April Sylva was diagnosed with Stage III malignant melanoma cancer in fall 2012. Three days later, she had surgery. Five days later, she was sitting in a Miami airport on a layover flight to Bermuda for recovery. It was in that airport terminal when Sylva’s life changed.
April Sylva on her first thru-hike of the PCT.
“I was browsing the airport bookstore and picked up the book ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’,” said Sylva, 40, of Glenwood Springs, Colo. “I read the book during my time to go away and heal, and it really resonated with me.”
“I had led a life of self-destruction up until the point I was diagnosed with cancer,” said Sylva.
Sylva ended up quitting her six-figure salary in the oil and gas industry and left everything she knew behind to go hike the PCT.
“When I decided to hike, it was a knee jerk reaction. I had thought about it since that day in 2012,” said Sylva. “It was a real awakening for me, I was confronted with mortality and that made me take an introspective look into my life and where I was in life.”
According to numerous interviews and online sources, a multitude of women are quitting their jobs, leaving their families behind to journey to the southern point of California where they will start a hike they hope will change their lives.
Many have been inspired by a book turned Hollywood blockbuster, that tells the story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail as she recovers from drug addiction, divorce and her mother’s death. Strayed hikes 1,100 miles of the 2,600 mile trail on her own, experiencing bloody feet, bad weather and self-awakening along the way.
Sylva is about to begin her next journey on the Continental Divide Trail this year.
Sylva, like Strayed, had experienced much difficulty in her life. suffered physical and sexual abuse from her guardians through her adolescent and teenage years and as a result, masked the pain through drugs, alcohol and promiscuity. She had no idea what through-hiking was or that the Pacific Crest Trail even existed.
Jack Haskel, a trail information specialist for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, reports that web traffic has increased 300 percent since the release of “Wild”.
There is no concrete evidence to support the idea that more women are hiking the trail alone than ever before but anecdotal evidence does suggest “more women are hiking the trail from fewer than 10 percent of hikers in the past years to 30 percent now,” Haskel said.
The trail features over 2,600 miles of beautiful but rugged terrain, avoiding roads and towns while winding through over 57 major mountain passes including the Sierra Nevada’s and dips down into 19 canyons and runs past more than 1,000 lakes,according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association website.
The PCT also passes through 25 national forests, 48 wilderness areas, four national monuments, six national parks and five state parks.
Some of the most notable and treacherous locations along the trail include Mount Baden Powell, Mount Rainier, the Cascade Locks and the Bridge of the Gods. The challenge these trails presented helped Sylva, and many others, confront the “skeletons in their closets,” Sylva said.
Before Sylva started her journey on April 14, 2014, she had only hiked about 15 miles at most on her prior hiking trips. Once on the trail, she hiked about 25 miles per day. She ‘cowboy camped’ without shelter the majority of the time. Over the length of the trail, she met her now husband and learned how to deal with her rough past.
“The trail brought out everything,” Sylva said. “The further I walked, the further I went in and met all of the skeletons in my closet, so I embraced that and I wrote about the pain I endured my entire life.”
The signed copy of “Wild” from Cheryl Strayed to April Sylva.
“I had a great deal of loss by remaining true to who I am but Cheryl [Strayed] contacted me and followed my journey. She sent me a signed copy [of ‘Wild’] with an eloquent message: ‘Always stay wild and true.’ My mantra on the trail, I had to utilize those words, no matter what people think as long as I am true to who I am.”
To find out more about Sylva’s journey and keep up with her next thru-hike on the Continental Divide Trail check out her blog here.
The novel that chronicled Strayed’s journey down the trail was on the bestseller list for two years before the hit movie was released in December 2014. Reese Witherspoon received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Strayed.
“Wild” isn’t the first movie to inspire the masses to hit the trail. In 1998, author Billy Bryson wrote “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” and created a surge in hiker activity on the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile trail spanning from Georgia to Maine.
“A Walk in the Woods” will be released later this year as the next Hollywood hiking movie, starring Robert Redford as Billy and Nick Nolte as Billy’s friend Katz.
Now the Pacific Crest Trail Association is on the receiving end of what it expects to be a huge influx of people on the trail due to the impact of “Wild” on people’s psyche.
According to the PCTA, the expected swell of interest in the Pacific Crest Trail has prompted a new permit system, which will limit the amount of long-distance hikers, or anyone hiking over 500 miles, to only 50 per day.
“We don’t normally get a lot of calls about the Pacific Crest Trail, but this year I would say our phone calls have increased 75 percent,” said Debbie Goodwin, Vasquez Rocks County Park Recreation service leader. “I expect a big rush in May depending on the weather, if the weather is nice they will come earlier.”
Hikers usually begin in mid-April to avoid the extreme heat of summer in the Mojave Desert, and swollen creeks and snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. However starting too late could mean hitting snow in the Cascades, according to the PCTA website. Typically those who begin in April finish in September, walking over20 miles per day and taking only a few days off to rest and resupply.
Saina Kamula, 29, is about to start her journey on the PCT on April 11.
According to the PCTA website, only 3,346 people have been confirmed to have hiked the entire length of the trail since the first reported finish in the 1950s but that number has been rising each year, even before the premiere of the book and movie.
Saina Kamula, of Santa Clarita Calif., is in the last stages of preparing for what she hopes to be the trip that will realign her life.
“I always thought I would die by the age of 28, don’t ask me why,” said Kamula. “Now I’ve made it to 29, almost 30, and I want to do something to commemorate my own life. I hope it’s healing and I think it will be.”
Kamula, who does the books for a local jeweler, has always been independent. Growing up in
Finland, she moved to the United States in her teens. Next month, Kamula plans to hike the
length of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail on her own.
