Long Pond – 100 Mile Wilderness, The Appalachian Trail
Photo by Alex Patino
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My Trail Story featuring Golden Girl

Alex Patino, a.k.a. Golden Girl, explains how he went from working in the fashion industry in NYC for seven years, to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Colorado Trail, and Appalachian Trail.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       03/14/2019
Natalie McMillan
My Trail Story
03/14/2019

Let me paint a picture: Two months before I first stepped foot on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, I was busy wrapping up New York Fashion Week, preparing for the onslaught of London Fashion Week, followed by Milan, ending in Paris. I had been living in New York City for nine years at that point, having spent seven of those years working in fashion, at first, as a fashion journalist, and eventually running the social media for a heritage luxury retailer. What I’m about to say next you’ve already said to yourself: that’s about as polar opposite to the thru-hiking experience as one can possibly get. My life and my responsibilities were more about Prada shoes, not trail runners; the accessories I had to focus on were Alexander McQueen handbags, not Osprey lightweight packs; Chanel tweed jackets, definitely not Arc’teryx down jackets; Celine eyewear, not – well, you get the picture by now. It was a severe volte face, and the decision to turn in the one life for a glimpse into the other was fast and furious.

A man standing on a rock with a mountain in the distance.
Franconia Ridge, the AT
Photo by Alex Patino

Then one day, I realized that I had given work too much of myself. I stopped swimming my daily laps and quit rock-climbing with friends. I blew up behind my desk, gaining weight by the day and working 70+ hours a week. Every time my phone rang, I worried it was work. When you work in social media, especially in New York City, everything is always NOW! NOW! NOW! And I was a one-man machine, producing at levels that would require four or five employees. I was worn thin. My whole 20s were consumed by work. Considering the competitive nature of the city, you always had to do something to prove your worth, your salary, your viability, in particular in the corporate world. I had jettisoned myself out of Gainesville, Florida, where I had gone to college, and into New York City without entertaining a single thought about maybe going on a grand adventure, or taking some time off between school and work — nothing. I was just desperate to get true adulthood started. And there I was, at the end of my 20s, completely exhausted, moribund from too much Photoshop, too much coding, too many fashion influencers to deal with. Eventually I had to wonder, how the hell did I get to this point?

A hiker standing on a trail with his arms out holding trekking poles.
Photo by Alex Patino

The turning point came Christmas 2015, when I was visiting my family down in Florida. I was sitting on my living room couch, fantasizing about a life without all this stress, daydreaming about what I would tell the head honchos when I finally threw in the towel, and how I would reinvent myself so that this kind of crippling depression could never get its hands on me this way again.

At the same time, a close friend mentioned interest in tackling the Continental Divide Trail. I admit, I had never heard of it, and as I dove into YouTube to learn more about it, I could feel my mind churning, formulating ideas, creating images where I would edit out the professional outdoorsman in whatever given video and superimpose myself on top of that mountain. It was me fording those rivers and streams. It was me schlepping up those 14,000ft peaks and carrying my life on my back. That was me standing at the highest summit, facing in the direction of New York City with my middle fingers blazing in the sun. Clearly, the city had done a number on me.

Point is, I was sold. This trail looked amazing, much more so than the Appalachian Trail. Plus, I wanted to go out West. I had never done so before and this is as immersive as you can get! I started asking around online about logistics, how thru-hiking works, the particular difficulties of the CDT, when a very popular thru-hiking personality dissuaded me from tackling the CDT on my first thru-hike. The Pacific Crest Trail is what you need to do, he insisted. Truth is, I didn’t really know much about that one either. But true to my own form, I researched the PCT to death and soon enough, I was a devotee. I wanted to be on that PCT 2600-miler list, even if it killed me. There was just one problem: Hispanics don’t hike.

