My earliest camping experiences go back to my childhood in Minnesota. My mother took my brother and me on trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area from a very young age, usually with other friends or family in tow. We’d paddle and portage from lake to lake for days at a time. My mother was (and is) an experienced wilderness adventurer who enjoyed occasional solo trips as well. She taught us how to appreciate the natural world while having fun and staying safe. These memories stand out more clearly than any others from my youth. Jumping out of a canoe to swim in the middle of a lake. Eating freshly caught fish roasted on the campfire. The magical sound of loons singing at night.
Even though I grew up in the suburbs, my childhood was filled with opportunities to appreciate nature. Cross-country skiing. Ice fishing. Visiting my grandparents’ farm. Hikes through local wilderness preserves. Family road trips. Camping with friends as a teenager.
I moved to Oregon on my own at the age of 19. It wasn’t long before I heard the wilderness calling my name. I figured I had enough experience that I could just head out onto the trail without advice or guidance. Fortunately I did know enough to keep myself safe. What I didn’t know was how to pack for a trip when you have to carry everything on your back. I was used to packing more than one bag per person, and carrying it all in a canoe. It didn’t take long for me to learn from my mistake.
I first attempted the Timberline Trail on Mt. Hood, starting a few miles downhill at Government Camp. A Greyhound bus dropped me off with a huge external-frame backpack stuffed to capacity with cookware hanging off the side. By the time I reached the main trail, the sun had set and I was throwing up from altitude sickness. By the next day I realized I couldn’t get around the mountain in the time allowed. Instead I hiked four miles a day and turned around when my time was half over.
My second night on the trail, as I was getting ready for bed, another hiker walked up. “Any room left for another camper?” Campsites can be few and far between on much of the trail.
“Yeah, I think there’s room over here on this side.” I pointed with my headlamp.
“Perfect, thanks.” He found the spot and began shuffling through a tiny backpack. “Where did you hike from today?”
I paused, not proud of my answer. “Honestly, only four miles back. How about you?”
He named a place I had never heard of and waited for me to reply. I didn’t. He chuckled. “You don’t know where that is, do you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Forty-two miles away.” He let that sink in and I contemplated in silence. I had plenty of questions but I was tired and didn’t feel like asking them. He seemed relieved that I wasn’t in a talkative mood anyway. We wished each other good night and I went into my tent. He slept in the open on a paper-thin pad. When I woke up the next day he was gone.
When I got home, I learned more about the 2,660-mile Pacific Crest Trail that overlapped the trail I had been on. I didn’t make it around the mountain on that first attempt. I did go back later that summer with a lighter pack and completed the 40-mile Timberline Trail, plus bonus miles, in a respectable four days. Over the years my hiking trips became longer. I acquired more lightweight gear, dehydrated my own food, and replaced my tent with a hammock. Occasionally I hike with friends but I usually go solo. When I started running out of local trails, I took to hiking longer sections of the PCT.
It wasn’t until last year, however– 16 years after that first backpacking attempt– that I began seriously began thinking about attempting a thru-hike from Mexico to Canada. I enjoy both solo and group hikes, but I couldn’t envision committing to one or the other for four months or longer. What changed my mind about thru-hiking was a 306-mile PCT section hike in Washington during the peak season for northbound thru-hikers in that area. I was traveling southbound, so I passed literally hundreds of thru-hikers and talked with many of them. I saw that vast numbers of people were essentially hiking solo, but teaming up with others when the mood struck. When I learned that it is possible to balance solitude with human interaction during a thru-hike, I realized there was nothing left to stop me from having the adventure of a lifetime.
And so began the preparations for my upcoming thru-hike of the PCT.