Reflections of a Late Seasoner
October 16, 2010 from Continental Flight 1880, Seat A26, Seattle, WA to Newark, NJ
The year 2010 had ‘failed thru-hike’ tattooed on the minds of many hikers that set out at Campo this spring. This was especially true for late-season starters.
I remember reading the Southern California Water Report, which warned of ice chutes, avalanche danger, running water that could not be accessed below deep snow, and of navigational difficulties, in the San Jacintos. If it was this bad in Southern California, what would the Sierras be like? I was so spooked that I almost canned my trip before I even took the first step, before I even left San Diego.
One statistic pointed out that California had snowfalls 160% above normal, the second heaviest snowpack in its history. Late-season snow fell in the San Jacintos and in the Sierras. Mammoth Ski Resort remained open through July 4. And I walked in a lot of Sierran snow, which Uncle Tom called ‘The Great Snow Walk.’ Snow drifts lingering late into July were characteristic of not only California, but of Oregon and Washington.
In a delicate twist of irony, 2010 may have been the best year to complete a thru-hike. We had water when least expected in SoCal. The Sierran snows were passable. Northern California and points north had only a few, lingering sketchy snowfields. Oregon was cold, wet, and rainy, but what else is new. Washington, though, was the x-factor. October was an amazing month. Streaks of Indian summer lasting 3 days, 5 days, even 7 days, were common. Berries were plentiful from Seiad Valley right to the Canadian border. We had at our disposal every last ripe huckleberry. And while the bushes offered their fruity harvest, we were treated to unrivaled fall foliage, from the deepest reds to the cheerfullest yellows. Only by the grace of God was the weather so good. It could have been an entirely different September or October. The season-ending snows could have fallen mid-September. But they didn’t.
There were the naysayers and the Debbie Downers. We late seasoners were met with remarks like this for 5 months:
“You’re too late.”
“What are you doing here?” (as in, ‘You’re crazy if you think you stand a snowball’s chance in hell)
“Aren’t you a little late?”
“You”ll get snowed out.”
“The snows will fall in Washington way before you get there.”
“You should flip-flop.”
“You just wait.”
Hearing these comments had an inevitable impact on the late seasoners of 2010. I know of one young hippie couple that quit the trail in Idyllwild. Others quit later. Still others flip-flopped, meaning they did the Washington section earlier, to avoid early autumn snows, or the Sierras later, to allow for spring snows to melt and be more easily traversed. Some hiking partnerships crumbled and splintered. Most thru-hikers that I came to know, know of, or hike with, just kept on walking, 25 miles a day, every day. These were the ones with true grit, whom I came to respect the most. There was a brotherhood there, those who were going to keep going, no matter what.
One PCT trail legend told me that I was late in the game for a successful thru-hike. Chances were I would not make it. But this same person, Billygoat, gave me a piece of advice then that helped me complete the trail. He said, “You have to be an A-type to finish the trail.” I had never thought of myself as a goal-oriented, super-determined type, but with the late-season start of May 10, a shift in strategy and personality would be necessary. Or else I might be snowed out at the border, perhaps days short of completing the trail. I took the advice to heart. I also allowed myself to become a hiker that could, would, and did hike 25-30 miles a day, every day, rain-wind-sleet-or snow. The advice worked for me. That’s the nature of advice: you can take it or leave it. What you do with it is your beeswax.
My point is this: everyone who had it in them to break through to the Canadian side, barring illness, injury, or other obligations, made it through. Everyone did it by hiking their own hike, and deliberately squeezing every ounce of town stop, enjoyment, and woods time they could out of their hikes. I can’t begin to express how awesome this is. Many, many congratulations!
Here’s to you, those who I saw or specifically heard finished their thru-hikes: Flyboxer, Hiker X, Answer Man, Blackgum, Stumbling Norwegian, Spillz, Speshul 41, Medic, Flyboy, Grinder, Barrel Roll, Steiner, Swiss Miss, Gangles, T-Bone, Moosie, Bigfoot, Hojo, Shake’n'Bake, Wide Angle, Fully Loaded, Dinosaur, Swayze, Chopsticks, D’Artagnan, Hummingbird, Flashback. And to Stacks, Ursa Major, and Scott “Chipper” Clayton, and Fozzie, of whom I’m not sure what came of their hikes.
I love you guys!