Wild Wisdom With Rach Coffey

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A: So, you decided to hike the PCT after having hiked the entire John Miuer Trail last year?

R: Yes, that was through September of last year (2016) and was somewhat of an impromptu decision. So, last year was when I had gone through this horrible break-up, as far as breakups go, it was very amicable, but very heart wrenching. And I quit my job around the same time. I had made a conscious effort to identify the things in my life that weren’t how I wanted them to be. And while I was in the phase of trying to rebuild I had this idea to go and hike. My ex boyfriend and I had previously planned to a trip to go to the US. We had flights booked to Alaska, so I had flight credit to use. And when we had first broken up I thought, when am I ever going to use this credit? When am I ever going to want to go overseas on my own? Like, that’s the most depressing thing in the world! I was feeling like I’d never actually use it. Then a couple months passed, and I decided to get out of my comfort zone. I was searching for hikes in America and initially was looking for something for just a few weeks – maybe a short stretch of the PCT. Through forums and blogs, I started reading about the JMT. And then went on the JMT Facebook group and started asking for advice. I’ve hike in Australia but never hiked on my own, and wasn’t sure about my skill level, or if it was too late in the season. I got a lot of great support from people, and a guy ended up messaging me on Facebook and told me he had a spare permit because a friend of his had backed out. At that time, I didn’t realize how incredibly highly sought after the permits are. It was really only about a month before my permit started that I decided to do it and booked my flight to San Fran. I stayed up until 2 every morning researching the trail and figuring out how to replace my gear to make it more light weight. I threw everything together and jumped on a plane and flew over and did it. And that was just massive.

A: So how long was that trek?

R: It was about 3 weeks. The JMT is 210 miles. It took me 25 days or something. I had a few 0 days to chill out along the way. It got to the point where I was moving too fast – I was hiking with some other people who were quite fast as well and realized I needed to slow down because once I got off the trail I was going to have to start paying for accommodations. So I might as well just enjoy my time in the wilderness, so I slowed down a little bit.

A: So I heard you say you were hiking with some other people? Were these just other hikers you met along the way?

R: Yep. I made some friends along the way. Some of whom I will hopefully meet up with again this year. I met a lovely couple from Portland, a PCT hiker from MN, and another hiker from Oregon. I hiked on my own for quite a lot of it. But I like how easy it is to team up with other people, then you just sort of naturally go your own way when your pace changes or when someone wants to do their own thing. It’s just really lovely how easy it is to meet like minded people on the trail.

A: Wow, it sounds so awesome. I personally have never gone out more than just a few days on my own. That experience coupled with having the alone time and times of reflection and then meeting some incredible people that seem to flow in at these certain times and flow out.

R: Absolutely. It’s also really validating I think when you put yourself in a completely different experience than your normal life, and the people you meet are just really like-minded, and you really really like them. You think, ok I’m on the right track then. I’m doing the right thing.

"If all the people I’m meeting are people I want to spend time with, then yeah, I’ve found my people."

A: That’s such an amazing feeling to feel like you have that, even if you don’t really know them very well.

R: Yeah, exactly. And, you saying that you’ve never done more than a few days, I myself hadn’t either before I did the JMT last year. I think the longest hike I’d done was 4 or 5 days, and I had never even done so much as a day walk on my own before I went to the JMT last year. I’d never even slept in my tent on my own until I got to Yosemite, the night before I started. It was a fairly big change.

A: Wow, that’s huge! Did that come up after the break up because you had made these plans to do this with your ex, or was it something you felt you needed to do to heal yourself?

R: Sort of both really. Hiking and camping has always been part of my identity. That’s what I did with my parents when I was younger. My dad first took my hiking, and I introduced my partner (my ex) to that. We had been together for 7 years… I think that part of that feeling that I was scared to go overseas on my own, and do these things on my own… I realized that was something new for me, something that had grown in me. Because I went traveling around Europe on my own for 3 months when I was 18, and it didn’t scare me back then.

