By Sam Kellogg
Ferns and huckleberry bushes heavy with dew obscure the trail ahead. With each step forward, another waterlogged branch springs back into place behind me, splattering fat, cold droplets across my thighs and knees.
Water and sweat run down my calves and into my shoes, soaking my socks and it is raining.
It has been raining relentlessly for the past week, because we are in Northern Washington, and that is what it does here in the Fall. In some places, the trail is a stream instead of a trail. In others, it is a mudslide. Sometimes, a close encounter with a heavily-laden evergreen will send a water cascade down the back of your shirt, making you shiver.
Imagine hiking for hours through a drive-thru car wash, with dirt and scratchy bushes instead of soap and squeegees, and you will have a fairly accurate idea of what hiking in the North Cascades in October is like.
It was the last day of a six-month, 2,660-mile backpacking trip from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail, and it could not have been more beautiful.
While it is true that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is one of the most difficult things I have ever done, it is equally true that I have little to show for it, save pictures and memories.
My resume is no more impressive, and my bank account is quite a bit smaller. You might reasonably ask me, why do I do it?
Six months earlier, three of my best friends and I stood blinking in the sun in Southern California.
In the hilly outskirts of a border town an hour east of San Diego, nestled up against the rusty barbed-wire fence that separates Mexico from the United States, a dusty monument announces that this is the start of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The PCT is a hiking trail longer than U.S. Route 66, a dirt track that runs from Mexico through California, Oregon and Washington to Canada.
Along the way are barren deserts littered with rattlesnakes and scorpions, glaciated peaks populated by marmots and mountain goats, dense evergreen forests, snow-fed rivers, and very few people.
The idea is to hike the entire trail end to end in a single season without getting too lost or getting killed by any wildlife.
With these intentions, I shoulder my pack, laden with a tarp, a sleeping bag, inflatable sleeping pad, a cook set, some extra clothes, and lots and lots of food and water. With me are three companions, twenty-somethings all, who have nurtured this common dream of hiking the PCT for years.
Matt and I have been friends since preschool. We grew up playing with Legos in each other’s basements and kept in touch through college and afterwards as we saved up money for this hike.
Kristin and I became friends in high school. We started a band, and recorded a few demos that I’m convinced helped get us into college. On the trail, she brought along a banjo she painted red, white and blue, and I carried a guitar. Heavy luxuries, to be sure, but worth every ounce at the end of the day.
Leo led backpacking trips with Matt and I at a boy’s summer camp as a teenager. On his broad rower’s shoulder, Leo’s pack looked cartoonishly small.
The four of us started out with varying levels of fitness.
After a month of aching muscles and lost toenails, (much more common than one might think), each of us were lean, wiry, and strong.
A few weeks in is around the time a permanent layer of grime begins to cling hold of you, and no amount of showering will wash away the smell. Fat reserves are exhausted shortly thereafter. Halfway through California, we all began to look like tanned, gaunt, dusty ghosts.
As the hunger sets in, it is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. We simply could not carry enough food. We would resupply in towns we came to along the way and pack out a week’s worth of food on our backs. It was never enough.
I once awoke in the middle of the night, shivering cold, with a yawning empty pit in my stomach. I had been vividly dreaming about gorging myself on baby-back ribs dipped in melted butter.
In grocery stores, we’d be resentful when brands advertised low fat content, and scour the aisles for snacks that contained the most calories per ounce.
People often ask me what the scariest or craziest or most difficult part of the trail was. Many moments come to mind but a few really stick out. One evening we saw a rattlesnake, a scorpion, and a black widow spider within an hour of one another. We did not sleep well that night.
On another occasion, a brown bear the size of a Fiat trundled lazily into our camp during dinner and proceeded to shred a nearby tree to pieces with paws the size of hubcaps. Luckily, the bear was more interested in grubs in the tree bark than in our instant mashed potatoes.
One afternoon I walked straight into a many-acre forest fire in southern Oregon, a dozen helicopters crisscrossing the sky, and was asked by an incredulous firefighter just what the hell I thought I was doing there. Couldn’t I see the miles-wide plume of black smoke I was stumbling towards?
Of course, everyone who attempts an end-to-end thru-hike will have similarly incredible stories.
When hiking by himself at dusk, Matt was once stalked by a mountain lion. Kristin and Leo each got terribly lost in the heart of California’s High Sierra when the trail unceremoniously disappeared. Another friend slipped crossing a snowfield and tumbled downhill before coming to a stop, dazed, in a jumble of rocks above thousands of feet of ice and boulders.
All these stories miss the point to some degree. Why go hiking in the first place? Why push on, through rain and snow and sun, through blisters and shin splints and lost blood and tears?
Why continue when your gear, and then your body and mind begin to breakdown? It is hard to imagine just how long of a trail the PCT really is until you try and hike it.
Walk for a month, and you will have hardly begun. Every single day, there will be a moment, or many moments, when part of you wants to give it all up.
If you saw my friends and I that day in Washington, thousands of miles beneath our feet, bedraggled and filthy, careening through the deep-green forest with patchwork backpacks and wild-eyed grins, you’d have reasonably thought we were mad.
You might have asked, “How did you get so much blood and dirt on your face?” Or, “Why are you smiling? All fair questions.
Henry David Thoreau tells us:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
There are as many reasons as there are hikers, but this, for me, gets at the heart of the matter.
When I look back on the office job I held beforehand in downtown Portland, satisfying and challenging though it was, all the days seem to blur together. In contrast, every day on the trail is wholly new. Every day, something unforgettable happens.
The point is to gut life to its most essential elements and experience it for its own sake. We are hiking to Canada, but it could be anywhere. The reward is the journey itself, in the sunrises watched and the friends made along the way.
As we huddled around the campfire, Canadian clouds pouring Canadian raindrops on our heads, we took swigs from a bottle of whiskey, and laughed like children.
Sometimes, we were tempted to rush, to get to Canada as quickly as possible, to get the hike over and done with. A friend of mine had a saying: It’s not about the miles; it’s all about the smiles.
Make sure you’ve got plenty of smiles per hour, and you can’t go wrong. I’ll see you out on the trail!
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