ITS SOUTHERN TERMINUS lies upon a hill, a lonely, sun-scorched lump of chaparral and rock astride the border between California and Mexico. In the north it arcs across Oregon and Washington, touching Canada on a grassy slope where lavender asters race the autumn snows.
A 2,400-mile footpath, two-thirds complete, the Pacific Crest Trail keeps faith with its name. It seeks out, in the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, and lesser ranges, the remote meeting places of stony spire and brilliant sky. But lest the hiker tire of heights and breathtaking vistas—an unlikely event—the trail also plunges down like a runaway roller coaster to nooks of wood and water.
On a warm day in May I first walked on this stairway to the heavens at a point 20 miles southeast of San Diego, California. As the wind shook the aroma of sage from the chaparral, I climbed the hill where the route begins (or ends, depending on your direction) and ceremonially set foot into Mexico (map, next page).
I remember, too, the September day when I reached the other end, tramping alone among the craggy peaks that hang over the border between Washington and Canada. That day the wind bore sullen clouds and slushy snow; in the gray gloom I felt an unexpected surge of fear.
Just ahead, a bear cub wandered across the trail. A city man, I have limited knowledge of bears, but I assumed that the cub’s mother must be near too. Through my mind raced the warning printed on my U. S. Forest Service map: “Avoid a she-bear with cubs.”
I walked on—warily.
Suddenly my backpack was yanked hard from behind. The she-bear! I leaped around, certain I’d find her snarling at my shoulder. But all I found was one of my own tent ropes trailing from my pack. Snagged on a limb, it had jerked taut as I walked past.”I’m careful to give a she-bear plenty of room,” Jake Pederson told me later. He’s one of my favorite people in the rugged country the trail traverses. Just a stub of a man, five feet six—most of that concealed by boots, it seems—Jake shelters his wind-worn face beneath a big Western hat. Its brim curls up like the wings of an upside-down gull; I often thought he might blow away in a breeze.
For 35 years with the Forest Service, he has fought fire and cleared trail in the northern Cascades. For me, he expressed best the appeal of the peaks on the Pacific Crest.
“This high country,” he said, “I can’t get enough of it. Every time I go through it, I see something different—a rock, maybe, or a flower. If somebody said to me, ‘Jake, you’ve gotta get out of the mountains,’ I’d say, ‘Boys, wrap me up and plow me under, ’cause there’s nothing else to live for.’ ”
If you walked the entire route, you’d cross 23 national forests, 7 national parks, 5 state parks, a lot of ranches, and some bouldery badlands. At a brisk 20 miles a day, the trip would require more than four months. You’d tread paths first used by Indians, or blazed by pioneers, trappers, and shepherds. You’d pass some of our country’s most splendid sights—Mount Whitney, Yosemite Valley, Crater Lake, the glaciered bulk of Mount Rainier—and go near sagging ghost towns.
You’d climb to 13,200 feet above sea level at Forester Pass in the High Sierra and dip to 173 feet as you crossed the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon. You’d probably find passes blocked by snow before early July and after mid-October. You’d rejoice in solitude, refreshment, inner peace. And, occasionally, grieve at the sight of nature’s handiwork undone by man.
Long Summer’s Walk Spans the Route
Made up mostly of existing paths stitched together, the Pacific Crest constitutes the Nation’s longest hiking trail.”But the trail wasn’t established to encourage border-to-border hiking,” explained Jerry Gause, a Forest Service official. With the help of an advisory council, his agency supervises the route; much of it traverses the national forests strung along the mountain backbone. “We wanted to create a pathway of great length that would make more high country accessible. Most travelers will spend a weekend on it, or a week or two, at a time.”
Most, yes. But the challenge of walking border to border was bound to tempt someone—someone like Eric Ryback of Belleville, Michigan. Eric is just 18 years old and weighs only 120 pounds, but he has legs of iron and lungs of leather (next page). He already had hiked from Maine to Georgia on the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail* when he appeared early in June last year at Manning Provincial Park in Canada’s British Columbia. Eight miles south of park headquarters the Pacific Crest route begins.
Winter’s snow-16 feet deep in places—hid the trail. Canadian authorities advised Eric that it would not clear before mid-July. Eric said he was going south anyway. He trudged off, lugging 80 pounds of food and gear—an incredible load, equal to two-thirds of his weight.”I couldn’t see the trail in the snow, so I used my map and compass,” he said. “But I’d end up in the wrong places. I’d reach a crest and find a 3,000-foot drop ahead. Then I’d have to backtrack.”
Eric left snowshoes behind; he’d been told they’d be too cumbersome on rugged terrain. The first ten days were cloudy and he walked across frozen crust. Then the sun appeared, softening the surface. It hardened again at night, but by midafternoon he sank to his knees with every step.
For a month Eric met not another hiker.
“I was almost ready to give up when I reached the Columbia River,” he said. “The mental strain of slogging alone through so much snow was almost too much.”He kept on anyway, replenishing his food from supplies cached by friends. He walked the soles off his boots three times. On his 129th day he reached Mexico—the first man to span the route in one trip.
Lest Eric’s odyssey appear easy, let the novice beware: Traveling alone, fighting deep snow, he took extreme risks. Of such stuff are tragedies made—and great achievements.Barry Murray of Home Valley, Washington, his wife, and their three young children also went all the way. But they traveled on horseback for two summers, a total of seven months—”a lot of that time spent looking for grass for the horses,” Barry remembers.
A border-to-border trail was advocated as long ago as 1932 by Pasadena businessman and conservationist Clinton C. Clarke. He urged the Forest Service to knit together and extend the threads of high-country footpaths already existing, such as the Oregon Skyline Trail and California’s John Muir route.
The father of the Pacific Crest Trail achieved partial success before his death in 1957; he prevailed upon the Forest Service to call the footpaths in Oregon and Washington by the collective name “Pacific Crest Trail System.” But the realization of a border-toborder system had to wait until 1968 when Congress, responding to growing legions of hikers and horsemen, created the Pacific Crest as one of two national scenic trails, with the Appalachian as the other.
Trail Blazers Favor the Tenderfoot
As they laid out the trail, sometimes following the route Clarke had proposed, Forest Service engineers and recreation specialists kept in mind the average hiker, not the expert mountaineer. They skirted arduous rock climbs and placed signs so well that much of the trail can be followed without a map. But I always carried one for safety’s sake—as well as a first-aid kit and two signal flares in case of emergency. Signs notwithstanding, hikers do occasionally get lost or break a leg. Even on a trail as safe as this one, rangers advise caution and preparedness.
The planners made the trail wide enough for single-file horsebacking or hiking, but no more. Who wants a highway intruding on his highland reverie? They tried to avoid roads, logged-over tracts, and other evidence of man’s presence. However, they sometimes placed the route within a mile or so of campgrounds with fireplaces and log tables.
Now 1,500 trail miles meet the planners’ standards, mostly in the Cascades and the
High Sierra. Elsewhere the traveler must detour on roads and paths or go cross-country.
The Pacific Crest Trail doesn’t exist yet in the Shasta and Trinity National Forests of northern California, for example, nor in parts of California south of the Sierra. Half a dozen gaps exist in Oregon and Washington. Completion will cost an estimated $5,000,000.*