The Pacific Crest Trail runs 4,200 kilometres from Mexico to Canada and is known as one of the longest and toughest thru-hiking trails – a long-distance trail that hikers complete from end to end in a single trip. Twenty-three-year-old Zachary Smith walked the trail with the sole purpose of raising awareness and much-needed funds for youth mental health.
Inspired by the book Wild, Smith, like the main character, set out on his trek along the Pacific Crest Trail with no outdoor experience, a heavy backpack and little else to draw from than sheer will.
“It changes her (author Cheryl Strayed’s) life and I wanted to experience a challenge like that,” said Smith. “That was about four years ago. A year ago is when I started planning the trek. It was one of those things I became obsessed with and knew I was going to do it.”
Smith, who’s from Toronto, had struggled with clinical depression and learning disabilities throughout his youth. “I was sort of a lost kid growing up without real direction or purpose,” he said.
Smith was paired with a “big brother” at his fraternity during his tenure at Western University, where he studied finance.
His big brother, he said, “played a huge role in helping me take responsibility for my actions and start changing my life for the better.… It was life-changing.”
Paying if forward, Smith searched for a local organization he could partner with to help other youth. “I found a non-profit organization, Youth Assisting Youth, through the Bell Let’s Talk website,” said Smith. “I wanted to do something in regards to mental health because it played a role in my story and mentorship played such a significant role in my life – it was the perfect fit.”
Smith was determined to achieve his goal, successfully hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, through deserts, mountains, rivers and forests.
“It’s a continuous footpath that runs from the Mexican border near San Diego, the entire length of California, Oregon and Washington and crosses the Canadian border into British Columbia,” explained Smith.
He departed May 8 and returned on Sept. 23, covering 4,270 kilometres in just four and a half months.
The walk was challenging and Smith was in constant pain. “I got really large blisters on my feet; my whole lower body was swollen; I was constantly exhausted and over-heated,” he said. “Eventually I adjusted to life on the trail and the physical challenges and then it became much more of a mental challenge, testing my resolve to see how long I could endure going through it everyday.”
Over the 130 days, Smith relished the beauty of nature, the sunrises and sunsets, and navigated the dangers of nature, from changing weather conditions, to river crossings, mountains, wildlife and unpredictable off-road terrain.
“When the sun got up, I hiked about a marathon a day until the sun went down, and sometimes for a few hours after,” said Smith. “I was isolated and hiked alone, that was powerful.”
Alone with his thoughts, Smith had time to think. He learned valuable life lessons:
“Never quit on a bad day. Envisioning success is easy from a place of comfort – when we’re envisioning our hopes and goals and dreams, we don’t picture the pain and suffering required to achieve the goal. Set a goal so big you can’t achieve it – then become the person who can. There is no finish line. It’s really a cliché, but the journey is more important than the destination. There is no finish line. It’s illusionary because it keeps on moving forward.”
Smith lost 23 pounds on his journey, but gained perspective. “On the last day, I was really excited to finally be done with it and complete the mission. I was pretty much running, so I could make it home for Rosh Hashanah,” he said.
“One of the things I definitely learned is that patience is like a muscle – it needs to be exercised and practiced to work well. And I think I have become a much more patient person through living in an environment where I had very little control. When you live in a normal society, you have food and water, toilets, shower, a bed. When you are living in the woods in an environment where you have very little control over those things, it really teaches you to be patient.”
Since Smith returned, he’s been speaking out, encouraging youth to get involved in mentoring, in order to help at-risk kids aged six to 15 at Youth Assisting Youth.
Smith has raised $6,900 to date, with a $7,500 goal.
Donations can be made at tinyurl.com/y5uzt3yv.