Claude and Sita didn't know each other when they set off separately on the PCT, roughly one week apart.
Photo: Claude Ludovicy
Sita and Claude Ludovicy, now a married couple with an infant, might never had met had it not been for the film “Wild”.
Based on the 2012 memoir of the same name, “Wild” recounts the journey of Cheryl Strayed as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) following a series of personal grief and challenges. The book was adapted for film in 2014.
Sita, who was based near Stuttgart, Germany, had gone to see the film with her mother. Upon leaving the film, she told her mother she wanted to try the trail--she had been looking for a fitness challenge in any case. The following day, she already began learning more about the trail and ended up working three different jobs to save enough money.
Claude, who had been in the Luxembourg film business for 25 years by then, had bought the film, watched it, and was surprised how someone could walk the trail’s 2,653 miles (4,270km). He says he had felt “a little fed up with everything and wanted to take a break, but I knew I wasn’t the kind of person who could just be on a beach for six months”.
A chance meeting
The two, not knowing each other beforehand, set out separately on the trail in spring 2016, roughly one week apart. In that year, the PCT Association recorded 753 individuals completing the trail. In 2018, this figure rose to 1,150. Both Sita and Claude, like the majority of hikers, did the northbound trail.
It was at the Casa de Luna, a place known for its “trail angels extraordinaire”, where hikers gather in a relaxed setting for food and the chance to take a proper shower, that Sita noticed Claude. “He was the only one drinking wine,” she says, something she noticed since she was a trained sommelier. “I thought, that’s probably a European guy.”
The two started chatting, and Claude recalls Sita’s German accent as “really beautiful, it’s a very special Schwäbisch[Swabian].”
They would meet up again, the way long-term hikers do, only exchanging contact details after sharing a hotel with other hikers (quite normal along the trail, as hikers try to keep their costs down).
At Kennedy Meadows, they met up again. Sita said this is the point on the trail where hikers tend to feel “super strong” for hiking the distance up to that point, some 700 miles. It was cause for celebration: her boss had sent her a bottle of wine--“with a glass and a bottle opener, which was very smart”, Sita says--and she shared it with Claude.
From around the midpoint of the Pacific Crest Trail, Claude and Sita did the rest of the hiking together--more than 2,000km. Photo: Claude Ludovicy
Kennedy Meadows is the gateway to the Sierra Nevada, and starting that stretch is pretty tough. According to Claude, the trail in southern California tends to average around 1,500-2,000m high. But heading into the high Sierra, hikers are quickly faced with altitudes of 3,000-4,000m. At that height, says Claude, “You feel like an old man. There’s not enough air.” Sita experienced the same, adding that her daily mileage decreased from around 20-25 miles to 12-15 miles per day at those heights. On the plus side, while water was scarcer in southern California, in the mountains it was less of a problem.
Then, after the Sierra Nevada and back at lower elevations, Claude said, “You feel like Superman, as if you forgot your backpack, but it’s there but doesn’t feel heavy. There are more red blood cells in your blood because your body had adapted to the height.” Sita had the same experience of this natural high, which can last for months as the body readapts.
From around the middle point of the trail, they did the rest of the hiking together--more than 2,000km.
“The edge of your body and mind”
There were plenty of challenges on the trail, from mosquitoes to crossing streams, during which hikers keep their packs above them for safety, so they can easily ditch the extra weight should a stream become too powerful. Claude recalls one of his most difficult moments on the trail, when three different thunderstorms hit in one night. He had thrown the metal items out of his tent, but it was just him and nature as he nervously counted down the seconds to estimate how close the lightning was from his location.
At various moments, Sita and Claude both suffered injuries. Sita hurt her foot, although til this day she is unsure how. She hiked through it. Claude had shin splints which took almost 10 days to disappear. He’d take painkillers in the morning and, like clockwork, again around noon, when the pain flared up again. “You get to know your body so well,” he says. “Most people might stop, go back to LA to see how it goes, but I knew if I do that, I’m not coming back."
Sita adds that it isn’t as easy for Europeans to quit as it could be for Americans, who can more easily pick up another part of the trail the next year.
Both say hiking long distances is 100% mental. “You go to the edge of your body and your mind,” Claude says. “There were days when she needed some help, others where I needed it.”
Sita added, “You get to know a person in their highest highs, lowest lows, and maybe never experience that in your life again.”
The pair had decided after the trail completion to head to Canada, where Sita had previously lived for a stint. They planned to spend a week in Vancouver but, after three days, it felt too crowded. Shopping was stressful. Traffic seemed overwhelming, after they had been deep in nature during their months-long hike.
Sita has said of the PCT trail that it is different because you are deep in nature and don't even hear traffic from the roads below. Photo: Claude Ludovicy
“You don’t need much in life”
Sita and Claude both returned to their normal lives after their PCT hikes--she in Germany, he in Luxembourg. Both had lost weight and said it was difficult getting back to normal life. “I learned you don’t need much in life,” Claude said. “Two years after the trail I didn’t buy clothes anymore…when you’re in a store, you don’t buy any junk because on the trail…everything you have to carry takes away some of your pleasure because it’s heavy, more painful. The less you have, the happier you are.”
The two managed to see each other on weekends, driving back and forth, and by Christmas, Claude gave Sita the keys to his home, plus a working contract in his company. Their next plans were to hike the Continental Divide Trail in summer 2017, another US trail which runs 5,000km between Mexico and Canada. They even had bought supplies, all ready to go, but Sita found out she was pregnant so they postponed those plans. They hope to revisit these plans one day.
Sierra is now just over 8 months old. Photo: Claude Ludovicy
But they still went to the US, revisiting the PCT, this time serving as trail angels for other hikers. Claude proposed to Sita on the Mexican border, at the start of the PCT. In their living room now hangs a piece of art Claude made, with one of each of their shoes from the PCT, which Claude gave to Sita on their wedding day. “I made it so that on those days when things get complicated, we should think about how complicated that was,” he said. “We survived that, nothing can be harder than that.”
Their infant daughter, Sierra, just over 8 months old, was named in honour of the couple’s memories of the trail. She happened to be born on 4 July, American independence day.