Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Epic Adventures Part II: The Pacific Crest Trail

“To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security, is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.”

Tracks, Robyn Davidson

The Pacific Crest Trail stretches across the spine of California, Oregon and Washington through a vast collection of terrain and some of the most beautiful places on earth. While it physically links Mexico and Canada, it lives for me as more than just a line on a map. It has become a thread that reaches back through my own history, connecting places, times and people from my past to those in my present.

It began in the summer of 1993. I was 19 and spending two months in northern California on my first backpacking trip. While walking along through the Ru
ssian Wilderness, a hiker came up behind me. He was skinny, smelly and fast, and he had the tiniest pack I’d ever seen. Who was this guy?

After a brief conversation, I learned that he’d been on the trail for two months and was headed all the way to Canada. He’d begun at the Mexican border, and had another two and a half months in his journey.

“You mean this trail runs all the way from Mexico to Canada?” I asked, the pure awe and obvious backpacking-naiveté dripping from my words.

“Yup,” came his simple reply, and he quickly disappeared down the trail in front of me.

There is something incredibly romantic about the no
tion of walking a long distance while carrying all your needs with you on your back. Its simplicity flies boldly in the face of all our modern technologies and comforts, and that’s precisely the appeal. Although the reality of going weeks without a shower and sleeping on the hard earth is somewhat less romantic, it’s still incredibly liberating to recognize what you truly need in daily life and what you do not. I may have been a backpacking newbie at the time, but somewhere in the back of my mind I already knew that one day I, too, wanted to be skinny, smelly, fast and on my way to Canada.

Three years later I loaded my pack in the back of a friend’s pickup and was cruising eastward from San Diego towards the PCT. Looking back on that time, I rec
all incredible terrain and scenery, big challenges, and the amazing people I met en-route. Some of those memories are fading with time, but what I haven’t forgotten are the lessons—the episodes and experiences that taught me so much and helped to shape the woman I eventually became. It’s through the lens of those lessons that I look back now upon my PCT journey, and it’s the view I’m most capable of sharing.

Perspective changes everything.

“There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns – small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track.”

Tracks, Robyn Davidson

There is a difference between going on a “trip” and just changing your lifestyle. It took about three weeks on the PCT before I realized it wasn’t a trip. It wasn’t a vacation, or even a journey, really. It was simply where I lived for five months of my life, just as I spent three months in a Minneapolis apartment one spring, or six months in a log cabin in Northern Minnesota one winter.

When you stop looking at things as temporary, they become easier to accept. Once everything transformed from “trip” to “lifestyle,” chores like breaking camp in the
morning became no more burdensome than brewing coffee in the morning is now. Finding a spring for water, locating a suitable campsite that would be bear-free, packing and unpacking my pack – all of these things ceased to be the troubles of a camping life and became simply routine.

One particular moment of perspective came early in the trip, in the hot, dry reaches of Southern California, on a stretch of trail known as the San Felipe Hills. The distance between water sources in the desert is a specific challenge of the first few hundred miles on the trail, and is the primary reason that most hikers who quit the trail do so in the first 40 miles
. I was traversing the slope in a steady uphill grade, eight miles into a 23-mile dry stretch. The temperature had already hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it was 10 A.M., and there was no shade in sight. My water supply was disappearing far more rapidly than the mileage to my destination. Truthfully, I was scared.

A few hours later, still heading up, I knew something had to change. It w
as obvious that I was going to run out of water, and the thermometer was nearing 110. In desperation, I threw my tarp over the nearest creosote bush, which topped out at a height of about two feet, and curled up underneath its meager shade. I tried my very best to fight back the tears because frankly I knew I couldn’t spare the water for them, but it was useless. I had never felt so pathetic. Who on earth did I think I was? Clearly I was never going to make it another 2,000+ miles to Canada. The ten remaining miles to Barrel Spring were in serious doubt at that moment!

But then a funny thing happened. As I lay still, tormenting myself w
ith my failure, I drank very little water. Without all the exertion and the direct sunlight, I was able to conserve my water, and eventually the temperature dropped. When the sun went down, I continued my hike by moonlight, and it was the easiest, most beautiful, most glorious ten miles I’d ever done. The desert came alive in the moonlight, and I found myself singing as I walked along. I’d transformed from hopeless to powerful with a little patience and a drastic drop in temperature.

