The aptly-named Bill Walker stood atop a mountain pass in the Northern Cascades of Washington, gazing out at Mt. Rainer. The scene was spectacular --The aptly-named Bill Walker stood atop a mountain pass in the Northern Cascades of Washington, gazing out at Mt. Rainer. The scene was spectacular -- one of the best he'd seen on his trek of the Pacific Crest Trail. But when he later wrote about it, he put the vista into context. "Singular views are overrated. The more profound experience is to walk through nature and subconsciously embrace its holistic majesty."
This could be the attitude of someone numbed by the daily beauty of being 2000 miles into a six-month hike from the Mexican to Canadian border. Or, it could be the whole point.
This book, like most I've been reading lately, is about a journey. Some of them are metaphorically spiritual. Others are specific adventures out in the world. All of them have had in common some aspect of mid-life discovery, not too dissimilar to what I've been experiencing as I approach what is likely the halfway point of my own life. And what I've has struck me is lack of epiphany or big flashes of inspiration; no palm slap to the forehead that suddenly changes everything. Rather, it's about the sum total, an aggregate of tiny decisions, taking step after step and only realizing much later that you've ended up somewhere entirely new.
Walker set out to hike the PCT two years after successfully completing the East Coast's Appalachian Trail. I was surprised to learn that the first night he ever spent sleeping outdoors was the day he started that earlier hike. He was in his mid-40s at the time, and had been a commodities trader in London. So, yeah, that mid-life thing.
The trail itself - and his particular walk along it - is clearly segmented to the geography of the Western United States. He stared like most "through-hikers" do at the southern end and marched off into the Mojave desert. Seven hundred miles later, Walker started climbing into the High Sierra. Yosemite marks a psychological half-way point and a transition to the even more rugged terrain and raging forrest fires of Norther California. At the Oregon boarder, Crater Lake leads him to the gentler Cascades. But at the Columbia River, he's forced to make a dash through the dormant volcanoes of Washington to get to the norther terminus before the early winter weather sets in.
I didn't realize that each year, most everyone attempting the full course walks more or less together. It makes sense: there's a tight seasonal window that enables this remarkable trek. Hikers need to leave early enough in the spring to avoid the desert's punishing temperatures, but not so early that they arrive in the Sierra before the snowmelt. Likewise, they need to make significant progress up the trail to hope to finish before October, when the first snowstorms in Washington make getting to the Canadian border impossible.
As a result, a community forms along the trail with the expected drama. Couples hook up and break up. People help each other in difficult circumstances. Factions form and compete. And everyone travels with a nickname; the book's narrator goes by "Skywalker," a obvious play on his last name.
The story arc reveals Walker's blend of wonder and anxiety. He is constantly amazed at the beauty around him, but also desperately pushing to rack up the miles. The clock is ticking towards winter, and by the time he's reached Northern California he has conditioned himself to hike 25 rugged trail miles a day before collapsing in his tent after dark. To me, this is as much a part of the "holistic majesty" as the natural scenery. My own experience with long distance cycling helps me to relate. Deep physical exertion amplifies the sublime.
My only real criticism with this book is the shifting perspective in Walker's descriptions of the men and women he encounters along the way. Specifically, he seems to jump to romantic speculation each time he encounters a female on his journey. He's always quick to point out his platonic intentions, and there very well may be an undercurrent of tension along the trail. But I found it distracting -- and honestly a little embarrassing -- each time he described a women he met.
Ultimately a quick and enjoyable book, good not just for a dose of vicarious travel but for a first-hand introduction to the Pacific Crest Trail's epic challenge, rugged geography, and peculiar culture....more