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Not That Kind of Girl by Gail Storey

Gail Storey in a Tiara
Gail Storey in a Tiara

I was not that kind of girl! I was not the wholesome, athletic type who would hike the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail over the steep mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington. I was an ersatz bad-girl with a checkered past who married a doctor from an old Dallas family and became a tiara-wearing dinner party hostess.

But while I was growing up in a housing project, reading books and hiding from gangs, the man who would one day be my husband was learning outdoor skills at boys’ camps and killing rattlesnakes for dinner at the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Porter, My Mountain Man
Porter, My Mountain Man

Long story very short, Porter and I met at a dinner party in Houston, married, and began the search for something in common besides our instant recognition we were soulmates. Aahh, my soul said when I first came into his forthright, mountain-man presence. Aaaahhhh.

One night at dinner, over a killer Malbec, he asked me to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with him. He was a hospice doctor in a career crisis who badly needed renewal in nature after eighteen years by the bedsides of dying people.

“I know you’d love it,” he said of climbing twenty miles a day over the California mountains, trying not to die of dehydration crossing the Mojave Desert, kicking steps up ice in the High Sierra, fording rapids on the way down, stumbling through the lava fields of Oregon, and getting soaked in the forests of Washington.

I knew I would not love it. But what did I really want: to worry about him for six months, or endure the wilderness with him to make sure he was still on the planet? I knocked back the rest of my crystal goblet of Malbec. “Why not?!” I said.

Porter moved our bed into our living room, so he could turn our bedroom into a staging area for our hike. He stayed up all night making ultralight gear so light that even I, at five feet seven inches and one hundred twenty-five ladylike pounds, could carry it. Not to mention I was fifty-six and he was fifty-two. My fully loaded pack weighed a mere eleven pounds, and his only twelve pounds, plus food and water.

“You sew gear as a sublimation for sex,” I said.

“Sex,” he said, “is a sublimation for those who can’t sew their own equipment.”

Porter & Gail
Porter & Gail

Finally we set off on the Pacific Crest Trail at the Mexico/California border. My learning curve was steeper than the mountains. Malbec was in short supply, so I learned to filter and treat water. I ate and slept at bug-and-snake level. I gave up making a fashion statement, for utilitarian backpacking attire.

Terrible and beautiful things happened to us. We reveled in simply walking, on a vast sandy landscape dotted with cacti and sage. Porter set his pants on fire while lighting our alcohol stove, and nearly went out in a literal blaze of glory. We climbed snowy peaks to touch the cobalt sky. I nearly drowned in deep rapids, but Porter plunged in to drag me out, pack and all. We fell asleep under ancient pines, the wind soughing in their boughs.

We shared deep secrets about ourselves. And we argued about how to complete the PCT in the April-to-September weather window, given his striding pace and my struggle to keep up. One day, I raced far ahead of him in a raging burst of “I’ll show you!” adrenalin. I rounded a switchback and skidded to a halt at the massive mountain lion standing before me. Her tawny haunches rippled against the sunlit mountainside. She stared through me with her green-gold eyes. Gaze. Listen. Be.

I was not the same after that. I was not who I had imagined myself to be—a girl from the projects who grew up to marry a doctor, host dinner parties, and hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I was much more than that—a mystery, like mountain, desert, river, sky.

Mystery Peak

Porter found the renewal he was seeking, in nature’s cycles of death, birth, and growth.

I didn’t so much find something, as be found–by the love that is nature at her fiercest. It’s the same love that Porter and I intuited in each other the moment we met. Climbing up and down in the wind, blazing sun, rain, even snow, all day, every day for months, eroded the permeable illusion between ourselves and nature. I went from asking myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” to “Who am I?” Together Porter and I walked deeper and deeper into the question, until the question itself dissolved.

About Gail Storey

Gail D. Storey is the author of I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, winner of the Barbara Savage Award from The Mountaineers Books, 2013. Her website (includes book trailer) is http://gailstorey.com.

104 comments

    • Thanks, Keith–that’s just what I was hoping!

