On the Pacific Crest Trail with Writer Pete Brook

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

Diptych

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. 

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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. 


To keep up with Pete, check out his site, where he cov­ers pri­mar­i­ly pris­ons and pho­tog­ra­phy.