Jean Hacquart, a Salomon employee, thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the western United States, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. It took him three and a half months to hike almost 4,300 kilometers and climb 147,000 meters in elevation. This is a short story from a book he wrote about his adventure.
It’s February of 2016 and it’s snowing hard here in Chamonix tonight. I’m lying in my bed, turning nervously. It’s 3 a.m. and I should be sleeping, but my mind is far away from the Alps. I can’t stop thinking about the fact that three months from now, I’ll be under a tent at night, in the middle of nowhere, alone in the Mojave Desert, surrounded by noises I don’t know among new landscapes. There might even be a few rattlesnakes saying hi from time to time.
For the last four months, I’ve been planning my project to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the western United States, and the trip is fast-approaching. I’m three months from landing in San Diego. I’ve spent countless hours choosing the best departure date, learning the climate specificities of each region and gone online to compare every tent that has ever been made. I even learned the imperial system, which might have been the hardest part of my trip.
I’ve been training, too. Nearly every day, I’ve been hiking, running or ski-touring—all with the Mont Blanc watching over me. I’ve also discovered what stretching and muscle building meant. Every morning and every night, I’ve forced myself to follow a specific routine in order to be in perfect shape on May 13th, the day I would be standing on the border of Mexico and the U.S. I’ve also prepared my mind for the low days. How will I react when I want to quit? What will help me find the courage to do an extra mile when I’m out of water?
Some days it seems that I have lived this entire experience before I’ve actually hit the trail: my biggest fears, my doubts, my joys. In the end, all I would have to do is to put one foot in front of the other for 4,300 kilometers to arrive at the Canadian border. Seems simple enough.
IT'S EARLY SEPTEMBER OF 2016, and I’m back in the French Alps, where I grew up. My trip is in the rearview mirror, but the images are fresh in my mind. My famous countryman Charles Baudelaire once wrote: “What good is it to accomplish projects, when the project itself is enjoyment enough?”
Now that I’m back from my trip, I can say in response to Mr. Baudelaire that even if the project itself is a great enjoyment, it’s not exactly enough. Along my journey, I encountered situations and feelings I had never imagined. How could I forget the chilly wind caressing my skin in the morning light of the Sierra Nevada, with the noise of the spring water flooding in the streams?
Or that night in the Mojave when, at 4 a.m., I was fully awake after turning hundreds of times in my sleeping bag. It was a restless night because of strong winds. My tent was bending in the dark. It leaned on me, but somehow stayed up. It was so strange to feel powerless against the force of nature, while at the same time feeling absolute comfort below this little piece of fabric.
There was that morning in the Sierra Nevada when I started walking at 5:20 a.m. so I could reach the base of Mount Whitney early. I was hiking for two hours when, suddenly, after a left turn on the trail, I faced a misty meadow where two deer were wandering along the river against a backdrop of snowy peaks. At that moment I wished I had the literary talent of Jack London or Henry David Thoreau to adequately describe what was right in front of me. No modern technology could fully transcribe what I was feeling in that instance. It was quite frustrating at first, but then reassuring. I was the only one who was able to experience this state of mind and it will be entrenched in my memory for a lifetime. Nobody can take it from me.
I remember another time when I was hiking by night to avoid the intense heat of the desert. I had walked more than 60 km and had 40 more to go before the next spring. Mice were running through my legs, scared by the beam of light coming from my headlamp. I was dried out by the hot wind and exhausted when I found a small, flat nook. I stopped and I laid down on the sand, protected from the wind by a giant cactus. Even today, I still wonder how I gathered enough energy to wake up after three hours of sleep and continue to go forward through the night.
So what did I take from three and a half months of placing one foot in front of the other? The lesson I’ve learned is to always have projects. Always, always, always. Short term, long term, professional, personal, ambitious, small, hard, easy… it doesn’t matter. What counts is to have plans. Even if they are humble.
And this is what I love so much about hiking—age is not a factor and neither are strength and speed. Hiking competitions do not exist. You can be eight years old or 75 and hike the PCT. I know this because I’ve met both. They might not have been as fast as me, but who really cares? All you need to do is grab a pair of shoes and go outside. For me, it’s one of the most beautiful gifts life has to offer.
So, what’s your project?