      • I am 53 Gail, my girlfriend is 52. I love to hike and she comes along most often because she does enjoy the out doors. Although she’d be happy with nature walks on level ground, she will tolerate an occasional peak bagging hike with me. I have long wanted to do a through hike of the Appalachian trail and we share a passion for doing the Camino in Spain but, I was growing concerned about our ages. After reading your story, propelled by your age and lack of hiking experience, to tackle the PCR, gave me a “see, I told you so” argument. I still have not WON that argument but, you gave me a suit of armor to press on in the battle!! I do need to read your book because I really want to read about the exchanges you and your husband had during your walk…knowing the world wars Gina and I have fought on some of ours. It is a miracle, or true love, that we are still even together after some of the nuclear wars we have experienced on some trails!! ;>) Now, all I need to is make sure my insurance premiums are paid in advance if she joins me on the AT in a couple of years!!!

      • Keith, I’m fascinated by your great reply, and would love to hear how this plays out between you and Gina. Does she basically like to hike, so the challenge is the speed and distance for longer hikes? Porter and I definitely had arguments, even out-and-out fights, but we always knew the other had our back. It called for more love than we knew we were capable of. Take good care of each other. And there are many configurations of that on a thru-hike, including section-hiking, and the myriad ways of supporting the other physically and emotionally. Thanks for taking the time to comment in such detail, and please do keep me posted!

  1. Nice story

  2. She did a great job on this. The book is even better.
    My main task now is to get her out in the woods again to provide more material!
    Her husband,

    • Dear Porter, aka my husband, YES! Let’s get out in the woods again for more material! What kind of material have you got in mind? ;-D

    • Sounds like a Triple Crown may be in your future. BTW, great story I will have to the book. Maybe I can even get my non-hiking wife to read it.

      –louis

      • Louis, I’m guessing your wife will relate! As soon as they make an ultralight tiara, I’ll get on the CDT! Have you hiked it?

      • No I am an East Coaster section hiking the AT but reading your book and having read Fozzie’s recently is making me want to do the PCT. Picked up the e-book version of “I Promise Not to Suffer” last night and couldn’t put it down. Great Read!

        –louis

      • Thank you, Louis, you totally made my day! I’m guessing you’d love hiking the PCT!

  3. Jacqueline Damian

    The trail was something of a pilgrimage … or maybe a little bit like a personal Calvary? Amazing story, and I loved loved loved the book. Xo

  4. Being a newbie hiker with 5-6 hour round trips the longest I’ve ever been in the wild at a time, I’m both fascinated and inspired by the boldness, courage, and faith to try a trip as long as the PCT. Thanks so much for sharing your story and giving people like me the encouragement to start going further and further.

    • Gina, I checked out your fabulous blog (especially love your “About the Author” page), and just know you’d like longer hikes. You’ve totally got what it takes.

    • If you don’t a Porter as a companion, mentor and significant other, it’s quite possible to go “further and further” without going THAT far. Some outfitters operate supported hikes — you carry your day pack and someone else is in charge of ferrying the tents, food and other gear from camp to camp.

      • Excellent point, Claire! And Gina and others might like to subscribe to the Section Hiker blog, it’s an extraordinary resource for hikers at all levels.

  5. Still love reading Gail’s prose after I read the book. The hike is a quest for our selfhood and overcoming our demons.(and good communication and sex with the partner). It’s a treat and I look forward to read more from Gail -time to go back to the woods. :)

  6. In addition to all of its other fine qualities, “I Promise Not to Suffer” is a good read. A really good read.

  7. Never a moment when Gail is not fun and informative (she’s thinking all the time–not just a crazy act) This blog post is an example. Her book is a better example. Go, Gail, Go!

  8. WOW WOW WOW. Gail, you are a very brave person – for pursuing this quest and writing about it, and doing the extra had work of self-reflection. Yours is an examined and joyful life!

