Jet Fuel

Dear Mom,

A regular query of yours, whether I’m on the trail or not, is “Are you eating enough?” While that particular question is subject to context (Enough to survive? Enough to stay full? Enough to qualify for welterweight boxing?), the short answer is: usually.

I eat a fair amount. Always have. But until recently, I wasn’t burning upwards of 6,000 calories a day. This changes things. The amount of food that sufficed for a rousing day of sitting on my duff suddenly was insufficient for hiking 30 mile days. A crazy concept, I know. I was expecting to eat more, but I didn’t know just how much.

What might do for some hikers I would wither and die on. Some start their mornings with a pair of pop tarts and eat nothing again until lunch. Pop tarts are my second breakfast of three. Then again, most others have some degree of fat on them to burn until their diet, metabolism and routine all sync up. I have no such luxury. I still managed to lose weight through the desert, though I believe that I was a little dehydrated at the time of stepping on the scale. I haven’t seen a scale since then so I can’t say what has happened recently.

There are those who analyze and dissect the caloric content and nutritional value of every scrap of food that makes their food bag, but I am not one of them. I have a fundamental understanding of hiker diets, but mostly I eat what’s filling and what I’m hungry for. Most would agree that a diet high in fat is very beneficial, as these calories are ready to burn without needing extra time to metabolize, or something like that. While the rest of the world looks at the side of the box to avoid the foods with a high fat content, we seek them out.

Carbohydrates are important for a balanced diet, but play less of a role than fats for most. These take longer to process before they become usable energy. Simple carbs, in the form of sugars, release insulin which inhibits the absorption of glucose, or so I’m told. Then again, others are adamant that insulin is necessary to better process protein. I don’t know, ask a scientist.

Protein is considered by some the most important aspect of the hiker diet, as the other elements will take care of themselves if this retirement is adequately met. When fat deposits are depleted, muscle is next to be burned in order to keep the essential functions going. Seeing as how muscles are a pretty important element of hiking across the country, this is something we try and avoid. A constant intake of calories can help curtail the loss of muscle, but at times it is not always possible to keep up with the demand, so a diet high in protein can help rebuild that which is lost.

Since I’ve lept up towards the front of the pack, diet is a constant topic of conversation. “Corn products are better because they take longer to digest.” “Butter has a better weight to calorie ratio than olive oil.” “Dehydrated refried beans aren’t all that bad.” These guys are all about speed and how they can get more of it and be more efficient. Personally, I’m not too concerned with what I eat so long as I’m not hungry. That’s actually a hard task to accomplish out here, but I do my best.
Here’s a breakdown of my typical food for a day:

6:00am – Oatmeal, old fashioned. 3.5-4 cups has become the standard, along with half a cup of raisins and half a cup of walnuts.
First thing I do when I wake up is have my breakfast in bed. Measure out oats and pour water over them, eaten cold and uncooked. An acquired taste.

8:30am – Pop tarts, 1 pair of varying flavors.
Pop tarts are an awesome hiking food because they’re so disgusting that they actually make me want to stop eating momentarily.

10:00am – Snickers bar.
Contrary to their advertising, these do little to fight hunger. They usually just make me hungry for more snickers bars.

11:00am & 12:00pm – Nature Valley granola bars, 1 pair at a time.
My go-to snack. They’re easy to find, calorie dense, and I’m not sick of them yet. It’s a good day if I can actually wait this long before eating these.

12:30pm – Beef summer sausage, cheese and tortilla. 2 wraps. Trail mix is eaten while preparing these, somewhere around a cup to a cup and a half.
The wraps are usually eaten on the trail. Took a while to come to this combination for lunch (and longer before summer sausage was readily available) but it works well. Cheese is usually the sharpest cheddar I can find as this seems to last better without refrigeration.

4:00pm & 5:00pm – Nature Valley granola bars. I try and wait as long as I can before eating these after lunch, but I don’t always make it that long.

7:00pm – Dinner. Usually consists of one of three meals: pasta (preferably orzo as this is easiest to eat with a spoon) with parmesan, pesto (optional) and half a cup of olive oil, instant mashed potatoes with cheese and half a cup of olive oil, or couscous with half a cup of olive oil. The latter two are the easiest to prepare, the first is the most filling. Sometimes eaten at camp, sometimes made and eaten on the trail, followed by a few more miles of hiking before making camp. More trail mix is eaten during preparation.

I know I could do better by having more fats in the morning and more protein in the evening, but like I said, I’m here to enjoy my hike and my food, not set a speed record. I could definitely eat more, but that’s about all I can comfortably carry for the length of time that I’m out at once. If trail magic is found, you can add a few hundred more calories to this, and if it’s a town day, everything is about triple the amount.
So in short, I’m good, but watch out once I’m back, because everyday will be town day.

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The Art of the Steal

Dear Mom,

To most people, hiking from Mexico to Canada is a big deal. You tell them you’ve been walking since May, through deserts, mountains of snow and rivers for hundreds or even thousands of miles and quite often they’re impressed. They tell you how incredible that is and want to know more. That’s when you convince them to give you stuff.

Whenever I see non thru-hikers on the trail (it’s easy to tell the difference), I see potential. I strike up a conversation, see how they are and how their hike is going. Almost always, the question of where you started from is posed, and when I reply “Mexico,” a further line of inquiry begins. How long have you been hiking? What does your pack weigh? What do you eat? I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve answered these questions this summer, but I’d guess somewhere around a billion.

When you’re chatting with hikers on the trail, that’s one thing. They hiked there too and packed in all their food and gear. But when we happen across a campground or a parking lot, all bets are off. Those fools need to give me something to eat.

