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  • Monday, April 21, 2014

    Pacific Crest Trek for MS: An interview with Megan Bullers

    (Photo provided by Megan Bullers, ms-megaventure.blogspot.com)
    Every hiker is drawn to the long trail for a different reason. Many are young and yearning for their first taste of freedom. Some are retirees, once devoted to their work, now determined to live their lives for themselves. There are the poor, the middle-class, and the rich, and like migrating herds, they wander in from all parts of the globe.

    Many are motivated by the challenge, others by a spiritual quest or the promise of self-discovery. Some are simply curious explorers who want to take a peak around the bend. When asked why they chose to live out of a backpack and hike through hundreds of miles of wilderness, there are those who will say, "everything in my life just came together." Others will say, "everything fell apart."

    Although we are an oddball mix of mavericks and misfits, we are equals on the long trail because of one immutable similarity, the one thing that we deeply understand about each other before we even open our mouths to say hello: For whatever reason, we all feel the pull.

    That commonality creates an instant comradery, and the similarities accumulate as the miles pass under our feet. We are moved by the same highs and elations that are understood without words. We sympathize with the same pains and discomforts, an all too familiar limp or a grimace when we bend at the knee to take a seat. Slowly we grow into something more like family. We even start to look alike as we become dirtier, thinner, shaggier, more scratched, scarred, and suntanned.

    Although it's true that when that last mile is behind us, we may drift apart or return to a more recognizable life, what endures are the new stories we all have to tell. I think It would be a shame to only tell mine. That's why I'm excited to start a new interview series on the blog where I ask other hikers to share their stories. 

    (Photo: Megan and her father, Richard Bullers)
    Meet Megan Bullers

    Megan recently began her thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, traversing the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. What drew me to Megan's story was her motivation for hiking the 2,663 mile trail: to raise money to find a cure for the disease her father has suffered from for fourteen years, Multiple Sclerosis.

    RG: Perhaps the thing I love most about meeting other thru-hikers, is hearing the unique chain of events that lead them to the same place and time, to take on the same challenge. So, let's start from the beginning. When did you develop your passion for adventure?

    MB: My dad plays the biggest role for adventure in my life because he taught me a lot of what I know today, and most of all, gave me the confidence. The Bullers’ are crazy people full of adventure and laughter; it runs through my spirit. My grandma and grandpa lived in an old mine when they first got married. My dad roamed around the mountains and lived off of the land.

    I grew up on a small farm, and as a kid, I was always monkeying around. You couldn't keep me out of trees (still can’t) or off of walls. When I was two years old, they found me close to the neighbor’s house, a quarter mile away, because I decided I wanted to go on a walk. I found my running legs at age 12, and always thought that more could be seen and experienced on foot.

    Soon I was taking friends and cousins on adventures of anything we could dream up. We always made it fun! At age 16, I went skydiving without an instructor. I took a 4 hour informational class accompanied by a static line jump, but still had to pull my reserve chute. I hit the ground laughing, because it was quite a wild experience.

    That must have been terrifying, but after reading your blog, I'm not surprised to hear you were laughing. You have an infectiously positive outlook on life. When did you decided your next adventure would be the Pacific Crest Trail? What was your "chain of events" that lead up to your decision?

    I've been wanting to do the PCT for MS since I heard about it in 2006, when I worked as trail crew leader in the Sawtooth National Forest. I had no idea how I would do it at the time, but I really wanted to make it happen. Work was all I knew. I grew up hoeing weeds out of fields, moving hand lines for irrigation, driving tractor, raising pigs and cattle, etc. I learned how to manage a farm with all of the frustrations that could possibly go wrong. These frustrations include endless stories where I gained the perspective of work turning into play, being content, and truly enjoying moments of chaos where it was up to me to solve something that seemed impossible. I quickly learned that laughing about a situation was the fastest way to get over it. Being drenched in canal water from a spewing head gasket on a 40 degree day, requires a quick solution.

    In my attempt to pursue my education for a different life, I ended up in various towns and cities that leached my money quicker than I'd ever imagined. A Dental Hygiene education was another huge goal on my list, but logistically, it wasn't ever going to happen. I just didn't have the money for it even though I was working overtime as a front desk/reservation agent and contracting myself out as a Zumba instructor in McCall, Idaho.

