Returning to California for the first time since I was 2 years old, to find out what it really means to be a US citizen – and whether I want to keep it – by hiking the John Muir Trail across the state.
Permits approved for 21st June NOBO on the John Muir Trail, arriving in Yosemite on my 30th birthday if all goes to plan!
What’s this about?
In July 1993, I was born in California in the United States of America. My parent’s aren’t American, they were just visiting for a few years, and we left before my third birthday. But, by the laws of the US, by being born in the country, I was automatically a US citizen: my birth right. We left when I was two years old and have never been back.
Being American is something that was always lurking around in my childhood but it never had any real meaning. It was just a cool thing I could whip out to surprise people. I’ve got British citizenship too, so I always travelled on a UK passport and had no connection with the US. Just home videos, family photos and my parents’ memories. Needless to say, I had more than one friend tell me with certainty that I wasn’t American because I look English and I sound English and spent most of my childhood here.
The Nightmares of US Expats
But then, as I graduated university and got my first proper job, I discovered what my citizenship really meant. The US is one of two countries in the world to tax its citizens internationally. That means, despite spending only the first two years of my life in their country, I have to file yearly tax returns to the IRS and file an FBAR form – giving details of the values in all of my bank accounts. As well as being an expensive nightmare, it also means many banks will not give me an account (to avoid all the excess reporting), I can’t have a standard workplace pension (considered to be PFIC and Foreign Mutual Funds) without a heck tonne more forms and if I ever earn more than £80k or sell a house, I’ll have to pay taxes in America. What a great deal, for a country I can’t even remember.
Just renounce your citizenship then? Well actually it’s £2k for the privilege, plus you need to book an appointment at the embassy. And they were years behind schedule thanks to Covid. It’s also irrevocable – I cannot change my mind or ever get it back once it’s gone.
Am I really American?
So, my plan was simple: go back to California, hike across the state on one of the long distance trails and find out if I feel American. Or even what it means to be American at all. To to that I have to get a US passport, because as a citizen I have to enter on one. It also means I can’t stay longer than 35 days or completely change the tax forms I have to file (and lose some of my Foreign Earned Income Exclusion). So that ruled out the Pacific Coast Trail or any really long, classic US trails…
That’s when I hit on the John Muir Trail. It seemed perfect. At 200 miles it could be done in under 30 days, leaving some breathing room either side to travel. When done north bound (unusual, but PCT direction), I would finish in Yosemite – a place I’ve heard so much about all my life but can’t remember being in. We used to spend many holidays there when I was small. They are most probably the first mountains I ever saw – perhaps in part to blame for the direction the rest of my life has gone.
As for the timing, I turn 30 in July 2023. Doing something dramatic for my 30th seemed appropriate – but then it hit me: why don’t I have my birthday in America, on trail? Going back to where I started, 28 years since I left. If I timed it right, I could also experience Independence Day (presumably a big deal in US culture?). And so the plan was set. All I needed now was a US passport…
How are you preparing?
This will be the longest consecutive days hiking in my life. But I feel like I’m ready for it. I’ve spent so much time hauling my life across the world on my back that I’m confident I can do the distance and deal with the altitude. I’m no stranger to sleeping on the floor either. All in all, I’m hoping it’ll be the homecoming to the mountains I loved as a toddler.
The main challenges in prep will be:
- the citizenship admin – aka getting my passport renewed without my original one (DONE!)
- permits for the JMT – less competitive going north-bound but still need to get right (DONE!)
- logistics of food drop offs/resupply
- booking the travel
- funding the whole thing in the first place.
I can barely believe this is happening, but I’m very excited!
An Intro to the John Muir Trail
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In Friendship With…
This is going to be an expensive trip – in the region of £5000. I am currently seeking sponsorship and would love to hear from you. Click here to drop me a line and/or request the sponsorship pack.