‘At the magic touch of the beautiful, the secret chords of our being are awakened; we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognise, stand forth in new glory.’Kakuzõ Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906
4.59 am, August 30, 2018, according to my phone. I leap out of bed. I don’t want to be late for work.
First, I must check my sugar levels. Are they high enough to get to work before I eat breakfast, or must I take corrective action now? I’ve been dealing with diabetes for 27 years. I don’t give the routine much thought, but I must be vigilant. I take a quick lancet prick of my finger for a blood glucose sample. A perfect reading. Great! I can take my morning insulin dose later.
Shower next. Luxuriant and hot, I enjoy the wake-up ritual, but what am I soaping here? On closer inspection, my skin sags with a crêpe paper consistency. Unwanted warts and age spots are multiplying at an alarming rate. Jell-O belly has emerged, and my boobs are fast-moving south. I close my eyes to avert any further icky observations.
Dried and dressed, the tedious makeup routine begins.
Half an hour later, my ‘Nude Smokey Eyes’ is expertly applied. I wonder if they call me ‘Head Lights’ at work, if they notice me at all. Why persist with this routine? Must I keep a youthful facade to guarantee I’m seen and heard? Who am I trying to impress?
I hear Mike stirring in the bedroom.
“Morning, lovely Mu. Happy 58th Birthday!” he chirps.
I had completely forgotten. Maybe on purpose. ‘Age is no barrier, only a number’ is every old bird’s favourite saying, but that’s a bloody big number. It confirms my age in no uncertain terms. I’m convinced age is a disappearing act. My sphere of influence is fast moving from centre stage to the wings. Plenty of life in me yet, but I no longer command people’s attention or interest.
“You’re as beautiful as the day I met you.” Liar. Geez, I shouldn’t be so hard on him. Mike is my best friend. A listening ear, always making me laugh and showing he cares. But his illness, coupled with my diabetes, means our lives are more complicated than most. Fifteen years ago, they diagnosed Mike with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It pains me to see how the disease has aged him beyond his years.
“Must be off. I hope your day is okay, and you don’t get too tired. We’ll celebrate tonight over a quiet meal together.” I give him a peck on the cheek, grab my bag, and rush out the front door.
Leaving the house, I power along in my running shoes. I don’t want to go too fast, or I’ll get too sweaty, but I love the motion of walking. How one foot before the other miraculously transports me to another place, even if today’s destination is only a grotty old suburban railway station. I get there by my own steam and the exercise is invigorating.
The train arrives and I settle into my one-hour commute. As a book sales representative, now is the perfect time to read the latest releases. Today, I don’t fancy reading about other’s adventures. I want my own. Why am I here when work allows me a day off to celebrate my birthday? Am I persisting in showing up to protest my fast-approaching use-by-date? What would I prefer to do?
I know the answer without a second thought—walk. Preferably an exceptionally long way, far from life’s current troubles and distractions. On paths less travelled, with views, a measure of danger, and endless miles to traverse.
I am a serious long-distance hiker and I have completed several lengthy fundraising walks, including the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, the Mudgee2Sydney walk in Australia, the Coast to Coast and Pennine Way in the UK raising over four hundred thousand dollars for MS Research Australia.
I get out my laptop and google ‘Best long-distance walk in the world.’ Answer: ‘PCT.’ Never heard of it.
The PCT stands for the Pacific Crest Trail, I read. The PCT Association (PCTA) says it’s one of the best trail experiences on Earth. It sounds perfect, but where is it?
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 4,300km long-distance hiking and horse trail closely aligned with the highest parts of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, about 160 to 240 km east of the US Pacific coast. The trail’s southern terminus is at Campo by the US border with Mexico, and its northern terminus is near Manning Park in British Columbia on the US–Canada border. It passes through California, Oregon, and Washington states, 25 national forests, seven national parks, and dozens of wilderness areas.
