Frequently Asked Questions

Without really intending to do so, I’ve developed a trail spiel. A why-I-am-doing-this soliloquy.

I recently returned to the Pacific Northwest from a week visiting family in West Michigan. Over the countless cups of coffee, lunches, beers, and evening holiday parties with old friends and extended family members absent from my daily life back in Seattle, I honed my answers to the same Trail Questions they posed, each thinking his query unique and untested “But have you thought about–?!” Yes, I have. I’ve spent the last six months thoroughly researching the trail’s sections, trying out gear, and testing myself in the woods. I’m not a complete idiot.

Here are the FAQ from friends/family/strangers/coworkers:

THE LEGITIMATE QUESTIONS:

Pacific_crest_trail_route_overviewWhere does the trail start/end and how long is it? The trail’s southern terminus is in Campo, CA on the border with Mexico, and northern terminus in a provincial park in British Columbia called Manning Park. The trail is 2,660 miles long, but the distance actually hiked fluctuates depending on where you might hike into a town, trail detours due to flooding or fires, getting lost, or skipping sections. Check out this map for a better idea.

What are you going to eat? Food. And a lot of it. Thru-hiking the PCT is actually an exercise in self-starvation, as it is incredibly difficult to keep up intake with expended calories. I’ll mail myself (or rather have my lovely friends LeeAnne & Nolan mail me) pre-packed boxes of trail mixes, peanut butter, dehydrated soups and stirfries, and plenty of Oreos. No, I won’t be hunting (or fishing) for any of my sustenance. I won’t walk away from a ripened raspberry bush, but I’m not actively foraging for my meals. Otherwise, I’ll purchase food as I go… hitchhiking to nearby cities, or patronizing ones in the towns along the trail.

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showing my uncanny solo-pioneer-explorer pose, ala lewis & clark.

How long is it going to take you/how far are you going to hike each day? Short answer, about five months. Long answer, the PCT is different from the Appalachian Trail in that there is a specific hiking season. Section-hiking the trail or traveling southbound (SOBO) bring up different issues, but as a northbound (NOBO) hiker, I must leave in April to beat the high temperatures in the Mojave, should enter the High Sierras no earlier than June 15 to give the snow enough time to melt a bit, and should reach the Northern Cascades in Washington in late August/early September to beat the autumn snowfall. As for distance–in order to hit these approximate dates, I’ll be hiking anywhere between 20-30 miles/day. Sometimes I’ll do ten. Sometimes I’ll take a zero (a day off). Sometimes I’ll go 35. Sometimes I’ll go eight miles through the snow and it’ll feel like 28. It’s hard to say from my living room couch.

Who are you going with? No one! Going solo.

Do you have all of your gear? I sure hope so! There are a couple big things I need yet (lightweight thermarest, sun umbrella for the desert [I’m not so good with the overheating], pack rain cover, and sundry apparel). In actuality, I likely have more gear than I’ll need. I’d like to keep my base weight (pack weight minus consumables) under 20lb, and will probably ditch the items I realize I don’t really need in the first couple weeks.

What’s next? I have no idea… and that’s probably my biggest anxiety–yes, more than the bears and the cougars and the rattlesnakes. I’ll be broke and homeless and unemployed. Can I camp in your backyard?

THE STUPID QUESTIONS: (and yes, there are stupid questions).

You shouldn’t go alone. Is this a question?

Are you going to carry a gun? Wait, what? I couldn’t tell you the difference between a revolver and rifle, much less fire one accurately. Also, have you ever shot–or even just picked up–a gun?! Those things weigh at least… well, a lot. Ain’t no way I’m carrying that.

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bear! spotted in the Enchantments last summer.

But what about safety? Probably a more apt question for you, oh city dweller. You’re in more danger from motor vehicles and teenage girls on their smartphones running into you on the sidewalk. I like to think I have a good head on my shoulders. I use, you know, reason and logic, and I generally trust my intuition about people. What about maceWhat about mace? It’s not worth the weight, and I’d probably just end up stuffing it in my pack where it’d be useless against whatever/whomever you’re imagining attacking me. And bears?! Yes! Bears! They eat berries and fish, and sometimes humans. What’s the question?

