The hiker’s quest: Learning what’s important from the Pacific Crest Trail

November 2019 Posted in People, Travel, Your Health

Anna Koch on the marker at the end of her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. Submitted Photos

By Melissa Wagoner

“In a heartbeat,” is Anna Koch’s instant reply when
asked if she would once again hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – the 2,650-mile track from Campo, California, on the United States-Mexico border, to Manning Park, British Columbia.

“I actually didn’t finish and that’s a huge bummer to me,” 20-year-old Koch lamented. “I want to go back.”

Although Koch did not officially finish the trail – skipping an estimated 180 miles due to a sprained ankle, an injured quadricep muscle and several other minor injuries – she came tantalizingly close.

“I want to go back and finish the sections that I didn’t,” Koch said. “And I definitely want to do another through-hike in my lifetime.”

Although Koch’s primary reason for embarking on a five-month voyage along the PCT was to leave the pressures of society behind, she said what she ultimately gained from her experience was much more than that.

“A lot of people were out there to heal their wounds,” she observed. “I left knowing who I was, though I definitely still grew. As you hike this trail you are living an entire lifetime and you learn what’s really important to you and a lot of it isn’t material possessions.”

That lesson was one the Silvertonian began learning the moment she set foot on the trail, way back on April 8 with a 60-pound backpack strapped to her back.

“That was unsustainable,” Koch admitted. “So, I tried in every town to say, ‘What can I get rid of?’ Eventually I dropped down to packing only 30 pounds – and that’s with food and water.”

Nearly halving the number of items she carried solved a lot of problems for Koch – the biggest one being pain in her feet caused by the weight – but it took the majority of her trip, and a lot of trial and error, to lighten the load, mainly due to a fear of letting too much go – both metaphorically and physically.

“You can scare yourself into thinking a lot of stuff is going to happen,” Koch confessed. “You carry your fears – I believe that. You just have to learn with experience. It came to the point that I only had what I used every day. That was really nice.”

Koch wasn’t the only hiker who carried extra baggage however. And others earned trail names based on the oddities they insisted on carrying.

“There’s this guy named Christopher Robin because he hiked with a Winnie the Pooh,” Koch remembered. “Someone else, their name was Chairman because they carried a chair. And someone else was carrying an iPad with them.”

For Koch, some of her earliest castoffs came as a big surprise – her journal and books. But right away she discovered that long days spent on the trail offered little to no downtime for the pastimes of writing and reading.

“I listened to a lot of audiobooks,” she noted. “But every time I wanted to sit down and journal, people would want to talk to me.”

And Koch found herself especially relishing these on-trail interactions, meeting an entire community of fellow through-hikers that became an invaluable resource along the way.

“We were all comrades out there,” she explained. “There’s no shyness about, ‘Can I talk to them?’ because they probably want company too. And there were very few people I didn’t like on the trail.”

Although getting to know other through-hikers became one of Koch’s favorite things about the hike, these interactions still held challenges, especially when it came to hiking as a group.

“I hiked through the desert with one guy and his dog and it was just easy,” she remembered. “But he wanted to hook up with a group and so we did. The whole group dynamic was down. We were no good for each other.
So, I left.”

After that experience Koch said she kept her hiking partners down to a maximum of two and enjoyed solitary hikes whenever she could. She also attempted to keep her contact with the outside world – calls home and posts to social media – to a minimum as well, preferring to follow the ABCs (aim high, be present and care) of the trail instead.

“How am I going to be present if I’m calling home every day?” she found herself asking.

That lack of contact with friends and family became a major source of conflict throughout the entirety of Koch’s trip, one she was never really able to resolve.

“When I was out there my mom asked me all the time to post [on Instagram] and that really bugged me,” Koch remembered. “But she was getting a lot of pressure like: ‘Where’s Anna?’ and ‘How’s she doing?’ I left to get away from society and then I couldn’t.”

Although the constant burden to share her journey in real time frustrated Koch, she also understood that for many people she was a source of inspiration.

“What I would say is; be your own inspiration,” Koch advised. “Go do it. Let this be your sign.”

Because whether it is a short walk in the woods or a 2,000 plus mile epic adventure, Koch thinks everyone should get outdoors.

“It’s 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental,” she said. “You can really do whatever you want. Don’t let your mind stop you.”

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