[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he Pacific Crest Trail is 2,663 miles long and meanders through some of the most scenic country on the West Coast. It passes through 25 National Forests and 7 National Parks. Every year, roughly 400 of the 700-800 who start the trail finish it. It is an experience known for its community and necessity for self-reliance and generosity. “Trail Angels” are former thru-hikers who will often leave food, water and snacks at points on the trail for the current group. Not many people can say that they’ve experienced that kind of generosity first-hand, or that their life was saved by a group of strangers. My friend Mia Krakowski, though, is one of those people.
While the Millennial Generation is one of the most educated, and saddled with the most debt, of any generation in history, Mia, at 24, took an alternative route: one of travel and community service. In 2012 she was living at home after finishing a two-year degree in Drafting and Design at a community college. She loved learning but didn’t want to take the financial plunge of getting a degree at a four year college.
“Initially, I really wanted to travel, but I had this fear of money,” Mia said. “And this fear of not being able to do the things I’d like to do because I didn’t have enough money. So I was working at a lodge near a little resort, and I had met a few hikers that came through that town. It’s one of the places that you’ll resupply for food. I had this gentlemen come in to the restaurant at Packer Lake — I was bartending — and he sat at my bar. We started talking about the trail, and I asked why he was doing it, what it was that drew him out there, just making small talk as a bartender. I think one of the biggest questions I asked him was if you were going to put the trail into one word, what word would it be? And he told me ‘magical.’ I couldn’t believe it; I never hear that term used at all, I thought to myself. So that really set me off. I was thinking maybe I wanted to do this.”
The winter after meeting the man in the bar, Mia worked at Squaw Valley Ski Resort as a lift operator, saving all of her earnings for supplies while she lived at home. She started at the southernmost terminus, in a small town called Campo where there is a send off every year for all the thru-hikers. In the months prior to that she had tried to find a trail buddy but nothing concrete came out of it, and in the last couple months before the send off, she realized that she was going to do it alone. “I think I was a little nervous about going alone, initially, because you’re setting out for five months, and before I went out there I didn’t know there was a huge culture around PCT hikers, and tons of people do it every year… It made me rely on myself more, and that was a huge thing. When I was ending the trail, I realized I could do these things on my own. I mean I love to be around people, but it really tested me and my trust with myself, which was healthy.”
When I asked what one of the scariest moments on the trail was for her, Mia told me of a time when she ran out of water in the middle of a 25 mile day. “We stopped for lunch, and I unpacked my bag and realized that my water bladder had a hole in it, so the pressure of my back squeezed it all out over all my gear. It was the middle of the day, super hot out, so we would take siestas to rest for a few hours. That’s when I figured out that I had one liter of water to drink for 15 miles. There was no water source until Walker Pass. I think that was one of the few scary moments for me, just knowing that I wouldn’t technically have enough water for the hiking I needed to do. The people I was hiking with wanted to help me out, so in case we needed to share water we rested longer than normal and night hiked towards Walker Pass. I had run out of water halfway into Walker, but it was cooler out, and so I ended up dehydrated, but because I had given myself enough time I wasn’t sweating as much as I would have. I did what I could. There was this little sign on the back of a post, and it read ‘Trail magic provided by Yogi.’ We had no idea it was going to be there, so we walked over, and we got this excited feeling, probably from the exhaustion and dehydration. We started running down to this blue tarp tent thing, and we found drinks and boxes of fresh fruit. That was the most exciting trail magic I had experienced because it was such a hard day.”
After completing the trail in the fall of 2013, Mia attended a workshop organized by Mudgirls Natural Building Collective on Saltspring Island in British Columbia. She learned natural building methods like adobe and straw bale construction. Currently she is in Moab, Utah volunteering for a group that builds sustainable housing for low-income families. “I realized I could get perspective with building, because it is still a male-dominated thing. To be able to be part of that change, I knew it would be very empowering for me and for the future of women.”
According to the White House Millennials Report, “total student outstanding loan debt surpassed $1 trillion by the end of the second quarter of 2014, making it the second largest category of household debt.”
“That’s a big reason I haven’t gone back to college,” Mia said. “Because that fear that I’ll walk away from a four year degree and be thousands of dollars in debt. You work your butt off for years to pay that off and to sustain yourself. You’re stuck in this system of paying it back. I don’t see any type of happiness in that; I just see more stress and fear coming from it. I’d rather live more simply completing my day-to-day dreams. There are so many more avenues out there; just doing these projects is a good start, and I don’t need a degree for it. There are so many jobs out there where you just need experience; you just have to go and get it.”
As our interview wrapped up I asked Mia what she would like to say to that man she had met in the bar who first started her on this journey. “Saying thank you is perfect. And magic is something I see so often in my life now, unlike before. Interactions with people and little things that come through in your life when you really need them. This sense that the world is magical. So… yeah, Thank you, really.”
Amy Slocum a writer, cook, cocktail geek, magazine junky, former creative writing major, traveler, host, reader, etc., etc., etc.