But Christensen’s drive and talent didn’t always work in his favor. In 1998, while serving a two-year mission in South Korea, Christensen followed Mormonism’s renowned work ethic so dogmatically–tirelessly trolling for converts on Seoul’s streets–that he became unpopular with his peers. He thought he was doing the right thing, and in turn poked at the other missionaries with his nasally voice and condescending attitude. They retaliated, nicknaming Christensen "The Emperor." "Garret was born knowing that he was the smartest person in the world," says his mother, Kathy Christensen. "He showed impatience for people who didn’t know as much as he did."
Thus his arrival at Cal was a shock. The classes were hard. Other students were more motivated. Christensen was unexpectedly disoriented. "I hated school," he says. "Why was I there?"
In the fall of 2006, Christensen took time away, helping to track an economics professor’s study in western Kenya. While in Africa, Christensen arrived at another disillusioning epiphany. The Mormon services there were held in English instead of Swahili. If God really existed, he wondered, wouldn’t he speak all languages?
In debating Mormonism with his fellow visitors, the religion felt increasingly inconsistent and ambiguous–as if it were a flawed set of statistics. "In Africa, some of my openly atheist roommates were happier than me," he says. "For a while I was scared of the alternative–that if there is no God then humanity will end. Then I looked at them again and thought, ‘well, you might as well be happy.’" After considerable consternation, he left the Mormon Church. He now considers himself "an agnostic, leaning to atheism."
His parents were profoundly disappointed.
"We still have hope," says Kathy, his mom.
Christensen returned to the Bay Area in early 2007 and promptly took another semester off. Uncertain if he wanted to continue in school, unmoored from his religious upbringing, and feeling separation from his parents, Christensen decided to seek answers on the trail. He set his sights on the yo-yo of the rough and lonely CDT.
"I wanted to take a large amount of time off," says Christensen, "and give society the finger."