(VIDEO) Senior Elizabeth Hash spent seven weeks hiking the High Sierra Mountains, then wrote seven essays about how the journey changed her outlook.
When Elizabeth Hash called her father to tell him she was backpacking 400 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and would be out of cell phone range for seven weeks, he was not pleased.
“In his mind, me backpacking would mean wrestling bears every morning, running from forest fires and running from crazy outdoorsy hippies who live out there and don't have real jobs,” the Texas Tech University student said.
Spoiler alert: Two of those things happened.
Hash is a self-described “super senior” with three majors – in English, psychology, and environment and the humanities (EVHM) and is a member of the Honors College. For that final degree she signed up for an independent study course that professor Kurt Caswell called “a blank slate for someone's fabulous project.” She and her best friend, Hannah Wylie, chose their fabulous project – spending half their summer in 2015 backpacking the California section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), then writing about their experiences.
As instructors in the Outdoor Pursuits Center, they'd been backpacking once, a group trip led by trained instructors that lasted about a week. Hash was a canoeing and rock climbing specialist, Wylie a kayaker. They planned for a month, told their professor and their parents and then left, channeling Cheryl Strayed of “Wild” yet hoping to put a different spin on their adventure.
“For some reason we were just really called to this opportunity to be in complete isolation for that long of a time and to really get to reflect on our own lives and who we were and also challenge ourselves in that process,” Hash said.
The California section of the trail, much of which overlaps the John Muir Trail, is the hardest section of the PCT. The two women studied maps, found resupply points and determined the best transport methods. In the month leading up to the trip they were up until 3 a.m. many days planning and packing food into sandwich bags, boxes and their backpacks.
The planning went awry on Day Zero. Hash and Wylie arrived at their starting point at Tahoe City and found most of their food didn't make the journey. Undaunted, they bought all the granola bars and beef jerky they could, repacked their bags and left for their adventure.
Then they spent much of the first two weeks camped out waiting for the rain and lightning to stop and slogging through muddy trails when it finally did. Nor were they alone; Hash and Wylie frequently saw other hikers. Many of them were hiking the full Pacific Crest Trail: 2,600 miles from Canada to Mexico. Suddenly, a few weeks hiking only 400 miles felt small, and so did they.
“We were meeting some big shots and feeling like pretty small fish,” Hash said.
But the scenery was beautiful, they were getting used to the routine of camping out and then walking seven hours a day, and hey, at least they had each other.
About a week and a half in, Wylie noticed what looked like a bug bite on her left knee. She was afraid it was a staph infection. The two hitchhiked into town – a couple drove 60 miles out of their way to drop the two off at a medical clinic – and Wylie's diagnosis was confirmed. The doctor gave her antibiotics and a warning to seek medical treatment within 24 hours if she developed a fever.
Fun fact: The part of the trail the two were about to start would put them at least two to three days from the closest town at any given time.
“I remember that day very specifically because we were sitting on opposite twin beds in our hotel room and it was completely silent and she looked at me for a second and said, ‘I think I have to stay,'” Hash said. “I said, ‘I know,' and then I said, ‘I think I have to keep going,' and she said, ‘You do, I know.'”
They both cried, then Wylie helped Hash repack her backpack with all the necessary gear. Hash focused on the packing, ignoring the fear of going on by herself that had been growing since Wylie found the infection. She wasn't just losing the companionship. Up to this point Hash had relied on Wylie's knowledge and experience to keep them going. She wasn't sure how she would continue.
For all the self-doubt, though, HashHa continued. Wylie walked her back to the clinic they'd been to the day before – a nurse, overhearing their story, volunteered to drive Hash back to the trailhead so she didn't have to hitchhike – and the two said goodbye.
“I finally decided leaving the trail wasn't really an option for me,” Hash said. “It was never really going to be an option because something would have been missing from my experience if I had chosen to do that out of fear, and I didn't want my fear or my own insecurities to be the reason I didn't finish this amazing trip.”