Within the hiker lexicon is the word yogi. Like Yogi Bear stealing picnic baskets from unsuspecting campers, the premise is similar, though with one important difference; we don’t sneak or steal outright, we steal in plain sight, through charm and admiration. Once it has become clear what a monumental task you’ve set forth on, people are impressed and often want to help.

I only really made it into the realm of day hikers recently. Nobody goes hiking through the desert for fun, the Sierras were so packed with snow that only a few die-hard/foolish folks even considered taking them on, and there were surprisingly few hikers in northern California. As such, the opportunity to yogi has only been available for a couple months at best. Though my technique could probably use some work, I think I have the premise down well enough.

There seem to be two schools of thought on yogi-ing: some approach their target as amicably as possible, with big smiles, a warm greeting and a joyous disposition. Others believe it best to play to their sympathy and look downtrodden, hungry and dejected. I’m sure there are merits to both, but I stick to the former.

The trick to yogi-ing is to not ask for something outright. This is begging. Instead, we drop hints to imply our want or need of something they might possess until it is offered. I can’t wait until I get to town, all I want is a piece of fresh fruit. I haven’t had any in days! What’s that you’re cooking, it smells amazing! I’m going to have to figure out something new because this piece of gear really isn’t working.

Perhaps the best yogi line I’ve heard came from Up and Down, who I met in New Zealand. Up would approach a group of campers and ask if any of them knew if there was a soda machine around. In a campground that is removed from the city yet hardly the wilderness, this is a valid line of inquiry, though the answer is almost assuredly no. After a moment of conversation and once the nature of their hike is revealed, sodas are typically offered aplenty. Yogi-ing is not limited to food, although this is the most common result.

Another good strategy is to camp where the weekend hikers are. Rather than trying to make magic happen in an instant, you have all night to get them to offer you something. This works fairly well, though in Yosemite valley I quickly became an animal on display when I joined a guided group around their campfire. It’s important to take stock of what, if anything, is available before committing to answering questions about what you eat and what your pack weighs all night. All I got from that one was a bag of M&Ms.

Though I’m still working on my pitches, I do alright. Here are a few of the things I relieved others of:

Snickers bars
Trail mix
Cracker Jacks
Oranges
Sparkling cranberry juice
Apples
M&Ms
A pair of flip-flops
Clif bars
Organic beef jerky
Some sodas
Beer
Hotdogs
A bunch of rides to town

There have been other items bestowed upon me without any suggestion on my part, but this is not a yogi. This is simply generosity of a stranger, and what makes the experience of a long hike so unique.

It should also be said to be careful what you wish for. Just last night I met a couple of day hikers as I went into Snoqualmie Pass, one of which was enamored by the prospect of what I was doing and had done to get there. He also happened to be the founder of a fishing startup that has yet to launch, Outer Escape. He asked if the lakes I’d been passing had many fish, and I replied “Oh yeah, I see them turning in the evenings. Sometimes I wish I had my pack rod with me.” He later handed me a hat, stickers, his business card, and a complete fly fishing setup. Rod, reel, line, two spools of tippet, a necklace with pliers and such for tying knots, and a case for it all. He then drove home and brought back 32 flies for me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for this amazing feat of generosity, but when I’m on a tight schedule and have to carry these things for hundreds of miles, it doesn’t always make sense to lug something that you might use once or twice. I fully intend to use them, but I was told “If you need to pitch them somewhere along the trail don’t worry about it.” That ain’t happening, not when a couple hundred dollars of gear is dropped in my lap. I guess I sometimes underestimate the power of suggestion and the power of this beard.

So if you find yourself on a long trail being asked where one could find something or other, feel free to share yours with them, but know that they’re probably not as poor and sad as they look.

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Free Ride


Dear Mom,

Back in New Zealand, I felt like I never stopped hearing from everyone how amazing hitchhiking was there. It’s a waste to travel any other way, they’d say. They’d boast of never waiting longer than 20 minutes before being offered a ride. I, however, did not have such luck.

I would wait for hours at the side of the road with my thumb towards the sky, watching countless cars drive by as I forced a smile over my discouraged face. One day hitching out of Dunedin I gave up after 5 hours of standing on the side of the road and booked a bus for the next day.

When I heard that hitchhiking was an integral aspect of hiking the PCT, I was concerned to say the least. I thought perhaps there must be another way to resupply, surely there are other means of getting to and from towns. If I couldn’t get a lift in New Zealand, allegedly one of the best places in the world to find rides, what hope did I have in the states? This time around, I would be dirty, smelly, and sporting a beard that makes me look like I’ve been an island castaway for the past few months. Might as well start walking into town now.

Yet since I first started standing on the side of the road stretching my thumb, I’ve had the most incredible luck at getting rides. Perhaps I paid my dues back in New Zealand and now I am free to bum rides as I please. Whatever the case, it’s made for a much less troubled hike. Still, there’s one aspect to my hitching that I don’t quite understand. My good fortune in finding rides comes most often when a surprising caveat is in place: when I’m alone.

They say that hitching with women is a surefire ticket to a quick lift, but I haven’t found this to hold true. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but the fastest rides I’ve received have all been when it’s just me. This is especially surprising because there’s such a stigma against dudes hitching, though not unjustifiably so. Hitchhiking is not what it once was, so I’m told, and it’s much more dangerous picking up strangers these days. This is why I can’t explain why so many people have been so gracious about offering rides to a rank transient like myself.

Perhaps it’s because most of the towns we pass through are small and familiar with hikers and the trail, or simply that small town folk are more trusting and willing to help a stranger. Maybe my beard actually makes me look quite dashing and they can’t help but stop and offer a ride for the chance at a closer look. Whatever the reason, I’m very grateful for it. Here’s a breakdown of my rides:

Idyllwild via Pines to Palms highway:
In; (with Crasher) 2nd car, 1 minute.
Out; (with SpoonMan) 4th car, 10 minutes.

