Katherine “Willie” Baals

How’s your hike going? We wanted to know. Katherine Baals taking a few minutes of downtime in Hikertown. Photos by Sam Morse

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: This feature is presented by our partners at Arrowhead Water.

Most people will never hike 517 miles in a single push. Beyond the physical challenges, it’s equally, if not more, mentally taxing. Surprisingly, 517 miles is only 20 percent of the distance needed to complete the Pacific Crest Trail. That’s a significant number of steps!

To understand what hiking 517 miles feels like, with over 2,000 miles remaining, I visited Hikertown, situated 30 miles west of Lancaster, California, in the Southern California desert. Hikertown, a collection of shabby trailers, huts, and decrepit structures, lies directly on the PCT, making it a natural rest stop for weary hikers nearing the iconic Sierra range to the north.

Despite the mileage, injuries, and grime accumulated from weeks of walking, the hikers I met radiated the thrill of being in the middle of an adventure of a lifetime. Their trail vibe — the excitement of an ongoing epic journey — was intoxicating and contagious. It made me want to quit my job and start walking.

During my visit to Hikertown, I sat down with these intrepid, weary, and enthusiastic hikers to discuss sacrifice, life and death, and the experience of staying open to a world of constant change and transformation. These are their stories, lived one step at a time.

Virginia “Flaps” Brown

Photo courtesy Virginia Brown

Virginia “Flaps” Brown

Age: 35
Home: Toronto
Occupation: ER Doctor

Sacrifices to hike PCT: The biggest thing that I’m sacrificing is time … time is a finite resource. I’ve been walking for a month and a half and I’ll probably be spending another four months walking. I’m also giving up six months of work — luckily I have a stable career, but six months of income, it’s not nothing. 

Feeling: There’ve been ups and downs. Today I had some real food, so I feel pretty good. Yesterday was more challenging. I’ve learned that things change quickly. Nothing is permanent. The other night I had a shit night’s sleep, after walking 30 miles — the wind almost knocked my tent over. I slept two hours the whole night. I felt pretty defeated. 

I also learned that two of my good friends are ending their hike due to injury, so that also bums me out. But food and a shower can change your perspective pretty quickly! Nothing lasts forever, especially your emotions. 

Highest moment: Summiting San Jacinto Mountain, which is in the first 200 miles of the trail. I was worried about it, following a very snowy path, trees down on the trail, wayfinding through the snow, and lots of challenges I hadn’t faced yet. Yeah, to know that despite those challenges, I made it to the top — I felt really proud of that. 

Lowest moment: I got norovirus. I got into town feeling pretty unwell. Vomited a couple of times. A really lovely hostel let me stay and made me soup. I was better within 24 hours or so, but it was really rough to be that sick and be away from home.

Excited for: The Sierra Nevada is a really iconic part of the PCT. There’s some big passes and the opportunity to climb Mount Whitney. It’ll be physically really, really challenging, but also really stunning and rewarding. And I’m excited to get out of the SoCal desert section and move on. I’m excited to see how I grow and change. 

Kyle “Huck Finn” Stranahan

Kyle “Huck Finn” Stranahan

Age: 37
Home: Florida
Occupation: Veteran, student

Sacrifices to hike PCT: I gave up having my own place. And I gave up having a phone for a while. It actually felt good. Just not looking at a phone all the time. It forces you to connect with people and be more present. To save money, I moved back in with my parents for a year or two.

Feeling: Really good. Just happy to be in nature. It makes me feel stress-free and the happiest that I am in my life. We’re one with nature and when we put ourselves in these boxes, It just doesn’t jive with our spirit and our soul.

Highest moment: Deep Creek hot springs was legendary. It was in the middle of nowhere. It felt so good on all the sore muscles and bones and everything to just soak in the mineral rich hot water — it was almost like a hot tub and then you could jump into the cold river right next to it. I stayed there for hours and hours — then I left after a squirrel ate a hole in my backpack.

Lowest moment: I would say the other day when I realized that my tent zipper was broken.

Excited for: I’m excited about the unknown. I didn’t research this trail intentionally. I wanted each day to be an adventure without expectations — just to be surprised by everything. The unknown fosters a sense of openness. 

