Wanderer; your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more,
wanderer, there is no road,
the way is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind one sees the path
that never will be trod again.Antonio Macrado, Proverbias y cantares XXIX in Campos de Castilla
In 1968 when the Pacific Crest Trail was created with the signing of the National Trails System Act by Lyndon Johnson, I read with interest a National Geographic article that remains firmly imprinted in my memory to this day. On the cover of that issue were two backpackers wearing ponchos as they hiked through the rain toward a mountain pass in the High Sierras. So enthralling was that photo for me that even the rain seemed appealing. It was part of the adventure. I had just graduated from high school and completed the Wonderland Trail that summer. I could not know what lay ahead of me at that time in my life, but I was quite certain that I wanted adventure to be a regular part of it. I had completed my first long hike, a distance of over one hundred miles around Mt. Rainier, and I wanted more of that kind of life.
I therefore read with great interest the account published three years later of the first thru hike of the PCT, The High Adventure of Eric Ryback. Only it was not called thru hiking in those days. It was just a hike, a really long one. And Eric Ryback was just a hiker, a really tough one.
In 1971 there was no ultra-lite equipment, no Trail Angels, none of the amenities that make long distance hiking popular and achievable in these days. Nevertheless a small number of hikers followed literally in his footsteps, most starting at the southern terminus in early April and taking six months to complete the 2000 mile long trek.
I often imagined myself on such a journey, but that was as far as my long distance trek took me, a fantasy I entertained but did not seriously consider ever doing. I was twenty-one years old, still with a year of college to complete, and planning a rather conventional life with career, marriage, and a family at some point. I was spending a week or two every summer by then hiking with friends in the Cascades and Olympics, and the year before my senior year I planned and began a “section hike” of the PCT from south to north across my home state of Washington (see Confessions of a Wanderer, April 21st of last year). A record setting snow pack that year put an abrupt end to those plans, and my next attempt to complete that trek would not occur for another forty-four years.
By then I was retired, long periods of free time stretching before me. My husband and I bought a home on an island in Puget Sound, where I would sit by the picture window looking east and trace the route of the PCT along the crest of the Cascades. Over the preceding years I had hiked almost all of the Washington section and the southern half of the Oregon section. Now I had the time to put it all together. The PCT hike across Washington in 2015 was perhaps a test run. I was sixty-five years old, still convinced of my invincibility. There were other aging hikers out there making that long hike, some of them even completing the “Triple Crown,” completion of the Appalachian Trail, PCT, and the Continental Divide Trail. “Why not?” I asked myself. Here is how I answered that question.
The most obvious answer was simple enough. I was old. I had arthritis. And long treks with a heavy pack were simply not as much fun as they used to be. I found that taking extra time to recuperate at resupply points helped ease the strain on aching joints, but that extra time made the trip take longer, and if you are a thru hiker you are always in a hurry. Taking longer is not an option if you are going to achieve your goal.
Still, every hiker, including younger ones, must get used to aches and pains. It is part of the experience, and I had lots of that. The more punishing aspect of the PCT for me came from the crowds of hikers, all of them with a single minded intent, to get to the end of the trail in as little time as possible.
Being in a hurry was exactly the kind of thing I went into the mountains to escape. I had spent most of my adult life being in a hurry. . .getting my kids to school on time, getting to work on time, getting the infinite details of a crowded life to fit into some kind of cohesive whole. It was not an easy task for a single mom with a career. At sixty-five I had finally arrived at something called retirement. I had the luxury of not being in a hurry. It was not something to squander on some lofty goal at the end of a trail.
On the last day of a ten day trek in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming many years ago I took an unusually long lunch break, scrambling across a log jam at the outlet of a creek to find the perfect spot to eat some crackers and cheese. There I sat on a floating log, a lazy current passing just below me, and watched with great interest as a sprinkling of cracker crumbs fell into the water. The crumbs traced a path, turning backward on themselves and spiraling towards the center of something, what it was I cannot say, but at that moment it seemed like it was the most important thing I had to do. . .to learn about cracker crumbs in the lazy current. I cannot say how long I sat there, perhaps all afternoon, perhaps a lifetime.
Recently I came upon a word to describe that experience, ambedo, meaning a “kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory detail–which leads to a daunting awareness of the haunting fragility of life.” I do not recall feeling melancholic, but the fragility of life and its brevity certainly got my attention that day. The next day I would be back to work. I would be in a hurry again, a place to go in the morning, a long drive across the Big Horn Basin to the clinic where I would see patients all day, but at that moment I had nothing more important to do than to watch the crumbs making their snaking spiral in the gentle current.
I am grateful that I had a satisfying career. I am more grateful still that I have all day to study the crumbs in the current if that is what I feel like doing, never in a hurry, this goal and nothing else. . .to understand the center of things in the current of a stream.