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Kathryn Barnes: ‘What I learnt quitting my desk job to hike 935 miles in the wild’

-Mar 7, Hannah Hargrave, Living -

Kathryn Barnes had what she describes as an early mid-life crisis and walked away from her life in the city to embark on a 935 mile hike

Kathryn Barnes had what she describes as an early mid-life crisis and walked away from her life in the city to embark on a 935 mile hike from California to Canada. Here the bubbly Brit – and author of upcoming book ‘The Unlikeliest Backpacker’ – talks to Lumity about leaving behind the daily grind, stepping out of her comfort zone and how adventure has made her a better person.

Kathryn wasn’t even 30 years old when she began questioning her life. From the outside she had it all, a happy newlywed with a career and an enviable modern city lifestyle.  In reality she was desperately unhappy in her work and she craved a change – she just surprised everyone, even herself, with what she decided to do.

In her own admission Kathryn “hated camping” and far favoured luxury hotels in sun soaked destinations over pitching tents and sleeping on the floor. But after reading Cheryl Strayed’s book ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest’ she became inspired. So much so that five months later she and her husband, Conrad touched down in California to embark on a life altering journey. 

“This was a very uncharacteristic leap for both of us,” Kathryn explains. “Neither Conrad or I had grown up in the countryside or woods or had any kind of wilderness skills to be honest. We had lived and breathed city life for as long as we could remember.”

And yet it wasn’t actually working for them and the lifestyle was making Kathryn stressed, sick and unhappy.

“In the run up to our decision to jump ship and go on this wild adventure I had grown unhappy in my career and I was fast approaching 30,” she says. “I took a step back and looked at my work and felt like a fish out of water.

“It didn’t feel like the place for me. I believe in encouraging and helping and working in a team. But where I was working as a management consultant was very competitive and back-stabbing. I didn’t feel I was where I needed to be. I had a huge element of unrest and unhappiness.

“I was at a crossroads and something was missing. I guess it was some kind of early midlife crisis. It got me questioning my life.

“I didn’t reach for the self help books but I did read ‘Wild’ and was instantly captivated by the description of the scenery. I loved the escapism of it.”

Kathryn’s decision to walk almost 1000 miles and climb 166,000 feet in ten weeks wasn’t an easy one to make though. She admits she was filled with nerves and feared she’d fail.

“I’m not an adrenaline junky. I don’t even like roller coasters, I wouldn’t jump out of an airplane. I was curious but certainly not an adventurer. I was full of fear and apprehension before I went. My nerves peeked the night before we left when I felt physically sick.”

But having spent months planning their route and making all the time-consuming preparations – including Conrad taking a sabbatical from his job – she couldn’t turn back and she’s so grateful she didn’t.

Kathryn and Conrad hiked together for 10-weeks through some of the most beautiful but also challenging wildness America had to offer, battling mosquitos, malnutrition and at times relationship mayhem!

“It’s really difficult hiking with another person,” Kathryn admits. “You see them at their worst when you get tired and so irritable. There were so many arguments at the beginning of our trip that at one point I thought we were headed for divorce! I seriously questioned whether this person was the right one I had picked to spend the rest of my life with.”

However as she says it you know there’s a big fat ‘but’ coming straight afterwards. 

“But we found out groove and I learned I needed to be more patient and accepting of other people. I had to learn to support and when to take a step back too. We learned a lot about our relationship.”

Although they backpacked as a couple they met many other people and challenges along the way – tales of which she documents in her inspiring book. 

When asked what the biggest surprise of the entire trip was she quipped: “That we made it!”

She continued: “There were so many obstacles we didn’t envisage. Who knew how disruptive mosquitoes could be? They made our lives miserable for weeks. I hadn’t anticipated that. And encountering snow on the ground in winter months which I hadn’t thought about. I think I had been so focused on how we would physically get to the finish line; planning our stops, our food packages, getting the right camping gear that lots of other things went to the wayside and ended up completely surprising us.”

They persevered mentally and physically and had an experience that has forever changed their lives and their outlook on life too.

The couple are now expecting their first child together and Kathryn is convinced they’ll take the teamwork aspect of trekking the PCT and bring it to parenthood.

She admits their relationship “shifted” while they were way but that made them stronger on their return.

“We came back as a team, we operated as a team the whole way. It wasn’t like husband and wife and there was no passion at the time. But that’s ok because we have continued that teamwork back in our regular lives.”

While they are still rather reluctantly living in London they now hope to raise their family in the countryside. 

 “We have come to realise that we are not city people,” Kathryn says. “Our natural selves don’t fit in with this chaos. In fact when we first returned there was a sensory overload. We are only here because we can’t quite decide where to go yet. 

“I do know that I want my family to grow up with the appreciation of the outdoors. It makes me mentally a lot happier being outside. Just because I was born and bred in a city doesn’t mean that’s where I have to stay. 

“I want to wake up to natural beauty. I’m don’t have the plan to execute it yet but I do have a vision.” Which was something she didn’t have before she embarked on the eye opening adventure.

She’s aware that people may hear her story and think the constraints of their lives, whether that’s family, work or finances, wouldn’t allow them to pack up and go. But there are still plenty of adventures to be had in life.

“It’s so easy to make excuses and rationalise why not to do something, instead convince yourself why you should. If you’re genuinely interested there is a way. It might require thinking outside the box but don’t just admit defeat before you’ve barely started.

When it comes to hiking the PCT she has some advice too. 

“I was lucky to share this with Conrad but doing it made me realise I was stronger than I thought and actually I didn’t NEED a man to do it with me. Plenty of women hike it by themselves. 

“If you are by yourself and want to do it but don’t have the confidence there are charities who organise these types of trips too. 

“Stop putting up barriers in your life. I can tell you no one I know has regretted taking an adventure or a sabbatical and that includes me.”

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