Idyllwild via Devil’s slide trail: (with Crasher, Cerveza and SpoonMan)
In; offered a ride into town by an older woman leaning out the top window of her house as we walked by. Given toiletries and a tour of town.
Out; With a ride angel.

Big Bear City:
In; 2nd car, 10 minutes. A retired gentleman and his grandson visiting family.
Out; 3rd car, 5 minutes. Local on his way to work.

Wrightwood:
In; 1st car, 0 minutes. An older gentleman returning home after helping with a school field trip. Pulled over as he saw me walking down the trail towards the road and offered a ride, never had a chance to stick out my thumb.
Out; Offered a ride by Thomas the trail groupie as he saw me packaging food outside the supermarket.

The Anderson’s: (with Honeybuzz and Clark Kent)
In; 6th car, 15 minutes. An SUV full of women headed the opposite direction stopped, piled into the back to accommodate us and our packs, and drove us to the Anderson’s house.
Out; with Terri Anderson.

Tehachapi:
In; 2nd car, 5 minutes. A young man working as a turbine repairman at one of the wind farms. Tried to impress me with how loud the bass in his speakers could get and couldn’t understand that I had walked there from Mexico and that I was not Mexican.
Out; (with Drop Dead, Annie, Pellet and Jimbrick) ride offered by an older gentleman who gave the rest of the group a ride into town.

Lone Pine via Kearsarge Pass: (with Drop Dead, Annie, Pellet and Jimbrick)
In; ride yogi’d by Drop Dead from a section hiker, Extra Credit, scoping the area for a food drop.
To Whitney Portal; (with Pellet) 1st car, 10 minutes. A woman headed up to the restaurant at the campground with friends took us to her house and gave us drinks while she got ready.
Out; (from Whitney Portal) ride yogi’d by Annie from a retired man passing through the area. Gave us a tour of the Alabama hills on our way back to the trail.

Bridgeport:
In; (with Ninja, Drop ‘n Roll, Roadrunner, and Goose) 9th or 10th car, 20 minutes. A Harley-Davidson enthusiast who piled us into the bed of his pickup.
Out; (with Ninja, Drop ‘n Roll, and Roadrunner) 4th car, 5 minutes. Former Yosemite volunteers doing some hiking in the area. Drove 20 miles out of their way for us.

South Lake Tahoe:
In; (with Ninja) lost count, 25 minutes. A fossils and precious stones vendor outside the Nevada casinos.
Out; (with Ninja and Drop ‘n Roll) lost count, 40 minutes. A rafting guide and bartender. Had to make a sign, even though we were only going 7 miles.

Truckee:
In and out; Ride yogi’d from a day hiker who brought me to town, waited while I did shopping, took me to an outfitter, and then back to the trailhead. Also offered to bring me to dinner with his friends and put me up for the night.

Chester:
In and out; 1st car, 1 minute. A weekend hiker getting gas waited for me to do my shopping and brought me back to the trail. Offered help if I needed it in Washington.

Burney:
In; 5th car, 4 minutes. A fellow thru-hiker, Todd, was being dropped off when I began hitching. I rode into town with his wife and 4 children.
Out; Offered a ride to the trail while walking down the sidewalk towards the edge of town.

Dunsmuir:
In; 1st car, 12 minutes. Local headed to town for groceries.
Out; Offered a ride while walking down the sidewalk towards the end of town from 2 young men. Sang Johnny Cash with one in a gas station parking lot while the other scored weed before being dropped off.

Etna:
In; 1st car, 5 minutes. Sat in the back of the truck with a sad looking dog.
Out; with the owners of the hiker hut. Sat next to Bo, a happy old dog who had chewed my seatbelt off.

Ashland:
In; 1st car, 15 minutes. A local woman on her way to work.
Out; lost count, 35 minutes. A newlywed couple looking to move to Grants Pass. Drove me 12 miles down the interstate the opposite direction they were headed to bring me back to the trail. My hardest hitch, though I think I may have been at the less trafficked on-ramp.

Here’s my two cents on how to best find rides. Presentation is everything. Straighten your hair, wipe those dead bugs off your shirt, and try to get as much dirt off your face as possible. It’s inevitable that we stink, but if you can delay your driver from finding that out until you’ve loaded your pack and buckled up, your chances are much better.
Stand somewhere that gives them the chance to pull over. Some swear by standing at the front of the pullout, others say at the back. I think it makes little difference, but wherever you’re most visible usually helps. Be sure to smile, but don’t overdo it. I’ve seen some hikers hitching with a huge forced smile that makes them look a bit deranged. That’s not helping your odds. A good closed mouth smile is sufficient without making you look insincere or like a psycho killer. I usually stand with my pack in front of me to make it clear I’m hiking, one thumb hooked in my pocket and the other pointed towards the sky. Not much to it.

I don’t have very many opportunities for hitching left on the trail, but I hope that my remaining rides come just as easily and with as affable and interesting people as I’ve been fortunate to find thus far. It’s become a fantastic part of the trail experience that has made my aversion to hitchhiking seem totally unfounded.

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Happy Trails

Dear Mom,

There’s a saying among hikers that comes up when virtually any point of contention arises: “hike your own hike.” To put it succinctly, it means you do what works for you and I’ll do what works for me, so stop telling me I should do otherwise. It applies to what you carry, eat, where or how you walk, any and all aspects of hiking. Diff’rent strokes for different folks. It’s said so often that when written the acronym HYOH often takes its place.