  9. Gail, I relate so much to your story! I grew up in suburban Chicago, reading books in our air-conditioned house and hiding from Nature (bugs, eek!) Fast forward 20 years and there I was, a National Park Service Ranger, sleeping, as you said, “at bug-and-snake level,” and being transformed by the very force I avoided for all those years. I can’t wait to read the book and revel in the marvelous details of your Great Adventure! Thanks for posting this – Andi

  10. Oops – meant to say, extra HARD work. Where are my glasses when I need them???

  11. Gail, this is a delightful purview into a real wilderness adventure! Loved your soul awakening from the mountain lion. Experienced much the same with a six-foot rattle snake. It’s so wondrous to rediscover the joy and sense of peace, being, and belonging that (I feel) we are all born with, but gets lost along our crazy life journey. Am anxious to read your book! Best to you and Porter, Cat

  12. Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous writing! So honest, smart, & deep!

    • Thank you, Indira! If you liked my post, I highly recommend following the Section Hiker blog, very rich with others writing from unique perspectives about outdoor adventure and the natural world.

  13. Gail, your story is so inspiring and brave. Liked the blog, loved the book!

  14. Porter is a gentleman if he got your packs down to 11 and 12 pounds. A visionary. I can’t imagine getting along so long on so little. Thanks for the glimpse into the trek.

  15. Gail, what a beautiful peek into your adventures! I’m partway through the book and loving it. And admiring your ability to boil it down to one tantalizing blog post. Looking forward to more of your writing and adventuring.

  16. I love Gail’s book! Am recommending it to all my friends.

  17. Rarely have I been so captivated about a story that combines so many elements–literally, the elements, the hikers, this unusual couple, and the baring of a deep, kind soul. The outdoors holds so many possibilities and it’s a privilege to read about how Gail and Porter meet the grandeur and challenges.

  18. Your book is #1 in my reading queue—the perfect virtual adventure read for summer. Love the marriage through-line: inspiring.

  19. Gail’s book is a great read — especially for those of us who will never put ourselves through what she endured — and enjoyed. Well done!

  20. Gail, in animal medicine, mountain lion signifies spiritual leadership. I love the depth and honesty of your writing. You prove how deeply a part of nature we all are.

  21. Gail, love the depth, honesty and humor of your writing. Plus mountain lion in animal medicine signifies spiritual leadership. Let’s all get out to sense how integral a part of nature we all are — everything is.

  22. I shared this blog with my wife, who I think can identify with giving up her home comforts to go hiking and camping with me. She helped me a lot with car support and some hiking in my seven year quest to hike the Idaho Centennial Trail. I had a “wolf moment” but not a mountain lion moment. Also an almost slid down the ice to the rocks below moment. I will be getting your book soon.

    • Wow, Ron, sounds like you’ve had some incredible experiences on the Idaho Centennial Trail! Glad you and your wife have figured out how to share them in your own configurations of hiking and car support. Hope sometime to hear more about your wolf moment.

  23. Oh! Oh, Gail! This piece brought tears to my eyes. I’ve been wanting to read your book, and my when my daughter sent me an Amazon gift card for Mother’s Day, I knew what I wanted to order. You are a beautiful, fun, deep, mysterious, tiara-wearing soul, and you write like an angel. Thank you so much for telling your story.
    love,
    Verna

  24. Ah, what a guilty Monday afternoon pleasure reading this has been! Gail, the sense of place and heart emanating from your words – here and in I PROMISE NOT TO SUFFER – encourages us to shed our winter-cloaked spirits and challenges us to step off, to say yes to adventure and to trust that the natural world promises as many answers as questions.

  25. Sallie Greenwood

    Gail and Porter,
    Honest, funny, and not macha at all. Yea! Love in the age of Go-Lite.

  26. I hadn’t heard of your book until I checked SectionHiker today while trying to put off doing any meaningful work. So far, I’ve succeeded with my original task and now I HAVE to get to work because I’m going to buy your book. Anyone with your off beat sense of humor is right up my alley… but you don’t want to hike my alley–no mountain lions, although there are dogs the size of wolves… and ones the size of rats. If I could just get the rat ones into the same yard as the wolf ones, my walks would be much quieter!

    I see you escaped the Lone Star State. I’m still stuck here but I’ve stumbled on enough hikes lately that I’m way past it being the Lone Scar State.

    • Grandpa, LOL! Thanks for sharing your own great sense of humor. Texas does have some great hikes–where are yours?