Sandyann “Snowdancer” Ducarm

Sandyann “Snowdancer” Ducarm

Age: 62
Home: California
Occupation: Retired, Software consultant

Sacrifices to hike PCT: Time with my grandson. Just spending time with him. Not being able to see him except on zoom. That’s the biggest thing. He’s almost two. Also, not spending time with my daughters. I text them every morning when I’m on trail and at camp.

Feeling: I’m feeling really good. I mean, I have probably the same aches and pains as most people have. When I first started this trail, I wasn’t even sure I’d make it through the first three days. But I’m pretty much keeping up with most of the people, I feel good.

Emotionally? It’s been more of a challenge. There were a couple days coming out of Big Bear where I actually had a moment where I’m like: What the F am I doing out here? I’m alone. I don’t have any friends out here. I miss my peeps.

Highest moment: For me, the highest point is reconnecting with people I’ve met on the trail, and thinking, like: Oh my god, there you are! Yeah, it’s exceptional. A real high point, reconnecting with people — and it just kind of builds that relationship even more.

Lowest moment: It’s the anonymity of it all where people don’t know you and they don’t know who you are as a person and what you’ve accomplished. And all of a sudden you’re just this random person hiking. Simultaneously, you’ve developed these connections with people, but then they move on and you’re like: Oh, I’m alone again. But that’s the whole point of being alone, right?

Excited for: I’m excited for the Sierra. Why? Because it’s going home. I love the mountains. I love being above the tree line. The granite, just all kinds of things. Listening to the pikas. I’m excited to be going home to the Sierra.

Katherine “Willie” Baals

Katherine “Willie” Baals

Age: 32
Home: Seattle
Occupation: “Recovering” attorney

Sacrifices to hike PCT: I think the two things that stand out to me: Giving up the idea of what you’re supposed to do in your early 30s, in terms of career-wise, right? It’s a weird time. I think at my age, I’m 32, women will take six months away to have a child, start raising a family. I don’t know anyone else in my real life at home that will take six months to do something less important than that. Also, I’m sacrificing time with my dog — that’s something major that I’m giving up, six months without my dog, it’s killing me.

Feeling: You know, I’ve prepared for this, trained for this physically. Mentally, I feel like I just turned a corner and I’m now excited about the trail, but the desert was really tough. Emotionally, I mean it’s been 500+ miles, today’s day 30 for me. That’s enough time for me to settle in and get past the: “What is this weird thru hiking thing that I’m doing?” It’s enough time to let go of my inhibitions. I’m just being weird and I’m just having fun. And I don’t feel any fear of judging my own self-doubt. I’m just being weird and having a great fucking time.

Highest moment: There’s a very famous McDonald’s in the middle of the desert. The walk there is so hot. You get there. There’s an ice cream machine. You see all your friends. You have ice. It’s amazing. So I trekked 13 miles into that McDonald’s and hung out there for about five hours.

Lowest moment: I was camping at an RV campsite on a Friday night and was trying to  go to bed at 7 p.m., just exhausted and done. But the RV next to us was not going to bed at 7. It’s like 10ish, and they’re bumping! And I’m sitting in my tent crying because I’m just so tired. I just want to go to sleep! Trail rules don’t apply to everybody else in the real world. But I was just so tired. 

Excited for: Mountains. I’m excited for the craggy peaks. I’m excited to keep hanging out with everybody. This community is amazing and I don’t know if there’s any cooler or more authentic people than who you meet out here. You’re in a context where you get to be really genuine. Everyone’s got everyone’s back, I could go up to literally anyone for help. They’re just fun, happy, cool people in a fun, happy cool context.

Rami “Sunfish” Rogers

Rami “Sunfish” Rogers

Age: 31
Home: Petaluma, California
Occupation: ICU Nurse

Sacrifices to hike PCT: A big thing is just sacrificing your normal life. Some people are getting married, and life goes on without you, and you have to be willing to take a step back from your normal life and be like: Okay, I’m just gonna put all of that on hold. 

I had to step away from a job that I liked and gave up my apartment. So I’m now virtually homeless and unemployed. I had to put all of that on the back burner and accept that when I come back, my friends will still be my friends, my family will still be my family — and just hit the trail.

Feeling: I’m feeling great — it really feels like the journey’s underway now. For the first few days it didn’t quite feel real. This is something that I thought about and planned for almost a year and often flirted with the idea for much longer. And now, 500 miles into the journey, it’s hit the point where it’s like: I’m actually doing this — some of it’s behind me!

