This spring I am setting out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or as much of its 2650+ miles (4265+ km) my body and the weather-gods allow. The PCT stretches all the way from Campo at the Mexico border in California, to Manning Park just across the Canadian border in British Columbia. And, so it happens, I have spent most of my life living and hiking not so far from one end or the other.
I grew up near the Canada-US border in Langley, British Columbia. Each summer vacation, my grandparents would pack me (and half their house) into their shiny Buik and drive to the sunny Okanagan Valley. And each summer, we would pass through Manning Park, stopping to use the bathrooms and, like stereotypically bad tourists, feed the “critters” as my grandmother called the ground squirrels. There are album pages full of photos of me, and later my siblings, lying in wait on burrow-riddled the lawn in front of the lodge with outstretched hands full of peanuts.
And it was in Manning Park, when I was in my late teens, that I led a group of unsuspecting college friends on a three-day, 40km (that’s 25 miles my American friends) trip along the Heather Trail to Nicomen Lake in the North Cascades. We were a motley crew, outfitted in a mixture of polar fleece, thrift store athletic clothing and street shoes. I prided myself on my heavy waterproof hiking boots and indestructible Tilly pants, feeling sorry for my friends wearing running shoes, who, it turns out, were the ones unintentionally on trend. It was August 2000 and we had not yet heard of lightweight backpacking.
Thanks to my combined lack of experience and excess of enthusiasm for making do, my friends were laden with bottles of homemade – but not dehydrated – vegetarian chili for six, and a full-size package of jiffy pop among other things. I used my own small stature as an excuse to pawn these items off on my slightly bigger (and much less bossy) friends. Though I don’t remember exactly, I would bet that I assigned myself to oatmeal carrying duty, if anything.
By day, we carried our hefty packs up and over sound of music-style hills bursting with wildflowers: bright fields of purple lupine, red paintbrush and purple asters. At night we struggled to hang our food bags from the sap-sticky branches of stunted pines. The results were comical: food dangling at eye-level the first day, and our rope irretrievably tangled in trees on the second. And on the fringes of grizzly territory, no less. But luckily our food survived intact. I wish I could say the same for my feet, but my fancy boots rubbed loonie-sized blisters into both heels. My friends in their everyday footwear were all just fine. Despite the assault on my feet, I was smitten with the trail, the thin ribbon leading to the next turn, the top of the next ridge, the next view of snowy peaks.
It was while planning our route for this trip that I saw the words “Pacific Crest Trail” for the first time. They sat, as they still do, all unassuming on the Manning Park map as label for a short stretch of trail. The corresponding dotted line runs up to the border where it appears to end mysteriously at monument 78. The park information describes the hike as follows: “Pacific Crest Trail (Canadian Portion): 13km one way/4 hours/elevation change: 450m. But I soon learned there was a lot more: over 4265 km (2650 miles) more to be exact.
At the time, I never dreamed of hiking the PCT, especially not in its entirely; but I took comfort in the very existence of this path that somehow connected Canada all the way to Mexico. I continued to hike and camp in rain and mud of the Pacific North West (or South Coast to Canadians). I even convinced subsets of my friends to accompany me on further backpacking adventures, the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, and in 2005, the infamous West Coast Trail, a right of passage for BC backpackers. But the damage was done: the PCT continued to burrow quietly into the depths of my imagination.