My Accidental Thru-hike
I wasn't planning to thru-hike in 2018 ... I just wanted to get out on trail and enjoy hiking the PCT. Over the course of five months, the miles just rolled by and pretty soon I was within a few hundred miles of hiking the whole trail. At that point, finishing fever did set in, and I buckled down to complete the whole trail in 2018. It was strenuous, fun, and satisfying.
What I learned
A backpack, a good reason to get up every morning, and the beauty of nature were enough for me to be happy. Being able to text with my wife every night and a few home visits helped me from getting home sick.
I didn't need a house full of possessions, constant entertainment, or to be competitive with other hikers. I didn't need the "achievement" of a thru-hike, although I admit to feeling absurdly self-satisfied when I finished the whole trail. Luckily, I was surrounded by other people who also finished, and people who didn't hike the trail don't really care that much, which is just as well.
What I Found Extraordinary
- How incredibly beautiful many trail sections are, ranging from lush rain-soaked forests in Washington, to the stark and forbidding lava fields in Oregon, to the granite citadels in the Sierras. The pictures only give a faint hint at the soul-satisfying experience of being inside these beautiful landscapes. Every part of the trail has its own distinct character and beauty, and taken together they give a sense of the complexity and richness of the earth's ecosystems.
- That the PCT was created in the first place, and that it is maintained over the entire distance every year mostly by thousands of volunteers -- it's marvelous and remarkable.
- That our relatively soft, urban bodies can adapt quickly to the rigors of hiking 25 miles per day and so many people can physically get in the miles to finish the trail in a season.
- That so few people get seriously injured hiking the trail, despite many close calls, including many falls and scary water crossings.
- That it takes less than 20 pounds of gear to hike 2,661 miles, with most of the gear making the whole trip without repairs or replacements.
- That so few human conflicts on trail spin out of control, and that thousands of hikers manage to get along without the aid of any visible authority.
- That so many "trail angels" appear spontaneously to provide unexpected snacks, or to provide rides to hikers. Given the remoteness of the trail in places the rides make a huge difference.
What I Enjoyed the Most
To restrict myself to a few things: being in nature for so much time; pushing myself and finding my physical limits; and, the jaw-dropping beauty of so many places along the trail.
My Gnarliest Days
I had only a few really tough days. Here are the ones that I remember most vividly:
- Night hiking out of Hiker-Town with Shorts to get a jump on a waterless stretch of the Mojave. We stopped at sunset and were mesmerized by the display of colors over the desert. That day ended finally after 10 PM when we pitched on a dirt road, only to get up before daybreak the next day to beat the heat.
- Pushing miles to get over Dick's Pass southbound in the Desolation Wilderness before sunset. It was a race against time to make it over a large snowfield before it got too dark to make it to a campsite at Gilmore lake on the other side of the pass. While it was exhilarating, I would not have minded another 30 minutes of sunlight.
- Starting my hike up Mount Whitney by headlamp to beat the expected thunderstorms. I summited at 9:40 am and the thunderstorms started by 10:15 am as I was descending back down from the summit. Some other hikers turned back to avoid being hit by lightning. When I got back to the Crabtree Ranger Station camp, I just crawled into my tent and went to sleep.
- Stumping down 35 miles in a single day to Kennedy Meadows south because it was raining so hard that I couldn't face pitching my tent in the downpour. It finally was just misting when I pitched at 10:30 PM at the campground.
- Falling off a log crossing at Lemah Creek right into the water at 6 PM, banging my shin hard enough on a rock to make my leg swell up, and soaking my clothing just as the temperature was plummeting for the evening. I got a few hours of sleep that night but then packed up my camp at 2:30 AM and hit the trail a few minutes after 3 AM just to get warm again. In the afternoon I was able to dry everything out on a huge rock in the sun. It took a week before my leg no longer looked swollen.
- Walking southbound out of Castle Crags to the I-5 crossing under the cover of a heavy smoke cloud that dimmed the late afternoon sun into near darkness. I-5 was closed due to the nearby fire, and the trail that I had just hiked was closed the day that I hiked it. It was all a bit eerie.
Most of my days included incredible scenery, but nothing else dramatic. I would typically get up early enough to start hiking around first light, sometimes using my headlamp for just 10 to 15 minutes. At day's end, I would pitch my tent while it was still light, cook some dinner, and crawl into my tent for a well-earned rest. "Hiker midnight" is around 9 PM, and I was usually asleep by then.
The first 1,500 miles of the hike, I was mostly hiking around 20 to 24 miles per day. After getting through the Sierras, I was fit enough to hike longer days. In the last 1,100 miles I hiked 27 or 28 miles on 12 days, 29 or 30 miles on 8 days, and 31 or more miles on 4 days. These aren't extraordinary distances by thru-hiking standards, but they were long days for me. All of these days also involved thousands of feet of climbing.