    Here is where I met an amazing group of women who spurred me towards my goals. They gave me ideas that I had never thought about, and that's when I set a 3 year plan. I was going to complete my Dental Hygiene Degree, and hike the PCT for MS. I didn't know if I could pull it off or how I would do it, but I planned my entire life around those 2 goals. So much of Dental Hygiene school relied on other people and was a daily mental battle. If I didn't complete my degree, I couldn't hike the PCT, because I need to get a good job afterwards. What if I can't find a job?

    With any adventure in life, there is always the “what if’s”, but I like to look past that, and push my limits. Some people see this as foolish, but I don’t care. It would be more foolish for me to trap my adventurous soul in society’s capsule of what I should do. No one knows me better than myself. I will be that 90 year old who still pushes the limits while encouraging others with the “free bird spirit” to do the same.

    (Photo provided by Megan Bullers)
    In what ways have those who see this as foolish tried to dissuade you and how did you respond?

    Many times my responses are jokingly sarcastic to try and lighten the mood, but most of the time I follow up with a serious answer to the sincere people who are actually concerned, open-minded and not trying to infringe their judgment.

    Here are some of the questions they have asked:

    What if it doesn't work out?

    My response: It will.

    Many people don’t like this answer. Instead of viewing it as confidence, they view it as foolish. Goals are never achieved if you can’t stay flexible, but why would I waste my time planning out failure? Being a flexible person with a positive outlook brings to surface the thrills of life and achievement that you may have never imagined.

    How in the world do you have enough money?

    Response: Believe it or not, living out of a pack is dirt cheap. I don’t have to pay for rent, gas, electricity, etc. You do the math.

    This question irks me a bit. Everyone decides where every dollar of their hard work goes. In my case, I’ve chosen to use my abilities to encourage people to give towards M.S. research and to develop more of an understanding of people living with it. Why? Because I hate this disease.

    You need to get a job right after school! 

    Response: You’re right, in this money-driven economy, I should give up trying to help people in need, and ONLY work my day-to-day job for the rest of my life just to retire and say, “I wish I would have…” You know how many older folks tell me this? What if many of these people were to fully live out their driving force of passion? Could we be further developed as a country, instead of hindered by what others think we ought to do? Driving points: Wright brothers, Rosa Parks, Dalai Lama, Jesus, Mirabai, Bill Nye, Oprah, Margaret Fuller, Tegla Laroupe.

    You need to get a job, save up for a few years, and then MAYBE you can do it.


    Response: Do you see me telling you how to live your life? I’m sure I could point out a few things if you would like me to.

    People are always going to have their opinions.

    Aren't you afraid a bear is going to eat you?

    Response: Yes! I am hiking in a steel suit of armor just in case one comes roaring through the bushes to ferociously devour a petite girl who has so much fat on her that they could feast for days. That’s simply because bears through California, Oregon, and Washington are so carnivorous, right? The reality is that they are more like circus bears who have a keen sense of smell and are only interested in your food. Bear canisters are key in specific areas.

    You need to start settling down.

    Response: I guess my definition of settling down is different than yours.

    You're never going to make it.

    Response: How much will you donate when I do?

    (Photo provided by Megan Bullers)
    Those are all great responses, but I particularly like that last one! I think you'll find the naysayers in life slowly disappearing, or at least keeping their mouths shut, as you continually prove them wrong. Regarding mistaking confidence for foolishness, one thing that can separate the two is preparation. What obstacles are you most concerned about and how are you preparing for them?

    For me, I have the tendency to lose things quite easily. I fly so quickly in forward motion that sometimes I accidentally leave things behind. This will play a huge part during my PCT trip. If I end the trail never having lost anything, I will be a new person. I really don't want to re-track 5 or more miles behind me, in hopes to find my phone. Packing my bag so everything has a place, and only carrying necessities should help me. I have to keep it simple. In the end, I'll survive, and it will be an adventure of a lifetime.

    There are so many "what ifs" that go into a 5-month trek. Believe it or not, if anyone can think about the "what ifs," that would be me. I just choose not to let them consume me. I think about it, and move past it. We all have our downfalls and learning in life.

    Sometimes it's hard to find that balance between thinking enough about the "what ifs" to be prepared, but not so much that they consume us. What are you doing to prepare physically for this trip?

