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My Trail Story featuring Token

Read about what it's really like to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, by Kathleen Neeves, a.k.a. Token.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       02/06/2019
Natalie McMillan
My Trail Story
02/06/2019

What is your trail name?

Token


What trail(s) did you hike?

Thru-Hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018

April 25, 2018 through September 27, 2018 – 153 Days!

 

How old are you?

42 years old

A hiker sitting on top of the Pacific Crest Trail southern terminus.
Photo by Kathleen Neves

What was one thing you wish you knew before you started hiking?

I wish I knew I didn’t have to spend so much time trying to plan my hike. Granted, it’s important to plan things like applying for a long-distance hiking permit through the PCTA to get your official start date, putting together some sort of resupply strategy, knowing the gear you want to take and practice using it before getting on trail and making sure life logistics are figured out before starting your hike. When I planned my first thru-hike on the PCT for 2018, I tried to plan EVERYTHING. It’s impossible to plan every single step of a thru-hike. It’s impossible to know how your body will react to all the daily hiking. It’s impossible to know what kind of weather you’ll hike in. It’s impossible to know how hungry you’ll be, what you’ll want to eat and even what towns you’ll want to stop in. The thing with thru-hiking is plans are always changing. So don’t get hung up and waste a lot of time trying to plan your thru-hike. Have a “loose” plan, but be flexible and don’t be afraid to go with the flow. The best things that happen on trail are always the things you don’t plan.

A girl hiker standing with her arms up looking out at the mountains.
Photo by Kathleen Neeves

What was your favorite food on the trail?

My favorite food I ate on trail didn’t require boiling water to cook and it wasn’t stored in my food bag. The best food I had was whenever I was in town, taking a break. It’s hard to pick one favorite meal I ate during the 153 days I spent on trail, so I have a Top Five list of favorite meals I ate along the PCT:

  1. Lunch at Packer Lake Lodge, Mile 1207.3: A 0.7-mile road walk from Pack Saddle Campground. I found this spot by reading the comments for the campground on the Guthook Guides app.
  2. Red House BBQ in Tehachapi. Easily the best BBQ I  had on trail.

3. Chicken Alfredo Penne Pasta at Mono Hot Springs, a short five mile hitch from VVR in the High Sierra, across Lake Edison.

4. The home cooked meal prepared for Grit and me by a couple members of our trail family at a campsite in Mammoth.

5. Filet mignon with garlic mashed potatoes and broccolini at the Bar of America Restaurant in Truckee.

If I had to pick my favorite hiker food on trail, it would either be pork flavored Top Ramen or the Mountain House Chili Mac dehydrated meals. I saved the Mountain House meals for days when I needed a morale boost on trail, which was pretty much all of Washington from White Pass to Canada.

What advice would you give to someone who has never done a thru-hike before?

I have three pieces of advice for anyone new to thru-hiking. First, take each day, one mile and one step at a time. Instead of looking at hiking the PCT as a big daunting task of hiking 2,650 miles in five months, look at the trip as multiple, mini-backpacking trips where you’ll go into town to resupply for the next section (or trip) every three to five days. Second, open yourself to believing something magical will happen every single day you’re on trail. When you believe the trail will provide, it will. And third, don’t ever quit on a bad day. Not every day is going to be sunshine and ridgeline views. There are going to be plenty of days that suck out there. Know those bad days will pass and they’ll only make you stronger.

A woman hiker standing with her arms up in the air while looking out at the mountains.
Photo by Kathleen Neves
A woman hiker standing next to a trail sign.
Photo by Kathleen Neves

What does thru-hiking mean to you?

What a lot of people don’t realize about thru-hiking the PCT is it’s less of a hike and more of a lifestyle. You either love thru-hiking or you don’t and you usually know within the first 100 miles. Hiking is only one part of the PCT. Thru-hiking the PCT is about adapting to a nomadic lifestyle where you rarely sleep in the same place twice. Weather and water sources dictate how you spend your days on trail. There’s no worry about running off to the next appointment or trying to get to work on time. You eat, hike, eat, sleep and repeat. Make the time to take pictures, build relationships with other hikers, take breaks when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry and stop to smell the wildflowers. There’s always something new to see and no one day is ever the same.

Would you do another thru-hike? If yes, which trail is next?

Yes, in a heartbeat! In 2018, I left to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by myself, for myself. In 2019, I’m coming back to hike the Pacific Crest Trail AGAIN, not only to cover the 770+ miles I missed in 2018, but also for love – my love for the trail and with the love I met while hiking the first 700 miles of the trail last year. This is why on April 11, 2019, I’m coming back to hike the PCT all over again, Round Two, with my boyfriend, Bleeder, my love I met on trail last year.

What was the easiest/hardest part about your thru-hike?