I had about 12 days of rain to deal with, mostly in California as it turned out. A few of those rain days included grapple or hail, but I somehow avoided getting snowed on directly in 2018. The rest of the days were basically dry, which was great. We had a few days where it was below freezing in the morning, but that was rare. In the desert there were a few days that were especially hot, and then we just found some shade in the afternoon, and carried a lot of extra water.
My Trail Name: Lickity Split
I got my trail name in 2017 from a fun group of younger hikers. They noticed that I was always out of camp early and that I took short breaks. Basically, I like to be on trail and hiking, which is necessary for me anyway since I hike a little slower than most people. When I protested that I'm a slow hiker, Grim just laughed and said, "Yeah, in that way it's a reverse name. Like calling a really big dude 'Tiny.'" So, Lickity Split stuck, and I kind of like the rhythm of the name, and that it's a little anachronistic -- a bit like me.
Volunteering and Crowd Sourcing
During my 2017 hike I had met Pete Fish, a member of the Trail Gorillas, who take care of the southern-most 702 miles of trail. Pete recruited me to do trail scouting, mostly recording the location of downed trees, washouts, and other trail obstructions. I did this trail scouting for about 1,000 miles of trail in 2018, reporting the obstructions to the PCTA through John Shelton, another Trail Gorilla who was tech-savvy enough to convert my GPS readings into something more usable by trail crews.
For the rest of the trail I regularly sent in updates to the crowd-sourced water report that is maintained by DoubleTap and HalfMile.
For me, volunteering in this way made me feel more connected to the larger community of volunteers, and helped me to feel more connected to the trail itself.
A lot of long-distance hikers are drawn to doing other long trails like the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. At the moment I haven't been intrigued by either trail, but I'm sure I'll get interested in some type of hike by next season.
A More Detailed Review of my Hike
When I finished my 2017 PCT hike of 2,000 miles, I was happy, and was just thinking of finishing up the last 661 miles of the PCT in 2018 as a section hike. Then, in early October 2017, while my feet were still sore, the phone rang and my friend Lori asked what kind of PCT permit I would be getting for 2018. She was starting a thru hike and wanted someone to hike with, or at least to get started with. I agreed to start with her and probably to hike the whole desert section, but didn't intend to thru-hike the whole trail. So began my accidental thru-hike in 2018. As has often been said, a journey of 2,661 miles begins with a single phone call.
Lori and I got thru-hiking permits and started on April 2, 2018. We had great weather, cool and mostly dry. Around Lake Morena, just 20 miles into the hike, we picked up three younger hikers who had the unexpected idea that hanging out with Lori and me would be a good way to start the trail. That made for a fun social group, and we stuck together until mile 209, at which point one of our group split off. Then after Big Bear, at mile 266, we stopped trying to hike as a group, although we did stay loosely in touch. Lori had been experiencing a worsening pain in one of her heels, and at Big Bear decided to take some time off trail to recover. That was the last time I would hike with her in 2018, although we didn't realize that her recovery would be so slow until much later.
So, I just continued up the trail on my own, chatting with other hikers along the way at water stops and camps, forming a few trail friendships, and texting every night with my wife using an InReach satellite communicator. Hiking the desert section, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it even more the second time around. There was less stress, and I could appreciate the nuances of the trail more fully, a bit like re-reading a book. I reached Kennedy Meadows south on May 18th, and needed to decide what to do next. Even though 2018 was a low snow year, it was still too early to go up into the Sierras safely, especially with a storm coming, and with my arthritic knees, so I decided to take a home visit in Richmond, California.
I arranged a ride to Inyokern with Bob from Grumpy Bear's, and Lori generously drove up to Inyokern from Barstow, giving us a chance to catch up, then dropped me at the Barstow Amtrak Station, and from there I got connecting service directly to Richmond. My wife Christine was travelling on the east coast, but I still made good use of the home visit, creating resupply boxes for the 796 mile hike south from Dunsmuir to Kennedy Meadows, during which I would pick up most of the miles that I had missed from 2017. I also got to take both my daughters for birthday dinners, as they each have a June birthday that I would miss. Taking an Amtrak up to Dunsmuir gave me a chance to start my onward hike on May 25th at a low enough elevation that snow would not be a problem, and this also proved a fortunate choice since that section was later closed due to wildfires (aka forest fires). My one small miscalculation was that on May 25th it rained steadily most of the day, so it wasn't the ideal day to get back on trail, but it wasn't a big issue since the next day was sunny by the afternoon.
On June 10th I had reached Donner Pass, which is right on I80, an easy drive from Richmond, and since Christine was now back from her own travel, she picked me up for a few days at home. We had a nice home visit, and another birthday celebration for the June birthdays. This was the first time that I really started thinking about doing the entire trail in 2018. Christine said that it would be OK from her perspective, so I put together a rough plan for hiking the last 1,100 miles of trail, although I still needed to hike south from Donner Pass to Kennedy Meadows before I would be ready to start in on it.
