Navigating the Grief of a Lost Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike
By: Sally Phillips
I remember exactly where I was when I realized I wouldn’t be hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) this year. I sat across from my boss discussing the impact COVID-19 would have on the business over the next few months. It was only beginning to dawn on us that lockdown was inevitable and that it could last 12 weeks or more. I was due to finish work in four weeks and begin a six-month career break. I planned to trek through Scotland, volunteer on the archipelago of St. Kilda, and, ultimately, hike the PCT, heading southbound from the Canadian border in July. Instead, I learned how quickly life can change. I also learned how we can travel with the waves of our grief to shape adventures within what we’re given.
The realization of my lost thru-hike, coupled with the vast uncertainty attached to it, was a slow sinking feeling that washed over me. I had already given up my rented house, moved into my van to save money for the summer, and started getting rid of the possessions I could while putting the rest in storage. Everything felt too far along with my plans for it all to abruptly stop. But, it did.
I entered a strange sort of limbo. It had already been a turbulent week for me, having lost a dear friend and colleague only a few days earlier. This provided a harsh, but necessary perspective. I knew the most important thing to do in this moment was to stay safe.Still, I felt numb. I couldn’t process what was going to happen next. Work was crazy, with guidance and government advice changing every few days. It at least kept me busy, distracting me from thinking about anything other than the present. And when lockdown kicked in and I found myself homeless but for my van, wonderful friends gave me the use of their holiday caravan and all of their love and kindness along with it. Finally, I was able to stop, slow down, and digest what had happened in the last couple of weeks.
The loss of my trip felt huge. Mentally, I’d been preparing for it for almost a year. The countdown to finishing work had kept me going through some difficult winter months. I had to grieve the personal loss of what should have been the biggest adventure of my life so far, but this grief was also larger than that. Like so many others, I was confronted with not seeing friends or family for months and the global uncertainty the pandemic has left us all navigating.
Amidst everything, I felt guilty, too. People were losing loved ones and suffering terribly, and all I had lost was a little bit of freedom in my very immediate future. I would be able to plan this adventure again. It definitely wasn’t the end of the world. But, nevertheless, it felt devastating.
Everyone I spoke to, either at work or socially, asked what I would do about my trip. I had told everyone my plans and now everyone wanted an update. Would I postpone? Cancel? Did I think it was a sign that I shouldn’t go in the future?I don’t really believe in signs, but I do believe in bad timing. And this is why I had made the difficult decision to cancel my thru-hike this year. The timing just wasn’t right. Sometimes you need to be able to recognize when to gracefully sit one out.
During the first few weeks of April, I followed people online who were intent on trying to start their PCT thru-hikes. Their determination would last a couple of weeks, if that, until eventually (and rightly in my mind), they would bow to the growing social pressure to quit. I was angry that so many hikers were ignoring the PCT Association’s advice to stay off the trail this year. It seemed selfish when so many were falling ill. In a way, I could understand the motive and reasoning, but, ultimately, it wouldn’t be the experience they had planned and dreamed.
I stopped following most of them. I didn’t want to see anything from the trail. I was angry and bitter that my dreams were over, grieving the loss of the adventure I was supposed to have. I felt the same sense of despair and sadness I imagine they probably experienced in their own way.
I tried to plan for the next couple of months, but it felt impossible. Everything was uncertain. I mapped out rough routes around Scotland, wondering if they would be possible later in the summer. But it felt like a poor substitute to where I should have been.
Fortunately, however, this mindset didn’t last long. Scotland has a lot to offer, and I was incredibly lucky to be locked down in a very beautiful place. After a couple weeks of local walks and a lot of time to reflect, I knew that a summer of adventures in Scotland was going to be OK, too. I spent more and more time exploring parts of hills and glens that I would never have visited before being forced to stay local.It changed my perspective completely: Adventure is what you make it – whether that is walking 2,650 miles from one end of America to the other, or spending the day scrambling up a pathless hill just to catch a glimpse of all the hills that are still out of reach for the moment.
Now facing my planned start date and watching it pass by without me hitting the trail I had planned, I don’t actually feel like I have missed out on hiking life this year. I want to explore the PCT when it is safe to do so and when I can meet other hikers without fear of passing on a virus or endangering lives. I want to love every minute of it and meet everyone that I could possibly meet. I can’t wait to have that experience. It doesn’t matter if it has to wait until next year, or even the year after. The trail isn’t going anywhere.
Sally Phillips lives and works in the Highlands of Scotland, which provides the perfect playground for hiking, running, and exploring. When she can, she’s climbing Munro’s, peaks over 3000ft/914m, or hiking long distance trails. This year, she walked 200 miles coast-to-coast across Scotland, and dreams of one day walking from Mexico to Canada on the PCT. Writing helps Sally keep her adventures alive—even when stuck behind her desk at work! Follow her adventures on Instagram and her blog.