The trail provides — an adage of thru-hiking I learned about quickly. I had finished day hiking Mount Baden-Powell and, as I was driving out of the trailhead parking lot, an older couple was hitchhiking for a ride into Wrightwood. Chatting with them in the car, I learned they had been on the trail for three weeks.
Offering them a ride was easy on my part since it was along the way, but mine was just one of many small acts of kindness that can accumulate on a journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. On this trail, layer upon layer of interactions and gestures create a culture of camaraderie. This special community of support and shared experience throughout the trail are what provides hikers with what they need, physically or mentally, as they face personal challenges that the hike may bring out. This sensation of synchronicity — a bit of magic —happens when encountering what you might have not known you needed on the trail.
World-Class Hiking Within Los Angeles County
Hiking isn't usually the first word that comes to mind when we think of Los Angeles, let alone the word backpacking. But within an hour drive of Downtown Los Angeles and its suburbs, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) traverses the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests and is often taken for granted by locals.
The PCT spans 2,650 miles through California, Oregon and Washington, stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border. It traverses through five national monuments, six national parks, five state parks, 25 national forest units and 48 federal wilderness areas. The trail is referred to in five sections: Southern California, Sierra Nevada, Northern California, Oregon and Washington and the Cascade Range. Hiking the PCT was widely popularized by the book "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed, published in 2012, and the subsequent movie starring Reese Witherspoon, released in 2014.
Designated a National Scenic Trail under the National Park Service, the PCT showcases unparalleled natural beauty. It draws hikers from around the world aiming to accomplish goals and fulfill dreams of completing the whole journey.
The Southern California section of the PCT is generally referred to as "the desert." This section spans 720 miles from the small town of Campo outside San Diego to Walker Pass, just south of the Sequoia National Forest.
Many hikers begin their journey northbound, starting in March or April at the southern terminus at the U.S.-Mexico border. Pros for starting the PCT northbound include more temperate springtime weather through the desert terrain. Since the southern terminus is the more frequented starting point, there are more opportunities for camaraderie along the trail in beginning the journey alongside fellow hikers.
Ties to San Gabriel Valley
The creation of the PCT was a multi-community, multi-decade effort itself, starting from a community of outdoor lovers who would soon find themselves advocating for the same vision.
Catherine Montgomery, an educator, suffragette and environmentalist from Bellingham, Washington is often credited with the first known record of a proposal for a trail through California, Oregon and Washington. In 1924, she read a copy of the monthly journal American Forestry with an article featuring the Appalachian Trail, "The Appalachian Trail: From Maine to Georgia by Foot Trail — A Little Hike of 2,000 Miles — Along the Skyline of the Appalachian Ranges."
Montgomery met with Joseph T. Hazard in 1926, a well-traveled and well-known outdoorsman and mountaineer of the northwest, not originally to discuss a long-distance trail, but to purchase textbooks. Hazard was a textbook salesman and Montgomery was a supervisor at the Washington State Normal School. Discussing their shared interest in the outdoors, Montgomery posed to Hazard the idea of a trail as long as the Appalachian that connects the Canadian border to the Mexican border.
Montgomery continued to share the idea amongst colleagues and mountain clubs of the Pacific Northwest like the Mount Baker Club. Together, these coalitions developed a Mountaineers' Trail Committee who then pitched the idea to Clinton Clarke in Southern California.
Clarke originally hailed from Chicago, but settled in Pasadena. He founded the Pasadena Playhouse, was the chairman of the Mountain League of Los Angeles and was heavily involved in local Boy Scouts groups.
In 1932, Clarke formed the Pacific Crest Trail System Conference and began to lobby for the trail's creation, serving as a huge advocate for the. Clarke's advocacy and lobbying efforts persisted through government bureaucracy that deterred many others before him.
At the time, Clarke was 59 and unable to physically execute the groundwork of his vision. That's when other recreational groups and leaders come into the picture. Secretary of the Alhambra YMCA, 23-year-old Warren Lee Rogers would be the boots on the ground, conducting the first scouting missions for the PCT. He led 40 troops of YMCA boys ages 14-18 through the backcountry of the San Gabriel Mountains in the summers of 1935-1938.
By 1939, the PCT appeared on a federal government map for the first time, with the first completed thru-hike in 1952, historic milestones in the trail's history for its advocates and future generations of recreationists to come.
While the trail traverses the land of nearly 40 different Native communities, the Indigenous significance of the land is largely missing from PCT history and present-day acknowledgement.
As hiking the PCT becomes increasingly popular, thru-hikers and the outdoor community at large has an opportunity to help preserve the experience for future generations, to recognize all aspects of its history and continue creating community through their own experiences on and off the trail.