I am mesmerised. Images of mountains, valleys, and rugged terrain leap out of the screen at me. This is engrossing stuff.
“Town Hall Station. Please mind the gap when you alight the train,” the recorded message announces.
Shit! I grab my stuff and run.
My head is spinning with thoughts of the PCT. This walk sounds magnificent. Long distance and outdoors–just what I love. And hardcore. I’m sure I can walk it. The more pain, the better. I need a project that makes me feel alive again.
I grab a coffee and breakfast, ready to start my day. The Pacific Crest Trail still floats through my head: ridgelines, mountains, endless views. The daydream continues. Work and a birthday morning tea do little to distract me. I must investigate further.
I discover most hikers walk the PCT in a northerly direction. They start around April, to avoid the searing summer heat of Southern California’s desert, and walk briskly each day to reach the Northern Terminus Monument and Canadian border before the first snowfall in late September. Six months is a reasonable timeframe in which to complete the trail, but it could take longer.
The first six weeks of the desert section challenge everybody, especially in drought conditions. Reliable water sources from which to filter your water will be scarce as the summer progresses. If streams and springs dry up, you may need to use dubious stock troughs to replenish your supply.
And there are dangerous animals out there that might kill me. I’m used to snakes, so I should be able to handle the rattlesnakes, but I’m not so sure about black bears, coyotes, and mountain lions.
Few bridges exist for raging river crossings. I’m expected to wade through these torrents carrying a backpack weighing 20 kg. Why so heavy? Because this is a self-supported hike. I must carry water, food, a tent, and other provisions on my back for 180 days or more.
Most of the route is in designated wilderness areas, far from towns and cell service. I’ll need a Personal Locator Beacon using GPS to call for help if extreme conditions or injury put my life in danger.
Food resupply is only possible every five to seven days. It can be done in several ways. You can choose smaller towns within hiking distance of the trailheads, or hitch a ride to larger towns with better amenities. I’ve never hitched in my life. Guess there’s always a first time.
This walk is a perfect too-hard-basket challenge wrought with dangers and difficulties. It delivers on solitude and epic scenery. And it will show everyone that older doesn’t mean finished, kaput, hung out to dry. I head out to lunch, flushed with excitement.
As I gnaw on my healthy salad sandwich made with slow-acting low Glycaemic Index (GI) multigrain bread and take a good swig of my ‘No Sugar’ Cola, I stop for a moment. Hey, wait a minute! Am I being too reckless here? My camping skills are non-existent. I have done lots of long-distance walks, but has an older diabetic ever attempted this crazy long-distance hike? I get out my phone and google ‘PCT and type 1 diabetic.’ Answer: FRIO UK website.
FRIO UK produces evaporative cooling wallets for storing sensitive medicines, like insulin, when no refrigeration is available. I get it, but what’s the connection with the PCT?
Tucked away deep in the bowels of their archives is an article – ‘Diabetes in the Wild: Long-distance Hiking as a type 1 Diabetic’– written by Helen Shepherd, a 48-year-old pensions technical adviser from Manchester who plans to take on the PCT in 2019. I want to speak to this woman. She sounds like a real goer. Diabetes won’t stop her from fulfilling her dreams. Sensible, too. She’s taking precautions and has secured FRIO UK’s support.
Suddenly, an idea forms in my mind. Could I hike the PCT with this woman? Can we develop a walking relationship that helps us both? Is Helen the link I need to make this journey happen? I shoot FRIO UK a quick email to put me in contact with her. My lunch break is over, and I head back to my desk. The rest of the afternoon passes by in a blur as my excitement over the PCT grows.
That evening, Mike and I talk. Big party gatherings are uncomfortable for him, so tonight is just the two of us to mark this special occasion.
Dimming the lights, Mike presents me with a small cupcake with a single-lit candle. Not 58, thank God!
“Thanks. This looks scrumptious. I’ll take more insulin to enjoy it guilt-free. What’s a birthday without cake?” I grin.
