I just finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – the author’s true story of hiking the PCT from California to Washington. A tale of a woman who, bereft by her Mothers untimely death, the failure of a marriage, and a bout with heroin addiction, decides to hike the PCT alone in search of self and purpose. Strayed tells an inspiring story about the realities of what it takes to hike 2600 miles through the wilderness alone.
Stories like this always get me inspired with what I like to call my inner Wonder Woman complex. I start fantasizing about completing things on my bucket list like climbing Machu Picchu or taking that African safari. I loved this story because the PCT holds a special place in my heart; it runs through our property in southern Washington and we have spent many hours on the trail concocting ideas for work, trips we plan to take, parties we plan to have, politics, you name it. It’s a magical place where rivers ramble, waterfalls cascade and expansive mountain views bring a sense of awe. So I can totally see the lure of wanting to hike the entire trail – a spiritual endeavor that would change your life.
Over the years we have run into “thru hikers” intent on hiking the entire trail from Mexico to Canada. I’m always envious of their strength of will. It takes approximately 4 months to complete the trail, and most of it is serious outward bound terrain, hiking through dense forests, fording streams and ascending thousands of vertical feet, some of it in treacherous snow covered conditions. I’ve imagined it to be a difficult journey fraught with discomfort and pain, but rewarded with nature’s raw beauty. Wouldn’t it be cool to just drop out for a months? No annoying news or demanding business to ruin your day – and of course there is the imagined weight loss. Then you come to the realization you will have to forgo fine meals and weeks of no hot showering, civilized bathroom time or Egyptian cotton sheets! Maybe I’ll just do a 3 day excursion instead…
The Pacific Crest Trail dates back to 1932, the idea of Clinton C. Clark, designated as a National Scenic Trail for hikers and equestrians in 1968 and finally finished in 1993. Clark along with the Boy Scouts of America, the YMCA, Ansel Adams the famous nature photographer and many others all had a part in helping to plan and lobby the government for its completion and protection. The PCT runs 2,663 miles from Mexico to BC Canada. Meandering through 3 states; California, Oregon and Washington, it passes through 25 national forests and 7 national parks.
One of the themes throughout Wild is the reality of what it takes to sustain life on the trek. There are several scenes where she encounters generosity from locals offering a warm meal or a helping hand “trail angels” they call them. This inspired me to become one, why not live vicariously through others? So a few weeks ago we came upon 2 guys and their horses – preparing to bed down for the night. “Hi! Are you guys doing the entire trail?” Followed by a muffled response from one of them, an image of the characters Daryl and his other brother Daryl, from the Bob Newhart show flashed through my mind. They seemed harmless, so I casually mentioned to the group that we should invite them to dinner. “Oh, that’s a strangely nice idea… but let’s not.”
So you can imagine my delight, when last weekend we came upon a pretty young gal resting her heels in the river by our house. I could tell as we approached she was a serious hiker with large back pack and hard won trail dirt from head to toe. After my typical; “hey are you a thru hiker, where did you start?” bit, Moonshine won everyone over with her charming German accent and tale of making it all the way from Mexico to Washington by herself. Even crossing the treacherous Sierra Nevada’s in California. In Wild, Cheryl Strayed had to bypass that part due to very high snow pack, Moonshine said this year was passable and she only got lost in the snow once for about two hours. She said this so matter of factly, I thought, this chick is something else, she must be my new friend and so I invited her to lunch.
Strayed often mentions her obsession with hamburgers and after seeing Moonshine down two in no time, I understand the appeal, the smell of grilled beef must be heavenly after eating berries and nuts for weeks on end. We also offered her a warm shower, a swim in the pool and use of our washing machine, but she politely declined all saying she was able to shower when she stopped at The Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks the day before (one whole day without a shower? I would have jumped on that pronto). The Bridge of the Gods deserves a special call out because it is absolutely fantastical for its magnificent view of the Columbia River running east to west separating Oregon from Washington. I travel over it often and it takes my breath away every time.
