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Book Review: Chris Townsend’s Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles by Chris Townsend
Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles by Chris Townsend

Eleven thru-hikers completed the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1982, and Chris Townsend was one of them. Inspired by the writings of John Muir and Colin Fletcher, Chris journeyed from the United Kingdom to experience the American wilderness, hiking through desert, forest, and mountain ranges on an epic 2600 mile journey from Mexico to Canada.

While hiking the PCT then was somewhat wilder and less popular than it is today. the 2,600 mile trail provides a gateway to an immersive wilderness experience for those that brave its vastness. Chris’ awe of the landscape was profound and helped cement his lifelong passion as an advocate and defender of wilderness areas around the world.

Three Sisters
Three Sisters

Chris was already an accomplished hiker and mountaineer when he set out to hike the PCT. At the ripe old age of 32, he’d already hiked the UK’s longest hike, a LEJOG (Lands End to John O’Groats), a 1250 mile cross-country journey from the country’s southern tip at Land’s End to its northernmost point at John O’Groats. Skilled in navigation and mountaineering, he was an asset to the hiking partners he hooked up with in the snowbound High Sierras, named Dave, Scott, and Larry, before trail names had become commonplace on the PCT.

Hauling over 100 pounds of gear, food, and photography equipment, Chris describes the physical and emotional struggles he faced hiking the PCT, and how the camaraderie of his hiking friends and their joint quest kept him going. This was an era before lightweight gear, when gas stoves, tents, and external frame packs were the norm and when hikers had to find their own water sources on the PCT, rather than relying on trail angels.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake

Many other English and Scottish hikers have since come to the United States to experience the wilderness that we as Americans often take for granted. We have a unique legacy, protected by our National Parks and Wilderness Areas, that many other countries don’t enjoy. You almost need to read Chris’ account, as seen through the eyes or a foreign visitor, to appreciate the beauty of the PCT and the importance of preserving the wild lands it connects.

While Chris’ narrative of his journey and the hardships he overcame is mesmerizing, the photos included in Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles are equally breathtaking and add to the beauty of this work. Taken with actual film, Chris was forced to ration the number of photos he took during his hike because he carried cameras, lenses, and film, and had to make each exposure count.

Although I’ve read many PCT accounts over the years, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles is the first that’s ever inspired me to consider hiking the PCT, not even the works of John Muir or Colin Fletcher. Thank you Chris for that.

Other Recommended Books by Chris Townsend:

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  1. After the AT, the PCT is on my to-do list. I’m reading Bill Walker’s (Skywalker) account of his journey on the PCT. His writing style is easy to read and he admits to his lack of navigational skills and fear of bears. There are some beautiful trails in California. Of course, one may want to wait until the drought is over.

  2. For an interesting look at every mile on the PCT you may want to check out this video made by Andy Davidhazy (the son of one of my college professors) – 4 minute of fun!

  3. Tracey D'Imperio Lasslett

    I have several of Chris Townsend’s books. The books are truly from a real hikers perspective painted in true colors. I have learned a lot in the process to take with me on my hiking treks.

  4. Since Colin Died Chris has been my replacement “Guru” for many years.. I saw his name written in a number of trail registers along the trail…Love his stuff…He walks the walk…and the talk….I highly recommend all of his Publications. Especailly for the Novice Hiker and for the experienced hiker as well….No Marketing Maggot fast talk or telling you $350 is a reasonable price…

  5. Despite all his years of hiking, Chris has the remarkable ability of making every walk he writes about seem fresh and unique. He sees the landscape with young eyes and experiences each of his days on the trail as if they were his first. That’s a gift and I like his style.

    To even contemplate undertaking this journey back in 1982 must have taken a lot of courage.

  6. Brendan McNally

    What an inspiring story! Hiking the PCT or at least the JMT is definitely a life-goal of mine.

  7. Just read this book in two days and purchased his books about the PNT and the AZT. This book was such a great read and rekindled my desire to get out to the JMT someday soon (maybe next summer?).

  8. Ronald Strickland

    Chris Townsend is the leading authority on backpacking. I first met him in 1978 at a lecture he gave in Seattle about his end-to-end trek of the Great Divide Trail in western Canada. And I have followed his career ever since. He is truly an outstanding member of our tribe!

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