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

Meet Drop Dead, one of ten thru-hikers we met along the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington State’s Goat Rocks Wilderness. He is wearing a necktie, just in case of a job interview along the trail, though he has so far hiked nearly 2,300 miles along the trail this year without landing that elusive job. Or meet Bookworm, another thru-hiker who loves to read his Kindle while eating a cold dinner, night after night after night … Or Hercules, widely known along the trail for hiking 62 miles in 24 hours so that he could gorge himself at Mt. Hood’s Timberline Lodge.

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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Sept 2, 2008: Pickles, Seven, Money, and More

I and my four companions trudged up a short section of the Pacific Crest Trail toward the Goat Rocks, an extinct volcano in Washington State. Then we encountered a breath of fresh air in the form of “Pickles,” the trail name for a glowing young woman who this year had already hiked over 2,000 miles …

Sweat was streaming down my face.  My 51 lb. backpack felt as if it was loaded with rocks. My breath came in short pants as I and my four companions trudged up a short section of the Pacific Crest Trail toward the Goat Rocks, an extinct volcano in Washington State.  Then we encountered a breath of fresh air in the form of “Pickles,” the trail name for a glowing young woman who this year had already hiked over 2,000 miles on the PCT–all the way from the Mexican border. 

First, some background about the Pacific Crest Trail, then I’ll return to Pickles and other intrepid hikers we met along the trail.  People who intend to hike the whole trail are known as “thru-hikers;”  in a typical year some 300 start the hike, with about 60% finishing.  The PCT starts at the Mexican border,  leading through the hot Mojave Desert, over the High Sierra and the John Muir Trail and Yosemite National Park, past Mt. Shasta, into the forests of Oregon, through Crater Lake National Park, leading over the flanks of Mt. Hood, descending into the Columbia River Gorge, then into Washington and past the Mt. Adams volcano, up and over the Goat Rocks, through Mt. Rainier National Park, winding over the central Cascades and into North Cascades National Park, and finally, Canada!  2,650 miles of hiking through some of the most beautiful landscapes in America!  Most thru-hikers take five to six months to complete the hike.  

Thru-hikers enjoy the passing scenery, certainly, but I think the main draw of the long hike is the physical and mental challenge of hiking the whole trail.  It is incredibly hard work, involving desert heat, high elevations with thin air, hard rains, cold nights, ticks, mosquitoes, and inevitable autumn snows.  Even the logistics of supplying food is daunting, with pickup points scheduled scores or hundreds of miles apart.  Mostly it’s the young and strong who make it. 

Here are a few success stories of thru-hikers we met on a six mile section of the PCT where it passes through the Goat Rocks Wilderness.  The Goat Rocks, in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, are the remains of a volcano that has been dormant for several million years.  Now populated by Mountain Goats, Marmots, Bears, and Elk, the Goat Rocks has alpine landscapes rivaling the High Sierra.



Thru-hikers each take a distinctive trail name rather than using their real name; I love the name Pickles, but I forgot to ask her why she adopted that moniker.  Pickles is a tall and lean and pretty woman who enthusiastically talked to us about her journey.  Her pack had a base weight of 15 pounds (not including food and water), which is really low.  She said it took about $2,000 in outfitting to get the best lightweight equipment she could, including a good Gregory backpack and two trekking poles.  She wore a short, knit skirt and a pair of knee braces and trail running shoes rather than boots.  On her third pair of shoes, she liked the Montrail and Merrill brands; with her light pack she didn’t need to wear heavy hiking boots (like the ones I use).  She slept under a tarp rather than a tent to save weight.  Averaging 25 miles per day, Pickles hikes with a loose and constantly changing group of people who travel at about the same rate.  I commented that she must be in the best shape of her life; she responded that she didn’t feel that way–that she was starting to feel a bit broken down and her feet were bothering her.  But she looked great, and enchanted our group with her enthusiasm.



Seven was born on 7-7-77, hence his name.  If you do the math, you will realize that Seven turned 31 years old somewhere along the trail in California.  Bearded and thin and handsome, he looked the epitome of health.  I asked Seven what he ate on a typical day: said that he didn’t carry a stove, so all his food was cold.  Breakfast was 600 calories of granola,  During the day he ate meal bars and power bars, which have a good balance of carbs and protein and fat, so these kept him going.  He also found that packets of instant oatmeal, mixed with cold water, was a really effective way of getting carbohydrates that lasted all day.  Seven was averaging 30 miles per day, and he felt he was getting stronger all the time.  He said that whenever he had a physical problem, after a good night’s sleep he could completely recover [blogger’s note: it must be nice to be young and strong!].  

While talking with Seven, Ridgewalker and Accent came along.  It turned out that they knew a PCT-hiking friend of one of our group, whose trail name is Guardian Angel.  58 years old, Guardian Angel had hiked for a month, then was sidelined for eight weeks with a stress fracture in her right foot.  Back on the trail, she traveled on a while, then wrenched her back.  The PCT is an extreme physical challenge, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t get very far.  Guardian Angel is one of the three Pearl Girls, who wear pearl necklaces while hiking the trail.


Chinaman and Rambi

Hiking together, this pair of young teachers was doing a big section of the PCT this year; their teaching schedules limited the amount of time they could spend on the trail.  Chinaman was named for the conical hat he wore during the Mojave section of his 2004 thru-hike.  Rambi took her name in New Zealand: Chinaman named her Rambo for her aggressive hiking, but she softened it by combining Rambo with Bambi–hence Rambi!  They had both been sidelined with two illnesses this summer.  They picked up Giardia from untreated water in a wilderness area in southern Oregon and ended up sharing the awful experience of horrendous diarrhea.  Then they picked up the Norwalk Virus in northern Oregon and spent several days of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and body aches.  Which is a terrible thing when you’re stuck in a tent in the wilderness.  They had also been through a raging thunderstorm in central Oregon and the smokes of forest fires near the trail in northern California.  Despite the challenges, they looked happy together and were averaging 20-25 miles per day.

Chinaman also posted his daily trail log to the internet using an electronic gadget called a Mail Writer, which he explained was a kind of precursor to the Blackberry.  They carried a stove and tent, so their base weight was higher than some of the others.  

Super and Visor

At the top of the spectacular Goat Rocks, we encountered Super and Visor.  Young and strong, this married couple had great equipment and appeared to be glowing with health.  Visor wore a visor, of course; I’m not sure where Super got his name, but he worked for the Clif Bar company and was sponsored by them during their hike.  They were from Seattle, so they were getting close to home.



Full-bearded and hiking fast, Money stopped only long enough to tell us that the weather was getting cold.  Which we realized, since it was snowing and clouds were blanketing the mountains.  He posed briefly for me to take a quick snapshot.  I should have taken two, since his eyes were closed.  

All the Others

We met 15-20 thru-hikers on our Labor Day weekend hike.  As far as I’m concerned, they are all outstanding Americans who were willing to take on a challenge that most of us could not accomplish.  It was a delight to chat with them for a few minutes before they tore off again in pursuit of those 20-30 miles per day.

To read trail journals by the hikers themselves, with entries constantly updated, explore the site:  On the home page, go to Journals, then 2008, then Pacific Crest Trail.  There is a lot of good stuff on this site if you are dreaming of hitting the trail.

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