I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. Jack London
Brian and Caryl wish to dedicate their summer 2005 hike along the Pacific Crest Trail to the memory of Eric Johnson. Caryl’s cousin had a passion for the outdoors and for hiking. This led him to move to some of the remotest regions of Alaska. Here he was able to practice his chosen profession of assisting the native people with legal issues and participate in the great outdoor activities he so enjoyed. Eric left us quite suddenly and far too young on May 6, 2005.
We found ourselves in a high elevation alpine meadow under a cloudless, baby blue sky. Our meadow was surrounded by an erratic boulder wall, trimmed with a few remaining snow banks, and carpeted with spring grass and tiny white, yellow, and pink flowers. Our narrow, muddy trail cut the meadow diagonally and wound its way through boulders toward the summit of Mule Pass, a mere 1/8 mile up trail, 100 vertical feet higher, 25 miles north of Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, and 970 miles from the Mexican border. It was a picture perfect hiking day. A day we had hoped would see us yet another 21 miles toward our goal, the Canadian border. But, now that goal seemed to be slipping away.
Brian lay on a rock, soaking in the warm sunrays, not speaking a word. Huddled close to one of those snow patches, I leaned over, scraped up a handful of bitter cold ice, shaped it into a pancake, and held it against my knee. Ice cold water dribbled down my calf and my woefully swollen knee turned pink and numb. Disappointment hung heavy in the air. I’d hiked 4 miles since my accident, hoping against all odds that it was just a temporary strain. But now, with my knee the size of a very large grapefruit and my hiking slowed to a 1 mile per hour pace, it was becoming quite clear we’d have to go “off trail”. The question remained, would recovery be just a matter of a few days rest, or was our hike doomed.
Everything had started out so well. The idea to hike the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, usually called the PCT, from Mexico to Canada had percolated in our minds for many years. The first inklings probably were planted way back when we lived in San Diego and went for hikes in the mountains around Idylwild. Many times we’d hiked short sections of the nearby PCT, always making note of the distinctive triangular shaped shield insignia used to mark the route. We knew the PCT was a border-to-border trail that was, at that time, still under construction. We also thought anyone wanting to hike that 2600 plus miles in a single season had to be absolutely nuts. Yet, the seed had been planted.
A few years ago, while in Alaska, we hiked the four-day journey over the Chilkoot trail, the route most of the 1896 miners took to get to the Klondike gold fields. At that time that had been the longest backpacking trip we’d ever taken. Our feet were sore, our backs ached, and we were so ready for a hot shower and “real” food. But we both now had the hiking bug and it was time to try something more ambitious. But, what? A few months later, while sitting on the rim of Crater Lake in Oregon next to one of those ubiquitous PCT shields Brian asked, “Have you ever thought about hiking the PCT?” “I had,” I replied, “but, I didn’t think you’d want to do it.”
Before long we were putting plans together for a year 2004 hike. We’ve never done anything quite this ambitious before, so many questions plagued our minds. What equipment different from our normal bike touring gear would we need? How much weight could we cut? What packs, boots, clothes, stove, pots, plates, utensils, camera, first aid kit, tent, and sleeping system would best meet our needs? What kind of meals, how many calories, and what nutrition would we need? How could we keep from getting tired of our menus? How and where would we get food and supplies shipped? What supplies could we find en route? How much would it all weigh? How much would it cost? How would we get to the resupply towns? Would we need an ice axe or crampons? How many miles per day could we expect to hike? Would we need different gear for the deserts, high Sierras, or Washington? Would the year be a good one for crossing the high passes early or would we find ourselves bogged down in snow? Most important, would we be able to remain both mentally and physically up to the challenge of day after day hiking? This last question, of all the rest, was possibly the biggest unknown. The challenges of bicycle touring were a well-known quantity. This long distance hiking was an entirely different matter.
