As Montclair State University's first woman president, Susan A. Cole ’62 led the institution through two decades of impressive growth
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.
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.