"Live a good life, and in the end, it's not the years in the life, it's the life in the years."

Stories from the PCT

Roadrunner and Rich Brinkman pose for a trail photo just north of Big Bear City.

Editor’s Note: Rich Brinkman reported on his PCT hike in the August 2015 issue, now he’s back to share the stores of a few travelers.

By Rich Brinkman

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 2,650-mile footpath from Mexico to Canada, and each year an increasing number of people from all walks of life attempt to hike its entire length.

With deep gratitude to Wenatchee Valley College, I was awarded a sabbatical to hike the trail in 2015 and conduct sociological research along the way. I met many wonderful people — fellow thru-hikers and trail angels alike — and I am excited to share some of their stories here in The Good Life.

Trail names are a very significant part of the PCT experience, as thru-hikers leave their identity behind and develop a new one on trail.

In one of my interviews, fellow thru-hiker “Ladies Man” explained it this way: “While out there, the trail becomes a great equalizer, and the trail name emphasizes this alternative life/experience. You become this new person on equal footing like everyone else. Your off-trail life is left behind when you become a thru-hiker, and the trail name becomes the finalization of that.”

“Outland” was drawn to the trail 10 years ago when PCT guidebooks caught his eye in a bookstore. He had always loved hiking so he bought the guidebooks and had read them at least a dozen times leading up to his 2015 thru-hike.

He envisioned the beauty ultimate freedom on the PCT, and the trail didn’t disappoint.

Back home, “Outland” is a graduate teaching assistant at a California university. While the name “Outland” was given to him by a fellow hiker, it turns out that “Outland” is actually the last name of one of his favorite literary characters, Tom Outland in The Professor’s House, who is very much opposed to the material world.

Virtually all thru-hikers on the PCT are at least somewhat alienated by the materialistic aspects of our society, and most even more so. “Outland” saw himself on trail as being in the natural world in order to escape the material world.

When “Outland” was approaching Walker Pass as the desert section of the PCT was coming to a close, he was running out of food and knew he would be facing a tough decision upon reaching the pass.

It would still be two days of solid hiking to reach Kennedy Meadows, a major milestone for hikers as it marks the end of the desert and the beginning of the Sierra. From Walker Pass it would be a very difficult 40-mile hitch to the nearest town of Lake Isabella to resupply.

When he reached the pass, however, legendary trail angel “Meadow Ed” was there with his RV and tent, and provided “Outland” and other hikers with more than enough food to get to their next resupply at Kennedy Meadows.

Most PCT hikers take a side trip to the summit Mount Whitney, which is the highest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet.

“Outland” had always had a fear of heights, and he was worried and tense about his summit bid. While the climb was sketchy in some areas, his successful summit and return led to a feeling of pride in himself that he had never experienced in his entire life. He was able to conquer that fear of heights, and he was no longer worried about the high passes in the Sierra that now awaited him.

All PCT hikers I met were blown away by the generosity of strangers, whether trail angels or not, and how fellow hikers not only look out for each other but go out of their way to help a hiker in need. “Ladies Man” offered an example: “When someone really needed something, like a first-aid item or Benadryl, everyone offers the item.”

All thru-hikers have tough moments, but they demonstrate an incredible resilience.

Two of my own toughest moments occurred in Oregon, where I had to make it 100 miles in shoes that were too small due to my swelling feet, and the 150 miles from the South Sister to Mount Hood with a severe shin splint.

In “Outland’s” own words, he “definitely learned that there are going to be 10,000 bumps in the road, and the only thing you can do is go to sleep, wake up the next day, and keep going. That is the only thing you can do… just take it day by day. You have to believe it is going to get better because it is.”

Another hiker, “Lebowski,” offered the same sentiment: “No matter how bad it gets you know you will get through it. If you can just handle it for a little while… you’re good.”

* * *

“Roadrunner” was drawn to the PCT five years ago when she and a friend were camping at Crater Lake, OR, and ran into PCT thru-hikers who shared some of their trail experiences.

She grew up in Oregon but had lived the last year in the Bay area, and had been going back and forth between living in Oregon or California.

In addition to being enthralled by the PCT after meeting those thru-hikers five years ago, “Roadrunner” also saw her trail experience as an opportunity to walk through both California and Oregon to decide where she wanted to live.

“Roadrunner’s” lowest moment on trail occurred just beyond South Lake Tahoe, where she reversed course back to town and decided to quit the trail.

When she woke up the next day in her own bed, she knew she had to get back on the PCT. She took a few days to revise her expectations of the experience, and was back hiking stronger than ever, even averaging 30-mile days.

* * *

Like many other hikers on trail, “KC” was at a point in her life when she needed to do something that was important to her.

She grew up with conventional values, and many around her were not enthusiastic about her hiking the PCT.

But, she was not happy with the “traditional” life she “was supposed to live,” and felt the need to hike without being concerned about how people were going to think or judge.

“One of my biggest regrets in life is not going after certain things for fear of judgment or failure,” she said. “I was doing something that I felt was important… that would help me. On trail we were all from very different backgrounds, but everyone was on a level playing field. We were all doing the same work to get where we were going (Canada). I feel society places too much importance on your profession and how much money you make… materialistic things that really don’t tell who you really are as a person.”

As KC emphasizes, one consistent finding among thru-hikers is that we become our truer selves while on trail.

* * *

I am again beyond grateful to Wenatchee Valley College for this amazing opportunity.

While I have had many incredible life experiences, the PCT experience was equivalent to my two years of service in the United States Peace Corps.

Our society and world could learn a lot from the long-distance hiking subculture, and I hope my research with Dr. Kristi Fondren at Marshall University will contribute to that realization.

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