“How was your day today? Were your co-workers nice to you?”
“Oh, yeh. The usual best wishes.” I pause. “But it got me thinking. Is this my life–safe, sensible, and medically compliant? Bloody boring, eh?”
“You’re getting restless, aren’t you?” Mike gives me a knowing smile.
“Yup. I found a walk that appeals to me. It’s only 4,300 kilometres long.”
Mike looks startled. “What? Wasn’t the 430km Pennine Way last year long enough?”
“I s’pose. I’m upping the challenge. I want to try ten times the distance. It’s called the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT. It runs the full vertical length of America from the Mexican border to Canada.”
“Jesus! I know you can do it, but why, for Christ’s sake? My Multiple Sclerosis is getting to you, isn’t it?” Mike says forlornly.
I take a breath as the words bubble up inside me. “Well, yes and no. Your disease is stifling me, I’ll admit. I see it affects your quality of life and it truly upsets me watching it sap your energy. But I can’t just sit inside all day and watch you rest. You know my diabetes requires the opposite management approach. I must move to avoid long-term complications.” I pause. It is hard to put into words, even to Mike, my best friend and beloved husband of so many years. “And I am feeling my age. I want an adventure to challenge me before the opportunity disappears. This is my last chance to prove I can do something amazing. I want to inspire others whatever their age, sex, or health conditions.”
Mike shakes his head. It baffles him. “But you’ve done that with your earlier walks! Weren’t they enough?”
“No.” I sigh. “None of my friends want to walk with me for miles on end. They’re into more immediate gratification, and most can’t spare the time.”
“Mu, I don’t get it. My illness aside, I just can’t see the appeal of long-distance walking. Why put yourself through this torture?” He rakes his hands through his hair. “Is it like your other walks?”
“Ah, not really.”
Mike’s eyes narrow. “What do you mean?”
I fidget as I answer. “Well, it’s a packhorse trail – lots of different horse trails patched together that are not near any towns. Signage is minimal to give a sense of adventure.”
“A sense of adventure?” Mike’s voice has risen an octave.
I rush on before he says more. “You need a good map, but I won’t be taking a heavy paper one. I’ll rely on my phone and hope it doesn’t die. I’ll be wild camping. Plenty of hikers do it.” I stop talking abruptly. This is enough information for the moment. Black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and treacherous river crossings can wait.
Mike shakes his head again. “Mu, this sounds dangerous. You know I will always support you, but have you given this enough thought?” Absolutely not. I’m a stubborn mule when I set my sights on something.
“Look, I might walk it with another diabetic. I should get a reply from this woman soon. I know this long-distance hike is risky. It will be an enormous challenge, but I’ll be sensible in how I approach it.” I squeeze his hand. “Thanks for a lovely evening and for listening to me. Bet you can’t wait for this birthday to end?”
Mike squeezes my hand back. There’s warmth in his eyes. “No. I know you well. You never cease to amaze me with your antics. Sorry, ambitions.”
“Night, darling. Thank you for listening.” Antics? Outrageous behaviour? He’s not wrong.
The next morning my inbox alerts me to a new email from Helen. That was quick. I devour the contents of this positive and encouraging message. She’s interested to know more about my plans. Plans? What is it then? Hopeful musings from an old woman living vicariously through Helen’s adventure? She’s nine years my junior. Practically a babe in arms. Despite having diabetes, I know she can walk the PCT on her own. I arrange a video call to set things straight.
That weekend, from opposite ends of the world, we finally see one another. She looks prim and proper but relaxed and caring. I love her posh British accent. I must enunciate my words carefully or my Aussie slang will completely bamboozle her.
“When are you starting your hike, Helen?”
“My PCT Permit is approved for a start date of April 28, 2019.”
The PCTA opens 50 long-distance permits per day for the summer months. I could secure one of the remaining 15 spots when the second round of offers begins in mid-January. The PCTA caps permits to protect this pristine wilderness and its wildlife inhabitants from excessive human presence and to avoid hiker bottlenecks forming in small resupply towns along the way.
