fter I decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail — 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada — but before I actually did it, I spent many idle hours imagining who I would be out there. I would be a mountain woman: able, fierce, unselfconscious, zen, and of course, completely free of frivolous or material desires. I’d previously been known to indulge in those things, but the new me would never again be moved to purchase an expensive handbag or pair of shoes. My clothes and possessions would become tools instead of toys. I would become hardcore inside and out.
With this new image of myself in mind, I whittled my possessions down to 18 pounds. Every item had to be carefully considered, as I would literally feel the impact of each one on my back. The outdoorsy bloggers I consulted completely dictated my outfit (yes, singular): Long sleeves! Sweat-wicking material! Neutral colors! One guy I talked to who’d done the trail told me, simply: “Cotton kills.”
From the moment I set out, the outfit didn’t feel like me – mostly it was the lavender, collared, polypro, button-down shirt. It may have wicked sweat, but it retained its hideousness just fine. When I kept dwelling on my distaste for my look, I told myself that this is what seasoned hikers wore; real outdoorspeople wouldn’t care, it was just my vanity talking.
My early days on the trail were filled with emotion: joy, fear, discomfort morphing into pain, shyness, courage, awe, elation. Also, I fucking hated my shirt. I know, I know. It sounds so trivial. But I’ve always cared about what I wear. It’s how I express myself, introduce myself, and for better or worse, it has the power to make or break my confidence.
After the first 100 miles or so, I had to hitch to town to get a new pair of shoes (mine were too small). I ended up passing a Salvation Army and going in to look for something I could carry with me and wear in town while my trail clothes were in the wash. I feigned nonchalance at this activity – it was practical, after all – and determined to buy the lightest thing I could find, whatever it looked like.
I saw it the moment I walked in, rustling in the AC at the front of the store. I felt its pinkness, delighted in its vague resemblance to my favorite nipple-baring Kate Moss look of all time, and hoped it wouldn’t be too heavy. It wasn’t. I bought it for $4 without trying it on, and reveled in the absurdity of stuffing this gauzy, Pepto pink, strappy nightgown into my pack alongside my practical wools and polypros.
Back on the trail, I donned my dress at the first opportunity: after a 25-cent shower at a campground in the town of Idyllwild. I put it on, looked in the mirror and grinned. I felt sexy, feminine, noticeable – all things I didn’t often feel on the trail, and thought I wouldn’t miss. My mood instantly lightened, and I strutted across the campground back to my tent like I was Paris Hilton walking up to the club in 2004.
A fellow hiker observed, “You’re wearing a gown!”
“Yeah…it’s my Town Gown!” The words fell out of my mouth. I’ve always been inclined to name the things that matter to me, and apparently this was no exception. The Town Gown mattered.
Despite my expectations of the woman I would become, it turned out that no matter how many miles were under my feet, how much dirt was caked on my legs, or how long I went without a shower, I still cared about how I looked. I still wanted people to recognize my steez, and I was captivated by theirs: guys in kilts, girls in dresses, trail veterans in tattered outfits that almost looked like they’d be at home on a Vivienne Westwood runway. I found trail style to be just as entertaining as street style, and just as important.
My newfound ebullience for my Town Gown drove me to reconsider my “tools.” As soon as I had the chance, I ditched my dowdy hiking shirt and replaced it with a soft cotton Hawaiian one. I wore it until the back was chafed down to just a hole and I loved it. Loved it so much more than the polypro that would’ve probably lasted the whole trail. Loved it because it was funky and had personality and maybe it announced to the other hikers and the marmots and the trees that I did, too.
I’d worried that no one on the trail would take me seriously if I let them see the side of me that liked pink dresses, but I was wrong about that too. My Town Gown was probably as enjoyed by other hikers as it was by me, just because it was so surprising. Seeing someone in a pink dress emerge from an outhouse in the middle of the woods was like happening upon a bag of Skittles on a remote ridge — totally unexpected, totally superfluous, and oddly refreshing. I even know of a few other hikers who were moved to acquire Town Gowns of their own.
I don’t want to overstate its impact on my experience, because without it I still would have felt the awesome power of the world surrounding me, dripped cold sweat on soft snow as I trudged up mountain passes, filled my eyes with stars and expansive horizons, toiled in the never ending steps, and bloomed in the singularity of my goal – to go north. But I also would have gone six months without indulging in a simple pleasure that I’ve loved all my life: putting something on and feeling cool, or pretty, or sexy, or unique. Maybe I didn’t feel like my original definition of a “hiker,” but I felt like myself.
Fast forward two years later and I’m living in New York, working for a women’s clothing company, seemingly as far from living in the woods with only five items of clothing as one can get. I’ll admit, the ease of my transition back into the material world surprised me.
I had hoped the trail would be a revelation for me. I’d spent seven years considering it, saving up money for it, preparing myself, looking around for viable hiking partners and finally plucking up the courage to do it alone. I knew the opportunity was a privilege, and I hoped it would make me wiser. In many ways it did, just not all the ones I expected.
I’d always felt that my interests in playing outside and getting dressed up were uncomfortably divergent. I assumed that shedding all my possessions would make me realize how silly I was for enjoying them, but I actually had a different revelation: what brings me joy and comfort is not silly. It’s not frivolous. I love to sleep in the dirt and I also love a beaded bag in the shape of a watermelon. Those truths do not cancel each other out.
I will admit that it’s not every day you run into a Town Gown — the watermelon bag is probably the closest I’ve come since then. Besides teaching me that aesthetic appreciation is not always bred from vanity, the Town Gown also taught me that it’s possible for a single item to stoke my sartorial fire for six or more months. It’s hard not to constantly want for something new when the options are there, but I try to keep in mind how content I was with so little when considering a new purchase. You can have a closet full of clothes, but you’ll never have a closet full of Town Gowns.
I was recently talking to a friend from the trail. He was teasing me about my new swanky New York fashion life, and I obligingly sent him a glamorous street selfie. His response: “If it ain’t the Town Gown, it’s sub-par.”
He’s not wrong.
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Illustrations by Ana Leovy.