Growing Up on the PCT

MY DAUGHTER, CAROLINE, WAS STRIDING far ahead of me as dusk settled on the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California. After hiking 25 miles that day, over a rocky, hilly desert, I was exhausted and felt the weight of my pack—but Caroline, 17, kept charging into the horizon, with a load just as heavy.

“Hey, Caroline, wait up!” I called. “Don’t get too far ahead!”

No response. She couldn’t hear me.

“Caroline!” I shouted, louder this time. “Slow down for the elderly!”

It was too late, and since shouting had slowed me down she was now even farther ahead. My mind conjured cougars pouncing on her, rattlesnakes biting her.1 And as I trudged along after her, I thought of the first time she had carried her own pack. It had been a decade earlier, although it seemed as if only 10 minutes had passed.

She was 7 years old and insisted on carrying a backpack herself on one of our family’s overnight hikes in Oregon. The rest of us laughed and suggested, a bit too patronizingly, that this would be too much for her.

“You really think you can carry your pack?” one of her big brothers needled her. “You’re too little!”

“First uphill and you’ll be begging us to take it back,” her other brother chimed in.

That settled it. “I’m carrying a pack,” Caroline declared firmly.

So we loaded a soft pack with her sleeping bag and some clothes, trying to keep it light. She bounced up the trail for the first few miles like a helium balloon, but then protested that her pack was getting heavy. I removed the sleeping bag, and she continued for a couple of miles—then paused and asked if something more could be taken out. So we took out everything, and Caroline now had an empty pack. That worked fine for another mile, but then she paused.

“Could someone carry my pack for a bit?” she asked in a small voice.2

I stuffed it into my own, but her brothers had a good time teasing Caroline about that.3

Returning from my reverie, I noted that Caroline had now completely disappeared into the distance. The first stars were coming out, and I began to worry. Would she have the sense to stop before it became pitch black? What if she set up camp 75 feet off the trail and I walked right by her? Would we find a decent camp spot this late? I grumpily reflected that there were significant disadvantages to her growing strong and leaving her dad

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