    I have always made it a priority to stay very physically active in my life. I tend to have a lot of energy. Throughout the last year I have been working on strength and endurance as much as I can. Five years ago I got my personal training license and have mainly used it for my own good, especially when training for the PCT. Since I was also going through dental hygiene school, I didn't have a whole bunch of hours to train in a row, so I mainly worked on strength because my body will pick up endurance quickly. I can push out about 8 pull-ups in a row, which isn't much, but it'll do for now. I went on a few trips that are listed on my blog. These include summiting Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and much more. Really, over all body strength will be the most important for me. I wish I could have done more long distance training, but was too busy. My body well adjust as I go.

    (Photo provided by Megan Bullers)
    How much does your pack weigh? I'm not an ultralighter myself, so unlike a lot of backpackers, I'm not asking you to judge. I just want to see how it changes by the end of your hike.

    My pack is 40 pounds with all my food, water, gear, etc. I know that is probably a bit much, but I'll strip it as I go. :-)

    Will you be sending yourself any mail drops for food or other supplies in more remote areas?

    I am sending out 4 and figuring out the rest as I go. I know a lot of plans will change and I don't want to be held back by having to pick up a mail drop.

    I couldn't agree more. I've said it before, but life on a long trail brings with it a rare kind of freedom. With too many mail drops, you never completely leave behind the world of schedules and deadlines. Is there a particular section of trail you're most looking forward to?

    I'm not going with any expectations. I want to enjoy the beauty of it all. Nature is amazing, and preconceived expectations can be killer in amazing experiences.

    In addition to raising a lot of money for MS, what do you personally hope to get out of the experience?

    I want to get more personal growth out of this experience as with anything I do. I thrive off of experiences and growing as a human being along with accomplishing huge goals. I try to push the limits of myself in multiple aspects, because I've always wanted to be and stay well rounded, and I'm not talking about my belly ;)

    On top of that, I want to truly enjoy every given moment and meet some amazing, funny, down to earth people who I hope to stay in touch with for a lifetime.

    You will meet plenty of those people I'm sure. The thru-hiker community is very close. What are your thoughts about leaving your home, family, and friends for an extended amount of time? How will you be staying in touch with them on the trail?

    I am kind of a nomad at heart, so my close friends and family understand and still keep in touch with me. That's the beauty of technology. I never had a cellphone until after my first year of college, so I've learned to get by without technology as well. I'll feel spoiled having a phone, solar charger, and Spot [GPS tracker] out there. Great tools for keeping in touch and updating my blog when I get service. My home will be exactly where I pitch my tent, and I thoroughly enjoy that. I love all my family and friends to death and hope they enjoy sharing this experience with me.

    (Photo: Megan's dad, Richard Bullers)
    I just have one more question. When you first told your dad what you were going to do and why, how did he react?

    He said, “Okay, that sounds fun!” At the time he knew it was just an idea, but he has always mentally supported me through things. When he watched the video on my blog, he cried. I’ve never seen my dad cry. He’s a farmer who’s had no choice but to keep working and staying mentally, physically, and spiritually tough with this mind and body-wrenching disease. On top of that, he gives, gives, gives, and gives. If I could raise money for him, I would, but I know he won't take it. He’d give it to the people who are worse off. Mind you, he has cancer on top of MS now. Sometimes, I just sit alone and cry because I can’t imagine losing him. When I am with him, we enjoy every moment. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can show people the goodheartedness of my dad. He’s truly my hero and inspiration for the rest of my life.

    (Photo: Megan at the Southern Terminus)
    I’m really sorry to hear that he now has cancer as well. I think the best way to show everyone your father's goodheartedness is to follow in his footsteps by being goodhearted yourself, and you are definitely doing that. I hope the donations to your cause far exceed your expectations. Where can readers of this blog go to make a donation?

    To donate, please go to my blog (ms-megaventure.blogspot.com) and click on the orange donate button on the right hand side of the page. This will take you to the national M.S. Society website where you can donate directly to my event for M.S.

    Megan, thank you so much for talking with me. Keep in touch. I will be hiking the PCT in 2014 as well, albeit in the opposite direction, but with any luck our paths will cross very soon!
    - - -
    If all goes as planned, Megan will be joining Red and I on a future episode of A Backpacker's Life Podcast and we'll talk about life on the Pacific Crest Trail in a post-hike interview. If you enjoy reading A Backpacker's Life, I know you'll enjoy her writing, photos, and videos. Please check out Megan's blog at ms-megaventure.blogspot.com and of course, if you can, please help support her cause.