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Islands In The Sky: Tales From The Pacific Crest Trail

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A Pacific Crest Trail hiker walks on the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the Antelope Valley. | Photo: Flickr userpredictablylost

Imagine setting aside several months of your life, free from the rat race, free from the daily commute, free from paying the bills, free from the oppressive bonds of daily commitments, and trading it all for discovery and adventure.

For hundreds of hikers each year, that is the life they choose as they traverse the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, otherwise known as "the PCT," stretching longitudinally mostly through mountain crests along the West Coast from the Mexican border to Canada.

The trail was one of several created by the 1968 National Trails System Act but wasn't fully completed until 1993. As much a product of the hippie-spirited '60s as it is America's tradition of exploration -- from Lewis & Clark's westward expedition to landing on the Moon -- the trail attracts all types of people, but mostly able-bodied folks from their teens to their 30s whose penchant for such dedicated travel is more or less in sync with their respective stage in life.

Anyone is welcome to hike as little or as much of the trail as they please, but those that do the marathon end-to-end trek are known as "thru-hikers," which reveals a subculture of its own. Unlike a mere urban hillside hike, thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail requires physical ability, survival skills and considerable advance preparation.

I encountered a number of PCT hikers during a recent visit to the Owens Valley, where I spent my July Fourth in Independence, CA. The hikers were also there for the holiday, taking a brief hiatus from the trails to partake in the town's annual festivities, which included a parade and a community barbecue.

Many of the PCT hikers prefer to be known by their trail nickname, such as Fire Hazard, a hiker in his 20s from Seattle who joined a group of about a dozen hikers to celebrate the Fourth. The trail nicknames are long part of the PCT hiking subculture, adopting them for myriad reasons, ranging from anonymity to a deliberate need to distance themselves from the personal and professional lives they put on hold back home.

"Try getting away from your life for seven months," said Fire Hazard, with a slight laugh.

Other hikers, such as Stan Nichols and his friends Jeremy Beal and Ben DeBord, all of whom are in their late 20s from the Newport News, VA area, skipped the pseudonyms yet had similar reasons for their journey.

"There's this void between grad school and the professional world that we seem to be in, and we want to prolong that as much as possible," said Nichols.

The three had previously hiked at least some portion of the PCT's eastern counterpart, the Appalachian Trail, and collectively decided to take on the Pacific Crest.

"The Appalachian Trail was our first experience in an extended backpacking trip," said DeBord, "We immediately thought, 'We could do this.'"


Though the PCT runs right through our SoCal backyard, it's relatively unknown to us urban and suburban locals. The trail begins just outside the border town of Campo, in southeastern San Diego County, and runs through the Cleveland National Forest and through the Anza Borrego Desert State Wilderness in Riverside County before entering the mountains of Idyllwild. In San Bernardino County, it heads alongside the Morongo Valley up towards the San Bernardino National Forest, where it heads west in the vicinity of Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead, and then crosses the Cajon Pass and enters Los Angeles County through the San Gabriel Mountains. Descending via Soledad Canyon, the trail heads through Vasquez Rocks and into the Sierra Pelona Mountains, emerging in the western Antelope Valley. From there, it ascends north through the Tehachapis in Kern County and through the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. It continues on through Northern California where it joins the perennially-snowcapped volcanic peaks of the Cascades on to Oregon and Washington.

The three friends from Virginia prepared for their journey by simplifying their financial commitments, either canceling or consolidating services they're normally billed for, or activating auto-payment methods. They flew from Virginia to San Diego in mid-May and rode public transit to the start of the trail, where they began their trek on May 22 (Most hikers start in April). They anticipate reaching the Canadian border in less than 5 months.

"The typical way to hike it is from south to north," said DeBord. "Most of your resources are geared that way. You have to time it because you don't want to go through the Sierras when there's too much snow, and you want to get to Washington before it starts to snow."

Averaging around 33 miles each day, parts of their journey so far involved sections in the Anza-Borrego and Mojave deserts. Anonymous volunteers called "trail angels" leave gallon-sized containers of water for hikers at various locations along the route, and part of their preparation involved pre-shipping equipment and dehydrated food to various post offices along the way, where they can retrieve them. Family members back in Virginia have also provided remote support, sending supplies to the hikers as needed. The three of them usually go on for around four days before needing to re-supply, and aside from post office pickups, they usually visit nearby towns for grocery or gear purchases, occasionally via a brief hitchhiked ride. Navigation is provided through trail signs, maps, water reports, and GPS apps on their smartphones, which require recharge during visits to civilization.

Such a trek also places people far from other human contact. Though the three now encounter about 30 other hikers each day since entering national parkland in the Sierra, DeBord estimated encountering one to two other people per day while walking through the desert portion of the trail.

The PCT also gave the hikers an opportunity to experience nature, albeit a little too close for comfort.

"We encountered rattlesnakes, skunks, even a bear," said Beal, recalling a recent event in the southern Sierra Nevadas, just north of Mojave. "It was getting at our breakfast, and started approaching us. We managed to yell and throw rocks at it before it walked away. They like to push the limits on how much they can encounter humans. They know what they're doing."

Though Beal admitted that most wildlife "Usually don't want anything to do with you" and will gladly move out of the way.

Being relatively isolated from civilization can have a profound effect on one's perspective of the world, especially from the Pacific Crest Trail.

"I've been reading about 'sky islands' -- places up in the mountain tops that are radically different from the land below," recalled Nichols. "I remember hiking in the San Bernardino Mountains and seeing the lights of the cities below, being in awe of how civilization was so close and visible, yet so different from the world up here. The people down below seem to be missing out on the sheer beauty that exists up here in the mountains."

Another in the trio came to his own epiphany on the necessities of life.

"This journey made me realize how much of our material worth is so superfluous," said DeBord. "You only need about 15 pounds of gear to survive."

Learning about the hikers' adventures made me realize, even despite my appreciation of and attempts to connect with nature, how tethered I am to the so-called civilized world, and how I sort of envied the hikers' ability to emancipate themselves from their everyday lives in the name of adventure, not to mention that inevitable feeling of accomplishment at the end of the last mile.

Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail admittedly isn't for everybody, but may we all be inspired to embark on our own journey -- however short -- with nature.

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