This year was a pretty epic snow year. I’ll come back to addressing the Sierras soon, but for now take my word when I say there was no shortage of snow. As a result, there were an awful lot of hikers who felt uncomfortable traveling and/or navigating through the mountains, so they either flip-flopped to another section or quit the trail all together.

The idea of flip-flopping never appealed to me from the beginning. I set out on this hike wanting to walk from Mexico to Canada in a single season. To me, that means hiking from border to border in a continuous line of trail and covering every inch in between them. That’s my hike. It may not work for everyone, but it works for me and that’s all that matters.

When most people began flip-flopping, what they would often do is move ahead to another section of trail to the north and walk back south to where they left off, in hopes that the snow would melt more while they returned. I didn’t like the idea of south bounding; my goal was to walk to Canada, not away from it. But again, that’s just my view.

Once we made it through the thick of the Sierras, we would often see in the trail registers “no flips, no skips” after a hiker’s signature. Making it through the mountains this year was quite an accomplishment, and those who made it in one stretch should be proud. However, the “no flips, no skips” mantra became more and more prevalent, and things like “flips are for gymnasts, stay true to the thru” started showing up in the logs. While I certainly admire those who made it without swapping sections, I don’t see the point in bragging about it in every register or putting down those who didn’t do the same hike as they did. Just because they did things differently doesn’t make their hike any less valid than anyone else’s.

Let’s say you go to Disneyland, and maybe you set out to visit every attraction in the park in a day. A bold endeavor! Such a feat has been accomplished by few and takes a lot of diligence and stamina. However, if something comes up that might prevent you from seeing every part of the happiest place on earth, no one would fault you for doing things differently or even missing out on some aspects of the park. Maybe the lines are too long for Pirates of the Caribbean and you can’t see everything else in time because of it. Maybe you just really don’t want to go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. That one sucks anyway. Space mountain is freakin’ scary, so if you missed out on that one no one could really fault you. The point is, the only thing you’re really supposed to do when you go to Disneyland is to have fun. The same thing applies to the trail, and I think sometimes people lose sight of that.

Walking from Mexico to Canada is a serious feat, and one that few people can fully accomplish. In a time when we could travel just as far by sitting inside of a plane at a fraction of the time, effort and cost, it’s an admirable endeavor. Sure, it’s stunningly gorgeous along the way and probably some of the most fun you’ll ever have, but it’s still a true test of endurance and willpower. Feats of greatness such as this are uncommon these days, and I applaud all my fellow hikers for simply setting out on this journey.

Due to impending deadlines, I’m making a mad dash for the border in hopes of finishing on time. California took over 3 months because of snow, and now I hope to complete Oregon and Washington in 2 and 3 weeks, respectively. Is it worth it? It’s a bit crazy, but I really don’t mind. It’s been suggested that I leave the trail and come back to finish Oregon and Washington another summer, but that’s not a thru-hike, and that’s not what I set out to do. You don’t climb halfway up a mountain, decide that you’re tired or running out of time, take a helicopter down and then ride back up to finish the top half later. You either quit and start again at the bottom another day or you push and you finish the damn thing.

Some people can’t see how anyone could enjoy hiking this fast, but there’s something rewarding in making big miles. And anyway, I’d much rather be out here and exhausted in some of the most beautiful places in the country than sitting behind a desk wondering if I could have made it or not. I love it out here and I want to spend as much time out here as possible, but I also want to finish. I set out to walk from Mexico to Canada and I’m going to make it through hell or high water. And hey, I can miss out on some potentially bad weather in Washington this way. I know it might sound crazy for you, but believe me when I say I’m still having an incredible time.

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Communication Breakdown

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post anything here, but I’m still alive and kicking. My phone got wet during a creek crossing in section J and fried it. I got a replacement but I’ve had to conserve the batteries for using the GPS on my phone to navigate. After that, it was hackers (yes, hackers) that took the site down. Much love to Zac for taking care of that. I haven’t given up on ye olde weblog, but bear with me for a bit while I work at rewriting some of the posts I was working on. I’ll do my best to post during what little time I have left out here. Thanks for reading.

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Pain and Suffering

June 26th, 2011

Mile 877.2

Dear Mom,

Some time ago, around mile 300 or so, I hiked for a few days with a fellow named Cricket. During one of the mandatory inquiries of new hiking buddies (What brought you out here?), it came to light that we both got the idea to hike the PCT from someone we met while hiking in New Zealand. Mine came in the form of Brian who talked about practically every aspect of hiking the trail for the two weeks we were together. He loved thru-hiking and did so whenever the opportunity was available. I was sold. For Cricket, his introduction to the trail was marked by brevity and some disdain. The former hiker he met had thought that hiking the PCT for the summer would be an inexpensive way to spend 5 months. He could recite the caloric content of every candy and snack bar imaginable in an effort to purchase only the most fuel efficient foods. Snickers bar, 280 calories, 130 from fat. When Cricket finally asked if he would recommend hiking the trail, as his descriptors left it ambiguous as to whether it was actually an enjoyable experience or not, he paused for a moment before saying, “No. Too much pain and suffering.”

When undertaking a hike of 2600 miles, some discomfort is to be expected. You’d have to be delusional not to expect to get banged up over the course of the trip. Having said that, it’s been a remarkably successful hike thus far in terms of avoiding bodily harm. I’ve had a handful of blisters, some gnarly sunburn, a day of chafe, scraped legs, a brief bout of shin splints, scrapes to the face from low lying branches, and some minor indigestion. I usually get more hurt living in Portland for two months.

There are plenty others out here who aren’t so lucky when it comes to staying healthy. In the beginning blisters were the biggest concern of most hikers. I was asked what my secret was when it came to light that it was about mile 200 before I got a blister. Tough feet. Since then the maladies have stepped up their severity and even taken a few off the trail.

