How Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail With My Husband Changed Our Relationship

What six months of nothing but nature and your spouse is really like.

Updated 08/29/17

Courtesy of Liz Susong

Day 77: Every day out here pretty much goes like this: wake up, hike uphill several thousand feet, lose all feeling in your legs as you cross a river barefoot, risk your life crossing a river over some shitty log, summit a pass, risk your life trying to climb down the other side, which is inevitably covered with varying degrees of slushy snow, stumble across loose rocks, find a stunning lake and cry at its beauty, repeat.

In 2016, my husband, Adam, and I quit our jobs, sold everything, and bought one-way tickets to San Diego, carrying 12-pound backpacks with enough gear to sustain ourselves for the next six months as we attempted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Thru-hiking was one of Adam’s long-held dreams (turned reality), and it’s a dream that vastly impacted more than three years of our lives, early into our marriage.

While this adventure sounds like the plot of a whimsical Lumineers music video, the preparations alone were enormously stressful. The pressure to save enough money to live on for a year or more cast a shadow over our young marriage and ended in frequent arguments that were mostly associated with my anxiety about leaving my company, Catalyst Wed Co. and my lack of desire to check out of society for six months. But I didn’t want to be left behind, either. I’d miss him, he’d have a life-changing experience without me, or worse...he could change.

But then the time came. We were in San Diego for one night, surrounded by 20 other hiker hopefuls, and instead of getting to know anyone, I locked myself in a room where I could frantically answer last-minute emails and tie up as many loose ends as possible before embarking into the desert. The next morning, we woke before daylight, and volunteers drove us to the trailhead. They snapped a photo of us, wished us luck, and drove away. And there we were: the Mexican border at our backs and hot, rolling brown dirt stretched out before us — 2,650 miles of trail ahead that we had committed to walk.

I’ll always remember that first hundred feet; I felt like I was walking on the moon, venturing into the unknown. Here was this person that I had committed my life to, and now I was following him into the wilderness. I was filled with anticipation, giddy that we were really going off the grid, and almost immediately physically uncomfortable.

Day 38: Thru-hiking can be monotonous, is chock-full of physical discomfort, and it pushes one to her physical/emotional (what's the difference?) edge. In summary, I am not pleasant. I am irritable. Someone asked me if I've had any great thoughts on the trail, and I said, “nope, but I'm sure aware of my shortcomings!” Luckily, Adam is on cloud nine regardless of the conditions we hike in, making him a patient saint in response to my toddler-esque emotional capacity.

Have you ever exercised all day, every day, and worn the same clothes for a week or more without a shower? It’s sick. My feet ached, I smelled terrible, I was constantly sticky, mosquitoes swarmed, and I’ll never again be okay with the taste of dehydrated onions. I complained a lot, annoying even myself. When I wanted to feel at one with nature, I often just felt sarcastic or negative. No amount of walking uphill made me feel at peace with walking uphill. But I also laughed a lot, napped under trees, hitchhiked as a primary means of transportation into towns, and met amazing people.

What I find amazing about life on the trail is how little and how much happen simultaneously. I’d fall behind on my journal for weeks and easily be able to recall the details of every day because each day contained its own world, its own distinct flavors. And yet, hours would pass in silence as we walked uphill and downhill without access to the news or social media or podcasts — the biggest events of the day involved meals, bathroom breaks, and choosing a spot for the tent at night.

Courtesy of Liz Susong

But the nothingness of it all was a sort of magic. It created space to sort through head trash, navigate hard relationship discussions that had been tabled for too long, and to just be together, looking out on a picturesque landscape after a long day, eating tasteless food and feeling content. So many people we met on the trail made sarcastic comments about whether we’d still be married at the end of the trail, but I don’t think there was a time before or since when we felt our lives sync up in the effortless harmony of coexistence.

Day 114: I felt acutely aware of what I was giving up: precious time with Adam without any distractions — no jobs, no screens, nothing. This had been an incredible four months for the two of us, and I felt deeply bonded to Adam, suddenly fearing the loss of this bond once we were back in the stress and bustle of society. I knew we would always look back on this as one of our greatest adventures and a highlight of our relationship. Did I really want to cut that time short?

In July, I took a week off trail to get Volume Three of Catalyst Wedding magazine to print. I was back in my element, working with words and ideas, typing furiously on my laptop in bed while sipping coffee and occasionally gazing out the window to collect my thoughts.

The first day back on the trail, my mind was racing with new thoughts about the direction of Catalyst; I chattered all day to Adam, feeling revived with fresh energy. The second day, I had run out of new information, so I dealt with the resulting mental low by running down my precious phone battery all morning listening to an audio book. And it was at lunch that day that a realization struck me like a lightning bolt: I wasn’t in the right place anymore. I involuntarily teared up. "I think my time on the trail has come to an end," I told Adam.

But he already knew. He was affirming, encouraging me to go dive into Catalyst. I felt so much love for him and gratitude that he knew it was the right choice for me, but I also felt sad. Somehow the end had caught me by surprise.

I learned a lot about marriage from the PCT. I learned that time together is precious and that time away from phones is just better. I learned to slow down a little, to accept help, to offer more grace. And I learned how conflicting it can feel to support your partner’s dreams while still fighting for your own.

A year later, I’m still processing it all. It’s not something that can be neatly packaged and tied up with a bow. It feels impossible to quantify how this experience changed our marriage, especially since we are just now beginning to piece our life back together. But I can say that we have an unspoken understanding of each other, one that developed in part from extended time together outside of society, but more so it is the result of weathering many changes together, trusting each other, and learning how to make space for each other’s big, big dreams.

The risks we took by choosing this winding path — both for our relationship and for the course of our life — were worth it because I can say we are really living. Being open to life’s many possibilities and surprises is not something that comes completely naturally to me; rather, it’s the pleasant outcome of taking a chance and going off-script.

If you and your partner are considering a thru-hike and want to know more, you can read Liz & Adam’s daily journal, Mountains and Mantras.

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