Life's Milestones with Long Trails | Mao Matsunaga (Barista & Long-Distance Hiker)

Having reached a milestone in her life, Mao Matsunaga is trying to combine her love of coffee and the outdoors into one.
  • Photograph:Takeshi Abe

Mao Matsunaga has been deeply involved in the world of coffee as a barista while maintaining balance in life by climbing mountains and immersing herself in nature. After leaving the coffee stand where he worked for a long time last year, she embarked on a journey along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs north to south through North America, hiking sections of the trail. Feeling the desire to continue walking the trail indefinitely, Mao says that being in nature allows her to be "as he is."

Nature serves as a counterbalance to coffee.

Mao, who joined a coffee-related company as a new graduate, left her job to pursue her passion for becoming a barista and started working at a coffee stand to deepen her knowledge. It was during her earnest daily engagement with coffee that she encountered the mountains.

"About six years ago, Since I was really focused on studying about coffee, I occasionally felt the desire to venture into completely different natural spaces, and that's how it all started. At first, I was invited by a friend to climb Mt. Kenashi, part of the outer rim of Mt. Fuji. It wasn't famous, and there was a significant difference in elevation, but they asked, 'Wanna go?' so I climbed. Then, little by little, I climbed Mt. Yatsugatake, headed to the Southern Alps, and then tried camping in the Northern Alps, gradually stepping up the ladder. Since I was just starting out as a barista, I saved money little by little to get the gear."

Mao grew up near the sea in Shizuoka, found her days interacting with various people in the heart of Tokyo through coffee to be both stimulating and energetically demanding.

"Meeting different people every day, and on top of that, studying coffee, made me want to take breaks in nature. It was like, 'Today, I'm going to spend the whole day in the mountains,' kind of feeling. I think I was probably trying to strike a balance."

Life's milestones include long trails.

Mao gradually began venturing into winter mountaineering as she equipped herself, could be said to have followed the steps of Japanese mountaineering in a sense. Soon, she started noticing trails abroad.

"I saw people hiking in America on social media, and I read articles about long-distance hikes from outdoor brands, and I thought, 'Wow, this exists.' But it was more like a distant dream, something I hoped to do someday."

However, that "someday" arrived surprisingly soon. As she frequented the mountains, she met more hikers, some of whom had experienced long-distance hikes abroad.

"I saw how everyone was doing it, and I started envisioning myself walking those trails too. So, I resolved to go the next year. I quit my job and started preparing to hike in America for about 1 to 2 months."

However, things didn't proceed as smoothly. Mao experienced health issues and her family members faced serious illnesses, causing a series of hardships. She questioned whether it was appropriate to embark on a long journey overseas, given the circumstances.

"There were truly many things happening, and I wondered if I could even go to America. But at that time, I strongly felt the need to spend some time away from Japan. My family also told me, 'It's okay, you can go.' Despite feeling anxious, I decided to go to America and hike however I liked. It was a significant milestone for me, the hiking journey I embarked on."

"Experiencing trail culture."

Mao and her partner, who has extensive experience in long-distance hiking, collaborated to devise the plan for their trail trip. They initially intended to start from the trail town of Dunsmuir, at the base of Mount Shasta in northern California, and hike northward along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) towards the vicinity of Portland, Oregon. However, as they approached Oregon, they were affected by wildfires in the area. Consequently, they changed their route. They flew to Southern California and embarked on a course from Big Bear Lake, heading south towards the Mexico border.

"Northern California's forests were incredibly beautiful, with large trees I had never seen in Japan, and it was refreshing to swim in lakes and take breaks. On the other hand, I didn't have much interest in Southern California because I had this image of it being a desert with nothing. But when we actually went there, I felt excited about exploring a terrain I had never visited before, so there was something to look forward to in both places. It was great to experience such contrasting environments."

When Mao planned her hiking trip in the United States, she was curious about the trail culture, especially the thru-hiking culture. She wondered about trail angels and whether hitchhiking was common, and she wanted to meet thru-hikers and learn about their experiences. She also desired to have her own trail name.

Thru-hiking in the United States involves a unique culture. It includes interactions with trail angels, local people who support hikers along the way, and the tradition of thru-hikers giving each other trail names, which fosters a sense of camaraderie. This culture has organically developed to support hikers through the challenging and lengthy journey. Mao experienced the support of thru-hikers and trail angels firsthand when she traveled from the town of Dunsmuir to the trailhead.

"When I didn't know how to get to the trailhead, a thru-hiker I met in town offered to give me a ride because they were staying at a trail angel's house. I was surprised that such things happened right from the start. The trail angel also provided information about the trail, warning me about heavy snow on the PCT this year and asking if I had enough water and food. It made me realize that trail angels really exist."

Just focus on the hiking.

At last, when asked about Mao's interpretation of "being as it is," she returned with a response that inevitably led back to hiking.

"Well, long trails are often inconvenient, you know. Showers maybe once a week, unable to sleep in a proper bed, no cellphone signal, and so on. Initially, I struggled to adapt and would get grumpy about it, but after about two weeks, those things stopped bothering me. I got used to the trail and started feeling nothing but positivity. Every day felt enjoyable because I could walk so much.

Back in Japan, I used to think a lot about work and family, among other things, but out there in the vastness of American nature, I didn't think much. I was just there, surrounded by nature. I only had to think about the hiking right in front of me, so I moved with the emotions of the moment. There were times when I was moved to tears by the beauty of the scenery and times when I was furious at the inconvenience. It was a hike where all aspects of my 'being as it is' came out."

In the midst of walking those liberating long trails, Mao found a valuable item in a merino wool T-shirt.

"I brought along a merino wool T-shirt and a polyester aloha shirt for hiking. I noticed that many overseas hikers wore their favorite shirts, so I decided to bring my favorite aloha shirt too. I alternated between these two shirts, but when I wore the aloha shirt for three days straight in the desert, it smelled so bad that I was truly shocked. I quickly changed into the merino wool T-shirt, and for the next two days, it didn't smell at all, no matter how much I sweated, and it didn't cling uncomfortably to my body. I clearly felt the difference."

Having experienced long-distance hiking abroad, Mao is now seriously considering merging her passion for coffee with her love for the outdoors. She is beginning preparations to start a mobile coffee stand tailored for outdoor enthusiasts.

"I plan to participate in outdoor events and serve coffee near mountains or the sea. I want to create a space where I can connect with people who share my interests and values, doing what I love in places that I love."

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