PACIFIC CREST TRAIL THRU-HIKERS: Drop Dead, Hercules, and Bookworm

Drop Dead wearing a necktie in case he needs it for a job interview along the Pacific Crest Trail

“Drop Dead,” the trail name of a hiker looking dapper in a Panama hat and necktie, greeted us with a friendly smile and enthusiastic responses to all our questions. First, as to why a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker would be wearing a necktie:

“I was laid off in April, and you never know when you need to be prepared for a job interview.”

Good point. If I was hiring, Drop Dead would be a top choice. After all, this fit and energetic man in his mid-30s shows remarkable persistance; he has hiked nearly 2,300 miles at this point, where we met him in Washington State’s Goat Rocks Wilderness, averaging 30 to 35 miles per day. He has met and defeated the challenges of desert hiking and traveling through mile after mile of snowy wilderness. His creativity in looking neat and businesslike (far better than me after three days hiking!) after all those miles speaks to his ability to dress for success. Though he might have to work on that name …

Looking a bit sheepish, Drop Dead said his name came from the expression “drop dead gorgeous.” I’ll let the ladies be the judge, but with his red beard, partly done up in front with a thin braid, my guess is he would be a hippie girl’s heartthrob. Without the beard, he might be a boardroom lady executive’s passion.

The loneliness of the long-distance hiker

We asked Drop Dead about his diet; it turns out that he is a vegetarian, which is confirmation enough for me that a vegetarian can be in supremely good health. For breakfast, he eats uncooked quick oatmeal combined with dried fruit and dried milk. By not cooking in the morning, he can get on the trail fast, though I’m not sure the quick oatmeal would do much for me. At noon, he heats ramen mixed with peanut butter and chili paste to create a kind of low rent version of Pad Thai, using a tiny alcohol stove. He also supplements his diet with olive oil, and he was glad to accept a bit of chocolate and cheese from us.

We eventually ended our eager questioning, allowing Drop Dead to continue his hike north toward the Canadian border. I hope he gets just the right job interview along the way …

A rock cairn echoes the shape of Mount Adams, one of Washington State’s dramatic stratovolcanos

This stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail is high and beautiful; in fact, the spot where we met Drop Dead is within a mile of the highest point along the Washington State stretch of the PCT. Thru-hikers (those hiking the whole trail in one year) begin in early spring near the Mexican village of Campo, and finish in September or October at the Canadian border, in Manning Provincial Park. 2,650 miles long, the trail is a test of physical and psychological endurance.

Some 400 people started the trail this year, a higher number than the typical 300, largely because a lot of people are out of work because of the endless recession. When a person is out of work, and with poor prospects, why not take to the trail and pursue a long-repressed dream?

The Pacific Crest Trail travels the mountain ranges of California, Oregon, and Washington as it makes its run from the Mexican border to the Canadian border

This year, the trail turned into a real test of fortitude and guts. The High Sierra received tremendous amounts of snow last winter. So, after the hikers had endured the heat of the Mojave Desert, they ascended into the deep snows of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. Progress was exceedingly slow along the icy trail, and stream crossings with torrents of meltwaters were slippery and frigid hazards. Many hikers decided that this was not the year to complete their dream. Hikers also have to deal with forest fires and washouts along the way. We found it fascinating that many hikers carried umbrellas in their packs for rainy days; this would enable them to hike in lighter clothes and see better in the rain (most of us hikers wear Gore-Tex for rainy days, which can get uncomfortable inside during vigorous activity) than they could while wearing a hooded parka.

During our four sunny days in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, we encountered about ten thru-hikers, and chatted at some length with several.

Hercules was an energetic young man, wired with an iPod, with a big name to live up to. He did. Another hiker, Steady, told us that Hercules had hiked 62 miles in 24 hours in Oregon. It seems that Hercules was about out of food, and the lure of a good meal at Timberline Lodge was strong. When he got to the lodge, he consumed three enormous platefuls of great food! Hercules actually took his name on the first day of the hike, when a woman driving him to the trailhead suggested he needed a powerful name appropriate to his ancestry. Hence Hercules.

The Goat Rocks, dramatic in evening light, are the remains of a volcano that blew its top some two million years ago

Steady was an older hiker, from Cool, California (isn’t everything in California cool?), roughly my age, who averaged “just” a steady 20 miles per day. He was being accompanied through Washington by another grizzled friend, a man from Alpena, Michigan.

Bookworm, a thru-hiker from Maryland, had started with 50 lbs. of food and gear, but had whittled that down to about 30 at this point. His body weight had also been whittled down by over 20 lbs. Why “Bookworm?” Because he carried a Kindle for reading books. I asked him when he could possibly have time to read, and he said that he was able to read while preparing meals and a little bit before falling off to sleep. He was averaging one book per 100 miles, so at this point he had completed over 20 books. Bookworm also remarked that he was on his third pair of hiking boots, and that he now ate only cold food to avoid the weight of a stove and fuel.

Bookworm, looking thin and fit after months on the trail

Other hikers we met included Top Shelf, Picker, Slapshot, and Caddyshack, all of whom were strong and fast twenty-somethings. There was only one thru-hiker who hadn’t taken a trail name.

I will now raise a lightweight plastic cup of cold instant coffee to toast these Americans following their dreams. Hear, hear!

The dramatic terrain where the PCT winds through the Goat Rocks Wilderness

Lovely meadows of lupine, with Mount Adams in the distance, at Snowgrass Flats, just below the PCT in the Goat Rocks Wilderness

For information about the Pacific Crest Trail, a good starting place is the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Some of the hikers write blogs; you can find an index to some of these at PCT Journals. An even better source is Trail Journals, where one of the guys we met posted his observations of the Goat Rocks Wilderness (he loved it!), and scores of hikers blog about hiking the PCT this year.

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