I sense Helen’s keen interest in me accompanying her on this once-in-a-lifetime journey. She tells me her parents are hesitant about her undertaking the PCT alone. Walking with another woman who understands diabetes could settle their concerns. It’s tempting. A recruit is within her grasp. I bet she wasn’t expecting an Australian woman, past her prime, to consider walking the PCT with her.
“And?” says Mike as he pokes his head into the study. “Should I be concerned?”
I square my shoulders. “Yes, you should. I want to hike the PCT next year.”
He gives me a small smile. “I just knew it. How will I survive without you?”
“Like you always do. With humility, composure, and rest.” I need not ask for Mike’s permission. He’s never squashed my independence and has always supported my wildest dreams. But is it fair to leave him for six months to travel to the US to go hiking in dangerous, unfamiliar backcountry terrain? With a stranger.
I give him a cheeky smirk. He knows any further protests will fall on deaf ears.
Mike places a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll miss you so much.”
I look into his kind, warm eyes. “I know. I’ll come back. I promise.”
The timing is right. I must try the PCT now, while the opportunity exists, or I may never do it. I am comfortable with my decision to leave my husband and our two adult children behind. Its pull is too strong. I want freedom and lasting memories to keep me buoyed when tough times come. Mike will survive my absence. Who knows what is in store for us as his disease progresses?
Helen is ecstatic about my decision. She’s eager to show people what fit diabetics can achieve and has started a fundraising page for Diabetes UK. For simplicity’s sake, I support Diabetes Australia. We could become outstanding role models for those living with diabetes. We aim to show people you can embrace life’s challenges and realise your dreams regardless of the impediments.
It’s time to accept the new me and take pride in my transformation.
I want women, whatever their age, to see the bravery of my actions and have the courage to demand their voice and place in society. I want to encourage them to welcome ageing, the possibilities for regrowth, and explore new opportunities.
Magellan’s trail-wide PCT overview map (PCT Association)
The race has started. Once you commit to this epic journey, it becomes all-encompassing. I secure my six-month US B2 Tourist Visa. The usual ESTA travel authorisation procedure for entering the United States won’t cut it. I’m leaving for a long time.
Now let’s research gear fit for a thru-hiker and purchase away. FOMO is real. I become a gear freak forever fearful of missing out (FOMO). Shamefully, the decision to walk the PCT feeds my hiking gear passion.
I devote every waking moment to finding the best UltraLight (UL) gear. I focus on the ‘Big Three’–my tent, sleep system, and backpack–my heaviest and most expensive items. The only thing that matters is how light I can get my base weight.
Base weight includes everything except food, water, and what you wear. I weigh every item on kitchen scales. Sawing my toothbrush in half reduces its weight by a vital 5 grams. So uncomfortable to hold. Was that necessary?
The lighter your items, the easier the carry, right? Not always the case. I found out the hard way UL backpacks are only suitable if you don’t overload them. I bought a well-reviewed UL backpack from the States, which cannot support my load. On its maiden voyage, I lurch Hunchback-of-Notre-Dame style along my local fire trail. Shoulders scream. I unstrap it and balance it on one shoulder with minimal improvement. Carrying it frontwards, I lose sight of my feet. Juggling it between these various poses, I take ten minutes to cover 100 metres. At this rate, I’m going nowhere fast. I need to buy a heavier pack that will support a heavier load.
This time I am fitted at a reputable Sydney hiking and camping store. They stuff the recommended pack with weights totalling 23kgs. This is my absolute upper carrying limit. Can I carry a suitcase on my back, slapped with a heavy load sticker at check-in, for six whole months? Is it even possible to carry more than a third of my body weight? What was I thinking when I announced I intend to walk the longitudinal length of the United States of America as a self-supported 58-year-old female diabetic? Glutton for punishment comes to mind, but it’s too late to pull out. I have announced my intention to close family and friends. It will embarrass me no end to cancel at this stage.
