On April 25 I left Vancouver, Canada by train and went to my cousin’s place in San Jose. I shipped all my gear to my cousin’s because there was no need to pay international shipping and duties. It was the first time I bought ultralight gear, and it was very different from what I used before. All my previous experience was with mountaineering gear which is heavier and sturdier. I didn't have time to test any of my gear before the trail so I had a steep learning curve ahead of me.
On April 28 I landed in San Diego airport and waited for trail angels Scout and Frodo to pick me up. Trail Angel’ing was a new concept to me, I had no idea what to expect but wanted to stay open minded. At their home I met fellow hikers, received tips and tricks on gear usage, pack shakedowns, and everything else I needed to make the experience ahead of me pleasant. It’s not easy taking care of so many hikers, but only after a couple of days at their well-organized home I marveled at their passion and willingness to help hikers like me.
The night before I began my hike, we all gathered to hear an informative talk from our trail angels Scout and Frodo. Being successful thru-hikers themselves, they wanted us to learn about Leave No Trace, trail ethics, the importance of community, and how to be safe out there.
On April 30, they dropped me off at the southern terminus and bid goodbye. I figured it would be the last time I saw them. I thanked them for everything they did, snapped a picture of the southern terminus, took a deep breath and began my journey of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
For the next five months, a total of 152 days, I hiked from Mexico to Canada. In doing so, I realized we have the power to choose the way we spend time on trail by hiking in groups or hiking alone. For the first couple weeks I hiked alone. I kept running into the same hikers and eventually they became my friends. I was introduced to a new lifestyle, one that made me forget about the latest fashion trends and embrace the dirt - A style famously known as Hiker trash.
I know people from different countries come to hike the PCT every year but I was amazed at the diversity I saw. Out of curiosity, I wondered if there were other hikers from India. I, not so surprisingly, discovered I was the only guy hiking the PCT this year. This did not make me feel proud, it inspired me to encourage the Indian community living in the US and abroad to create their own opportunities in the outdoors. Through my social media, I tried to convey that America is not just about big cities and money making, it has a great wealth of natural resources conserved and protected in the form of national parks and national forests.
The longer I spent on trail the more I saw my perspective on life shift as I kept having new experiences and several firsts. Hitchhiking into towns, relying on the kindness of strangers, consecutively hiking long days on big blisters, having beer for breakfast, eating the same couscous dinner every night, not taking a shower for 12 days, and in a broader scale living like a homeless man out of my backpack for 5 full months! Every experience out there was new to me, which deepened my understanding of self in this world.
Southern California is the only section where I ran into hundreds of hikers and trail angels. I consider this part the honeymoon phase of the trail. Everything was new and the excitement caused by the novelty of the experiences left me in a constant dopamine high. Though this section is considered the driest and hottest part of the PCT, 2019 was a wet and heavy snow year. Most streams that usually end up dry still had some water left late into May. Everything in life has its pros and cons. As the desert seemed to have more water, the Sierras had a lot more snow.
Even before I planned this hike, I realized I had an unconditional love towards big mountains covered in lots of snow. This love made my experience even more exciting. After reaching Kennedy meadows, the end of dessert and the beginning of the Sierras, most hikers I knew were planning to flip the Sierras. Some planned to go up to the Oregon border and start hiking down, others planned to go to the Canadian border and hike down. I had no such thoughts but I was seriously re-thinking the usage of ultralight gear in the snow capped mountains and the consequences of hiking the passes in trail running shoes.
The day I left Kennedy meadows and entered the south Sierra National Forest, I noticed the sudden change of scenery from desert cactus to greenery, big trees and snow capped mountains. It was a refreshing feeling, the sudden change in my surroundings in just a single day. It was like I entered a different country, the Sierras were the most wild, remote and adventurous section of the trail. 500 miles of pure bliss, crossing mountain passes, fording rivers and staying conscious of bears by putting away all the food in the bear box at least 200 feet away from tents, something that would never be experienced elsewhere on trail.
Though my daily mileage had significantly dropped down in this section, I was still able to face all the hard challenges and help others along the way. Leaving Kennedy meadows I was part of a group that was willing to hike the Sierras together and out of them I was the most experienced. Some of them had never used an ice axe or microspikes before! It was a pleasure to lead them up passes and help them build confidence in steep terrain. That’s also how I realized I enjoyed leading others in the mountains.