Confronting Challenges on the Pacific Crest Trail
What defines a thru-hike? A thru-hike is essentially an end-to-end backpacking trip of the entirety of a long-distance trail, like the PCT, for a longer period of time anywhere from three to 12 months.
Section hiking, backpacking or hiking a long trail in different phases, can be considered a great way to train for a full thru-hike. While section hiking doesn't have to end up in completing a thru-hike, it can also be considered the next step up from longer day hikes or shorter backpacking trips.
Thru-hiking the PCT is no small feat. Depending on one's backpacking experience and fitness level, hikers can often prepare up to a year before their journey, navigating permit requests, getting the right gear and planning resupplies.
Mental preparation is another game altogether. Many preparation guides and advice include naming a "why" for doing the thru-hike and recalling it during challenging times on the trail. There's also a question of set and setting, what life events or personal mental and emotional states lead someone to take on a thru-hike?
In the case of "Wild," the story begins with Cheryl Strayed at 22, her life in shambles. In the four years after the fallout of her mother's death, strained family connections and her own divorce, Strayed makes an impulsive decision to hike 1,000 miles on the PCT through the Mojave Desert and Sierra Nevada without any experience or training.
While it's not recommended to endeavor a hike the magnitude of the PCT without some training or preparation, there is something to be said about the reasons that compel people to complete a thru-hike. What personal challenges emerge when we're stripped to just the essentials and ourselves trekking for months? What do we learn about ourselves and how we relate to each other?
"I didn't realize it at the time, but my call to adventure and wanting to do the PCT was a response to my parents' divorce," said Adam Augustyn, a San Diego-based PCT thru-hiker.
Augustyn had learned more about the trail while studying for finals during winter quarter of his sophomore year at UC San Diego in 2014. He stumbled upon someone's blog about their PCT experience. It turns out the author of that blog was the older brother of someone he went to middle school with.
With the idea of the PCT seeded in his mind, Augustyn decided to ride out on his motorcycle to Campo to see the trail's southern terminus. He took the following spring quarter in 2015 of his junior year off specifically to hike the PCT.
"I had never gone backpacking when I decided to do the PCT, but I had a whole year to prepare. I planned for four different trips the summer before. It was a total reality and mental check. Taking on the PCT became a big, audacious goal for me." Augustyn continued, "I knew I had the ability and time to prepare, but there was a fear of the unknown in taking it on. There was also a lot of unknown and uncertainty around the family drama happening at the time. So, the PCT became this way for me to do something scary to reclaim my agency and then have that experience to confront the challenges happening in personal life."
Augustyn also shared that he met someone on the trail who had just discovered who her biological father was. She was scared to meet him but doing the PCT was a way to build emotional and mental confidence. If she could do the PCT, she could do anything, including meeting her estranged biological father. Like in "Wild," upheaval and change seem to be catalysts for seeking out a challenge like the PCT, a physical way to confront and personal struggle.
Sky Williams, a Boulder-based PCT thru-hiker said, "I had done other thru-hikes before the PCT but in general I realized that my favorite types of days are really long, hard days in the mountains. Something amazing happens when you're out on the trail. You're removed from all of these day-to-day, mundane things that cause so much stress when you're at home, the things wrapped around a lease or job, which are important, but it's relative. Once I was away from it, that stress I put on those aspects of my life melted away. Being physically away from those parts of my life gave me the time and place to ultimately break away from negative thought loops about them.
"For instance, deciding to do the PCT came at a time when I was not in a good lease situation. My roommates were constantly fighting and stress was just compounding for all of us. That situation had been eating so much of my energy, but with some distance and perspective on the trail, I was able to process it and find a way forward beyond it."
Tackling the PCT in 2018 was a natural progression for Williams, who was fueled by his love of endurance activities and solid foundation of spending lots of time in the Rockies. He completed all 2,650 miles in a whip-lightning 99 days.
While it might not be apparent at the time, deciding to take on a challenge like the PCT might just be a way to confront personal challenges and grow immensely as a person through the experience. Thru-hiking brings hikers on the trail and the surrounding communities together.
One special relationship of the experience are trail angels, people who go out of their way to make life a little (or sometimes a lot) better for hikers. Their gestures can range from small acts like giving hikers a ride into town to larger ones like offering lodging or amenities not available on the trail. While trail angels shouldn't be relied on by thru-hikers to complete their journey, there's no doubt these kind souls can provide a bonus along the journey. Along with the relationships that form between hikers, the relationship between hikers and trail angels is one type of relationship that keeps a culture of community, camaraderie and magic alive.
"For every challenging thing that came up, there was always really genuine and chill people that uplifted me from those experiences," said Augustyn. "We were all in the same boat, doing the same thing in our own way, so that reminded me whenever it was really tough, and there was a lot of tough days, I was able to do this adventure, and bring back that agency into my own life."