Have you head of… Wild? Yes. Please see my post about this. A Walk in the Woods? Yes. Different trail.

My cousin biked from New York to LA once. You should talk to her! Right. Ok. Thanks.

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Committed.

After a surprisingly fruitful telephone conversation with a Delta Airlines representative this morning, I purchased a plane ticket. Well, two plane tickets, really.

Since June, I’ve put a lot of trail planning at the end of a long list of other issues, daily responsibilities, and thoughts in need of attention. I bought most of the gear I’ll need (or think I’ll need, I should say), did some cursory research, and spent the rest of my weekends scaling peaks of the Central Cascades for more experience, leaving the specifics for later.

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Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, WA

Last week my plans were hurried along by Jess, a friend and fellow outdoor enthusiast. She plans to visit her folks in central Arizona next March, and invited me to join her for a backpacking trip along a 50 mile portion of the Arizona Trail (another National Scenic Trail that zigzags through the desert from Mexico to Utah).

I had a vague strategy to leave for the trail mid-April, but hadn’t put much thought into precise dates. Previous thru-hikers generally recommend starting at some point in April, depending on that year’s snow fall and your own hiking speed. With my lack of planning thrown into sharp relief, I had to actually make a choice. The first concrete I’m-actually-going-to-do-this decision.

Of course I’m going to go to Arizona. How could I pass that up? I spent a couple months in southeast Utah last year and was completely captivated by the natural rock sculptures, the crackly dry trails, and the wildlife that was so alien to me.

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Along Potash Road; Moab, UT

So this morning I walked up to Herkimer Roasters near my house and got a giant cup of coffee, and traipsed back home through the cold to start planning. Really planning.

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Drafting table.

After a good hour perusing various airline websites, staring at maps of Arizona & California, sipping at my coffee, and vacillating over different travel routes, I pulled out my credit card and entered the information.

No longer tentative, I’ll be quitting my job, leaving my apartment, and finding the garage or basement of a kindly friend to store a couple boxes at the end of March and flying to Phoenix on the 27th.

Timing on the Pacific Crest Trail is a little more finicky than the Appalachian. Hikers suggest starting out in April to beat the triple digit temperatures of Southern California’s desert summers… but also recommend not pushing past Kennedy Meadows, CA before June 15. Here, the PCT rises from the desert into the Sierra Nevada. If I leave too early, I’ll get caught in the deep snowpack of the High Sierra… but if I leave too late, I’ll face the autumn snow storms in Washington when I reach the Northern Cascades.

Leaving April 5th after my hike in Arizona is still a little early to start the trail, so I’ve decided to fly into Oakland, CA. I’ve only spent several days in the Bay Area and felt like it wasn’t nearly enough. I’ll do some couch surfing, stay in a hostel or two, rent a car and check out the famed Highway 1 along the coast before meandering down the San Diego via Amtrak or the Greyhound, and eventually Campo to start my hike, closer to the middle of the month.

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Exciting. Frightening. Foolish, maybe. Adventurous.

No backing out now.

Experience Level: 0.5

I didn’t grow up hiking and I was ten the first time I went camping.

The entire fifth grade at my small parochial school clambered onto the school bus, our backpacks stuffed with fleece jackets and granola bars, and with the necessary parent-signed permission slips, cheap pocket knives clipped to our belt loops.

The nights we didn’t curl up in warm cabins, we lived on the brink–constructing lean-tos from dead tree limbs and massive fern fronds, wondering if we’d make it through the night to tomorrow morning’s strawberry pop-tarts.

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Olivia H. in the attractive bucket hat, my partner in crime in most elementary school shenanigans, surviving like a champ.

A year at an alternative public school for sixth graders pushed me out into the woods again–camping, tapping maple trees next to the freeway, and traipsing around marshes on private property, all culminating in the feared “survival night” on our spring camping trip. (Spoiler: We survived. Mostly on Ramen Noodles and wild leeks).

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Me & Olivia posing before our big 6th grade “survival” camping trip. Also undeniable proof that adolescence is awkward.