There was nothing easy about thru-hiking the PCT. It felt like it was always one big climb up to Canada. The long, heavy water carries in the desert were brutal. Getting into and out of town meant I was often at the mercy of whoever was nice enough to give me a ride. There were some long waits for hitches along the trail. Having to say goodbye to my entire trail family and spend seven days alone hiking the High Sierra by myself was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Fording rivers in the Sierra by myself was downright terrifying. Being bitten alive by mosquitos and bugs from Glen Pass all the way through Yosemite was painful. The heavy smoke in Northern California not only interfered with what would be beautiful views, but made it hard to breathe. It was near impossible to enjoy all of the incredible sights in Washington because the cold and wet weather forced me to keep moving just so I could stay warm.

A woman hiker standing with her arms up in the air looking at the mountains.
Photo by Kathleen Neeves

Putting all of the hard parts aside, the easiest part of my thru-hike was knowing I was exactly where I needed to be and doing what exactly I needed to do – hiking my way towards Canada. There was nothing else I’d rather be doing, even on my hardest days out on trail.

What do you wish you had done differently?

This is a hard question to answer because had I done anything differently, I would’ve had different experiences along my hike. I’m happy with how my adventure turned out in 2018. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.

There are a few things I’ll be doing differently for my thru-hike this year. First, I’m starting my hike two weeks earlier than I did last year. Secondly, I’m not solo hiking this year. I’ll be hiking with my boyfriend whom I met on trail in 2018. As for resupplying, I’m only sending myself four resupply boxes on the entire trail, with the first one being in Oregon. For the rest of the way, I’ll be resupplying in town as I go. I’ll be skipping the Bounce Box all together this year. As for gear, I made a couple swaps like using a different inflatable sleeping pad and opting for a lighter trowel. Other than that, I’ll be using all of my same gear I used in 2018 for my hike this year in 2019. I think my biggest change for 2019 will be setting my alarm earlier so I can get an earlier start hiking for the day and watching more sunrises on trail.

A woman hiker standing on an aqueduct.
Photo by Kathleen Neeves

What do you miss the most?

I miss everything about hiking the PCT. I miss the freedom of going wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I enjoyed not knowing what day of the week it was. I loved not having to worry about anything other than feeding myself, making sure I had enough water and getting camp set up before it got dark out. I miss how simple life was on trail. I’d get up, pack up camp, eat, hike, eat, filter water, hike, eat, set up camp and sleep. The biggest decisions I had to make during the day were how many miles I wanted to hike, where I wanted to camp and if I wanted to eat pork or oriental flavored Top Ramen. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about and miss hiking the PCT.

What was your favorite feature in our app?

Having the Guthook app on trail was a godsend. I used Guthook every single day. Guthook kept me from getting lost. It told me where my next water source would be. It gave me a heads up on tent sites. It even told me how big or small my climbs and descents were for each day. Guthook was instrumental in planning my town stops. My favorite feature on the Guthook app though were the comments left by other hikers on all the waypoints – water sources, camping, roads and towns. Through the comments, I was able to discover things I might have otherwise missed like the epic lunch I had at Packer Lake Lodge. The comments were vital in getting detailed information on upcoming trail closures and fire reroutes. The comments were also at times incredibly entertaining and helped keep spirits high in tough sections.

What was the one thing you had to have with you while you hiked?

A positive attitude. Gummy bears, blue powdered Gatorade and music were a close tie for second place.

Why did you decide to go on a thru-hike in the first place?

My original answer was always, “Why not?” Hiking the PCT had been a huge dream of mine for a few years. As soon as I discovered that there was a trail you could hike from Mexico to Canada, I became obsessed with the idea of doing it. Now that I’ve hiked the PCT and want to come back for a second time, people think I’m really crazy and want to know why. My “whys” for coming back for Round Two in 2019 are: (1) See the sections I missed the first time around, about 770+ miles, (2) To thru-hike the entire trail with my boyfriend, Bleeder, (3) Hike the High Sierra again since it was my favorite section of the entire PCT, and (4) because I’m addicted to the thru-hiking, Hiker Trash lifestyle. I’d much rather be dirty, tired and forced out of my comfort zone every day than stuck working inside behind a desk at a job I don’t like.

A woman hiker standing with her arms up in front of a waterfall.
Photo by Kathleen Neves
A woman standing with her arms up in front of a sunset.
Photo by Kathleen Neves
A woman hiker kissing a Pacific Crest Trail sign post.
Photo by Kathleen Neeves

Did you hike solo or with other people?

I started my 2018 hike solo. I met four out of the five people in my trail family on my first day on trail. We met the fifth member of our family on Day Three. We were inseparable until shortly after Mile 700 when everyone except for two of us had to leave the trail and go home.

What part of the trail was your most/least favorite?

Hands down, my favorite section of the entire PCT is the High Sierra. It was also the toughest part of the PCT for me. When I went back there for the first time in 2018, I was heartbroken and devastated. I had just said goodbye to my entire trail family. I had just done my first solo hitchhike.