After spending the months of January through April plowing through all these issues, getting our gear and food assembled, finding Greg Hummel an absolutely wonderful food manager, and putting ourselves through some sort of training regime we were finally ready, or as ready as we could reasonably expect to be. At the wee hour of 4:30 AM on May 8 we found ourselves standing at the Mexican border, our backs facing the ugly, green metal border fence and the large, 5 wooden post, PCT southern terminus monument, our noses faced north toward 2650 miles of unknown. We took deep breaths, snapped a few photos, and were off.
Through years of tracking PCT hikers, various organizations and authors have concluded that the time you learn whether you have the “right stuff” to finish a PCT hike is during those first few hundred miles. In fact, it is believed that many would-be-thru-hikers don’t even make it to mile 60. These are the days your feet hurt and grow horrible blisters. Your pack is heavy with extra water and food needed for this dry hiking environment. You discover aches and pains in places you never knew you had. Your progress of around 20 miles per day seems excruciating slow and that Canadian border a lifetime away. Many hikers simply do not fully grasp the magnitude of what they’re attempting until after they start. It’s long. It’s hard. It takes enormous commitment and conviction. Most of all it takes an “I won’t quite till I get there no matter what” attitude. This is hard enough for a couple, who have been adventure traveling for many years. It must be an order of magnitude more difficult for a solo hiker, a hiker who is looking toward spending day after day after day alone. Needless to say we witnessed or heard of several hikers dropping out within those first few days.
Ignoring the blisters, sore feet, dry throats, and aching backs, we pushed on. From the Mexican border we climbed again and again to get short hints of cool Jeffery pine filled mountain forests near Julian, Idylwild, and then Big Bear. In between each we were forced to descend once again into the scorching, treeless desert. First to avoid private property in the cool mountains near Julian we crossed an obscure desert nowhere called Scissors Crossing. Next we trudged through the sand choked and wind blasted San Gregornio pass through which I-10 cuts and hundreds of windmills moan in the wind. Then we pierced our way westward past the I-15 into the San Gabriel Mountains north of the gigantic Los Angeles megalopolis. We turned north once again to crest a couple more rows of mountains and skirt along the edge of the huge Tejon Ranch. Finally, we descended once again to march our way north across the Mojave Desert right on top of the concrete strip covering the California Aqueduct, through the Tehachapi Mountains and, at long last, into the much anticipated High Sierras.
In those first eight weeks we experienced so much. In just a single day we could hike from cool, snow fed stream filled forest, across manzanita choked hillsides, down to sand crusted desert bottoms. The very next day, we would follow the vegetation progression in reverse as we climbed right back up. We’d hike the length of a reservoir, peering down at its sparkling blue waters seemingly so close but always too far. We passed miles and miles of trail snaking its way through charred wildfire sites. Some just a couple years old already sprouted with new bushes and wildflowers. Others, more recently burned, held nothing but the black charred skeletons of former trees, dust, and soot, an atmosphere that exuded a Holloween spookiness. Near Big Bear we passed acres and acres of crispy, brown pines, all dead from some pine beetle infestation, a future wildfire just waiting to happen. Yet in other places we found lush, green forests trickling with springs and streams, places that, hopefully, won’t see the ravages of fire. We passed under three interstate highways, several sets of railroad tracks, and countless major paved and minor backcountry dirt roads. We found ourselves in small mountain towns with hot showers, grocery stores, and restaurants just once each week. Daily our environment and the trail conditions changed. Variety was our constant companion.
In those first eight weeks we learned so much. We found out about “trail names”, odd nicknames given to or selected by hikers which become their main identity for the rest of the hike, if not their life. Names like Chaco Man, Chef, K-Too, Wandering Monk, Brother John, Little John, Big John, Scrambler, Captain Bly, Nelly Bly, Cottonmouth, Salt and Pepper, Red Beard, Christy P, Rafter Jack, and, well, Caryl and Brian. We found a unique communication system exists all along the trail. Scraps of paper are tucked under rocks, stuffed into cracks of wood, placed in trail registers, and tacked on message boards. Messages are made of stones or pinecones carefully arranged in the middle of the trail. Messages are scribbled into trail registers at hotels, post offices, restaurants, or along the trail. They all decry some instruction to everyone in general or just someone in particular. “Water, 1/8 mile east”, “Mary, gone on to Summit Lake. Meet me there. John”, “Cottonmouth, Gone to the restaurant to get real food. See ya. Christy”, “Water down at the spring not worth the effort.” “Jerry, couldn’t get a ride to Idlywild so I’m hiking on. Mike” “H2O à”, “400.00, 400.001” (referring to the trail mile), “HALF WAY”.
