It was a seemingly anti-climatic end to a 4,300 kilometre journey, all of which had been undertaken on foot. When Australian Chris Bailey crossed the Canadian border, just under six months after he’d set off from Mexico, far to the south, there was no ribbon to burst through, no applause, no crowd of congratulators. But that didn’t matter a whit.
“I hit the border and there was just a border pylon that marked [it]…and there’s nothing else,” recalls the 24-year-old. “I still had 12 kilometres to walk from that point and there was no-one around. I think it was really beautiful. It was very, very unceremonious, but it really made significant the fact that it’s always about the journey, it’s always about the pilgrimage, it’s not so much the ultimate destination.”
THE LONG TREK: Top - Welcome to nowhere; Middle - A satisfying moment breathing in Canada's peaks on the distant horizon for the first time; and Bottom - Mission accomplished! PICTURES: Chris Bailey
Mr Bailey, who hails from Hampton in Melbourne, completed his momentous journey last month, capping off his return to Australia with a fun run, Stride the Divide, in his home town in what was a final push to raise funds for the charity he had chosen to support during the walk. For while his journey was very much a personal one – he had wanted to challenge himself after graduating from university – it was also aimed at helping poor families living half a world away in India.
The latter came about through a collaboration with micro-finance organisation Opportunity International Australia, a group he’d first encountered while studying for his commerce degree. Having decided to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) - which runs along the west coast of the US between Mexico and Canada - after having earlier walked the famous medieval pilgrim trail, the Camino De Santiago, in northern Spain, he was looking for a “partner with a purpose”.
He found it in Opportunity International, a Christian organisation founded by David Bussau in the late 1970s which funds small loans to people, predominantly women, living in poverty in the developing world so they can create a business to help lift their family out of a life of deprivation.
Mr Bailey, who later found his father already had a connection with the organisation, says part of the organisation’s appeal was the its emphasis on dignity.
“[O]ne of my deep motivations is ensuring that human dignity is valued, respected and protected…” he says. “I think it was really beautiful to establish a relationship with a charity that could serve my ‘altruistic appetite’.”
His decision to make the walk about more than a personal pilgrimage has resulted in him so far raising more than $116,000 for Opportunity’s work, an effort which captures in itself something of the scale of the momentous journey he undertook.
The PCT, made famous through Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and the subsequent film starring Reese Witherspoon, comes with a wide range of challenges, particularly when, as was Mr Bailey, he was walking up to 50 kilometres a day.
“The first thousand kilometres is through desert and then you hit the foothills of the Sierras. And the Sierras, pretty much year round, have snow on them,” he says. “So that was definitely a challenge.”
There were also other hikers to meet including some "crazy characters" – there were some 4,000 were said to be walking the trail this year - and, while Mr Bailey says he was quite social early on in his journey, he soon realised he had to “hike my own hike” if he wanted to finish on time, meaning he spent much more time alone, something he says he actually handled very well.
And, of course, as well as having to carry his food, shelter and any other equipment he needed on his back, Mr Bailey also had to deal with wildlife, including everything from a mountain lion to bears, elks and, while he was in the desert, lots and lots of rattlesnakes.
The journey, during which he climbed almost as high as 4,500 metres, also had to be timed correctly given the tight “weather window” in which he had to complete it.
"You have start late enough so the snow is mostly melted in the Sierras…but then you have to start early enough so that by the time you get up to Canada, you beat the snow. And the day I finished, it snowed that night, so I just made it.”
Looking back now, Mr Bailey, a Catholic, can see all the “graces” he was granted on the journey. “If I could take one lesson from the trail, it would really be to foster that attitude of gratitude and the [idea that] from the virtue of gratitude flows humility and joy and things of that nature. So, in that regard, it was a really beautiful, fulfilling experience.”
And while he says he really struggled with his faith at times during the trip, Mr Bailey says the environment which surrounded him ensured it was an exercise which, overall, strengthened his faith.
“I think the fact that I was surrounded by just intense natural beauty...would fill anyone – from the existential nihilist to the Orthodox monk – with absolute awe and wonder,” he says. “[Ultimately it was] was just a constant quiet invitation to become contemplative and be introspective and just kind of ponder the greater questions.”
Mr Bailey is considering making a trip to India next year to see how the money he raised is being used firsthand - something he says he feels obliged to do. But in the meantime, he’s looking for a job – possibly in the financial sector. And he’s not planning any other major walks.
“Not right now. But ask me again in maybe a month and I’m sure I’m going to be nostalgic for the trail and doing something akin somewhere in the world. But right now I’m satisfied enjoying my creature comforts.”