In seventy one days I hiked over 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the border of Mexico to just below Lake Tahoe in California. After two and half months in the wilderness, Tanner drove 12 hours from Portland to pick me up and take me home. I still planned on finishing the PCT, but I had a different adventure to complete before that could happen.
Last year I signed up on a trip abroad to hike 100 miles around the highest peak in western Europe: Mont Blanc. We would hike through France, Italy and Switzerland in a classic route around the beautiful Alps mountain range. Along with a crew of ten other girls, one man, five guides and two photographers, this would be my new trail home for the next fourteen days. Though I would still be hiking, it would be a much different experience than on the PCT. Instead of a 35 pound pack, I would only be carrying a small daypack. Instead of processed trail food, we would daily indulge in fresh fruits, meats, cheeses, and french bread. Instead of hiking 15-20 miles per day, we would be doing 7-12. And instead of sleeping in a tent each night, we would spend our evenings in adorable European towns along the trail in quaint auberges and huts.
It was quite a culture shock, in more ways than one. Our first few days on trail I was still in PCT hiking mode, my brain expecting long days, a fast pace, and rigorous terrain. While the terrain of the Mt. Blanc range was, indeed, quite steep, the pace was anything but quick and the days were anything but long. At first it frustrated me, for two months on trail had ingrained a certain mindset in me: hike more miles, hike more miles... and this was clearly not the objective here, for we had two weeks to do 100 miles, almost double the time it usually took me to hike as far. But soon this new lifestyle settled into my bones, and I learned to relax and enjoy the lazy pace, the bright, interesting European cultures, the feel of the French language on my tongue again, the delightful company of my new hiking mates (who were not worn and weary by weeks and weeks of walking through the desert and mountains), and most of all, the stunningly beautiful views of the Alps each day.
Each morning we awoke in our small villages, dressed for the day, packed our lunches (Salads! Fruits! Meats! Cheeses!) and shuttled to the trailhead where we walked until late afternoon through rolling hillsides, mountain vistas, and past cow pastures, listening to the tinkling sound of cowbells like wind chimes in the breeze. We took long lunches beside rivers and found our favorite break activity was to go "hut spotting." Europeans love building small huts - called "bivouacs" or "refuges" - high up on the granite cliffs of the mountains so that mountaineers can have shelter when they climb the peaks of the Alps. These huts are so high up and so tiny that it seems nearly impossible that such structures could be built there - or even reached on foot. But we loved spending hours looking through binoculars trying to spot them all, clinging mightily to each rock face.
In the evenings one of our guides would pick us up and shuttle us to a new town, with beautiful names like Chamonix, or Courmayeur, or Martigny. We socialized with the local people, explored the towns, tasted the local cheeses such as beaufort and serac and raclette.
We laughed and enjoyed life and woke up again the next day to continue our journey through one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world.
And most of all, I learned to slow down. Instead of hurry, hurry, hurry through the miles, I learned to soak in the views, to enjoy the journey, and to love hiking again. There were many days on the PCT when this was a hard thing to remember. I learned not only to slow down on the trail, but also in life. One of my favorite evenings along my journey was a night spent in La Fouly, Switzerland. We were having a group dinner of raclette, a kind of fondue meal served with platters of cheese and potatoes. It was a very social kind of dinner, one that is common to the French and Swiss people. Our long table consisted of 19 people crowded around it, laughing and talking all night as we passed around plates of food, told jokes, and conversed in a harmonizing mix of French, English and Italian. The warmth of the evening felt like a family reunion, and I realized what a traditional and special way of eating this was for Europeans.
At one point in the evening I looked over at the table next to us and saw a young couple having dinner together. Their plates were full of half-eaten food, and both of them were highly engrossed in their phones, so much so that they barely looked at each other all meal. And this, I realized, was the trouble with America today. We are so connected to our media and our online social lives that we barely remember what it is to have dinner with each other anymore. But the French remember. And this is what life should be: friends and family laughing and talking over good food and wine, for nothing fills your soul so well as this.
It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to my new friends after two weeks, but all journeys must come to an end. And for me, I still had many more adventures to come. Only a few more days and I will be back in a world of thru-hiking, carrying a 30 pound pack along dusty trails and making my way ever north to Canada.