Mileage Matters

Have ever wondered if you could be capable of a long-distance hike.  If you pondered it once it is likely that your mind began swirling around the distance and the distance only.  Perhaps you got as far as looking at the total mileage of the trail and doing some basic math.  Maybe you thought, “it’s not that crazy hard. You just have to be steady and walk 15 miles a day or so. Sure, people do it a lot faster than that. The super studly people of course.  But isn’t the real thrill almost completely wrapped up in just the sense of accomplishment upon having completed something you set out to do?  So what if it takes me 6 or 8 weeks longer than someone else?  I still did it, dadgummit, and I am bad to the bone!”  That logic seems sound to me.  I tend to think that anyone who completes a hike that requires you to be out in the woods for more nights than the number of meals you left the car with is pretty much bad to the bone.  Whether it is 200 miles, or 2000+ miles.  It’s a big deal.  But there is more to it than just covering the mileage.

When you start looking at the PCT, the magnitude jumps off the page.  2659 miles.  That is a long way.  From my hometown in Lakeland, FL, if you take the direct route, on roads of course, you can drive to the Southern Terminus of the PCT in 2398 miles.  The trail zigzags up, down, and around mountains, ravines, rivers, and lakes through the whole of California, Oregon and Washington- Canadian border to Mexican border.  I doubt anyone is planning a walk to California from Central FL because it just doesn’t look fun, but the PCT calls out to people to come and experience its grandeur. 

Vince and Monica Strawbridge went on a 4 day backpacking trip in early Fall 2016 that covered a small section of the PCT.  It was then that this idea to hike the whole thing, with their whole family, was born.  “Can we really walk that far?  Would the kids really make it?  What about school?  Work? Relationships? Are we crazy?”  Crazy or not is a matter of opinion amongst those who know and love them, but the decision to go was made.  Once committed, the matter of logistics and execution leaped to the forefront.  Logistics is a big word.  A daunting word for a “big vision and the details will take care of themselves” kind of guy like Vince. 

“How do we get to the trail?  When should we go? What is a realistic timeframe for completion? How many days of food can we carry? How do we get more food? Is there enough water along the trail? Isn’t Southern Cali a desert?  Deserts don’t have water, do they?  What happens if equipment breaks? First Aid? Shoes wear out- how fast?  What’s the weather like? Is Sasquatch real? THERE ARE MOUNTAIN LIONS? Does a bear poop in the woods? If a tree falls in the forest…..?”

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there are Mountain Lions

 

yes.... this is a real thing 

They answered what questions they could and then “The Family” started the journey July 2.  Long distance hikers earn trail names from fellow hikers based on their personality traits, habits, and persona.  “The Family” is so unique to long-distance hiking that other hikers can’t get past the amazement that 2 parents are out there with 4 kids.  So out on the trail they are known to all as one unit and they got one name, “The Family”.  Hikers leave the trail for re-supply and rest days on different schedules so they are constantly leapfrogging one another.  The majority of people don’t seem too thrilled with their own efforts when they realize they got passed by an 11 year old on their day off, but The Family is well liked and embraced on the trail nonetheless.

Why July 2 to start? Seems late in the Summer, right? Kinda’ burnin good hiking months starting so late aren’t you?  Here’s that word again- Logistics.  Every trail has two directions.  A hiker choosing to hike it has a decision to make.  Which way?  You have to obtain a permit to hike the whole trail.  It has grown massively in popularity over the last few years.  In 2013 only 1041 permits were obtained to thru-hike the PCT.  In 2017 the number was 3934.  2018 will exceed 4000.  Only a few hundred will finish.  But an important thing for The Family to know is that each year only about 10% of all thru-hike permits for the PCT are requested for the Southbound route.  Why? Logistics.

Most Southbounders begin at Hart’s Pass, WA.  30 miles from the Canadian border.  Over 6000’ above sea level.  Have you been to Glacier National Park?  Most summers, the famous Going to the Sun Road opens over Logan Pass around the end of June.  July 1 is a safe bet, but some of the back-country trails remain closed at that time.  Hart’s Pass sits at the same latitude and elevation as Logan Pass in a mountain range that receives more snow fall annually than the Northern Rockies in Montana.  Snow Pack conditions in the Cascades in Northern Washington prevent passage on parts of the trail until the beginning of July.  Most Northbounders start in April at the Mexican border and finish in early Fall.  The snow melts in the Southern Sierras earlier than it does in WA.  An April start means more manageable temps in the desert and arrival in the Sierras after the snows are well on their way to melting.  Keeping a reasonable pace, a Northbounder might expect to be in Canada before the end of September, well ahead of Old Man Winter.

So why wouldn’t The Family choose the route that 90% of all hikers have decided is clearly the way to go?  School.  They couldn’t miss that chunk from two separate school years.  Permission was granted to take a gap year and graduate a year later.  Miss time from two separate school years, and the logistics don’t work.            

