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DISCOURSE: October - Sterling Montes

Welcome to DISCOURSE, my monthly blog series in which I shoot and interview a different individual each month and have a discussion on creativity, innovation, passion, and heart. 

This month I got to sit down and chat with my friend Sterling Montes, who recently came back from a five-month long backpacking trip from the Mexican border up the West Coast of the United States into Canada, on a historic route called the Pacific Crest Trail

Tell me about your background and what got you to this point.

I grew up in Texas and moved out to California to go to school at Westmont in Santa Barbara. After that, I got a job up here in the Bay so I moved to San Francisco, and within a year and a half, decided to move to Oakland short-term, which eventually turned into a longer term thing, and I’ve been here for about two years now. I was doing marketing for a startup called Snapwire, and it’s been cool to live in Oakland and work remotely (the company is based in Santa Barbara) and work in photography. That’s what got me started on doing photo stuff on my own. I do most of it on my iPhone, but it’s a fun way to express my adventures.

What made you decide to go on your big trip?

I found out about the Pacific Crest Trail about four years ago, and ever since then, I knew that I wanted to do it. When the beginning of this year came around, I was setting all of my goals for the year and the PCT came to mind again, and I was noticing that my work-life balance wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and some kind of transition had to happen. The PCT season starts in April and ends in September, so I had three months to prepare for it and ease out of my job situation at that time, and I had the money to do it. If I had decided to switch jobs or take on any new commitments at that time, I probably would have had to wait another year. So it was a combination of knowing I needed something like that and having the opportunity to do it.

Another reason it worked out was knowing that as much as I wanted to push myself forward career-wise or creatively, I knew that there was some emotional and soul work to be done before I started taking those steps... sometimes you don’t realize how evident that is until you start working on it. I feel so much more prepared to go forward on the rest of my career path having done the PCT, rather than sucking it up and taking a more “professional” route.

Have you done anything like this before? How did you prepare for this trip, and once you started, were there any adjustments you had to make? What was that experience like?

I had never done any long-distance backpacking, but I had done a lot of short weekend backpacking trips. At Westmont I helped start a club called The Adventure Club, in which every couple of weeks, we’d take a group of students out to Yosemite, Big Sur, even the Grand Canyon... anything that was driving distance of SB. Putting trips together for big groups of people was definitely a huge help in planning something like this, because there’s a lot of logistics that go into it. Knowing how to prepare for the unknown with big groups of people helped, but my trip was a totally different animal, and factors like gear, food, and scheduling seemed ten times more intense.

What is the extent of the trail?

We started down south, near the Mexican border in a town called Campo. You can see the border from the starting monument, but you’re still technically in America. We finished all the way up in Canada, at a place called Manning Park, which is about eight miles across the border. The official finish line is at the border, but you still have to hike an additional eight blocks to get to where cars can pick you up.

Photo by Sterling Montes.

Photo by Sterling Montes.

What were some cool things that you encountered along the way and some memorable experiences you had?

One of the coolest things we did on the trip was hike to the top of Mt. Whitney, which is the highest peak in the lower 48. It’s not technically on the Pacific Crest Trail, but we took a side trip to go there. It’s about 8 miles up and 8 miles back, very steep. We woke up at 2am to be able to catch sunrise. The summit was freezing, but it was great to be there with all of the other hikers. It was the first time that my hiking partner and I had found some other solid friends that we’d been hiking with to form sort of a trail family, and we got to experience and bond over that with them.

Other cool things happened off-trail, when friends would come to meet us and hang out. It was great to bring friends into what we were doing - however briefly - and show them a side of something that could only be experienced by being there. There are also a lot of people that support hikers on the trail called Trail Angels, and they’d be posted up on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere with things like Gatorade and beer and food, and those experiences were really special, because you get to bond with other hikers through having a cold drink and warm food... those were some of the best moments for sure.

Was there anything out of the ordinary that happened that you weren’t expecting? How did you respond to that?

Going into the trip, I knew that there would be some things out of my control, and I had this caution and humility knowing that a lot of people don’t finish for reasons they never would have expected. So I was trying to figure out how I could anticipate the unexpected. For a lot of people that’s money, injury, or sanity. Luckily I didn’t encounter too much of that.  

One of two unexpected things that happened was that at the end of Oregon going into Washington, I was stung by bees every day for three or four days at a time, and I kept on getting these stings in my legs, and my feet would swell up. I’m not typically allergic to bees, but I think because there was so much venom, it really affected me. My left leg swelled up massively. It’s not that I couldn’t hike on it, but it was uncomfortable and itchy, especially when I first started hiking on it. And the next couple of days when I kept getting stung, there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t put on bee repellent because it doesn’t exist, and if it had happened every day for the rest of trail, I wouldn’t have been able keep going. Luckily the plague went away, but that was totally unexpected and really sucked.

Photo by Sterling Montes.

Photo by Sterling Montes.

