Photo by Justin Kernes
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My Trail Story featuring Tiny Slice

Justin Kernes, a.k.a. Tiny Slice, shares about his Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiking experience from before he started his hike to where he is now.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       06/26/2019
Natalie McMillan
My Trail Story

Before, Then, Now

Hey there, the name’s “Tiny Slice” and I NoBo thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 with my brother “Shocks.” Aside from various three-day weekend trips and very rare two-week-long Boy Scout backpacking trips, this was my first long-distance hike. On trail, at Goat Rocks no less, I celebrated my 30th birthday and camped out on Old Snowy (mile 2,277). 

A view from inside a tent.
Photo by Justin Kernes

It’s hard to provide a story which, I feel, speaks to my entire experience. Perhaps the goal isn’t to wrap everything up in a succinct little essay, to condense 130 days of boundless freedom into black and white Times New Roman. But sharing just one snippet or lesson seems like describing only one color in a painting. To call the trail a life-changing experience seems cliché but to call it anything less seems callously insincere. 

For those lucky enough to have any thru-hiking experience, any story I share will, inevitably, bring up memories of your own from a different time with different people, but in a similar location. Like that one time everyone somehow crammed into that hotel room. Or that insane trail magic in the middle of the Mojave desert you swore was a mirage, complete with beer and soda and sandwiches. The sublimity of the High Sierra and being above 10,000 feet, dancing around tree line. You will replace my words with your own memories. You’ve discovered the Room of Requirement, you will want to return; the pull of trail life is powerful. 

And for those who haven’t, any story will just be an odd melange of city names and trail names, slang and lingo, and quotes of “pushing for another 10” and “I’ll take your extra bars.” Knowledge and wisdom don’t come with completion or days hiked in a row in solitude, but with time spent hiking, miles covered, and people talked to. 

If any part of you connects while reading this, resoundingly, do it. Go hike. Get out there. The time is Now. 

I “bought the ticket and took the ride.” Here are a few glimpses at how it changed me—before, then, and now.

A view of mountains and rocky hills.
Photo by Justin Kernes

December, 2017

I’m an outside cat kinda person — living in the great outdoors always has genuinely appealed to me. As an adolescent I was heavily involved in Boy Scouts, reaching the rank of Eagle, and participated in a slew of overnight backpacking trips during my tenure. It taught me to love the outdoors in an unconditional, freeing way, so much so that I just finished my eighth summer season at Philmont Scout Ranch, a high adventure backpacking youth camp. After living in log cabins for three-month summers, I have been pushed to look for alternative lifestyles. Surely there must be other people like me? I’m so tired of waking up in the pitch black for work.

Over the years I have watched friends set off on the PCT and AT and post their progress online. I’m ashamed to admit jealousy courses through me. I want that. I’m missing out. How do they do it? Where do you start?

A few months ago, Adam told me his intentions to hike the trail. There isn’t anyway in hell I am going to allow myself to be jealous of my brother. I don’t want to find a way to be proud of him from home like a mature adult. It’s time to realize my dormant dream and take the leap as well. 

He welcomed me in, I owe him everything.

During my summer employment (with free room and board), I hiked a lot more instead of spending time at the St. James (local bar). This winter, I worked many six-day weeks for overtime pay. I went out even less than I normally do. I made and brought my lunch. I shared an apartment with Adam, cooking and splitting as many cheap meals as possible. With each passing day I have grown more familiar with frugality. 

All I need is a permit, some gear, a little money saved, and a way to get to the terminus. 

May is almost here.

A group of hikers sitting in a van.
Photo by Justin Kernes

August, 2018

My tent glows pink with pre-dawn light—is sleep over already? I hear a hiker roll over near me, their crinkling Therm-A-Rest filling the still air. Even though I’m on a quarter-inch of foam, every muscle from my butt north feels refreshed from a solid, uninterrupted night of sleep. Hip, quads, knees, calves, and toes are all sore after an initial wiggling, but I’m sure they’ll warm up and loosen in the first few miles just like they have the past few weeks. 

Judging by the stains on my shirt and pants it has been nearly a month since I’ve washed anything by machine. Oh well. I whip off my quilt and pull them on anyways. I unwrap a cherry Pop-Tart from my half-full food sack which is at my feet. There are a few tablespoons of butter leftover from resupply, and I lather my pastry profusely, taking care not to spill on my quilt. It’s time to pack up.

On the to-do list: get to Canada. There’s still more than a thousand miles, but I think if everyone in my trail family, myself included, got our hydration and calories correct, with good pace, we can make it by tonight. That joke hasn’t gotten old. My favorite is responding to bewildered townsfolk who ask, “How long have you been hiking?” by telling them that our group of scummy hiker trash started in Mexico more than three months ago.

I throw everything into my backpack, each item finding its respectful home with casual ease. My tent comes down just as quick as it went up. Shoes are laced tight, pack is clipped and cinched down, sunglasses are donned. When I was in Scouts, this would have taken an hour. Now, I’m a pro—thirteen minutes.

As I roll up my ground tarp, “Trashbath” lifts his leg high into the air, letting out a massive, undulating fart. A large, breathless smile overtakes his face. Everyone laughs. It’s not even 6 A.M.