We learned about the blessings bestowed by the “trail angels.” Caches loaded with gallons and gallons of water are strategically placed just where you need them the most. Some consist of new, sealed gallon jugs of water neatly placed in a wooden bookshelf, complete with a trail register to mark your passing. Others are a hodge-podge of used jugs, filled from a tap, tied together with a string, and just left sitting on the ground. Some caches occasionally have candy, gatorade, and, in one case, a cooler filled with beer and sodas. Some are unexpected “gifts”, not listed on the water report sheet we so carefully followed. But, each and every one is a highly anticipated prize not to be skipped. We also learned that just when you depend on one of these caches the most it’ll be empty. We learned to carry a lot of water. We learned to ask passing motorists for water at every opportunity. We learned just how precious this oft taken for granted commodity really is.
We learned how to find the tiniest shady spot in the middle of the roasting afternoon. How to find the smallest spot possible for our tent. How to bushwack across fields and forests to find flat camping spots. How to locate trickling springs. How to read and follow the guidebook, data book, and maps, and when not to believe its directions. How to look pathetic, hopeful, and harmless when trying to hitch a ride into a “trail town”. We learned what equipment worked and what didn’t. The pack definitely had to be changed. And no matter how many repairs we did, everything, especially our clothes, were bound to become tattered.
We discovered hiking styles as varied as the hikers. Some folks cooked, some did not. Some had food packages sent. Others bought food wherever they could. Some ate real meals, some survived on candy bars and bagels. Some folks carried lots of water, others just barely enough. Some filtered, some used iodine, some took their chances. Some hiked 25 to 30 miles per day. Others hiked 15 to 20. Some hiked from sun up to sun down, some started late and hiked after dark, and some just took each day as it came. Some spent 2 to 3 days in each town. Some hardly even stopped. Some drank and partied all the way north. Others stayed sober and avoided the contact. Some seemed to have money to burn, staying in hotels and eating in fine restaurants at every chance. Others, camped whenever possible and stuck to fast food or grocery stores for their “real” food fix. Some tried to remain purists, hiking every mile of the PCT and just the PCT. Many took alternates or even skipped uninviting sections. No matter how each person chose to hike, one and only rule remained true. You have to “hike your own hike” and don’t let anyone else convince you to do otherwise.
After 700 miles hiking we, at long last, reached the backcountry town known as Kennedy Meadows. There’s not much there, a few homes mostly of the mobile house variety, a couple primitive campgrounds, and the store which, with it’s huge covered porch, is the meeting place for locals and hikers alike. Absolutely everyone stops in the store to buy food, pick up and send mail, chat on the porch, wait for snow in the Sierras to melt, or to sign the register. Notes scribed in the register repeated the same theme over and over, “no more desert”. There’s almost a sense of euphoria, people thinking that having made it this far, they could easily finish the rest. But there were still many, many hard miles ahead and winter comes to Washington so, so early. Being June 22, late by PCT standards, we knew we had to push onward.
Scenery and hiking conditions north of Kennedy Meadows exceeded our expectations. We delighted in finding a glacial carved landscape that is so similar to that of the Ice-fields Parkway in Canada and Glacier National Park in Montana. We kept wondering how we could have lived in San Diego all those many years and not know what an amazing place lay practically in our backyard. Pass after pass took us from one valley into another. Each valley, each pass, each mountain was so unique and beautiful in its own glorious way. We so wished we had more time and kept thinking we just have to come back sometime. It is easy now to see why the John Muir Trail, which we followed for 200 miles, is always so crowded.
