Why the Pacific Crest Trail?
Clouds spread above us like a steel grey canopy. A brisk breeze blew and we shivered against the 45 degree chill. Here it was, the end of April, as we stood at the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, my friend Brian and I. Our friend, Will, had just driven off with my car. There was no other choice now, but to start working our way north toward Canada on foot, although that was a goal neither of us held for this particular trip.
Canada, 2650 grueling miles ahead, though out of reach for the two of us at this point in our lives with our focus on kids and careers, is a very real goal for the vast majority of people who start treading upon this trail at this very spot, after taking the very same pictures in front of the very same trail posts. Less than 20% make it all the way, but that’s OK. Everyone’s journey is as different as the story that brought them to this otherwise obscure hill at the border between Mexico and California.
For some, their journey on the PCT is all about escape. For others it’s discovery. Some want to reconnect with nature or with their inner selves while others want to disconnect from the world or bad relationships or terrible jobs or other unbearable circumstances which, in one way or another, have imprisoned them. Here, at the trail’s head, shines a glimmer of hope. Out there on the trail somewhere, answers, relief, revitalization, self-fulfillment, re-empowerment, peace, solace, freedom, and vast stretches of untamed wilderness lay waiting to be found. Some, like myself and Brian, will find at least a measure of what they’re looking for in the first segment of the PCT. Others will require the entire 2650 miles. Either way, it’s OK. Everyone’s journey is unique.
Being out there changes one’s perspective on current circumstances. Studies show increased mental ability after a long hike in the wilderness. The physical health benefits of hiking cannot be understated, either. Physical exertion and mental stimulation combine along the PCT to help those adventurers who come to the trail in search of something they can’t seem to find in the confines of modern living, despite its inviting and captivating trappings and luring promises of convenience and luxury. Technology that is designed to give its users an abundance of time by making life easier seems to have wrapped too many of us in a virtual stranglehold. We’re tied to it. Addicted. Perhaps that is why the trail is more crowded than ever. In the past ten years, the average number of hikers who started at the southern terminus has increased from roughly 500 to over 4,000 in 2016, according to a Forest Service Ranger I spoke to at the onset of my trip. Pretty amazing.
The Wild Effect?
Of course, some of this increase in trail traffic may be the combined Reese Witherspoon/Cheryl Strayed effect. Cheryl Strayed is the author of the book “Wild” that chronicles her journey to and on the PCT and Reese Witherspoon is the beautiful and talented actress that portrays her in the movie. Since the book and movie came out, interest in the PCT has skyrocketed — and justifiably so. If someone as conflicted and tormented as Strayed could find a modicum of peace and resolution out on the trail, why not give it a try?
My curiosity with the PCT and those who spend months hiking it from end to end started in the late nineties when I first heard about this mysterious and impossibly long trail through the mountains. I’ve always loved the mountains and enjoyed backpacking from my first experience with my brothers when I was ten. But I hadn’t spent much time on or around the trail until my first 50-miler in 2010 with the Scouts as an adult leader. We intersected the PCT for fourteen miles on that trip and ran across a dozen or more thru-hikers. These hikers fascinated me. By the time they made it to Benson Lake in the northern reaches of Yosemite, they had been on the trail for two or three months. We, by contrast, had been on for two days and were starting our third.
But it was the stories I heard that pulled me in to the enticing orbit of the PCT. Stories of exploring some of America’s finest, most remote scenery, glimpsing wildlife up close – too close in some instances – and developing bonds with strangers over a shared love of outdoor adventures or the communal pain brought on by blisters, aching feet and legs, or sore waistlines from belt straps. As I listened, I was enthralled with the concept of leaving the modern world behind for the opportunity to live in the natural world for a time. What an idea. What a journey. What a life choice.
Each summer thereafter, as I spent a few days on the trial with the Scouts, I would run into more thru-hikers and learn more about the trail and those devotees willing to give up several months of productive time to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime odyssey.
Thus, through those initial encounters with thru-hikers on the PCT, my goal to hike from Mexico to Canada began to take shape. I knew then like I know now that I could never step away from my responsibilities as a husband and father for months at a time. However, leaving for a week here and there is a different story, isn’t it? I also knew that if I could involve my family, I’d have a win-win. In 2010, my three boys – ages 16, 14, and 12 at the time – were just starting to take to this backpacking thing. They were just becoming aware of the empowerment that comes from getting out of your comfort zone, pushing yourself physically, all while enjoying the beauty of God’s creation away from the demands and entrapments of civilization.
Being Out There
Backpackers and outdoors enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. Being out there for any length of time is invigorating. But it’s also more than that. There an ethereal, life-affirming boost one receives on the trail. It’s intangible, but it’s real. The benefits to one’s health and well-being are easily explained, but the impact on one’s soul is nearly impossible to describe. Part of that is because it’s unique to each individual, as is the inner drive that brings each hiker out to the trail.
Being out there with my sons makes each experience that much more meaningful. I’ve invited my wife and daughters to join in the fun. Maybe one of these days they’ll take me up on it. I take a certain pride in knowing that I am passing on to my family an appreciation for the majesty and splendor of the wild and a desire to see that it is preserved for their children and grandchildren to enjoy.
I hope you will stay tuned as I update this site with stories of my adventures and musings while out there on the trail – whichever trail it may be. Hopefully, sometime in the next dozen years, I’ll report on my trek across the border into Canada and my ascent to Mount Khanaki where the trail ends. Hope you enjoy the adventures.