VGI Grad on the Trail
Dr. Michael Peterson, Viridis Grad
VGI Grad On The PCT Trail
I had the opportunity to hike the Pacific Crest Trail this year so I began at Campo, California on April 17.
I think I can say with certainty that I'm the first VGI graduate to do the trail.
I'm testing some of my ideas related to ecopsychology and talking with other hikers about their attitudes and ideas related to the environment and ecology.
I join a surprisingly large number of 60+-year-old hikers who have set aside five months to journey on the Pacific Crest Trail for 2,650 miles from Campo, California (on the border of Mexico) to Manning, Canada. (You can find out more information about the trail here: pcta.org.)
I am doing this hike to live confidently among the best of the many silences, to learn to saunter (the joy of non-hurried, carefree walking), and to live closer to the present.
I also had the idea that this is a great way to support Viridis Graduate Institute!
I will donate one dollar - up to $2650 - the length of the trail, for every mile I hike.
I want to match this with fellow hikers and those from the VGI community!
Match My Mile
The many different stories out on the PCT make one appreciate the diverse reasons why so many people take to the trail every year (8,000 + in 2021).
From walking through a mid-life crisis to mourning loss, heartbreak, or making a huge transition in life - humans bring their trials to the trail.
Michael will be posting updates along the trail.
Match my miles in whatever amount you want - 1 cent ($26.50), 2 cents ($53), 5 cents ($132.50), 10 cents ($265), 25 cents ($662.50), or a dollar ($2650) for every mile I hike.
Send us your pledge commitment (firstname.lastname@example.org), when Michael's hike is complete, we'll send you an email reminder.
Send VGI Your Pledge (email@example.com )
Notes from the Trail 8/7/21
Crossing into Oregon from California was a happy moment (trail mile 1691--the trail changes length from time to time so this explains the difference in mileage from that on the sign). It's a man-made border, the topography wasn't noticably different, yet here the last of the mid-way blues evaporated (as did the weeks of smoke) and the end is in sight.
The blues set in three to four hundred miles ago. Everyone I've talked to has experienced the desire to quit, dark voices saying it isn't worth it, and though I've never wanted to quit I've fought the weariness common to the mid-way blues. Now the motivation has returned. There are smiles all around and quicker steps. We're finishing. Nothing is stopping us now. Less than a thousand miles to go--that's like nothing. (This optimism has dimmed already--more on this below.)
Markers are important. Jedi has kept a tally of essential trail markers. Here are some of his numbers at the mid-way point: trail magic events 35; pizzas 19; swims (rivers and lakes) 67; milkshakes 33; beers 110; Snickers 133; pushups 10,000+ (I don't know where he gets the energy for this but his arms are ripped); 28 cat holes (you would think he'd dig one per day but he's managed to use park and town toilets about half the time--or not go at all. Poop is a major trail topic).
Fire report: I hiked into Belden Town an hour after the PCT was closed going north. At that time it was a twenty mile closure. This was the start of the Dixie fire. A trail angel took me around to the trailhead near Chester and the air was clear enough to continue. Then the Dixie fire blew up and now hikers are losing about 150 miles of trail. The smoke has been on the trail all the way to the Oregon border.
North of Lassen the trail turns west for 200 hundred miles along the south side of Shasta, through the Castle Crags and Trinity Alps Wildernesses, and then north again into the Russian Wilderness and Marble Mountains. This is, to me, the most beautiful part of the PCT. Until Northern California I never once thought I was hiking through a thriving forest. The earth seemed ill to me. Not so in Northern California. Since Sierra City the forests have glowed with life. I saw firs six feet in diameter and over 200 feet tall. More than once the deep serenity of these forests of conifers and deciduous trees, ferns and moss, bears and nearly tame deer, have brought me to tears. They are beyond regal. Perhaps it's an illusion. The PCT corridor is well protected from the ravages of logging, mining, and other industries. With few exceptions the devastation can't be seen. Kudos to the trail builders of Northern California. On the trail it's easy to believe all is well with the earth.
A little over a week ago, just as I was entering the Russian Wilderness, I hiked through a spectacular summer rainstorm--under a black, gray, gold, red, orange boiling sky, mist filled valleys, and mysterious rain soaked forests against the backdrop of thunder and lightning. It was my favorite day on the trail. But the lightning sparked 20 fires along the PCT corridor going north. When I got to Etna they closed the trail behind me and rangers asked that hikers stay off the trail going north to Seiad Valley. I waited two days in Etna to see if the smoke would clear but it got worse. I hitched to Seiad and hiked on. Many skipped to Ashland (where I am now) but the smoke (more of it anyway) rolled in just last night as I arrived.