Over the next ten years, I didn’t venture much beyond that. The closest I ever came to wilderness backpacking was on a trip to Lake Michigan’s North Manitou Island with my father. Despite the 80ºF humid afternoons, we were decked out in jeans and sweatshirts to avoid the persistent mosquitos and black flies, trying to orienteer with a tourist map and a chipped compass we found in the glove box of my dad’s work truck before hopping on the ferry.

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Miner’s Rock at Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

My real interest in hiking and backpacking came in college in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula where I met people whose idea of a good time was to wander along Lake Superior or through the hundreds of square miles of uninhabited land for long afternoons that stretched into evenings and eventually weekends.

I even tried ice fishing once or twice.

I even tried ice fishing once or twice.

But if I’m being honest (and if you can’t be honest on a blog, where can you be?) I didn’t really get the bug until I moved to Washington state almost exactly a year ago. The mountains were so near and inviting and I couldn’t help myself. In June, after deciding to attempt the PCT next year with next to no experience or backpacking knowledge, I set about to learning. Now at the end of the summer, I can hike 20 miles a day without fatigue, and I’ve seen some of the more amazing things the Cascade Range has to offer.

Along the Enchanted Lakes Trail at 7800'; July 2014

Along the Enchanted Lakes Trail at 7800′; July 2014

I’ve read a some books, a few articles, a trail anecdote here & there, and I’ve tried to get out into the wilderness as much as possible. Am I ready? Probably not to those ultralight backpacking purists. My pack still weighs over 20lb. My orienteering skills are for shit. My understanding of weather and pressure systems is non-existent. My experience hiking long distances in snow and desert is dismal. My tracking ability is laughable.

But I can light my stove and unstuff my sleeping bag and set up my tent and read a map.

And I can walk.

And in the end, that’s all it really is.

The Pacific Crest Trail: Six Months Out

In a little over six months, I’ll be venturing south from my new home in the Pacific Northwest to a tiny town on the Mexican border called Campo, California.

Here stands the southern terminus of one of the handful of national scenic trails in America called the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

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That’s right. Mexico (whose border is demarcated by the fence in the background) to a distant provincial park in British Columbia, Canada. 2,660 miles give or take, depending on chosen or enforced trail detours. The average hiker carves out a good four to five months to complete the journey in its entirety.

If what I’ve come up with so far can be called “a plan,” it involves traversing the length of this trail beginning in April, 2015.

The trail has gained popularity in the past couple years with release of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild and the ensuing film. I haven’t read it yet–and didn’t actually know it existed until several months ago.

I made the decision to attempt the hike after spending a weekend with a friend in the Bay Area in June. He made the hike in 2012 and was full of stories of fellow hikers, evening encounters with mountain lions, the ease and relief of living a life with straightforward goals and the intrigue of focusing on the more primal necessities of life.

There are a handful of reasons I could cite for attempting the adventure, but the main is–why not?

Reactions from friends & family were widespread. My family, eager to support any venture that involves self-inflicted suffering, was on board immediately. “You’re not going with anyone, are you?” my dad asked when I told him over the phone. “I can’t think of anyone you could stand for five months straight.” He’s got my personality pegged pretty well.

I like people, don’t get me wrong. But I am fiercely independent and like to do my own thing. HYOH, as they say on the trail. Hike Your Own Hike. Go at your own pace. Eat dinner for breakfast. Carry the items you find indispensable. Wake up when you want to. Hike however many miles you want to. Then stop and sleep. Maybe it seems selfish, but I’m doing this hike for me, and I don’t want to be tied to others’ schedules.

Some friends and acquaintances were less receptive to the idea, their concerns revolving primarily around personal safety. “Isn’t it dangerous to be out on your own, like, in the middle of nowhere?” the implicit follow-up being “as a woman?” Though there certainly are dangers involved, they center more around access to clean water, staying warm & dry in the elements, keeping enough food with me, and avoiding illness & injury.

I am much more safe hiking alone at night in the wilderness than I am walking alone at night on the streets of Seattle.

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