Notes on the Hiking Boot: The Red-laced Footwear That Got Me There
At 11,400 feet, I laced up my hiking boots by the light of my headlamp. The sun had yet to rise over Guitar Lake in the Sierra Nevadas, but I was up to begin my ascent of the highest peak in the Lower 48—Mount Whitney. I was on a diet of freeze-dried meals and hadn’t showered in six days, but I felt better than I’d ever been—the best version of myself—a tanned, tough hiking machine. It hadn’t always been this way.
“I was searching for something to bring me back to life... So I picked out a pair of red-laced hiking boots and flew to California.”
Just weeks earlier, I was sitting on the roof of my apartment reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir about her grueling-but-life-changing trek of the Pacific Crest Trail. I was halfway through college, working through the summer after a particularly brutal semester that had left me questioning my life trajectory. Lethargic from the heavy Missouri heat, bored because most of my friends had returned home for the summer, and feeling generally uninspired, I was searching for something to bring me back to life. While my problems were a far cry from the divorce, heroin addiction, and loss of a parent that had turned Cheryl to the Pacific Crest Trail, I was sure that the same kind of therapy would change my life too. So I picked out a pair of red-laced hiking boots (the same Danners Cheryl Strayed wore) and flew to California.
Though I enjoyed the luxuries of a hiking partner (my friend Whitney), borrowed camping equipment (from my parents), and an itinerary only 5% as long as Cheryl’s (60 miles to her 1,100), my first backcountry thru-hike was not without its challenges. To reach the John Muir Trail (a famous and particularly scenic section of the PCT), we had taken a plane, two buses, and hitchhiked more than 30 miles. On the trail, we haphazardly taught ourselves how to use the camp stove and set up the tent. And because I had thought that black-and-white Google Map printouts would be enough, we never quite knew how many miles we had covered, how much elevation gain we would face that day, or if we were actually on the right trail. (Pro tip: Splurge on a legit trail map.) At one especially low point, I threatened to push Whitney off the mountain when she had the audacity to point out that we were voluntarily suffering.
But each day I’d lace up my boots, think of Cheryl Strayed, and start walking. Gradually, we found our stride—I’d get up before sunrise and make instant oatmeal and black tea, wake Whitney for breakfast, and talk through the day’s route to the best of our knowledge. On our first morning, it took us two hours to break down camp. By day four, we could go from eating breakfast in our tent to having everything we needed to survive on our backs in 15 minutes flat. We’d relish these accomplishments as much as cresting mountain passes—it was all significant and all vital to making our eventual Mount Whitney ascent possible.
From that morning at Guitar Lake, we went on to summit the tallest mountain in the Lower 48. At a point when I badly needed a win, the hard-earned view from the 14,505-foot peak was exactly the reward I had been looking for. It was a high I rode all the way down the mountain, back into civilization, and right to a San Francisco tattoo parlor, where I hoped to capture it forever with the silhouette of Mount Whitney inked on my foot.
“The hike had taught me to set lofty goals, dig deep, honor the process, and reap the rewards.”
In the years since that trip, I’ve laced up my boots often. Literally, to explore the rainforests of Puerto Rico and trek 110 miles solo through the Alps. And metaphorically, to power through unpaid and poorly paid internships to earn a degree and create work that makes me as proud as I was that day on Mount Whitney. The hike had taught me to set lofty goals, dig deep, honor the process, and reap the rewards. And it’s that lesson that made it easy for me to say yes to an eventual opportunity to move to San Francisco, where I didn’t know a soul but had precious memories rooted in celebration and empowerment. Making this place my home was my next mountain, so I laced up my boots.
A little more than a year in, I’m living in the city that punctuated my most memorable adventure, and I have no doubt that I lead a fuller life because of that hike and because of those red-laced boots that got me there.