Impossible Odds Episode 8: One Last Hurrah
As they wrap up the PCT, Sammy shares how the trails changed him, and he reads his post-hike bucket list. Hint: Eating a lot of ice cream and donuts.
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Impossible Odds is Backpacker’s new podcast about two hikers’ quest to complete the Triple Crown in a calendar year.
Hear the story below, or subscribe to Impossible Odds on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Zoe Gates: Two friends. 8,000 trail miles. One year. This podcast follows Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell on their attempt of the Calendar Year Triple Crown of hiking. I’m Zoe Gates, and this is Impossible Odds.
Sammy Potter: Merrell exists to share the simple power of being outside. Hell yeah, love that. No matter who you are, where you came from, who you love, or how you move, everyone should be welcome in the outdoors and wherever life takes us. Merrell strives to inspire everyone because, together, we can help protect the trail that we love. Our goal is to provide thoughtfully designed, rigorously tested outdoor products that overdeliver on performance, versatility, and durability. This is important not just if you’re thru-hiking, but for everyday walking or running as well.
Zoe: It’s October, and Sammy and Jackson are headed south on the PCT in the final stretch of their Calendar Year Triple Crown attempt. Just last month, they finished the Continental Divide Trail by taking an alternate route called the Big Sky that helped them avoid wildfires and shave off some mileage. But as they pushed on, Sammy had a nagging feeling that he should go back and re-hike those miles they skirted around. With winter coming, adding miles could significantly delay their projected finish. And even this close to their goal, nothing is a guarantee.
Sammy: Ultimately I decided it’s not worth it to go back and do that section of the CDT that I was debating about. I don’t know if I’m just copping out of it or whatever, but I have a family member who’s very sick and I need to go see them, so that’s non-negotiable. After that week, another week will have gone by and conditions will probably get colder. Frankly, I’m tired. I want to spend time with family. I wanna spend time with friends. I want to visit people. I want to slow down a little bit. My desire to do the other section instead of the Big Sky alternate, I’ve had to analyze a little bit and think to myself why am I actually feeling that way? Do I actually believe it’s the right thing to do? Or is there something, some insecurity underneath that is causing me to act this way? And I think it’s insecurity of not knowing what I’m going to do next.
On the trail, I have such a clear sense of purpose, such a clear sense of fulfillment. It’s not sustainable forever. I have plans to go back to real life. I think this was a way for me to try to delay that because frankly, I don’t know if I’m ready to re-enter the real world where there’s a lot more uncertainty.
I don’t know if I’m going to change my mind later on. I don’t know if I will regret this, but this is the decision that I made. I am now excited to finish, with all those insecurities still with me, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m excited to finish.
Zoe: Since most CDT hikers take alternate routes, at some point, Sammy’s choice to stick with the Big Sky still makes for a legitimate thru-hike. Their goal was to follow a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada, which they did. With the CDT finally in the rearview mirror, Sammy and Jackson can focus on the miles in front of them. They’ll wrap up by hiking through Oregon, where they left off earlier this year, then finish on a short section of trail in Northern California.
Sammy: I’m super conflicted right now. I have basically have two competing motivations. On the one hand, I want to see my grandfather as soon as possible. Every day that goes by, part of me thinks that I should be with him and going to visit family. On the other hand, I don’t know what will happen after this. For so long, I’ve just thought about the trail. I’ve hardly thought about anything else, and it’s come at the cost of so many things. I’ve sacrificed my education, lost time with family and friends, and just put so much energy into this when there’s a thousand places, you could be putting your energy. That’s all to say, I’m very used to this lifestyle now, and I’m enjoying it. While on one hand, I want to get off trail as soon as possible to see my grandfather, on the other hand, I don’t want to get off trail and I can feel myself wanting to slow down and take this all in. There have been times when I feel like I haven’t appreciated this enough; you start to appreciate things when they’re going away. I feel like I already miss the trail and already miss waking up in a tent and already miss having breakfast one hour into the day, 2 miles into the day and already miss watching the sunrise and watching the sunset and having walked the whole day.
I already miss it even though I’m still doing it. It’s only gonna last another week, seven, seven days, seven nights. I just feel so strongly about this lifestyle that we’ve created and that we’ve been able to be a part of. It’s been the most special thing in the world to me. I just don’t wanna let it go. Ultimately, family’s the most important thing, but change is hard and getting off trail is going to be hard. Basically, our last hurrah, in my opinion, was Crater Lake, Oregon. We took this tiny alternate on the PCT, the only alternate we’ve taken on the entire PCT. I think it’s what most people take.
It goes up really high all the way up to the rim of Crater Lake. It’s a lot more interesting than the trail that goes around Crater Lake. I think it cuts off a couple of miles, but the trail’s a lot harder because you got to go all the way up to Crater Lake.
Anyways, it’s the only alternate we took on the PCT. Hopefully purists don’t get mad about it. To me, it felt like a last hurrah because after that, it’s pretty much smooth sailing. I wasn’t sure how much snow there would be up there, what the conditions would be like. There’s this very sheer climb going up to Crater Lake.