When there were no more big passes to climb and no more glaciated rivers to ford, it occurred to me the Sierras had come to an end. It was a great feeling of accomplishment along with a sense of angst knowing that the true adventure is over. Northern California was a mere walk on the trail even though there was significant altitude gain and drop. This section was the most challenging mentally. Maybe because there was no dopamine hits from fording a river, no pleasure hormones triggered from climbing a mountain pass and maybe because it’s been more than 3 months and I was still in California.
It was a great sense of relief reaching the Oregon border. Morale went up knowing I was done with all the difficult sections of the trail and the race to Canada had begun. I started hiking big mile days, sunrise to sunset and a few days I hiked late into the night as well. On one of my night hikes, I ran into a mountain lion near Crater Lake and felt lucky to come out alive. Overall, Oregon was a cruise.
Washington had entirely different plans. The day I walked past Cascade locks was the day it started to rain. It literally poured on us every single day and that’s when I recognized how reliable my gear was. I happened to run into a snow storm and hiked to Canada through it, I was approaching the end. I Pitched my tent in adverse conditions for a few days straight. It left me impressed how strong it held against the extreme winds. My biggest concern in Washington was the safety of my camera. It being not so weather-proof or waterproof, I always had to keep it safe from the elements inside my backpack. I knew the arc-blast was waterproof but I had my doubts until I hiked in Washington’s rain. Not a single day did my camera get wet and that kept my stress levels really low.
On September 28, amidst a snowstorm I made it to the northern terminus in Canada.
One saying I ingrained in my mind before I began the hike was “never quit on a bad day”. It would be a lie to say every day was a good day. Though I don’t like to get philosophical about what is good and bad, there were days that felt like a roller coaster ride, not just physically but emotionally as well.
I remember one day in particular waking up completely wet from pouring rain and running low on water. I realized that I underestimated the importance of carrying enough water. Luckily fellow thru-hikers shared some water with me. I had already been struggling with shin splints and once I made it to the saddle top where we could technically hitch a ride to the town, I saw that I had to go another 5 miles to the road. It felt like an eternity while I limped down the mountain. I cursed myself for not being smart about the water and my shins. It started to get late and my worries of not finding a ride skyrocketed. As soon as I made it to the road, a fellow thru-hiker’s boyfriend was waiting with some goodies and hitched us into town. As soon as I made it to the town, I got a message from another hiker asking me if I wanted a room to stay. Without any effort, I found an Airbnb to stay for a cheap price where the owner did my laundry. That night I sat in a Jacuzzi unable to comprehend how my day began and how it ended. It was all so unreal.
There were countless experiences similar to the above being on the trail. One moment it felt like things went sideways totally out of control and the next moment it all made sense. It felt like the universe unfolded itself in-front of my eyes. I had experienced how chaos and comfort go hand-in-hand. I call this momentum generated by hiking – ecstatic rapture of being on the trail.
Today I look back at the experiences knowing I still need to process them. My mental memory bank was written with petabytes of data where it might take a few months to go through it all. I still remember sitting at the 1000 miles mark and the halfway point where I was asked if I felt any different. I surely didn’t at that time and thought I might at the end of the trail. Nevertheless, at the end of the trail, I was truly grateful for something that happened in my past, rejection.
After I finished my undergraduate studies in India, I wanted to pursue masters in USA. So, I followed the visa procedure only to find out that I have been denied entry into US because I looked like a potential immigrant. My visa was refused 5 times in total. Only after moving to Canada, in my 6th attempt, after speaking French and proving established ties with Canada, I was granted access into the United States. This rejection was the greatest gift in my life. Though it was painful at that time, I was glad my visa wasn’t approved. I was glad that I lost the opportunity to pursue a masters of engineering in USA, I was glad that the life I dreamt 8 years back remained a dream.
I believe I got to hike the PCT and fall in love with the American Wilderness, spend so much of my time without worrying about H1B (work visa) extensions and meet amazing people, be part of an incredible community and experience something life changing was only because of the rejection. Back then, I hated the officer who rejected my visa. But standing at the northern terminus, I just couldn’t thank him enough for what he did. Without that decision I probably wouldn’t get the opportunity to hike across the greatest empire in the history of human civilization and I probably wouldn’t be writing about it.
Gratitude is the biggest lesson I learned on trail. I am thankful for everything that happened in my past, thankful for everything that I experienced on trail, the relationships I built with others and of all, I am thankful for having the opportunity to share my experience.
About the Author
Karthikeya “Gulliver” Nadendla successfully completed the PCT on September 28, 2019. He is originally from India but immigrated to Canada to earn his masters degree. After completing the PCT he returned to India to encourage his community to explore the outdoors.