“I hike solo all the time and I prefer it. I’m an only child and I grew up travelling a lot, I was always the new kid so I became my own best friend and my own enemy,” said Kamula. “I am used to that solitude.”
Kamula has struggled with depression and suicide for years, and hiking is the one thing that calms the world around her, she says. She first read about the Pacific Crest Trail online, and recalls thinking it would be impossible.
“I was doing the prep work and I wanted every book on the Pacific Crest Trail and that’s how I found ‘Wild’,” said Kamula. “I just grabbed it out of many books I boughtat once, I didn’t even know about it, but I was starting to think about hiking and ‘Wild’ just helped.”
Kamula planned to hike the trail last year, but says, “It was not financially realistic,” she is now getting set to begin the trail April 11.
“I feel like I am going in circles from 9 to 5 and the monotony of that, I need to get away for a little while,” she said.
To follow Kamula’s upcoming journey on the PCT you can follow her on Instagram here.
Kali Wooner, 30, from Humboldt County, Calif., is also in the last stages of planning her hike on the PCT this year. She met Kamula online through a Facebook forum for Pacific Crest Trail enthusiasts.
“We met through a group and we are now best friends, I realized I found my flock when I began speaking with people,” said Wooner. “They all have the same dreams as you, are as crazy as you and it’s a really good potential for friendships.”
But her life wasn’t always heading in the direction it is now. Wooner was on track to become a college athlete, until her first game of her senior year.
“I was an athlete in high school getting ready to play college volleyball and the first game of my senior year, I snapped my ankle,” she said. “My athletic career was over. I spent my 20s finishing college at Humboldt State University and I was never really able to feel proud of myself.”
On April 5, Wooner will begin her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail and hopefully into a new chapter of her lives.
“I have spent about three years planning [my hike],” said Wooner. “I got the idea in my head and knew instantly I wasn’t going to do pieces — I am going to do the whole thing.”
Because of her ankle injury Wooner has taken every precaution to stay healthy leading up to her hike, she said. She has re-organized her workout plan from her usual daily five to seven mile run to include yoga, core exercises and leg-strengthening workouts.
“It sucks because none of my pants fit and I had to buy new ones after doing so much leg strength exercises,” she chuckled. “There is quite a feeling of real confidence and freedom that comes with making a decision for your life like this. It made me regain who I was through backpacking and brought me back to who I am and what I stand for and I’m proud of myself again.”
Physical endurance and strength is important to have while hiking the extreme distance but mental toughness can make you or break you on the trail.
“Mentally it’s been a lot of time focusing on what a big thing this is and bringing scenarios up in my mind and asking myself what the best path to take would be,” said Wooner. “Forme, it’s thinking about the different emotions that have come up while backpacking and not letting a negative mentality get in the way, for me that helps a lot.”
After quitting her county job as a dispatcher for a labor union she had family and friends come to her saying “people don’t just quit their jobs with pension and retirement, you are an inspiration.”
Almost all of the young women who have hiked or plan to hike the PCT have had to quit their stable, well-paying jobs in order to make time for the months-long hike. A “through-hike” can cost up to $6,000, according to the PCTA website.
Typically, hikers wear out four or five pairs of trail-running shoes, which are more commonly used now than the boots that Strayed hiked the trail in during the 1990s.
The economic impact of money spent by thousands of trail hikers often creates a burst in the economy in the small towns the trail runs through, and this year will be no different.
“I think the impact will be even more this year just based on the amount of calls we have already gotten,” Goodwin said. “We normally don’t receive as many calls so I think the trail is going to be very busy, typically it’s a couple thousand a year and i think we will see more than that.”
Morgan Diefenbach completed her thru-hike in 2014.
Morgan Diefenbach, a wildlands firefighter from San Bernardino County, Calif., started her hike early in the season on April 5, 2014, on her 26th birthday. Growing up in Pine Valley, Calif., near the jumping off point of the PCT, hiking it had always been on her mind.
“I ended up working in another small hiking town and watching hikers go through until I couldn’t take it anymore, quit my job for the year and went out to do it alone,” she said.
Diefenbach ran into bad weather north of Cascade Locks, Ore., at approximately mile 2,100 which threatened to push her off of the trail and back home.
“I was soaked, my gear was soaked. It had rained three days in a row and I was miserable,” said Diefenbach. “I thought to myself, if I leave the trail here I don’t know if I can make myself come back.”
Alone with no internet or cell connection and having just left a town she had no way of looking at a forecast. After almost quitting the trail, she refocused and got back on track.
“Until you’re out there and hiking, it’s hard to imagine hiking that many miles all day, every day, over and over again,” said Diefenbach.“I felt like quitting my job and everybody knowing why I did it […] there was a little more on the line for me. That part made it easier to stay out there.”
Though “Wild” does portray what trail life is like — dirty, difficult and dangerous — it’s unlike actually experiencing it firsthand.
“I did come across some lightning-caused fires,” said Diefenbach. “I didn’t have to fight fires but at one point I actually poured the last of my water on a small fire that was by the trail. It didn’t do much, it was in a tree and everything was falling off but I couldn’t reach the top where the main fire was, I had coordinates and happened to meet a ranger a few hours later and she was able to radio it in.”
Strayed has now inspired hundreds to go out and find themselves on the trail, but in the end it all comes down to mental toughness and the will to keep going.
“The most amazing part was the last two days of the trail knowing I had come so far on my own and gone through everything I had gone through to get there and that knowing almost nothing could stop me.” said Deifenbach.
Strayed, Sylva and Deifenbach hiked the trail mostly solo, and many women are following in their footsteps.
“I think it’s an accomplishment to hike it alone,” said Goodwin. “It’s not an easy hike, and to have no one to hike with to share water with is hard. I think some of it is pride and also there’s a little romance to it.”
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