On my 452-mile hike on Oregon’s stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011, it dawned on me just short of Summit Lake: in the 60 miles and four days since leaving Crater Lake National Park, I hadn’t seen a single other hiker. I liked that about hiking Oregon’s PCT: the lack of people. But even if it sounds like a Mt. Hood-sized contradiction, what I also liked was, well, the people.
At 57, I had decided to attempt the trip for a handful of reasons, among them reconnecting to a now-gone father with whom I’d spent time in these woods; stumbling across a rare and relatively unknown journal by Judge John Waldo, the “father of Oregon’s wilderness,” who had explored this stretch more than a century before me; and a thru-hiker, Laura Buhl, whom I’d met on Labor Day weekend 1999 after I’d summited a nub called Little Belknap Crater in lava-thick Central Oregon.
Buhl was hitting the 2,000-mile mark of her Mexico-to-Canada trip on this day and, as a newspaper columnist at The Register-Guard, I was anxious to tell her story when she returned to Eugene, where she was a student at the University of Oregon.
She made it. I wrote the column. And was forever smitten by the idea of the PCT.
Twelve years later, when I had finished a trip full of blisters and bittersweetness, I understood, for the first time, the allure of the long-distance trail.
I liked the ability to all but totally unplug from the world. “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness,” said naturalist John Muir. “All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”
In a PCT crossing of Oregon, you cross only half a dozen paved roads, no towns and only two geographic features that draw more than a few campers and fishermen: Crater Lake and Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood. Of 26 nights on the trail, we camped within eyesight of other human beings only nine times.
At 7,000 feet, on the west flank of Luther Mountain, we reached one of the highest points of the trip. What impressed me, besides a sprinkling of red, purple and yellow wildflowers, was the sheer bigness of the land beyond: Massive mountains splashed with sheer walls of shale, craggy peaks here and there, rolling buttes of timber speckled with white-bleached snags that may have watched silently as the Waldo party jostled down the spine in 1888. Geographic features that we’d never heard of and were small potatoes compared to, say, Mt. Thielsen or the Three Sisters, and yet scattered 360 degrees around us in a display so large as to humble me, a mere ant amid God’s sprawling grandeur.
In the quiet of the trail in south Central Oregon, I could rewind to boyhood days when my father and I had tried to find — unsuccessfully, it turned out — Comma Lake, only five miles from the PCT. I thought back to the 10-year anniversary of his death, going back by myself, finding that lake — me, a journalist, literally in my element, punctuationally speaking — and leaving a small rock monument in his honor. Finally, Dad, we found it.
The aloneness brought another virtue: heightened self-reliance. Having to find fixes for too-small boots (cut holes in the sides and wrap with duct tape), busted sun glasses (twig and duct tape) and a partner who became ill just two days from the Oregon-Washington border and the end of our trip.
So, yeah, I liked the aloneness. But, also, the not-being-alone. No sooner had we hit the trail at the Oregon-California border in late July than we saw Ben and Kate, hikers from Australia who had already put in 1703 miles. (I’d done 30 feet and already had a hot spot.) In 2011, no thru-hikers from Mexico would get to Canada before this couple.
Though they were seasoned (and smelly) vets and we mere rookies, they welcomed us to the trail, offered encouragement and inspired us. (Ben would buy a Foster’s Ale and, 10 miles into a stretch, leave it on a stump with a note to enjoy it and pay it forward.)
Cisco and Roadrunner, a couple from the San Francisco area, saved our trip. The year 2011 was a near-record snowfall in the Sierras and California. Their experience of staying on the trail in the snow — and willingness to help lead us — was invaluable. (We still correspond.)
A fishing guide, Mike Jones, patched my boots at Odell Lake. I still trade e-mails with a hiker from Japan, Natsuki “Mij” Tsuboi, of Japan, whom we met at Timberline Lodge. And how can I forget the night we welcomed a couple from Israel — “Bugs” and “Bunny” — to our campsite at the base of Mt. Jefferson? It was the first time I’d ever drifted to sleep while snug in a small tent high in the Cascades, listening to a fireside conversation spoken in Hebrew.
Of the 57 hikers we saw, nine were from foreign countries and 38 from other states. Among them, the Colorado Boys, one of whom, when I asked for my customary bit of advice, said “Ten by 10.”
“We shoot for 10 miles by 10 a.m.,” he said.
I turned to my hiking partner, Glenn, a year older than my 57. “How ‘bout we just be the ‘two by fours?’” I said.
That was on Day One. But after two dozen days on the trail, Glenn and I became the “10 by 10s,” too.
The trail, you see, becomes your trainer. Your teacher. It leaves you differently than it found you.
Sometimes, because of those you meet along the way. And, sometimes, because of those you don’t.
About Bob Welch
Bob Welch is the general columnist at The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., and the author of 15 books. Among them: Cascade Summer: My Adventure on Oregon’s Pacific Crest Trail, available in soft cover and as an e-book on amazon.com: (http://amzn.to/XSjfxt.) Welch offers his inspiration in talks across the country. He also is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Oregon and founder of the Beachside Writers Workshop on the Oregon Coast. See: www.bobwelch.net. Follow on Twitter: @bob_welch