So how are the logistics working out now? On July 2 they started walking North out of Hart’s Pass to the Canadian border lying 30 miles away.  For two days The Family did 15 miles a day.  They were hard miles.  Painful miles.  “Holy Smokes do we really have to do this for months?” miles.  They turned around to head South on July 4.  Still averaging about 15 miles a day.  Day by day the miles got a little easier, but still very challenging.  It is hard to say if it was Day 15 or Day 20, but somewhere in there something magical happened.  They were blessed with their Trail Legs.  They had been told of these mythical things but had not seen any amongst their merry band.  Have you ever started a new workout program? The first couple of weeks really hurt.  You wonder why you ever thought it would be a good idea to get fit.  Navigating the stairs at the office you look like someone fused your knees in place.  You nearly rip the towel rod out of the bathroom wall trying to lower yourself onto and off of the toilet seat thanks to that last set of squats your trainer made you do.  You are convinced you will never walk normally again.  But you stick with your workout routines and 15-20 days later you can do a workout and your bathroom fixtures are no longer in danger and the Aleve can stay on the shelf.  Those are Trail Legs.  A bounce in your step.  Strength. Endurance.  Increased ability.

Suddenly, the days got longer.  19 wasn’t so bad. 23 wasn’t bad at all with the promise of PIZZA the next day.  “Dang it! The Family just blew by me on the trail! That little red-head is 11! Not cool.”

On August 1, 30 days after setting out, The Family had covered 530 miles and stepped across the Columbia River on a span known as The Bridge of the Gods and crossed into Oregon.  Nearly 18 miles a day on average, but that includes rest days where no miles were covered.  They are comfortably exceeding 20 miles a day now.  It was off to Portland for a re-supply day and much needed rest.  Re-supply involves packing boxes to mail to yourselves at depots along the trail that receive mail for hikers.  Food stores are vital.  Calories are of the utmost importance.  Oregon is easier.  Some call it the “Highway” of the PCT.  Straighter and flatter than WA.  It is also much drier.  There is a stretch of the trail in OR that is 100 miles long with no reliable water source.  Time to add carrying lots of water to the logistics.  Those pesky logistics.   It is vital to put huge miles in through Oregon because there are more logistics ahead on the trail.  The Family started out on August 4 determined to cover the 460 miles of Oregon PCT in 19 days of hiking or less.  25 miles a day is the goal.  Their biggest day so far has been 26.5 miles.  Do you own a FitBit or Apple watch?  What’s your daily step goal? The Family just set theirs at 50,000 a day.  Think you can keep up? How many Calories would you want to put in to fuel that effort?  Could you carry that on your back the whole time?  They want to reach the California line on August 25 or before, because of logistics.

The original plan had them reaching a famous spot on the trail known as Kennedy Meadows on Oct 16.  Kennedy is 700 miles from Mexico.  990 miles from Oregon.  It is famous because it is the beginning of the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and the 90% of thru-hikers coming up from Mexico who make it that far get to enjoy spring in the mountains and the promise of cooler temps and abundant water sources.  Northbounders get renewed and head into the alpine regions newly invigorated, until the altitude sickness hits them.  20 miles north of Kennedy Meadows is one of the highest sections of the PCT where the trail stays mostly above 10,000 feet for 150 miles.   About 50 miles North of Kennedy the trail crosses its highest point at Forester Pass (ironically named as it is well above the tree line and barren) topping out at 13,153 feet.  If you have been- Trail Ridge Rd in Rocky Mountain National Park is a little over 12,000 feet.  I was there 10 days ago. On a nice day.  Freezing to death. Heading North from Kennedy you are hopeful the snows have melted enough that you can get through and that a Spring storm doesn’t slow you.  Heading South like The Family is, you hope that you can beat the rapidly approaching winter.

Veteran hikers encountered on the trail have advised that Oct 1 is a safe date.  You will probably see some snow showers prior to that date, but they will not stop passage.  Oct 16 carries with it an uncomfortably high probability that a large storm will pass through and the trail becomes impassable until the following Spring.  It doesn’t come that early every year, but it can.  Since The Family really doesn’t want to experience the disappointment of walking nearly 2000 miles to the point where they can nearly see Kennedy Meadows only to have the weather force them down, they are pressing the pace.  Mileage Matters. Oct 7 is the new goal to reach Kennedy Meadows.  They hope to start California on Aug 26.  That is 43 days of fast California hiking to reach the safety zone.  23 miles a day.  With 5 rest days included it becomes 26 miles a day on actual hiking days.  Definitely not a stroll through the woods.  Mileage Matters.  Hang in there Trail Legs.

After Kennedy, The Family can stroll all they want.  They will have all winter to complete 700 miles of lower elevation terrain.  After all, school won’t be starting until August 2019! 700 miles sounds like nothing after that, right?  I mean, it is just Lakeland to Nashville, TN.  Who’s ready for a walk?

written by Jamie Brown