Former Bethel student finishes five and a half month backpacking trip across the United States.
By McKenzie Van Loh
“Oh man, I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” Isaac Hill thought to himself as he approached a green, metal post reading “mile 1.” The date was April 12, 2017 and Hill would soon start the longest walk of his life. Glancing behind his shoulder one more time at the Mexican border, he took his first step, crunching the small, dry rocks underneath his brand new sturdy boot. Only 2,659 miles to go.
Hill dropped out of Bethel Spring 2017 to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, “a wild and scenic pathway from Mexico to Canada” according to the PCT’s website. The trail begins at the Mexican border, makes its way through California, Oregon and Washington and ends at the Canadian border. The trail typically takes 5 months to complete. Hill completed it on October 1st, 2017.
Hill’s life set the stage for his decision to hike the PCT while he attended Bethel in the fall of 2016. At the time, he knew something needed to change. His life was in a dark place. He questioned the direction of his life and he wanted to do something for himself. Something he wanted to do. Not something his parents told him to do.
Despite the recent attention from the New York Times bestseller Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Hill hadn’t heard of the PCT until meeting a random man on the side of the road on the way to Colorado that fall.
“I hiked from Mexico to Canada once,” the man divulged to Hill after selling him water color paints at a garage sale. Hill didn’t even bother to ask about the hike, but the idea stuck with him.
After returning to Bethel after his trip to Colorado, Hill found himself researching the PCT.
“There’s no way I could possibly do that. There’s no way I could hike the PCT, (and) walk from Mexico to Canada,” Hill thought. But he wanted to prove it to himself. “Somehow I have to make this happen.”
Hill called his friend Nicko Valente and asked if he would be interested in doing the hike alongside him. Valente agreed. Hill told his parents about his plan. They were skeptical, but gave their support. To save up some cash, Hill worked as a snowboard instructor and a pizza driver. A few months later, Hill bought his hiking permit and hopped on a plane to California.
“Oh man, I’m actually doing this,” Hill thought to himself as he took his first steps across the seemingly barren desert. No sign of civilization. Just rocks, sand and cacti.
To their surprise, the desert wasn’t as lonely as they expected. They met friends in the first couple miles.
“From that point I knew it would be a pretty awesome experience,” Hill said.
According to the PCT visitor use statistics, 3,164 hikers were issued a hiking permit for a north-bound thru hike in 2016. With so many on the trail, hikers get used to being cozy for the first portion of the hike before some of them choose to drop out.
PCT hikers often give “trail names” to other PCT hikers according to Hill. Due to his resemblance to Kevin Bacon, Hill was given the name “Young Bacon.” Valente received the name “Murica,” a fitting name for a hiker who packed an American flag in his pack.
“We all have a sense of anxiety about other people now days. But if there was more of the things I saw, more people giving and helping each other out, it really kind of restores your faith in humanity.” -Isaac Hill
“It’s a very social experience and I think that’s actually one of the best parts,” Hill said. While hiking, Hill had multiple experiences with “trail angels,” a PCT term for a person who does a random act of kindness on the trail. One time a “trail angel” left a cooler full of cold soda at one of the campsites. Another time, some people came on the trail to serve pizza, grilled cheese and ice cream on a hot day.
Someday, Hill would like to return to the PCT to do one of these random acts of kindness himself.
“We all have a sense of anxiety about other people now days,” Hill said. “But if there was more of the things I saw, more people giving and helping each other out, it really kind of restores your faith in humanity.”
While the PCT community proved to be amiable, the hike wasn’t always experienced in that way. Hill almost quit three times.
The first time Hill almost quit was when he encountered the wildfires in Oregon. Everything smelled like a bonfire. Large sections of the trails were closed and Hill didn’t want to resort to walking on the road. He ended up hitchhiking around the flames.
The second time Hill almost quit, he almost ran out of money. Thankfully, his parents were able to send financial support. Knowing their son was so close to the end, they wanted to experience the joy of seeing him finish.
The third time Hill felt like quitting was while he and Valente wandered the streets of Medford, Oregon. They were tired, hot and broken down. The thought of buying a plane ticket and flying home the next day soothed Hill like a nice cold shower.
But Hill didn’t allow the temptation to go home excite him too long. Someone on the trail explained to him that it is okay to quit on your best day because then you must really need it. But if you quit on your worst day, you will regret it.
Hill also valued completion.
“I was just thanking God for being alive. It was so amazing I made it through there safely and I was in such an incredible place like nothing I had ever seen before.” -Isaac Hill
“Just for me to be able to see the Northern Terminus and finish it meant a lot to me as a sign of completion of this journey I embarked on,” Hill said.
One night, after hiking a difficult stretch in the Sierra Mountains, Hill broke down in awe while laying in his tent.
“I was just thanking God for being alive,” Hill said. “It was so amazing I made it through there safely and I was in such an incredible place like nothing I had ever seen before.”
When Hill reached the Northern Terminus, he thought he would break down and cry. But he didn’t. Instead he yelled, “Wooo! Yeah!” The feeling was surreal. The five-and-a-half month journey felt as if it took a week.
After returning home Oct. 3, 2017, Hill had the opportunity to catch up with friends and family.
“I thought it was super cool that he committed to it and that he did it,” junior Andy Johnson said. Hill and Johnson met on their freshman floor at Bethel. They would often longboard together and explore the Minnehaha area. Johnson is one of the many friends who has witnessed Hill’s change of values and perspective. “He sees life very differently (now). It has a different meaning to him.”
Junior Carlo Holmberg would often accompany Johnson and Hill on their excursions.
“He’s been more appreciative of people, and more specifically kindness in people,” Holmberg said.
When people ask Hill how his trip was, he doesn’t quite know what to say.
“It’s like trying to explain the feeling of love,” Hill said. “It’s not possible to sum it up in a couple sentences or words or pictures.”
According to Hill, people hike the PCT expecting to learn about themselves. They hope for a big enlightenment moment. For Hill, it didn’t really happen like that. Instead he took away one thing: Being kind is so important. He hopes to live out the kindness he experienced on the trail wherever he goes.