Ultimately, Duluth’s Gail Francis couldn’t think of any good reasons not to hike across America. The year was 2012. She had a good job as an analyst working on climate-change issues. She had done some other long-distance backpacking, including one seven-week stint on the Appalachian Trail.
At 39, she was thinking of walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which traverses blistering desert country and high mountain peaks as it winds from the Mexican border to the Canadian border through California, Oregon and Washington.
“It’s something I had wanted to do for a long time,” Francis, now 45, said in an interview this past week. “I reached the point where I thought, ‘Well, I don’t have kids. I don’t have to make a house payment.’ I wasn’t getting any younger. I thought, ‘If I’m going to do it, I need to decide to do it and accept whatever comes out of it.'”
She asked for a leave of absence from her job. It was denied. So she quit.
The story of her five-month odyssey is chronicled in her new book, “Bliss(ters): How I Walked from Mexico to Canada in One Summer.”
The book, just published, is a sometimes soul-searching, sometimes humorous, always forthright account of her five months on the trail. She writes about the repeated kindness of total strangers and the camaraderie she found with other “thru-hikers” — those hiking the entire route. But she also acknowledges having to fight off the inclination to give up her hike at several points.
Despite her extensive hiking experience — often alone — before the trip, she had recurring doubts about herself early in this hike.
“It was a surprise to me how much I had this feeling of not really being sure of myself,” Francis said. “I felt that actually I was not that good, even though I had backpacked 1,500 miles and been charged by a grizzly bear. Somehow, I assumed I wasn’t a real backpacker. I had all these other people to compare myself to.”
On any popular trail, a hiker encounters the same fellow travelers again and again. Hikers move along in a kind of elastic pack, sometimes some forging ahead, sometimes falling back, often camping together in groups near water sources. They become this loose association of companions, often encouraging others as they go.
They take on — or are given — trail names. Francis often came across Collector, Memphis, Castle and Train. A thru-hiker called Wolf gave Francis her trail name: NightinGail.
“I tend to sing a lot on the trail,” she said.
Though Francis had always enjoyed being alone in nature, something changed on this hike.
“I actually really came to enjoy the company of other people in the backcountry,” she said. “By the end of the trail, I really liked having another human being to share the sunrise with.”
Although the backpackers traveled independently, they buoyed each other’s spirits and looked out for each other.
“It was just always really lighthearted around other hikers,” Francis said. “The political tensions we have now were just becoming huge, but our main conversations might be about bowel movements. You get real basic and connect on this mammalian level… If something serious happened to any one of us, there was no chance that anyone would be left to suffer harm out there. It’s really a unique bond and doesn’t seem to have much to do with how we form bonds in the rest of our lives.”
The kindness of these strangers extended to off-the-trail encounters, too. If Francis emerged at a road and needed a ride to a nearby town for supplies, someone always stopped to pick her up, she said. Some gave her lodging. Others, called “trail angels,” would set up specifically near trailheads offering food, water and other supplies to hikers — free. And Francis’ friends back home were there for her, too, across the miles.
“It’s amazing to me how kind people were,” she said. “They were so consistently kind. Strangers giving me rides, or trail angels — that group is amazing. And this group back home — some people I didn’t know all that well — sending me packages and emails in a way that felt really great. I hope I can try to be more of that way and not so closed in on myself sometimes.”
In fact, the hike has had an enduring impact on Francis. In her epilogue to the book, she writes: “The most enduring change the hike provoked has been a sense of optimism. Something about finally pursuing and achieving a long-held dream has made me happier than I could have imagined… Although I still have my struggles and my bouts of sadness, they seem manageable. They don’t seem as hard as hiking through the desert.”
Five years from her hike, that feeling remains, Francis said. Upon returning from her hike, she was rehired as a climate-change analyst. Over this past Labor Day weekend, she was married.
“Being constantly immersed in something I love flipped a switch inside of me and made me love more things,” she said.
The Gail Francis file
The book: “Bliss(ters): How I Walked from Mexico to Canada One Summer,” $10.95, paperback.
Author: Gail M. Francis, Duluth
Age during hike: 39 at start, 40 at end
The trail: The Pacific Crest Trail, 2,700 miles from the Mexico border to the Canadian border
Five months: April to September 2012
Weight of pack: About 40 pounds in the beginning, 30 toward the end
Temperature range: Below freezing to over 100 degrees
Find the book: On Amazon and Kindle, and soon in local bookstores