A low point, then a turning point
Hash's first day without Wylie was the worst day of her trip. Part of it was disappointment and fear now that her friend was gone, but there was more. Hash had to carry all of her supplies in one backpack, including items like the tent that were intended for two people. Her pack weighed 57 pounds that day.
Additionally, she hiked all day without hitting any water sources. Up to that point they passed a stream every few miles, so they could fill up. That day she had to carry all the water she needed for a full day, which is about two liters. The weight and the sloshing around in her backpack added several more pounds.
The first seven miles of the hike were on a ridgeline above the treeline. She had no shade. On one side of the ridgeline a huge lightning storm raged, so every time the trail crossed into that side she had to run to get back to the other side. By 5 p.m. she was done.
“I sat in there and I cried in my tent and journaled about it,” she said. “Then I told myself I was an idiot and went to sleep. I woke up the next day feeling much better and more resolved, telling myself this is what it's going to be and I will never know if I can do it unless I try.”
A few days later she ran into more trouble. Summer is wildfire season in California, and Hash found herself near one. Other hikers told her it was about five miles away, but in the High Sierra Mountains smoke spreads for miles. Hash couldn't get away from the smoke, or her fear.
“It became this chase between me and the fire – me trying to get away from it and trying not to let it terrify me so much that I would get off the trail when I didn't really know what was going on,” she said.
The chase went on for days. One night Hash, exhausted from her 14-mile day, stopped in a canyon. She'd been hiking through smoke all day and was having trouble breathing. As the sun went down the wind picked up, wailing through the canyon all night. But at least the smoke was gone as she put up her tent and made dinner.
“Then I looked out again,” she said. “All I saw was smoke – this gray-orange mist that swallowed the entire canyon. That's what I went to sleep to. I had nightmares of waking up to seeing an orange glow around my tent.”
That nightmare did not come to fruition.
“I did actually wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a bear trying to get my food,” Hash said.
She banged her spoon against her bowl, making enough noise to scare the bear away. Sleep was already gone.
“So I was having these nightmares of this fire engulfing me and I had this bear trying to eat all my food and I was alone and this wind tunnel sounded terrible, it was so eerie, and I woke up about 4 in the morning and I was just like, ‘I'm done, I'm getting out of here, I can't do this,'” Hash said. “I was so, so done with that campsite.”
The pre-dawn morning was freezing; she had to break off a layer of ice from her tent as she packed. She headed out of the canyon over the pass, called Silver Pass. It's made entirely of granite and above the treeline so all she could see was white rock.
“As I was hiking it kind of became this strange other world, almost like the surface of the moon,” Hash said. “It was completely white and completely silent. As I was hiking this, I was so discouraged by how fearful I was all the time, and I was huffing and puffing up this thing, fighting the smoke, and it just so happened that I reached the top of this pass at the same time the sun came up, and when the sun hit the granite, which was originally just white and glowing like the moon, it all started glowing this beautiful gold, and it was like this entire place was on fire.
“I wrote in my journal that I was climbing out of one fire and into the next. It was so symbolic for me, like I was leaving fear behind. That was the first time I felt the trip was my own. I could take ownership of it and be proud of what I had done, all because I was afraid of a forest fire and woke up too early and happened to hit the top of the pass at the right time.”
A day in the life of the Pacific Crest Trail
Hash's days started at about 5 a.m., though sometimes she slept in until the sun came up. She made breakfast, washed dishes, broke down camp, put on shoes and sunscreen and start hiking. Early on she and Wylie hiked seven to eight miles a day as they acclimated to the work and the altitude; by the end Hash was hiking 17 miles a day.
She started with a strict schedule, stopping every couple of miles for a snack and to write down her thoughts. The farther along she got, though, the less regimented her day.
“I would stop whenever I felt moved by something, and I would write about it,” Hash said. “My writing really improved when I did this instead of writing on the schedule. That was what I was out there to do was to log that and reflect that experience.”
Much of what moved her was the scenery. The High Sierras presented wild, remote areas of wilderness, sunsets and sunrises that took her breath away and enormous mountains for which growing up in Texas had not prepared her.
