By Nancy Tannler
They say the hardest part of any journey is the first step. Fortunately for Duncan Bauerlein, his first step onto the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was made easy.
He landed in San Diego last April 11, went shopping for groceries, met a woman in the store who recognized a hiker and drove him two hours east to Campo on the US/Mexico border. There the 2,650-mile hike on the PCT to Canada began.
As a kid Duncan, his brother and father had done several portions of the trail here in Oregon and Washington. To do the whole trail took Duncan a year to prepare for.
Gear is important; the base weight of his pack was 12-15 lbs. This included sleeping bag and pad, tent, rain gear, puffy jacket, water purifier and a change of clothes. Adding food, water and anything else on an average pack weighs more like fifty pounds.
Another part of the pre-planning was to send himself supplies at regular intervals to Post Offices via General Delivery, located at convenience stores, gas stations and Post Offices in small towns.
“The packages were part of my reward system. I knew I needed to reach a certain destination within a range of time or the package would be returned,” Duncan said.
The first 700 miles of the journey took him through the desert and up into the Santa Rosa Mountains.
“The first day was intimidating. I was out of my comfort zone, no one I knew was around, it rained, there were lots of rattle snakes and being a night shift nurse, I needed to get into being awake during the day – so not much sleep that night.”
He hiked over a hundred miles alone before retrieving his first package at Warner Springs. A hiker needs to resupply about once a week and can hitchhike to a town or store that is close.
It was around this time that he met what is referred to as a “Trail Family.” These were people from Germany, Switzerland, Italy and a doctor from America; random people that have an immediate camaraderie because they too are hiking the trail and experiencing nature at the same time.
The trail family can vary in numbers depending on how fast or slow you are hiking. There are times when the consensus of the group is necessary to survival.
“It’s hard to put into words, but the trail takes on a life of its own. You are relying on your physical resilience to deal with the challenges of nature. Meanwhile the scenery is changing daily and it is stunning.”
Duncan had a setback when a rattlesnake surprised him and he jumped backwards, spraining his ankle. He was three hundred miles into the trip, still in the desert/mountains and his group continued on without him.
“I rested for a couple of days and then splinted my ankle and began to hike very slowly.” After his ankle healed, it took about two weeks to catch up with his trail family. “I am a fast walker,” he said.
It rained 15 out of the 40 days Duncan was in the desert. Uncomfortable as this was, it made the wildflowers spectacular. “I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, but then at times I could see the lights of Palm Springs and LA.”
Even though you are with a group, it is not uncommon to only gather in the evening for a shared meal and Duncan spent a lot of time in solitude. The profundity of being alone in nature can only be understood by those who seek this type of experience.
While traversing the desert he was always on the alert for the telltale sound of a rattler, but once he left this terrain, podcasts were sometimes used for company and solace to help pass the time.
The next big milestone was Kennedy Meadows, northeast of Bakersfield. The desert part was over and his ascent into the Sierra Nevadas began.
“I was feeling pretty confident by now, little realizing what lay ahead.” (Keep in mind that the trail closely aligns with the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. Hikers are going along the crest of these ranges.)
Cell service was scanty on the trail, but GPS was always available and a great safety net to keep hikers on the right path. This is necessary in the Sierra Nevadas because record snowfalls had streams and rivers running high. The place where the PCT crossed isn’t always the safest for hikers to fjord. This also held true for crossing snow and ice fields.
Hikers often end up a long way off and must navigate back to the trail. Crossing as many as twenty streams a day, some chest high, he said, “The only thing to do was put my gear in a contractor bag and plunge ahead into the fast moving, freezing water.”
“The Sierra Nevadas were a humbling experience. Part of the time we were hiking at 10,000 ft., going up to 14,505 ft. when we climbed Mt. Whitney.”
It’s hard to hike at this altitude. The path was often covered with snow and ice and they needed to carve out steps across with a pickax. One misstep and a hiker could fall thousands of feet. “Every day held a challenge that kept me alert.”
Another daunting aspect of these mountains is that there are no east/west roads, so when you are in them, you really are alone. All hikers are required by law to carry their food in bear canisters.
Duncan saw lots of bears and was stalked by a mountain lion for two days.
“I was pushing myself to get to one of the rendezvous to meet up with friends. It was my longest day hiking – 42 miles. I was hiking into the evening when I first spotted it at a water hole. I had to keep going since there was no place to camp here. Eventually I found level ground, pitched my tent making a lot of racket and climbed in.”
In the morning he saw the cat’s prints all around the tent as pushed on with an uneasy sense of being followed.
The Sierra Nevadas end around Mt. Lassen in northern CA and Duncan arrived there at the end of July. His trail family splintered off in different directions, so he was on his own for the final leg of the hike.
“It’s indescribable, the crazy feeling of familiarity, stability and security I felt upon seeing Crater Lake.” He had done these portions of the trail before.
Crossing into Washington the rains began. “This was the only time I wanted to quit because it was day after day of being wet, slogging along and not seeing much.” The temperature dropped about 20 degrees, too, but when the sun finally did shine it was spectacular.
Harts Pass in Washington is the last exit before the finish at Manning Park in Canada. It was at this point that the reality of the end of the trail began to hit home.
“Hiking the PCT was what I was doing and now it was almost complete.” He definitely experienced let down, not wanting to leave this incredible environment, self-reliance and the many friendships he made along the way.
After wearing out three pairs of trail shoes, on September 24 he stepped into Canada and the end of the trail.
Around 200 people sign up to hike the whole PCT but fewer complete it. Duncan is one who have actually hiked the whole trail. It goes through twenty-five national forests, crosses over fifty-seven major mountain passes, dips into nineteen major canyons and ambles past more than 1,000 lakes and tarns.
The PCT passes through five national monuments, five state parks, six national parks, seven BLM field offices, 25 national forest units and 48 federal wilderness areas.
Inspired? Learn more about the Pacific Crest Trail at pcta.org