I met Gail Storey online back in 2010 when I started blogging on this website. She found it somehow, and once in a while would comment on my blogs. She, too, was a contemplative hiker of sorts, she’d say, and then told me a little bit about her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. She’d even written a book about the experience. It took me a couple of years, but I finally got around to reading it a couple of months ago.
I don’t know what took me so long. It’s certainly the genre I enjoy reading. I love adventure non-fiction that takes places on trails and mountains. Some of my favorite authors of that genre are Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air), Joe Simpson (Touching the Void, The Beckoning Silence) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild). I love reading stories where the writer overcomes a fear or obstacle and is transformed. In that sense, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed with I Promise Not to Suffer.
Gail begins her story with a clue of where the trajectory of her transformation may land. “I never much cared for nature,” she writes, “or rather, thought it okay as long as it stayed outside.” Unlike Krakauer and Simpson, Gail is not a professional athlete or a seasoned mountaineer or hiker. She’s a professional writer. Her account of her hike on the PCT is from the perspective of a normal person doing something extraordinary. Like Bill Bryson in the first chapter of “A Walk in the Woods”, she too, has normal trepidation about what the experience may entail.
So why does Gail hike the PCT? Because her husband Porter, a rather outdoorsy and adventure-loving sort, decides to resign from his job and do the 2,700 hike. She goes with him because, well, she can’t stand the thought of sitting at home worrying about him for six months.
Gail and Porter’s trek on the PCT is not surprisingly without complications. Gail’s mother is dying of cancer and Gail calls her at often from their stops in town. Porter is trying to figure out what he’s going to do in his career after he’s finished with his hike (and before the hike, while he was still working, all he thought about was doing the hike!). There are the usual hardships of the trail – long miles, sore muscles, discomfort, fatigue, unbearable heat followed by unbearable cold. Gail’s telling of the story is full of heart and vulnerability, but isn’t so splayed out as to make the reader feel voyeuristic (think Eat, Pray, Love). She tells us about how she worries she’s holding Porter back from hiking faster, and how she’s often complaining about the horrible wind and the deep snow and of her ability to handle things when they get way harder. She’s not exaggerating, either. In one memorable scene, Gail almost gets blown off a cliff in the middle of the night while huddled in her sleeping bag.
Gail is petite and lightweight, but not fragile. She decides she’s going to continue the trek with Porter despite the fatigue and weather challenges. He wonders if it wouldn’t be better if she went home and let him finish on his own. He worries about her and doesn’t want her to get hurt or worse. He is torn, and implores her to consider stopping. She refuses, and implores him that she wants to continue, that as difficult as it is, she can’t imagine leaving.The trail and Nature herself has done a number on her. She becomes addicted to the trail, to the beauty, to the wilderness, to the rawness of it all. She wants to carry on, and besides, she promises not to suffer from now on.
I was riveted by some of the challenges Gail and Porter faced in the Sierra Nevada mountains in late spring. The story is a page turner, because even though you know they survive the journey (well at least you’re sure Gail does), you’re not sure if they finish or how they’ll navigate certain obstacles that Gail warns the reader about. Will Gail finish the entire hike? Will Porter? What about some of the people they meet on the trail along the way?
What I liked most about I Promise Not to Suffer was that Gail didn’t take herself too seriously, and certain passages made me laugh out loud. She describes the dread she feels about having to do certain sections of the trail, and you can’t help but wonder how you’d feel if you were facing the same thing. She isn’t smug, or flippant, or boastful. She isn’t whiny, either. When you read this story you tell yourself that you wish you could do the PCT and feel the things Gail felt, but at the same time you think, hell no, I couldn’t put myself through all that crazy shit.
I Promise Not to Suffer is the kind of story that makes you wistful when it’s over. You don’t want it to end. You want Gail to take you on another adventure, and another. It’s a great read when you’re feeling stir-crazy on a cold winter night and all those glorious summer hikes are still many, many months away.