March 1, 2023 545 PM
This column is part one of a series on public lands in Far West Texas and beyond.
In April of 2021 I tendered my resignation to Davis Mountains State Park after three years as the education and outreach park ranger. I was heeding the call to adventure, and I was plotting a big one. Some months before, I had secured a permit to hike the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, a long-distance hiking trail that travels from the Mexican border to the Canadian border via California, Oregon and Washington. And on May 4 it was go time.
I had just turned 40. I’d been feeling a bit pent up from the pandemic. I knew on a gut level I needed a change. And I had been dreaming of a big thru-hike — a point-to-point journey along a long-distance trail — for over a decade. When you feel your dreams are stalling out, you can either pack them away, or pack a bag.
So I packed a bag. Specifically an ultralight 50-liter backpack from the Austin-based brand Gossamer Gear. Then I hopped on a plane from El Paso to San Diego, took a bus down to the Mexican border, tagged the southern terminus monument just feet from the border wall, and started walking north with two new friends. The journey of a lifetime had begun.
And what a dream it was for those 140 days from May 4 to September 20. To be sure, there were low points sprinkled in along the way. But day in and day out, I traversed the crests of inspired western landscapes with nothing more on my agenda than to hike, drink, eat, sleep and repeat. The SoCal desert, the incredible high country of the Sierra Nevada, the volcanic forested peaks of NorCal and Oregon, and the rugged and super scenic Cascades of Washington, I hiked through it all. Seven national parks. Twenty-five national forests. Fifty-one wilderness areas.
If life gives me just one shot at a long-distance trail, there’s little doubt I chose the right one for me.
Along the way I linked up with two different “tramilies” (groups of friends who form trail families) for hundreds of trail miles each. I met some incredible humans and made some great friends. I popped into trail towns for resupply, fun, rest and recovery. I hiked through an almost perfect weather window for 140 days. All in all, my trek was a dream come true. Well, mostly.
On September 1, I crossed the iconic Bridge of the Gods from Oregon into Washington, entering the third of three states on my northbound journey. It was then that I set a time goal to make it back to Marfa for my favorite annual event in Far West Texas, the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love. But I had a lot of rugged ground to cover to get to Canada: some 512 miles and 111,000 feet of total elevation gain. That’s 21 vertical miles, and I had just 20 days to do it.
So I left my tramily behind and got going. Moving at peak hiking fitness through the rugged Cascades, I averaged 25 miles a day through sunny skies that turned cloudy that turned misty and drizzly that turned into cold hard rain that turned into snow and ice. Everything became soggy and wet and muddy and miserable. I snapped a trekking pole as I slipped down a muddy decline, and that pole was one of just two structural supports for my tent. My sleep pad was completely deflating and my patch kit wasn’t working. I was stuffing everything I could under my flattened sleep pad for insulation from the cold damp ground. The trail gods were testing my physical and mental fortitude in all kinds of ways.
But I was hell-bent for Canada.
On my last full day on trail, the clouds parted, the sun finally came back out, the snow melted away, and I reached the northern terminus of the PCT sitting in the clear cut line of the Canadian border where I did a quick celebration with several other finishers before swiftly making my way home.
I made it back just in time for the Trans-Pecos Festival. It was a celebratory homecoming of sorts for me. And I was riding a high I’d never quite felt.
But once the dust from my hike and the festival settled, I unexpectedly slipped into what many hikers refer to as post-trail depression. When you’re on trail, the feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin are flowing strong. You’re spending all day immersed in nature. You’re falling asleep with the sunset, and waking up with the sunrise while getting some of the best sleep of your life. You’re fostering deep connections with like-minded community. You come to enjoy the lack of connectivity to the outside world, with all its noise and demands and increasing complexity. You’re breathing clean air and getting plenty of sunshine and drinking clean spring water and moving your body for the majority of each day. With every step and every mile and every day you’re making measurable progress. You’re tapping into primal human reward systems. You’re living in your body, but with plenty of time and space to think. You’re experiencing a very strong sense of freedom. You’re checking most all of the boxes of human thriving. It just feels good to be so alive.
And then, when the trail ends, it all comes to a screeching halt.
While settling back in Fort Davis, I was beginning to feel stuck while trying to figure out my next steps in life. I began to sense, to my own surprise, post-trail depression beginning to set in. I’d heard seasoned long-distance hikers reference this condition before, but thought myself to be immune.
It turns out I was dead wrong. And now the only thing I felt pulling me forward at that point in life was, well, more adventure.
After experiencing 2,600 continuous miles of freedom through the vast public lands of those western states, where almost every mountain I saw I was free to climb, a lingering question came to the forefront. Could the limited public lands of Texas still feed my adventurous spirit? After three years in West Texas, how much more was there to explore? Were those truly wild landscapes that first drew me to this region still worth the 2+ hour drives to get there? Or should I stop swimming upstream and relocate to a western state with vast and easily accessible public lands and bigger mountains and endless trail systems with lifetimes of adventure?
Before my hike had ended, I was admittedly on the fence about Texas. Starting the trail, I had a mild case of what I call texhaustion. As manifested politically and culturally, I found that Texas’ values and my values were often at odds. I was considering uprooting to a western state, as many of my native Texan friends have done, so that I could more easily pursue my passions like trail running, backpacking, bouldering and rock climbing, and maybe even pick up some snow sports in the winter. If I found a place I truly loved, I imagined, the other parts of life would fall into place.
But I returned for at least long enough to give Texas one more chance. Could Far West Texas continue to satisfy my outdoorsy wanderlust?
I needed to find out. And with a case of the post-trail blues, I needed a new adventure to help get me out of bed and back on my feet. I needed a long hike across an inspired landscape. Maybe not 2,600 miles, but something like 100 miles would do. And with perfect timing, that next adventure came in the form of an invitation from a fellow Texan hiker named Haiku.
To be continued.
Tyler Priest is a former park ranger who plots adventure by day and bartends by night. He can be reached at [email protected].