Call of the Wild

How a Barnard alumna turned her wanderlust into social activism

By Aliza Goldberg '14

Even in the worst of times, when I woke up groggy because my own shivering body kept jolting me awake or my knees buckled from dehydration or the chafing on my thighs was so raw I had to waddle down the trail, I still felt eager to see what would happen next.

The routine of thru-hiking is rather predictable, but the moments of each day are thrilling. Sometimes the most gorgeous views of a vast valley come simply from turning a corner or when thick forest coverage disappears. Sometimes you wake up in snow, and by the afternoon have descended so far down a mountain that you end up walking in hot sand or through giant fern fronds. I miss the simplicity of that life, where every flower is special and every pebble surprising.

I had known about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) since 2017, when a friend walked the first 200 miles as her spring vacation. At the time, I did not think about thru-hiking for myself. I enjoyed the occasional day hike in the summer, but had little experience with camping. I do not regard myself as an athlete. I am also professionally ambitious and thought it was reckless for anyone to abandon a career path.

In November 2018, I began reading about the “refugee caravan”: the 2,500-mile journey undertaken by Central American refugees from San Pedro Sula in Honduras to Tijuana in Mexico. Thousands of men, women, and children were walking this distance because they had no other choice. Walking was their best option at a better life.

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Day 57-62, mile 639.8-865.5: We are back to the “normalcy” of trail walking. No more detours, no more navigating through white masses of snow that obscure the trail. The terrain is kinder, but we still have battles to fight: muggy and sticky afternoons, clouds of mosquitoes biting through my clothing and undeterred by deet, ant colonies crawling into our tent to bite us and swarm our belongings, river crossings to splash through, and, of course, snow.

Day 93-98, mile 1,374.3-1,521.8: The terrain was a vibrant green, like a rainforest. We walked through meadows of flowers. The foliage was so lush sometimes it surrounded us completely, towering over the trail. That vitality could only mean one thing: rain. We were often wet, either from precipitation, dew, or fog. Some days the sun never came out, so we never really woke up. Some nights we crawled into damp sleeping bags in damp tents, our efforts to dry out our gear proving futile in such feeble sunshine.

Day 136-139, mile 2,124.4-2,216: The section felt very remote and wild, with nonplussed elk and deer eating alongside us and sniffing our tent at night.

Day 132-135, mile 2,054-2,124.4: In the valleys, purple and orange wildflowers danced in the strong winds. The dozens of lakes in Desolation Wilderness mirrored the surrounding rocks and mountains in such detail, creating optical illusions and doubling the beauty.

Day 132-135, mile 2,054-2,124.4: The area was a stark contrast to the forests I was used to. I had to concentrate fully on my feet to make sure I didn’t trip on the loose rocks. Sometimes the trail became a series of stone slabs and boulders, like a staircase for giants, which was cumbersome for my short legs.

Day 8-12, mile 109.5-179.4: We are still waiting for the day without challenges. ... Each day is harder than the last, in surprising ways. The desert is not a scorching desolate place but rather filled with characters and switchbacks.

Day 145-148, mile 2,297.2-2,381.1: There isn’t much time to pat yourself on the back on the PCT — you stop to admire the view and catch your breath, then keep walking. The beauty of your surroundings takes your breath away figuratively, so it’s all about balance.

Day 63-67, mile 865.5-953.2: Bending down to filter water from steamy bug-infested ponds felt like an impossible endeavor, so I had no water to drink. By the time I got to Old Station, I was vomiting from dehydration, heat exhaustion, deet poisoning, or a fun combo. One of the locals of this tiny town gave me saltines and ice water.

Day 21-25, mile 266.1-369.3: The daily mileage is getting bigger and the sights more and more strange. In some moments, we are wading through river crossing after river crossing. In others, screaming wind threatens to knock us off a mountain ridge. We no longer have cell service or meet anyone without a ludicrous trail name, so each paved road or other reminder of civilization shocks us.

Day 78-85, mile 1,080.4-1,210.9: There should be more words for snow. There’s the sharp frosty snow of morning that gives a satisfying crunch. There’s the soft snow that you slip on constantly. There’s the afternoon slush that you plunge through toward the hidden rocks and dirt below. There are the mounds of icy snow, piled high and sporadically. There are the long stretches of flat white, difficult to navigate through but easier to walk over. Walking on snow means wet feet. Bruises are immediately iced upon impact. Sliding downhill saves time and effort.

Day 136-139, mile 2,124.4-2,216.8: It felt like walking through an old Western film. Rocky cliffsides full of purple and turquoise stones gave off an otherworldly vibe. All this unexpected tenderness combined with the peculiar scenery left me sparkling.

Day 51-56, Mile 574.2-639.8: After waiting out the storm in Ashland, we went back up the mountain to try again. It’s easy to slip in snow, especially with 30 pounds on your back. I fell many times, hanging onto my trekking poles to stop me from sliding off trail. By the end of the day, the poles were irreparably bent. ...The hand warmers and extra layers we brought in post-storm wisdom lay at the bottom of our packs, since the summer weather finally appeared. We have a newfound appreciation for dirt.

Day 105-109, mile 1603.1-1699.2: The trail grew wilder, made of either gravel, fist-sized rocks, or tall boulders. Sometimes it was overgrown with dew-laden plants or full of fallen trees. We grew wilder also.