I would have to finally face one of my biggest fears on trail: sleeping outside by myself for the first time in my life. I’d also have to ford scary rivers by myself and deal with being eaten alive by bugs on a daily basis.

Fears aside, as soon as I hiked over Kearsarge Pass, I was overwhelmed with the incredible beauty of the High Sierra. The High Sierra had some of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen in my life. Hiking the High Sierra by myself was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was also the most rewarding. I learned a lot about myself over those 200+ miles. I came out of that section a much stronger person and knew I could do ANYTHING I put my mind to.

How many pairs of shoes did you go through?

Three pairs:

Pair #1: Southern Terminus (Campo, CA) to Tehachapi, CA

Pair #2: Kennedy Meadows South to Burney Mountain Guest Ranch, CA

Pair #3: Burney Mountain Guest Ranch to Mount Shasta and then Timberline Lodge to Canada

Had I hiked the entire 2,650 miles of the PCT and not missed 770+ miles, I would have gone through more pairs of shoes. I rocked the Salomon Odyssey Pros for my entire hike.

A woman hiker standing looking at the mountains.
Photo by Kathleen Neeves

Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to quit? How did you stay motivated to finish?

Honestly never. Even on my hardest days, and I had three REALLY tough days, I never considered quitting. On my toughest days, I knew deep in my heart there was nowhere else I’d rather be or nothing else I’d rather be doing than thru-hiking the PCT. On a normal trail day, spending time with members of my trail family, watching the sunrise/sunset, eating gummy bears for breakfast/lunch/dinner, drinking powered blue Gatorade, being wowed by Mother Nature with incredible scenery, getting to the top of a tough climb or knowing I was mere days from a Town Stop with a warm shower, fresh load of laundry, a delicious meal and possibly a warm hotel bed would be enough to motivate me to keep hiking.

Here is what motivated me to get through my three hardest days on the PCT:

Mount Whitney/Going into Lone Pine via the Whitney Portal – The view from the top of Mount Whitney was amazing, but getting up there and getting off of the mountain was incredibly challenging for me. I had two melt downs that day – one when we got to the top of Whitney and one when we were only two miles down the Portal and realized we had another five miles to get to the trailhead. The ONLY thing that got me down the Whitney Portal was planning the dinner I’d have later that night at McDonalds in Lone Pine. I had a Big Mac, two cheeseburgers, large order of fries, a 6-piece chicken nugget and an apple pie. McD’s to the rescue!

Bear Ridge Trail to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) – Since this was my sixth day of being in the High Sierra by myself without any sort of cell service, I was desperate to get into town and be around other people. This would also be a big mileage day for me, 25.8 miles, the most physically and challenging day in the High Sierra for me so far. What kept me going all the way to VVR that night, long after the sun had set was fear. There were no other hikers on the Bear Ridge Trail – no one else hiking and no one camping. I was too terrified to stop, set up my tent and sleep out there all by myself. Instead I kept hiking in the dark with my headlamp, even after I took a nasty fall and broke one of my trekking poles and played my music out loud in hopes of keeping the animals away until I reached the hiker tent site at VVR at 10:30pm that night.

A woman hiker standing next to the northern terminus on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Kathleen Neeves

Goat Rocks to White Pass Reroute – First, the highly anticipated Goat Rocks section was socked in with thick fog by the time I got there and had to hike through. I could barely see a few feet in front of me, let alone the sheer drop down on either side as I hiked across the snow field and alongside and down the mountain.

Then there was the reroute we had to take after Goat Rocks into White Pass because of the nearby wildfires. The thing about a reroute is no one knows exactly how many miles they are, what the elevation gain/loss is and where the water sources and tent sites are. You’re at the mercy of the maps posted on trail signs and word of mouth from hikers traveling southbound. At this point, you simply hope for the best and keep hiking.

This reroute was tough – the trail was thin and crumbly in places, there were a lot of steep climbs, it was long, there weren’t a whole lot of water sources, there weren’t a lot of other hikers and there was a big river I had to cross two miles from the highway and I fell in as I was doing it leaving me wet and cold. If that wasn’t bad enough, I ended up getting to the highway long after dark, making a hitch into White Pass near impossible. The only thing that motivated me to keep going through this tough section was getting to White Pass for a warm shower and a safe place to sleep. I had also run out of water a mile from the highway.

Just as the tears start flowing down my cheeks and I was thinking of giving up and preparing to set up my tent on the trail a few feet below the highway, a section hiker sitting in his van saw my headlamp. He asked if I was a thru-hiker and then offered me a ride up the highway to White Pass. From there, I was able to rent a warm room at The Village Inn for the night and got my warm shower and safe place to sleep.


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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.

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Washington, Pacific Crest Trail
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A trail meanders through a green and mountainous landscape on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Washington, Pacific Crest Trail
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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 miles
$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.