Something else happened when we were about ten miles out from the finish line. It was the second to last day, and we were planning on having a really short next day to finish up, only about 5 miles. We came over this mountain pass and saw a shortcut to the next pass along a ridgeline, so instead of going all the way down the mountain and going back up to that next pass, we found a way to go straight along this ridgeline. It looked a little sketchy, but we saw a sign that said “trail abandoned”, so we figured it was a trail and that we’d take it. So we started on that path and we were stoked because it was more advanced hiking and more of a rough, painstaking trail, as opposed to the majority of the PCT, which is pretty well-trodden. But then we got to a point where some landslides had come down from the ridge and knocked out part of the trail, creating these steep ravines. On the first couple, we had to slide down our butts down into the ravine and then climb back out. At the third or fourth one, about halfway through the shortcut, I stood on the edge of the ravine to scope where I was going to slide down, and the boulder I was standing on came loose and fell into the ravine with me on it, along with a bunch of other stones. So I’m in a rockslide down this ravine, and I fell ten feet and slid about fifteen. When I reached the bottom, I checked to see if I was ok, and I looked down and saw this huge gash in my leg, and I realized that it was a lot more serious of a cut than a normal scrape. So we poured water and disinfectant on it and taped it up with the stuff I use for blisters to try to close it, because I knew that we weren’t going to be able to stitch it up. At that point, my hiking partner and I looked at each other and were like “this is freaking stupid, why did we decide to take this route?” In retrospect, it wasn’t that bad of an injury, but it could have been a lot more serious if I had hit my head, and also considering the fact that we were off-trail and no one else was around. So we decided to bail on the shortcut. Afterwards, I went to the doctor and he said I should have gotten stitches, but I just let it heal, and now I have this big scar... cheap tattoo.

How has this trip affected your life moving forward?

There’s a lot of lessons I learned on the trail, too many to discuss concisely. I’ll be writing a blog post sometime soon. I learned about the most basic human needs, and how much of that we lack in our modern urban way of living. A couple obvious examples: the fact that the body needs to be exercised, and when you have a sedentary lifestyle and maybe work out once or twice a week, I don’t think that’s enough. It’s a beautiful thing to go to bed every night feeling that your body is absolutely wiped because you used it to the fullest extent, and then you have so much more energy the next day and your sleep is actually meaningful.

Another valuable thing is solitude, and giving your thoughts the space they need to process, and having this infinite amount of time to be alone with them. Even though I told myself that I would make time to do that in the past, I didn’t fully get it until I could actually think on things for days at a time, free from distractions. The trip taught me how to get into the practice of quieting my thoughts and have a little more control over them, and confronting thoughts from my past that were buried deep below the things of my routine. It’s a common baseline of meditation, to welcome the thoughts that come and look at them from the outside, and see what effect they’re having, and then let them go. When you have a really busy schedule and a lot of things on your mind that stress you out, it’s much more difficult to get into that practice and feel the benefits of it because you’re fighting off all of that other stuff.

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Since I’ve been back, something I’ve been implementing is giving myself space and time in between the things I have to do throughout the day, whereas before I would fill up that time by getting something else done, so as to be as efficient and productive as possible. Now I take that time and appreciate and use it as a time to either relax my thoughts or even just do nothing and experience the practice of not feeling rushed and that I have time, so the world moves a little slower that way, and it’s a better way to live.

It sounds like you have a pretty good idea of this already, but what is your definition of a good life?

Photo courtesy of Sterling Montes.

Photo courtesy of Sterling Montes.

Having a life of purpose and believing in what you’re doing is important. Sometimes it’s easy to forget those things when you’re concerned with the very real problems of this world, such as finding financial or emotional security. To me, happiness is more of a mood than a state of being, whereas fulfillment is a state of being, and with that comes emotions, and that’s good. It’s ok to be stressed out, angry, frustrated, or experiencing loss or pain. I think those things are rooted in fulfillment, and it can be what drives us to endure those things. What’s fulfilling can look different for everybody, and easier for some people to identify than for others. I don’t know if I can make a blanket statement to say that that is, but believing in your purpose and what you’re doing is a huge step to accomplishing that. I’m less concerned with what I’m doing, such as acquiring accolades and success, and more on how I’m living my life. I could be doing some great things, but if I’m not doing them in a way that is healthy and helping me flourish into the person I want to be, it’s pointless.

I think a lot of people would definitely say that what you did over the past few months was a huge accomplishment.

It is, and that’s a good point, because some people finish the trail with the goal of just finishing, so they can cross it off their bucket list. What I learned is that what pushed me to finish is not just finishing, but the way it would affect my life, and how I was doing it. The daily practice of hiking and incrementally developing that discipline is what really takes you to the finish, and when you get there, there’s less of that sense of “Yes! I finished!” the way a runner finishes a marathon, but more of the realization that it’s not about the step that crosses the finish line, but rather the thousands upon thousands of steps before that one, and all of the experiences that came along with them, to get to that point. I guess the most obvious cliche is “it’s not about the destination but the journey”, but it’s very real if you’ve experienced it. If you ignore those experiences because you’re so focused on the end, you’ll realize that the end doesn’t feel as good as you thought it would.

Practically speaking, what’s next for you?

Right now it’s integrating back into the city in a way that’s fruitful. In the next year or so, I’m not exactly sure where I want to be, and that can be a source of anxiety, especially when I came from a place of knowing what I was going to do every day for the next five months and where I was going to be and what I had to do to get there. The question mark and the mystery of the future is back in full force, and I'm wrestling with what I’m going to do with that. Like I said, the main goal is living my life the way I want to live, and one of those things is having control over my time, whereas in the past I didn’t feel like I did, and I felt like my time was dictated by my situation, my setting, and my culture. With that said, I’m doing contract work, which is awesome, and I'm hoping to start my own business and work for myself, and allow myself that time. It’ll probably look something like selling online combined with marketing services. Maybe I won’t have as much money, but time is more valuable. There’s another cliche for ya.

You can find Sterling online at his blog as well as his Instagram page: @ster_ling

Gear used in this shoot:

  • Fujifilm X-Pro2
  • Fujinon 23mm f2 lens