For the last year and a half, I have become more and more interested (obsessed) with the Pacific Crest Trail, or the PCT. I find myself several times a week daydreaming about thru-hiking, which is when hikers spend months on a trail trekking extreme distances. This, in combination with a desire to start a new photo project that highlights the stories of real people doing really cool things, led me to the idea of a portrait series of PCT hikers undertaking the unique journey of walking the 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada.
Initially, this passion project was just an exercise in creating new content for my photography portfolio. However, it quickly became a really enjoyable pastime. I spent about a dozen or so days in the Southern California section of the trail. I would day-trip from my home in Escondido, California, or camp for a night or two on the trail. I always bring an ice chest of drinks and snacks to offer thru-hikers when they stumble upon me. I love my interactions with long-distance hikers. Most are somewhat perplexed when they see me sitting in a camp chair waiting for them to show up. A cold drink and some fresh fruit usually breaks the ice quickly, and most become very friendly and open with me in a minute or two. I ask them casual questions, probing into a deeper conversation. Often I ask them if I can record our chats. And of course, I take their portrait once a rapport has been established.
All of this effort is to capture the authentic stories of Pacific Crest Trail hikers. I chronicle their struggles, their personal triumphs, trail life, and the social experiment that is putting people from all different parts of the world, walks of life, ages, and socioeconomic status together on the trail. It’s vastly interesting to me how authentic and “real” thru-hikers are. I believe it stems from how stripped back their life is. No longer are they in a busy “normal” life setting. Their daily goals are to put on a backpack, climb the ridge, and not run out of water or food. Hikers bond with each other very easily over this shared experience. A great example of this are the “trail names” that they bestow upon each other while on the trail. The unofficial rules of trail names are: you cannot give yourself a trail name, someone else needs to bestow it upon you, and you have the option to refuse a trail name given to you. Trail names are a standard part of life hiking the National Scenic Trails in the United States and many thru-hikers bring their new given name over to another long trail (like the Appalachian Trail) in the future. These names are proudly carried as reminders about the tests of long-distance hiking, motivations to continue, and what led them on this adventure.
Here are some stories of the people I’ve met on the trail. More can be found on Instagram: @pct_people_project
It was late in the day when Groot came walking toward us. He got choked up a bit when I offered him a bit of trail magic (soda) and a chair to sit in. Groot is a recently retired Orange County Sheriff. He has been wanting to hike the PCT for many years and, like many others, has spent a lot of time on YouTube learning about the trail and following past PCT thru-hikers. I love his contented look in this photo. My feeling is he understands that the hiking is hard, but this guy is so thoroughly happy to be on the PCT.
This smiling thru-hiker is Calzone. We met under the 10 freeway. She is hiking the PCT as a way to step out in faith. She says, “I think a lot of Christian women are afraid of being strong and tough – maybe because that’s equated with being stubborn and hard-hearted. But if there’s anything the trail has taught me, it’s that I can be both strong and soft, kind and courageous, vulnerable yet fearless. I don’t have to choose. The more I seek to be like Jesus, the more I feel like the woman I was made to be. And the trail has been an amazing way to literally walk that out.”
I’m excited to introduce Kids Menu. This is the youngest thru-hiker I have met so far. At 15 years old he is solo hiking the PCT. Kids Menu hiked the Appalachian Trail with his mom two years ago when he was 13. He hikes 30 mile days regularly and carry’s a very low base weight (less than 5 lbs) in a backpack that he made! Actually, he has a backpack company – @little_river_packs. Definitely, one of my favorite hikers I’ve met, and I’m stoked on this great portrait we made just after dawn on the day he left Kennedy Meadows to hike north into the high Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Finally got to meet Second Chance (@secondchancehiker) on Saturday afternoon in Kennedy Meadows. If you aren’t familiar with him (he’s earned a significant following the last few months here and on his YouTube channel), he started the PCT on January 30 at the Mexican border, well before most start in the spring. His quest is to make it all the way to Canada one step at a time and lose 200 pounds in the process. He’s lost a lot of weight already. His steadfast willingness to accomplish this goal is truly inspiring. Not to mention, he has an infectious positive outlook on pretty much everything. He’s 700 very hard miles into this hike. He says it’s still very hard, and he is perpetually tired, but hiking (and life) are getting easier with each step.
The PCT People Project Book
After taking a closer look at the 200 portraits I had captured up to that time, I realized that this project could be taken a lot further. All those 200 photos were taken in the first 300 miles of the trail – leaving out the remaining 2,350 miles and, more importantly, the stories from hikers with more miles under their belt. So I decided to continue the project by making several trips into the Sierras, Northern California, and Oregon. Once I committed to seeing this project through to the end of the hikers’ journey, publishing a book became the obvious way to bring my passion for this full circle. The PCT People Project book will be a collection of hundreds of portraits of PCT hikers and their personal stories. Readers will learn why the hikers are on the trail and what motivates them to keep walking. You will hear about their injuries, the things they fear, their families back home, and the families they develop while on the trail. You will get a fantastic look into what makes up a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker. You can stay up-to-date with the book project and updates on Instagram at @pct_people_project.
Andrew Burns graduated from PLNU in 2004 with a degree in business. These days, he is a commercial photographer living and working in San Diego. The perfect day for Andrew is meeting someone new and learning about who they are and what motivates them. He loves figuring out how to translate that into a photograph.