Yearning to hike border to border — but not alone

By Jayson Jacoby October 21, 2011 05:07 pm

I have been afflicted just lately by the urge to take a long walk.

Actually this feels more like an obsession.

Anyway this compulsion, or whatever it is, to embark on a hike of epic rather than merely respectable length has barged into my subconscious and latched on with the adhesive stubbornness of a barnacle.

Or an ABBA song.

(Say what you will about that quartet of Swedes, but they knew how to craft a pop hook. I defy you to silence the chorus of “Dancing Queen” once it has command of your internal juke box. Or I should say your internal iPod; I need to update my metaphors.)

This all came about because my personal library contains a group of three  books, each of which chronicles the authors’ attempt to hike one of America’s long-distance national scenic trails.

Two of these volumes deal with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT):

• “The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind — and Nearly Found Myself — on the Pacific Crest Trail,” by Dan White; and

• Angela and Duffy Ballard’s “A Blistered Kind of Love: One Couple’s Trial by Trail.”

The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail spans the whole of California, Oregon and Washington, traversing the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains, and a host of lesser ranges, along the way.

The third, and best known, of the books is Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” the tale of his adventures (and, often as not, his misadventures) along the 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail (AT).

I had read, and greatly enjoyed, each of these books before.

What I hadn’t done, until the past few weeks, was to plow through the trio one after another, as though I were swallowing a series of pills or competing in a hot dog eating contest.

This non-fiction binge has left me not with heartburn, but with the unsettling feeling that by the measure of a true backpacker, I’m a failure.

Not a couch potato, precisely.

But a low-achieving tuber of some sort.

A radish, maybe.

I have covered a considerable number of miles by foot, to be sure.

And I know how to pitch a tent and to operate a water filter.

Yet compared with the exploits of the writers I listed, my backpacking experience is analogous to tossing balsa gliders from a backyard deck instead of piloting an F-22 Raptor at Mach 2.

A person can glean the basics of backpacking — can sample the deprivation and exertion and odors that characterize the pastime — by spending a long weekend tramping about in the Wallowas, as I have done several times.

But hiking a long-distance trail such as the PCT or the AT, where you have to slog through an average of 15 to 20 miles every day for months on end, is a different matter altogether.

What I want to know is how different.

And no book, no matter how competent the author, can answer that question.

This frustrates me.

And that frustration, as often happens, has mutated into something else — that powerful impulse to take to the trail which has recently plagued me.

At the heart my annoyance, though, is plain curiosity.

I wonder if I possess the stamina, both mental and physical, required to complete a nation-spanning path in a single burst of locomotion (what’s known in the trade as a “thru-hike,” to distinguish it from “section hiking,” which is just what it sounds like — hiking the whole of a trail over several years, completing a different segment each year).

In a fit of optimism I could answer yes.

I think my legs and my lungs could endure the abuse.

My feet have never been abnormally prone to blisters, and my ligaments and tendons have survived a handful of 20-mile days with an agreeable absence of complaints.

But I doubt I could finish the trail alone.

One thing each of the books I mentioned has in common is that the author had a companion for most of the hike.

White walked with his girlfriend.

The Ballards hiked most of the PCT as a couple, and they were married less than a year later. They also co-wrote their book.

And Bryson shared a majority of his AT miles (he ended up amassing 870) with the inestimable Katz, whose affinity for heaving from cliffs superfluous items to pare his pack weight — water bottles and food, for instance — was perhaps the most memorable part of “A Walk in the Woods.”

Certainly Katz’s antics ranked among the book’s funnier anecdotes, hardly an inconsequential thing when you’re talking about a humorist as gifted as Bill Bryson.

I have the distinct impression, at any rate, that none of the authors would have made as many miles had they hiked in solitude.

Besides the obvious benefit of being able to divide camp chores (boiling water to moisten freeze-dried meals rapidly becomes drudgery, in my experience), it seems to me that hiking as part of a team would embellish the sense of accomplishment that is such a powerful incentive in any grueling task.

Completing a lengthy and steep climb to a pass, for example, is something less of an achievement when you have nobody to celebrate with.

You can of course describe such obstacles for others, in conversation or in writing.

But this sort of belated boasting lacks the camaraderie that attends such an event when you stand beside a person who has plodded up the same switchbacks and gasped in the same oxygen-depleted atmosphere.

And camaraderie can hardly be overestimated as motivation when it comes to undertaking a physically taxing endeavor in which any source of motivation, whether it’s a book contract or a cold beer, can quickly assume talismanic qualities.

Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll ever be able to truly satisfy my curiosity.

Hiking the PCT or the AT requires a commitment of time and money that greatly exceeds my supply of each.

Perhaps one summer I’ll be able to get away for a week or so, and get through, say, 100 miles of the PCT.

That, I suspect, would give me a proper flavor for the thing.

Something to write about, too.

Which I might do, even though the result, given that I have but the scarcest trace of Bryson’s talent, would undoubtedly be a tedious read compared with the pleasure of breezing through his prose.

Besides which, I don’t know Katz.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.