      • Big Bend is my favorite Texas hiking destination. I love going to South Rim in the High Chisos and my grandson (now age nine) has accompanied me there several times. The Hill Country has some nice hiking. I’ve hiked every trail in Lost Maples and most of Pedernales Falls. Enchanted Rock is awesome, however, a person often has to share that place with the combined population of Austin and San Antonio. There are a number of other parks in the Hill Country that I’ve just barely gotten to visit that I really want to explore more, such as Hill Country State Natural Area and Government Canyon State Natural Area.

        Near Dallas, Lake Mineral Wells has some rugged bluffs and cliffs, and Dinosaur Valley has an extensive beautiful trail network. I think one of the grandkids favorite memories of Dinosaur Valley was watching grandpa take a face splash in the Pedernales River as he tried to ride across on his mountain bike. For some reason, they thought that was really funny!

        A couple hundred miles from Dallas in Oklahoma are the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge and Beaver’s Bend State Park. Both areas have really nice hiking. A little bit further away in SW Arkansas are many great trails.

      • Grandpa, I’m dazzled by all the hiking you’ve done in Texas! I wish I’d done more before we set out on the PCT. The episode in my book, where Porter takes me camping for the first time, took place near Cleveland, just a few miles off the road, and at the time I thought we’d gone to the end of the earth from Houston. I’d dressed for a date (we were just dating then) with a purse and dressy shoes, and it took us so long to hike in those few miles it was dark and we wound up camping in a huge bed of poison ivy. It was all downhill from there, but I’ll spare you. ;-D Nothing like your face splash in the Pedernales River, though!

      • The dinosaurs made footprints in the Paluxy River eons ago and this old dinosaur made a faceprint!

        My grandson was three the first time I took him to Dinosaur Valley and showed him the tracks and explained a dinosaur walked in the mud way back in the past. Shortly thereafter, I heard, “Dino. Dino. Where are you? Where are you?” He was trying to call one out of the woods.

        I have a friend in Cleveland who bought property adjoining the National Forest. I joke with him that he owns all the land as far as the eye can see. Of course, in those dense woods, a person can’t see too far!

  27. I could hardly put Gail’s book down. It reads like a novel but has the warmth and realism of a true memoir. I loved it!

  28. This brought tears to my eyes. Well told, Gail.

  29. Gail, I am truly inspired. You have guts! And an incredible husband and a marvelous marriage! And you’re a kick-ass writer! Wow! I can’t even begin to contemplate doing what you did. While I doubt that I’ll ever embark on such a hike, I think I’ll knock back a cup of sake and go walk around the block. Too bad there aren’t any mountain lions, but I’m sure my cats would be happy to substitute.

    I’m going to keep up with your blog and tweet links to it.

    Cheers,

    Cheryl

  30. Ahhhhhh, my soul said when I read this! Just what we needed at the end of a crazy Monday.

    And you book is beyond great!!!

  31. Gail Storey! I am so very glad I found you here! I will never ever ever think of you in the same way again. You are so much fiercer! So much larger than life! I am running out to find your book right now!

    Congrats to you on all your success – both personally and as a writer! And, thank you for sharing yourself so openly to let us all know what is possible!

    • Tamara, yes, much more is possible than we usually imagine! And the Section Hiker blog is rich with the stories and photos of people proving that true over and over again.

  32. As I read your book, I’m traveling right beside you on your PCT journey, enjoying each and every page and getting to know you in a new, wonderful way. This blog post is sure to whet the appetites of those who have yet to start reading for themselves! Well done, Gail!

  33. Great article, Gail. I’m about a third of the way into your book and loving it every step of the way. What a delicious way to “virtually” hike the PCT with you and Porter!

  34. Sandy Hockenbury

    Gail, love the post and love your book, which is one of the only books I’ve ever read that conveys the feel of the trail, the way it seeps into your very bones and DNA, and how that feeling lasts and lasts…and the joy of the journey. Many thanks!

  35. so, what happen to that mountain lion? :)

    • Anwar, thanks for asking! ;-D In my book I share what happened when Porter caught up with me on the trail and heard about my encounter with the lion. Long story very short, he thought we should make a lot of noise as we continued up the trail, a job he left to me, so I sang “Take me out to the ballgame” at the top of my lungs. We did see her tracks, though.

