When I read the story of how Kolby Kirk, aka The Hike Guy, managed to hike more than 1700 out of the 2650 miles which constitute the Pacific Crest Trail, I was at the same time in awe and curious to know what pushes a man to embark in such a long journey. I asked him, and here is what he has to say on his adventure.
NBM: I read that you started your hike after being laid off from your job: Was that the main reason or were there other reasons?
KK: It seems that the stars need to align in order to do the entire PCT. I have had the desire to attempt the long journey by foot from one end of the 2,655-mile trail to the other in one hiking season (called a “thru hike”), but never had the 5-6 months necessary to do so. I was, in fact, contemplating quitting my job in 2012 in order to do it, so being laid off from my job last March gave me the time needed to attempt it this year. Just 31 days after I was released from employment, I was starting my long hike northwards on the PCT!
NBM: With what gear did you start your hike? Did you use technology (GPS) or just maps?
KK: I read somewhere that packing a backpack is the art of knowing what not to take. Prior to the Pacific Crest Trail, the longest backpacking trip I had been on was just a few days. I had no idea what not to take on such a long trek so, like most other thru hikers, I packed too much. I started the trek carrying about 40 pounds of gear, including a 2-man tent, a down sleeping bag, and a few changes of clothes. After hiking the first 30 miles, I sent home over five pounds of gear to lighten my load, including my handheld GPS (Garmin 60csx) and an extra camera (GoPro).
I had my GPS sent back to me when I reached the high Sierra Nevada Mountains, where snow covered some sections of the trail. (My backpack weighed 53 pounds entering the Sierras.) I used printed maps made by Lon Cooper (pctmap.net) for most of the trek.
NBM: Did you choose to register everything on your journals because you knew you wanted to write a book or because you wanted to do that for yourself?
KK: For the past decade, I’ve never gone on a long journey or a hike without packing a journal. I keep a journal for many reasons: to capture the memories that will eventually fade away, to consciously observe my surroundings, to meditate. I keep a journal for myself, my future self, and my future family. It was only on the Pacific Crest Trail that I realized writing a book about how to keep a travel journal might be a good idea. I talked to many thru hikers and I was surprised to discover that many of them did not keep a record of their adventure. They gave reasons that I could relate to: a lack of motivation, not making the time to write, or the belief that they aren’t creative enough to keep a journal while on the trail. By sharing my journals, I hope to show that it is possible to keep a written record while hiking or traveling. My upcoming book will share ways that I overcome common obstacles that keep pen from paper, hopefully helping others in making a journal that they will cherish for the rest of their lives.
NBM: Looking at those journals, stamps, stickers and drawings now that the hike is over: What story do they tell you?
KK: These items have captured a moment of my life. I’d hope that I never forget a minute of it, but I know that is not possible. My memories might fade faster than the ink in the pages of these journals. The ephemera I collect – I call them “flat finds” – allow me to return to that moment in an instant. These objects are “charming souvenirs,’ paraphrasing American travel lecturer John L. Stoddard, ‘recalling pleasing incidents which might have otherwise faded gradually from their recollection.”
NBM: What was the toughest moment and the most beautiful?
KK: The act of hiking thousands of miles relies more on mental stamina than physical ability, but there were plenty of moments that tested both. The most arduous moments on the trail happened in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where I felt how insignificant I was in contrast to the power of nature. I recall one day where I was stuck in a thunderstorm. Hail the size of peas stung my hands and shoulders, lightning struck so close, I felt the energy in the roots of my hair, and attempting to sleep in a wet, cold sleeping bag tested my sanity and my abilities as an outdoorsman. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally drained at the end of the day.
The Pacific Crest Trail winds through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, so it is tough to say what section was the most beautiful. I do have fond memories of a section just north of Lake Isabella where the trail skirted around peaks on a ridge line like a slalom ski course. On the west were great views of the Domeland Wilderness and the Sequoia National Forest. On the east, the dry desert landscape of Indian Wells Valley.
NBM: Do you feel changed by this experience? How?
KK: It is obvious that I was physically changed by the hike. After five months of hiking, I had dropped ninety pounds. But the experience changed me in other ways that are difficult to see or put into words. We are literal thinkers. Our thoughts are in words, but my experiences were strongly emotional. I would have to be a better philosopher or poet in order to translate the emotions into language to explain how much this experience changed my life. As more time passes between the present and the hike, I hope to have a better understanding on how much it really changed me.
NBM: Which bands/artists did you listen to when hiking?
KK: I loved listening to music on the trail. Radiohead, Girl Talk, Band of Horses, Bend Folds, Zero 7, Muse, Iron & Wine… The albums that I believe are best listened on the trail are Eddie Veddar’s Into The Wild Soundtrack and The Belle Brigade’s self-titled album.
NBM: Would you say that your relationship with Nature has changed after the hike?
KK: I wouldn’t say it has changed – I’ve always been in love of nature – but it has grown stronger. This trek brought me into wilderness that cannot be visited without hiking a long way. The same could be said about me. Being alone for long periods of time – sometimes going days without seeing another human – brought me closer to myself through nature.
NBM: Do you need to be an expert hiker to face the PCT?
KK: No, not at all. Those who have the skills or physical ability to hike before they start the PCT might make it further than those who don’t, but that’s no guarantee. I know of a few hikers who trained for years but had to end their journey short due to illness, injury, financial or family problems. On the other hand, I hiked for a time with a 22-year old girl who had never backpacked before hitting the PCT and she made it over 1,000 miles this season. She ended her hike on her own terms, to begin her master’s program.
NBM: Why walking?
KK: Why not! Walking allows me to experience nature intimately, much more than I would on a bike or in a vehicle. To reach places that can only be reached by my own locomotion is a way of living an intensified life of discovery and to feel a strong sense of connection with the planet.
Photos courtesy of Kolby Kirk.