“See ya at the river,” he says, then bolts. “Combo” leaves not long after.

Today’s goal is to push for 30 miles. It seems like only yesterday that I was breaking down days by the mile and half-mile. Now it’s games like 10 before 10 A.M., three segments of eight, or “just another five”. “Shocks” (never thought I’d call my brother by two names) told me we’ve averaged over 90 miles in the last three days. I was stunned. My arches think it’s more.

Miles tick off like a daily calendar from a montage scene in a romantic comedy. Soon, it’s lunch time. The gang stopped under a particularly nice patch of pines by a nearby stream. Shoes were off, snacks were out, feet were being taped. I could take lunch forever, sleepily basking in the infinite sun and calm propped against my half-full pack under the shade of an ancient oak.

But at some point, probably, I’d run out of food and get restless.

There was only one major hill climb in the afternoon and honestly, it wasn’t as bad as it looked on the map. Six miles came and went while I binged-listened the newest episode of Joe Rogan which I had been saving for several towns.

I arrived at camp and found the gang in the midst of setup. It was still light out, plus there’s no fire ban, so we sat and ate dinner around a rare campfire. I inhaled a divine tuna taco with more Flamin Hot Cheetos than usual. Felt frisky and made a desert taco with peanut butter, nutella, bacon bits, and banana chips. 

After shimmying into sleep clothes and saying my requisite good-nights, I peed one last time and hopped into my tent, instantly warm and sleepy beneath a few inches of down. Hopefully sleep feels longer tonight.

Two hikers standing next to the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Justin Kernes

January, 2019

Most people aren’t even familiar with the name, “PCT”. They’ll act polite, nod their head, noting it was probably something they overheard on Dr. Phil. “Oh, nice. Cool”, they’ll say, pulling out their phone and checking the lock screen for any shiny new notification. Few will venture on to ask what it is, usually, they’re the inquisitive sort who are genuinely nice people worth talking with. An even rarer subset seem to know it’s a hike and will ask how long it took or what I did for food. Still, it feels like I’m describing a Sunday morning dream I had when I was seven to my family circled around the kitchen table, all quietly nodding while I tried to recount what being a talking dolphin felt like. 

“More than four months—130 days”, I’ll say to widened eyes and furrowed brows. 

And as I stand there, answering the usual questions—“no gun, sir”—I drift away to vividly hot memories: gorging myself at Harrah’s buffet on endless plates of meat, veggies, and fine cheeses; eight of us hitching from Sonora Pass at dusk in a Sprinter van which purposely u-turned to learn more and help out; standing in an inch of sewage, watching YouTube videos on how to snake our trail angel’s toilet.

“Buy food in towns…four or five days…20 miles a day…zeros are days you don’t hike”, I’ll say, feeling my eyes glaze over.

Everyone seems to be broken into two categories: those who have hiked and those who haven’t. I’ve gotten better at recognizing people who care and people who don’t.

Today’s high was 12 degrees, the sun broke through the clouds for only four minutes. My coworker was hungover and let me do most of the shoveling. Fortunately I got to skip the morning meeting where, for the twelfth week in a row, undoubtedly they told us to “watch every chair.” I sure watched a fair bit more than Ryan did today.

I made my two connecting buses and came home to find my roommates, one completely passed out, on the couch with COPS blaring on the television. After removing a few layers of winter clothes and kicking off wet boots, I stumbled to the kitchen and opened the fridge with the same look of disgust I’ve had for the past week. Nothing looks good. 

I settle for an IPA and sequester myself in my room. I fire up YouTube and click through my recommendations. My phone beeps and lights up. Apparently my credit bill is ready for payment. I close all the windows on my desktop and open up my photos folder—the one with all the PCT photos.  Scrolling through I relive each pixelated memory hoping that somehow, just maybe, I’ll wake up and be back on trail, in my tent, with a breeze rustling through the rainfly, waiting to be greeted by sunrise.

~ ~ ~

Whatever it is you want to do, now will never be a better time. If you even remotely think something like the PCT might be for you, it is. You are capable of more than you realize. Go now or something is bound to come up. It always does. 

Get the buffet. Hike that six-pack. Do the sunrise summit. Say yes to strangers. Drive your flesh spaceship flat out.

The time is now. 

~ ~ ~

Follow along for my daily photos and journals from the PCT

Instagram: @photogjman

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Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is an epic journey of three states and over 2600 miles. Its path travels from the US border with Mexico to the northern border with Canada.

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2650 mi (4260 km)       $29.99 full guide
Washington, Pacific Crest Trail
Photo by Justin Helmkamp
Washington, Pacific Crest Trail
Photo by Justin Helmkamp

Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is an epic journey of three states and over 2600 miles. Its path travels from the US border with Mexico to the northern border with Canada.

2650 mi (4260 km)
$29.99 full guide
Learn more
Get our trail guide for this area!
About the Author
A woman wearing a denim jacket and a brown hat stands in a field of wildflowers.

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, places, and nature, which might explain why she has almost 47,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things related to social media and marketing and recently moved to Denver, CO from Flagstaff, AZ. You may find her frolicking around the trails and mountains of Colorado, or exploring the new city she gets to call home.