The physical exertion required to hike the High Sierras is enormous. Each and every day the trail snakes it’s way along river valleys, gradually climbs several thousand feet to high alpine meadows, and finally approaches a solid, vertical rock wall. Somewhere, on the surface of these walls is a trail, precariously etched in a tight zig-zag pattern onto that rock face, an acrophobic’s nightmare. In some places, snow covers the trail making for a sluggishly slow ascent and a particularly frightful descent. With a steep, rugged trail, daily climbs of over 3000 feet, and thin air of the 10K, 11K, 13K-foot elevations, climbing over each pass required every ounce of stamina and energy we could muster. Food evaporated from our packs, leaving us wondering whether we’d brought enough. The gift of a small bag of rice from another couple of backpackers was barely enough to see us through.
By the time we reached Tuolomne Meadows we were fit, we were strong, we were healthy, and we were ready to increase our daily distance. We were even starting to catch up to the faster hikers who’d been ahead of us these many weeks. Our confidence was growing. That distant Canadian border was looking not quite so distant. Our hopes and aspirations soared as we headed out the morning of July 12 along a scenic, easier, shortcut alternate.
The morning started well enough. We rose with the sun, wolfed down a cold breakfast, packed and were on the trail by 7AM, a typical schedule for a 20-mile day. Heading toward Burro Pass, the first of three we expected to climb that day, we crossed Matterhorn creek once, twice, and then approached it for the third and final time. Whereas the creek had been slow and calm at the two previous crossings, here it gushed and frothed over rocks, branches, and boulders as it roared downhill. No easy boulder path existed, not that my short legs could span. We shed the packs and shoes for an icy cold wade. Here is where it all came to an end. Brian tossed over his shoes. I followed suit, or at least tried. One shoe, a disobedient, errant left shoe snagged onto a tree and dropped right into the creek. We immediately learned, modern hiking boots don’t sink.
As my shoe slipped ever downstream we chased after it, Brian on the bank, me sloshing through the water. We were about 16 miles from the nearest civilization and trying to hike out with just one boot or wearing thin water shoes seemed daunting. We slipped and slid our way downstream until, finally we found the single boot floating upside down in lazy circles in a small somewhat calm pool. I plunged into the thigh deep icy water thinking that at any second an eddy would suddenly displace it back into the current and it would once again be lost. I was wet and cold, but at least I had everything in hand.
Or did I? My orthotic and sock, so carefully stuffed into the shoe, had both come out and were still somewhere in that wild creek. By this time I was about as upset as I could possible get. Things were going terribly wrong and the chances of finding that orthotic were slim. The sock didn’t matter, I had another. I was ready to give up, but Brian kept searching and, amazingly, spotted it near the opposite side of the creek again in a rather unstable looking pool. I rushed across rocks and a tree branch, climbed down once again into knee deep frigid water, reached down and managed to grab both sock and orthotic. Brian was yelling something that sounded like “throw it to the other side”, but I wasn’t about to let these things out of my grip. Turns out he really was telling me to “go to the other side” and had I followed that advice this would just have been a minor adventure of a long trek. Rather I worked my way back across the tree branch and rocks and just on the very last rock my foot slipped straight down. It was only about a foot drop, the sharp pain in my knee only lasted a second, and I could still walk. So we carried on thinking I just had a slight muscle strain at most. By the time we made it to that high meadow just below Mule Pass it was becoming clear, I had a serious injury.
As we spent the rest of that day and the next slowly making our way the remaining 10 miles down to Mono Village we were continually amazed at how much assistance other hikers offered. The Killer Bees volunteered to head out ahead to call for help, even though it would be 8 miles out of their way. Chef and K-too insisted upon going for help claiming they were planning a day at Bridgeport anyway, a claim we still question. Several folks offered to carry my pack or its contents part, if not all the way out. One hiker gave us their only ace bandage. He’d been looking for us after Chef and K-too told them of our plight. Many offered all kinds of pills, Advil, Tylenol, Vicadin. There seemed to be a full scale walking pharmacy out in the woods. And finally, when we reached the trailhead, the Mono County Volunteer Search and Rescue team was there to get us to the hospital. We made it out on our own. But had we really, really required assistance it’s quite clear that at least in this region it would have been easy to find. There are some truly nice folks out in the backcountry.