I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, to Colombian parents. There isn’t anything above 350ft in the entire state. I don’t think my parents had even uttered the words, “camping” in their entire lives, much less “backpacking.” Living in New York, I took frequent trips up the Hudson River to small day-hikes in the Beacon and Cold Springs region, but I was always back on the train, heading back to Grand Central Station before nightfall. I had never spent a night in a tent in my life. To prepare, I went hiking in Beacon with two friends, only I took my weighted pack, just to test the waters. I was hyperventilating, crippled from muscle spasms, falling behind at every turn. I could read my friends’ polite, but tacit misgivings. After that trial, I was saying it myself – I’m so screwed. That was the one and only time I went out and gave it a good go. After that, my training consisted of eating roast beef sandwich melts from the corner deli (God, I miss that deli) and marathoning all five seasons of Felicity in under a month. With a cushiony muffin top to help stave off losing too much weight too soon and plenty of osmosis-gained college angst by way of Keri Russell, I was ready to get eaten by bears, bitten by rattlers and tackled by mountain lions.

A hiker standing with his backpack on looking out at a mountain and lake below.
Photo by Alex Patino

My beautiful friends threw me a going away party. Many drinks in, we took a group photo with a Polaroid. The host, Christopher, one of my best friends, handed me the snapshot, but not before he could write “Don’t F*ck It Up” on the Polaroid with a Sharpie. I told him I was terrified. He assured me I was going to make it. “You’re the most hard-headed person I know. You’re going to get to Canada if it kills you.” I carried that picture with me the whole way, as a reminder that I couldn’t go home with my tail between my legs. The following Friday after the party, I left my job for good, said none of the things I fantasized about saying on my way out the door, and left for California.

A foggy trail with very green and kind of eerie trees along the way.
Photo by Alex Patino
A tent pitched in front of a bunch of tall trees with the sunrise shining through.
Photo by Alex Patino
A hiker walking across a bridge.
Photo by Alex Patino

At the end of my first night on trail I still had phone signal, so I called my mother to give her my first update. My pack weighed a ton. I had to lean up against boulders in order to properly hoist my backpack onto my hips. The heat was oppressive and my body was broken. I was also just terrified. Every time the wind blew, I was convinced it was a wild animal, coming to feast. My parents didn’t really understand the concept of a thru-hike. I told them I would start at the Mexican border and walk to Canada. But as much as I said it and explained it and rehashed it, what it was never became anything more than an abstraction to them. It wasn’t until I was past Yosemite, making my way up Sonora Pass, when I spoke to my mother another time, that she admitted to me that after that first call, she had hung up the phone, looked at her boyfriend and said, “I give him two weeks. Tops.”  By that point the PCT was not an abstraction to her anymore. Through my updates she began to understand what I had taken on. When I finally made it to Canada, my entire family essentially saw me as a superhero. I acted casual.

By my third day on trail my invertebrate nature had all but dissipated. I got a pack shakedown at Lake Morena and lost 12 pounds off my heavy pack. I was ready to fly. I camped for the night at the main campground in town with brand new friends when Jack Haskel, the PCT Trail Information Manager, stopped by to camp with us. That night, they learned that my sleep routine consisted of at least three episodes of The Golden Girls before going to bed. I had brought my iPad along as my one luxury item. I was under the impression that I had downloaded dozens upon dozens of movies onto this thing to watch as I made my way up to Canada. After that first night, I realized that the only things that made it on there were three seasons of The Golden Girls. Thus, with Jack Haskel present, I was dubbed Golden Girl.    

On the PCT I refused to blog. I wanted my sole responsibility to be to walk and nothing else. The whole point of getting out there was to eschew responsibility. Did I want to walk the spine of the Sierras and Cascades worried that I was behind on blog posts? That was going to be someone else’s problem, not mine. Knock yourselves out. Two weeks in, I was making my way north when I stopped in my tracks with the realization that I hadn’t felt any anxiety since after that first night. Almost overnight, my mind was so occupied with the obsessive struggle to not get derailed, to make it to Canada, to make it on that 2600-miler list, that all those things I used to worry about in my day-to-day just faded to the periphery. But I was still a newbie to this world, so even though my perseverance was top-notch, my knowledge was bupkis. Before getting on trail, doing research and looking at gear-lists, this one trusted hiker swore by the La Sportiva Wild Cat 2’s. I ended up sporting the same shoes and blew them out, every single time, all the way to Manning Park. Along the way I developed plantar fasciitis on both feet, derailing me for four days in Shasta, where I had to crush my feet and my sciatica with a tennis ball while hippies waxed poetic about the chakras in their throats.

