The number of thru hikers on the PCT is difficult to ascertain since so many either drop out or don’t apply for permits, but the Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates that between 300 and 500 people applied for long distance permits each summer prior to 2012. In 2013 there were approximately 800 applications, while this year there were 1300 thru hiking permits issued. Most small town grocery stores, trail angels, and water caches are not prepared for this exponential growth so this year has been a learning experience for everyone associated with the PCT. The popular novel Wild, a memoir by Cheryl Strayed of her short, extremely unprepared hike along the PCT, has led to unprecedented press and awareness of the trail. We have seen many hikers beginning the trail just as Cheryl Strayed did- unprepared both mentally and physically for the journey, not carrying the correct equipment and relying on others to bail them out. Despite the pleas of many PCT hikers and trail angels, it appears that Hollywood is in the process of making a movie based on her book that will undoubtedly bring hundreds of additional unprepared outdoor enthusiasts. Hopefully readers will take the necessary precautions and learn from her mistakes, since honestly who wants to begin the book shortly after an abortion, addicted to heroin, and still clinically depressed about losing her mother?
Hiking the trail with thousands of strangers has to lead to numerous interesting experiences, so we decided to share a few funny interactions. We have seen everything ranging from incredibly kind-hearted individuals, hilariously unprepared hikers, and Arcata-esque marijuana-growing hippies looking to score a few dollars from sober hikers. These representative characters are just a few of the fascinating vagabonds we have befriended along the way.
I mentioned the Saufleys and Trail Angels in my last post on Hiker Heaven, but wanted to share a few more experiences from wonderful souls we have met along the way. In Idyllwild, Nick and I met a couple who had two sons in college and must have been missing talking with twenty-something’s about their life plans. They offered to take us out to a beautiful restaurant (that served food on plates and had napkins with silverware!) that hadn’t seen the likes of homeless PCT hikers in years, and kindly asked us to dine outside near the tables with dogs. This was after we had showered too…
Tehachapi introduced us to some of the nicest people we have encountered yet on the trail. A woman at the post office gave us leftover donuts from an elementary school picnic earlier that day and offered us a ride back to the trail head. Another man at the post office asked several questions about our hike, how we were liking it so far, and what our inspiration for hiking the trial was. After a pleasant five minute conversation, he reached into his picked and handed us two $20 bills, and told us to treat ourselves to ice cream! Just moments later, a Vietnam War veteran gave us a ride to the library and asked us to call him when we were finished so that he could take us back to his house on the way to the trailhead. His wife cooked us a delicious lunch and let us take turns showering in their bathroom, offered to let us sit in their hot tub, and kindly drove us back to the trail later that afternoon.
Nick in a tunnel under Highway 138
Several days out of Tehachapi, we were descending ten miles of exposed switch backs through a burnt pine forest filled with sand and cacti during one of our hottest days yet. We were hoping for a water cache to refill our depleted bottles at Walker Pass and were pleasantly surprised to encounter the best possible trail magic. A mother and son had transformed the small campground into a hiker’s paradise. Once we sat down, we were immediately handed cold sodas, watermelon, grilled cheese sandwiches, and even root beer floats! Jackalope, we soon learned, was a thru hiker in 2008 who wanted to dedicate each of her following summers to helping hikers out at Walker Pass, which we were incredibly grateful for.
We have also encountered numerous groups of old men offering beer and dinner, kind young doctors handing out candy, and family friends offering beds to sleep in along the way.
As we began the descent into Wrightwood a few weeks ago, we met a short Hispanic man carrying a gigantic backpack that looked about as wide as he was tall. The stench instantly revealed him to be a PCT hiker, but we noticed he was wearing flip flops while hiking. Our boundless curiosity led us to ask what in the world he was doing, an innocent question we soon regretted asking. The Masturbator (or Mr. M for discretion’s sake), as he introduced himself, was thru-hiking the PCT to recover from simultaneous addictions to porn, masturbation, and cocaine (another incredible role model!). He had hiked the first 100 miles completely barefoot (with the intention of completing the hike in that manner), but was forced to adopt flip flops after his feet began cracking through the skin.
Later conversations revealed that he intended to hike without buying any food, since there is so much nourishing flora and fauna in the desert. Fire ants, he claims, are quite tasty as long as you eat them before they bite you, while stink bugs taste rather like moths. “What do moths taste like?” Roadkill asks, a freshly graduated college student who has never attempted to live completely off the land, to which Mr. M responds “like chalky nuts.” He had cut the stinger off a scorpion and enjoyed letting it wrap its legs around his teeth before biting in to its crunchy flesh.
Apparently, Mr. M had tried to eat one too many poisonous plants and ended up passing out on a cactus for several hours, a painful decision he grew to regret. As he was recounting the myriad species he’s digested over his hike, we recognized some of the names as endangered animals. “Hmm” he shrugs his shoulders, “probably shouldn’t eat any more of those then!”
Don’t think these taste like scorpions, or moths for that matter
Throughout the five summers working in Yosemite for the Youth Conservation Corps and National park Service, leading freshmen orientation backpacking trips and other Williams Outing Club trips in college, and tramping around New Zealand for a few months, I have hiked somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 miles without a single blister in my life.
Unfortunately, the past few hundred miles through the hot sandy desert have utterly destroyed my feet. Since we’ve only crossed five creeks in the 600 miles of desert, we haven’t really been able to rinse our socks and feet at the end of most days. This allows dirt and silt to build up between our toes and rub them raw the next morning as we start the day’s hike. Even by changing our socks every few hours, our feet have been turned into the consistency of rotting tomato paste. Additionally, a physical therapist told me to purchase a pair of SuperFeet to keep from tearing my meniscus even more (from years of running down mountains with heavy packs). The thin padding on these insoles wore down to hard plastic within the first hundred miles, causing extreme pain when any pressure is applied to my heels. Just before Kennedy Meadows, I had to stop hiking because of the unbearable pain in my heel from what would become the largest blister of my life.
Gordon at Vasquez Rocks near Agua Dulce
Apparently, a large blister had formed and callused over on the back of my heel, but then, unbeknownst to me, a gnarly blood blister filled the void underneath. This searing pain forced me to remove my shoe and cut away large pieces of dead skin from my heel, puncture the blood blister with dull rusty scissors, clean the pus and blood with an alcohol wipe, and apply several feet of duct tape and padding to my foot so that I could waddle the remaining ten miles in my rubber Crocks (which have since floated down the San Joaquin River as I attempted to ford a chest deep torrent of freezing water to look for hot springs on the other side.)
The combination of my podiatric ailments has made my feet look like a battleground of blisters. I snapped this picture at the height of my pain, and took a moment to point out every blister between my two feet. Thankfully, I had my hiking boots mailed to Kennedy Meadows and haven’t had a blister since.
But my body has broken down in other areas. My backpack rubs aggressively on my lower back, which caused a rash, which then developed into an infected abscess and required both a rest day in Bishop and a course of antibiotics. This infection was so painful to the touch that I couldn’t lie on my back nor could I let anything touch the painful area. Thankfully, modern medicine has worked again and the wound has bled and pussed out (leading to some interesting smells!) but feels much better overall.
Not too happy about the infection