My wife’s grandmother was a New York City librarian, so reading while visiting my in-laws is not viewed as an anti-social activity by a grumpy son-in-law forced to spend the weekend in their boiling hot coop apartment. In viewing the book jacket photos in my Kindle app, Bill Walker gazed out at me, so I decided to read his PCT hiking memoir, titled Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail. I couldn’t stop – and it provided a welcome escape from the volcanic heat and multi-generational chaos of my wife’s family reunion.
I’ve never taken the time to study up on the PCT but Skywalker’s descriptions of his fellow hikers and the route’s many challenges drew me in. Before this journey, Skywalker, so named because he stands 6′ 11″, had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, a territory and landscape that I have also hiked and can relate to. His comparison of these two thru-hikes and particularly the differences in terrain between east and west coast made Highs and Lows on the PCT very interesting for me.
For example, most people who hike the AT stick pretty close to the trail. It’s a well blazed groove from Georgia to Maine and you can pretty much hike its length without a compass or map.
The PCT is very different.
Strict adherence to a defined route is seemingly impossible because forest fires and seasonal snowfall redefine the exact route each year. The dates you can hike are hemmed in by desert heat in the south and bitter cold in the north, making the hiking calendar a greater obstacle than in the east. Finishing the entire route is much harder because you need to hike many more miles per day. Even so, it is possible to miss hundreds of miles and still complete a PCT thru-hike. Intention counts more.
Hiking skills matter. There are no trail shelters. You need to use a compass and map. You need an ice axe. The mountains, particularly hypothermia, can kill you. Resupply points are few and far between.
There is a huge amount of variation in the landscape. The views are stunning and wide-open.
The Critters on the PCT are meaner. Cougars stalk the smaller hikers and some areas have grizzly bears who will enter your tent in search of food. Rattlesnakes will nibble your ankles and giardia will liquefy your guts.
The only reason people can hike the southern deserts is because trail angels leave thousands of gallons of water out for hikers to resupply. The PCT would simply not exist without their generosity – it would be unhikable – or so it seems.
All these things seem to make the PCT a bigger adventure, with a capital ‘A’, than the AT. Adventure in the sense that you are hiking into a bigger, vaster, less familiar and civilized region than the Appalachian corridor.
Despite these differences, both the AT and the PCT are defined by the people you meet on such a journey. Skywalker excels at describing the the quirky characters who are drawn to hike the PCT, the lovers and spouses that support them, and the trail angels who look out for their well being.
Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail provides an excellent introduction to the nature of a PCT thru-hike and its unique western character. If you’re thinking about hiking the PCT someday or you love to read about the simple pleasures of hiking, Skywalker’s Highs and Lows provides a unique viewpoint you don’t want to miss.
Disclosure: The author paid for this book using his own funds.