They estimate no more than 300 people complete the trail each year in entirety. Although Moonshine said there were 700 people registered to hike it this summer. I couldn’t help but wonder if Cheryl Strayed’s book had something to do with that. Moonshine had never heard of the book, she’s from Germany, so I believe her; all my German friends are painfully honest. My husband and I counted no less than 10 thru hikers we have seen this summer – when in years past we were lucky to see one. There’s definitely an uptick of PCT hikers this year.
Moonshine said she originally planned to do the Appalachian Trail (AT) which is the east coast equivalent that runs 2,184 miles from Georgia to Maine, but decided the PCT was a better fit. She felt the PCT was more prone to serious hikers with more challenging terrain, whereas the AT is often referred to a “green corridor” of a trail through trees, without the sweeping views of the west coast and its majestic mountain ranges. The AT is also more of a social endeavor with indoor hostels for sleeping inhabited by large guided groups, while the PCT is mostly uninhabited, more of a soul searching experience. She said since she hit Oregon, every day provided a “wow” moment of something incredible to see. Ok, please – no angry emails from gung-ho Appalachian Trail people; I’m still getting obscene emails from Austonians outraged I jokingly compared Portland to Austin – 2 years ago), Moonshine’s words, not mine.
Not skilled as an experienced hiker, Strayed tells of her harrowing experience, including completely trashing her feet with the wrong size boots. There is one poignant passage where a fellow hiker takes pity giving a quick “ultra-light” backpacking lesson. The philosophy is that you carry only things you absolutely need even going so far as breaking off the end of your toothbrush to save weight. I thought of this when I sheepishly handed Moonshine my business card, hoping we would stay in touch but completely understanding if it went into the ‘not necessary’ pile after she departed. I lifted her pack and we estimated it was about 24 lbs., which seemed really heavy to me.
Within a two hour span of time I was able to glean as much information as possible from Moonshine. She had carefully planned her trip over two years, researching and saving for the trek. An architect from Berlin raised in Munich she just turned 37 in August. She also has great taste in architecture, because she complimented my house and its design; “very excellent design in conjunction with nature, this is very difficult to do.”
She has gone through 4 pairs of shoes (600 – 700 miles per pair), and only shipped 4 packages to herself of which one was lost. Thru hikers use resupply points on the trail, often general stores and rural post offices. She has seen bears, rattle snakes, heard coyotes and gotten hundreds of mosquito bites. When we met she was ahead of her schedule and was averaging up to 30 miles on a good day. A typical PCT hiker averages about 20, so she’s a real powerhouse!
There were many similarities with her and Strayed’s story – in that Moonshine also initially over packed and greatly underestimated the difficulty of hiking over 15 miles per day. She had trained on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, but that was nothing compared to what she’d experienced in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Her first 1000 miles were the most difficult, and then she hit her stride. She didn’t have nearly the amount of trouble with her feet compared to Strayed, but said her feet had grown in width from the constant pounding. I was surprised to see she was wearing Salomon hiking shoes not boots – opting for light weight and flexible, with the key to success being light weight socks. Moonshine was also a tent person with no interest sleeping outside, as many hikers just put down a tarp and bed down in a sleeping bag.
Like the author – she was mostly interesting in hiking alone. She had met many people on the trail, and planned to meet up with them intermittently, but her focus was purely personal, almost spiritual. We didn’t discuss the “why” she was doing it except to say that she had run into some people who were perplexed that she was doing it at all, which perplexed her in return. She like Strayed was very focused on achieving daily mileage goals – targeting completion before winter weather set in.
I didn’t have the guts to ask her if she had protection (gun not condoms) – seeing she didn’t know me and it seemed a question one might ask before abducting you. But I’m hoping she had some bear spray which works on humans just as well. In the Wild book, there are a few episodes where the heroin feels threatened, and is surprisingly traveling without protection. Moonshine said she had not one moment where she felt threatened or in danger from a human, which supports my belief that, as a culture we are overly fearful from watching too many Law and Order episodes.
After eating 2 hamburgers, drinking copious amounts of (full sugar) soda and a few pieces of salted caramel chocolate, we hugged good bye, and Moonshine hit the trail heading north. I wonder where she is now…