So the new dilemma--to hike in the smoke or not (I experience it as dry throat, a low grade headache, increased fatigue, mild depression, and fewer miles). For those who have lost large sections of the trail to the closures the magic of the thru-hike is gone. There's already a large closure in Oregon and another one likely within days. More smoke. So there's a what-the-hell attitude about the rest of the trail. Yellow-blazing (going by road) is more common (hitching past not just fire and smoke but skipping because of rattlesnakes, overgrown trail, or poison oak--pretty much any silly reason). I heard several talking about leaving the trail and doing the Oregon coast trail (clean air!). It is likely, with climate change, that the idea of a border to border hike will no longer be possible in one season.
Meet the Oregon challenge: How far can you hike in 24 hours from the Oregon border? The record is 71 miles. But those kind of hikers are not human. And speaking of non-human, the fastest known time doing the PCT was just set by this guy:https://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/hiking-and-backpacking/timothy-olson-fkt-pct/ He passed me north of Yosemite. No smiles. Just a very narrow trail vision. Really, he's a monster (in a I'm-jealous sense). "In a normal year, only around one-fifth of the people who set out to hike the entire PCT actually succeed," says Scott Wilkinson of the Pacific Crest Trail Association. "To travel the entire trail in a single season is remarkable. To do it faster than anyone ever has? It's mind-boggling."
I'm not sure how to make the best decision about hiking in smoke. For now, I'm hiking on.
Notes from the Trail 7/2/21
Greetings family and friends,
I've been in Sacramento for a few days for new shoes, clothes, repairs, cleaning, rest, and food. I'll start hiking again on the 3rd.
For those of you who do not have a taste for philosophical meandering, I apologize for this introduction.
For me, to do ecopsychology is to juggle the questions Who am I--, How am I--, and What am I--in relation to the earth? At times I lean into Van Gogh's idea that in life we are presented with a blank canvas and it's up to us to decide what we'll paint on it. It would be the stories then that I tell myself that determine what I paint. But when it comes to selecting the stories the choices are many and muddled. For example, we are capable of loving the earth, but is the earth capable of (or interested in) loving us? (I think not). How can I "story" my way around this? In 1956 Eric Fromm worked out his story about how humans are in relation to the earth in his book The Art of Loving. This is a lengthy quote but worth considering:
"What is essential in the existence of man is the fact that he has emerged from the animal kingdom, from instinctive adaptation, that he has transcended natureâ€"although he never leaves it; he is a part of itâ€"and yet once torn away from nature, he cannot return to it; once thrown out of paradiseâ€"a state of original oneness with natureâ€"cherubim with flaming swords block his way, if he should try to return. Man can only go forward by developing his reason, by finding a new harmony, a human one, instead of the prehuman harmony which is irretrievably lost. When man is born, the human race as well as the individual, he is thrown out of a situation which was definite, as definite as the instincts, into a situation that is indefinite, uncertain and open. There is certainty only about the pastâ€"and about the future only as far as that it is death. Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself [and] he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside. The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety. Being separate means being cut off, without any capacity to use my human powers. Hence to be separate means to be helpless, unable to grasp the worldâ€"things and peopleâ€"actively; it means that the world can invade me without my ability to react. Thus, separateness is the source of intense anxiety."
I experience this separateness and this existential anxiety on the trail. The trail has a museum-like experience to it--I look in but I'm never part of it, doomed, it seems, to be forever a spectator, separated from. I see it in other hikers in their rush to town, in the rush toward human companionship, in the unboundaried flow of personal information and a willingness to be vulnerable. There's a desperation to touch and be touched, if not literally, at least verbally and by proximity. I am concluding that the earth will never be able to satisfy the core human need for inclusivity. We must look for that inside ourselves and in part from each other. So the question shifts, much as Fromm proposes in the remainder of his book. The answer is to acquire an attitude of love without concern for how I am loved, not for how I am a part of things, or even of others, but how am I to love in spite of? I wonder if that shifts your relationship to the earth.
I am through the Sierra except for 60 miles. Yosemite will remain in memory as the home of narrow valleys, steep ascents and descents, zillions of mosquitoes, and a failed trail doctrine. It was hard to appreciate the views when literally running from skeeters and obsessively watching the trail. Here's an imagined conversation overheard between two trail builders:
"Hey Boss. I got this idea, see? I put this here rock like this and we can trip them hikers, bash their knees and stuff. Funny, huh?"
"I like where you're going with this. Let's do lots of them. And hey, I'm promoting you to head trail builder."
