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This summer, I showed a friend one of my favorite sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. One night, we watched the sunset and she said it was possibly the most beautiful place she’d ever been. Photo by Liz Faubell.

I Was Afraid Of the Outdoors. Now I Help Others Hit the Trails.

It was a winding road to where I'm at, and WTA helped me get here. | By Tiffany Chou

When I think back on the last few years of my life, before I ever joined Washington Trails Association as a staff member, WTA was there a lot more than it wasn’t. And it has had a greater impact on my life than I ever could have imagined.

Even though I grew up in Bellingham — near Mount Baker, Oyster Dome, Whatcom Falls and countless other places to get outside — I didn’t start hiking until I was an adult. The outdoors always seemed like a place for people more athletic and more adventurous than me. The outdoors scared me. So in a self-fulfilling way, I never went hiking, backpacking or even really car camping — I felt too inexperienced to start. 

Tiffany standing on Rattlesnake Ledge covered in snow. Photo by Tiffany Chou.
Although I was miserable the first time I stood on Rattlesnake Ledge, I've returned since then and loved it every time. Photo by Tiffany Chou.

I didn’t like my first hike

I went on my first hike post-college, after I had turned 23 and moved to Seattle. At the time, I was a software engineer. I had studied hard in college and spent very little time doing much else. We had to take physical education classes to graduate, and I chose squash and table tennis, both indoor courses.

I didn’t like that first hike. My friend took me to Rattlesnake Ledge and before we even started I was terrified I wouldn’t make it to the end. And it was hard! When we finally reached the ledge, I thought it was pretty, but the hike was exhausting, hot and busy. I decided hiking was something I was maybe willing to do, but only if someone dragged me along. Luckily for me, my friends did just that.

After a few more hikes, I realized I didn’t hate it. Maybe I even was starting to like it? Hiking made me feel physically strong, and I got to see a side of my beloved state I’d never seen before.

Around that time, I was also having a hard time at work. I felt I was bad at my job, and I didn’t like being a software engineer. I worried that I’d feel this way about my career forever. It was affecting my confidence and mental health.

Right before the new year, I decided to give myself a personal challenge — something to focus on besides work. In 2018, I was going to try to complete 52 hikes — one a week for the entire year. 

A 52-hike challenge

Tiffany swimming in Jade Lake. Photo by Katie Davis.
Over my year of hiking, I got to see — and take a dip in — some of the most beautiful parts of Washington. Photo by Katie Davis.

I spent an absurd amount of time on the WTA website that year. The Hiking Guide and trip reports, in particular, were pretty much the only things you’d find in my browser history. 

I gained a lot of confidence that year and realized I preferred solo hiking, so I relied heavily on the information I could glean from WTA’s resources to know what I was getting myself into. And I got in the habit of writing my own trip reports to give back to the community that was giving so much to me. 

I met my goal of 52 hikes in July when I hiked up to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier. By the end of the year, I had nearly doubled my goal. 

Throughout it all, WTA gave me the tools to grow into a self-assured hiker. I used the Hike Finder Map to discover hikes that were closer to civilization, until I became comfortable hiking in remote places. I didn’t know about things like the Ten Essentials or what permits I needed, but following WTA on social media helped me gradually build up my knowledge about recreating outdoors.

A few months into my 52-hike challenge, I decided that I would quit my job and attempt a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) the following year. I’d gained enough confidence that it didn’t seem completely impossible for me to walk from Canada to Mexico.

Walking across the country

I started saving money, finding the right gear and training. Just under a year after I reached my 52-hike challenge goal, on the Fourth of July in 2019, I took my first step on the PCT and began a long southbound journey from Canada to Mexico. 

My time on the trail in Oregon coincided with WTA’s 2019 Hike-a-Thon, and I decided to participate. Since hiking was basically my (unpaid) full-time job, I racked up enough mileage and elevation gain to top the leaderboards, which was admittedly kind of awesome. 

Tiffany at the Pacific Crest Trail southern terminus monument after completing a southbound thru-hike. Photo by Tiffany Chou.
I reached the southern terminus the day before Thanksgiving, which seemed appropriate — I felt nothing but immense gratitude for my experience. Photo by Tiffany Chou.

Hiking the PCT is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most physically, mentally and emotionally demanding thing I’ve ever done. There were days I didn't want to walk anymore. I got eaten alive by mosquitoes and ravaged by gnats. I was almost struck by lightning. Some days, my water would freeze as I was packing up camp; some nights, temperatures would drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. During the last month or so of the hike, I lost all feeling in my toes (this is a relatively common long-distance hiker thing, but still concerning). I threw temper tantrums, had meltdowns and shed many tears. Some nights, I couldn’t sleep because my feet were in so much pain.