Highest moment: One of our first big expansive vistas of the trail, looking for a 100 miles and seeing all these mountains, like, holy shit! Yeah and another thing, yesterday was a 33-mile day. Before I started the trail, I was like, there’s no way my body can handle that. Then yesterday it was like: Yeah, not that bad. Just seeing what I’m capable of and how my body’s changing to meet those expectations.

Lowest moment: 3 a.m. and my tent’s getting blown down by the wind. It was rainy and I had to go out at three in the morning to re-stake my tent, and I had a cold, so I was coughing. I was wet. And my tent was wet. Everything was wet and getting blown away.

Excited for: Everything that’s yet to come. We’re 20 percent done, that means we’ve got 80 percent of the trail left, another 2,000 miles left to walk. I can’t wait to see the terrain and ecosystems changing. I’m really stoked to hit the Sierras and start going into the high alpine environment and moving out of the desert and seeing that transition over the next few weeks!

Nicole “Neo” Kepron

Nicole “Neo” Kepron

Age: 30
Home: Maine
Occupation: Artist/glass blower

Sacrifices to hike PCT: I was living with my parents, to save money. I love spending time with them, but it can get hard, not having your own place, feeling like you’re stagnating — focusing on making money instead of actually forwarding any sort of career.

Feeling: I don’t cry easily but I have a protruding disk in my lower back that I’ve had since 2018. So I’ve lived with chronic pain before, and exactly a week ago, I tweaked my back going downhill. So a big reason why I’m in Hikertown is to have that looked at. I’ve spent the last week thinking to myself, what if I can’t continue on?

Highest moment: There’ve been so many moments that are awesome. You feel those highs each day, just being out in nature and seeing a certain plant or seeing a certain animal and feeling absolutely ecstatic to be alive in that moment.

Lowest moment: Two days ago. I was trying to catch up with Tramily [trail family] up ahead, lots of wonderful people. And I realized I wasn’t gonna be able to do it with the back pain. Then I spent the whole day wondering if I’ll have to quit. And I just went down a mental spiral. A real sense of loss. I’ve already been hiking with some other fantastic people, but yeah, it does feel like losing people.

Excited for: I am looking forward to continuing on — really looking forward to Washington because I spent four years living in Seattle. I’m also looking forward to spending a lot of time with the people I’ve been hiking with. Losing the first Tramily was painful. Having the possibility of losing a second Tramily — do I want to go through that again? 

Duston “Dustbunny” Johnson

Duston “Dustbunny” Johnson

Age: 30
Home: Pendleton, Indiana
Occupation: Veteran, student

Sacrifices to hike PCT: I feel like I’ve gained way more than what I’ve sacrificed as far as my leisurely comforts and stuff like that. Just time with family. And mainly just comfort stuff. But giving up those comforts has definitely built character. I feel like it’s helped me appreciate things more and have a better understanding. Like: What do I need versus what do I want? I’ve been learning patience. 

Feeling: I feel great. I’m really enjoying God’s creation, stuff like that. I feel like I’m seeing everything has its purpose and I’m surrounded by great people. I feel very comfortable and enjoy being in this community and talking with others and learning about other cultures.

Highest moment: I really liked jumping into Holcomb Creek. It was pretty cold, and I felt like a lot of the inflammation stuff I was dealing with resolved after that. And then, I got to talk with my dad and had a high moment on trail when we discussed him maybe coming to hike a section with me. Maybe around like Crater Lake or something? Even just a little section together — just a couple miles enjoying nature — could really do something meaningful and have a huge impact on our relationship. 

Lowest moment: My grandma died while I was on trail. She had a stroke. I immediately made arrangements to get off trail, but I didn’t make it in time to see her. So I went, but I didn’t know what to do. It took me a while to register. My mom told me: “Finish what you started.” My Grandma went through a lot of suffering because she had colon cancer. I’m just happy that she’s in a better place now. There’s no more suffering.

Excited for: North Cascades, for sure. I’m excited for the future and hanging out with friends out here and seeing what comes next. Every day is something new, meeting new people and I thank God I’m able to be in this position to enjoy it. This is the highlight of my life.


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