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After 900 miles on the PCT, 10 lessons I’ve learned

As a Pacific Crest Trail section hiker, I don’t deserve — nor would I want — to wash the sweat-soaked socks of the “thru hikers” who go 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada each year. They’re major leaguers; I’m the kid in the Prince Puckler baseball toss at Ems games who misses the entire board with my throw.

But having just ­finished another section — 217 miles from just north of the Columbia River to ­Snoqualmie Pass east of Seattle — to reach the 900-mile mark, I know enough to share 10 things that might surprise folks ­unfamiliar with the PCT.

First, the trail is almost never flat. It goes four ­directions: up and upper — and down and downer. Sometimes it banks hard left or right like a roller coaster. Sometimes it rises up like the long neck of a Diplodocus dinosaur. ­Before I first embarked on doing the 452-mile Oregon section in 2011, I imagined a sort of pine-needle-covered Interstate 5 with rolling hills. Silly me. In 2014, my brother-in-law Glenn and I managed to get over 13,153-foot Forester Pass on California’s John Muir Trail, 2,000 feet higher than Mount Hood. The trail dips, rises and zig and zags, some mountainsides etched with dozens of switchbacks. You basically hike up and down a mountain pass or two or three every day. On the recent Washington trip, we climbed an average of 3,451 feet — roughly 3.5 Mount Pisgahs — per day.

Second, the trail is ­almost never pine needles. It’s dirt, rock, shale, cinder, snow, mud, horse manure, boulders, roots, ­washed-out creek beds and lava-like broken bricks. Mainly dirt, yes, but if you learn anything on the PCT it’s that nothing lasts forever — ­except, perhaps, blisters.

Third, in the high mountains, the weather changes quickly. It rained five of our 12 days on the trail. At Chinook Pass east of Mount Rainier, we ate lunch at a lake where children in bathing suits were playing on rubber rafts; it was 70 degrees. Three hours later and a thousand feet higher, we were in wind-whipped fog with temperatures dipping ­toward freezing.

Fourth, there’s hardly anywhere to pitch your tent. In an average day — that was 19.2 miles for us — you might come across half a dozen campsites where PCTers roost come dark, hardly anyone still up after 9 p.m., “hiker’s midnight.” But because of the terrain’s steepness, there are rarely places flat enough — or devoid enough of trees, logs, brush and rocks — to pitch a tent. No wonder, on a couple of early mornings, we found hikers cocooned in their bags just a few feet off the trail, like the derailed cars of a train wreck.

Fifth, it’s a young trail. By that, I don’t mean the trail ­itself, which was first discussed in the 1920s and officially designated as a National Scenic Trail in 1968. I mean the people on the trail. They are babes in the woods. Twenty- and 30-something kids who zipped by us early-60s Oregon Boys with the grace and grandeur of deer. We saw only one hiker older than us, ironically near a dicey stretch of trail high in the Goat Rocks Wilderness known as The Knife’s Edge. The youngins were inspiring, even if many were too Canada-obsessed to stop and talk. We did find exceptions, of course, like the young woman who said, “Hey, are you the Oregon Guys? Because we found the gloves we heard you lost on the trail.” (My poor brother-in-law; at least my misdeeds were more discreet, like accidentally ripping a dry sack in half, which diminishes its waterproof value considerably.)

Sixth, it’s an international and national trail. Of the dozens of PCT hikers we talked to, none was from Oregon. But we encountered at least six Australians plus people from Germany and France, the latter home to a hiker who loved my green and yellow sunglasses. (Did you know Rendez-Canards is French for Go Ducks?) We also saw ­hikers from Maine, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado and, of course, Washington.

Seventh, trail angels do ­exist. One foggy morning, we came across a bevy of food and drink left by the Mount Adams ­Buddhists, who turned out to be only a prelude to a ­former PCT hiker named Coppertone, who appeared out of the mist with everything from apple pie to cookies. But my favorite Trail Angel was Not Phil’s Dad, a Bellevue, Wash., father of a former PCT hiker who earned the trail nickname Not Phil, of course. While in the midst of 20 rainy miles, to have someone offer you unlimited food and drink at a trailside tailgater is to believe in miracles. And yet my deep spirit of etiquette ­encouraged me to say no thanks — after two hot dogs, four baby cinnamon rolls, six Oreos, strawberries, grapes, hot chocolate and a Mountain Dew.

Eighth, wildlife abides. Mainly, I think, of the young hikers down from us in a White Pass motel, judging by the amount of Friday-night beer they were stocking up on. But, despite lots of bear and cougar scat, my best story ­involving actual animals was Glenn going a couple of rounds with a chipmunk that got into his tent and resisted ­leaving like a ’60s protester inside UO’s Johnson Hall.

Ninth, Fritos are so oily you can start fires with them. Despite wet wood, the corn chips helped me ignite a campfire so impressive that an airplane mechanic from Yakima invited himself to join us.

Tenth, and finally, humor abides on the PCT. My favorite moment, in hindsight — quite literally — was when, after hiking all morning without ­seeing a soul, we came across a campground with a few picnic tables and an actual outhouse. In the middle. Of. Nowhere. I headed for the outhouse; you don’t get this luxury too ­often on the PCT, where bury-it-6-inches-deep is the rule. But no sooner had I, uh, backed in the truck when a knock on the door jolted me.

My brother-in-law playing a joke? No, a young thru-hiker from North Carolina with really bad timing.

Why couldn’t he be more focused on Canada?

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