I will walk by myself
and cure myself
in the sunshine and the wind.Charles Reznikoff
Any of you who are thru hikers. . .or section hikers. . . or LASH’ers or just about anyone else who has thought about a trail and heard it calling. . .will know what it is like to wake up in the morning and hear that call, how it is impossible to get it out of one’s head, how going back to sleep does not help because it is still there when you awaken and will be there the next morning.
That happened for me with the Pacific Northwest Trail in the early seventies, shortly after I had learned of the proposal that this east/west route be included in the National Scenic Trails system. That system was itself something new in those days, but I was particularly intrigued by the route, for I had already hiked much of it in the Olympics and Pasayten Wilderness in the Cascades. The idea of extending the route to the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park was pretty exciting. I wrote to my Congressional representatives in the other Washington in support of the trail. In 1977 I followed the first thru hike made by Rex Bakel and Janet Garner in a backpacker’s magazine called Signpost, edited by trail pioneer and advocate, Louise Marshall.
My twin daughters were just a few months old that summer. I was hardly in a position to be taking off on a long hike and would not be for many years. In the meantime a feasibility study completed in 1980 concluded that creation of the trail was too costly to ever become a reality. I moved to Wyoming and began hiking in the Bighorns and Wind River Mountains near my new home. It would not be accurate to say that I forgot about the trail. It just was not on my mind much when I was surrounded in all directions by the Rocky Mountains, and I had new trails to explore every summer.
When I retired, my husband and I bought a home on the Olympic Peninsula, near Olympic National Park where I had hiked and camped every year as a child and later as a young woman. During that first summer of retirement I hiked extensively in those mountains, returning to trails I had explored forty years earlier. I was surprised then to open up my new National Geographic map and see the orange route making its way across the center: The Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail, complete with its own logo in yellow and black.
A few years earlier my daughter Leah and I had hiked south to north across Washington on the PCT. The hike had been difficult for me. I was too old and had been on quiet trails for too long to endure crowds of thru hikers with their endless chatter of base weight and daily mileage goals. I wanted simply to be on the trail in the way I had for so many years. To merely be present in a beautiful place was enough for me, but the distractions of that crowded trail made that impossible.
So it was that the call of another long trail held no particular appeal to me, but I nonetheless could not get it out of my mind, and on one of those mornings in January, while I lay in bed listening to the trail call my name, I knew I could not ignore it any longer.
There had been another issue with the PCT. My pack had been too heavy. I did not have fun, for I was toiling under the fifty pound weight I was carrying on my back. In that summer of extreme heat and drought, it became more of an ordeal than an adventure. For the first time in my adult life, I had to reinvent myself as a hiker. I had always been a hiker. This was not an easy task that I faced.
I began by purchasing a book I had read about in Backpacker magazine, Long Trails by Liz Thomas. The book sat on my desk for several weeks before I could bring myself to pick it up and read it. Of course, I knew everything there was to know about backpacking, for I had been doing it for sixty years. What could I possibly learn from a book?
Eventually I picked up the book and read it from beginning to end, including many sections that did not offer any new information to this weathered old backpacker. Once again it sat on my desk for a few more weeks, all the time the song of the PNT calling to me every morning when I awoke, impossible to ignore. I had to pick up the book again, only this time I read it page by page, sentence by sentence, marking advice I felt to be especially valuable and flagging the pages I would return to repeatedly. Though I still considered myself to be a knowledgeable and experienced backpacker at the time, I nevertheless was indebted to Liz Thomas and that great book, which became my Bible for the PNT, more important even than the PNT Digest.
I began with the gear section. One piece at a time, I replaced almost every item of backpacking equipment I owned, replacing my heavy pack with an ultra-lite version, substituting a sleeping quilt for my all season sleeping bag, a smaller stove for the larger one I had been carrying for several years. The only thing I did not replace was the green plastic cup I had been carrying since my early twenties and from which I had sipped countless cups of tea. I will never replace that cup. I acquired my trail name from it, and that ugly green plastic thing will forever remain a precious reminder of many mornings in camp (See On the Trail with Teacup, February 21st of this year).
Week after week, as I waited for the UPS drive to deliver yet another new item, I began my training. Once again I thought I had learned everything I needed to know from my previous hike on the PCT. For that trip I had actually hired a trainer. He led me through a series of strength training exercises, focusing primarily on my core and legs. That part of the training had been extremely helpful, but the cardio workout he recommended on the stairclimber may have helped my aerobic capacity but did nothing to toughen me up, which is what a long distance backpacker most needs.
Liz Thomas advised that we get ready for hiking by hiking, toughening our feet along the way. Foot problems, it turns out, are the main reason why thru hikers leave the trail. I was already a walker and lived in a place where I was only a few miles away from several parks with nice trails. I had been a daily walker since I retired, but now I was walking rain or shine and increasing my mileage every week so that by summer I was achieving five to ten miles a day.
By spring, when river valleys of the Olympic Mountains were free of snow, I added weekly overnights, carrying my full pack on every trip. I resolved that, no matter the weather, I would get out there, strengthening my resolve as well as my legs and feet. On one such hike on the Duckabush River, I drove through snow to park at the trailhead, made my way over Little Hump in about six inches of snow, then descended to the valley, where the snow had melted, and I hiked through six inches of slush. I made my camp that night on a bench above the river and rested dry and warm, though I recall that my feet remained wet and cold and putting on dry socks the next morning made no difference whatsoever, since I had to then put them into wet boots.
By June, a month before I was to start the hike, I was probably in the best shape I had ever been in, no small accomplishment since I was sixty-eight-years-old, and it had been exactly sixty years since I had gone on my first backpacking trip with my family. My pack was light, and my legs and feet were stronger, and I had built up a kind of inner strength that can only come from slogging through snow and slush.
So it was that I made my way from a snow covered river valley in the Olympics to the summit of the second highest peak in eastern Washington. I had started my hike in the northeastern corner of the state and planned to hike across the eastern part of my home state, an area that is foreign to most western Washingtonians, including myself. I spent that first night on Abercrombie Mountain thinking about the long journey that had come before this one, the one that had started in the early seventies with an article in Signpost, the one that had continued to call to me all these years. I thought about all the training and preparation I had done in the preceding months and how grateful I was that I was making my way across the Selkirks without any particular difficulty. I thought about that book, Long Hikes, and my gratitude to Liz Thomas for imparting knowledge about ultra-lite hiking that was new to me. It turns out that, despite sixty years on the trail, I did not know everything there was to know about hiking and backpacking. And hopefully I still have much more to learn.