My father recently let me borrow the book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. The book details Mr. Bryson’s efforts to walk the entirety of the Appalachian Trail during the spring/summer of 1996. I devoured the book, enthralled by its honest, humorous take of days composed of painful, arduous walking in the majesty of nature. His tales rekindled my desire to once again walk up a mountain.
The first real hike I ever went on was while I was at summer camp between 5th and 6th grades. We lived up north at the time, and the summer camp was near Mount Lassen in the Cascade Range. The second to last day of camp, we were going to hike to the summit of Mt. Lassen. We were bussed to the trailhead at 8500 feet, then it was a 2.5 mile walk, along with a 2000 foot gain in elevation, to the top where lunch would be waiting. Now, fat fifth grader that I was was not getting to the top of that mountain under the best conditions. The day was far from ideal: the teenager that was in charge of my group forgot to bring our water bottles, so I was forced to go without. He said there would be plenty of water at the top. Also, as I quickly fell behind, I was written off as wolf-bait, and was left by the group. I do not remember much from that day other than being very hot and very thirsty as I trudged up that barren wasteland. I only had sense enough to turn around and head back to the parking lot when a man and his son who were coming back from the peak happened upon me, a 10 year old boy, alone on a mountain in the later stages of heat exhaustion. He gave me water, told me to rest, and told me to turn around. As I write this, I now only realize how easily I could have died that day. What kind of asshole leaves a 10 year old without water?
Somewhere around 8th or 9th grade, my father, myself and my uncle hiked to the top of Mt. Baldy, officially known as Mt. San Antonio, in the San Gabriel mountains (10,064 ft). Granted, we cheated a little by taking the ski lift to get a head start on the way up, but we still hiked the majority of the way. We could see Catalina Island from the top, despite the smog layer. I used an internal frame pack that day; never could understand why those things existed.
In the mid to late 90’s, I did a fair amount of hiking/backpacking with the Boy Scouts. We would hike the surrounding mountains and would regularly walk in Saturday, walk out Sunday. These excursions culminated in our trip to Philmont Scout Ranch, near Cimarron, New Mexico in 1998. Philmont has a variety of backpacking trips available ranging from a few days to a few weeks. We did an 11 day trip totaling 65 miles abouts, if my memory serves me. I enjoyed the hell out of Philmont, and to this day, one of my favorite photos is of my father and me standing atop Mount Phillips (11,721 ft). As the trip progressed, my father’s pack got progressively lighter, as mine got progressively heavier. I was 17 at the time, and quite the adequate packmule apparently. At the start of the trip my pack weighed 61 pounds, my friend Randy’s 63. 11 days later, they weighed 81 and 83 respectively.
The following summer, the scout troop was set to climb Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas, the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S. (14,505 ft). To be honest, at the time I had no desire to climb that mountain, but my dad wanted to go, so I went. I don’t think he wanted to climb it either. Sure, he wanted to get to the top, but I don’t think he wanted to climb it. He needed me to push him to do it. We had camped somewhere around 7000 feet at a site off the road. We did a practice hike up to 9000 then back down to 7000 in an effort to acclimate ourselves to the change in elevation. This led to me getting altitude sickness. It happens every now and again to me, further reinforcing that we are descended from plains-dwellers; nausea, headache and the like. That night I threw up my Dinty Moore beef stew from dinner, and convinced my father to take me home. I think only a handful of our group actually made it to the top; I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t there. One of the guys did get his van broken into by bears though. I really should have sucked it up for a day and worked through the sickness. My dad and I were both looking for an excuse to not have to go up Whitney, but we should have stayed. He really wanted to go to the top. I view that as one of the times I truly failed as a son.
The last time I did anything resembling strenuous hiking was in 2001 in the Army when I participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon in White Sands, New Mexico. I did the 26.2 miles with a 40 pound ruck-sack on, and thought I was going to die of exhaustion for the entirety of the last 6 miles. The final leg of the march was through a wash, so the sandy footing made my already heavy legs immovable. No longer able to jog the course, as I did at the begining in the cool morning, I was resigned to shuffling 100 yards, throwing my ruck on the ground and sitting in the hot sun for 5-10 minutes while I summoned up the will to walk the next 100 yds. I couldn’t comprehend, being in the best shape of my life, why I hadn’t finished yet. At that point in my life I could run 12 miles with a ruck on in 2 hours without a problem. Surely I could walk 26. My personal highlight of the day occurred when a woman, who couldn’t have weighed less than 400 pounds, waddled past me with a few miles to go. Granted, she wasn’t carrying a ruck-sack, but still. My will had been so thoroughly broken by that march, that I didn’t feel one bit of animosity towards that woman, no drive to push on and overtake her. I just thought, “Good for her.” I eventually stumbled to the finish line somewhere around the 8 hour mark.
After reading A Walk in the Woods, I want to start backpacking again. I think I am going to attempt portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs the extent of the West Coast from Mexico to Canada. I have been looking for an accurate map online, but it appears I’ll have to purchase a hard copy. I want to know how many miles it would be from Mt San Jacinto (10,834) in Idyllwild to Mt San Gorgonio (11,503) near Big Bear. The hike would be gorgeous, heading north down into the desert to the pass, then back up to the other peak. If it’s feasible to walk the distance in a timely manner (3-5 days), I’ll give it a shot. If not, I’ll at least take 2-3 day hikes to the summits. I have the whole summer off, why not do something memorable?