Interview With A Thru Hiker

Lindsey Elise of “Tandem Trekking”

Lindsey is a writer, lover of the outdoors, and a self described “backpacking fiend.” She and her (now) fiancé Kyle thru hiked the Appalachian Trail three years ago and recently embarked on the Pacific Crest Trail. We caught up with her before she left to gain some insight on both the psychology and nitty-gritty of thru hiking. We learned that the trail contains highs and lows. We learned that the human body is full of potential. Lindsey’s articulate voice paints a dynamic picture of thru hiking – read on below.

Photos by Tandem Trekking

You hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2013, what inspired you to take on a second thru hike?

I have been grappling with the “why” of our upcoming Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru hike for a while now. To be honest, ever since the AT, I have taken for granted that we would hike the PCT because…  Because was my reason. Then recently I decided to write a couple of posts about why we are thru hiking the PCT and I opened a theoretical can of worms. I discovered that hiking the PCT just because we had hiked the AT wasn’t true. And so I am still working through what exactly this upcoming thru hike is about. Here is what I have come up with:

Lindsey & Kyle on Mt. Katahdin in Maine
Lindsey & Kyle on Mt. Katahdin in Maine

I am hiking the PCT to push myself outside of my comfort zone. One of the things that I fell in love with on the AT was that it was a constant challenge, even once you got used to being on trail. There was always something new around each bend, some unknown thrown our way. In “normal” life we can put ourselves into uncomfortable situations, like when we mountaineer. But to live life constantly on the edge of your comfort zone, that is difficult to do in society, surrounded by expectations and worldly comforts. The PCT will allow us another opportunity to spend months on the edge.

I am hiking the PCT because I think I was the best version of myself on the AT, and I want to feel that way again. I think I was the toughest, surest, most jubilant version of myself. That isn’t to say I haven’t been happy these past three years while we were working towards the PCT. But life has been a mixed bag and I have been lazy sometimes and uninspired occasionally. To choose to thru hike is to choose a difficult path but one that strips you down to your barest qualities and builds you back up in a way that feels pure and true. Maybe I will need a thru hike every couple of years, maybe it is hitting the restart button. Whatever it is, I feel like I knew something about myself on the AT that I have lost and I am excited to relearn it.

Of course, there is the possibility that I don’t need to have a reason to hike the PCT. I love hiking. I love being in nature. Do I need any more of a reason than that? Do I need to be seeking some deep self revelatory moment in order to justify leaving society for five months? Probably not. Deep or shallow, I suspect I will find the answer once I am back out on trail. Hindsight’s a bitch (and a blessing).

What lessons did you learn on the AT that you’ll carry through to the PCT?

So many lessons! Many of which, I have a sneaking suspicion, I will have to learn all over again. There are the simple ones though, the ones that have to do with the ins and outs of hiking, that stick with you. We learned how to take care of our feet, set up our tent in a rainstorm, filter water out of mud puddles, completely clean out a jar of Nutella, hang a bear hang in the craziest of trees, listen for mice in the night, sleep through thunder and lightening, hitch hike, pace ourselves, zone out, push hard, poop fast, live fully. Not exactly skills that are useful in daily life, but, like riding a bicycle, I have no doubt we will master them again on the PCT.

Powering up in town on the AT
Powering up in town on the AT

Then there are the deeper rhythms of the trail that change you forever. For example, on the AT Kyle and I learned how to be incredible partners. He knew I was getting hangry before I did and would suggest we stop for a snack, I anticipated his mood swings and knew when to offer to pick up more in-camp chores or supply him with more kisses. On the AT we became good at taking turns being the stronger one, the one who provided a shoulder to cry on, who turned on the tough love when it was needed to get the other person up that last mountain at the end of the day. Sometimes I sucked up my own worries and problems for him and when I needed support he did the same for me. Those lessons have stuck with us in the years since the AT and I know that we will use those dynamics to help us succeed on the PCT.

Do you think people get addicted to thru hiking?

Yes, although I mean that strictly in the definitive sense of the word. I realize that people struggle with very serious addictions and I do not mean to belittle or glorify the concept. But if we just look at what an addiction is I think you do come out of a thru hike being addicted to the trail. You yearn for it, you hurt for it, and many people say, “Screw it!” and go right back out and do it again. It is no surprise that people want to return to this lifestyle over and over again.

I mean, for starters, you don’t have to work when you are on trail. It was the first time in my life, except for when I was a really little girl, that I wasn’t in school or working. Think about it, we spend our entire lives basically doing what other people tell us to do or finding ourselves in a position where we are responsible for telling other people what to do. We live for our yearly vacations and maybe we enjoy work, but even if we love our jobs we have to go to them every day. That is how it is for most of us. When you are on trail you suddenly find yourself free of everything except your own whims and desires. Life simplifies greatly and you are the only person in charge. It is so much freedom that you don’t actually know how to deal with it. You set yourself goals, you give yourself deadlines, you build yourself structure. Everyone on trail seemed to struggle constantly against the hardwiring built into us by society and the opportunity to be spontaneous and free.

