Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

By David Watts Barton, Deseret News (Salt Lake City), November 10, 2007

Like many people on vacation this summer, Mike Towne’s daily responsibilities were pretty simple.

“You just have to wake up and go north,” he says. “You walk and sleep; that’s all you have to worry about.”

And food and water. And bears. And his poor, aching feet.

Above all, Towne’s summer was all about heading north, as he covered 2,650 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail between Mexico and Canada.

Towne, 27, lives in Carmichael, Calif., where he has been a civil engineer. But between April 21 and Sept. 4, he was a citizen of the crest, a man of the mountains.

“I’d say I started thinking about doing it about a year before I actually did,” he says. “It just hit me one day: ‘I don’t really want to be at work, so I think I’ll go do this hike.'”

Undertaking the Pacific Crest Trail isn’t just “doing a hike.” It’s often difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, occasionally dangerous and, above all, a very, very long haul.

It winds through some of the most beautiful and diverse scenery in the world, beginning in the Southern California desert for a couple hundred miles, then climbing among some of the country’s tallest peaks in the Sierra, through rain forests in the Oregon Cascades and all the way through Washington to Canada.

According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, about 300 people a year set out to hike the entire trail. About 50 to 100 a year finish the whole thing, according to Angela Ballard of the association.

There is, according to Towne, a very particular culture around the undertaking, some unique challenges, and a lot of things to learn about day-to-day survival. There’s much to think about before heading out, he says.

There is the choice whether to hike alone or with someone, weight considerations, coordination with care packages from home, technology for keeping in touch with friends and other aspects to be thought through.

And it’s not cheap: Towne says most people figure on spending a dollar a mile, but he spent more, nearly $4,000.

And there are other surprises, not all of them water-borne parasites (Towne caught two) or rattlesnakes (he encountered more than a dozen). Some of the best surprises he discovered were the people, particularly in the southern desert, who went out of their way to help those who undertake the trip.

“There are people who take you into their home,” he says. “We call them Trail Angels. There’s one lady in Agua Dulce, near Lancaster, who has tents in the backyard, an RV, Internet, a phone you can use, and she’ll even feed you a dinner. You usually give ’em a $20 donation. There are five or six of these.”

Then there are the people, some locals, some former hikers, who want to help by leaving water caches in established places, usually near road crossings.

“They have a little guest book, so you can write and thank them,” he says. “That happens all the way up, especially in California. It’s cool. You’ll be hiking along in the desert and you’ll come to a spot and there’ll be a cooler there, with some drinks in it. That’s the best.”

Guidebooks to the trail note many of the water caches, some of which have been there for years, but hikers are warned not to depend on them, particularly if a lot of people are hiking the trail. The caches can be dry when a hiker gets to them.

This explains why Towne left a bit early; most start on the traditional kickoff, the last weekend in April, but he started a week earlier to get a jump on the crowd.

But the crowd—a relative term in this case—has its own pleasures, says the talkative Towne. Especially after hiking for several days alone.

“You go through some stretches by yourself, especially early in the season,” he says. “Day or weekend hikers aren’t really out until June, and you’ll go three or four days without seeing anyone. After a few days, you start getting a little lonely, and the first person you see, you want to talk their ear off.”

He purchased a radio in Oregon and took advantage of his elevation to sample local radio stations. And, he says, the solitude is a nice change.

Sometimes you can just shut your mind off and walk,” he says. “It’s peaceful to not have any distractions.”

When he did want to communicate with people, he found it pretty easy.

“I journaled every day,” he says. “I had a device called Pocketmail, like a Blackberry, but not a phone. It stores your e-mails as you write them in the mountains, then you dial an 800 number on a pay phone, and it sends your e-mails. I had about 50 people on my distribution list.

“Then there’s trailjournals .com, so you can put your journal right online. I’d eat dinner, read the guidebook, write in my journal and go to sleep.”

After walking the first 400 miles alone, he met an Australian with whom he walked about 500 miles, and later he hiked with two women through much of the Oregon and Washington sections of the trail. His girlfriend came up from Berkeley to hike a section with him, though at his pace of 25 to 30 miles a day, it was difficult for her to keep up.

An active person, he didn’t do much training for the trail. “I went with the theory that the first 300 to 400 miles train you for the rest.”

Still, he lost about 20 pounds off his 5-foot-8-inch frame, weight he said he didn’t have to lose. He recommends it as a great weight-loss idea, though.

“I saw people who I would consider obese drop 40 or 50 pounds in the first couple of weeks,” he says.

Towne got his backpack down to about 15 pounds, not counting food and water. His wardrobe was minimal: one short-sleeve shirt; one long-sleeve shirt; one pair each of long pants, shorts and rain pants; three pairs of socks; and a rain jacket. He also had a down jacket in the high Sierra, but in general he found the weather to be manageable. He did have to hike through a couple of thunderstorms because there was nowhere to stop.

His food was suitably simple: He started each day with instant oatmeal (mixed in a water bottle; he carried no stove after a couple of hundred miles). His basic dried food consisted of refried and black beans, split-pea soup and lentil soup. He ate dried fruit and nuts. He tried beef jerky, but found that it didn’t keep well. And he carried olive oil, good for fat and calories.

And then there were the Snickers bars. Lots of Snickers bars.

“A lot of people live on those things,” he says. “Which is fine, but you have to eat ’em early in the day, while it’s still cool, or they’ll melt.”

His food came by mail from his mother, who sent 26 packages to small towns along the way. He also was happy to buy meals in many of the small towns he encountered, though some, he says, were worse than his trail food. He also stayed in a couple of hotels, mostly for the hot shower.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service

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