Lawrence native Lindsey Freitag stood amid the scrubby brush of the Southern California desert, a wall marking the Mexican border behind her. She only had the clothes she wore and a 12-pound backpack full of gear, food and water. She took one step north, then another, embarking on a journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. She didn’t know how long she’d last.
Five months later, on Sept. 8, Freitag arrived at the trail’s northern terminus beyond the Canadian border. Along the way, she endured slogs through record snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas, smoke and ash from wildfires in Oregon and Washington, bears, rattlesnakes, marmots and, at times, spotty water supply.
“At first, it was unreal,” Freitag said. “I had this image of me there at this wooden monument at the end. And then I was there. I was like, ‘This isn’t real.’ It slowly started to sink in that I did this. This is something I wanted to do for four or five years. And I did it…To do that in this year is especially crazy. It was this overwhelming sense of accomplishment and disbelief that this happened. It was cool.”
According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, 5,251 people have completed the trail since records start in 1952. So far, 350 people have reported finishing the entire trail this year.
Pacific Crest Trail Association spokesman Jack Haskel said it is still too early to finalize 2017 completion numbers, but trail conditions made finishing the hike this year a “remarkable” feat. Permit numbers are also unofficial, but an informal count showed the PCTA issued more permits this year than last—meaning one of the lowest completion percentages in PCT history. In 2016, 711 of the 3,164 people who started the trail finished.
The PCT spans 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. It starts near Campo, California, and ends on the U.S. border at E.C. Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada. The trail crosses 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks and four national monuments.
Hiking the trail has spiked in popularity since 2012, when Cheryl Strayed published a memoir, Wild, about her experiences on the PCT. The book later inspired a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. The book and movie increased Freitag’s awareness of the PCT, but she had been building up to hiking the trail for much of her life.
Freitag, 22, grew up in Lawrence, attending township public schools. She would often explore the Mercer Meadows area by her childhood home with her older brother, Brian. The park and trail system there hadn’t been developed yet, allowing Freitag to become acquainted with wilderness. Brian was a Boy Scout, and would often camp. He passed along his old gear to Freitag, who also had a passion for the outdoors.
At Lawrence High School, Freitag belonged to the field hockey, swimming and girls’ lacrosse teams. She kept busy in school activities, but never stopped hiking and camping.
After receiving her driver’s license, she recruited field hockey teammates to do an overnight backpacking trip in the Delaware Water Gap. There, the group met an older woman attempting to complete the Georgia-to-Maine route on the Appalachian Trail. The woman told the girls about long-distance hiking. Her stories hooked Freitag.
“That kind of sparked the idea,” Freitag said. “I guess it’s been brewing for awhile. I thought it sounded so cool to go out for months and live with the stuff in your bag.”
After graduating from Lawrence High School in 2013, she went on to the University of Vermont. She graduated from Vermont in fall 2016 with a degree in environmental studies, but gained much more than a degree. In New England, she fell even more in love with the outdoors and began getting into more intense hiking, as well as climbing and biking. She also learned, during a conversation with her roommate freshman year, about a border-to-border trek on the West Coast called the Pacific Crest Trail. The conversation convinced Freitag to switch her sights from the Appalachian Trail to the PCT.
She took her first long-term hike a year later when, as a sophomore, she did a field semester in Moab, Utah. The class spent two months backpacking, hiking with their professors and carrying their textbooks and two weeks worth of food on their backs. In addition to academic subjects, Freitag also learned navigation and canyoneering skills. The hikes often had the students walking off-trail, through brush and rivers.
Then, two summers ago, Freitag interned in the Inyo National Forest in California. There, she section hiked the entire John Muir Trail, a 210-mile path through the Sierra Nevada mountains. She also hiked to the summit of Mount Whitney, which at 14,505 feet, is the tallest peak in the contiguous United States.
The experiences led her to believe she was ready for the PCT.
Freitag planned on going alone. About two months before starting, a former professor from Vermont emailed her, asking if she still planned on hiking the PCT. She was, and the professor—a professional photographer—asked Freitag if she’d consider pushing her start date up a few weeks so they could begin the trail together. The photographer needed someone to help carry camera equipment.
