A couple of weeks ago I was enjoying the peace and solitude of my favorite campsite along the Pacific Crest Trail near Dunsmuir, a leafy creekside oasis just 8 miles from my front door. It was early in the morning, and I was startled by the cheerful greeting of a young fellow in shorts loping down the trail.
He was, as it turned out, one of the first through-hikers of the season. In late April, Ryan Nemecek had started out from the Mexico border on the 2,650-mile hike to Canada. He had jumped to the head of the pack by skipping the snows in the Sierra, but is planning to come back and finish that section before the season is over.
Nemecek is one of the first making the journey this year. Record numbers of PCT hikers are expected to head out on the trail this year, many of them inspired by the movie that chronicles one woman’s adventures and misadventures on the PCT. The movie “Wild,” and Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling book of the same title, is a kind of primer on what not to do if you’re going to hike the trail – like cramming everything but the kitchen sink into an overloaded pack.
Concerned about the expected deluge of hikers, the U.S. Forest Service is limiting permits for through-hikers to 50 per day from the Mexico border to help spread out hikers more evenly along the route. On its website, the Pacific Crest Trail Association is encouraging novice hikers to consider day hikes rather than attempting all 2,650 miles this summer.
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It’s certainly possible to get in over your head out there. There are rattlesnakes and other unfriendly creatures. There are the dangers of frostbite and dehydration. But as far as I’m concerned, anything that gets people hiking outdoors is good. If hiking the PCT is the hip thing to do this summer, so much the better. “Wild” is an excellent antidote to the car commercials, the video games, all the baggage of our sedentary society.
If you are among those who venture out on the PCT this season, you’ll be inspired not only by the spectacular scenery but by the people you’ll meet on the trail. You’ll encounter those Canada-or-bust hikers, the Type A folks of the outdoors, most of them 20- or 30-somethings. I spent a little time with them last year during their brief rest periods at campsites, and I came out with a greater appreciation of this coming generation.
I watched them walk into camp at dusk and walk out early the next morning, ready to do another 30 miles. At night, to save time and energy, they just threw down a ground cover and crawled into their sleeping bags. They shrugged off blisters and bone-deep fatigue, and stayed true to a simple motto: “All you gotta do is keep walking.”
“Oregon is burning,” said one young hiker, at the same time shrugging off the prospect of wildfires as just another part of the adventure.
It’s an adventure that can be enjoyed by young and old. I still have an image in my mind of the 60-something lady I encountered last year. She was halfway on her trek to Canada and still full of enthusiasm and energy. I also had to respect the grit of the young woman perched on a boulder on the trail near Castle Crags State Park. She was having a Cheryl Strayed experience, overwhelmed and exhausted by the rigors of the journey, but still determined to do her 30 miles a day.
If you’re one of this season’s novice hikers, you’ll be getting out of your comfort zone. But you may discover, if you stay with it, that your comfort zone will expand beyond the soft chair in the living room to a seat on a log, at a quiet campsite next to a creek.
Tim Holt is the editor of the quarterly North State Review.