Why I quit the CDT, and why I went back | Sonora Pass, CA – Steamboat Springs, CO

For this post I want to talk more about why I quit the CDT and the feelings I’ve had since leaving rather than go into detail about my side trip to the PCT. The Continental Divide Trail is perhaps the most miserable experience I’ve ever put myself through. There is so much unpredictability on the trail that all the plans I had made over the previous winter seemed to turn to shit right from the start. There’s not really one reason as to why I quit, more like a lot of small reasons that built up throughout New Mexico and eventually pushed me over the edge, to the point where I was truly ready to completely give up, and basically did, for a while at least. The first week setting off from the border was nothing like I had expected. It was extremely hot, flat, and lonely. The views were nothing to write home about, and the vision of another AT/PCT-esque experience was quickly shattered. By the time I reached Lordsburg, the reality had set in that this would be a very solitary experience which I thought was for me, but the PCT last year completely changed my reasons for long distance hiking. It became less about me and my desire to get away from everyone, and more about meeting people who make me feel loved that I can live in return. For over 700 miles I hiked alone, camping with Treeman a handful of times but otherwise seeing people only in town and not seeing them nearly long enough to form any lasting relationship. 

Week two, my phone took a dump in the Gila River, leaving me without GPS and no clue where I was going. This was a small and relatively easy problem to fix, but it seemed that the trail was pushing me away just when I was getting into my groove. Week one had given me doubts but by this point I was already ready to quit. This was the beginning of one of my biggest sources of stress on the trail: navigation/keeping my phone charged for gps. I use a solar charger for my phone which I loved on the PCT, but the simple fact is that the divide does not experience the endless sunny skies that the west coast does. After getting back on trail after fixing my phone, it began to be cloudy every day so I was never positive I would be able to keep a charge. As I said above, this eventually became such a huge stressor for me, literally something I would worry about all day every day.

After the Gila River, the storms began. At least one or two in every section. Nasty violent hailstorms and brutal winds are scary when you’re in an exposed area, which is mostly the kind of places you’ll be walking on the CDT. I hiked plenty of days in the rain on the AT, but always under tree cover and there were shelters to seek refuge in when things got really nasty. The PCT spoiled me with only a handful of storms so I had forgotten what it was like to be cold and wet for days. Being alone through all the storms didn’t help, as it’s never as bad when you’re embracing the suck with someone else.

About halfway through New Mexico, snow started to cover all of the high elevation areas. By late April I was already nearing Colorado, which I hadn’t expected to happen so fast. It was a high snow year and while I’m fairly confident in my snow travel abilities doing it alone was not my cup of tea. Finding trail was hard enough when the earth was dry, but in the snow it was nearly impossible. I remember so many days of walking where I was just looking down at my phone trying to stay on track, all while watching the battery slowly deplete with no sunshine to charge from.

North of Ghost Ranch, I had to cross the Rio Vallecentas, an unbelievably swift and deep river. Mid ford, I truly though I would be swept away with no one there to see me go. I really don’t know how I made it across and everyone else I talked to said they crossed on a log that was slippery and wet, not an option for me. This incident really shook me up. I began to fear the trail. Every morning I was scared of what would come, whether it was another river crossing, an unexpected storm, literally every single dangerous scenario went through my mind the days following. The scenery became ten times more gorgeous but the miles much much harder. Snow covered every inch of ground, before I even made it to Colorado.

From Cumbres Pass, the CO border, the trail was headed up to 11,000 feet and wouldn’t descend for many miles. I checked the weather and saw storms all week long, and this was the final straw for me. Over a month of fear, tears, and loneliness all came rushing over me at once and I made the rash decision that there was no way I could possibly do this. I bought a bus ticket back to LA and that was that.

I still had every intention of returning after some snow had melted, but once back in California on the PCT all I could remember was the misery. Whenever someone would ask me how the trail was, the answer was always more or less the same.

“Not Fun like this trail”

“Hard”

“Brutal”

I was hiking with Rocco and Dosu, who made me feel love I craved. Every day was fun, and eventually it seemed ludicrous to go back to that hell of a trail. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again expecting a different result. While climbing Mt. Whitney, I made the decision to quit the CDT for good and hike the PCT again.

Pushing onwards into the Sierra, Rocco bailed and it was Dosu and I with a group of others we had met. The snow conditions quickly became just as gnarly if not more so than Colorado, as California experienced a 200% average snowpack this year. I bailed out with everyone else while Dosu continued on. The rest of us went our separate ways, skipping to different areas or quitting the trail altogether. Once again I was alone. There was no purpose to the trail after skipping a section, and every day the CDT was still on my mind. For weeks I doubted my decision to not go back, and got it into my head that it was impossible to go back and still finish the trail at this point. There were other factors tying me to the PCT as well, mainly being people I wanted to see and one person in particular. 

I got sick north of Sonora Pass and spent four days bedridden with these thoughts on my mind. It would be easy to get back to the CDT from Tahoe, where I was, but still I continued on telling myself it would get better and that I would find purpose. Then, on my third day out from South Lake, I sat down for lunch and said it out loud.

“When I get to Sierra City, I’m going to do whatever i have to do to get back to the CDT.”

I repeated it over and over again. I had told myself this before but not followed through, so from a ridge top I started setting travel plans in stone and announcing my decision to other people. By the time I got to Sierra City, it was in motion. I’m now writing this from a greyhound bus on the way to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I can pick up the trail again. I’ll be skipping basically all of Colorado, but hopefully I’ll have time to return in September and finish the rest of it. Right now all that matters to me is seeing new things and crushing as many CDT miles as I can this year.

Quitting a trail was the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my hiking career, but I think it was a necessary part of my triple crown. I have more clarity and determination than before, and the trail has truly humbled me. After two relatively smooth thru hikes, not finishing the trail never even crossed my mind, but the simple fact is that the Continental Divide Trail is bigger than me. It breaks you down without ever building you up, it leaves you vulnerable and afraid, with no one there to console you but yourself. It is the most miserable trail I’ve ever hiked, and yet still my heart aches to see what’s around the next corner. The trail calls, always and forever. I’m sad to leave the magical place that is the PCT, and extremely sad to have been so close to seeing some people who hold big pieces of my heart, but I know they understand that this is something that I have to do. More than anything the CDT has shown me that I want more than long distance hiking now, but I can’t take my next step in life without doing this first.

In the 700 miles I hiked, I gave it my all. Time to give it even more.

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4 thoughts on “Why I quit the CDT, and why I went back | Sonora Pass, CA – Steamboat Springs, CO

  1. PJ, follow your heart and go crush those miles! Enjoy the highs and lows and be happy. Also maybe an external battery might be Good!

    Like

  2. I don’t think I’ve met you before but my names iceman. I must have been behind you a little ways. I went through something similar this year.

    I ripped the sole of my shoe off halfway through the Gila and used shock cord to get me to Pie town.

    May 14th at Vallecentas was the last straw. Definitely scared me. I had to walk up to the ranch. I made it to chama and booked a flight the next night.

    I jumped on the AT and hiked from Lincoln to katahdin. Told myself I was all set, but bought a ticket last minute to do a little more with the time I have left.

    I’m in silverthorne now. Thanks for posting this.

    Liked by 1 person

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