Last year, Auburn graduate Jessica Mills was experiencing something of a fever — a burn to get back on the trail.
She had hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015, and after finishing that 2,189-mile journey, was ready to return to normal life.
But it didn't take long for trail fever to kick in. Just months after returning to the Auburn area and daily routine, the backpacking life was calling her.
"That's all I was thinking about. How can I get back out there, get that simplicity again?" she said.
She began to make plans to conquer the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile journey from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. The PCT was the next trail on her list of three that would allow her to get the Triple Crown of Hiking — a distinction earned by those who have walked the AT, PCT and the Continental Divide Trail in their entirety. The CDT was last on her list, and she knew if she committed to hike a second, she would have to commit to the third.
"For me, it was either do one trail or three," Mills said. "As soon as I stepped foot on the PCT, it was like, 'OK, I have to do the CDT.'
"This time, it helps knowing I'm going out to do another trail, so I don't have to wonder, 'When am I going to taste that freedom again?'"
On the trail, life is amplified through nature, but it is also stripped down, in that your only task is to care for your most basic needs, Mills said.
"The only thing you have to worry about is, do I have food, do I have water, do I have shelter," she said. "There are a lot less decisions to be made out on the trail, and you're seeing something beautiful every day ... You feel good. I mean, sometimes you feel tired and worn out, but you're accomplishing something."
It wasn't just the simplicity that drew Mills back to the trail and closer to her goal of achieving the Triple Crown, but the people she met while hiking. She has stories of "trail angels" — people who leave coolers of food and drinks along the trail or who open up their homes to give hikers relief for a weekend — helping her along the way. She spoke of one hiker who, upon hearing her tent had a hole in it and couldn't withstand rain, gave her his extra tent to borrow for the rest of the trip without a moment's hesitation.
"He was a complete stranger," Mills said. "He was just like, 'It's the trail.' That's how people are out there; they're giving and kind."
If it weren't for some one particular group of hikers she met along the way Mills said she wouldn't have made it.
When she embarked on the PCT in April, Mills started with a friend. During the hike, Mills took a week off to attend her brother's graduation, and when she came back, she was taking on the trail by herself. At one point, Mills found herself accompanied by another hiker, a man from Australia. Together, they approached the Sierra Nevada, a range of mountains stretching more than 600 miles throughout California.
They had heard that many were choosing to skip hiking through the Sierra Nevada that year since the area had experienced record-breaking amounts of snowfall. But Mills was determined to hike every inch of open trail.
"I had no experience with snow hiking, really, and this was just fields of white, as far as you can see," she said. "A lot of people were just skipping that section completely, but for me, to do a through-hike, if I go to do it, I'm doing it. I'm not skipping sections."
Mills said she was just glad she wasn't doing it alone. But after going over the first pass in the snow, her companion decided to turn back.
"I wanted to say, 'No, don't leave me,' but I wasn't going to let it be me that keeps him out there," she said. "So, this was my worst fear, being alone in the Sierra Nevada, and there I am."
That same day, Mills had to cross several raging rivers — one of the biggest dangers on the PCT. She managed to make it across two, but on the third she found herself afraid for her life.
"My legs were tired; I'd been hiking all day, and I could feel (the river) start pushing me," she said. "I knew in that moment I was about to fall down, and downstream was just a rock chute, so I knew that if I fell, it was over.
"When you're exhausted, part of you just wants to go, 'OK, I'm done,' and give up, Then, there's that survival instinct that says, 'OK, no; I'm not done.' I even hollered out, 'Not today!' It was real cheesy. You think you're crazy sometimes."
She managed to turn around and get back to the bank, where she set up camp and sat in her tent upset, wet and alone.
"I came away from the AT feeling a lot more independent and confident. Then, the PCT, it humbled me a bit," she said. "I was like, 'Yeah, I'm so tough,' but sometimes it's OK to get help. As much as I'd like to say to myself, 'I did it, and I made it through by myself,' this year, in the Sierra Nevada, I could not have done that alone."
And she didn't have to. That night, as she was camping on the trail and feeling defeated, a group of guys came along and set up camp with her. The next day, they all helped one another cross the river and took on the snow-buried mountain range together.
That group ended up saving her life more than once.
"Sometimes in life you need to lean on people, and it's OK," Mills said. "I was fortunate to have those good people around me."
She said she believes that if the conditions had been more favorable, she might could have completed the trail alone, but the main thing is for hikers to be aware of their needs and listen to them. She also believes in encouraging those who have never hiked before to take on one of these trails.
"The AT was my first backpacking experience," she said. "PCT was my second and the CDT will be my third, so I'll get the Triple Crown, if all goes well, in my first three backpacking trips.
"People say, 'Oh, you're a newbie; you can't do it!' Well, yes, you can."
Mills finished the PCT in October, and she will head out on the CDT, the longest of the three trails, in the spring. It runs 3,100 miles between Mexico and Canada.
Mills kept a video diary of life on the trail while she hiked the PCT and she also maintains a blog, www.homemadewanderlust.com. Her videos can be found on her YouTube channel, Homemade Wanderlust, which is currently just shy of 70,000 followers.
She posts about her journey to provide a realistic story of the backpacking experience as well as tips and advice for new hikers. One day, she plans to pen her experiences in a book.
Mills said that taking on these trails has given her a whole new grasp on life.
"Sometimes you do hold yourself back from doing things," she said. "You think, 'That'd be good for someone else,' but you just have to cross that line. You have to stop keeping yourself held back just because you've never done something before. And, nowadays, you can YouTube anything."