First published in the Nov. 25 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
Exploring beyond one’s comfort zone is territory some never quite wander into, but for La Cañada Flintridge resident Teresa Butier, it’s a frontier she has embraced while embarking on a five-and-a-half month quest of self-discovery and adventure along the Pacific Crest Trail earlier this year.
The 50-year-old trail veteran took on 2,650-miles in a single year, traveling mostly on-foot from Mexico to Canada.
The through-hike was a path paved with love, as many steps along the way were shared with family and friends. Starting near the U.S.-Mexico border back in March, Butier’s first 109 miles of the expedition was with her sister, Michele Kershaw, by her side. Later her 16-year-old son Jake joined the hike for another 109 miles, her 18-year-old son Andrew hiked for 163 miles, and her husband, Mitch, hiked 560 miles, meeting her a total of five times along the way.
“My journey was completely atypical for a PCT hike, because most people are by themselves, they’re from far away and so they don’t have a lot of support nearby, whereas I had a lot of logistics organized to have people come and meet me on the trail and share it with me. In those moments, my journey became unique and very special to me,” said Butier, who founded the group La Cañada Hikers in 2016.
The weekly hikers group was made up initially of Palm Crest Elementary mothers, but has since grown to include women throughout the community. Some group members met Butier on the PCT trail, hiking about 25 miles.
Butier was unable to access some sections of the trail that were closed due to fires, including portions of the San Gabriel Mountains and of Oregon. In those instances, she walked around the fire closure areas or found a ride. Although she had to re-route her path a few times, she got lucky and began ahead of some of the Southern California fires that have since created additional closures. Butier estimates skipping about 200 miles total.
Starting out, her backpack with all of her essential gear weighed about 30 pounds, but as she persevered, she said it began to feel lighter as she built strength and found her rhythm. Eventually, 15 miles a day turned into 25 as a routine started to set in. She woke up at 4 a.m. nearly every morning, ate breakfast, packed up camp and was on her way by 5:30 a.m. until dark most nights.
On her trek, she experienced all the seasons, from sweltering 95-degree heat to temperatures so low in the icy snow that her damp hiking socks froze inside of her backpack. The most unexpected weather she encountered was when a four-day surprise snowstorm hit the Sierras, while her husband, Mitch, was with her on the trail.
Braving temperatures in the 20s throughout the day and in the low teens at night, she and Mitch took shelter for 24 hours in their tent to safely evade the harsh storm. In the meantime, the couple planned their next move.
“We really evaluated our options — it was either to hike further north 50 miles over terrain, more passes and through more rivers — areas we hadn’t seen before, or hike 30 miles back over a pass and five significant water crossings that we had seen before,” Butier said.
They chose the latter, and hiked backwards through waist-deep, chilling rivers — again — to safely navigate their way out of the storm.
“We were just so cold and there was so much snow that we decided to take the safer route,” Butier said. “Although we didn’t complete that section, I feel like it was the safe, wise choice.”
When she reached northern California, Butier was back to 95-degree heat. She removed and submerged layers of clothing in water to keep cool.
The trail in Washington, Butier noted, was the most challenging. She became ill, and went off the trail to get tested for COVID-19 — the result was negative. She was diagnosed with a respiratory infection and got a thumbs-up from a doctor to resume her hike, where a congested cough and difficulty breathing did not get in the way of completing her usual 25 miles a day. The worst of her symptoms stayed with her for about 10 days, but lingered for the entire month’s hike in the state.
“From head to toe I was soaked for days and that’s where my body just got run down,” Butier said. “It was a challenge, especially in the beginning when the infection felt like it was tight in my lungs while I was hiking up mountains and feeling breathless, but at the same time, it made me feel really strong knowing that I could push through the discomfort and continue.”
Alone for the majority of the hike, Butier said she experienced real moments of isolation. There was even a point in her travels when she was seemingly the only one on the trail.
“I had a nine-day stretch entirely by myself when there was a 24-hour period where I didn’t even see a single human being and at times I would get up to a peak and look down through all of the trees I hiked through and I wondered if it was safe,” Butier said.
She also battled loneliness rooted in feeling homesick, but calling it quits wasn’t an option for Butier, who had her mind set on completing the trail in one go.
“I’ve always been wired this way: If I set a goal, I will not stop until I am finished unless something dangerous gets in my way like a fire or if I had a serious injury that would have become worse if I kept going,” Butier said. “There’s only a handful of things that would’ve brought me home, but loneliness wasn’t going to be the thing.”
‘SO MANY WORLDS
Despite missing her loved ones when they were back at home, she made meaningful relationships along the way with fellow hikers from all walks of life, including hiking 500 miles with a 29-year-old from Colorado, 200 miles with a 62-year-old truck driver from Washington, and 300 miles with a 62-year-old salesman from Indiana.
“That’s what’s so beautiful about the trail –– so many worlds come together and connect people that normally wouldn’t have connected,” she said.
“I’m super proud that I was out there alone and had to navigate the wilderness, the towns, meeting new people — entirely by myself,” Butier added. “I feel like this experience was a huge gift. I learned that I’m capable of doing more than I thought I could do. It made me more confident, more resilient and more courageous.”
She considered Washington to be both the hardest section to hike and the most beautiful.
“I was thinking about home a lot, but every corner you turn, fall was happening, the mountainsides were changing colors, all the blueberry bushes were changing and leaves were becoming red, orange and yellow,” Butier said. “It was stunning, breathtaking, it had that awe factor and I just felt pure happiness when I would summit a peak and see the views.”
As she hiked toward the northern terminus at the U.S.-Canada border, she received a long-awaited congratulatory embrace from her husband, who hiked the last 60 miles with her to the very end.
“We are partners in life,” Mitch said. “I wanted to experience as much as I could and wanted to support her. I was thrilled to be a partner with her for as much as I could.
“The PCT is one of the most beautiful, amazing and arduous journeys one can undertake, and we are all extremely proud of Teresa for her fortitude and steadfastness in completing it.”
After following her dreams to the conclusion of the trail, she reflected on her path to get there. Butier said she feels like she’s her strongest self, physically and mentally. She hopes that with this undertaking, she can inspire others to challenge themselves and achieve their own ambition.
“To take risks and be outside of your comfort zone, for me, is really living life to the fullest, because we are capable of doing so much more than we think,” Butier said. “It’s never too late to follow your dreams — whatever that is — because life is too short to put it off. So, I’m proud at 50 years old that I was able to do something like this.”
Butier’s months-long hike created memories that will likely last her a lifetime. She thinks about moments on the trail every day, but said there’s nowhere she would rather be than home with her family.