“The mountains are calling me and I must go.” – John Muir
PCT Trail Marker
Thanks for playing my game friends. About half of you were spot on with your guess. The other half of you were oh so close… A mere 3,000 miles off. While the Appalachian Trail is near and dear to me and I aim to thru-hike it some day, the object of our 2019 (ish) adventure is its west coast cousin.
The Pacific Crest Trail or PCT as it is commonly referred to is roughly 2,650 miles long and winds across and through sweltering, dry desert and high altitude mountain passes often covered in snow year round. It spans three states – California, Oregon and Washington – on its journey from the Mexican border to the Canadian border or vice-versa… depending on your world view.
The PCT was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968 and officially completed in 1993. Walk the trail in its entirety and you will visit 7 national parks, 25 national forests and 33 federally mandated wilderness areas. You will traverse the mighty Sierra Nevada and the bold Cascades. You will gain over an estimated and seriously whopping 300,000 feet in cumulative elevation. That’s a freakin lot of up.
By any account 2,650 miles is a long way. It’s a long way to drive let alone walk. Why on earth would anyone want to walk that far? The reasons for undertaking such a challenge are as numerous as the people who attempt it. I can only tell you why it appeals to me.
Let me distill my reasons for wanting to engage in such foolishness down to one word.
I do love an adventure.
“An adventure is an exciting or unusual experience; it may also be a bold, usually risky undertaking, with an uncertain outcome.” – Dictionary.com
Oooooooooohhhhhh! Doesn’t that sound good? I believe it was Helen Keller who said “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
You go girl.
Of course the above stated definition could be interpreted in many different ways. An exciting or unusual experience could result from a wrong turn on a Sunday drive. (If anyone actually does Sunday drives anymore?). A cook attempting a new recipe for a crowd of hungry people is perhaps a risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome. What is bold and risky to some is paralyzing and unthinkable to others. Simply put, we must all define our own adventures.
For me, an adventure is born when the potential benefits and rewards outweigh the risks. Risks may include anything from the relatively harmless possibility of discomfort to the potential for serious physical harm. These risks may be real or perceived but must present in order for the adventurer to reap the maximum feeling of reward. It is a delicate balance though. Encounter too many serious risks and the rewards and benefits begin to diminish.
On the Pacific Crest Trail, one is all but guaranteed an adventure. The potential risks are plentiful. Everything from the ubiquitous and mundane blisters and mosquito bites to the threat of hypothermia, sunburn and dehydration. Drowning during dangerous river crossings, lightning storms and falling on steep snow slopes are all real hazards not to mention the threat of a nasty case of Giardia from drinking unpurified water and the challenges associated with trying to maintain proper nutrition. There are bears, cougars and poisonous snakes to contend with. There will be fatigue and quite likely, physical overuse issues on joints, muscles and bones. There could be cuts, bruises, strains, sprains, rashes, bites or breaks. There will be bad weather. Wet, soggy, miserably cold, unbearably hot… for days on end. There will be dried, dehydrated food meal after meal after meal. Yuk. We haven’t even begun to address the psychological toll an adventure like this can exact. Morale and motivation can ebb and flow like a tide gone mad.
Now multiply all of this times 4 since this will be a family adventure. If one of us goes down, we all go down. Though possible, It’s unlikely that any of the more horrifying hazards on my list will get us. In all my research I could find no evidence of attacks by wild animals on PCT hikers, ever. I found one fatality attributed to a slip and fall on a steep slope and many reports of hikers getting into trouble with dehydration, illness or navigation (aka… being lost), but getting rescued by local authorities.
It’s more likely that we’ll be waylaid by blisters, fatigue or illness all at different times so that instead of needing to rest for a few days and recover, we’ll need to rest for a few x4 and then we’ll get way behind schedule and never make it through to Washington before the snow flies and renders the trail impassable.
Or, the swarms of mosquitos will drive us all absolutely batty and run us literally out of the woods.
Or one of us will just get sick and tired of walking and want to quit.
Or maybe the physical demands will just to be too much for our bodies… some of us being on the slightly young side and others of us being well, not quite as young.