Christine drove me back to Donner Pass on June 14th, and I continued south. The hike through the Sierras was both beautiful and physically demanding, with big climbs most days, and both hiking and camping at higher elevations than anywhere else on the trail. In this section I also carried a heavier pack, a bear canister, water crossing shoes, and trail spikes for snow, so my pack was extra heavy. Although I didn't really think about it at the time, going through the Sierras boosted my conditioning so much that the entire rest of the trail was physically easy by comparison.
I finally made it down to the Kennedy Meadows campground on July 11th, having hiked until 10:30 PM the last day due to an unrelenting rainstorm that made pitching a tent unappealing. Although it was tiring, I hiked 35 miles that day, which is still my longest day ever. With some good luck with hitches, I actually managed to get home to Richmond just 12 hours after reaching the paved road through Kennedy Meadows. Since I was now planning to hike the rest of the trail, I worked on resupply boxes along with visiting at home.
By this time, wildfires had started to affect access to the PCT, with closures in southern Oregon, which I would be hiking into if I started back on the trail at Dunsmuir. So, to avoid these fires, I got on trail 320 miles north of Dunsmuir at Crater Lake, and started hiking north toward Washington. Christine drove me to the trail on July 16th, and I was back on trail on the 17th. This was a good time to hike through northern Oregon, since we had good weather and only moderately irritating mosquitoes. By the time I was at Cascade Locks, it was a good time for a break, and I visited friends John and Mary in Portland briefly, getting off trail on July 29th and back on trail on July 31st.
By this point my conditioning was very good, so hiking Washington wasn't especially difficult, but it was sometimes hard to stay motivated due to heavy smoke from nearby forest fires that obscured many of the most dramatic views. There was a short fire detour due to the Miriam fire just before White Pass, but that wasn't problematic. When I reached Steven's Pass, Lori and her husband Bill plucked me off the trail for a zero day at their home, which was refreshing. There was a second fire detour just south of Stehekin, which again wasn't difficult to navigate, and was interesting for me since I got to see some different trail. Unfortunately, a third fire closure starting at Rainy Pass popped up just two days before I would get to Stehekin, and hikers were anything from upset to distraught, as this closure involved an "alternate" that had us hiking a shorter, less-scenic route than the PCT normally follows, and not being able to actually reach the Northern Terminus or enter Canada. It was a very second-class route, and many people, including me, were reluctant to hike it, especially with continuing smoky conditions. This alternate route also required special National Park Service permits, but the NPS had not yet sorted out how to issue these from Stehekin, so everyone that hiked it when I went through just did it without the required permits.
I put off a final decision by just hiking up to Rainy Pass then travelling back down to Crater Lake to pick up the 320 miles from Crater Lake to Dunsmuir, as the southern Oregon closures were now open again. To get back to Crater Lake I got a miracle hitch from Rainy Pass all the way to Marysville, near Seattle, took an Airporter Shuttle to SeaTac, flew to Medford, and then negotiated a ride to Crater Lake for $120 with a local taxi driver. I had originally planned to hitch to Crater Lake, but learned that "no one is going to Crater Lake due to the smoke." When I got there, it was pretty quiet. I got on trail and started hiking south, just a day after getting off at Rainy Pass.
The hike from Crater Lake to Dunsmuir was smoky on the first and last days, with mostly clear skies in between, and hardly a single mosquito. That made hiking southern Oregon a lot more enjoyable than during the peak thru-hiking season, and I enjoyed hiking that section even more than last year. As I mentioned earlier, the final day of this section was a bit eerie since I hiked down off of Castle Crags on September 5th to a crossing with I-5, which was silent due to a fire-related closure that started the day I reached the freeway. The trail section that I had just hiked was also now closed, but the closure wasn't posted until I was already on the trail, so I didn't know about it. I had expected to go home directly from Dunsmuir, but by this point the trail from Rainy Pass to Manning Park had opened back up, and I decided to hike that last trail section.
The I-5 closure stopped the Amtrak, local bus service, and Greyhound service so I was ostensibly on foot. Still, by getting a hitch to Weed and some luck finding a more informal bus ride to Portland, then a Bolt bus on to Seattle, I was able to get out of the fire zone and nearer to Rainy Pass. A ride from friends in Seattle plus three hitches had me at Rainy Pass, and I got back on trail on September 8th.
The last trail section was now clear of smoke and stunningly beautiful. Hiking this last section was the perfect way to finish my 2018 hike. Well to be more exact, it would have been absolutely perfect if it didn't rain so much, but who's sweating the details? I reached the Northern Terminus on September 10th in the early evening, and camped just over the border in Canada. One day before reaching Manning Park, I met Bomber, another hiker who was finishing the PCT, and he offered to give me a ride to Bellingham, WA from Manning Park the day after we would arrive on September 11th. That was a big help in getting home, and I was able to get an Airporter Shuttle from Bellingham, then a flight to Oakland on September 12th.
My section-by-section blog posts have a lot more detail about the hike, as well as links to all the pictures that I took along the way. Please let me know if you have any questions.