Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pacific Crest Trail: Thru- (and other) Hikers

Here's a description of my trip.

As I was getting ready for the trip, I realized that I would be starting south smack in the middle of the herd of northbound thru-hikers.  I didn't know how I felt about that, but it turned out to be inspiring, validating, and a little entertaining.

Like I said, I was a PCT thru-hiker once (actually twice), but failed.  So, we parked our rental minivan at McKenzie Pass, and there was a thru-hiker getting a visit from her family.  I toed the dust in the parking lot, looked around a bit, and decided that probably I should get back in the minivan, forget about this whole hiking 700+ miles thing, and head back to Portland.  Catherine dutifully kicked me out of the car, and I was on my way.

And almost immediately I ran into a phalanx of thru-hikers.  They were young.  They were dirty.  And they had impossibly-tiny backpacks.  Some looked happy, and some sad.  One guy looked nearly completely exhausted.  Nearly all of them were wearing the same type of shoes as me, which I found surprising.  It was like a big, loosely-knit, hiking team, and at that point they were all heading to a big trail-angel party near the pass.

That first afternoon I saw about 15 thru-hikers.  For the first two weeks (about until I reached Ashland), I would see about 20 a day.  I maxed out at about 40 the day I hiked to Shelter Cove Resort.  That day I saw the full spectrum of northbounder-herd travel life.  I saw an intense discussion between trail boyfriend and girlfriend - there may have been tears.  I saw trail love being born - a couple had dropped off the back of their little group (but stayed right on the trail) to moon into each others' eyes - there may have been kissing.  There were guys with ukuleles.  There were women with little speakers on the outside of their packs.  There was everything.

After Ashland, the rush was over, but I was still passing northbounders, and even better, I was meeting hikers doing all kinds of different trips.  I met southbounders, section-hikers, and even slack-packers.  A few days south of Seiad Valley, I met a guy everyone had told me was the "last" northbounder, but like a lot of things I heard on the trial, it wasn't true - I met a guy hiking up out of Old Station who said he was going to try to make it to Canada.  He was hiking with two weeks of food at a time, only making 10-15 miles a day, and it was the first week of September.  But who was I to tell him he was running late?

My WAG is that I saw about 250 northbounders, and maybe 15 southbounders.  Some observations:

-About 85% of them were younger twenty-somethings, and about 10% were fifty-and-sixty-somethings.  The remaining lonely 5% or so looked like thirty-somethings.  I didn't meet anyone who really fell into my demographic (borderline forty-something) - because there aren't many spouses out there who are going to tell said hiker demographic: "Hey, why don't you take a sabbatical with me, and I'll watch your wild-man five-year-old while you backpack for four weeks."  I'm very lucky.

-About 70% of the hikers were men.  About 90% of the men had beards/facial hair.  Most of the women were hiking with boyfriends/spouses, but there were some women groups/teams.  I only saw a few women hiking solo - at least two of them were in their 60's and looked extremely happy.

-Happiness was generally unrelated to backpack size/weight.  There were happy people with big/heavy packs and unhappy people with small/light packs.

-Speed did seem to be related to backpack size/weight.  I hit the trail towards the middle/end of the major northbound herd, and the packs generally got bigger/heavier as I went south/got later into August.  ULA packs are very popular, but there were a lot of other brands as well (but very few Six Moon Designs bags, making mine stick out).

-We're drifting into gear, but I need to note the small sub-population of hipster thru-hikers.  I especially appreciate the guy hiking in ironic surf-jams and aviator glasses, as well as the guy with an ironic mustache and football-style greasepaint made from campfire charcoal.  Oh, and the woman dressed like Ke$ha in the Siskiyou's.  Good stuff.

-A surprising number of free-standing tents.  I did see some tarps, and people just camping out, but I never got over seeing a hiker fish a freestanding tent out of one of those little backpacks - like the hiking equivalent of a clown car.  I believe this trend is related to thru-hikers' general refusal to wear/carry bug repellent.  I was standing there in the somewhat-buggy southern end of the Sisters Wilderness, and three hikers speed up.  One guy is wearing a bug-net hat and shorts, swatting his legs; the other two are just swatting.  Question: "Is there a flat, bug-free spot for camping near here?"  Um, sure - in California?

-Nearly all the thru-hikers opted for camp shoes, usually Crocs.  This was almost as fascinating as the freestanding tent phenomenon.  Hikers with little tiny backpacks, but a big pair of Crocs strapped to the outside.  I don't understand.  I think Crocs camp shoes qualifies as the current odd PCT gear fad (back in 1998 when I started it was umbrellas).

-Thru-hikers were universally amazed at my heavyweight gear selection.  I'm not sure what was more amazing - the real stove or the water filter.  I think the stove.

-I never saw the guy hiking the PCT in 26 wedding dresses, but wish I had.

-Speaking of water...well, I think that requires a separate post.

Hiking south during the herd rush was like getting to go back to high school for a few weeks, but while also being allowed to remain completely anonymous.  I could observe and enjoy.  No one cared who I was, and no one liked my trailname (it seemed funny at work - I guess that's lawyers for you).  Everyone was in at least somewhat of a hurry, and the cast changed daily.

Things changed south of Ashland.  I met fewer hikers, but they weren't as rushed and were more interested in talking.  I met some southbounders (who I hiked with for a few days), and some other section hikers.  The last big day of northbounders was Seiad Valley - it seemed like someone was camped, cooking, or resting behind pretty much every tree and building in town.  And there was one kid who I was pretty sure wasn't hiking the trail at all, but wanted to tell me all about the "glowing eyes" outside his tent the night before.

And as I talked to the different groups, I grew to appreciate a different wrinkle of PCT hiker culture - people doing what they want.  You see, there is a nebulous PCT pressure, furthered by perhaps a certain defined PCT brain-trust, that promotes a "right way" to thru-hike.  That right way is to start in Campo at the kickoff party, then hike boots-on-the-ground straight through to Canada, arriving between three and five months later.  You carry one of those tiny backpacks, probably sleep under a tarp, and mail food to/stop at a number of defined "trail towns" and post offices along the way.

The reward for hiking the trail the right way is to get to Canada, having carefully avoided doing anything original.  Then, break down in tears the minute you step off the trail, go home, delete a bunch of those overly-sharing blog posts, suffer mild PTSD, go to an orthopedist to deal with various overuse injuries, and slowly try to reintegrate with society.

The penalty for hiking the trail the wrong way is...wait a minute, there is no wrong way.  There is no governing PCT body.  You could hike the trail jacked up on PED's (which I've heard happens), only at night, over the course of sixty years, slack-packing all the way, etc.  The only thing you risk is a few disapproving looks, and maybe some mild online opprobrium.

It took me a long time to get back out to hike the trail the wrong way - 13 years.  And I was impressed by meeting so many people who figured it out sooner.  I think my favorite group were the college kids who got a late start, hiked from Ashland to Canada - but skipping a few of the snowier sections, and then took a bus back to Ashland to hike south - and catch the snowier sections after they had melted.  Genius!  I wish that I had figured out something like that back in 1998.  I also loved the RV-living slack-packer team - why rough it under one of those little tarps all summer?  

I also just loved being on a trail both jammed with backpackers, and where the average backpacker might be hiking 20 miles a day (in a wedding dress).  In Switzerland I was amazed by the huge hiker culture, and it was nice to see our own limited, linear, volunteer-driven version of that culture.  It certainly made the miles easier.  

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