Our Community - Reflections on Adventure

Haleigh Ehmsen’s Path to the PCT

Every path that takes you to the beginning of a long distance thru-hike is different. Meet Ambassador Haleigh Ehmsen and learn about what’s driving her westbound to embark on the Pacific Crest Trail!

We’re rooting Haleigh on as she gets ready for her hike!

You section-hiked the AT last year and are setting out to hike the PCT in June. Tell us about a lesson that you’re carrying forward from that long distance hike to this one.

One thing I learned on the Appalachian Trail is to hike your own hike. While hiking groups and “tramily” are important, it’s equally as important to keep in mind your own goals for the hike, along with how your body feels, and let those guide you. Comparison is human nature, but I found that when I was hiking alone at my own pace I felt most fulfilled, rather than trying to keep up with the more seasoned hikers or big groups.

That being said, I do think that community is especially important on long hikes. I’m grateful to have met two pals on the AT who I’ll meet soon on the PCT. These guys have been so supportive and helpful in making the decision to do the thru-hike, planning and choosing gear, and easing my anxiety when I have nightmares about getting lost or sliding down the mountain.

Haleigh’s AT “tramily” taking a well-earned break in Franklin, NC.

What are you most excited and most nervous about when you think about this trip (qualifier: nervousness is often a good thing!)?

I am most excited for the opportunity to live a bit of a slower, freer lifestyle. For the last three years, I have worked 8-5 and then some. Because of the nature of my job, I was often on call and spent time working late hours. I look forward to having some time off to think, hike, and live a simpler life. When I was younger I spent so much time outside, running around and exploring. In the hustle and bustle of my career, I don’t always make time to do that, but when I do, I feel so much more at peace.  

I’m nervous about hiking through high levels of snow. The weather is unpredictable and I worry about conditions that will make the trail impassable or dangerous. I feel as prepared as I can be, but that is just a twinge of nervousness that I find myself coming back to.

Haleigh during her AT thru-hike.

Hiking the PCT takes a tremendous amount of persistence, grit, and perhaps most of all, time – which makes this an expedition incredible investment in yourself, your journey, and your growth. What is grounding you as you take on this adventure? How have you arrived at this point of another dive into thru-hiking?

As I mentioned before, I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. My dad loved to camp and fish, and growing up we drove all over Iowa hiking and camping in state parks. It seemed to me that my dad was always at his best on those camping trips. He was always up for an outdoor adventure, even if it was only setting up camp in the backyard. We lost him nearly eight years ago to alcoholism, and it is in nature that I find myself feeling most connected to him. I think that is part of why I am drawn to an extended hike, the ultimate exposure to nature and wilderness. Losing him unexpectedly left me with a lot of questions: about my dad and about myself. Many of them I will probably never have the answer to, but I want more peace in my life, and I think my thru-hike offers time to let go of some of those questions and come to know myself more deeply.

Making the decision was also rooted in my relationships. Hiking the PCT was a thought that swirled in my head for months after I left the AT. My pals had acknowledged my strength and grit and promised to stay in touch after they reached Katahdin to plan next year on the PCT. I was loosely committed to join them, but honestly the PCT became a dream I thought I would always carry and never live out. As we approached the spring, I began to think about other dreams that swirled in my head, seemingly impossible before I accomplished them: a sprint-triathlon, a half marathon, a full trail marathon, a solo cross-country road trip, a mountain race. I lived those dreams and accomplished my biggest goals when, through discipline and training, I told myself I could. Ultimately, it was the group chat with my AT pals that kept my PCT dream swirling and becoming more and more real. Through snapchats and threads of messages with Joe and Dom, I realized that I COULD make the decision to leave my job and that I would be just fine if I did, perhaps even happier.

Haleigh and her dad at the Manchester Trout Fish Hatchery.

As an Ambassador to The Cairn Project, you’re joining a team of women who are catalyzing their outdoor passion into a force that passes this opportunity on to the next generation. How and when did your connection to the outdoors blossom, and who were the people in your life who helped to make that happen?

My dad introduced me to camping and fishing at a young age. It was his own dad’s influence that inspired his love of the outdoors. Now that my dad is gone, my grandpa tells me about their adventures biking through the Snowy Range, their fishing trips in Missouri, and camping adventures in Iowa. When we look at maps together, he traces his finger along their routes, pausing to point at places where they experienced severe dehydration or had the best shower of their lives. Recently my grandpa read Wild, and he loved it. It reminded him of his own adventures and the joys and challenges that come with living a life outdoors. When I went to visit him in Arizona this past March, he gave me a book on planning a thru-hike, Long Trails: Mastering the Art of a Thru-Hike. I think I knew then that I was going to do the PCT, because if my grandpa believed I could do it, I knew I had my dad’s support, too.  

Haleigh and her grandpa on the Wind Cave Trail in Arizona
Haleigh Ehmsen

Haleigh Ehmsen works in Communications at Saint Mary’s College, and is a thruhiker and runner based in South Bend, Indiana. After recently hiking the Appalachian Trail, Haleigh is challenging herself to a new thruhike adventure that will expand outdoor access for young women. See her ambassador page.