A mile in their shoes...
Walking 2700 miles from Mexico to Canada isn't for the faint of heart. When Connor and Mike told me they were going to quit their desk jobs and through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, I didn't really know what to think. But time to check it out in person....
As I set out to see my old friends from college who were through-hiking the PCT I didn’t really know what to expect. Coming in cold off the couch with an ‘office body’ and fresh off an 11-hour drive, I wasn’t really sure how I’d make it through the next few days on the trail. I’d seen pictures of Connor and Mike from a few weeks before, long hair, shaggy beards and salty around the edges. When they left to hike the PCT back in March I knew they would finish. There’s a funny conviction they each possess where when they tell you something, not matter how big or small, you know they’ll follow through. Maybe that’s how I knew Mike was serious when I texted him I was an hour away from Crater Lake National Park and he replied, “I’m 7 miles away, I’ll start jogging” (he’d already laid down 14 miles that morning).
When I finally ran into Mike a few hundred yards up the trail, I remember thinking that he looked homeless, full of life and excited to be wrapping up a long 20+ mile day to resupply at the village. We shared a cold trail beer I brought on my quick hike out and walked back to the car where I’d shuttle him a mile down the road to the Mazama Village Campground. Before we could get into the car we were met by a hiker who was from Los Angeles, she’d been walking in the same pair of shoes since mile 1. She was trying to set a record for longest distance in a single pair of shoes (somewhere around mile 2,000 was the unofficial PCT record), she was well on her way...1,800 miles and counting....
As I drove Mike down to the campsite I couldn’t help but think, “What the heck did I get myself into?”. What I found out over the course of the next three days on the trail was nothing short of incredible. Trail friends, chafe, blisters, dirt and all; I emerged three days later feeling like I had somehow experienced all of the things that make through-hiking the PCT special into an abridged 32 mile weekend trip.
The next morning I remember waking up and thinking how nice it was that most of the smoke from the forest fires had blown out. Unfortunately my excitement was short-lived, by 9:30 the smoke had already blown in. The boundary of nearby forest fires were never really that far off, but that's not what concerned us. The next 39 miles had no water resupplies and the chance of trail magic was looking slim. It was one of the longest stretches of dryness they had experienced in a number of weeks. Oregon was supposed to be flat, full of water and relatively quick, so far it seemed anything but and this long stretch without water had everybody's back aching just thinking about it. The majority of our team (revolving door of members ranging from 5-10) had already walked 1,800 miles straight and long days without water are still high on their list of ‘worst’ days.
The trail this year was diverted from its usual course due to forest fire. Typically the PCT runs adjacent to the Rim Trail but unlike the Rim Trail, the PCT never gets to peer down into the sapphire blue waters of Crater Lake. After long smoky days of forest, we were all excited to hike the rim, there was a lot more elevation, but we all knew the views would be well worth it.
We set off from the lodge at the rim of Crater Lake around 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon, still groggy from a long night of gin rummy and cheap beer. (God bless CLNP for stocking their fridges with great microbrews for rock-bottom prices.) After a couple of relaxed hours of hiking, we settled in for some battle hack on the far side of the lake where we’d descend off the crater and down into the forest for the night.
My plan was to hike with the crew the first day, then walk out to the highway where I could hitch a ride back to my car at the lodge. From the lodge I would drive 9 miles ahead and meet up with everyone at the halfway point of our hike the next day. It wasn’t going to be the first time I had ever hitched a ride, working and living near the Cottonwood Canyons near Salt Lake City, I used to hitch rides up to ski resorts in the winter to save money on gas. I quickly found while on the trip about a term called “trail magic”. Trail magic takes on many forms, roadside burritos, hitched rides, malt liquor 40’s when you cross highway 40, free food, water, and gear among other things. The second morning was my chance to experience it first hand.
