California Forum

High achievers trek the PCT, but where is everyone else?

The Pacific Crest Trail seems to be a playground of the achiever – the super-achiever, in the case of those hardy hikers who do the entire 2,650-mile length in one season.
The Pacific Crest Trail seems to be a playground of the achiever – the super-achiever, in the case of those hardy hikers who do the entire 2,650-mile length in one season. Sacramento Bee file

The Pacific Crest Trail, that gateway to the West Coast’s rugged natural beauty, is enjoyed almost exclusively by the gentry, the upper-middle class, the doctors and lawyers, the professors – and their sons and daughters.

Dressed in fashionable khaki, they look as though they’ve stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. Their faces shine with that healthy, well-scrubbed look that I associate with advanced degrees and six-figure salaries.

Where, I wonder, are the construction workers and the truck drivers? The black and brown people? What exclusionary force keeps them from hiking the PCT? I’m sure they’d enjoy the rugged natural beauty just as much as the doctors and lawyers.

The PCT is the playground of the achiever – the super-achiever, in the case of those hardy hikers who do the entire 2,650-mile length in one season, averaging 25 to 30 miles a day.

I met up with one of them last month, early in the season for this part of the trail. His trail name was “Dirty Hippie,” which was not an apt description: He was clean-cut and well-scrubbed for a through-hiker. He looked to be in his late 20s. He had started from the Mexico border in March and had already slogged through the snows in the Sierra. He looked with disdain on those, like “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed, who bypass the snow-covered sections of the PCT and often do only a portion of the trail.

Abraham, his real name, was moving at twice my pace when he passed me on the trail, but I caught up with him at my campsite for the night, just another rest stop for him. He looked at my heavy pack and abundance of gear wistfully, saying, “Some day I’m gonna come back and do this hike like you, the slow way, really enjoy the whole experience.”

He had taken a break, of sorts, the day before – to climb to the top of Mount Shasta.

I would have liked to talk to him some more, especially about his experience in the Sierra snows with minimal gear, but it was only midafternoon and he wanted to get in a few more miles before the sun set.

It’s inspiring, and a little daunting, to encounter hikers like Abraham. It does to some extent restore your faith in the younger generation, in their ability to accomplish a difficult task that requires self-discipline in the face of physical hardships: heat, cold, blisters, bone weariness. I have seen others like Abraham march into camp at dusk, throw a sleeping bag on the ground, get a few hours’ sleep and march right back out again at dawn.

But I think his assessment of Strayed and others like her, while understandable from his perspective, is just plain wrong. Anyone in this sedentary society who gets up off the couch, shoulders a backpack and gets out on the trail even for a few days has taken a big step away from the role of passive spectator. It can be an important step toward better health and a better quality of life. It should be celebrated, not denigrated.

Near the Castle Crags section of the Pacific Crest Trail there’s a place where you can diverge from the trail, climb a thousand feet to the top of a mountain ridge and look down on an alpine lake shimmering in the distance. If you direct your gaze upward, you will enjoy a breathtaking panorama that includes distant, snow-capped Mount Lassen, the more immediate presence of majestic Mount Shasta and the tall, rugged spires of Castle Crags.

It’s a sight you will never forget, and it’s always there, waiting, as a reward for any and all former couch potatoes.

Tim Holt is a writer, journalist, and avid hiker who lives in Dunsmuir. Contact him at timothyqholt@gmail.com.

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