I met Greta Hayes about 4 years ago, and at that time she was working as a music publicist here in NYC. While I never thought she DIDN’T seem like the type of person to up and leave the hustle and bustle of city life behind to become a thru-hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail for 5.5 months, it certainly never occurred to me that she would one day do exactly that, mostly because (no matter who you are) the idea sounds kind of super insane. (In like, the best possible way, but bonkers nonetheless.)
As it turns out, Greta (trail name “Hot Sauce” thanks to a Tabasco debacle) is a longtime fan of Cheryl Strayed’s WILD, and had been daydreaming about actually taking on the PCT for herself for a while. As anyone with a stable income in a major metropolitan city will tell you, though, it gets harder and harder to rock the lifestyle boat, and so the idea got put on the back-burner until a fork in the road presented itself. And it was in that moment she decided to finally go for it – 2,000 miles of PCT in just under 6 months.
Unlike when Cheryl Strayed set out in the 90s, a wealth of online resources exists to help people get ready for the PCT experience, so Greta felt well-prepared going in. There are also a lot more people embarking on the journey now (the number has increased from a few hundred to a few thousand), and while Greta spent a lot of her days hiking alone and enjoying the clarity of being fully present, she was always able to link up with her “trail family” (a group of fast friends she met at the very start) when everyone set up to camp for the night.
That said, you’re still out in the wilderness, and nothing is ever certain.
“The trail’s always throwing things at you in that sense, where one moment you’ll think everything’s fine and you’re cruising, and the next you can start feeling injured, and that’ll change your plans,” Greta told me over the phone last week. “Everything hurts, and when that’s happening to you it’s really hard to decide if it’s something you can walk through or if it’s something where you need to stop and rest. Often in that decision you’re met with the consequence of maybe losing your friends, because most people aren’t going to wait with you for a week to rest up.”
The weather was also a major cause for concern, and she and her friends would have to get going at crazy hours in order to safely conquer mountain passes.
“There were times, like when we went through the High Sierra, where you’re going over these high mountain passes at 12,000-13,000 feet, and it’s borderline mountaineering. It was really hard; you’d have to wake up at 2am, because you’d camp at the base of a pass, which is where you go over a ridgeline into the next valley, and you have to wake up to start hiking, because if you hike late in the day, the snow starts to soften and get slushy. If you’re hiking on these really steep slopes in the slushy snow, it can be really dangerous. You can fall off the peak.”
(Completely terrifying, in other words.)
“So we’d wake up at 2am, start hiking at 3am, get over the pass by 7am, then down by noon. Then you still have to hike until 8pm to get through the valley and set up to do the next pass. It was that grind for 10 days, you’re not in a town at all, and it’s just the same thing over and over. There were days where me and my friend would just cry the whole afternoon, because it was the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in my life, but it was such an intense psychological and physical push; the altitude makes you feel sick, and everything hurts.”
Greta told me that the highs and lows were often closely coupled during her time on the PCT, and many of the more harrowing experiences were deemed “type two fun” by her group, meaning “in the moment it fucking sucks, but then when you look back you feel super proud of yourself, and you kind of have this adrenaline high.” She gave a specific example of summiting Mt. Whitney, which she said was one of her all-time trail highs, but on the way up she had a panic attack where her arms went numb, and she had to have her friends calm her down for about a half hour. “I don’t know, I guess some of my favorite memories are tied in with some of the hardest moments,” she said.
It definitely seems like the friends she made along the way played a big role in getting through some of the tougher bits, but I wanted to find out about whether or not there were trail clingers, aka people who were both irritating and difficult to shake. (That, to me, seems even more horrifying than falling off a cliff.) Greta confirmed that this was indeed a thing, citing mainly men who were either condescending and/or creepy. “Me and my girlfriends on trail would call the ‘UL Bros’, which means ‘UltraLite Bros’, basically these guys who are very obsessed with having very small, lightweight packs, and they kind of think they’re better than everyone else. I tried to avoid that type of person, and stick with people who were more easy-going and chill.” She went on to add that, “I noticed that a lot of the time men on the trail liked to give unsolicited advice to women. There was some casual sexism in that sense.” (Not shocking, but still super annoying.)
So how exactly did she find such a good group to stick with for the majority of her time on the PCT? “I was worried about finding a group to hike with, and when I looked on Reddit for the Pacific Crest Trail, there were people being like, ‘I’m hiking next year, does anybody wanna start together and hike together?’ You’re going to meet like 50 people on your first day, 50 more on the next day, and you’re going to find the best friends of your life. It’s just going to happen naturally, and you can’t plan it, so don’t worry about being alone; if you want to be around people, you’ll make lifelong friends, and if you don’t want to be around people, you can do that as well, but you’ll probably have to be more deliberate about it.”
As far as other (potentially unexpected) takeaways, it turns out the PCT is pretty great at putting things into perspective, even on a beauty routine scale; Greta told me she ditched a fully-stocked makeup and skincare kit behind when she left NYC, instead embracing a very simple blend of “sunscreen, sweat, dirt and hotel hand soap.” And she said her skin has never looked or felt better as a result. “No more decision fatigue. I never would have imagined that I could feel as confident and happy with myself as I did without my battery of beauty products and clothing. It was a good feeling!”
And it seems like that “decision fatigue” has disappeared from other aspects of Greta’s life. Rather than immediately launching back into the professional grind, Greta is sticking with the trail flow for the moment; she and some of her trail family are actually headed to Southern Argentina as we speak to take on the wilds of Patagonia. (It sounds amazing, and I’m incredibly jealous.) She also plans to give the PCT another go in 2021 or 2022 since she and her group got snowed out in the final stretch of Northern Washington before being able to cross into Canada.
I asked her if she had any plans to return to the office life after she eventually transitions back into non-hiking “society”, but at least for now, it doesn’t seem like there’s any rush on that front.
“I spent years deliberating whether or not I should do this, if it was the right time, and if I quit my job, would I burn bridges? I used to feel so forced to be in a career track, and I was worried that if I didn’t take every opportunity I’d fall behind my peers, but that whole idea feels less urgent to me now. In hindsight, that all just seems so silly. Making the decision to leave and take time off…I mean, it costs a lot of money to do what I did, but I feel like in exchange I really got all this time to just live. I feel like I’m spending my youth very valuably right now, and I’m very glad I made this decision. Everything is still there if I want to go back to it, but I’m really grateful that I have this time with myself. And I definitely have the hiking bug. The idea of working for a year or two and saving for another hike, doing that, feels like what’s going to make me happy. I was so happy while I was hiking. I was really living how I was supposed to be living for the first time, and I want to continue to chase that.”
Follow Greta on Instagram to keep tabs on her adventures!