Life on a PCT thru-hike is reduced to a wonderful simplicity: you wake up, eat breakfast, break camp, and hike north until it's time to stop and make camp. In the morning you do it all over again. And yet despite this simplicity, every day is filled with purpose and meaning because you are completing a epic goal while surrounded by the spectacular beauty of the American West.
Daily routine is a little bit different than on the Appalachian Trail. The desert beginning motivates early rising, often at the literal break of dawn, so that your backpack is on and you are walking as the sun is rising. These mornings are chilly but by midday the sun blazes so fiercely you find some shade under the chaparral, stretch out on your sleeping pad, your backpack for a pillow, and take a nap. By three or four o'clock you are hiking again.
You decide to make up lost time from the siesta by hiking until dusk. The days are long on the PCT and you want to average 18 miles a day so you decide to make dinner on the trail before dark, and then hike a few more miles to camp rather than make dinner after nightfall. You arrive in camp later than you would have on the AT, and set up in a small clearing with one other tent. There is no spring nearby so you filled up a few miles back.
Without shelters and with so many small campsites you often only make camp with a handful of other hikers. Sometimes you camp alone. The gregarious feeling of the AT is absent, but you make friends nonetheless though you see them in town more often than you do on trail. The night is cool but dry so you leave off your tent's rainfly and fall asleep looking up at the stars.
The long-distance permitting system allows the PCTA to gather some data about trail use, but no one has yet collected data about thru-hiker age, gender, race, ethnicity, hiking experience, income, education, et cetera. As a result, everything we are about to say about PCT thru-hikers is admittedly anecdotal, and based upon our editors' personal experiences on both the PCT and other trails.
Most Appalachian Trail thru-hikers seem to fall into one of two groups: the recently graduated from college or recently retired. Either in their 20s or 60s, most of them are thru-hiking for the first time. The few folks we met in their 30s and 40s seemed to be mostly military veterans who recently left the service. Regardless of age, everyone's lives were in a state of transition.
On the PCT, one might expect similar demographics but we've found that is not the case. There are few retirees (more on that in a moment), more experienced hikers, and more folks in their 30s. While many (maybe half) are recent college graduates who are thru-hiking for the first time, many PCT hikers are AT veterans who wanted another adventure and the PCT was a logical choice. These hikers cut their teeth on the AT and arrive with lots of experience and even a trail name. Folks in their 30s typically have caught the hiking bug bad and have embraced thru-hiking as a permanent lifestyle, working temporary jobs during the winter and hiking in the warmer months. Their lives are not in a state of transition but have reached an equilibrium around trails.
The absence of retirees is puzzling. Perhaps the high mileage days and long distances between desert water sources discourage older hikers who think they won't meet the physical demands of the Trail. We think another explanation is more likely, however. The Appalachian Trail has been part of the fabric of America and a fixture in the American imagination long enough that many people have worked their whole lives and raised children while fantasizing about hiking its entire length. Many AT thru-hikers have told us precisely that — as soon as they retired they jumped at the chance to fulfill a life-long dream.
The PCT on the other hand, was only officially completed in 1993, and so has not been a part of the American identity for nearly as long. Nor has it gotten enough media attention to grip people's imaginations as an exciting, romantic adventure. Earl Shaffer's memoir Walking with Spring and newspaper stories about Emma "Grandma" Gatewood introduced Americans in the 1950s to the concept of an AT thru-hike. Other than Cheryl Strayed's Wild, the PCT has not gotten similar media attention.
An Escape from the Human Zoo?
If there is one thing the human body is built to do, it is walk. Human beings evolved on the plains of Africa as hunter-gatherers, and despite settling into towns and cities, we are still best suited for life in our environment of evolutionary adaptation, not the zoo-like conditions we have built for ourselves. We are at our most human when we are living outside, walking all day, never lingering in one place too long, sleeping in temporary locations. In contrast, human behavior in a city is remarkably similar to that of animals confined in a zoo. Desmond Morris explores this idea in his book, The Human Zoo.
A Modern Day, Secular Pilgrimage?
All over the world, for centuries, people have walked great distances not for trade, education, food, or other material benefit but for inner reasons that—for want of a better term—are called spiritual. They are physical journeys toward a non-physical goal. Pilgrimages do not have the same features across all cultures, however. The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca is very different from a medieval Christian pilgrimage, which shares some features in common with Buddhist pilgrimages. A thru-hike in America most resembles a medieval Christian pilgrimage.
For medieval Christians, travel to Jerusalem was too expense and too dangerous. Instead, the tomb of Saint James in Spain became the most popular pilgrimage destination for Western Europeans.
Pilgrims followed four main roads through France and over the Pyrenees mountains to unite at Puente La Reina, then hiked the "Way of Saint James" to the saint's shrine.
Like a thru-hike, this medieval pilgrimage had specific beginning and end points, as well as a designated route along a footpath with no express purpose except that as a pilgrim trail. This is in contrast to say, the Trans-America Bike Path, which is a route drawn across different linked roads also used for normal, day-to-day business. Pilgrims planned their journey by consulting guidebooks like the Liber Sancti Jacobi (or Book of Saint James). Similar to the tradition of trail names, medieval Christian pilgrims would adopt a “pilgrim name” during their journey, usually the name of a saint that inspired the pilgrimage. Businesses cropped up along the route to outfit pilgrims. Monasteries and abbeys provided food and shelter—the medieval equivalent of hostels. Upon reaching the end, pilgrims received a special metal coin as proof they had reached the end, similar to the thru-hiker’s patch.
Today the Way of Saint James (often shortened to "the Way") has become a backpacking destination. People still follow the pilgrim trail, but their motives are secular, rather than explicitly religious. While these hikers may not have great interest in the shrine or relics found at the end of the journey, the journey itself is no less personal, inward, and perhaps spiritual than when pilgrims walked it a thousand years ago.