It’s possible that we won’t actually embark on this journey at all. Maybe we will decide that the Washington section at 500 miles is a worthy goal for our 11 and 13-year-old hikers. Or maybe we will tack on Oregon. The two states combined add up to just under 1,000… a nice number. If we are really feeling burly, maybe we will toss in another 210 and do the John Muir Trail through the High Sierras. I hear it’s spectacular. But I’m kind of a “Go Big or Go Home” gal so chances are, if I have anything to say about it, I’ll try to convince the boys to buy in to the long haul.
I just read accounts of two different families – a mother and her 9-year-old daughter and two parents with their 10-year-old daughter who thru-hiked the trail in 2012 and 2004 respectively. As I mentioned before, it’s not exactly a trip you can drag an unwilling participant on so the boys will have to want to do it. They are both hearty outdoorsmen now so there is reason to be optimistic.
But why? Why would we face such risks? Even if all goes swimmingly, there will be mosquitos, blisters, aches, pains and bad weather. There will be no pillows. Randy and I have both become quite particular about our pillows. Huh? When did that happen? They have to be a certain thickness (or thinness really) (Randy) and they have to be positioned just right. (Me) And I need two. Can I really do with a down jacket for a pillow for 6 months? And oh!!! My espresso machine! I survived without it for a year. Can I really be expected to do another?
I would. I would brave it all for the rewards the PCT has to offer.
Like traveling, long distance hiking presents an opportunity to break away from the routine of everyday life. I was tempted to write “escape” but I guess I’m lucky in that I have a good life I really don’t feel a need to escape from. Yet, if given a choice (or an unlimited amount of money) I’d be out adventuring in equal proportions to the time spent at home.
I’ve never walked on a trail for months but I’ve spent enough time in the mountains in short bursts and a couple of long-ish stretches (10 days on the AT and 22 days in Nepal) to know that when I get out there, away from what normally consumes my time, that something magical happens.
Time slows. Life simplifies. Taking care of basic needs and putting one foot in front of the other is all there is. You have what you can carry on your back. Non essential items that a typical backpacker might include for comfort on a weekend adventure are discarded. Comfort comes at a cost on the PCT and hikers are rarely willing to add the extra weight in exchange for the added convenience.
I guess it makes me a little odd but not having all that stuff that normally takes up time and space in everyday life, well, I like that. Imagine if you could, for example, wake up and not have to decide what to wear. You wouldn’t have to decide because well, you only have one outfit. And, imagine now that no one would care that you wore that outfit day after day after day!
Now if I haven’t convinced you with that last “perk” of the trail, hang with me. Imagine coming to the end of a 2,650 mile walk. Imagine what a freakin rock star you would feel like! You would be able to stop, look at yourself in the mirror and say “Dude! you just walked from Mexico to Canada!” You’d feel invincible! From that point forward in your life you’d face challenges and think… “How hard can this really be?” Can’t be harder than walking 2,650 miles.
You’d feel resourceful and tenacious. You’d be as strong and fit as you could ever hope to be in your life. In general, and forgive my outburst here, you could rightfully and righteously consider yourself forevermore a bad ass.
Now think of the lessons the trail could teach your children. Imagine having that kind of self-reliance, perspective and confidence in your ability to overcome challenges and achieve a goal… all before the age of 18!
Mountains are a thing of beauty and I have a deep reverence for them. They are at once gentle; inviting contemplation and quiet…and violent; capable of unleashing a fury not meant for humans to endure. The reasons stated above are, in and of themselves, reason enough for me to embark on such a journey. There is however something more. I’ve been pondering it for days now. It’s a rather intangible feeling associated with the power of wildness. I can’t seem to put it into words but luckily for me there are many brilliant writers and champions of wilderness that have come before me who say it much better than I could ever hope to. Here are a few of my favorites.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” – John Muir
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” – Rachel Carson
“But love of the wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need – if only we had eyes to see.” – Edward Abbey
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” – Edward Abbey
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world.” – John Muir
Hortense Lake, John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada, California
Now, if you are still unconvinced that the rewards of hiking the PCT outweigh the risks, I invite you to join us somewhere along the trail and experience a little bit of the magic for yourself. You’ve got a few years to consider it. 🙂
It has long been a dream of Randy’s to hike the PCT. Wherever I have used “me” in this post, I think I could fairly have used “we”. The inspiration for these plans come from him and I am grateful to have such an adventurous mate.
Photos reposted here with permission from Wikimedia Commons