"Somehow in my 20s I developed a lot more caution. And, I wanted to reclaim that independence and feistiness that I used to have. And claiming that part of my identity and the love of the wilderness for my own as well."

I think part of the loss of that relationship, was feeling that I no longer had the partner to do all the things that I loved. And then proving to myself that I can do them on my own, was really liberating.

A: Yeah. I mean, you’ve connected with this notion from Howl Often. But, one of things we try and get across is that nature really is this place that allows you to tune into yourself and get back to the basics and remember what’s most important. And it sounds like you’ve certainly felt that and experienced that.

R: Yeah, absolutely. There was a moment I’ll always remember when I was on the JMT. I think it was about day 4 or 5 but fairly early on. I had been walking on my own for a couple of days, and really not interacting with any people at all. Not deliberately, it was just a quiet stretch on the trail. I had just slept completely on my own for the first time. Where I had made a deliberate choice that I had been walking a few days previously with someone really lovely, but decided to keep hiking that night and camp on my own that night, because I knew eventually I would have to do it sooner or later. So I wanted to just tear the band aid off and do it. It was sort of scary at first, but then that empowerment that I got through it and that it was fine. So after a few days of that.

"I was walking through a beautiful stretch of forest and I just had the realization that I was happy, for the first time in a really long time. And how much more powerful that was because it came from myself."

I usually get happiness from my friends and family which I love and is always going to be part of me. But the fact that I could be happy just completely on my own, and just being out in the wilderness and feeling really at peace. Was just yeah, really special. It really hit me. I It was just so beautiful, just the realization – after months of quite a lot of sadness and crying most days. To be feeling happy was a really noticeable change.

A: Wow, that’s so cool. So, heading out on this new epic journey you’re about to start, I mean coming up around the corner! I’m sure you’re feeling really excited, I’m sure you’re feeling a little nervous, maybe you have some fears. But what was your biggest motivator to come back and hike the PCT?

R: Well, on the JMT, I met a lot of PCT hikers. And by the time that I was running into them on the trail, they had all been walking for at least 3 or 4 months. They were all just so fierce, and their packs were all so tiny, because over that time they had gotten rid of anything except the absolute essentials. And that was so badass. So it was really inspiring to meet some of those hikers. I suppose that’s where the seed for the idea came from. On my last day in Oregon (I had been road tripping a bit after my hike) I was doing a side trail near the PCT and took a photo of one of the trail blazes and made a deal with myself that I would come back and do it someday. And then, in the following months when I got home back to Melbourne, I just realized well, someday might as well be now. Because if not now, when? It’s really hard to find time in your life to do something like that. And it only gets harder if you have a partner and there’s two of you. I’m at a time in my life where I’m really uninhibited. I’ve already quite my job. I’m in this real period of transition and there’s no one else I need to work around – so now is the perfect time, really. I suppose the biggest motivator is…

"I only have one life, and I really want to live it. So I’m going to start now."  

A. I love that. That’s a really great quote! So, following on that theme, 5 months is a really long time, and obviously you’re going to have some down days. But, is there something that you’re hoping to discover or something that you’re hoping to come out of this with? Or are you just going into this openly with no expectations other than to finish it?

R: Yeah. That’s really it. No expectations other than to finish it, and just experience it. I’m really looking forward to meeting a lot of great people. And I’m really looking forward to having time on my own to reflect and write in my journal and to film this documentary and take photos. I’m really looking forward to some time to be creative. But really, I just want to see what happens!

A: As someone who is fairly new to this whole thru hiking and backpacking lifestyle, how does your family react to that? Are they like, who are you? Do they understand what you’re doing?

