Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker


August 22nd, 2015

Pacific Crest Trail, August 2015

One of the first things to strike you on the northernmost part of the PCT is a pervasive silence. The forests breathes, but the birds and squirrels generally don’t chatter (except in Canada; Canadian squirrels make a racket!). It’s like being in a pre-Internet library. Not to say there is no sound, just that it is generally a quiet rustle, definitely not a roar. One exception: an unidentified bird whose call exactly duplicates the single note sounded by the emergency whistle on the sternum strap of a backpack.

It’s never clear whether it’s movement or sound that signal snakes. Snake awareness is always synaesthetic– a full-body response. We only encountered the occasional garden variety, never hearing the electric rattle that stops all movement including the human heart. More often the rustle is a bird pecking at the ground, innumerable chipmunks, and the occasional sharp call of a pika (small round mammals related to rabbits who sound a sharp alarm before diving into their burrow).


Movement on the trail usually means marmots or grouse. Many hikers regard marmots and cute, almost cuddly animals, who fearlessly perch atop hills, surveying the slopes and the hikers passing by. To me, they are slightly cute grey groundhogs. Back home, I remember kids with 22 rifles going out to hunt groundhogs, and farmers who carried a 22 or a 310 shotgun on their tractors to eliminate the critters who were digging up their fields. Guess it’s an east coast/west coast thing. Other fearless beings on the trail are grouse–the size of chickens (well, almost). Most hikers know the rush of adrenaline when they scare up a covey — the sudden burst and beat of wings brings the unsuspecting hiker to a shocked, heart-pounding standstill (or the hunter to a frenzy of shotgun blasts). These grouse rarely flee, and barely make the effort to run away. Sometimes they just head down the trail in front of you, barely outpacing boots and trekking poles.


Bears lurk but do not often appear. Parks may require food canisters in parts of California, but the hikers on the Washington PCT don’t use them, nor do they hang. They just curl up in their tent, food bags and all. So the largest non-human creatures to grace the trail are deer. Also fearless and also desperate for salt, they act offended when you invade their area, particularly if it is a campsite. And if you are foolish enough to piss anywhere near camp, you can expect multiple loud visits in the night, with the deer munching carefully the moss, humus, and soil you recently marked.

By far, the most frequently encountered animals are human, falling into several categories: day hikers, trail runners, short section or weekend hikers, lashers (long ass section hikers), and the occasional thru hiker (in the case of the PCT, that would mean hiking from Mexico to Canada). Each species exhibit different behaviors. Short timers tend to be louder and overburdened with shiny new equipment (most of which they will not use). Long timers smell, travel light and fast, and demonstrate remarkable efficiency in setting up or breaking camp, eating lunch on the trail, or crapping in the woods. A typical PCT thru-hike is over five months, usually commencing around May 1, so we were in front of the main bubble, only meeting a few hardy, fast souls.

True long-distance hikes are not just weather but also seasonally dependent, which is why most people hike both the PCT and the Appalachian Trail northbound. As the title of his book indicates, Earl Shaffer (the first AT thru-hiker) hiked north “With the Spring.” But the PCT presents other obstacles to the would-be thru hiker as the mountain passes in California can still be snowed in well into the summer, and Washington can ice up even in September. And, as we learned, other unanticipated obstacles present including trail closures or rerouting because of fire. All that makes a pure thru hike of the PCT, what would be called a “white blaze” hike on the AT, difficult to accomplish. All but one of the thru hikers we met who finished in Canada, still planned to return south to finish miles skipped for any number of reasons.


The PCT hikers tend to be different from their AT cousins in some fundamental respects (even though there are clear exceptions). Perhaps because of the prior planning the great re-supply distances the PCT necessitates, most hikers are decidedly middle class, and tend to be well-outiftted. Benton Mackaye’s original proposal for the Appalachian Trail opens discussing labor, and quickly turns to the needs of all people for fresh air and some time away from urban factories. His was a decidedly egalitarian vision, turning the great outdoors into a place for all to use. The difficulty of access and resupply on the PCT creates an environmental niche that limits thru-hikers to the well- supplied, the well-heeled in all senses of the term.


T. Hugh Crawford