Hello! My name is Cartwheel, and I want to preface this article by saying I know I’m hella dramatic, but this is how I feel. I think we tend to romanticize these adventures and challenges, but I’m writing this to vent and also to let y’all know that it’s not as beautiful and majestic as my pictures present. I am a firm believer in authenticity and I have been lagging on talking about my struggles; mostly out of shame and insecurity. The reality is life is hard, thru-hiking is very hard, and sometimes writing out all of your “everyday” complaints helps. Only read this if you are prepared to cry with me or laugh at me.
Everyday is a battle with something. To start, the weather elements are always there to remind you who is really in charge of this journey. Mother Nature provides the entire varietal spectrum of weather on this trail and you have to adjust and adapt immediately. There is wind that can blow you over, rain that will soak your sleeping bag if you’re not prepared, heat that will quite literally melt your shoes because the ground is so hot, and cold that forces you to be a penguin with your trail mates (I actually really enjoy the cold for this reason). You name the kind of weather, you will experience it on trail at some point.
Sometimes, or most of the time, the battle is within and against yourself. We are facing survival. Each hiker is trying to pursue this task for probably twenty-odd reasons, and because of this one choice to pursue this lofty goal, we have to make sacrifices. We are eating food that is terrible for us, working our bodies to the brink of exhaustion everyday with minimal rest, and facing all of the dark places in our minds that each of us shove away during our day-to-day “normal” life.
My mind has been my greatest asset, but also my greatest enemy in this pursuit. Yes, yes, I read Pacific Crest Trials and Thruhiking Will Break Your Heart, and I watched a bunch of YouTube videos telling me how daunting and challenging the trail might be. But that didn’t mean I was prepared for the actual mental fortitude required to hike thousands of miles.
Facing my insecurities, my flaws, and my fears everyday is so damn exhausting. I usually have to sit down and cry it out. To stop my crying fit, I typically remind myself where the heck I am, how lucky I am to be on one of the most beautiful trails in the world, and how few people get to experience this: the turmoil, the serene beauty, and the growth from adversity. Typically these “breakdowns” are linked to injury, insecurity, or a combination of the two.
My reality is that I am a 5’3” woman and am extremely injury prone and clumsy, hence the trail name “Cartwheel.” I have had two big injuries on trail: a hip sprain and a broken toe, and I am proud to say I got back on trail after both, but not without consequence. I had been neglecting my body’s warnings; well, ignoring them rather, and pushed on hiking past the point of discomfort, thus leading to injury.
I have no regrets, only aches, now that I have finally started listening to my body’s signals. I now have to do a routine of stretching and massaging in the mornings and nights, which I honestly should have been doing since the beginning, but I was a know-it-all unstoppable machine at the beginning of the trail and thought I was invincible (haha we have all been there, right?).
Blisters, injuries and aches, oh my! Listening to and caring for my body each and every day (especially in the mornings for me) is so difficult. I wake up aching and sore, brush my teeth, go dig a cat hole, do blister care, give myself a massage, stretch, and eat a pop tart or oatmeal, when all I really want is a sunny side up egg. Maybe if I am feeling productive and motivated, I will take the time to wipe my face.
My mission and objective for the day is walking. Copious amounts of walking. The first hour of hiking typically feels a bit rough; my body is craving sleep, a warm bed, and a refreshing shower. Instead, I tell it we have to hike more miles, because well, we (my mind and body) are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and we can’t hike it if we are sleeping.
But after a bit, I settle into my step, the aches fade, the scenery changes, and I remember what I’m out here for. I am here to experience it all: the aches, the pain, the majesty, the resistance in my muscles, all of it. I came out here to experience everything the Pacific Crest Trail has to give me. Whenever I feel like complaining, or am feeling down or too tired to go on, I remind myself that every experience has a lesson to be learned from and every step I take on trail is one step closer to completing this momentous goal.
The brain game. My brain is a funny companion who likes to play tricks on me. Let me explain. I, Cartwheel, know I can hike 23-25 miles comfortably. My brain however likes to play this game of scaredy cat, where “IT”, my brain, tells me “But what if you can’t? But what if you are too slow? Aren’t you so tired? We could just zero.” It goes through all of these arguments, doubts and insecurities, and then plants them all into my conscious mind. I realize how lunatic this sounds but I am human and very flawed and most importantly for context, I’m on a 6-month hiking trail alone in the woods with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company, even the crazy nonsense thoughts.
This leads to my favorite flaw, (sarcasm) insecurity! Everyone’s favorite thing about themselves. Imagine you’re an average hiker, now imagine me, 1 mph slower than that. (This is obviously the insecure part of me typing, bear with me.) Now surround yourself by a group of talented, intelligent, successful, supremely athletic people who happen to be your tramily whom you love and adore (their average pace is like 3-3.5 mph, and can average anywhere from 25-35 miles per day). The game with my body and mind is “can I keep up with all of these incredible humans?” My brain says no, my body says we shouldn’t, but my heart says “all be damned, I want to hike with my friends!” But then push comes to shove and I have to face the insecurity.
The thoughts usually are “Can I do these miles? Am I strong enough? Do I have the courage to camp alone tonight? etc. etc.” My heart usually wins this battle and I submit to group think, leaving me committed to do what everyone else is doing. (I do not recommend this method, as it has honestly induced injury at the cost of incredible memories and friendships that will last a lifetime; do with this information what you will.)
Chores. Chores. Chores. Everyday, you need to find your water sources, plan your campsite, try to figure out what the weather is going to look like, set up and break down camp. Honestly, it all feels like chores, everything except laying down. Brushing your teeth feels like a chore. Digging a poop hole feels like a chore. Sometimes, at the end of the day, cooking delicious ramen feels like a freaking chore. It’s honestly incredible how many hikers can walk 20-30 miles in a day but be too lazy or tired to brush their teeth because they don’t want to walk 5-10 feet away to spit out the toothpaste! This is an admission of guilt, I too have done this several times.
The exhaustion and laziness on trail is so real sometimes. I don’t even have the energy to get up to pee at night. Thru-hiking is a physical just as much as a mental JOB. It’s hard work that you continuously have to get better at; work that you have to endure as much as enjoy sometimes.
I’ve learned so much about myself on this trail: who I want to be, what kind of people I need in my life, and how much I treasure the outdoors and the freedom it provides. The wilderness lets me be; she gives me room to feel without distraction, without pressures, without expectations. Mother Nature allows me to be vulnerable, heartbroken, in love, and in awe, while simultaneously being filthy and covered in dirt — my hair mangled and with a fresh layer of sweat and tears on my face.
There is a common phrase on trail, it is “the trail provides.” Which sounds cheesy, corny and extremely cliche, but in my experience – in my 4.5 months on a long trail — the trail truly does provide. It provides insight, experience, knowledge, love, laughter, poop stories galore, great snacks, incomparable relationships, views you will never forget and memories to last several lifetimes.
I have no regrets about this trail, and although I bitched about it this entire article, I wouldn’t change a damn thing. I love thru-hiking. I love the grit it requires and the adversity it deals out.
Thru-hiking has become a part of my identity and part of what has shaped me into the person I want to be — needing only me, myself and a few items to help me get through my day. I want to remember all of these lessons, and all of the times when I struggled. Because I made it through those moments, I am now a stronger, better human being.
I love this life. I love this trail, but damn is it hard. (That’s what she said.)
Cartwheel aka Carti V aka “V” in the real world is a California born and raised twenty something latinx hiker trash who enjoys long walks, singing cringey karaoke songs and extreme dreaming. She is currently on the Pacific Crest Trail trying to fulfill her dream in becoming a thru-hiker.