Ballard and Walker: PCT Thru-Hikers
October 4, 2000
Still mile 0, and we're going nowhere fast.
My office is five blocks away. That means that to go there and back is a whole ten blocks. And I did all the walking at lunchthe juice bar must be at least three blocks from work. I have been told that twelve Philly blocks equal 1 mile, so I have reached the one-mile mark at about 6 p.m. today. Funny how back on the trail, we would have covered the same distance by 7 a.m. and would still have 308 blocks to go before day's end.
There's a stiff breeze rustling the leaves on the tree outside my apartment window. I had to get up to and stick my head out so I could feel the wind on my face. I even turned off the radio so I could hear it better. But then a SEPTA bus came barreling down the street and the magic was broken. I'm sure I'll get used to city life. I'm sure its hustle and bustle will thrill me again, but right now I can't help feeling like I don't belong here.
Looking at our bazillion pictures helps. Each one brings back a little trail moment that I'd forgotten and leads me down a path of memories. I have to laugh at all the photos from our first week out. We looked so pale and soft; no wonder Meadow Ed didn't think we'd make it.
Most of the time I'm pretty surprised we made it, too. Especially considering how green we were to the whole long-distance-hiking thing. Even after months of preparation, we were very unprepared and over-prepared at the same time.
First of all, we spent way too much time, energy, and money on food. All those resupply boxes filled with granola mixtures, Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs), Slim Jims, and cashews were overkill, especially in the Slim Jim, cashew, and granola departments. If I never eat another cashew, I'll be a happy woman. Each of our resupply boxes was just too full. We never went through 4 AA batteries and 3 AAA batteries in one week; a roll of toilet paper could last us a month, and the MREs were just too darn heavy to even carry out of town.
Our Mountain House freeze-dried meals were, however, tasty (especially the Chili Mac with Beef) and convenient, and our home-dried fruit (particularly the peaches) was always a treat. But, if I were to do it all over again, I'd probably cut the supplies in each of our boxes in half. Sure you need to eat a lot on the trail, but the shipping costs for all those heavy boxes were astronomicalsome of our boxes cost $50 to send from coast to coast. It was nice to get new batteries every once in a while, fresh mini-rolls of duct tape, little baggies of ibuprofen, and maybe a new razor or two, but the candy bars, cookies, peanuts, cereal, and Pop Tarts we could have just as easily bought in towns along the way.
Speaking of the towns along the way, their little general stores and mini-marts often contained enough variety to keep us very happy. If you're not too picky and can happily live on Snickers, Mac'n'Cheese, bagels, crackers, and peanut butter, you should be okay with a few resupply boxes containing primarily expensive and essential items like guidebook sections, batteries, film, and pain killers. We had 16 resupply boxes total, two of which we never received, and really, we probably could have gotten away with only sending boxes to a few select places such as Warner Springs, Timberline Lodge, and Stehekin.
Gear-wise, we did all right but constantly struggled to lighten our loads. Although we loved our tent, we probably could have done without it until we hit the High Sierra. Heck, many folks never had tents. When purchasing our gear we tried to pay attention to weight, but for economy's sake sometimes skimped and went for heavier items. In hindsight I would rather have paid a little extra for a lighter pack. We thought we were saving ourselves a lot of weight by carrying only one sleeping bag and a fleece blanket. But on cold nights we needed more clothing to keep us warm under our single bag. Had we had two bags from the start we could have perhaps ditched some of our cold weather clothes.
What I'd Bring
Although all told, I would have liked us to cut back on gear, there are a couple pieces I would add next time around. First, a cell phone. Okay, okay, I now many folks think carrying a cell phone is wimping out, but there were times it would have come in very handy. Such as the day near Snoqualamie Pass in Washington when we stood shivering in the rain on a freeway overpass trying to hitch a ride 10 miles up to the nearest motel. We couldn't have even walked the distance if we wanted to, since walking on the freeway is illegal and very dangerous, and there was a sign right next to us reminding us of this. We waited more than 2 hours before a trucker kindly offered us a ride. If we'd had a cell phone we might have been able to call the motel, or a taxi, or someone to come pick us upat that point we were more than willing to pay for the locomotion. One of the reasons we did not invest in a cell phone was we figured that the vast majority of the time we wouldn't be able to get any service. But the folks we saw with phones seemed to be doing okay. One fella, Summit Seeker, used his phone to call his wife from nearly every peak and claimed to get through 85% of the time. Besides, most often you'd only want to use the phone in or near town anyway.
They say "music soothes the savage beast," but I say it also soothes a savage mood while trudging beastly miles. Our little Sony AM/FM Walkmans worked wonders on morale and were nice and lightweight. But next time I might splurge for a lightweight tape player to listen to books-on-tape and my favorite adrenaline-pumping mixes. Crazy Legs and Catch-23 listened to A Walk in the Woods, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, and sundry other envy-inspiring epics as they hiked, while our little Canadian friend Daris included new mixes in each of her resupply boxes and sent the rest on ahead in a "drift" box for later.
With all the things I would change, there are of course some things I wouldn't. First of all, despite the weight, having a tent in the Sierra and ever-after was wonderful. A tent can ward off the cold and the bugs, not to mention all that rain in Washington. I was also really glad that we took it slow at the start of the trip. Our first day out we did 20 miles, but the second we only did 10 and then for a week or so after we averaged about 17 a day. By the end of the trip we could easily (okay, not really easily) pound out 30 miles a day, but we didn't push too hard in the beginning and I think that helped us remain injury-free.
Before we headed out last May, we did spend a few afternoons hiking around Philly with loaded packs, but we didn't waste too much time trying to get in hiking-specific shape. Others may disagree with us on this, but I kind of believe in baptism by fire. Sure, you have to be in decent shape before you get out there (Duffy and I could easily run 6 to 8 miles five times a week and did a fair amount of lifting), but unless you have 10 hours a day to hike, it's tough to really prepare your body for the struggle that's about to ensue. Be as strong as you can be, do some running, some stairclimbing and some lifting. If you plan on using trekking poles, I highly recommend cross-country skiing machines or elliptical trainers: They provide a better workout during the limited free time most thru-hiker-hopefuls have.
But more important than a fit body is a flexible mind. I've heard it said that anyone can physically hike the PCT; it's the mental stuff that gets in most folks' way. We were very determined but also not such die-hards that if we couldn't make our miles on a given day, or had to skip some miles in order to get to the border, we didn't beat ourselves up over it. The reality is "real" life can get in the way, forcing you to start your hike later than you'd like or to finish a little earlier than you wished. We had employment and education responsibilities to worry about, which forced us to skip a total of 300 trail miles. If you set out to hike every single step of the trail you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. Sure, plenty of people do it, but plenty don't. All you can do is "hike your own hike" and get as far as your two legs will carry you. The weather, the terrain, illness, and fatigue may get in your way, and preparing yourself for such setbacks is as important as preparing yourself for the fight against heat, bugs, rattlesnakes and an overload of cashews.
Those are some things I'd do differently, and some things I would do all over again. But mostly, I'm just glad I did it at all. When people ask me how our trip was, I beam and say "awesome" or "spectacular" or "wonderful" or "the best thing I've ever done with my life." And I mean it.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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