Day 93-98, mile 1,374.3-1,521.8: The other side of the Columbia River Gorge looked very similar, but the feeling of crossing from one state to another made us view southern Washington in a new way.

Day 33-40, mile 454-558.5: The days heated up, which was a welcome respite. I had a 15-minute showdown with a rattlesnake, who slithered down the trail to say hi. ... In the evening we walked by moonlight the long, waterless stretch along the L.A. aqueduct. ... Joshua trees popped up around the trail like flamboyant Dr. Seuss creatures.

Day 68-77, mile 953.2-1,082.4: I’m proud to be a member of the four-digit mileage club, but have no desire to make it to the five-digit club. ... Day 110-114, mile 1699.2-1797.3: From our vantage point in bright green meadows, we had expansive views of the whole Northern Cascades mountain range we had just walked through. There aren’t many moments like that in life when you can look back on the progress you’ve made.

Day 149-153, mile 2381.1-2518.5: The mountain peaks looked like the spine of a dinosaur, infusing whimsy into every afternoon. I would fall asleep next to a water source listening to the sound of a river smoothing over submerged boulders. One night, bats squeaked overhead as I watched the sun set from my sleeping bag.

Day 105-109, mile 1603.1-1699.2: We climbed so much that it felt like we were walking to the stratosphere. Sometimes I would look at a majestic mountain panting from exertion and wonder if the view was really worth the struggle. It is in the Northern Cascades, with their strange jagged peaks and glittering alpine lakes. The scale of these beauties were difficult to comprehend.

Day 0-5, Mile 0-77.3: The first five days have given us bright flower blooms and sparkling stars. The uphills and downhills are both literal and mental. Each day feels like weeks, but in a good way.

Day 68-77, mile 953.2 - 1,082.4: Ashland was much less snowy than our last encounter with the area. That meant there wasn’t much water to collect on the trail, which took some getting used to. The mosquitoes seemed to have followed us from NorCal and also invited along their friends and family for the trip. The views of Mount Shasta followed us as well.

Day 43-45, mile 558.5-574.2: Since we flipped to go southbound for a stretch, we were the first to put footprints into the snow in Ashland. The snow falling was lovely and serene, so we were happy to crunch through it. As the day wore on, the flakes got thicker, the wind more forceful, and the temperatures lower. Wet and exhausted, we ducked off trail and got lost.

Day 132-135, mile 2054-2124.4: After a few zero days in Truckee, we continued to see Lake Tahoe from different angles as we climbed above and around it. The quirky rock formations in Granite Chief wilderness were delightfully strange.

Day 105-109, mile 1603.1-1699.2: We’re starting to meet fresh-faced hikers going southbound (sobos) along with the delicious discarded food they leave in the trail town hiker boxes.

Day 155-159, mile 2,518.5-2,652: After the climb, we were officially in the Sequoia National Park. ... Last 15 miles, last 10 miles, last 5 miles, last mile. And then we were done and had walked the Pacific Crest Trail [PCT]. Getting off the trail felt like staring into the sun, when you’re squinting and trying to avert your gaze. There was too much of everything and the brightness of possibility prickled my skin.


Photos by Loïc Burton, Michael Fearon, and Aliza Goldberg on the Pacific Crest Trail
All captions are from Goldberg’s on-the-trail Instagram account of the trek

Supporting refugees has always been an important cause for me. As the child of immigrants from France and Argentina, I understand how difficult it is to find and adjust to a new homeland. It is a privilege that I can hike the length of my country — 2,652 miles, almost the same distance as the refugee caravan — aided by the luxury of ultralight camping gear. And so I chose to do so, raising money and awareness for the International Rescue Committee along the way. It was a crisp dawn in April 2019 when I set out on the trail at the Mexican border with my boyfriend and his roommate from college — both of whom I affectionately called my entourage — on a journey that lasted 159 days.

On the days when my legs sunk deep into the snow up to my hip and I had to wriggle free, the days when the sun was so hot I felt woozy, the days mosquito clouds followed me relentlessly and bit every inch of my skin, the days my calves cramped from hours of incline, the days I tripped on a tree root and fell on my face, I’d remember that I was the reason why I was there. No one dragged me to the PCT. I chose this.

At Barnard, I learned to “major in unafraid.” I have taken those lessons from my unofficial major and extended them into my postgrad years. That does not mean I don’t feel fear, I just don’t fear fear. That is why I sewed a BOLD SINCE 1889 patch onto my Osprey backpack [on this issue’s cover], so I could see that strong, beautiful torchbearer every day. I have always appreciated that Barnard celebrates strength and boldness, not just academic success.

One moment in particular has served me as a guide in the months since I finished the PCT. I had been walking along a mountain ridge covered in snow, up and down rocky crags, careful not to slip or make any missteps. In the afternoon, it was time to descend. Looking down to the valley below, all I could see was a huge white sheet before me and no indication of how to get down. Tears clouding my vision, I whispered aloud, “I can’t do this.” I stood there, looking back at the ridge now in the distance, knowing the only way out was forward. And then I did what I thought I could not do, first kicking steps into the snow, one by one, and then sliding down in my shorts when I had passed the tree line.

I still think to myself “I can’t do this,” but now I go ahead and step toward what scares me instead of turning away.

To see more of Goldberg’s trek across the PCT, visit her Instagram at @pctshewrote.

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