So there is the ultimate freedom, which is hard to let go of. But the most addicting part of the trail is the highs and the lows. Everything is so difficult when you are hiking, you are so miserable and so uncomfortable and so tired. Which sucks, hard. And you really mire yourself in those moments, fall deeply into that despair, complain endlessly about your pain. But just as suddenly as everything was awful, something can change for the better and when it does, nothing has ever been so good. Because those deep woes are so bad the incredible highs you experience are beyond your wildest dreams. Still think this addiction is the wrong word? Cause it sounds a lot like one to me.

Hiking the Wonderland Trail in Washington
Hiking the Wonderland Trail in Washington

What challenges do you anticipate facing and how will you overcome them?

The challenges you face on trail either fall into the mental or physical category. The physical challenges I anticipate facing include: extreme heat, extreme cold, being wet for days on end, everything I own being wet, being thirsty, being hungry, being dehydrated, getting sun burns, getting blisters, my entire body aching, not being able to sleep because my hips hurt, carrying a heavy backpack, all of the above happening to my partner and having to deal with him being in pain, and the list goes on and on. Despite the immense amount of physical discomfort one experiences on trail I always got through it on the AT by employing a powerful ally: foresight. For me easing my pain is simple, I just think to myself: you might be miserable now but tomorrow you are going to get to go into town and stay in a hotel and that shower is going to be the most amazing of your life. I live for a good sufferfest and a thru hike is just one long sufferfest. I live for that moment when terrible misery creates unimaginable pleasure. The moment you get to take your aching feet out of your sweaty shoes and dunk them into a freezing cold stream before slipping them into your crocs. Sometimes I will actually choose to continue to be uncomfortable until the perfect solution comes along. I want to savor the good and the bad, because they make you feel truly alive.

As for the mental challenges, I think they are fairly simple. Thru hiking is either making you happy or it isn’t. You might be having a bad day or a bad week but underneath it all you know, deep down, if the act of thru hiking is still filling up your soul. If it is you should stay and keep doing it, if it isn’t you should leave. On trail we always say: never quit on a rainy day.  Never quit on a bad day when you can confuse discomfort for unhappiness, quit on the nicest day when you realize, even though everything is going good, you are still unsatisfied. I think for some people the mental challenge is choosing to keep going.  Because no one is telling you what to do you can just quit whenever you want to. I am extremely goal oriented so I do not anticipate wanting to quit. If I get off trail it will be because of injury or because I have discovered that thru hiking no longer makes me tick.

On trail we always say: never quit on a rainy day. Never quit on a bad day when you can confuse discomfort for unhappiness, quit on the nicest day when you realize, even though everything is going good, you are still unsatisfied.

Lindsey and Kyle on the AT
Lindsey and Kyle on the AT

One of my favorite things about thru hiking is that, beyond all else, it is the ultimate test. If you want to know how tough you are, how hard you can push yourself, where your breaking point is, both physically and mentally, then a thru hike might be the best way to find out. I am frequently scared that I don’t actually know that much about myself. I feel unsure of how much I can actually accomplish. When you are thru hiking you are finding that line in the sand everyday and you become intimately aware of what you are capable of. It is a feeling of extreme closeness with yourself. I am excited to become reacquainted with my true potential again on the PCT.

Did you read “Wild?” What’s your opinion of the book? Do you think it helps or hurts the PCT?

Ah, the money question. I did read “Wild” and I loved the book. I thought it was a fantastic story about relationships and taking charge of one’s life and healing. I love my mom and I recognize that my reaction to her death, especially at this point in my life, might not be rational or healthy. And so I feel for Cheryl Strayed and I appreciate the story that she tells. Then it got turned into a movie, which I also thought was well done (keep in mind, I am no literary or movie critic, just a normal person who happens to have thru hiked and is planning on doing it again). However, the impact the book, and now the movie, are having on the trail… well, like many, I have mixed feelings about it.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) seems overwhelmingly stoked to have the book and the movie on their side. The interest that has been created surrounding the trail has to be generating revenue unlike anything they have ever seen. And having worked for organizations and entities that maintain trails, I can tell you it isn’t a free service. So I am happy for the PCTA and for the positive outcomes the book is creating for the trail.

However, I would be lying if I said I am over the moon with the impact “Wild” has had on the PCT. The truth is the moment the book started to trend and they announced the movie, I felt a ball of dread in the pit of my stomach. I have hiked a long trail made popular by a book (thank you Bill Bryson and “A Walk In The Woods”) and I have encountered the incredible naivety and ignorance that are inevitable when hordes of beginning backpackers flock to the woods. This year I have watched so many people on social media tell others that the permitting system on the PCT doesn’t matter, that they should feel free to start the trail whenever they like. I am scared of what I will see when I start in May, well after the herd has begun their thru hike. I fear it will be the same story of selfish ownership and negligence I saw on the AT. And yes, I hate crowds in natural spaces, so I am not looking forward to higher numbers of thru hikers on the PCT either.

