Last September, Andrew Tavalero was within days of completing his six-month hike of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail when he stopped in a remote Washington town.
Tavalero, 22, struck up a conversation with some other hikers, who told him his Siskiyou County hometown of Weed had been hit with a devastating wildfire. A phone call to his mother confirmed that the blaze had destroyed his family home.
“I remember standing on the side of this road thinking, ‘I could hitchhike home now; I could get a bus ticket,’ ” Tavalero said. “I sat there for 10 minutes and thought, ‘I’ve come this far and I’m going to quit 50 miles from the Canadian border?’
“There’s no way I’m going to quit. You get that kind of attitude, that I’m going to crawl to the finish line if I have to.”
Tavalero made it, and is listed on the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s “2,600-miler list” as one of 3,430 people who have successfully completed the trek between the Mexican and Canadian borders along the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, most of it through wilderness areas.
In recent weeks, as many as 1,500 other people began the arduous journey to add their names to that list.
Most will drop out or postpone finishing until another year.
But hundreds likely will finish. The number of people trekking the PCT has grown steadily for years as the Internet and, more recently, the book and film “Wild,” about author Cheryl Strayed’s experience on the trail, have stoked interest.
In December, as the Academy Award-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon was hitting theaters in the United States, the long-distance hiking page at the association’s website logged more than 15,000 visitors, a 340 percent increase from the previous year.
“The trail received a large amount of attention, and is deservedly famous,” said Jack Haskel, trail information specialist for the association, which maintains its headquarters in Sacramento.
“The PCT just gets more popular. Nowadays, it’s at least in large part the effect of the Internet – everybody’s sharing their stories about how they love the PCT. And it’s also ‘Wild.’ ”
The direct impact of the film has yet to be seen, because the season is just now starting for many people planning to tackle the challenge.
But usage of the trail has been growing steadily for years, both from people out for a day of recreation and “thru-hikers” hoping to complete the entire trail.
The result has been a renewed focus on maintaining the trail as more and more people use it, and on warning would-be hikers that California’s years-long drought is having a serious impact on portions of the trail, from reduced water availability in remote areas to increased forest fire danger.
“Last year, because of the drought, we were seeing creeks that would normally have water be completely dry in places that surprise us,” Haskel said. “So when I was out backpacking south of Yosemite, I was startled by seeing some of the creeks dry.
“So backpackers and PCT hikers this year will need to pay close attention and look at their maps and plan to get water from lakes and larger drainages.”
The latest reminder of that came May 4, when the California Highway Patrol dispatched a helicopter to rescue an 18-year-old Arizona man who had activated an emergency beacon after he became lost hiking the trail in Alpine County and feared he would run out of water.
The hiker, who was 12 hours into his effort, was not hurt, and the CHP later concluded he “did not have a GPS or adequate supplies” for his trip.
He was hardly the first backpacker to start off without being fully prepared, although experts say it is much easier these days to find proper supplies, maps and tips on how to tackle the trail.
“Some people don’t know what they’re getting into,” Tavalero said. “The trail is very popular but, once again, it is a trail, and you do walk through nowhere, where you are your only resource.
“It’s a skill lost on society today, where you’re your only resource and you have to improvise. If I get to a trail and I’m out of water, I could sit there and wait for a helicopter, or I could pick myself up and walk the five more miles to the water.”
The trail association’s Haskel said the drought could result in some stretches of the trail being without water for up to 25 miles, and that hikers need to be prepared for such hardships. The enhanced fire danger because of the drought also will likely lead to part of the trail being closed this year because of wildland fires, and is likely to lead to limits on campfires in many areas.
These sorts of difficulties have not deterred trail enthusiasts.
Last year, 1,468 thru-hiker permits were issued, and a record 425 people reported finishing the 2,650-mile hike, including some who had done it over years in sections.
In 2013, there were 1,042 thru-hiker permits issued, with 258 completions reported, a number that might have been depressed by early snowfall that year.
1,468 number of long-distance hiking permits issued for the PCT last year
425 number of people who reported completing the 2,650-mile trail last year
3,430number of people listed as having completed the entire trail
Interest in using the trail has increased to the point that the association has imposed a limit on how many permits may be issued for departures each day from the Mexican border starting point. Only 50 people can get a permit for each day to limit damage to the ecosystem and offer a less crowded experience.
“In 2014, 113 people asked to begin PCT trips at the southern terminus on April 1,” the association’s website notes. “But the day before that, only eight people wanted to leave the border, and on the day after 13 wanted to start.”
The overall number of people who use the trail is impossible to calculate because most take shorter hikes that don’t require permits.
“I don’t even know if I should be talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of PCT users,” Haskel said.
Most are like Matt Carter, a day hiker walking last week in the Desolation Wilderness near where the PCT passes along Echo Summit off Highway 50 above Placerville.
Carter, a 35-year-old Salt Lake City resident who has spent the last five summers as a river guide on the south and middle forks of the American River, was out with three friends and two dogs hiking near Horsetail Falls.
None of them had heard of “Wild,” neither the book nor the movie, but Carter said he had made several hikes in the area simply because of its natural beauty.
“We met them up in Tahoe and hiked around Emerald Bay, and on the way here we stopped to see this cool waterfall,” said Carter, who added that he is a professional snowboarder during the winter. “It’s one of the coolest things you see when you’re coming down from Tahoe.”
Tavalero said that during his trip last year he ran into numerous people who talked of reading Strayed’s book, including one woman who said she was on the trek because of it.
“You always meet people who read ‘Wild,’ ” he said. “Everyone knew about ‘Wild,’ and it’s funny because no one can remember the name of the book. It’s always ‘that book.’ ”
Tavalero had outdoor experience but not any long-distance backpacking before he began, and he ended up losing about 75 pounds off the 245-pound frame he began with.
He cautioned that anyone using the trail needs to be prepared before starting out.
“Do your research first; talk to people,” he said. “Don’t just go into REI and ask for the thru-hiker setup and walk out after spending $5,000. It doesn’t work that way.
“Do a little more than reading the book and thinking you can do that. … I ran into a lot of people who I didn’t think were prepared. But I never ran into anyone who I thought, ‘This person’s going to kill themselves.’”