R: [Laughing]. They are absolutely incredible. They have just been so wonderful. I think initially, my mom was just making a huge effort to not say much about it at all, because I don’t think she was in a place yet where she could be enthusiastic about it. So she would just sort of smile vacantly and nod. I think that she hoped that the idea would pass… But, then now, she’s just so proud of me, and my parents and my sister, they each wrote me a letter for me to read on the plane, which I just read yesterday as I was touching down in San Diego. My mom said she was so proud for having helped create such a strong feminist who is just taking life and living it to the fullest. So that was just, really beautiful to read. And my dad wrote me a poem, which was just absolutely gorgeous. Anyway, I have it somewhere here. He wrote a poem, because dad hikes about once a year, he does a solo overnight hike to a place called Wilson’s Promontory, which is a few hours away from where I grew up. And, I remember when I was younger and he’d be setting off for his solo hike. And I was just so worried about him going on his own, which is so funny now. But I was always trying to understand why he wanted to go on his own. So the poem he wrote me was because people often question him and for why he wants to hike on his own, so the poem he wrote me is really trying to answer that for himself, and he’s I guess assuming that he and I are coming from a fairly similar perspective. And, the last line of the poem, which really made me cry… “I must stand alone, to know I’m whole.” So, I think my dad, he really gets it. And my sister too, they’re all just really proud of me and really, really supportive.

A: That’s so amazing. That’s awesome to hear. So, do you have any fears or hesitations at all about this journey?

R: [Laughing]. Yeah, definitely!

A: [Laughing] silly question?

R: [Laughing] So last night before I flew, I was staying at my parents house because my mom drove me to the airport and it was about 1 a.m. and I was just lying in bed sobbing, like what am I doing? [Laughing]. But I think that’s fairly normal.

A: I’d say so…

R: [Laughing]. A lot of the time when my fear is talking it’s probably because I’m exhausted… I’ve been fairly sleep deprived over the last few weeks. Just getting things ready and also some of the anxiety of packing up your life for six months. Finding someone to sublet my apartment. Finding someone to take my car for six months. All the pragmatics of organizing your life. But yeah, I think… Wild animals. [Laughing]. It’s ridiculous but I’m really scared of spiders! Someone posted a photo of a tarantula dragging a wasp across the trail somewhere in Southern California and I just lost it! A friend of my said, dude, tarantulas are literally no problem compared to bears. I suppose that’s true…

"I think most of the fears that I have, it’s just a constant of working what’s rational and what’s not rational."

I think fear of the snow and high river crossings is rational, and I’ll need to make sure I tackle that with a really clear head. And maybe fears of hitchhiking is probably also rational. But things like wildlife and sleeping on my own in the forest, and the concept of being away from home for 6 months. All those fears are something I’m actually looking forward to challenging myself on. A friend gave me a card to take away, and it says,

"It’s often best to do the opposite of what your fear is telling you to do." And that’s kinda my mantra."

A: I love that!

R: Yeah. I’m carrying that with me.

A: That’s a good reminder for when you’re just in it, in the moment.

R: I looked at it on the plane a few times.

A: It’s good to have those little reminders and you have those people with you sort of in a physical way. You have the letters, and the poem from your dad. That must feel comforting.

R: yeah, it really does. I’ve got my small journal, and then I’ve now got a little collection of really beautiful papers and cards from loved ones at home. And yeah, I’m trying to be ultra light in other ways, but that’s not one of the sacrifices I’ll make! My mental health is very important, and I think those things will be a really big help.

A: So, what about the documentary? You have this professional background as a TV producer, and it’s clear you want to be a role model for girls and women and help spread this voice of female empowerment and awareness about environmental conservation… but is there any other reason why you’re doing this and making a movie too?

R: I love storytelling and creating content that speaks to people and if I’m going to work in this industry then I should be making content that I actually want to watch myself. So moving forward, is to work on shows that I actually would want to watch. I guess the first step in that, is just making it. And money, money has never been one of my driving forces, but it’s all about trying to do the things that I really love and trusting that some way to make a living will present itself as a result that if I just do the things that I’m passionate about and do the things that I love – that’s where the magic is. So, either way, that’s where I’ll get fulfillment.

"The more authentically I can just be myself, hopefully I’ll find a way forward for my career that I’ll get the most enjoyment from."