    • Wow! Gail. Love it.

  36. Carol Stone White

    Hi Gail! You ARE that kind of girl! Thanks for a fascinating story, written beautifully. Got to get the whole story in Not That Kind of Girl!

    My best,
    Carol White

  37. I really enjoyed the humor and the hopeful message in this article. It’s a wonderful examination of what’s missing in our daily lives and how simple it is to find it. Thanks so much, Gail!

  38. Gail, I came to understand the importance of recognizing ourselves as part of nature while I lived in cities and struggled with life issues. I was always out riding bikes, camping, riding horses, and looking back over troubled times saw how Nature kept me sane. Then I read the book The Last Child in the Woods: Healing Nature Deficit Disorder. Bingo! Perhaps even more important was being called to a shamanic path, learning to work with energy and to hear the unspoken, yet highly articulate conversations around me.

    A few years ago I moved to the country here in the mountains, knowing that actually living in natural beauty would change me. It has. I have never been so happy or at peace, in spite of normal human stuff. Some of it is the solitude and quiet, which not only supports but forces inner work. Much of it is the beauty and the sense of deep connection to everything around me. I’m one of those who talk with the trees, the birds, the clouds, the deer grazing across the pastures and close enough to stare at me through my living room windows. I am truly blessed to be able to live this way. Your work is so important because it shows the benefits of direct encounter. Thank you!

    • I’m so inspired by your response, Barbara. I particularly value it as I sink deeper into just that connection with the trees, birds, clouds, and animals–and I’m shocked, shocked! at how long I was oblivious to it, or perceived it only subliminally. Warm wishes on your shamanic path, so healing for the planet.

  39. What a great story. The whole idea sounds completely intimidating to me, and I’m a big hiker. It takes some guts but it seems to have been worth it. I can’t wait to read the book! Maybe that’ll suffice — hehe.

    • Carol, I hope you enjoy I PROMISE NOT TO SUFFER: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, but watch out, the longing to do a thru-hike might getcha! I highly recommend you subscribe to Section Hiker, you’ll enjoy hearing of others’ adventures and it’s a great resource.

  40. Gail, what a great story! Now I want to read the book in it’s entirety. I knew when i bought your wonderful mahogany table so many years ago (which we still have…) that you were an amazing person! I thought of your husband’s tough job when my own mom had hospice care this past year after battling brain cancer. God bless hospice/palliative care providers. Hope you are well!
    Christine

    • Christine, how amazing and wonderful to reconnect through Section Hiker after all these years! And we’re glad to hear you’re still enjoying the hand-carved dining table and chairs–we just knew they were going to a happy home. So sorry to hear your mom had brain cancer, but relieved she had hospice care. All is great with us, please stay in touch!

  41. How did you deal with no Malbec for months?

    Do they make dehydrated Argentinean reds yet? I bet they’d be lighter!

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful stor(e)y and pictures!

    • Good question, PPS! I was surprised that I didn’t miss wine with dinner on the trail as much as I thought I would. Although I was glad to find at least a house red in the trail towns. Let me know if you hear of a good dehydrated Argentinian red! ;-D

  42. Gail, David and I are reading your book together. We’re in the middle of it and loving it. What a brave woman you were to embark on such an arduous journey! And how grateful we are that you opened yourself so fully to the experience and then had the capacity to so skillfully tell the story, not to mention the persistence to follow through with getting it published!

    With deep appreciation for such a gift,

    Dawn and Dave

  43. Gail, I am entranced by “I Promise Not to Suffer” and am appreciating every word. It gives me a whole new vision of what one can accomplish. And–as for your writing talent–double wow!! Hell yeah for sure!

  44. Gail, what a delightful book – so full of your wit, keen observations and inspiration!

  45. Great story, and I am looking forward to your book!

    • Thanks, Suzanne, you know I loved your own post, and your book ALMOST SOMEWHERE about your hike of the JMT is fantastic! It was wonderful to meet you at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Conference. I hope our paths cross again soon!

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