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Brooke Guyot, a thru-hiker from Oklahoma, had already hiked over 1,400 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail when she arrived at State Highway 299 in Northern California. More pressing in her mind, though, were the more than 1,200 miles left to go.
The “NorCal Blues” is a well-known phenomenon among Northbound (NOBO) PCT hikers: After the honeymoon phase of the desert and the exciting adventure of the Sierra, reality sets in. You’ve been hiking for well over 1,000 miles, you’re still in the same state, and you have a long way to go.
Brooke was feeling the blues hard that day.
“I got to that road and thought, ‘I could be home in 24 hours,’” she said.
I had last seen Brooke at the beginning of the High Sierra in mid June. We summited Forester Pass, a literal and figurative high point of the trip, on the same morning. Since finishing the Sierra and leaving our groups behind, though, we had both been hiking in isolation.
The majority of 2023 NOBO hikers flipped from Kennedy Meadows South to Chester in Northern California to avoid record-breaking snowpack in the Sierra. Another contingent flipped up to the Northern Terminus and started heading south, “SNOBOs” joining the “true SOBO” crowd. Then, there’s the dispersed group of us who braved the snow and have been hiking continuously north since Campo, the “true NOBOs”. Still others flipped to Ashland, Oregon or Truckee, California, piecing their hikes together across different sections of the trail.
Point is, there are hikers all over the place. In typical years, thru-hiking the PCT is a very social experience, as many groups are heading the same direction at generally the same pace, creating a “bubble” where the majority of hikers are. But this year the trail has fallen quiet in many places, leaving hikers confronted with feelings of isolation and loneliness. I’ve gone days on end without meeting another NOBO hiker, and recently had a 25-hour period in Shasta-Trinity National Forest where I didn’t see a single other human being. Solitude is a big reason why I came out here, but when it goes on day after day, week after week, it can become stifling.
After the desert, sad goodbyes and different itineraries left NOBO hikers unsure whether or when we would see each other again. In the past few weeks, though, the many NOBO and SOBO bubbles have collided, leading to hourslong trailside catch-ups and joyful town days.
As I finished off Northern California and spent my first week hiking into Oregon, reunions with old friends have helped bring my mood up just when I’ve needed it most. I reconnected with Brooke around mile 1,650, the evening before coming into Seiad Valley and a couple days before finally crossing into Oregon. At camp, we spent hours going through our shared experiences (“so which water crossing was worst for you?”), grateful to have someone who understood what we had been through.
Angela Hu, a PCT hiker I met in the desert and hiked with for around 200 miles, was feeling the blues up in Oregon, where swarms of mosquitoes and long days were getting to her (“Dude, Oregon might be my hell,” she texted me a couple of weeks ago). Following a flip up to Chester, she had been feeling the strain of being alone on trail, separated from her old hiking partners. Then, just after Shelter Cove, she ran into two hikers she’d hiked with in the desert, now a part of the “SNOBO” bubble. Better yet, she was with another hiker who had started the same day as one of her desert friends, leading to an unexpected and emotional reunion.
“It was kind of this epic moment of four friends meeting each other again,” Angela said. “We always say ‘see you down the trail,’ and it’s been really cool as we’ve been passing these SOBO bubbles to actually live through that.”
In my own bubble of “true NOBOs”, I’ve heard hiker after hiker say the refrain, “it’s so nice to see people again.” Upon running into some friends who had flipped up to Ashland, a hiker named Waldo spent three hours catching up and sharing stories on the side of the trail. It didn’t matter that they were high on a steep slope just west of Lake Tahoe, far from the perfect place for a reunion. All they needed was a trail to stand on and each other’s company.
Separations and reunions are a guarantee on the PCT every year. It’s a part of what makes life on trail so special: An ephemeral connection comes back many months and miles later. This year, though, these reunions serve an even greater purpose. After a hiking season filled with logistical challenges, unprecedented conditions, and untimely goodbyes, they remind us that we’re never alone out here.