About a week into her month-long hike across Oregon, Lauren Pauli realized that the simplest stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail can be the most difficult.
She found herself on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Flat trail. Hot sun. No trees. No water. Pauli's 17-year-old mind drifted off-trail.
A real dinner with her family. Watching television. Hanging with her Ashland High School friends. Sleeping in a bed. WTH?
"It was those easier parts that were the hardest," Pauli says. "I had plenty of those 'what the hell did I sign up for' moments," Pauli says. "Your mind starts to wander. That's when it's so hard to keep going, but you do."
Pauli's 325-mile trek from the Columbia Gorge to the top of Mount Ashland fulfilled a childhood dream of conquering every facet of the trail's Oregon path, and it made her one of only a handful of teenage girls to do so.
She also did it for her senior project. No building park benches or erecting a bunch of wood-duck nesting boxes for this kid.
"You get out of your senior project what you put into it," Pauli says. "I did this because I wanted to do this. And it was awesome."
The girl with the trail name "Buttercup" side-stepped fires, record heat and swollen feet to tame the trail in 28 days, averaging around 14 miles a day sandwiched around a handful of rest days.
She forged her own itinerary, accumulated and shipped her own food to resupply posts, and was accompanied by family members along various stretches of her north-to-south journey. Otherwise, this was entirely Pauli's doing.
"I really resisted helping her at all," says Josh Pauli, Lauren's father, who joined her for two weeks on the middle part of the trip. "She planned it. For the most part, it was her own trip."
It was also somewhat of an unusual trip, with high-school-aged young women something of a rarity on the PCT.
"We've had a couple young people over the years," says Ian Nelson, regional coordinator for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the main tracker of PCT trekkers. "I pretty regularly field calls about hiking it, but not too much in the realm of high-school aged kids locally."
On the 2,650-mile PCT, which takes through-hikers from Mexico to Canada, the Oregon stretch is the shortest of the three states and it is considered the easiest, in part because the trail contains fewer serious climbs than California and Washington — after the 3,160-foot climb out of the Columbia Gorge.
But that still doesn't make it easy.
Like many new PCT hikers this decade, Pauli read Cheryl Strayed's 2012 bestseller "Wild" and decided she wanted to hit the trail.
She says the planning aspect of the trip contained far more nuances than she expected, such as assembling enough high-carbohydrate, high-protein foods to keep her body fueled.
"I felt like I was eating beans and rice for a long time," Pauli says.
"Most of the time I was really hungry and really tired," Pauli says. "I'd try to take a nap, get something to eat and keep going."
Like most PCT hikers, her feet swelled and grew from the constant pounding, but she completed her trip in just one pair of now-ratty size-7 boots.
"The boots ended up too small," says Pauli, who stands 5-foot-3. "But I figured the smaller boots would be less painful than breaking in a new pair."
Pauli had to dodge wildfires and divert around parts of Crater Lake National Park and the Sky Lakes Wilderness, where sections of the PCT were closed. Pauli believes her roughly 50-mile bypass probably added about 10 miles to the trip.
"You prepare so much, and there are days you feel like you can't go two more miles," Pauli says. "But you strap on your boots and keep going because you have to."
Pauli says she ran into dozens of northbound hikers during her hike, eventually catching a glimpse of the Ashland Springs Hotel through the smoky haze.
"That whole last day I could hear the interstate getting louder and louder," Pauli says. "I was really excited to see the valley, even though it was so smoky."
She spent the last night, Aug. 26, atop Mount Ashland, but the smoke kept her from hiking into town.
After meeting family at Callahan's Restaurant and Lodge, Pauli returned to Ashland and a week of convalescing.
"It was sort of like I had amnesia for a month," Pauli says.