Pete Brook is an independent writer who covered his Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike for Outside Magazine last summer. Along the way, Pete documented his experience through a handful of articles, and more closely through his social media. Pete’s honest take on the hike ran counter to the overly romantic versions of outdoor pursuits that have emerged in recent years. I sat down with him to talk about all things PCT, social media in the outdoors, and much more.
What was the inspiration for the hike?
I did it to take a break; to do the opposite of sitting in front of a screen for 10 hours a day. That urge is not novel and the idea doesn’t deserve any applause. Being able to make time for the hike, and finishing it, is something to feel good about. But I’m under no illusions, I’m greatly privileged both in terms of time and resources. I’m a freelancer, financially stable, and without any family or responsibilities to maintain. Not a lot of people have that liberty.
From the very beginning, you approached this hike with a certain sort of apprehension, calling your documentation an “honest view of the PCT.” Can you speak to that?
I wondered beforehand what I would do as far as documenting the hike. In the beginning I thought I would just go without a phone, and be invisible. After some deliberation I realized I wanted to be able to text my friends, stay in touch with family, and to ultimately document the hike. From there I just wanted to show people a different way of seeing the PCT. For example, when I photographed the water sources, I wanted to show how hikers can go 20-25 miles between water sources, especially in Southern California.
A big thing I did was the sketches. Little landscapes that I would see. A lot of people have since asked me about the sketches and what I want to do with them, more than the pictures I took. I think there was some personal investment that people appreciated. The sketches were different interpretations of the landscape, rather than photos everyone has already seen.
The American West has been photographed to death. Photography played a key part in establishing our nation-state narrative about the west, wilderness, and Manifest Destiny. I write about photography for a living, and I thought it was kind of an easy gesture to repeat the same documentation. So I came up with the the series on water-sources, on ordinary landscapes from where I took my morning dump, and the sketches. That isn’t to say that different ways of documenting the hike, or the outdoors, are bad. I don’t judge the way anyone has captured his or her hike, I just had my own way of doing it.
You wrote about wanting to get away from your computer screen. What did that reality feel like?
It’s a big privilege, and I kind of wish to dispel the romanticism that goes with the PCT. Of course it’s amazing, of course you’re totally immersing yourself in nature, but it’s not like anyone can just get up and go. It’s not an easy undertaking.
“You’re very much living in your body and you’re very aware of living in reaction to your body. Your priorities are simple things: making sure you have food, water, and shelter.”
In general, to be away from the screen is to live a very different type of reality. But, after a couple of weeks, your body is used to getting up and walking, and it becomes a very different way to experience time.
Do you see any conflict with the fact that you wanted to do this hike to get away from the screens in your life, but you also heavily documented your hike?
I had these dreams before the hike that I would ditch the phone entirely, but I had to be realistic. I decided that it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. It was a deliberate choice to use the Halfmile App, to have email in towns, and to keep in contact with people. That choice to share photos and words with people was something I did deliberately.
What I realized about the desire to get away from being in front of the screen, was that it was really about not being in front of a desk. I came to a place where I felt comfortable, going on my phone every once in a while to share the hike with people was something I wanted to be doing. I was invested in sharing the journey.
How do you think social media plays into the outdoors?
The thing about social media is that it’s presented as if it’s off the cuff, as if it’s effortless, but the design and intent behind it is often larger and more thought out than is evident. There’s a reason a lot of the photographs of the outdoors on Instagram look the same. As consumers we have subconsciously agreed which photos do really well and secure likes and comments. So we are going to continue posting over-exposed landscapes with symmetrical composition, or pics of the bow of a boat, or a figure at water’s edge, dead center. The trends are easy, but inescapable. However, I don’t want to come over as negative, I think of these photos as waypoints on a shared learning curve. Just because something is easy or common doesn’t make it bad, it’s just easy and common.
You’ve written about the damage being done to the trail from the increased traffic. What do you think the future of the trail is?
I think it’s going to be okay, I’ll say that first.
There are more people living in the world, there are more people living on the West Coast of America, and ultimately there are more people who want to take on the challenge. The PCT has only been formalized since 1993, so we’re not even 25 years into it. When people think back to the days when there were only a few hundred people on the trail, those were the early days, those weren’t the norm. I think the massive spike in PCT hikers we’ve seen in the past decade will plateau. Now, the question is how we manage 3,000 people on the trail each year, and it really comes down to the hikers to treat it respectfully. Most hikers who I met were very respectful and followed Leave No Trace principles.
You seem to swear by Altra. Do you think they are the ultimate thru-hike shoe?
Honestly, I have to say yes and no. Of the four pairs of shoes I wore on the hike, two were Altras. They were my best pair and my worst. The first lasted more than 900 miles, the second was less robust. The majority of hikers tried Altras during the hike at some point. Some liked them and some didn’t. A large number of hikers did end up wearing Altras from beginning to end. But, I find that it’s almost pointless to recommend shoes because everyone’s feet are different, so you have no idea what’s going to work for everyone. I will say, Altra is honest, they’re ingenious with the design, and they don’t claim to work for everyone, but they do work for so many.
If you could tell the general public, or people going into the PCT, what they need to know about the PCT, what would it be?
Not just for thru-hiking, but backpacking generally, no matter how shitty the weather gets, how sick of the food you get, whatever you’re feeling, you’re only feeling it right then and there. The good part might just be over the next pass, the next hour, or the next day. Embrace the fact that the suffering is temporary. One more thing, never ever underestimate what your body can do. The human body is capable of some pretty miraculous things. My body changed so much over the course of the hike and just knowing how hard I could push myself was liberating.
What were your biggest takeaways from the hike? Were they different from what you thought they’d be?
The biggest take away was that people are good, people are generous. Every town, every community you go through, the locals know who you are and they’re happy to see you. There are so many trail angels, so many people offering rides, to put hikers up for the night. Some people even offer to pay for hikers’ food or supplies. The amount of support and generosity was outstanding. That to me was far more amazing than any nebulous idea, or ideal, of nature. There is no way hikers could do the PCT without the generosity of non-hikers. As much as I thought the PCT would be a nature experience, it ended up being just as much a social experience. It was more about people for me.