PaCT – walking beyond the horizon

On this day, May 31, in 1996, I hiked up a snowy Mount Whitney with my hiking partner Pete. We were 767 miles into an attempt to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and had no inkling how much snow lay ahead of us in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was our first time wielding an ice axe. At the end of the day I said into my micro-cassette recorder:

And coming down from the mountain, it seemed like a beautiful and hard life we’re living. And I think that’s what it is, beautiful and hard. In many different ways.

1996 Dylan

That was the really the first day of the hard part. We hiked the next 400 miles on snow cups, crossing creeks raging with snowmelt, hiking terrain I now prefer to travel on a splitboard, never knowing when it would end.

The snow did ease up a bit when we reached Tahoe, just a short drive from my current home in Reno. We thought we were home free, but the mountains had taken a heavier toll on us than we realized. By the time we reached the Oregon border we were both struggling with injuries, and I was out of money.

We had to stop, but we didn’t want to give up. So we made a pact to finish the hike, together, in the distant future but before we reached twice our current age. It was my 24th birthday, and Pete was still a tender 23.

You see where this is going. I’ll be 47 years old this July. Pete’s birthday follows in October. It’s time.

My mind often goes back to that micro-cassette recorder. It was one of only two battery-powered devices I carried, the other being a headlamp. Of all the things in my pack, that recorder looms large as the most powerful symbol of change.

In 1996 the Pacific Crest Trail Association recorded 81 completed through-hikes. Last year was a record 1163. I’m sure at least ten times more start and do not finish, like us. I wonder how many of those people can even imagine hiking with only four double-As in a headlamp and a cassette recorder?

I’ve decided to help them by doing it again. I’ll record my conversations and mail the tapes home to Ann. It will not be a podcast, but I will share the results eventually. I think it will be fascinating.

For those who crave more timely reporting, Pete is not restricting himself to antique technology. He’s already got a website and instagram feed going.

I may or may not post more thoughts before we head out on August 17. There are many topics to explore. How do our spouses feel about this? What happened to that suit Pete was hiking in? Is there a wall at the border? We’ll see.

Home Again

Mile 2640. Pete drops me off back at the fifth wheel where we started, with plenty of time left for him to join Jess in Denver for a family dinner. For me the physical travel is done. Pete will get on a plane tomorrow and fly back to Chicago. It seems like we have covered many miles on the planet, but many more in our minds, which are still traveling. The results of these travels, and the ultimate meaning of our Pacific Crest Trail pacts, remains to be seen. Much more will be revealed when Pete finishes the book he’s creating for his MFA…

The Sno-Chi-Minh Trail (Storm #5)

Snow Storm #5Mile 2518. Back on I-80 in Wyoming, Pete tells me about the Snow-Chi-Minh trail. The story is that the Elk Mountain section of I-80 is so bad in the snow that a detour up to Rock River and back south to Laramie is often a better alternative. We laugh as though this is a ridiculous idea. Near Elk Mountain Storm #5 hits us. There are jackknifed trucks and cars piling up in the divider ditch. Rescue vehicles plow through the snow with sirens screaming. The Snow-Chi-Minh trail would probably have served us well.

Back to Utah (Storm #4)

Mile 2199. Our momentum carries us past Twin Falls, where Pete has friends willing to put us up for the night. He tells them we’re merely following Bergman driving rules, “…when you’ve hit your groove, for God’s sake don’t stop…”. In Ogden another blizzard hits, reducing visibility to near zero. We pull off, thinking we might be done for the night, but the downfall lightens up and we make it to a real rest stop for a final sleep in the Malibu.

Fish Dinner

Mile 1865. On twenty minutes’ notice Ann’s parents, Bob & Carol Fish, welcome us into their home in Nampa, Idaho for dinner. Bob is in the middle of painting the kitchen, which he continues as the rest of us enjoy stir-fried veggies, African bean soup, and rice. We pass along hugs from Ann, talk a bit about our trip so far, and hit the road again feeling refreshed.

Touring Central Oregon (Storm #3)

John Day Fossil BedsMile 1636. We’re impressed with size and variety of the landscapes of central Oregon. Volcanic features are definitely the main theme, but forests and pastures also abound. There are several passes to surmount, one of which features a SNOW ZONE sign that, true to its word, marks the boundary of a blizzard. There are many features on the far side named after John Day, a name I’ve never heard, including these fossil beds and a small town. Temperatures remain cold, and it’s often windy.

No-fly Zone

Yearning to flyMile 1523. Both the road and the sky have cleared by the time we reach Bend, raising our hopes. In Redmond we stop at a grocery store for bagels, cream cheese, chips, and salsa. Munching on these we get on the road to Madras. Topping the final hill we see one kind of dark cloud over the valley on the other side. As we reach the Madras airport, a light rain starts falling. Word at the skydiving outfit is that no pilots will be flying today. We hang around taking pictures and digesting the news, hoping for some kind of alternative, but there is none but the open road.

11/11 Dawns

11/11 DawnsAfter a cold night, dawn finds us encased in ice. Thankfully the Malibu came with a scraper. The sky looks like it could clear up, but we don’t know if that will be enough to get us into the air later. We get underway, and haven’t gone 2 miles before a stranded motorist flags us down. Having run out of gas, he spent the night in a T-shirt and unlined leather jacket. We take him back to the junction where he waits in the cafe for the gas station to open. There are a lot of cars in the ditch this morning, and the going is slow as we make our way north.

No More Today

DoneMile 1403. We find a couple of trucks to lead the way, and proceed around Crater Lake and over the crest at a snail’s pace as the snow piles up. Just when fatigue is demanding we stop, the snowpack lightens and signs for highway 97 appear. At the first side road I pull off and we climb into the sleeping bags, wondering what the morning holds in store for us. Is skydiving in Madras a possibility after this kind of weather at Crater Lake?

Snow Zone (Storm #2)

Snow ZoneMile 1362. We cook our dinner on the patio of a gracious bakery and cafe in Medford. We’ve found that “welcome” and “information” centers in this part of Oregon don’t supply picnic tables. Heading out of Medford it starts to rain. As we ascend the Rogue River toward Crater Lake, the rain turns to snow. We turn off to spend the night at Crater Lake, but the snow begins to stick, right where the SNOW ZONE sign says it will. We double back, determined to make it over the Cascades before they’re completely snowbound.