If only Cheryl Strayed had hung out with REI Adventures guide Polly Simpich before she set out on the Pacific Crest Trail. She might not have become known as “Cheryl of the enormous backpack,” who famously had to sit down to put it on and then roll herself over onto her knees before standing up with it—all told in her bestselling book Wild.
Golden Northern California sun beamed down on the parking lot of the Cold Creek Inn in Mount Shasta City as Polly gracefully talked each of us through items we could leave behind and made sure we had everything we’d need for three days on the Pacific Crest Trail. Rain pants? Not so much this week. Trekking poles? Absolutely. We weren’t heading off for the entire thru-hike, but I think we were each anxiously aware how miserable a weekend on the trail could be with an ill-fitting pack or the wrong footwear. We’d all either read about—or seen on the big screen—Cheryl Strayed’s painful foibles during the first part of her thru-hike of the PCT.
On some level, Wild was the connecting thread drawing all seven of us women together that afternoon as we left the Gumboot Trailhead at 6,500 feet and settled into an easy pace through the dry forest. Either Wild had brought our attention to a beautiful trail we hadn’t much considered before, or it had triggered a thought: Maybe a few days on the trail can inject something into my life that’s been missing lately, or help me find something in myself that I know is there but I might need to be reminded of.
During the next six miles along the easygoing ridgeline of Gumboot Mountain, we didn’t see a single other person. Mount Shasta’s imposing blue profile, streaked with white glaciers and snowfields, played peekaboo with us through the woods. Eventually the trees parted to reveal the gem-green water of Porcupine Lake, with the gray cliffs of Porcupine Mountain towering overhead on the far side.
With plenty of June sunlight left, we each picked a tent spot for the night and then relaxed on the edge of the crystal-clear lake.
Half of us braved the alpine water for a refreshing swim, then dried in the gentle sunlight before eating a dinner of leek soup and burritos with fresh guacamole around a small campfire.
Not one person in our group had ever met any of the others before we hit the trail. Ranging in age from 20s to 60s, we also ranged from single and childless to working single mom to retired. Our previous backpacking experience was just as diverse. For all of us, waking up in the crisp mountain air and sipping mugs of piping pour-over coffee, life seemed just a little bit simpler. Each of us could be ourselves—no work deadlines, no need for makeup, our hearts and bodies softly reminded of dreams and values we held dearly deep underneath our typical day-to-day routines.
The second day of hiking, also about six miles, took us into a unique transition zone—one minute we wound through dark, moss-covered trees and lush ferns, the next through wide-open, high-desert sagebrush. Shasta would appear on one side, the distant blue-and-white hump of Lassen Peak on the other. We stopped for lunch among delicate blue phlox blossoms shivering in the mild breeze.
We clambered over hulking fallen trees and followed the trail through a scree field to the Deadfall Lakes, a series of cold, deep-green lakes below Mount Eddy—our objective for the next morning.
Mount Eddy, at 9,025 feet the highest peak in the area aside from massive, glacier-covered Shasta, was named for Olive Paddock Eddy, the first woman to climb Mount Shasta. It felt fitting to challenge ourselves with the 2,000-foot elevation gain to the blustery, bare summit on our final day. After a handful of switchbacks through wildflowers of every color, we arrived at the top as a team to find a wide, rewarding view and the remains of a fire lookout tower.
Throughout the weekend, we tasted a little of the daily rhythm of the special trail we’d read about. It may have felt brief compared to Strayed’s 1,100-mile trek, but it was enough to pluck us out of our daily routines and bring us each back into our true selves, if just for a moment. As Strayed wrote of her final day on the PCT, “It was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was …”
Experience the PCT with the REI Adventures Pacific Crest Trail Backpacking trip.