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For Petaluma Pacific Crest hiker, inner journey just as meaningful

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On March 27, Christine Carpenter hoisted a blue backpack onto her shoulders and took her first step on a 2,650-mile journey of healing.

The 51-year-old Petaluma native’s months-long voyage on the Pacific Crest Trail will be a grueling emotional and physical test, one that will take her through arid deserts, verdant forests and directly up unforgiving mountainsides.

“I’m doing it because I’m crazy, because all of my life, I’ve lived in a small town, I’ve never ventured out. I want to do something big – I want to live before I die,” she said by phone Monday as she neared the 200 mile mark after setting out from the trail’s southern terminus at the U.S.-Mexico border.

For the survivor of what she described as years of childhood sexual abuse by a man close to her family, the hike has been a long time in the making. It’s been four years since she took on a full-day hike on Half Dome as a fundraiser through Petaluma’s New Life Christian Fellowship – considered a feat of its own for a novice hiker who had little previous experience on trails. She’s since backpacked in King’s Canyon National Park and the Tahoe Rim Trail with her husband of 10 years, Randy Carpenter.

The retiree got her permit for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail last fall, but in preparing, the most important muscle to train has been her own brain, she said.

“The training just came in living life and living a general life of recovery,” she said. “For a lot of my life, I’ve made decisions and stayed within these boundaries. I’ve been challenged with emotional eating and I was working on that. I recognized at the same time how it was holding me back and creating a false safety. I was working on that and healing childhood stuff and just the way I think, the change from a Debbie Downer to be more positive like, ‘I can do it, life is good.’ This dream is just great, I’m going along with it and it’s definitely living out the challenge of not living a fear-based life.”

She hopes to complete the hike by September or October, when colder weather will make trekking more difficult. She’s attempting to hike around 15 miles a day to achieve that goal, she said.

The trail traverses through 48 federal wilderness areas, six national parks, 25 national forests and five national monuments, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association website. Since 1952, 5,368 people have trekked the entire span, according to data on the site. Last year, only 461 people completed the trail, though 3,934 permits for the so-called “thru-hikes” were issued, according to the website.

She’s relied on the kindness of “trail angels,” those who volunteer to help hikers, and has met and traveled with groups of hikers, social interactions that have helped her face her shyness. She’s adjusting to life on the trail and is open to all nature’s lessons, she said.

“It’s a definite letting go process,” she said. “It’s letting go of your comforts, letting go of where I am and where I’m going to be at what time, and just letting yourself do and be what you’re capable of and finding acceptance in that.”

Randy Carpenter, 55, said he was molested a knife point when he was 11 and plunged into a hard-won battle with substance abuse. He said he testified at his perpetrator’s trial, but was not aware of its outcome. Christine Carpenter said her alleged abuser is deceased, but was never brought to justice when he was alive.

In the early 2000s, Christine Carpenter, then a single mother, met Randy Carpenter through a recovery group he led, Randy Carpenter said. They began dating in 2006, and were married in 2008 after he proposed on Tahoe National Forest’s Castle Peak – in honor of to the nickname he gave her: “Princess.”

They crossed a section of the Pacific Crest Trail on that hike to Castle Peak, which fueled her desire to one day complete the hike. She said one of the largest challenges on her journey is missing her husband, who said he has a permit for the trail and hiked the first few days with her and has since visited her for a weekend reunion in Idyllwild.

“To be completely honest, it’s being away from Randy,” she said. “I thought I would be tough and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but I miss him a lot. Other than that, I guess it’s just the challenge of knowing myself and speaking up for myself and knowing that I’ve got to slow down – I got a bunch of blisters because I was pushing myself to keep up.”

She’s carrying a GPS with limited text message capabilities that allows Randy Carpenter to track her progress from Petaluma and receive daily updates when possible. He’s been posting regular updates to his personal Facebook page, hoping his wife’s story will inspire others in recovery or who may be struggling to overcome their own inhibitions.

“I love what she’s doing,” he said. “I’m 100 percent – not 99 percent – 100 percent encouraging whatever needs to be done. She will not come back the same person … she’s igniting hope in many.”

He’s even suggested a few “trail names,” a hiking moniker that’s traditionally bestowed on those traversing the Pacific Crest Trail. Christine Carpenter said she’s also gotten a few suggestions from people she’s met on the trail, including “Lose It,” because she lost her sunglasses, and “Thomas the Train,” in a mistaken reference to the “Little Engine that Could,” but has yet to accept one.

Among others, Randy Carpenter likes “Arkenstone,” a “Lord of the Rings” reference that to him symbolizes his wife is the heart of the mountain and the “king’s jewel,” or “Princess,” because of his beloved nickname for her.

For Malia Marshall, the life group leader at New Life Christian Fellowship who organized the Half Dome hike that became a catalyst for the larger journey, Christine Carpenter’s trek is an inspiration. She said Christine Carpenter had long dreamed of hiking Half Dome and Marshall hopes that the hiker will leave her most recent adventure with important life lessons under her belt.

“(I hope she learns) that she can do things she thinks she can’t,” Marshall said. “A lot of women grow up thinking that they need someone else to help them out.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)