by Sean Jansen
“Give me a hug man!”
I said to my friend Tommy, teary-eyed as we reached Monument 78, the northern terminus and finish line for a northbound Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker. Approaching the terminus my friend Kayla was right in front of me and Tommy was only about 20 yards beyond that. We had checked the maps at the last water source and knew we only had five miles to go. It started pouring rain. It slowed our descent. The three of us were dead quiet. We could hear every raindrop. An hour and a half went by uneventfully. But suddenly there was a large clearing ahead. Tommy reached a switchback at the start of the clearing, turned and looked at us with a big Cheshire grin, bouncing up and down with his backpack on, waving his hiker poles in the air saying, “I can see it, I can see it!” Kayla didn’t want to believe him because he is such a jokester, but your eyes don’t lie when you see it for yourself. Tommy took off running, Kayla sung her way dancing to the monument, and I was in complete shock. I didn’t think it was real, 2,650.10 miles and 180 days and it was all over.
It was never a vacation. It was never a sojourn, or a journey, trip, excursion, or trek. It was simply a dream. I had to do it. My youth of salt-crusted obsession started to weigh thin while the population of my local line-ups did the opposite. Traveling didn’t seem worthy to someone who had been to 27 countries before turning 27. I was bored, bored with my life, it just seemed like repetition. I needed to break free and set loose a person that was trapped and in need of escaping. And when a friend reminded me of the trail, I couldn’t think of anything better than to be in nature, to spend up to 150 days in a sleeping bag, and to stink to unfathomable levels where people at McDonald’s and grocery stores couldn’t stand to be within ten feet of me. Finding comfort in the most bazaar of locales, finding love where I wasn’t looking, but ultimately, finding that change I was looking for.
Change came in the course of landscape and trail, but more importantly, I changed. And to say the trail changed me is as night and day as summer and winter. Change inside, change outside, change in appearance. Change emotionally, physically, and mentally. If there is a single word to describe the trail, it is, “change.” The trail changes you as much as it changes elevation. And in looking at the total elevation differences throughout the trail, it was evident something life altering was going to happen.
I could tell you about how gorgeous the trail is, and try to use a variety of words from my thesaurus to impress you, but there is something very special to be said about what it takes to wake up after a day that gave you six new blisters, a sun-burnt forehead, and a headache reminiscent of a hangover without the alcohol ... about watching that sunrise come up over a Joshua tree in Southern California when you should have already been walking if you wanted to get somewhere before the sun decided to make a roast of you … or carrying eight liters of water for a 38-mile dry section in 90-degree heat … or simply freezing in a tent at 9,000 feet because you laughed at the fact a storm was going to bring rain to Southern California and you ended up shivering while it snowed. These are the things that summed up a Southern California trail in a nutshell, insanely gorgeous and super surprising.
But after walking through my backyard, I was now at the door of the Sierras itching to open it, and the only way to describe what I saw when I opened that door is nothing short of breathtaking.
When my muscles started to hurt more than usual, and I wished I could literally buy oxygen, I knew I had made it to the Sierras. The Sierras meant granite peaks, extreme altitude, and a view that HD wouldn’t know howto handle. Many have been said to lose up to a tenth of their body weight in this section because of the sheer effort it takes to go over some of the passes.
You wake at 7,000 feet to know that after 20 miles you have another 6,600 more feet up and the equivalent down. You huff, puff and curse under your breath about how these climbs always seem to work, only to reach the top and hike slowly down the backside cheering the legendary John Muir because of the insane beauty to be witnessed.
The Orange glow of a granite wall at sunrise or sunset, and my memory card reminding me that I couldn’t take any more photos when the card is full, simply spoke Sierra. I averaged 9.8 miles a day for 20 days. Not because I was tired or because it was hard, which it was, but purely because I wanted to. I let my friends go and do their 18 mile days while I basked in the beauty that John Muir inspired us to see.
Transitions were abundant along the PCT. The descent out of the Sierras was slow but obvious. When the highest elevation I hit for the day was around 7,000 feet and not over 10, I knew Northern California and Oregon were knocking. The temperatures began to climb again, but the terrain got easier. The climbs were far mellower and the days were getting longer and longer. Pretty soon my slow casual pace turned into marathons and the occasional ultra.
This part of the trip turned out to be a highlight, despite the fact that it wasn’t up to the standards of what I had just gone through. It was because it was different. It was social hour. This is where I met some of the most incredible humans that I still call friends to this day. Having the ability to share 20 plus mile days through some gorgeous terrain made the rest of the trail fly.
Some of my fondest memories of the entire trip are of the people. Simply the passion that you share for hiking the trail is all that was ever needed to strike up a decent conversation. I often joked about how I lost more weight on the trip from laughing over poop conversations than actually walking the trail. It was just amazing the outpouring of love given and received within five minutes of meeting another hiker. Falling in love with someone on the trail seemed like it only needed a week to happen.
Coming to the end
We were all puzzled through Oregon and Washington. It was such a mixed-emotional part of the trip. We could all see the light at the end of the tunnel. Noticing differences in terrain, it seemed like it was clear as day with every border. And once that happened, some were excited to know that it was almost over, while others, including myself, wished it could keep going.
It was the never-ending chase from volcano to volcano in a bazaar game of cat and mouse. Back at Lassen, hiking through the sisters region in Oregon made me think I was standing on Mars, then getting to that luxurious breakfast buffet at the lodge on Mount Hood, and finally getting my first glimpse of Rainier as I rounded one of the fingers of Mount Adams.
But the experience really started to set in when we reached the North Cascades. The snowcapped spires shot up to the sky blowing all of our expectations away, but keeping ourselves in check, we knew we still had work to do to get to the finish. The last ten days were by far the hardest. The terrain was even more difficult than that of the Sierras, and I was emotionally wrecked. I wept periodically and got nauseous because my six-month dream was almost over. The feeling of accomplishment was there for me sure, but not being able to see my equally dirty friend every morning, or lean my pack up against a tree and take a nap were things I would miss. Things I still miss while sitting at my desk in my cozy chair with a roof over my head.
I set off from Campo, California on April 13th at around 2 pm. I finished the trail on October 10 at 1:20pm. Five months and 27 days or 180 days total: 2,650.10 trail miles, 2,781.16 total miles hiked, 253 trout caught, 46 passes hiked over. I hitch-hiked 39 times, lost 34 pounds, got 27 days of rain, took 22 showers, used 15 fuel canisters, stayed in 11 hotels and eight campgrounds. I took seven buses, got snowed on six times, went through five pairs of shoes, saw three bears, climbed three mountains, stayed in three houses, spent two days in below freezing weather, and had one life changing adventure.
Sean can be reached on instagram