But that doesn’t mean I have a completely negative opinion of the “Wild Effect”. I am a huge advocate for people taking chances and risks and changing their lives. Especially when it involves connecting with nature. I am amazed that so many people read a book about a woman who didn’t even complete a thru hike and now they are off to try it for themselves. Good on ya, mates. You impress me and I wish you the best of luck. But more than anything I hope that no matter how far you get, the trail earns your respect and nature earns your allegiance. Even if you don’t know anything about Leave No Trace ethics before you start hiking I pray you come away a fervent environmental steward. Bottom line is crowds or no crowds, we are hiking this trail so I’ll see you all out there.

What are trail angels and what is trail magic?

Trail angels are the most amazing kind hearted people. They can be anyone who helps a thru hiker in any way.  Trail angels open their homes, run hostels, stock water caches, do hikers favors, pick up hikers hitching into town, feed us, clothe us, let us do our laundry, give us places to shower and to rest on our off days, and SO much more. Trail magic often stems from a trail angel but it can also be incredibly good weather, or a fuel canister found right when you need it, or a swimming hole in the heart of the desert.

The AT is where trail angels and trail magic were born and the phenomenon is spreading. Our first trail magic ever was on day three of our AT thru hike. Even though we had only been out for a couple of days we were already missing the luxuries of society. We were hiking along, about a mile out from a road crossing, and I was complaining endlessly about how much I wanted a sandwich. Hiker hunger (what we call the ravenous appetite hikers develop as their metabolism speeds up and their calorie consumption becomes insatiable) hit me hard and early on, by day three I was already in full swing of food porn daydreams. So, there I was describing in detail how badly I wanted a sandwich, when we rounded a bend and I was stopped, dead in my tracks, by the most beautiful sight. Down at the bottom of the descent was the road and in a little park by the road was trail magic. It was a cookout, complete with chairs to sit in, soda, candy and SANDWICHES. We practically sprinted the last half mile and when we reached the trail magic I engulfed the trail angel in a spine splitting hug. We continued to receive trail magic, always in those moments when we needed it the most, and it never lost its wonderment. If you really want to make someone’s day try being a trail angel at the trail nearest you.

How do you train for a long thru hike?

By eating burritos and binge watching shows on Netflix? But seriously, training for a long hike can be kind of tricky. There is basically nothing that will prepare you for walking twenty miles a day with a heavy pack on other than walking twenty miles a day with a heavy pack on. When we hiked the AT we did very little to train for it, Kyle biked to work and I walked weekly with my pack on. Our second day on trail we did a sixteen mile day, which was absurdly hard, but we didn’t die or quit. So I consider that a success.

For this thru hike we have been training “harder.”Kyle and I do plan to hike big mileage days on the PCT from the get go because we are starting a little bit later than the average hiker. Thus we need to make good time through the desert, and the Sierras, and Northern California, and basically the whole trail. So we joined a gym and talked to a personal trainer and did about fifty percent of the training he suggested. Cause we are lazy like that. We also hiked and ran and climbed some mountains. Will we be ready?  I really have no idea, that is all part of the adventure. Our goal on trail is to stay healthy and take care of our bodies, whatever they may need.

My advice to other people is: don’t stress about it. If you are the kind of person who loves to train then get at it.  If you don’t like to train then just plan on starting slow. Either way you will be amazing.

Lindsey & Kyle trained by hiking the Wonderland Trail in Washington
Lindsey & Kyle trained by hiking the Wonderland Trail in Washington

Once you get used to being on the trail, what is it like entering civilization again?

I had never truly experienced culture shock, despite having lived in Mexico for seven months in college, until I finished the AT. In the hiking community we call it “trail blues.” As someone who is emotionally buoyant the couple of months of mourning after the AT were the closest I have ever come to being depressed. It took me a long time to figure out exactly why I was so sad. But one night, laying in bed, restless and awake, I realized that what it boils down too is this: on the AT totally normal humdrum daily life experiences become extremely special. Getting to sit in a chair, use a toilet, take a shower, sleep in a bed. These become treats.  You appreciate everything, on and off trail, with such vigor and passion. The trail is a world of highs and lows, the worst rainy day can change to the most perfect cloudless afternoon in a heartbeat. Your emotions are unfettered and unapologetic.

And as suddenly as you were living it you are back at home, surrounded by all the things that used to be special but are now returning to taken-for-granted. This loss of joy at the small and simple things in life hurts you recently cleansed soul. Slowly you learn to live with it, and your life complicates again and becomes inundated with all the things that filled it up before. But this is part of that addiction, why you yearn to return to the trail. I am sure there are other ways of life out there, other forms of living that would satisfy these same yearnings and urges, needs and wants. But this is the way of life that I stumbled upon, the one that I took a risk on, and fell in love with. So I return, again, to the woods.

Lindsey Elise is an outdoors woman who shares her and her fiancé, Kyle’s lessons learned in the outdoors via their website, “Tandem Trekking“. You can also follow along her PCT journey through Instagram, Twitter, and their new Podcast.

Have you ever completed a thru hike?