For some shin splints are so painful they can’t walk, let alone hike 20 mile days. Some come with preexisting conditions that flare up once they start pounding the trail day after day. Ankles are sprained or broken, bad spills bash knees against rocks, backs are tweaked from carrying too much weight day after day. Fortunately much can be prevented with some good planning and safe practice, but some still manage to get injured.

An underlying fear for many that runs the course of the trail is the threat of waterborne illness. Giardia and crypto sporidium are a constant threat to hikers, as our water comes from creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes (if we must) that are shared with all kinds of critters who fail to see the problem with also using the watering hole as a bidet. There are some brave/foolish souls who drink all their water untreated and laugh as they chug some toxic sludge from an old horse trough, and others who will filter and treat the most pure spring water bubbling straight out of the side of a mountain. Whether it’s poetic irony or just bad luck, most of the people I have heard of getting sick fall into the latter category.

Some people’s first aid kits look like they robbed an EMT, while others simply don’t bother with the stuff. Billy Goat, a crusty old hiker who has moved into the realm of PCT legend, is rumored to have exactly one item in his first aid kit: a bandana. My own first aid kit fits within two pill bottles (bandana not included). If I carried a few less ibuprofen I could probably consolidate to one. I rarely take pills anyway.

Some people might ask why anyone would put themselves in the way of so much bodily harm and risk life and limb to go for a hike. You can do that on your weekends and suffer much less. It’s true, but then again there’s all that suffering at your day job in the meantime. It’s just a different type of suffering.

Not everyone shares these sentiments, of course. Many are content to have their weekends off and perhaps travel for two weeks a year. There’s much less risk involved, and certainly much less pain and suffering. Is something like this worth it, when you might be grimacing in pain with every step? Depends who you ask, and how much pain they’re in at the time.

This also begs the question, do all the hardships of the trail detract from the overall experience? Again, it has to be evaluated on a hiker by hiker basis, but you can rest assured that all of us are suffering to some extent. 30 mile days don’t come easy. We are exhausted, we stink, we’re hungry, cold and we ache. Are the views worth it? Is it all that great trading in your bed and job for a tent and a pair of trail runners? One might draw a comparison to the old good without evil argument. Would the good times on the trail be as enjoyable if there weren’t some awful times to keep some perspective? Hard to say for certain.

In Yogi’s guide she says that our worst days on the trail are better than our best days at home or in the office. I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. Our worst days can be pretty damn bad sometimes. If you get sick, can’t move, and don’t have the commodities of home to help facilitate recovery, death might not sound like such a bad alternative. On the other hand, the good days out here blow all the days at home in the city out of the water. There’s just no comparison. And since the vast majority of the days out here are for the better, some pain and suffering aren’t all that bad. It makes the town food taste better too.

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Hot Stuff

June 12th, 2011

Mile 741.2

Dear Mom,

When I was planning this whole endeavor, there was only one aspect that really worried me. Not the Sierra Nevadas and their mountains of snow (which I’m currently in), not the bears, nor the plethora of maladies that plague hikers each year. All these things warrant concern, but worry was not what came to mind when they were being planned. The only thing that really gave me pause was the desert. I’ve never been a big fan of heat, no doubt a byproduct of growing up on the Oregon coast. I thought it’d be about a 50/50 chance of survival. If heat stroke didn’t do me in, a giant cactus probably would. Don’t watch where you’re going and you end up with 2 dozen thorns in your butt.

In actuality, the PCT crosses very little desert. There’s something like 12 miles of legitimate Mojave desert to cross, and the rest skirts around it. However, as far as I’m concerned, all of southern California is desert. All that nonsense near the border is slightly cooler desert. Head north and you find high alpine desert. Los Angeles is urban desert.

How or why anyone would live here is beyond me, but I suppose some would say the same of the place I call home. Water and shade are the two most sought after commodities and are usually in short supply. Even though this year was supposedly one of the wettest years in recent history, water often seemed in short supply. Stretches of 20 miles without water were not uncommon. I’d have hated to have hiked in a dry year.

The few living things that do manage to survive in these treacherous conditions have adapted by becoming equally inhospitable. Plants grow thorns to safeguard their water, lizards develop spikes and fangs to ward off predators, even the grass produces a seed that pierces any and all clothing as a means of proliferation.

Perhaps the greater concern of most venturing out here are rattlesnakes. There are about six different species of these pit vipers spread about the trail, only two of which I have managed to identify. Rattlesnakes are certainly dangerous and lethal, but are surrounded by a much worse stigma than they deserve. Of the six that I encountered, only one could be considered aggressive, as he rolled out from behind a bush onto the trail ready to strike at Honeybuzz if he came any closer. All the others simply rattled their tails once I came near and moved along after a moment. 80% of all rattlesnake bites occur with young males who are bitten on the hand. Being in their target demographic, I was always sure to walk with my arms upright above my head when walking through areas of thick bush where rattlers might be tempted by my delicious hand meat. Snakes can’t jump that high.

Yet for all the danger and desolation, there’s something alluring about this section of the trail. Perhaps it’s that it is among the most foreign and therefore exciting region to pass through. I’ve climbed mountains and I know forest quite well, but the arid desert is mostly a mystery to me. My limited experience with the desert of eastern Oregon proved to be quite dissimilar to what I found in southern California.

I had come under the presumption that virtually nothing could live in such barren conditions. What surprised me most was the wide range of flora that call the desert home. Little purple poms grow in stacks out of each other that look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book. Flowers are so small and delicate they look like wisps of brightly colored paper that should blow away in a stiff breeze. It’s a different kind of beauty than the grand majesty of the mountains. It’s hidden behind a shroud of dust and the glare of the sun, but it’s there if you’re looking for it.