She agreed, and Freitag started in April among the first batch of PCT completion hikers in Campo. The early start wound up serving her well, as much of the snow and some of the smaller river crossings in the Sierra Nevadas were still frozen when she arrived there in early June. It created treacherous but slightly less dangerous conditions than faced by those who came later, many of whom reported avalanches, slippery terrain and chin-high water in the rivers. Freitag also later wound up ahead of many of the trail closures that came as a result of large forest fires that struck the Pacific Northwest in July and August.
Freitag hiked with the professor for three weeks before splitting off. Then, for the remainder of the trip, she joined with groups she met along the way. She hiked with two brothers from Germany for a month and a half, and hiked the last two months with another group she encountered on the trail.
Each day, Freitag hiked between 15 and 35 miles, depending on conditions. The first 700 miles of the trail are in the desert of Southern California, and there, she’d hike 20-25 miles each day, stopping to camp near water. In one stretch, there were 24 miles between water sources.
“Your whole day was around where the water is and camping near the water so you don’t have to carry dinner water….Sometimes it was like a cattle trough that you’re scooping it out of and pouring it in,” Freitag said. “And you’re thinking, ‘All right, this is going to taste bad, but it’s the only water for 15 miles in either direction.’”
Then, almost overnight, the environment morphed from the desert into the high altitudes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Freitag said she hiked through snow for a month straight, often at the plodding pace of a mile an hour. She had to start hiking at 4 a.m. to ensure solid ground; the sun would heat and melt the snowpack, creating suncups and other dangers.
She also had her mother, Susan, mail out an ice ax and metal crampons so Freitag could ensure optimal traction in the snow. Hikers on the PCT often hitchhike into towns near the trail once a week in order to receive packages, food and supplies they or someone else has sent ahead for them. Freitag said she would carry about five-days’ worth of food at one time, and restock food and supplies with boxes she had planned out prior to her trip.
It turned out the crampons and ice ax were necessary tools, as the trails were covered in snow, and hikers often had to kick their steps into high snowpack. She set out each morning ready to turn around or quit if the conditions became too dangerous. Freitag said the hiking was “brutal,” and her pace slowed to about 17 miles per day.
“It turned from a hiking trip to a low-key mountaineering trip for about a month,” Freitag said. “It was a lot going on with the environmental conditions. It was like survival. It was awesome. Frozen boots in the morning, hiking through snow all day. Being miserable but also loving it.”
Flat terrain in Oregon allowed Freitag to speed up to 30-35 miles per day, but Washington State presented the most difficult hiking sections, with lots of elevation gain. Wildfires complicated the trip through both states, with Freitag and her companions at times literally outrunning the fires.
“We were getting rained on by ash,” Freitag said. “You’re coming out, and then you hear they’re closing that section; we’re the last people through. That was our story going through.
“Washington was one of the hardest sections because it was so steep. It’s up or down. There’s no flat. That was tough when you’re scaling up three, four thousand feet, and it’s just smoky. You’re like, ‘I probably shouldn’t be hiking in this.’”
But she persevered, and arrived at the end of the trail on Sept. 8. Then—after taking photos with the marker, an American flag and a Canadian flag—she continued on for another 7-mile hike to a ski resort in British Columbia where she could catch a bus back to the United States.
In early October, a month after finishing, Freitag felt as if she was still recovering from her hike and adjusting back to life. In five months, she had slept in a bed only a couple of nights. She only had one pair of shorts. She only packed one shirt, of which the back completely disintegrated from friction with her backpack. She slept and hiked in the same clothes for the entire hike.
Off the trail, there are more amenities, but life’s also more complicated.
“That became your life—hiking with this close group, and there’s not too many people,” Freitag said. “And [now] there’s so many people, so much going on. It’s sensory overload. You have to adjust back, which I think is still kind of happening. I’ve come to terms with it now. It’s almost like a dream that this thing happened. This is normal life again. It’s weird.”