I learned several things in that episode, including how to problem
solve my way out of a bad situation. But when I think of the San Felipe Hills, I mostly recall how horrible I felt, how desperately close I was to giving up, and the contrasting triumph I experienced when I finally arrived at that spring. It was the low point of the trip, and it provided the perspective from which all other difficulties have since been viewed. Whenever something challenging came up on my hike, and indeed in my life since then, I knew I would make it through because nothing would ever be as hard as the God-damned San Felipe Hills!

With Laura in the Southern desert. In those first days, we frequently stopped to elevate and air-out our feet in an attempt to alleviate the blister issues.

Break big tasks into smaller ones.

As an ultrarunner, this lesson seems obvious. I’ve often claimed that my thru-hike was better training for ultrarunning than my former life as a track athlete has been, and it was out on the trail that I first learned how to break things down into manageable portions.

When a particularly vexing problem arose, such as blisters that wouldn’t allow me to go even a few miles without a break, I couldn’t let myself think abo
ut the idea of having over 2,000 miles left to go. I would have simply given up. Instead, I usually thought of my destination only as the next town in which I could resupply. (Or, in the case of the blistered feet, the next icy creek in which the feet could be soaked.)

Sometimes it was “miles until the next water source,” sometimes “miles until camp,” sometimes “miles until I could allow myself something yummy from my precious food stash.” Regardless, it was all a way of ignoring the enormity, and overwhelming
nature, of my real goal, and simply living in the moment.

Hiking to Canada? You’ve got to be crazy!

Hiking three days to the nearest town? No problem.

At the California-Oregon border. 1600 miles down, 1000 to go.

Go light.

“I had pared my possessions down to almost nothing—a survival kit, that’s all. I had a filthy old sarong for hot weather and a jumper and woolly socks for cold weather and I had something to sleep on and something to eat and drink out of and that was all I needed. I felt free and untrammeled and light.”

Tracks, Robyn Davidson

Back in the mid-90’s, there was one primary source for information on the PCT in addition to the detailed trail guides. This was the PCT Hikers Handbook, and it was written by the enigmatic and somewhat notorious Ray Jardine. It was basically the thru-hiker’s bible, and every person who hoped to go from Mexico to Canada that year had read it. Ray’s lightweight concepts are commonplace now, but they were considered somewhat fringe at the time. Many experienced backpackers considered hiking the entire trail in one season to be more than the human body was meant to experience, but Ray showed that by lightening your load it could in fact be very easy on the body. As thru-hikers we called it “The Ray Way,” and it was your best bet for successfully spending the better part of five months walking the trail.

Of course, as has been noted by some in the past, I’m not always quick to listen to the advice of others. I’ve been called stubborn, but I like to think of myself as an experiential learner. After all, the lessons we learn the hard way are the ones we remember the best.

It took me less than two weeks of blisters to finally believe Ray’s advice that lightweight, breathable running shoes were far more suitable for hiking that stiff leather boots. About 200 miles down the trail I traded my boots in for running shoes and I’ve never looked back.

Eventually, I also dumped my fancy tent for a
bivy sack, traded in my cushy sleeping pad for an ultralight one, and jettisoned any and all extraneous and unnecessary gear. My feet could breathe and move, my pack was light, and everything became much easier!

Early miles on the trail - big pack, big boots, ouch!

Brandon, Stephanie and Anita in a typical resupply scene, Kennedy Meadows campground.

Listen to the Trail

“In different places, survival requires different things, based on the environment. Capacity for survival may be the ability to be changed by environment.”

Tracks, Robyn Davidson

This is, in many ways, the most valuable lesson I gleaned from those days in the mountains and deserts. It’s about problem solving, maintaining perspective, not giving up. It is simply figuring out what needs to be done and then doing it. It is about laying plans, while accepting that not everything will go according to them.

Figuring out how to lighten my pack and adjust my footwear was my fi
rst big step in listening to the trail.

Another major adjustment happened back in those dreaded San Felipe Hills: I learned how to hike in the desert. After arriving at Barrel Spring at the end of the hills, my d
ays in the desert took on a new rhythm. Instead of hiking during the daytime heat, I broke up my hiking to better match the conditions. I arose several hours before sunrise to hike in the cool of the morning, usually arriving at the spring by around 10 A.M. There, I typically found the only trees for miles around, and after drinking my fill, I would stretch out beneath their welcome shade for a mid-day siesta. A few hours before sunset I cooked dinner, all the while using as much water as I pleased because I was at the source. I’d eliminated the need to carry so much heavy liquid! By dusk, I’d be loaded up and on the trail, ready for another beautiful moonlight hike taking me at least halfway to the next spring.