And when we got up, the winds were probably from 30 to 40 miles per hour with gusts from 45 to 50 mph, so super windy. The snow only reached, at maximum height, I think a foot or so. Walking along the rim was pretty dramatic. You look down, and it was one of the most stark views we’ve had because the lake looks like a different planet. It looks like Mars. We made it through it with relatively no issue. I think it’s coming down. From the lake is when Jackson and I started to really consider the fact that this is almost over. There’s not another massive clear challenge in front of us. There’s just a few more miles to be left.
At this point, I’m just racing to the end because I really want to see my grandfather. Every day that goes by, I just feel bad that I haven’t gone to visit him when he’s been such a big influence on my life. I learned so many of the things that I’ve been able to utilize out here. Whether it’s hard work, focus, empathy for my partner, working together, and just simply trying to be my best self, that’s the biggest thing that I learned from him. I know he really wants me to finish this, but I really want to go see him. I miss him so much, and that’s propelling me right now. I’m tired as hell. I don’t want to take a day off. I just want to keep going. I want to keep going until we finish this.
Here’s a list of things I said I wanted to do in the months after finishing the PCT: cook at home, cook every recipe in a cookbook, eat every donut at this donut shop called the Holy Donut in my hometown, learn how to make scones, learn how to make the best fettuccine Alfredo, relearn how to do a Rubik’s cube, go cross-country skiing, go surfing, get better at yoga, start learning Krav Maga or jujitsu, go apple picking, go to a pumpkin patch, pick out a pumpkin, carve it, sleep 12 hours, eat a gallon of ice cream (I wrote about eating a gallon of ice cream at a different place on this list. I guess, you can tell where my head’s at), learn how to make the optimum nutrition bar for hiking, learn how to tie the 10 most important knots, relearn guitar, start to learn piano.
I got a month and a half before we go back to school, assuming that we finish in the next few days. I think first things first though: I got to go hang out with the fam. I have not been the best sibling for the past year. I guess I have a good excuse though. The truth is I don’t know what I’m going to do after this. I feel so good right now, and I feel like there’s so much potential, but freedom can be a dangerous thing. I’m pretty sure John Lennon said that actually. I feel like I have so much potential now that I know that we’ve done this, but at the same time, that creates a type of pressure, what am I going to do next? It’s gotta be bigger, right?
This challenge became my whole identity. I came to it because I felt very called to do something big after some degree of tragedy with one of my close friends dying. Secondly, that exacerbated something I was feeling for a while, which was being in a funk, being depressed. I have found happiness through this challenge. I found fulfillment through this challenge. I found purpose through this challenge. I’ve found love. I love this deeply, and now that’s coming to an end. I can’t hold on to it forever.
I think I’m faced with a really big question, which is how do I find happiness in itself? I want to do something bigger. I do, but I don’t want to do it out of a need to do it for my self-preservation, survival, and happiness. I don’t want to be reliant on one thing for my whole self, for my whole sense of fulfillment and sense of purpose.
I want to be a happy version of me and then do whatever you want to do from there. That’s a question I have to sit with. The biggest thing I’m struck with as we finish up this trail is a sense of gratitude. There’s more people that I can thank than I’ll be able to remember because so many people have helped us out in this journey. I got to try to name at least a few, just off the top of my head. First off Jackson Parell, we couldn’t have done this without each other. I’ll believe that forever.
My parents, my family, my whole family, but especially my parents for supporting this crazy idea and being okay with me taking time off school. Jackson’s family, I have to thank them so much for trusting him and trusting me. The countless trail angels who gave us rides into town, met us and gave us food, hung out with us, and brought up our spirits. Everybody we met on trail, I just can’t thank you enough. I love y’all, and just to be a part of this community is more than a blessing.
Zoe: With the end in sight, Sammy and Jackson begin to reflect on all of the moments that made up their year of hiking: the good and the bad.
Sammy: Biggest mistake I made on trail all year in my opinion was one time I was taking a snack break at a shelter. I left my phone and the hat I was wearing at the shelter, and I realized a mile later. Okay, no big deal. I’ll just go back and get it. Two miles miles kind of sucks when you’re doing 25 mile days to add that on. Another mistake I made was running back. That was terrible because it was freezing out and the sweat froze to my body, made me and my clothes wet, which then froze to my body as well.
Also a huge mistake happened as a cumulative effect of this when I was putting my bag back on. My water bladder was leaking, and I didn’t realize it because I had my pack cover on. Unbeknownst to me, water was soaking everything in my pack for about an hour. I looked down, and it was soaking my pants as well.
That ended up being two of our hardest days on trail. Everything is just so high stakes in the winter. You want to be so dialed in about how you’re keeping yourself warm, how you’re expending your energy. You make one mistake like that, and it puts you down the road to make so many more mistakes and end up in a bad situation.
