Thoughts About the Pacific Crest Trail

The reader of my blog site may notice below that I have reviewed a series of movies and books related to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. This is a trail that runs from Mexico to Canada through the Sierra Nevada mountains, and then the Cascades. It is over 2650 miles, and typically takes 4-½ to 5 months for a hiker to accomplish this, doing roughly 25 miles/day. I wish to offer an explanation now for these posts.
If you look through many of my distant past posts, typically end-of-the-year posts, you will notice occasion mentions of dreams for epic adventures. It is not a mistake that the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings trilogy and Der Ring des Niebelungen 4-opera series are my favorite books and operas. They all represent epic adventures. Whether it be a bicycle trip that completely circumnavigates the United States or a thru-hike of the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trail, such an adventure has been a dream since I was a kid. I remember well as a teenager hearing the account of Luke Huber backpacking around the world. Such a thing could never be done in today’s world. Even then, 40 years ago, Luke was able to do it since he carried a Brazilian passport and not a US passport. His slideshow tale has stuck in my mind as though I had just seen it yesterday. It was a venture like I would have longed to have done but never could have been possible for me.
So, the question remains as to whether I would ever be able to accomplish an epic adventure? Two issues affect my decision. The first issue is Betsy. Regardless of every other affection and desire that I have, Betsy remains the most important person that I have in life, dare I say, even more important than my own personal satisfaction. Outside of my love for God, nothing exceeds my love for Betsy, and my desire to be with her and enjoy her. Since she would not be able (or desire) to accomplish an epic thru-hike or epic bicycle venture, I must judiciously tailor my plans and expectations. The second issue is my own personal health, which is good, though I still require low doses of antihypertensive medications.
A third but non-issue is the economics of such a venture, which relates more to being able to get away from work for 3-6 months in order to accomplish such a task. I just discharged a patient from my practice who I treated for #####; he worked for REI in the warehouse in Sumner and was an avid outdoorsman. He explained the REI policy that all employees at 15 years get to take a 1 year Sabbatical, and then they take a Sabbatical every 5 years after that. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had no clue that one successful corporation in the US actually has some sane employment policy.  When I took a Sabbatical in 2009, it was after a maddening 4 years of medical school, with a minimal break to start 8 years of an insanely busy residency and fellowship, with a minimal break to start 2 years of life as a military doctor, with a minimal break to start (by 2009) 14-½ years of hard slave labor. You can add up the numbers easily enough. Yet, my Sabbatical in 2009 was considered most unusual. It was one of the smarter things I ever did in life, besides coming on my knees to the cross of Jesus Christ and asking Betsy to marry me. If one considers that a Sabbatical occurs every 7th year, then the year 2016 should be my next Sabbatical year. I’ll be 62 years of age then, and ready to hang it up for good. I will actually retire somewhere between 2016 and 2020 when I will be forced to retire since I have no intention of re-certifying with the American Board of Surgery. This will get me plenty of time for epic adventures. In terms of cost, the trail is cheaper than daily life at home, especially (when cycling) one plans to spend most of their nights tenting, which is no problem for me.
I cannot speak for the Appalachian trail, but for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), there are some good arguments against performing a thru-hike. “Thru-hiking” means that one goes from the very beginning to the very end of any given trail in a single setting, i.e, doing Mexico to Canada from start to finish in a single year, without formally leaving the trail. In order to do that, one must start in the southern California desert at the start of the hot season, hit the high Sierras a little early in the season, when snow still covers most of the trail, arrive in Yosemite at the peak of the bug season, hit Oregon in the still rainy season, and then hope and pray that nothing interferes with your schedule to make it through the North Cascades before an early winter snowstorm. Ideally, Oregon and Washington are best hiked in July and August, the high Sierras in June/July and not May/June, and the desert in March. This means that to thoroughly enjoy the PCT, sectional or chunk hiking is the way to go. You can’t write books or make movies or spend hours bragging of your sub-epic venture, but at least you will not have turned backpacking into a chronic enduring painful drudgery.
There is a third alternative to thru-hiking and section hiking, which is chunk hiking. While thru-hiking attacks the trail in one grand solitary attack, and sectional hiking deals with short excerpts, chunk hiking is to tackle a larger section than section hiking, such as doing the entire state of Washington or Oregon in one setting, or California in several settings. Brian Lewis, in one of the books reviewed below, discusses chunk hiking, suggesting that chunk hiking gives the hiker the best of all worlds, being able to tackle sections of the trail at the right time of the year, while not engaging in the insanity of a 4-6 month ordeal and still maintaining the spirit of a thru-hike.
Chunk or thru-hiking demands a completely different style from regular hiking. Most importantly, much less weight must be carried. Every ounce of weight matters. Nothing frivolous can be engaged. Light-weight stoves or tents are not light enough. Certain things cannot be sacrificed, such as clothing, but even then, extreme prudence needs to be exercised to carry only one change of clothes, and then wash them once every week or two. Meals are typically eaten cold, unless at a re-supply. Since there are long stretches of trail uncrossed by road, a 7-9 day supply of food must be carried, while considering 5000 cal/day to be the norm on the trail. Most people do not use hiking boots, but rather use hiking shoes.  Resupply needs to be accurately planned out beforehand since one will not carry all the necessary maps at once, clothing and equipment change on the different sections of the trail, and shoes wear out, hikers usually go through about three pairs of shoes.
So, perhaps my epic adventure should be done on a bicycle, and leave the PCT to sectional or chunk hiking. It would be cool to do the Pacific coast trail down to San Diego, and then return on the Sierra Cascades trail back up to Canada and then home, using the path outlined by the Adventure Cycle Association (Pacific Coast & Sierra Cascades). That trip would parallel the PCT on a bicycle and would take about 3 months total, which is entirely possible. For now, I am planning a week-long backpack with Jon or someone else next year, hopefully doing the Wonderland Trail in reverse from what Jon and I did several years ago. I would also like to do part if not all of the Washington Parks (Adventure Cycle Association) Route around Washington State. Other planned ventures will be mentioned in the year-end report.