Eventually it became clear that there were very few problems so big
that they could force one from the trail permanently. That kind of thing frequently only happened if you let it. Of course there are exceptions, but most things have solutions if you really want to find them. Debilitating blisters? Change your footwear (even if that means hitchhiking into the nearest town to find a store, or hiking in your sandals, or accepting proffered boots from a hapless dayhiker). Hungry all the time? Pack more food from the next resupply town. (And eat plenty of Ben & Jerry’s while you’re there!) Sick of your food? Trade meals with other hikers! Lost your sunglasses but still have miles of snowfields to cross? Make your own out of your foam sleeping pad!

Listening to the trail is about adjusting things as the conditions demand. As in a backpacking trip or 100-mile race, some things in life will almost certainly go awry. Part of being prepared is accepting that challenges for which you are not prepared will arise, and
yet remaining confident that you can meet them.

Anita shows off her homemade "Eskimo snow goggles," cut from the foam of her blue sleeping pad. They weren't great, but after losing her sunglasses in the high Sierra, they at least prevented snow-blindness!

Our own choices are the biggest factor in following our dreams.

“And I recognized then the process by which I had always attempted difficult things. I had simply not allowed myself to think of the consequences, but had closed my eyes, jumped in, and before I knew where I was, it was impossible to renege. I was basically a dreadful coward, I knew that about myself.”

Tracks, Robyn Davidson

I’d Like to dispel a myth for you now – namely that luck and circumstances are what allows one the luxury of a five-month backpacking trip. There are certainly circumstances which make in easier, of course. There is a reason nearly half of the thru-hikers on trail that season were young people like myself, recently out of school. The commitments of being a grownup are restrictive.

However, I met people on that trail who made major sacrifices to be
there because that was what they wanted. They made it a priority. I met a couple who quit their demanding jobs as a lawyer and an architect in order to hike for five months. One couple sold their house because they knew they couldn’t make the payments after five months with no income. Another pair of hikers was indebted to good friends for taking care of their dog all summer. These people didn’t see their careers or financial obligations as barriers to their dream of hiking the PCT. They simply looked for the solutions and found them, showing exactly the kind of tenacity required to complete such a journey.

I personally had most circumstances in my favor, barring one. I really wanted a hiking partner. I’d never traveled alone, and certainly not backpacked alone. I had absolutely zero confidence in my ability to spend that kind of time with no one but myself and to deal with all challenges and problems without help, but that turne
d out to be my option. Go alone, or stay home. So, I went.

Upon hearing about the Pacific Crest Trail, many people say, “I’d love to hike that, but …” What they really mean is that it’s simply not a priority. If you have young children or are caretaking a sick relative, those things are obviously going to take precedence. Bu
t by and large, many of the reasons people have for not undertaking such a journey are simply a way of saying that it’s not actually what they want. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone wants to spend five months sleeping in the dirt far from family and friends. I can’t blame them! Many of the other thru-hikers I met though illustrated to me that often times we can accomplish even an unlikely dream if we really make it a priority.

A typical camp, this one in the High Sierra, with my bivy sac, and Anita's one-woman tent. We would cook dinner several miles before camp, and set up dry camps, thereby avoiding any visits from bears. The Ray Way calls this "stealth camping."

People in this world are kinder and more helpful than we give them credit for.

“I was right about the people at Glenayle. They were not only the salt of the earth, they were charming, kind, generous, and pretended not to notice my eccentricities, chatting amiably while I belched, scratched, gulped tea and ate home-made scones like a ravenous pig.”

Tracks, Robyn Davidson

This may not be a new lesson for some, but for me it was a beautiful, eye-opening experience. After my trip with Charlie, I was already open to the kindness of strangers, but the PCT put things into a whole new light. I can’t even tell you how many people, after talking with me for less than three minutes, offered me home-cooked meals, showers, a warm bed or patch of carpet on their floor, beer, their car keys for an errand in town, food, a ride, and even the clothes off their back.

One particular episode I recall fondly happened right here in Truckee. I’d been traveling for a time with two other hikers, Anita and Farmboy, and Anita was in desperate need of new shoes. We were within a mile or two of Old Highway 40 on Donner Summit when
we met some day hikers heading south. We solicited their advice on stores in town where Anita might find shoes, and after a short conversation they offered us use of their car which was parked at the trailhead. We could barely believe our good fortune! While our patrons spent their day on the trail, we enjoyed the freedom of cruising around Truckee shopping for shoes, doing laundry, and indulging in high-calorie food. It was by no means the only example of excessive hospitality on the trail, and all who are so generous are known collectively by thru-hikers as “trail angels.” It’s an apt name, to be sure.