Perched on a bench at waist height, I back myself into the pack’s shoulder straps as the assistant buckles me in. My day of judgement has arrived. My knees collapse to my ankles. Remarkably, I’m still upright, and the pack is holding the load. My body, by some magical feat of load-bearing ability, is holding the pack. I stomp my way around the store. Two minutes is enough. I leave with a renewed sense of optimism and dread.
I hope to find large boulders on the trail to recreate this easy pack-mount position. Otherwise, there will be wild swinging trajectories to get this MOAP, my ‘Mother of All Packs’, back on my back. The sturdier frame adds 2.5kgs to my base weight, but I now have the right piece of equipment to support my ambitious goal of completing the Pacific Crest Trail.
A steady stream of purchases follows. These range from ridiculous, minuscule amounts of totally unusable hand-rolled Leuko tape to the best lightweight trekking poles ever.
Ultralight gear comes with a hefty price tag, but with no guarantees it will last the journey. Experts recommend investing in good UL gear for heavier crucial pieces, such as your sleeping bag, to make the experience more comfortable. A much-used mantra of the PCT is “Hike your own hike” (HYOH). This applies to hiking alone or choosing to hike with others. It also applies to the gear choices you make, the resupply strategy you adopt, and the direction you go.
Regardless, let it be said, my husband can attest to the sheer delight and enthusiasm I displayed during this purchasing period. The gear junkie in me was having a whole lot of fun. Mike met each purchase with glazed eyes. His disinterest never dampened my enthusiasm to explain every detail of my extensive trial-and-error cull.
Helen, well familiar with the PCT Permit process, ends up securing my permit, with the same start date as hers, when the second round of offers opened on January 14, 2019. It is a free long-distance permit for hikers intending to travel 500 or more miles in a single, continuous trip.
‘The mountains are calling me, and I must go.’John Muir
My air ticket is next, but I have one last logistical matter to sort out: my insulin resupply. Helen has contacted Facebook Trail Angel networks along the entire PCT route to ask if they can babysit hers in their refrigerators until she can collect it. Trail angels (kind residents or past hikers) often set up a marquee near trailheads and feed and rehydrate thru-hikers from the goodness of their hearts. Others, like Helen’s, have kindly agreed to store her insulin.
Although the FRIO UK cooling wallets keep our insulin cool on the trail, non-refrigerated insulin loses its potency, and we can’t carry six months’ worth. I will discard any opened and unused insulin within 28 days, hence the need for Trail Angels to store our excess insulin.
I can’t impose further on those generous souls. Instead of asking six trail angels, I ask Rebecca Corbett, a colleague’s daughter living in Los Angeles, if she’ll store my medication and equipment for the duration of the trail and mail them to a nominated Post Office each month.
“Looks good to me. I can’t see any conflicts with my academic schedule. I’d love to help you. I’d do this hike too if I had the time.”
“Thanks so much, Beck. You are now my official No. 1 trail angel.”
Had my moment and I did it. I have a kindred spirit who understands my passion for long-distance hiking and will help me realise this madcap, harebrained, walking adventure. Once again, I reach out and ask for help. The PCT’s trail magic begins well before I walk a single step.
I buy my ticket, inform work of my plans, and two weeks later I leave the office for an uncertain future. With ageism rife in the workforce and me fast approaching 60 years of age, have I just committed employment suicide? Probably! How many people choose the safe route and sound judgement over following their dreams? Or use health complications as an excuse for not doing something hard? Diabetes is a perfect excuse for not attempting the PCT, but Helen and I can manage it. We’re both fit and healthy and have solved the logistical issues surrounding safe insulin storage.
The night before I leave, I can barely sleep. I’m too excited. A remarkable once-in-a-lifetime experience awaits. I couldn’t be happier.