. Most of the time, though, I walked with a smile stuck to my face.  

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

Honestly, I feel less afraid in life overall since the trail, because I know deeply, now, that the world is just brimming with beautiful things, and I'll find them wherever I go. But, I am afraid that, the longer I'm off the trail, the more the whole experience will start to feel like a dream. I want to keep the reality of the PCT close to me, and I need the memories and lessons to stick. I'm afraid of falling back into the old routine, when what I want is to shake up my life. I'm afraid that who I am on trail and who I am in "regular" life will always be different, and that my trail self is inherently a better version of me. 

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

Everything. Living indoors is so wildly different from living outdoors. Sometimes that's good - for example, in the pouring rain. But it's also cramped and oppressive. Florescent lighting also totally changes my sense of time, as do the TV and internet that feed off my wasted hours. I'm still searching for a full-time job that's the right fit for me and my newly reinforced priorities, and I hope that, when I do, I can restore the sense of driving purpose I felt on trail, which was, of course, to reach the Northern Terminus. Adjustment back to life off trail is not easy, I'm finding, but the whole community of thru-hikers is extremely supportive as we all go through a similar transition period. My goal right now is to figure out what aspects of trail life I can bring into life now.  

(14) Would you like to add anything else?

As always, I just want to remember to highlight the importance of all the other people who helped me make it through. I was housed, fed, transported, and everything in between by maybe 100 angels along the way. My hiking partner never lost faith in me, and spent hours boosting my confidence to keep going. And all my friends and trail families took care of me, whether that meant laughing at my bad jokes or giving me water when I was stupid and didn't pack out enough. I couldn't have finished the trail without all these people.