An icon of the trail back in the 90’s, Jack Fair had a house right on the PCT where it left the San Gabriel Mountains and began its long, dry trek across the Mojave. It was a required water stop, and it was obvious that Jack loved the caravan of thru-hikers that arrived e
very summer. He was what one might describe as your stereotypical crazy old war vet who moved out to the desert to get away from society, but he was kind-hearted and let us camp in his yard and shower with his hose. He served us lemonade in his living room while sharing his poetry and gave us all the water we could carry for the impending desert footslog.

During my trip down South this year for the Leona Divide 50, I made a visit to Jack’s old house. Sadly, Jack had committed suicide several years back, but the new owner was equally welcoming and happy to share his own story. He’d purchased the property without knowledge of the hiker-train that would eventually trample through it, and had at first resisted when a group of smelly backpackers showed up that spring. After recognizing a futile struggle, he embraced the hiker culture by transforming his property into a desert haven for the travele
rs known as “Hikertown.” It was a thing to behold, with cabins all over the yard decorated as an old west town, a huge kitchen exclusively for hiker use, bikes for hikers to borrow, cars in which they could drive to town, a hot tub, showers. All of this, of course, was free of charge to the hikers. Unbelievable, really.

Whenever the world seems like a dark place full of hatred, I remind myself of all the people I’ve encountered in life who so willingly helped and gave things to a perfect stranger. Even though our world is far from perfect, I really think there is hope for the human race.

With Farmboy at Crater Lake. The spoon around my neck became a necessity - I needed it accessible because I was eating so frequently!


When asked about my favorite section of trail, I can’t help but talk about the John Muir Trail through the High Sierra. It had not only the most breathtaking scenery, but also some of the biggest challenges. Navigating over snow-covered passes was completely new to me, and it turned my 25-mile-a-day pace into 11-miles-a-day, and even then only if I hiked for a full 14 hours. It was exhausting. And traversing their steep slopes, on self-belay with my ice axe, kept me at the height of anxiety until I was safely descending the other side. The river crossings gave me nightmares, and to this day I feel like I just can’t convey to people how frightening and dangerous they really were. But through all of it, I was surrounded by intense beauty. It is this combination of fear and beauty that makes that section of trail so vivid for me. Being in those places, bringing myself to those physical and mental limits, that is when I feel most alive in this world. Is it any wonder that I chose to make my home in the Sierra Nevada?

Ascending Forrester Pass. The gaiters and ice axe may look like overkill in this picture, but trust me, they were highly necessary over those high passes.

These days, I can pour over a map of the PCT and see a lifetime of memories. I see not only my thru-hiking memories, but also the many family and friends who helped me throughout that trip – people in San Diego, Idylwild, Orange County, L.A., Portland, and Seattle. I think of other backpacking trips on parts of the trail, races I’ve run like Leona and Waldo. I feel completely unsurprised that for the last ten years I have lived within seven miles of the PCT, and that for three years I taught at a school that sits literally right on the trail at Donner Summit.

Every summer I run for miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, seeking out new challenges and creating new memories. And every year, when thru-hiker season rolls around, I’m thrilled to offer dirty, smelly kids rides into town and home-cooked meals.


  1. Eloquent post! I did the CA section of the PCT last summer and got so giddy when I saw the Leona Divide sign right on the trail. I am planning on heading out next summer to tackle the whole thing.

    Love reading your blog.

  2. I am going to bookmark this post.
    My 15yo son and I are planning on doing John Muir Trail next summer. It promises to be a wonderful adventure. And maybe one day we'll gather enough courage to do the entire PCT.

  3. Rebecca - Awesome! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Be sure to get in touch before you head out next year and I can play trail angel when you hit Donner Pass. :) Good luck!

    Ewa - You will love the JMT! I suggest going early season, as you won't see nearly as many people, but of course it's also snowier and the creeks are running higher. Anyway, I'd love to hear about your planning, and of course, the trip after it's done!

  4. It is adventures like the epic ones you write about, including this one, that make you the Gretchen we all love.

    When we were just getting to know each other and I learned that you'd hiked the PCT, I thought to myself, "Well, that explains it."

