Monday, August 11, 2014


In Idyllwild, many moons and miles ago, I found that most hikers, newbies and veterans alike, jumped from Paradise Cafe to town completely avoiding the detour and road walk. One hiker paraphrased the waitress at the cafe as saying, "You stand out there with your thumb out and 15 minutes later you got yourself a hitch to Idyllwild. That's what all of you guys do!" Another said he 'did what everyone else was doing' and hitched into town under confusion. To me, it was obvious: walk the walk. The term and definition of 'thru hike' is an ambiguous one. It seems the definition has changed from the traditional sense of the word to a free-form meaning from a newer generation. The hikers I spoke to gave me the impression they would not have made that same 'hitch' decision if they had other information and/or knowledge. Already, within 150m of trail, hikers were faced with a dilemma. 

I'm not a purist and I feel there are not many more of them. But I don't look at them any differently than someone who flips, skips, or whatever. I do not think there is a right way or a wrong way; only my own way. I used to separate 'thrus' and 'skippers' in different lights, as if one was better than the other. Even farther apart were the section hikers. I recognize the experience, or the miles, one has, and the conviction and integrity one exhibits during a connective hike. What I do hold against hikers is not being up-front about one's hike and the blatant disrespect of the trail.

Before this thru hike I considered a 'thru' one who walks steps continuously, a connection along the particular long distance trail within a set time frame. I still do. I have pondered the term 'thru hike' deeply and often on this year's hike. The main reason is not to reformulate my own definition. I've witnessed Bearclaw develop her own through her own experience, my influence and experience, others' actions, and the environmental concerns, namely fires. I have felt a bigger sense of responsibility as a thru-hiker in helping her develop her own. I want her to gather her own convictions and beliefs while instilling an ethic from my perspective, which I believe is held within the same light as reputable and esteemed thru-hikers. 

Why have I pondered this term often? Because people are out here doing all types of stuff: skipping, flipping, lying, hiking a complete thru, etc. And there has been fires. Major fires at that. They've occurred in inopportune places with a huge number of hikers affected. I'm not the only one this year with questions. I imagine it is even tougher as a first-timer. Believe you, me, there are a vast number of new hikers to the small thru-hiking community and most are looking for guidance. In fact, this year I've given more advice on the term thru-hike in regards to what the hiker is doing. Almost everyone is afraid what other hikers will say about them. It's like they're never concerned about what they're doing, however, the result of their actions in others' eyes matter.

The obvious question occurs: how many hikers are actually 'thru-hiking' the PCT this year? The Appalachian Trail Conference defines an AT thru-hike as having completed the entire trail in one calendar year. The PCTA holds a thru hike as completing every single mile in a single season. Does 'thru-hiking' imply connectivity in one fail swoop? ALDHA West recognizes a Triple Crown hiker as a deserving recipient who has hiked all the Big 3 major U.S. trails in no specific time frame, 3 years or 30 years, whether thru-hiking or flipping, no matter the age, color, or gender. The recognition is based on the honor system and I highly doubt they would accept a hiker who has skipped yet claims a 'thru-hike.'

This year is not the exception that hikers have chosen to piece together the trail their own way. Sometimes the year chooses the path for you. In 2011 I 'thru-hiked' the PCT. Skipping and flipping were rampant because of the tremendous amount of snow in the Sierra Nevada. I remember getting to Kennedy Meadows and about 150 hikers were waiting for the snow to melt. Some had already jumped ahead with intentions of completing the Sierra Nevada later (flipping) in the season, while others quit or skipped ahead with no intentions of completing what they missed. This year I've looked back at 2011 trail register entries and cringe at what I wrote. In fact, I've only read about 3 because I know the rest are in the same light. I made a point to write that I was an 'every-stepper.' The phrase was like a badge of honor back then but as I reread the entries I felt ashamed and embarrassed. Arrogant actually. I don't think I've a right to gloat about my hike compared to someone else. On each of my thru-hikes I developed a deeper sense of place and philosophy of trail life, a higher ethic and standard. My ethic transpires into my 'normal' life. I hold my working life the way I hold my hiking life because of my hiking life.

The CDT altered my standard even more so than the PCT when you're free to choose the route based on your mood, stressors, weather, scenery, experience level, alternates, towns, etc. The PCT is a 'cookie-cutter' route confined within the constrains that everyone walks the same path with the same beginning and ending points. On the CDT YOU define YOUR thru-hike. My Vagabond Loop took my ethic even a mile further. I created a connection between 3 established routes, thru-hiking the HDT, GET and AZT, paving my own damn way while looping around the Southwest. I focused on connectivity, scenic attraction, and a challenging aspect in defining my route. Most importantly, I used my 'thru-hike' ethic. So, on the PCT this year what has mattered to me most is connection and how it solely effects Bearclaw and I. 