But there were also days when I loved every moment of a 30-mile day. I saw some of the most remote places in Washington. I walked past Crater Lake, Mount Shasta, Mount Lassen and many other beautiful landmarks. I had full days of solitude in the Sierra Nevada in the cold of October. I climbed to the top of Mount Whitney, briefly standing as the tallest thing in the contiguous United States. I slept next to cacti and desert sunsets. I met wonderful people, many of whom I still remember even though we spent only a few hours together before our paths diverged. And I was amazed to find that, though I had always been so hard on myself, I became grateful for my body, my mind and my ability to persevere.

147 days after I first stepped on the PCT, I touched the southern terminus monument at the U.S.–Mexican border. It is the proudest moment of my entire life, and likely will continue to be for a long time.

But I also felt lost when I got off the trail. For months, I had had a goal every single day, with my mind firmly on the end of the trail. Now what? 

Leading the way

When I returned to “real life” from the PCT, going back to a desk job was difficult to imagine, so I looked for a way to work outside while I assimilated back into city life. I found a job posting from the YMCA to work as a wilderness backpacking instructor for youth in the summer and applied on a whim. Even though I had no youth-instructing experience, they took a chance on me, partially due to my now-extensive backcountry experience. 

My main responsibility was taking groups of about eight kids out on weeklong backpacking trips with another instructor. Whenever a co-instructor and I were trying to get info on our itinerary (we’d often be assigned routes we’d never hiked before), WTA was our go-to for current conditions, parking information and notes about points of interest along the way. Without that information, I certainly wouldn’t have felt comfortable being responsible for a bunch of kids out in the backcountry for a full week.

I worked that job for 2 years, leading trips over the summer and during shoulder seasons when I could, and repairing gear and helping with gear organization when trips weren’t running. I found a lot of happiness, made new friends and learned so much — including how to show less-experienced outdoorspeople how to hike and backpack safely and responsibly. I realized I loved being able to help others feel comfortable and responsible about getting outside. 

Tiffany posing next to a large tree trunk she's attempted to dig out of the trail at Dead Man's Pond in Puyallup. Photo by Zachary Toliver.
During ELP, I learned a lot about trail work. I spent 10 hours trying to dig out this tree stump and was never able to. Hey, it was still fun! Photo by Zachary Toliver.

Learning new skills

In late 2021, multiple friends sent me a job posting from WTA. WTA was on the search for its second Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) cohort — a program designed to help BIPOC folks develop outdoor leadership skills. As someone who didn’t really see myself represented in the outdoor community very often, I decided to apply. 

I was starting to crave a stable schedule with regular hours, as much as I loved working outside with youth. And WTA would give me an opportunity to work outside doing something I’d never done because I was intimidated by it: trail work. 

I was accepted into the program (after taking the final-round interview on my birthday!) and spent 12 weeks learning the ins and outs of trail work, getting to know more about the inner workings at WTA, making new friends and forming connections with others in the outdoor industry. My cohort and I bonded over our shared experience of being people of color in the outdoors. 

I also spent a sizeable portion of the program working on an independent project researching and writing entries for urban hikes that weren’t in the Hiking Guide yet.

Near the end of the program, I had to think about what I wanted to do next. It had been a long time since I’d had a steady long-term job, and I was starting to think about the possibility of returning to something more stable and permanent.

Telling stories

Luckily for me, the communications team at WTA was looking for a new communications coordinator, someone who would work closely with the Hiking Guide, engage with the hiking community, and research and write up new resources for hikers. 

The job sounded exactly like what I wanted to do. I could help others feel strong and capable in the outdoors on a grand scale.

Tiffany working with the ELP cohort at Discovery Park on putting water bars into the trail and leveling them with a spirit level. Photo by Zachary Toliver.
Our ELP cohort spent our last couple of weeks working at Discovery Park, a great way to end the program. Photo by Zachary Toliver.

I came from a technical background, had never written professionally (except for my ELP project) and had never worked in communications, so I really wasn’t sure how it would go. But I had learned during my time in the ELP that I really enjoyed writing about hiking and creating new resources for hikers.

And it just felt right to be able to contribute to a resource I had used so heavily and that had helped me build confidence in hiking. Having done some work with the communications team and learned about the behind-the-scenes work at WTA during my time with the ELP, I knew this was a place I could use the hiking knowledge I’d acquired over the last few years and be happy at the same time.

While taking a break on a trail work day at Discovery Park with the ELP cohort, I got a phone call telling me I got the job. 

Now, I spend my days writing stories for and about the hiking community, creating new resources for hikers and helping to maintain the Hiking Guide that has been such a big part of my life for years. My team is great and super fun to work with, and I regularly feel as if my perspective is valued and respected.

Today

It’s been quite the journey to end up here. I sunk to a low point, found something I loved, walked the length of the United States, made a huge career change and ended up at an organization I’ve looked up to for several years. 

I feel as if I’ve finally found a place I truly belong, both personally and professionally — I have WTA to thank for giving me what I needed to find my path here.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.