Covid Canceled Our Wedding—So We Went on the Hike of Our Lives Instead
After pandemic restrictions forced Sharon Wu and her fiancé to reschedule their wedding, they set their eyes on a consolation prize: the rugged Trans-Catalina Trail.
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By any seasoned backpacker’s measure, the 38.5-mile-long Trans-Catalina Trail (TCT) on California’s Santa Catalina Island is a luxurious experience. Managed by the Catalina Conservancy, the trail is well-marked and immaculately kept. When most of the nation’s trails are under snow and ice, the TCT remains a year-round destination. Backpackers are required to camp at designated campgrounds along the trail, dictating each day’s itinerary and minimum mileage. Each campsite is equipped with potable water, toilets, trash cans, fire pits, picnic tables, and critter boxes. Cell service is strong throughout the island. Even a few restaurants dot the trail. But none of these little luxuries prepared us for the rigors of a Catalina thru-hike.
My fiancé and I were supposed to get married in October 2020, but like so many other couples, we canceled our wedding ceremony. Instead, we got outside. The Trans-Catalina Trail was one of several outdoor dreams that we checked off our list over the next year to quiet the heartache of postponing our marriage. Though only an easy ferry ride away from the mainland, it was far and away the highlight.
The island was first home to numerous Indigenous peoples, including the Tongva tribe of the Los Angeles Basin. They called the island “Pimu” and used it as a trading post for thousands of years before European colonizers arrived in the 16th century and decimated the Indigenous population. The Europeans renamed the land after their Saint Catherine, and Santa Catalina is the name that we know the island by today.
On a cloudy Saturday morning, the Catalina Express ferry dropped us off at Avalon, the Mediterranean-looking town where the trail begins. We grabbed breakfast burritos and hit the trail. Over the first three days, the path traversed low peaks and lush valleys in shades of green and gold, almost always accompanied by views of the strikingly blue Pacific and its salty breeze. We passed by the Airport in the Sky, the only airport on the island, and ate burgers at its little restaurant. We crossed paths with several of Catalina’s famous nonnative bison, brought to the island in the 1920s for a film shoot and left behind. The first day was the longest, with a short but steep ascent out of Avalon and into the island’s interior. The second and third days were gentler palate-cleansers—easier treks ending at beautiful campsites right by the ocean. The fourth day, though, was the one I’ll always remember best.
That morning, we made our way out of Two Harbors, where we had slept the night before on the edge of a low cliff facing Isthmus Cove. After passing Cat Harbor—the second, smaller harbor that gives Two Harbors its name—we could see the beginning of the trail’s longest and steepest ascent. The dirt under our feet transitioned from brown to a rusty shade of red, a striking contrast against the indigo ocean spread out before us.
For the next three hours, we climbed a steep and steady uphill. And what a glorious battle it was. At the top of the trail’s 1,000-foot peak, a covered picnic bench greeted us, and we happily took refuge in its shade. We sat for a while, taking in the 360-degree views of the Pacific in its staggering shades of aquamarine and cobalt blue. For much of the year, Catalina’s hills are a golden-brown, but we caught the short window when the island is a vibrant, luscious green thanks to seasonal rainfall. A gentle wind swept by, tempting us to stay in place rather than face the daunting descent.
As we started down the hill, we discovered that the red sand made for insecure footing, and I struggled to stay upright. It took us over an hour to travel less than a mile, and there was still more to go.
After several long and arduous hours of descent, we saw the shore, signaling the end of the day’s hike. This dramatic stretch ended at the fourth, final, and most marvelous campground of the trail. Right on the beach, Parsons Landing is the most remote and primitive of the Catalina campgrounds. If you’re lucky enough to snag Campsite #1 like we did, you’ll find yourself tucked into a snug cove with no other campers in your line of sight. We arrived in the early afternoon, leaving us plenty of daylight to enjoy our private paradise. We strolled along the beach, pointing out oddly-shaped rocks along the shore. We soaked our feet in the ocean, the frigid waters relieving our aches as the setting sun transformed the sky from blue to gold to black. As evening set in, the sound of the campfire crackle paired with ocean waves created an extraordinary nighttime calm on the beach. We settled into a peaceful quiet. That day, for the first time in months, I wasn’t thinking about Covid statistics, canceled plans, or when and how we would be able to get married.
When we had begun planning this trip in early 2021, only healthcare workers were eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, many states were experiencing devastating losses after the holiday season, and the future of the pandemic seemed bleak. Things were starting to change by the time we left, but even then, the next few months felt uncertain, and we didn’t dare feel hopeful about our delayed wedding plans.
For over a year, we had agonized over our postponed wedding. Should we have eloped on our original date? What if most guests can’t make our rescheduled ceremony? Should we postpone again? While we sat on paid deposits and stagnant plans, this doubt and stress gnawed at us daily. But above all else, there was simply a deep, daily sadness that we just couldn’t shake.
When we were on the trail, though, we left all that behind. The hike forced us to focus on the more immediate problems in front of us—blistered feet, heavy packs, hungry stomachs. While on the island, we hardly talked about our wedding at all, only about how large bison are, how out of shape we felt, and how beautiful California is. We talked about our other upcoming backpacking plans, how we’d change up our gear, and what we’d do better for our next trip. While our bodies ached, we gave our minds a break, feeling lighter and freer for the first time in months.
Each morning, we dutifully packed up our belongings with the same synchronicity that our routine has at home. And each night, we bustled around the fire, like we do in the kitchen after a long day. Every day on Catalina was strangely and comfortingly analogous to a day in our ordinary lives. We moved in the same mannered rhythms and predictable patterns that we always do when we’re around one another—cheering each other on when the going gets tough, taking time to rest when we know we need it, and making sure we both have had enough to eat. Each step of the hike was a reminder of the person I had chosen, the life we had built together, and a little bit of peace in knowing that, no matter when we get married, the outcome will always be the same. He was my partner, on the trail and in life.
On the last morning, we were rested and ready for the final day of hiking. Breakfast was coffee and oatmeal, and we took our time packing up to enjoy every last minute on this tranquil expanse. We headed back to Two Harbors, where the ferry would take us back to the mainland. This last stretch of the trail meandered along the dreamy coastline, doubling as a dirt road with the occasional truck passing by. I knew soon I would be going home, and facing all that entailed: the first post-hike shower, a warm bed, and clean clothes, but also the first day back at work, another day of pandemic life, and many decisions to make about our delayed wedding. But those would be problems for tomorrow.
Do It: Hike the Trans-Catalina Trail
- Season Year-round
- Trailhead 33.3433, -118.3247
- Permit Free at Conservancy House, Avalon
- Distance 38.5 miles
- Days 4-5
Sharon Wu is an editor and writer based in Los Angeles, CA.