And, I think the making of this documentary will be really cathartic and really fun for me. And, I just really don’t feel like I’ve seen it before… I’ve watched documentaries about the JMT and the PCT, but they’ve all been made by guys pretty much, and also guys in groups. And there are actually a lot of women out on the trail, and I guess they’re just not represented in that same way. And TV and film are also male dominated, so I just think it’s really important to show women out there doing this sort of stuff.

A: Absolutely. It’s becoming important to a lot women who are outdoor enthusiasts and athletes, that there’s this lack of representation. I think we’re demanding representation and you see it coming across now in brands that are standing up for women and diversifying the outdoors. Which is great to see, but I feel like there’s still some things missing – and for you to be someone on the ground having these very real, authentic moments with people I think is pretty rare. I don’t think I’ve seen that.

R: Yeah, and I’ve loved discovering the community around it and the community of women as well. There’s a women’s PCT Facebook page, and I just find that the discussions that happen there are just so much more relevant for me. But the generic PCT Facebook group is just men… it’s just men talking. I didn’t actually notice that until I discovered the women’s group and realized just how different the voices are. Often, the generic group is just often really quite didactic and judgmental, whereas the women’s group is so open and supportive… and even through Instagram I’ve been meeting a lot of other women who are hiking and discovering groups like Howl Often, and Outdoor Women’s Alliance and Women Who Hike. And all these fantastic groups that all just have the same sort of aims. It’s been really great discovering that community.

A: I can imagine. When this becomes your life, you see it in a whole new light – the discussions and types of conversations going on and lack of representation….

R: Yeah, I read a blog recently from a girl who hiked the whole PCT, I think just last year and I think she was just 23. She solo hiked it last year and wrote this fantastic post. I read it about a month ago and it was just so bang on. It was interesting to me that a lot of her fears were exactly the same as mine, a lot of the questions she was being asked by other people were the same questions I get I asked. And she had a moment on the trail where she had a crisis of confidence, but then just so at odds with how strong she had been feeling the rest of the time on the trail. And reading her story and realizing how much it rang true with me, it must be the experience of so many women. And her words and feeling that I really connected with that, and if I can then, through my story, connect with other women and reassure them that it’s kind of universal and we’re all in it together. We all experience the same fears and we can overcome them. I’d feel great knowing that.

A: What would you say is one of the most universal themes you’ve come across? For women specifically?

R: Well, how great and strong you can feel on the trail. I’ve never felt more capable than when I’m hiking, I guess because as someone who is process driven and goal oriented, you have this constant validation. Every day you have these chores you need to do, and then every day you work through them. You’re constantly setting goals for yourself. Where are you going to have lunch? How many more miles are you going to go before you stop for the day? And being completely in charge of yourself and your own time. I feel like that’s a universal trait, not just for women but for everyone. And that for me is what I love most about being on the trail. When it gets dark, you go to bed. When you get hungry, you eat. [Laughing]. Aside from just continuing to put one foot in front of the other, that’s really all there is to it. [Laughing], Which is pretty amazing.

A. So from reading that blog post and after being part of the conversations in these women’s groups, is there a common theme to discussion about why people are doing this, or why women specifically are doing this? I’m just trying to uncover some unique factor that would motivate women to do solo thru hikes vs. what might motivate men to do them.

R: Well, I guess that’s a big part about what I’m wanting to discover in my documentary as well. I haven’t uncovered a common thread yet, but I’m looking forward to interviewing a lot of other hikers on the trail and sort of trying to work out what the things that bring us together might be, other than I suppose, wanting to find out what we’re made of, really. What your limits are.

A: Yeah! I’ll be so interested when you start to go through your footage and after having conversations with people, what you find out. I mean, are we more universally similar together as a species connected with nature? Or are there these major differences and themes amongst gender that really separate the motivation?

R: Yep. I’ll be really interested to find that out too. I’m definitely going to be speaking with people of both genders, but I’d like to speak to more women than men, generally. I know there’s a lot of working through grief that happens on the trail, and I guess it’s a place where everyone goes for soul searching, but whether both genders do that for the same reason, you know, I’m not sure. It will be interesting.