Zoe: Over the course of nearly 10 months, they’ve learned a lot about backpacking, about each other, and themselves. In January, Sammy and Jackson were a pair of college kids who’d never thru-hiked, hadn’t seen much of the country, and knew relatively little about what it takes to finish a long trail—let alone three. 10 million steps later, they’ve faced about as much challenge and emotion as one can in a single year.
Sammy: My favorite moment on trail would have to be getting to Katahdin for sunrise the first day that the mountain opened for spring and finishing the Appalachian Trail, our first trail, five months into this arduous journey. We just finished in such a spectacular manner that I don’t think anything we did in the rest of the year could really top it.
It’s my favorite place in the world. Hands down. It’s a very special, spiritual, and awe-inspiring place. To get to share that with one of my best friends is truly remarkable.
Zoe: We’ll be right back.
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We made it to where we left off in Oregon. Let’s go! We finished the Calendar Year Triple Crown! But wait, we actually didn’t. You remember that 40-mile section in Northern California that we had to skip around because the forest fire started while I was hiking it? They closed the trail right after I passed through the trailhead, remember that? For me at least, it was one of the most memorable experiences of the year. What that meant though, is that we had to skip that section. If you want to finish Calendar Year Triple Crown, you have to thru-hike each of these trails. To us, that means connecting all your footsteps.
Some people have different definitions. That’s what we chose as our major parameter is connecting all our footsteps from the start to the end of each trail. If we want to finish CYTC, we got to do that with the PCT. That’s what we’re planning on doing. Jackson’s parents were visiting for the end, so hitch a ride with them down to Highway 3 and then hike that section of trail. However, we get a call about two weeks before getting to the end of Oregon that says that this section is closed. One of the only sections of the trail that’s closed right now. That’s just how it goes sometimes. In order to connect our footsteps, we had to walk along a road around the trail and then back up to the trail in order to get to the Etna Summit. We said from the beginning of this thing, we’re going to do it by any means necessary. That’s what we did. It’s been a crazy journey, but we figured out what our best option was, and we just had to do it.
It was pouring rain. When we started from Scott mountain summit, hiking the road, eventually we saw two rainbows, had a fricking great time, were able to reflect as two friends on this journey, and make it to Etna Summit.
Zoe: At 4:16 p.m. on October 22, 2021, Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell crested California’s Etna Summit, officially becoming the youngest of a dozen finishers of the Calendar Year Triple Crown, Like any good college kids, they celebrated the same way they had 295 days earlier on New Year’s Day: with a beer.
Sammy: Of course it’s somewhat of a strange ending. Looks nothing like how I saw the end of the Calendar Year Triple Crown, this epic journey: finishing it by walking on a road. Still more than epic. I think this journey was a very strange one, a bizarre one.
I really just see this as a bizarre ending to an even more bizarre journey. I don’t think I’d have it any other way.
Zoe: To get here, the finish, over thousands of miles it took facing impossible odds. Sammy and Jackson overcame snowstorms, infections, bears, parasites, wildfires, fatigue, and more. Mile after mile after mile—through it all, they just kept walking.
Sammy: Last year before heading out on this trek, I said something sort of hyperbolic, which I think showed up in episode one. These trails have a lot of lessons to teach. I didn’t know that at the time. How could I? I was naive, somewhat overly optimistic, arrogant, even. But I was right about that. These trails did teach us a lot. They taught me how to stay calm in the face of adversity, how to maintain my equilibrium when everything seems like it’s falling apart. They taught me that humor can make any situation better, lighter, and easier without fail. Humor kept us going—literally kept us from stopping at some points. It also made huge difficulties seem smaller. When you don’t make a big deal out of what seems like a big deal, it’s often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does that make sense? Anyway, this is a huge tangent.
Point is, staying calm, controlling your emotions rather than letting them control you, can go a long way. I learned that picking your partner means everything. Literally everything. I was listening to a Jon Krakauer book earlier this year, and it said it best: “It’s impossible to use too much care and selecting your companions. A candidate’s repertoire of amusing stories, a store of gossip, and a sense of humor that blossoms under duress should be weighed at least as heavily as endurance on the trail or ice climbing expertise.”
Thank God for my partner, Jackson. I couldn’t have picked him any better. I learned that you don’t have to know everything about everything to start doing something really big. Sometimes you can just jump in, start, get going. I learned that I’m not invincible. Giardia humbled me more than any middle school bully ever could, feeling that helpless is something I’ll never forget, and I don’t want to. I could keep going with these lessons and honestly, I want to. But that right there is sort of this soliloquy of ridiculous sentences is as much a reflection on a few valuable things I’ve learned as it is a recognition that by spending 295 days on America’s three long trails, we just barely unlocked the Pandora’s box of what they have to teach us. These trails have a lot of lessons to teach.
Zoe: This podcast was written and hosted by Sammy Potter with contributions from Jackson Parell. Our producers are Louisa Albanese and me, Zoe Gates. Woolly Music is our composer and sound designer. Tim Mossa is our assistant story editor. If you enjoyed this episode of Impossible Odds, please subscribe and leave us a review.