Hash remembered one specific view on the John Muir Trail. She hiked through a canyon bed that was above the timberline, with 14,000-foot granite mountains on either side.
“It just felt like they were all watching you as you were walking through this,” she said. “It was an eye-opening moment – I'm just this small person in this huge, beautiful world.”
Some days she varied the routine. Every seven to 10 days Hash hit a resupply point. Because so many people hike the Pacific Crest Trail, post offices have been built at many of the trailheads, and hikers mail themselves food and other supplies. She also dropped letters in the mail and occasionally checked her cell phone, sending brief messages to Wylie, Caswell and her parents.
Since she was already living in nature, Hash didn't worry too much about keeping perfectly clean. Every now and then she dipped a washcloth in a lake and washed herself off, but the water was cold and usually the morning was, too. She showered three times in seven weeks and also changed her shirt three times. New shirt day was a celebration, but not as good as the day mid-trip when she unpacked a clean set of clothes.
“I remember getting my box and walking around feeling like the hottest superstar ever because I was in new clothes,” she said with a laugh. “I was clean.”
Letting go of her fear, finding herself
Hash had 70 miles to go when she hit a lightning storm while she was on a ridge. In a hurry to get away from danger, she ran down the wet, rocky trail.
She called what happened next an act of trail karma – nature reminding her not to get too cocky. She slipped on a rock, her trekking pole got stuck and her weight and the weight of her backpack landed solidly on her right hand.
What's funny – if any part of falling on and “crunching” three bones in her hand falls under that label – is how Hash reacted as told to her by a couple who heard her fall and ran back to help.
“What I remember is I went into shock and blacked out from the pain,” she said. “What they remember is me sitting up on the trail, asking for my med pack and starting to patch my hand up and clean up the blood. So when I came back to I was cleaning up my hand and setting it and everything like my training from my job. I don't remember that, but that was pretty exciting.
“It's comforting to know that even when I black out from shock I will fix my hand; I will take care of everything.”
She rigged up a sling for her right arm – fortunately she's left-handed so could make this work – and hiked 20 more miles into the nearest town. The ER doctor took an X-ray of her right hand, then showed it to her. The damage was obvious – three broken bones. The doctor put her in another sling, then both prepared for what the other was about to say.
“I remember asking him, ‘How dumb is it for me to keep going?' He said, ‘I knew you were going to ask me that question. It's not ideal, but I know you're going to do it anyway,'” Hash said.
The doctor was right.
“I remember saying, ‘Well, it's not an ankle and it's not my left hand, so I can keep hiking and I can keep writing. That's what I'm out here to do is hike and write.”
She put her bandaged arm in a sling, slid her backpack on and went back to the trail. Her temporary one-handedness added some challenge; she couldn't tie her shoes or stuff her sleeping bag into its bag. However, Hash took it as a reason to meet more people in her final days on the trail. She could usually find some other hiker to pitch in on the shoe-tying and putting her gear away.
“Most people were very eager to help,” she said. “They had no problem with doing that.”
Hash broke her hand at mile 360 of 430; she only had about a week left to go on the trail, which finished with the summit of Mount Whitney. She called her dad from the hospital – “I'm OK” were her first words. It's no big deal, she thought, just a broken hand.
Hash had been about as worried a couple weeks prior when she'd arrived at Muir Trail Ranch, a popular resting and resupply place for hikers, and discovered only half the food she sent had made it. Luckily for her, the ranch had hiker boxes where people could leave their surplus of food or gear for other hikers. She packed almost enough food and went as fast as possible to her next resupply place. Again, Hash said with a shrug, it's no big deal.
“What was so strange to me and so exciting was I was so into what I was doing, so into my adventure that something as minor as a broken hand would get in the way,” she said. “Which meant at that point something like a broken hand wasn't a big deal to me. I had surpassed that kind of fear. I had surpassed the kind of control that would have on me. It was an amazing realization that I could overcome those things that so often we let limit us, that we say are major and we can't get past them.”