A: Unfortunately, I find for me, the most interesting people are people that have been wounded. They’re people that have gone through this phase in their life where they’ve been heartbroken or something traumatic has happened that has shifted part of the direction of their life.

R: Yeah, I think it’s trying to work out who you actually are, and I think that does often come after some type of crisis, or you know, that things have to get worse before they can get better.

"Sometimes you actually have to come up against something very difficult in your life to be able to take that step back and take stock and think, ok, how do I actually want it to be? How am I going to put things in place to make it happen? "

And, you know, people go through worse things than I have. I mean, my breakup was really hard, but it is still just a breakup it’s not life and death. So I’m kind of aware of not wanting to dramatize it. But, when you’ve had a partner for seven years and then you go your own way, you go separate ways, it is really confronting, just trying to work out who you are on your own after that. I’m sure there will be a lot of people on the trail who have come out of long term relationships, or breakups, because they are just one of those often lack-defining moments where you really have to work out who you are and what you want to do.

A: Yeah, of course. I wouldn’t minimize that as oh, it was just a breakup, I mean, it was someone you were with for seven years, and even for relationships that haven’t lasted that long, if it’s a person that has been part of your life and then all of a sudden it ends, it’s almost like a death. It’s a loss.

R: Yeah, definitely. It was definitely a loss. Yeah, you’re right, and I suppose particularly, as someone who – the relationships in my life are the most important thing to me, as they are I guess they are to most of us, so when you do lose someone like that it is a huge shift.

A: Absolutely! I can relate. I know a lot of people can. And that’s the beauty in it. It’s very relatable.

R: Yeah exactly. It is a universal thing. Everyone goes through loss.

A: Of course. Well, I just love everything that you’re doing. And I am really excited for you, and hopefully to keep in touch and see when you do get connectivity, to get an email update maybe. [Laughing]. See how things are going.

R: Yeah! I think I said in an email to you that honestly when I came across your Instagram, and then looked on your website and filled out the questionnaire – that was the first time I had done that at all, to write about what I was doing and why. And I remember afterwards I just felt so much better after I hit submit. But that was the first step for me, in really trying to put into words my reasons for why I love being in the wilderness, and what I’m doing. Ultimately I’m making this documentary to a public audience, and it was about time to commit to putting it out there. It was really lovely, there have been a couple of friends in the last month really, have said “hey Rach, I just quit my job!” And sort of connecting with my story after I quit my job – obviously they had their own reasons, but getting in touch with me to tell me that they were inspired and that they were doing something to take charge of their lives and making really big changes that was really lovely to know. I guess if I can connect with other people and help empower them to do something similar.

"We all deserve to be happy, and that looks really different to a lot of people."

I often feel different from the people I encounter in my every day life and that can be a bit isolating, but know that there’s a real community and there’s a lot of people who live their lives a little bit differently and being able to connect with that I think doesn’t’ make you feel so alone. Not that I feel alone in my normal life.. but yeah.

A: Well, it’s the soul level, it’s the connection of the soul with other people, your people.

R: Yeah, I have a lot of ‘my people’ surrounding me at home, but you know, I guess everyone you connect with is on a slightly different level, so just feeling like there’s someone who understands different levels of you wherever they are in the world, is really important.

A: Definitely. So, one of my final questions… I think [laughter]. After having learned a little bit about this idea of howling often and just our name, Howl Often, how do you interpret that for yourself? What does howl often mean to you in a personal way?

R: [Pause]… Oooh. I think when I think of howling, it’s letting go of your inhibitions, and letting go of that fear. I guess it comes back to that of doing the opposite of what your fear is telling you to do, it’s just not really caring about what other people are thinking, because when you howl, and when you feel like you’re on your own you don’t care that you’re making noise you don’t care what’s around you, you’re just letting yourself be free… that’s what I think of [laughter].

A: I love it, I love it [laughter].

R: [Laughter].