A view of a clear lake with a mountain in the background.
Photo by Alex Patino

When I got back to “the default world”, as we called it (because trail life is every bit as “real” as “the real world” thank you very much) I still had eight months on my lease and a brand-new job offer that promised to pay me more than I had ever earned. And just like that, everything I had learned on the trail about myself and the way I needed my life to go floated to the ether. I suddenly had to relearn the same lessons that had dragged me out to the desert in the first place. I was more depressed than ever and I was furious with myself. All that talking to myself that I had done, how I prided myself on this self-awareness, and then I was behind a cubicle in a dark building, with almost no time to go and enjoy nature? Really? I withstood it for the remainder of my lease and then bid New York City adieu for good. Most of the people that I knew didn’t get it. Meanwhile, a good chunk of the friends I had made on the PCT were going through their own challenges with immersing themselves into the general tedium and the doldrums of everyday life. Talking to one another through our pain was invaluable. They understood what I had gone through; my Prada-clad former colleagues and party-hopping gays? Not so much. The remedy was clear – the only way to get over the past adventure was to dive head first into a new one. So, a week after leaving NYC, I met up with three of my PCT friends in Denver and tackled the Colorado Trail. The following April I jumped on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and emerged from the clouds at Mount Katahdin in late September. I wore the right shoes this time. I did the entire thing, virtually pain-free.

A hiker sitting on the top of the northern terminus for the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Alex Patino

The very curious thing about being on a trail like the AT, having previously completed the PCT and the CT, is witnessing that first-timer fever. I was now on the other side of the hiker spectrum. I wasn’t green. I was no spring chicken. If asked, I had solid advice to dole out. I had seen what happens to someone once they’re plucked off the magical path. Moving on from the AT was considerably easier than it was with the PCT, and the enjoyment of one versus the other isn’t the key factor – it’s just experience. I’m at peace after completing the AT; not a veritable post-trail wreck like many of the people I met on my way to Maine. Not even close to the disaster I was when I settled back in Brooklyn after the PCT. The only reason for that, for me at least, is that I realized there were only so many times I could learn the same lesson. The answer to coming out of an overwhelming experience like completing a thru-hike, or even participating in it for a week or two, is knowing that there’s a hell of a lot more world out there to see. And lucky for you, you’ve probably already met someone who is willing to meet you at the next terminus. Wherever that may be.

At Trail Days in Damascus, VA, a man that looked like a buff Richard Attenborough and a flaxen-haired Elizabeth Warren held a sign that read “AT Class of 1975 ROCKS!” They were surrounded by a roiling crowd of pumped-up thru-hikers that had taken on the AT throughout the years. But these two were the OG’s of the huddle and their smiles matched everyone else’s. Had they been coming every year for the past 43 years? What was it like to do the trail back then? I had so many questions. Ultimately, I kept it to myself. What I did know, because their sign said it all, was that the experience will never leave you. I’m still working on figuring out what’s best for my future, but at least I have the trails there to help me work these things out when need be. To quote one of my favorites, Jane Smiley, that knowledge “is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all the others.”  

A hiker standing on the sign on top of Mount Katahdin holding his trekking poles in the air.
Photo by Alex Patino

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Get our hiking guide for this area!

Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is an epic journey of over 2650 miles (4260 km) and is one of the most popular thru-hiking trails in the United States. Its path travels from the US-Mexico border to the northern US-Canada border, passing through California, Oregon, and Washington.

2650 mi
$29.99 full guide
Explore the Trail
About the Author
A woman wearing a baseball cap and American flag tank top stands in front of a beautiful view.

Natalie McMillan

Natalie grew up hiking in Arizona where she fell in love with the outdoors. Her favorite hikes are to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT. She loves taking pictures of people and places and nature, which might explain why she has almost 23,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things social media/marketing-related and might be seen frolicking around Flagstaff taking photos of the Arizona Trail.