    You carry a certain air of independence and a can-do-everything attitude. I think you got these character traits maybe in the aftermath of that one really hot day in the desert when you realized that it was up to you to make things happen, and you had done so.

    Awesome post!

  5. You know I adore everything you post, but every once in a while you really outdo yourself. I think it's safe to say you just established a new high water mark. Great writing.

  6. Very well put. The challenges of distance hiking (PCT class of 2005) put my first 100m at Western States this year well in perspective.

  7. Meghan - What can I say but "thanks"? And yes, I largely agree about the significance of that day in the San Felipe Hills. That's why I chose that particular quote, about certain moments around which your life pivots, to start that part. :)

    Stacy - You know what I love even more than being called a badass? Being called a great writer, especially by people whom I consider to be excellent writers themselves. Thank you!

    Craig - Ah, so you really know what I mean when I say long distance backpacking is perfect training for ultrarunning! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  8. This was amazing. I have to agree with Stacy - this is probably the best piece I can ever remember you writing. And the bar was pretty high to begin with.

    As compelling as this is for me, I'm 99% certain I'll be one of those "It's not a priority" people for perhaps the rest of my life. Thank goodness I know people like you who can provide just a glimpse of how awesome such an experience can be.

  9. Hi Gretchen.
    Fiddlehead here.
    Excellent read. And memories.
    Was hoping to hear a "do-badder" story or two in there, but that's ok.
    Always glad to hear you're still running. I'm trying but down to 1/2 marathons for now. I need another thru-hike to get me back in peak condition.
    My son is 5 now and takes a lot of my spare time. But, i see another thru-hike in my future someday.
    Good luck in your races. You know my brother "bulldog" lives in Tahoe.

  10. As physically taxing as this was, I think what made this adventure (and the others like it) truly epic was the amount of insight you gained from experience - something no book or blog can really provide. This made me want to become more of a minimalist. Great, great post, Gretchen.

  11. Donald - What I said to Stacy goes for you too. Thank you! And you're saying there's actually 1% chance you would ever do this??? I'm going to keep that in mind you know.

    Fiddlehead! - So glad you read this! I know, I could have put in a whole chapter on the Do-Badders, right? I will say that I stopped at Burney Falls State Park on a road tip this summer and all I could think about was how we all camped there and had such a great party. Very fond memories indeed. I also had a whole chapter I wanted to write about the "Yogi" but I guess it will all have to wait for another post.
    Let me know if/when you ever put together another thru-hike.

    Anne - Thank you! Yeah, I think the insight gained is the main selection criteria for what trips I am choosing to include in this "epic adventures" series. And becoming a minimalist is such a great thing, but so hard to do while living in society. Pretty easy to do out on the trail though!

  12. Yes Gretchen you are an amazing writer. You know.....I think I have an idea for another adventure....

  13. Thanks, Jamie. Another adventure? I'm all ears! :)

  14. This was a fantastic read, many thanks.

  15. You're welcome, John! Thanks for reading!

  16. Man, it took me way too long to make the time to read through this, and it was totally worth it! :) What a fantastic read. I can't imagine taking on such a tremendous task, and doing so alone. Wow...that's all I can say right now!

  17. Paige - Thanks! Gald you stuck around for the long read! ;)

  18. I am only half-way through (what's up with this busy work stuff?), but man, these life lessons are priceless! And to get them out of one through-hike? Took me years of running head into the wall! I am in love with this piece, you are going to publish a book, right? And hiking the PCT is one of the goals of mine, once I get the last kid out of the house:)

  19. Gretchen, I had been saving this to read when I had a few quiet moments to really pay attention. I cannot believe you did this all by yourself. That alone is amazing to me. Sure, you met people along the way -- wonderful, life-giving people from the sound of it -- but you didn't know any of that when you started out. That's my take away lesson: Just put yourself out there, and good things often happen.

    I hope to do something like this in my Golden Years. I'll be the Old Bat doddering my way along the trail!

  20. Olga - Oh, a book ... yeah, maybe. Eventually. ;) Thanks for the encouragement.

    Pam - So glad you had a chance to read this! Definitely I believe you will be doddering down the trail one day. I hope I will be, too!

  21. I volunteer with your mother at the Bowers Museum and she told me about your blog. My husband and I have hiked various parts of the PCT and your account of the trip really brought back memories of our backpacking adventures. Thank you for sharing your story in such an entertaining and well written manner. You really should write a book!

  22. I'm super awed that you did this at such a young age and alone. Maybe I can do it too