By late afternoon the next day we knew for certain it was a fracture and I would not be hiking again for eight long weeks. Our hopes of finishing the PCT in a single season were completely dashed in a single instant. Our only hope was that we could return to the trail with enough time left in the season to get at least past the midpoint. We’d then have to plan a return in 2005 to finish.
Eight weeks to the day I sat on the very same stump where previously I had been surrounded by SAR volunteers busily wrapping things around my leg, taking vital signs, and asking all sorts of questions. Now, we were alone, the Mono Village campground having been nearly deserted following the Labor Day holiday. Our packs on our backs, treking poles in hand, we were ready to press on to finish as much of the trail as time and weather would allow. The other thru-hikers we’d gotten to know were now well into Oregon and, based upon the few on-line journals we found were suffering the ravages of early cold rains. We’d only be able to track their progress through notes left in the trail registers where, we noticed, the number of trail names we recognized grew fewer and fewer. Only a handful of those we’d known would eventually finish.
As the remaining weeks wore on we left the alpine scenery of the High Sierras behind, leaving the 10,000 and 9000-foot elevations for good. Three and four thousand foot climbs soon came only once a week rather than daily. Sharp, jagged glacier carved mountains gave way to smooth, round topped hills punctuated by the high, snowy peaks of the volcanoes Lassen and Shasta. Despite a mostly pine and fir covered trail, long distances without any source of water returned the further north we trod. It was late summer in a year when the snowmelt was very early and now most seasonal creeks and springs were dry. Once again, bottles of water filled our packs. The trail became somewhat less boulder strewn and easier to walk. Yet, our daily distances remained low, 15 to 18 miles, in part due to the short daylight hours but also due to the residual ache in my leg.
Apart from one unusual mid September blizzard, we were blessed with a long lasting Indian Summer. Days remained fairly warm while nights grew colder. There was virtually no rainfall, which made for near ideal hiking conditions through a region that at normal thru hike time would have been hot and miserable. The leaves changed color and then dropped. Geese flew in formation, always toward the south. Hunters in their camouflage outfits trod quietly down the trails, always on the alert for some sort of prey. Backpackers rarely appeared. As the middle of October approached we knew our time would be running out. The few north to south hikers we met told us that rain had been plaguing the Pacific Northwest since mid September. It was only a matter of time, days not weeks, when the first winter snowstorm would blast its way southward leaving a trail covered in snow.
On October 14th we hiked 18 miles to Castle Crags State Park in California right at the 1500 mile point. The cold front we’d been expecting was due in just 2 days and was expected to drop at least a foot of snow in the higher elevations. With just around 1150 miles remaining for a year 2005 hike, we decided this would be an ideal place to stop and somehow get ourselves back south. Within minutes we had our one last taste of “trail magic” as Bill, a 1976 PCT hiker, offered us a ride north where we could find transportation back to Carson City, the camper, and our normal lives.
Despite the unexpected interruption in our hike, we both feel it was very successful. We’ve proven to ourselves that we can accomplish and even thrive on this kind of lifestyle. That final, most important question has been answered. If we can remain healthy, we can remain mentally up to the challenge. Are we upset that we didn’t finish in one year? Somewhat, but not too much. It would have been nice to finish with the other hikers in our group, to be done with this lifetime objective, and to be moving on to whatever comes next. However, with the early and continual rains in Oregon and Washington, with the 25 plus mile per day pace, and the constant pressure to carry-on each and every day, we’re not entirely convinced we would have enjoyed it. Now we have the entire summer, June, July, August, and September, the best possible weather months, to finish the rest. Besides, we feel it’s quite remarkable that I was even able to get back on the trail to finish an additional 530 miles. So we feel pretty good and raring and ready to finish next summer. It’ll be PCT thru-hike phase III.
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.