Featured Alum: Jesse Nestler and the Pacific Crest Trail
Jesse Nestler graduated from CU in May 2016 with a double major in Geography and Environmental Engineering. He completed an honors thesis in Geography using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze the local scale sustainability of trails in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness (check out his thesis here). He presented his thesis research at the spring 2016 Honors Thesis Symposium (see his talk here, and attend this semester’s symposium on Thursday, November 17, 5:00-6:30 in Hellems 241). Immediately after graduation, Jesse put on his hiking shoes and started hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at the U.S. border with Mexico. He completed the hike (at the Canadian border) two weeks ago. We asked him to share his thoughts on the journey.
My PCT thru hike is done, I’m back home, and I’m navigating a strange new mental space. I’m on my computer making to-do lists the length of my slowly re-fattening body, when the day before I was clomping through evergreen forests in slushy shoes, my feet numb to the feat but my mind racing with anticipation at the prospect of finally—finally—finishing. Since my return, everyone has relished in telling me, “Welcome to the real world,” but I think it’s just the opposite. The real world is waiting for me just around the next bend in the trail, and the most recent presidential debates seem to confirm my feelings. This isn’t the real world anymore.
So let me tell you about my real world since May 2016: I hiked for 138 non-consecutive days. I would yell at inanimate objects if I had to pump up for a climb. I would scream, “LOOK AT THAT SH**!!” in response to every mega-giant view. I made friends with incredibly driven, inspiring people who chose a vagrant lifestyle for a while. My foot tendons were tender every single day, and by the end, half of my toes were permanently numb. I wrote an IOU to my body on the fourth day, and promptly lost the paperwork. I ate ramen, instant stuffing, and an ungodly amount of Doritos, but I never ate enough Snickers. I festered about my life’s grievances. I laughed at good jokes. I laughed at bad jokes. I laughed at nothing at all. I cut off another hiker’s braids with a dull, peanut-buttery knife, thereby making a friend for life. I received an unreal amount of kindness from strangers. I saw the West. I saw myself!
To any thru hiker, the immensity of this accomplishment does not lie in the whole, but in the parts. I can’t conceptualize the trail as a 2,650-mile-long ribbon of footsteps, because I had to take it moment by moment. There were times when every second was a slog, every minute was a long uphill hour, every hour a lifetime, and some days an impossibility. And yet, whether through passive resignation, sheer force-of-will, or some other inconceivable mental cocktail, I got through every itty bitty bit of it. I don’t remember it as “that time I hiked 2650 miles,” I remember it through the disjointed bits of each passing moment.
Now I’ll have those humbling, sane reference points in a world that seems anything but. There’s no denying the changes I’ve gone through: like the process of writing an honors thesis or working towards a college degree, my thru hike has restructured the anatomies of my mind and body. I don’t feel like I’ve transcended to a different realm of human consciousness; I just walked. And walked. And walked. It’s nothing special, really, because it’s in our DNA and our heritage. So take a walk, if you can! Write that honors thesis! Crawl through that arduous literature! Expose yourself to the real world, and we’ll get through the changes of this world in one piece.