Like I said, the decision to flip and skip has been popular this year. Each one with a different reason: skill, illness, plain laziness, apathy, group-think. But mainly fire. From closures down in SoCal, to NorCal, and a vast stretch in Oregon, this PCT season has proven tough to walk the whole actual PCT, although you can still connect your steps via road alternates around the fire closures. Some hikers refuse to walk a road whether dirt or paved. So, does a closure make it free to skip a section? I've seen others who walked the alternate. What is clear to me is the difference in goals and the definition of 'thru-hike.' I believe that if an alternate is provided it is part of the journey and the PCT for that season. There lies a difference between someone blatantly skipping an alternate and a hiker who gets information later or someone who flips the section. To me, a flipper has the intention and will follow through on that particular alternate. A skipper doesn't. But that is not the only problem. One hiker told me as he left a re-supply point before a major fire closure the alternate changed 4 different times, so when he got to the trail head of the alternate he did not know where to go. He decided to hitch because he felt he did not know where to go. I do not blame him at all. The way a hiker receives information has a definite effect on determining a thru-hike.

There are ways to avoid such closures as well. I am not cutting everyone scott-free on how the season plays out for them. I can say the ones who are done already and have a complete 'thru-hike' prepared the most, took the utmost concern on logistics, had weather awareness, had clearer goals, got lucky, and stayed healthy. I might also add, they stayed away from a group. To hike the PCT, or any other long distant trail, weather windows play a major part in completing the trail consecutively. Fire has been a huge concern this year, even early on in the season, especially coming off 3 drought years. Out here in the West, fire season needs to be watched just as importantly as the snows up North in the Cascades. From most hikers I talked to fire was not a concern. Most people dilly-dallied with groups soaking up the good times. Only a few handled their business. There were some, including ourselves, that had different circumstances. Above all, I noticed the group-think mentality shift and influence hiker's decisions. The best quote I read in any register was of a couple who broke away from a big group: 'make haste, not friends.' And to my knowledge, they made it through without any fire detour.

We flipped. From Willamette Pass to Cascade Locks. We had our reasons (getting married, flight issues, Giardia, among others) and they make sense to us and with our timing. Also, in no way was the decision influenced by anyone else. I always thought if I did something like a flip it would be of a natural disaster of something crazy and/or a death. I can now say I'd add circumstances. Each thru-hike is different and circumstances arise one may never foresee.

PCT hikers leave at different times, have different goals, take different steps using different gear, yet the individual's 'path' leads to the same place. It should be the experience that matters. Yet I find this topic an interesting one. I find that blame needs not always be placed on the hikers themselves. I feel some snobbery is being exhibited by some 'old-timers.' Change is hard to swallow and within this new age upon us many are finding it even more challenging to relate to hikers who may do things differently. Social media relates the expressions of nearly the whole planet, books and movies are coming out and exposing an otherwise little known community, hikers and runners are breaking records, gear is getting more technological, smarter, and lighter, and a younger bunch are infiltrating the trails and blogospheres. What gets to me is the lack of mentoring and programs that can have a positive influence on the newer hikers. Bearclaw mentions to me all the time the need for Leave No trace kiosks at every trail head. To a lot of newcomers definitions may be unclear and, to the contrary, their intentions may be unclear to the veterans. Am I alone in seeing a need that needs to be filled? Would this help with switchback cutting, leaving water caches clean, hiker etiquette, etc.? Most of the snobbery I have seen is in the social media realm. Time after time, people are calling out people in social forums. I've been guilty of it too in calling out the filth and trash hikers have left. I would love to see the PCTA have more mentoring programs for aspiring thru-hikers like MyYAMAadventure led by qualified and experienced thru-hikers with a reputable background. I know for a fact that most of the reputable thru-hiking community would volunteer to help. I believe that past thru-hikers would want the best experience for aspiring thru-hikers, as well as preserving our history and care of the land.

In the end, I think one's honesty and realness to oneself and what their goals are factor into their own definition. But the consensus of an overall term is too general with too many personalities. The journey is long and arduous and ultimately wears on people. It's like work, a job. They're ones who take short cuts, ones who work overtime, ones who do what is supposed to be done, etc., yet they are all just workers. Some get paid more than others, some do just enough to get by. This may be a reach on a metaphor but I kind of see a connection.

This community we're in is always evolving, especially the more miles one walks. The number of thru-hikers will continue to grow. If a solid, well-defined definition cannot be determined then let hikers be hikers, solely hikers. Rather than bash people, let's help them, empower them to be more responsible ambassadors for the trail community. Like I said, my own ethics have changed and this particular thru-hike has shone me a different light, one that opened a new perspective, a better viewpoint.