Hearing the waterfall
After a year of preparation, my brother-in-law and I leave at daybreak Friday for the Oregon-California border and the start of our 453-mile Pacific Crest Trail journey. Hiking Oregon’s high-mountain backbone, border to border. Thirty-one days in two, two-week swaths: July 22-Aug. 6 (the plan is to reach Elk Lake near Mount Bachelor) and Aug. 26-Sept. 9 (Elk Lake to Cascade Locks on the Columbia River.) About 18 miles per day, 25 to 30 pounds on our backs, resupplies roughly every four days by either mail or loyal assistants.
Someone asked me how I was feeling. “Like a man about to go over a waterfall,” I said. Ecstatic about the possibilities. Scared stiff about the same thing. I’m not Jeremiah Johnson of live-in-the-wilderness fame. I’m an occasional backpacker smitten about the idea of fulfilling a small dream, to walk the state I love in the Cascades that I love.
But, first, some perspective: This is not the entire Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles of heat, deserts, 11,000-foot-high trails, rattlesnakes, snow danger and treacherous river crossings. This is not the stuff of Bill Sullivan, the Eugene freelance author whose 1988 book “Listening for Coyote” is based on his Brookings-to-Hells Canyon solo hike of 1,361 miles. This is just two old guys trying to do the most benign section of the Pacific Crest Trail at the most benign time of year.
We’re taking it with great seriousness — and, of course, with great levity. My favorite moment came just about a year ago when, after we’d been bantering about the idea, I finally sent Glenn one of those NASA-esque ultimatums. It was time to shoot or get off the pad, I said. Are we doing this? I listed 10 questions we had to consider, which were really thinly disguised reasons why this is a totally impractical idea. Glenn returned an e-mail that consisted entirely of these three words: “Count me in.”
I suggested a three-day trip last August just to prove our bodies and souls weren’t lagging behind our minds. Despite some blisters and a touch of dehydration on my part, we passed, doing 34 miles in the area north of the North Sisters from a Friday night to noon Sunday. OK, settled. We’re going.
Ideally, we wanted to do it in one four-week swath but, with our jobs—Glenn is a doctor in Albany, Ore., I’m a newspaper columnist at The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore.—that proved impossible. Neither of us could take that much time off in one bite, thus the idea to do it in two parts. I would have preferred leaving a week later, July 29, on Phase I and on Phase II, Aug. 19, the former to lessen the chances of tromping in snow and the latter so we’d be back in time for the start of the college football season. But neither idea worked. So, you do the best you can do.
I did some easy hiking in the fall, then, in late January, ramped into a P90-X program—suggested by my older son, Ryan—to improve my overall conditioning. Three months. Six workouts a week. Intense stuff. By late April, I could lift a minivan with one finger. OK, so I could do more than a couple of push-ups without collapsing. I gained strength and lost 18 pounds.
In May, I shifted into a hiking mode: Eugene’s Ridgeline Trail, Spencer Butte, Mount Pisgah, the McKenzie Trail, Cape Perpetua near Yachats, even got some steep hiking in while on a trip to Switzerland and Italy. Since September: 27 hikes, 253 miles, 9.4 miles per hike, 22,500 feet in elevation gain.
Meanwhile, we did lots of planning. I’ve read half a dozen books on the PCT. Perused dozens of web sites. Talked to people who have done this type of thing. What to take? What to leave? How do you carry enough to meet your needs without getting your pack so heavy that it turns against you and your feet? I bought all sorts of new, lighter packing equipment. Became a regular at REI. Spent far too much money and far too many hours discussing logistics with my hiking partner, Glenn, who interrupted his summer by going yet again to Haiti to do work in a medical clinic.
So, am I ready? I think so. All I know is that we’ve talked this thing to death. (Just ask our assistants, the Youngberg sisters.) It’s time for feet on the trail. My goal is to file a post from my iPhone each night. The cell coverage on the PCT is fairly good. (There’s actually a web site that’ll tell you, depending on your provider, how cell-friendly every part of the trail is.) We have a solar battery charger. So, no, technology probably won’t slow my updates. The question is: Will I have the energy, at day’s end, to lift a finger to a miniature keyboard?
But isn’t that why we do stuff like this? To journey into the unknown? To see if we can do it?
I think so. And I’d be happy to have you join us as we try.