The trees’ twisted fingers are engraved by wood boring worms and tattooed by fires long since extinguished. It takes on a moonscape quality at times, and on a couple of my night hikes I had to remind myself that I was still on Earth.

For the first couple hundred miles, the trail is in relatively close proximity to San Diego, and later Los Angeles. The sun never seemed to fully set for the first month on trail. After dusk passed the city lights would paint the western sky a dull orange that blotted out the stars. Planes drifted towards them all night like moths to a flame. California makes it hard to forget that you’re in California sometimes.

My biggest concern of desert travel turned out to be the sun. Not even so much the heat, which was my original fear, but preventing sunburn proved to be the primary motive of my days. In San Francisco I was kicking myself when I realized I had accidentally bought SPF 50 sunscreen, thinking that I would come out of the desert whiter than I began. After the first couple days I was kicking myself for not buying something stronger, like SPF three billion or a portable shade tent on wheels. Thankfully all the dust and dirt that caked on my legs acted as a natural sunblock, meaning only one application of sunscreen was necessary the first day out of town. In filth there is utility.

Though I’m happy to be out of the heat, sagebrush, 20 mile waterless stretches and that damned grass seed, it was amazing to experience and see how different it was to my presuppositions. Now I’m in the Sierra Nevadas where we’re high enough to skip a couple layers of ozone and the sun bounces off the snow and burns all your nether regions. Why hike naked day is planned to fall within this section is beyond me.

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Mob Mentality

Editor’s Note: Cell service has been lousy as of late and it’s about to get worse. I’ll do my best to post more once I’m out of the Sierras.

June 4th, 2011

Mile 582.4

Dear Mom,

There’s a fairly narrow window of time available if one is hoping to attempt a thru-hike. You have to start before the desert becomes unbearably hot and the water sources go dry, and unless you’re with Mountain Ned or a seriously hardcore mountaineer, you can’t pass through the Sierras until enough snow has melted. Then we have to race to Canada before snow hits Washington again, which is sometimes as early as late September.

Since most hikers start within about 2 weeks of each other and the rest about another week on either side, the kickoff event is scheduled when most hikers are at or near the border. While there are some who come to kickoff and start either earlier or later, plenty of hikers, myself included, fly down for the kickoff and start hiking once it’s over. The problem with this is that it creates a glut of hikers all setting out at once, with a much smaller concentration of hikers on either side. This main pack is known as the herd.

The herd can be a blessingĀ  and a curse. At first, it’s nice to be able to meet so many other hikers and see who you’re going to be adventuring with for the next five months. If you’re alone, you can find someone to hike with. If you wanted to stay alone, then you’re out of luck for about the first month and a half. At every water source, at every resupply point, and especially at the trail angel’s houses, hikers come in droves. They drain caches in days, clear out stores of hiker food, and take up residence in every square inch of yard space. Our voracious appetites are the real problem, and when 60 of us roll up on a town in the span of 2 days, it’s slim pickings. We’re a modern day plague.

Now the trail angels are very much aware of this, and in the spirit of utilitarianism, cater to the herd more than any others. When the majority of hikers are expected to arrive, they are on their A-game and pull out all the stops to make our hikes as best as possible and remind us of the potential of human kindness. Hikers in front or behind the herd are not forgotten, but might not receive such special attention as they would if they had arrived along with 20 others that day.

One of the best examples of this is what we call trail magic. As I first came to understand it, trail magic was any fortuitous event that occurred to a hiker as a result of being out on the trail. The trail gods would smile upon you and bless you with a helping hand, a subterfuge in a time of desperation, perhaps a guiding light when one is lost. Since arriving, I’ve come to find that trail magic almost exclusively refers to food.

Trail angels and past hikers will often come to the trail somewhere near a road and bring a cooler stocked with soda, juice, fruit, food, and occasionally beer, often along with a register. Tucked away just out of sight of other cars, they are like a small oasis that only PCT hikers stumble upon, and only we could be so elated to find a Shasta Zazz floating in a cooler of melted ice. After eating dehydrated foods and drinking only water and perhaps some gatorade powder for days on end, a soda and a piece of fruit are like ambrosia.

If a hiker is very lucky and has good timing, they might find someone there to hand deliver the magic, often in the form of barbecued food, cold beers, even cakes and ice cream are not unheard of. Almost always this type of magic caters to the herd, so the greatest number of hikers can partake in the merriment that ensues upon finding someone grilling hotdogs and handing out cold beer after walking 26 miles through 90Ā° heat. If you’re outside of the herd, sorry.

Having started the day after kickoff, the gang I was rolling with at the time were still a part of the herd, just at the back of it. It felt like we only passed hikers and no one ever passed us, but we were still sandwiched between a lot behind us and a ton in front of us. We slowly crept up in rank as our mileage was a bit over the average, but the bulk of the herd remained ahead, and the evidence of the carnage they laid on the trail magic was painfully clear.

Whenever we would turn a bend and see one of those blue and white chests ahead, our hearts skipped a beat and our pace suddenly quickened to find what treasure lay inside. More often than not, it was disappointment. Wrappers of donuts, empty soda and beer cans, apple cores and orange peels were the typical fare. If one was lucky, a soda or two might have escaped the ravenous feeding frenzy that had taken place here. Register entries would thank the angels for such refreshing food and beverage, dated just hours prior.

