You may be wondering why it took me so long to write this post. My solo backpacking trip of the West Coast Trail was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I just wasn’t quite ready to unpack and put it away emotionally. Now that the end of summer is upon us, and I’ve had several other adventures to boot, I’m ready.
In the days leading up to my trip, I picked through all my gear to make sure I had everything I needed and wanted for me to have a safe, solo backpacking experience. Once all my gear was planned out, I thought about the one thing I wanted to bring that can’t be packed: my intentions for the experience.
I thought long and hard about what I wanted to get out of it. I wanted to push myself a little physically, and even had a plan to do the entire trail in 3 days, but I didn’t want to push myself so much that I couldn’t stop, reflect and appreciate everything the trail has to offer. I planned to wear a necklace with a totem to remind me of my intentions. I have a number of pendants each symbolizing different mental states, but I ended up settling on a pendant of a sea turtle that I bought in Mexico (which I'm wearing in the photo on the right). The turtle is a symbol of luck, protection, but most importantly for this particular trip, self-pacing. Even though I wanted to push myself and make good time, I didn’t want to miss any of the main attractions or side trail experiences the trail has to offer. And with the turtle on my neck and my best intentions in place, I set off on the trail.
Alone But Not Isolated
The biggest difference between my solo trek of the West Coast Trail and my one of the Howe Sound Crest Trail last year, was that I didn’t feel so isolated. I had been under the mistaken impression that the HSCT was drew similar crowds as the WCT. It was only when I was out there on the HSCT, alone in the woods, out of water, not having seen anyone for hours, struggling to find parts of the trail and racing the light to get to the campground (and water source) before dusk, did I realize my mistake. While I did have cell reception up until my Magnesia Meadows, I didn’t see any other hikers on the trail from the Lions until an hour or so from the end of my hike, including my overnight stay in the camp area.
The WCT, on the other hand, was the opposite experience. I felt supported from start to finish, from the orientation detailing various rules and safety procedures, to the two ferry crossings and a wonderful meal made with love by the friendly staff at the Crab Shack at Nitinaht Narrows. And even though I spent many hours hiking alone, I knew that I would pass someone at some point and that there would be people at the various camp areas with whom I could share a fire and a chat. I never felt on high alert like I did on the HSCT. I felt safe even though I travelled solo, making it easier to go inside my own head, allowing for a more insightful introspective experience in the moment.
There Is Only You
I travelled through the forest a while, alone, pondering my experience of the trail, eventually coming to spot overlooking the sea. Having not seen anyone for a while, I had was feeling introspective, thinking about old friends, ancient experiences in my life and just about my timeline of existence. As I looked out onto the endlessness of the sea and sky and where they met on the horizon, I came to realize a deeper meaning to a poem I had written years ago, about a time when stared out at the ocean while living in Japan. Here is that poem:
Here in the place
where sea meets sky
and endlessness collides,
there is only,
When you spend time in nature in solitude, like I was doing on the West Coast Trail, you can delve deep into your relationship with existence. It can be simultaneously lonely and enriching. You realize both how deeply alone you are in how you relate to the world, while at the same time realizing that no matter how alone you are in a moment you are completely connected to everything. The sea and the sky are like the timeline of your life, your past and your future, both stretching out seemingly endlessly. Where they connect on the horizon is the present moment, the life you are currently living, infinitesimally small next to the vastness surrounding it.
The loneliness of existence as you experience your life is a perfect metaphor for one’s experience of the West Coast Trail. Whether you hike it by yourself or with a partner/group, you are alone in how you experience it. Your wants, your needs, your cares, your worries, your joy, your pain is all yours and yours alone. These are the things you choose to carry with you as you hike mile after mile. They can bog you down or they can lighten your load.
Balancing Hardship and Beauty
The West Coast Trail, like life, will push you and test your limits. The challenges are numerous and can take on different forms, whether it’s making your way up a 25-30 story set of ladders with a heavy pack, picking up your pace so you can hike on the beach at low tide, being alone on the trail when spotting fresh cougar tracks, or simply dealing with the constant wetness and sloppy mud that comes from a relentless rain. Sometimes you face these challenges gracefully with a smile and a sense of humour. Sometimes you start belting out a song you got stuck in your head. In my case, it was “I Want It that Way” by the Backstreet Boys, thanks to an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine I had watched recently (see the video below for this hilarious scene). And other times, you string together a series of swear words and other expletives, like when I realized I had lost my only spoon at the start of my trip.
Even if you’re going through these things with other people, your physical, mental and emotional resilience and the way you apply them will take you on your own unique personal journey that will stay with you for a lifetime. And through all the hard times, you will still have at least as many (if not more) moments of beauty that will balance it all out and make the whole experience so very worthwhile. If anything, the difficulties you face, make the trail’s beauty that much more impactful. Please check out my YouTube video overview of my experience of the trail:
For more details about my solo ultralight backpacking trip on the West Coast Trail, check out the following posts:
2019 Ultralight Backpacking Gear List for the West Coast Trail (And Beyond!) Coastal Hiking Bliss: Solo Backpacking the West Coast Trail in 3 Days - Part 1 Coastal Hiking Bliss: Solo Backpacking the West Coast Trail in 3 Days - Part 2 Coastal Hiking Bliss: Solo Backpacking the West Coast Trail in 3 Days - Part 3
Have you hiked the West Coast Trail? What reflections do you have about your experience? Please share your thoughts in the comments.