Her learning was helped along by a trail friend named Bill, who'd planned on stopping at the same campsite she'd chosen one night. He set up elsewhere and they started talking. He asked Hash if she'd ever stayed up to see the night sky; she was surprised when she realized she hadn't. She was usually so tired she was asleep when the sun set. He invited her to stay out that night and see the stars.
Hash did. She and Bill talked about their hikes and what hiking can do for people, then he asked her motivation for this trip. She was honest – she and Wylie did it in part because there was a feeling among their largely male crew at the OPC that women could not do what men did in the outdoors.
Now, she said, by the time she'd proven them wrong she'd stopped caring what they thought. Hash's trip was now fully about her, and she shared with Bill how wonderful she felt when she realized she didn't care about other people's negative opinions of her.
“Well, that's great,” he responded. “So your next goal should be to stop caring about people's positive opinions of you.”
Hash, confused, asked him to explain.
“At the end of the day, positive or negative, opinions and expectations of you are still just opinions and expectations,” Bill told her. “They are not who you really are, so you can't fight them all the time, and you also can't use them as a crutch. You have to find out who you are outside of everyone's opinions of you.”
Hash saw other humans almost every day, but not quite. Her longest bout of solitude was three days.
“I thought it would be harder than it was, but what's funny is you appreciate the time that you're alone, but then because you are alone you really appreciate the times when you see someone,” she said. “Everyone you meet is your best friend.”
This didn't translate as well in the world, as Hash found when she was making her way through Los Angeles to catch her flight back to Lubbock. Everyone there was not her best friend.
“I was walking around making eye contact with everyone, asking ‘Hey, how are you, how's your day going?'” Hash said. “People probably thought I was crazy or homeless. Or maybe both.”
Of course, she did plenty of talking with herself, too. That was the point.
“When you don't have anyone else to talk to for 300 miles, you eventually have to talk to yourself, and that means you're going to talk to yourself about things that maybe you don't really want to talk about, and that really turns the focus on you in the right way, in the healthiest way, and you really heal through that process and you learn a lot about yourself,” Hash said.
The experience was, in one word, transformative – just what Caswell had in mind for the portfolio course, which both Hash and Wylie aced.
“It can't possibly be more life experience focused,” Caswell said of the purpose of this course. “The personal part is much more meditative. It's the humanities part of environment and the humanities. Elizabeth looked at her own life and where she's headed, who she is as a person.”
She returned to Lubbock, landing the day before the fall 2015 semester began, and worked with Caswell on the second half of the project. Hash wrote seven essays examining her experience on the trail. She didn't intend to, but Hash realized as she wrote that she was following the seven steps people experience when they make huge changes in their lives, which she learned about in one of her psychology classes.
In pre-contemplation, she wrote about not knowing she had all these misconceptions about herself – that she'd been holding herself back through fear, or with the belief the other hikers on the trail were better than she was. For contemplation, she wrote about climbing Silver Pass that cold pre-dawn when she left the fire, the bear and her fear behind. For preparation, Hash wrote about the need to maintain her transformation as she hiked and not let self-doubt whisper that she couldn't do this.
The final stage is the most important – relapse. Coming back to the real world. Holding onto the lessons she learned on the trail that seem hundreds of miles away. It's been difficult, Hash acknowledged, but she's doing it. When she feels intimidated by her lack of work experience as she approaches graduation or by someone smarter than her or with a higher GPA, she remembers the lesson from Bill, why she went hiking and who she was at the top of Mount Whitney with her arm in a sling versus herself seven weeks earlier at Tahoe City.
Now she's working on who she is today. Hash graduates in May. She's teaching children how to read this summer, then has an outdoor internship lined up. Next is graduate school, either in environmental writing or therapy. In her perfect world, she'll be a college English professor who does wilderness therapy for recovering drug addicts during the summer, so she can tell her students how she was transformed.
“Change isn't made easily or in one try,” Hash said. “It's made after you fail and then get up and keep trying.”