A Tale of Two Trails

If after reading Wild you feel inspired to go on a long hike, you may find yourself pondering the differences between the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). While Cheryl Strayed (the author of Wild) traveled the PCT, the AT is another great option for anyone looking to complete a long hike. In 1968, the National Trails System Act became law and made the AT and PCT its first two trails. While these two trails have a lot in common, they have many things that make them unique.

The Appalachian Trail is 2,190 miles long and goes through fourteen states. Those who choose to hike its length will cross through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Thousands attempt a thru-hike each year, but only about one in four complete that journey. A typical hiker takes about five to seven months to hike the entire trail.

The Pacific Crest Trail is the longer of the two trails, spanning 2,650 miles. It runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border, going through California, Oregon, and Washington. Although an especially athletic hiker can make it in 100 days, a more typical hike takes five to six months. Considering all expenses, many find that this journey costs them $4000-$8000, depending on how their money is spent. Some spend even more if medical emergencies arise or if they choose expensive lodging along the way.

Unique Qualities of the Trails

There are many things that makes the Appalachian Trail unique. Although it is nearly as long as the PCT, some of its conditions make it easier to traverse. While a hike of this magnitude still requires training, hikers on the AT will find 250 shelters along the trail. These shelters are available on a first come, first serve basis and allow extra protection from the elements. Hikers on the AT also only need to carry food and supplies for three to six days at a time, since there are towns to get supplies in frequently along the trail. Despite being the older of the two trails, the AT had the more modern website. The website also appeared to have many articles that tried to appeal to a broader audience with the trail’s more modern feel.

The Pacific Crest Trail also has things that make it stand apart from other trails. While many may see the modernity and conveniences of the AT appealing, the design of the PCT is intentional. They have intentionally limited the number of signs to only include signs at junctions and every couple of miles so that hikers will have a true wilderness experience on their thru-hikes. Unlike the AT, which is for walkers only, the PCT allows its visitors to ride the trail on horseback. For some, the highlight of this trail is being able to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the United States. Despite this trail’s rural charm, there are places to restock along the way. Some who have taken their phones with them even claim to have reception along about 70% of the trail.

Similarities between the Trails

The websites for the AT and the PCT (where I got all of my information) make special note of being sure that those who want to do something special for hikers Leave No Trace. When a person does something kind for a hiker, it is called “trail magic” and that person is called a “trail angel.” While these people often set up at trail heads and prepare meals or offer showers and shelter, some have begun to leave coolers with food in them along the trail. Both the AT and PCT websites asked that trail angels not do this, as it leads to litter problems when animals get into them. Those who wish to do something kind for hikers are encouraged to do so in person. Hikers are also encouraged to use judgement when accepting things from strangers.

In addition to this similar culture of kindness with trail magic and trail angels, the two trails have other major similarities. They are both long trails that span multiple states. Despite their different hiking experiences and climates, they also have a similar hiking time for the average person. A hiker who plans to hike either of these two trails will need to plan their hike and prepare by getting their supplies, training their bodies, and making sure loved ones know where they are and when to expect to hear from them. While the AT does not require as many permits as the PCT, some permits are needed for some camping sites. Any hiker planning a trip of this magnitude will likely spend more time planning than hiking.


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In her memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed shares about the grief that drove her to hike about a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail despite the fact she had no prior backpacking experience. Her words bring to life the pain, adventure, and surprises she experienced during this very difficult time in her life.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Despite the fact Cheryl’s friends and family may have seen her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail as a hasty one, the events that led her to doing so had been brewing for a long time. Her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died shortly thereafter. Filled with grief, Cheryl did what she could to alleviate the pain, indulging in affairs. After confessing her affairs to her husband, they separated. She moved in with a drug addicted boyfriend, got pregnant, had an abortion, and finalized her divorce from her husband.

“Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was.”

Cheryl Strayed

Despite all this, she and her husband parted ways amicably as she left to go hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She began her three month journey realizing her backpack was too heavy for her to lift. Cheryl found many kind strangers along her journey who offered her help and advice. One man helped her lighten her bag, getting rid of unnecessary items, while others provided her with food and shelter. While a few people along they way did not treat her as well, she found an overwhelming amount of kindness on the Pacific Crest Trail. By the end of her journey, Cheryl found that her body was stronger physically and she had some time to process her grief.

Cheryl’s grief drove her to drastic action.

Cheryl was so consumed by the grief she felt from the loss of her mother that it drove her to act out in ways that many of us may only think about acting when faced with grief. She indulged in pleasure and drugs to try to drown the pain. When new relationships did not satisfy her, she tried moving away and getting a fresh start. None of that was enough to dull the grief that engulfed her, so Cheryl decided to get away from everything and hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

Cheryl’s trip to the Pacific Crest Trial was not the day after her mother’s death. But after four years of heavy grieving with seemingly no progress, she knew she needed to do something. She saved money, planned her stops, and decided when she would go. In her imagination, she hoped she would have alone time to look out on the serene landscapes and reflect. In reality, she was focused on survival. Despite this unexpected difference between her imagination and reality, she gained a lot of self-confidence along the way.

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.”

Cheryl Strayed

We can be inspired by her drastic action.

There were a lot of things I did not like about Cheryl Strayed and this book. I could have done without all of the language. Her life choices ranged from creepy to questionable. However, I admire the fact that she knew she needed to make a change in order to get out of the deep grief she was facing.

When we are faced with grief, stories like this one may inspire us to take drastic action. Perhaps we shouldn’t run off to the Pacific Crest Trial, but maybe some other action is needed after a loss. With the consultation of those we trust, making those changes may be exactly what we need to move forward.

Quick Review:

While I really enjoyed the story, I am finding it hard to wholeheartedly recommend this book because I did not feel emotionally invested in Cheryl Strayed. I have read books about people who have done far worse things, but the flippant way she approached her past mistakes rattled me. Her extreme use of profanity was off-putting. Despite these things, the story was very engaging and her writing was otherwise excellent.


Have you taken a drastic action during a difficult time in your life? Feel free to share in the comments below!