After hiking out to the road, I sat stood near the edge with my pack propped on my leg as to say “Hey, I’m a hiker, not a bum, please pick me up”. I figured my luck would be pretty good since I was only a day in, freshly shaven and didn’t look completely homeless. Ten, 20, 25, thirty minutes later someone finally stopped. It was a car I had seen before, he passed me a few minutes prior and I remember thinking, “Come on, there was NOBODY in your Forrester with you, if only you knew my story, surely you’d pick me up.” His name was Kevin, a semi-retired lawyer from Philly who was taking a sabbatical and came west to meet up with a friend for the weekend.
I shut the door to Kevin’s car and thanked him for the quick 45 minute lift. After packing my things into my car I was headed down trail to meet up with the crew again. For the rest of the day I couldn’t help but think about how I would probably never see Kevin again, but how grateful I was for his kindness. That’s kind of how trail magic works, you can never truly plan on it, often times it’s from someone whom you’ve never met and there’s no expectation of returning the favor… faith in humanity restored!
I arrived at the shuttle point 15 miles down the road and stopped off at common lunch spot for hikers. There I would drop my car, hike in to Mt. Thielsen for the evening and hike back out to drive home in the morning. The crew arrived shortly after I made it to the rendezvous point. We stopped rehydrate and play a few games of rummy under the shade of a nearby tree and waited for the temperatures to cool before hiking 10 miles in to the campsite that night.
I remember seeing Mt. Thielsen in the distance the day before walking the rim of Crater Lake. It’s peak stands tall like a single dolomite amongst a field of green trees. Today’s hike would prove to be one of the sweatiest days I can recall. 1,800 feet of elevation gain in 97 degree heat without a cloud in the sky. Even after a day or two of hiking I could feel certain muscles getting stronger, others on their brink and most of the swelling in my legs from the drive out has seemingly evaporated into thin air. We paced ourselves in order to hit the campsite around dusk so we could enjoy the stream and surrounding meadows at golden hour. Connor and I rolled in to camp first and quickly hit the stream to refill water and wash our feet.
I couldn’t believe how cold the water was. Our feat instantly cramped, so we resorted to dipping our feet in and out of the water like scared children. Shortly after cleaning our dirty feet and wringing the salt out of our shirts, we scurried back to camp to claim the most level-grounded sections of the campsite and started to cook dinner. Dinner on the PCT looks a lot more like what I used to feed my horses than what people usually eat. Meals are all about calories, and sometimes you just have to resort to throwing everything you can into your oatmeal or bag of dehydrated chili to increase your calorie count. I settled on an entire box of instant mash potatoes, garnished with pepperoni, cheese chunks and crushed potato chips….
Because of the long day, elevation and waning daylight we decided to only play a few games of rummy and retire to our tents. My last day on the trail was looking rather grim, I was trying to pull off nine miles back to the car before 9:00 a.m. so I could hop in a car and drive 10+ hours home to Salt Lake. Camp was especially quite that night, we all fell fast asleep and mentally prepared ourselves for the 5:00 a.m. start the next morning. Somewhere around 2:00 my decision to eat the entire box of instant mash potatoes came back to bite me. Worst heartburn ever… not the way I wanted to start my morning.
I hugged Mike and Connor goodbye before leaving camp around 6:00 a.m. and set off back down the trail. I had seen U-Turn do it the morning before trying to get and early start to beat the heat. I figured if he could do it after hiking 1,900 miles, I had nothing to complain about. The first few miles were really achy, but as they say on the trail you “just walk it off”. I rolled into the car at 8:30 the next morning after somehow managing to lay down nine miles in two hours and fifteen minutes. The long drive home gave me a lot of time to think about the trip. When I set out I wanted to ask everyone why they decided to hike the PCT. Not long after arriving I realized everyone I was hiking with left those reasons behind somewhere in the deserts of Southern California. Finishing was the goal, but the friendships and stories where what kept everyone’s feet moving. In the end I think that’s what keeps us all moving forward, the thought of seeing friends and family members somewhere down the trail.