What was really painful was missing the big instances of magic where angels and former hikers came to the trail and served a small feast upon the lucky mob. No less than four times I heard of such amazing occurrences taking place, and each one was missed by no less than eight hours, and sometimes as little as two. It would have been fine had we remained ignorant to the fact that this magic was taking place, but each time we met other hikers who had stayed at the site of the feast, unable to walk from having gorged themselves on so much free, delicious food, and each time they told us how we just missed it and should have been here a couple hours ago. Hamburgers, burritos, ice cream, tequila, pies, beer, all the things that thru-hikers love the most and we missed it each time. My friend Brian even gave me the heads up to the barbecue he was planning, but the brown blazing I was doing after eating something bad at the last town stop kept me from getting there until the next morning after he’d left. It just wasn’t meant to be, I suppose.

It’s only really unfortunate because trail magic is usually in short supply after the Sierras, so I’m told. The herd dissipates and spreads out, so giving trail magic is much less effective, as a day up north will see a fraction of the number of hikers that come through southern California. We’ve seen the most of it, even though we missed it.

I left my original group and moved up in the pack, and am now somewhere in the upper middle part of the herd, currently rolling with Pellet, Drop Dead, Annie Mac and Jimbrick. It’s less than 200 miles before the Sierras begin (technically I’m in them now, but these are hardly mountains compared to what we’re about to encounter), and once that happens magic will be in short supply. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful and I’m happy that my fellow hikers are getting so much and also just to hear that there are people wonderful enough to go out of their way to put on a barbecue for a bunch of smelly transients. And hey, just yesterday I found a couple snickers bars tucked behind a water cache. I really can’t complain.

UPDATE: Since writing this I found trail magic at Walker Pass, featuring beer, soda, junk food, and barbecue. Unfortunately, it’s the one spot that everyone has gotten sick at.

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The McDonald’s Incident

May 28th, 2011

Mile 454.2 – Agua Dulce, California

Dear Mom,

About mile 350, the trail intersects with Interstate 15, and less than half a mile away, a McDonald’s. For many hikers, these golden arches are about on par with the pearly gates. For days on end, all people talked about was how excited they were to get to McDonald’s, the first accessible from the trail, and get their grease on.

Those that know me at all know I’m very adverse to eating grime. As chief purveyors of all things McGrime, I had no real desire to visit the establishment. I don’t eat fast food, and the last time I ate at McDonald’s was about 9 years ago. All the other hikers claimed they hadn’t either, but based on their enthusiasm, I somehow doubted the sincerity of their claims. On the morning of the walk to I-15, I passed a fellow hiker en route.

“You look like a hiker who wants a Big Mac before noon!”
“Not really. I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in almost 10 years.”
“Me neither, but today I’m making an exception! I’m going to have at least three! The trick is to get there while they’re still serving breakfast and then wait around until they start their lunch menu.”

Nothing could sound like a worse idea to me. How one can go from having none for years to eating several meals worth of grime and not have their guts explode is beyond me. Still, it seemed like a mandatory stop, and back in Big Bear City I scored a coupon for one of those new frozen strawberry lemonades, courtesy of Cerveza. Still pretty grimy, but free grime.

We walked for about 13 miles that morning through the desert and down about 3,000′ in altitude from a mountain. The views were amazing, as per usual, there was no one out there but the small handful of thru-hikers I’d started the day with. We came through a canyon where the rock formations made Aztec chieftains and a small creek washed over black and gold sands. Round a bend, and suddenly you’re staring right at I-15.

When I first saw the freeway, nothing seemed like it had ever gone that fast in the history of time. I thought I’d stumbled on the Indy 500, which was now accepting semis and motor homes as entrants, or perhaps a group effort of attempting to break the sound barrier. I’d traveled about an average speed of about 2.75 miles an hour for the last three weeks, and apart from a couple of hitchhikes on back country roads going about 40mph, hadn’t seen anything going much faster either. I thought the lizards in the desert were fast, but the cars moving here looked like they were doing mach 9.

I-15, the Mojave Freeway, is a pretty substantial thoroughfare. Head north on it long enough and you’ll end up in Las Vegas. Most of the roads I’d encountered thus far were single lane and unpaved. This thing was 4 lanes of traffic averaging about 70mph. It took me by surprise. Walking towards the traffic, a carved wood sign actually points you towards McDonald’s in one direction, and towards the next campground in the other. This stop has become something of an institution on the trail.

I walked up what appeared to be an on ramp no longer in use, and immediately noticed the garbage. Plastic bags, old blown out tires, a shopping cart, and many, many cigarette butts were strewn about and woven into the bushes. A billboard ahead advertised how Cindi lost 87lbs with her phenomenal new diet plan. Upon coming closer to the restaurant, the smell of sewage became alarmingly apparent, but thankfully faded away before reaching the parking lot. I already missed the trail.

The parking lot was filled to capacity. Apparently a group of cub scouts were having a gathering here. Troupe 491 were everywhere and eying me with suspicion. I stepped inside and found a pile of hiker packs stacked like cords of wood and added my own to the heap. My fellow hikers were huddled around two tables eating Big Macs and McNuggets with a relish I’ve rarely seen. I thought it best to made a feeble attempt to clean up before approaching the register, so I stepped in the restroom to wash my hands. After 3 scrubbings the water changed to a light brown which I deemed suitable enough. Whoever that dude in the mirror was needs to trim his beard. That thing is getting wild.

I fished my coupon out of my ziploc wallet and moved towards the register. The attendant looked right past me and asked the woman behind me if he could help her. She looked at me and I stepped forward and presented my voucher. We’re not selling those, he told me. Whether that was in fact the case or not, I didn’t care to wait to find out, and nothing else sounded at all appealing.

I looked for an open seat with my fellow hiker trash. None. Maybe a seat at another booth somewhere. All taken. Benches outside? Full of tubby cub scouts.

