The Perks and Disadvantages of Being Ahead
Location: Tehachapi, CA
PCT Mile: 558.5
A gray minivan slows and swerves over to the side of the road we're walking on. A smiley, middle-aged couple is seated in the front. The husband speaks again, "Headed to the Saufley's*? We're their neighbors. We're headed home from dinner...we can give you a ride!"
That ride saved us a huge amount of road walking after an already tiring day on trail. But it's not the focus of this post...his comment is. Since beginning at the border, I've heard it consistently in towns and as we pass by people on the trail...
Most long-distance trails have a “season” in which the majority of thru-hikers attempt to complete them. It makes sense...can’t really hike when the trail is covered in 6 feet of snow or when ALL of the water has dried up in the desert. The PCT has a particularly tight time window: leave from Mexico too late and face blistering desert conditions and Washington will be in winter when you get there; leave too early, and the Sierras may be impassable. The majority of PCT hikers leave the border in mid-to-late April. I left March 19th.
I left early and have been keeping a good pace, so I'm "ahead". Deliberately, given my time schedule for beginning grad school in the fall, and my love (and skills for) traveling in the snow. Thus far, being at the front of the pack has had four interesting consequences:
Peace and quiet. We go days without seeing another person on the trail. This is the PCT I came for. No crowded camp spots, and we get really close to those few hikers that track along at the same pace. My trail family has taken some hits recently-- lost several friends due to various fractures in ankles/feet and travel plans-- but I am grateful to have had several hundred miles with them. On the flip side, I have not met quite as many people as I would like yet-- 2100 miles to go though-- plenty of time!
Uncertainty regarding water. There is a crowd-sourced document called the “Water Report” that is updated on a nearly daily basis by hikers, for hikers. It lists water sources, ordered by PCT mile (out to the hundredths place!) and a description of the quality/quantity of water-- streams, backcountry water tanks, campground faucets, water caches-- it’s on there. What happens when you’re at the front? The last update was often in November or December...meaning you have NO idea whether there will be water in that trough, whether that stream will be flowing, or whether that camp spigot will be on or off for the season. Consequently, I’ve been carrying more water than necessary a lot of the time. I’m hoping this pays off soon because I will be quite strong when I reach the Sierra. And when I get into towns and have cell service, it is fun to be the first to update the report for the season, knowing there are dozens of people behind me who will have an easier and more enjoyable hike because of it.
3. Unmaintained trail. The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is the volunteer-run organization and authoritative body for the PCT. It manages the distribution of hiking permits each season, official press and promotion for the trail, and crucially, the organization of trail maintenance crews. It takes an enormous amount of physical labor each season to maintain the trail-- trimming overgrowth, removing fallen trees, reconstructing entire hill-slopes that have been washed out. Crews vary in size and degree of officialness (technical term); sometimes there are active community groups that "adopt" their local section of the trail, other times, a single person (often an ex-hiker from years ago) will go out with a pair of trimmers on a Saturday and try to do their part. These people are the rock stars of the trail. It is brutal and selfless and time-consuming work. If you're early enough in the season though, you may reach sections of the trail before these workers get out there. So we've been climbing over trees, moving the ones we can, cutting steps in snow. It takes extra physical effort, but it's fun to be breaking in the trail for the season!
4. The seriousness of solitude**. On April 19th, I broke the one big promise I made to friends, family, and myself: I hiked alone. And I would do so for the next three days, totaling just under 100 continuous miles of solo hiking. This was not by design and was unexpected-- my two hiking buddies had to get off-trail in the middle of a section due to what turned out to be a bad ankle fracture. I made the decision to carry on given a number of factors: I felt mentally and physically strong and stable, I knew the weather for the next several days was going to be consistent, I knew the terrain wasn't going to change drastically from what I already had been experiencing and was familiar with, and most importantly, two of our friends were just under a day ahead of me, and my pace was such that I could probably catch up to them. And I had full charges in my cell phone and GPS tracker.
It wasn't fun. Though I knew I was capable of carrying out every task and decision that needed to be made in those 100 miles, it felt awful and stressful to be breaking a personal rule and felt high-risk to be without a buddy. And it is. And it was.
And I wouldn't have had the problem had I not been so far ahead. If I was closer to "the pack," I could have hiked on and found someone within 1-2 hours, instead of hiking three days until I finally caught up with our two friends in town.
I wouldn't trade out this experience for anything, but I also would never have allowed it to happen by design. There are people who brush off solo adventuring in the backcountry, saying the naysayers are worry-warts who don't understand that being on-trail is safer in many cases than living in society every day. And it is...until it's not. You can still experience many of the boons of "being solo" while staying safe with a buddy. You can spend an entire day, or multiple days walking "alone" with a buddy ahead or behind that you meet up with at designated spots at designated times throughout the day. Anyways, I digress. It's a topic I feel strongly about and am happy to discuss and debate in person.
In the meantime, I am spending two extra days in Tehachapi to let the pack catch up to me a little more while I find a new buddy or buddies. The trail provides...it always does!
*People who help thru-hikers with rides, meals, trail magic, housing, etc. are called "trail angels". They are some of the most generous people I have ever encountered. The Saufley's are a trail angel family that run "Hiker Heaven," opening their home to thru-hikers every summer for the past 20 years. Can you imagine?!
**This phrase is attributed to Rees Hughes and Corey Lee Lewis, editors of The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, a compilation of writings and stories from current and former PCT hikers, people related to the trail, and historic authors. I only recently came across this series (one for California and one for Oregon and Washington). A good read for anyone, but hikers who have been on these sections of trail will find the stories and anecdotes particularly meaningful.