I saw that more than a few people were staring at me while I searched for a spot to rest. I felt like a bit of a spectacle, a red hot mess just off the old dusty with nowhere to park it. Then, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I actually felt claustrophobic. I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d want to be less. I grabbed my pack set right back out, about 3 minutes after I walked in. The garbage, stench and traffic further fueled my disdain for this place. I hiked for as long as it took to get away from the sight and the sound of the traffic and ate my cheese and tortillas in the shade of a tree alone, happy to be away from there.

This is not to say that I’ve completely become desocialized and a misanthrope. I have no intentions of going Jeremiah Johnson and living in the woods for the rest of my life or being a trail bum for the rest of my days. I like ice cream and Thai food too much, which are hard to come across out here. But there are a lot of things I don’t miss, and they’ll be hard to come back to, at least at this point. Come September, there’s a very good chance my attitude will have changed and I may be very ready to welcome civilization in full. But for the time being, I’m content with the hills and the canyons, and I’ll be avoiding the freeways as much as I can.

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Say Hello to the Angels

Editor’s note: The dates at the beginning of these entries will usually not correspond with the dates on the post. The date at the beginning of the entry is when the post was written, the date on the post is when it was published once cell service has returned.

Also: this was supposed to have been posted like a decade ago. Thanks Ton.

May 13th, 2011

Mile 182.5 – Idyllwild, CA

Dear Mom,

My gang and I have made it up to the third trail town, Idyllwild. I’m still rolling with the same crew of Crash, Cerveza, and SpoonMan, and have been for almost a week now. Occasionally joining our crew are the Israeli sensations Pepper and Mace. There are loads more people out here, but these are the guys I’m seeing at every break and every night, whereas others come and go from different speeds and schedules.

Idyllwild is a small town at the base of the San Jacinto mountains whose main livelihood seems to be tourism, whether that be from conventional tourists or hikers. There are a number of trails that run from the base of the town into the San Jacinto wilderness, so it’s not solely for PCT thru-hikers.

We first encountered this small town a few days ago when we hitched in to grab traction devices for our shoes. We had been told in Warner Springs that Apache Peak was particularly nasty and covered in ice and snow. It turned out that this bit of intel held true about 10 days earlier, but was no longer the case. Not knowing any better we opted to play it safe.

Modern PCT hikers almost exclusively wear trail runners, so hiking on frozen snow can pose difficulty, as can any other adverse conditions. SpoonMan, being our safety coordinator, insisted we stop in to town to buy micro-spikes, traction aides that strap around your shoe with chains and spikes at the base, the principle being similar to the chains you would put on the wheels of a car.

We hitched into town with very little difficulty, only waiting about 3 minutes on the side of the road. After we made it to town and to the small outfitter, we stopped in at the nearby bakery for scones and muffins. The owners were interested in hearing how the trail had been thus far and where we were from, and despite having not showered in 3 days after walking 50 miles, insisted that we were welcome to eat inside and not be banished to the outside porch. Once you’ve been on the trail for more than a few hours out here, hiking through the desert and up and over mountains, you stink. It’s inevitable. There’s no avoiding it, so none of us even bother carrying antiperspirant or deodorant. The thing is, despite smelling about as pleasant as old cabbage, none of us can really smell each other. We acclimate to the smell amazingly fast and apart from the occasional whiff, we’re largely immune to the funk we’re all exuding. That is, until we step foot indoors.
Without constant circulation, the smell almost immediately becomes overpowering and is once again discernable even to the dulled hiker nose. For those that haven’t been exposed to the same person’s stank for the last week, the smell must be nauseating. All this is to say that the offer for four rank hikers to eat indoors with the civilized folk, curdling their milk and driving away customers, is akin to inviting the beggars to dine with the king. Not only do we look and smell horrible, but often act horrible, in a manner of speaking. Whatever amount of social grace a hiker may hold prior to departing almost immediately is lost once a pack is hoisted onto their shoulders. Noses are cleared with a pinched nostril and a firm blow, flatulence is released with reckless abandon and regardless of company, peanuts found on the trail from a careless hiker’s trail mix are tossed into mouths without so much as a quick brush to remove the dirt. There’s a reason we call ourselves dirtbags and hiker trash. Though courteous and affable, a classy bunch we are not.

After a moment of chatting the bakery owner offered to let us stay in their back yard, should the need arise, and then offered us a lemon ricotta cookie.

Idyllwild was hardly an exception either (which I have since moved on from). In Big Bear City, the owner of the inn allowed us to sleep as many hikers as we could fit in the room for no extra charge while we waited out a storm. A man whose shopping cart I apprehended from a downhill escape gave us a ride all the way across town from the supermarket. In Wrightwood, I never even stuck out my thumb and was offered rides into and out of town, a place to sleep from 3 different people, and as soon as I stepped foot inside the town store, a man going through checkout reached in his bag of groceries and handed me a banana. “Here you go, hiker!”

What amazes me is just how common it has been to find people like these who go far out of their way to help the dirty, smelly vagabonds that make up the PCT thru-hikers.Maybe it’s out of admiration, even jealousy, of the feat of walking two and a half thousand miles that causes their generosity, or perhaps they received such kindness once themselves. We have so little to offer in return, it hardly seems fair. When monetary compensation is offered, it is almost always turned down. The only caveat is that one day, we too pay it forward. Given the sheer magnitude of generosity I’ve seen just in the first 300 miles, I don’t see how anyone could not be compelled to give back once their hike is over.

It’s an amazing feeling you get out here, one that’s hard to describe. Most of us come to get away from people and society, but already I can’t help but feel better connected to them. A different sort, perhaps, than the one I knew back in Portland, but a reminder that there are still people who would help a stranger do that which was most important to them. I recall Brian saying back in New Zealand that hiking the trail would restore your faith in humanity. I couldn’t agree more.

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