It was hard trail to hike. Ten miles south of Sonora Pass (1016) the trail cleared and became fast and, in my opinion, the area is more beautiful than anything I have yet seen. And as a bonus the flowers are at their peak. This has continued to Echo Summit (1090) and I expect it will be so throughout the Desolation Wilderness Area.
There is a subtle culture of fear around earthy things, not just on the trail, but it is seen more clearly on the trail. Beware the sun, for example. It's trying to kill us. Smear sunscreen on your body, or cover it with the latest sun clothing technology. Most hikers are wearing special sun resistant clothing. I saw two men covered head to toe, including their faces (with two slits for their eyes). The manufacturers are surely laughing all the way to the bank. Beware the plants. There is poodle dog bush (I've seen four plants and not close to the trail) and poison oak (I've seen two plants and not close to the trail) EVERYWHERE. Don't touch anything and don't eat anything unless it comes in a plastic bag from the grocery store. (For perspective, the most dangerous berry in Oregon is the snow berry and all it will do is give you a stomachache). Beware the animals. They hate us and are always looking for ways to harm us. Beware the wind. Beware the rain. Beware the water. There is giardia everywhere, don't you know? It is a sad sight to me to see a hiker filtering water flowing out from under a glacier. There are simply too many lawyers putting fear into corporate hearts and everyone tries to protect themselves by warning us about everything and the makers of water filters are right behind them. I haven't filtered through the Sierra, enjoying gulps of cold, pure water directly from streams, springs, and lakes, and making sno-cones from the remaining patches of snow. Horrors. What diseases might I have contracted? In Sierra Leone they harvest the nectar from palm blossoms which will naturally ferment in 24 hours to an alcohol content of 1.5%. It is a much appreciated delicacy and they say of it, "From God's hand to mine." They mean it is a gift, one they are even obligated to enjoy. I feel the same about the water. I say let us be done with this culture of fear. There is a saying on the trail--Don't pack your fears. I see fear when a person carries too much food, too much water, too many safety devices, too much fist aid gear, too much clothing, too many maps, too much sunscreen, too much bug spray...
Trail names are a source of laughter and a means to get acquainted. Hikers sometimes choose their own but it is high praise to be given one. For example:
Shit kicker: given because he regularly walks right through piles of horse/mule manure.
Radio Shack: he started the trail with six pounds of electronic gear, which he almost immediately sent home.
Detour: because he gets so involved with his digital devices he regularly takes the wrong trail.
Trail Spawn: given because her parents met and conceived her on the Appalachian trail.
Chemical Burn: because he used full strength, undiluted DEET on his legs and burned them.
Sun Spot: because she is never without a smile.
Rooster: because the idiot sets an alarm and then sleeps through it, waking everyone but himself.
Guppy: because she gasps for air like a fish out of water.
And more obvious ones: Switchback, Posthole, Half Mile, Yogi, Booboo, Sore Feet, Mozart. There was an attempt to name me Saxx after the terrific underwear (for men) now available and which I was enthusiastically recommending. The name didn't stick even though it was actually an homage to the elephantine-like package I've had to carry throughout life (Trail humor hereâ€¦).
I hiked through an ice, snow, hail, and rain storm last week which soaked everything (though the lightning and thunder were fantastic). My stove starting systems both failed and my dry bag with a change of clothes leaked. Fortunately, the temperature only dropped into the forties. I hiked out the next day after a cold night's sleep at least five pounds heavier because EVERYTHING was soaked. I stopped at noon and spread my things in the sun over warm rocks and got dried out. It was a reminder to gear up for a wet WA.
There's at least one fire already near the trail in Northern CA. I'm sure there are more to come. The PCTA keeps us we'll informed about fires.
Notes from the Trail 6/14/21
I have completed the longest food carry and longest time in the backcountry (10 days) that will be needed on the PCT and I'm now at trail mile 906, where I've gone out for resupply at Mammoth. The tramily did run out of food early (we all shared what we had) and we had to run out to Vermillion Valley Resort (resort being loosely used). It's basically a rustic backcountry money pit for hungry hikers and it's ten miles off trail, each way, but we were shaking-with-hunger desperate. I thought I climbed out of Bishop/Kearsarge Pass heavy with food but I met a man from the Czech Republic who packed in 3 weeks of food at 60 pounds. VVR, run by Jim, who describes himself as a mean son-of-a-bitch (he isn't), said one hiker spent over $800. I got away at $140.
Let me introduce this section's trail family (Bishop to Mammoth):
Kristi is a professor and chairperson of the Sociology department at a university on the east coast. She is also the author of the national award winning book "Walking on the Wild Side" (Rutgers) which is about the Appalachian trail. She is now working on one about trail angels on the PCT.
Adrianne is a nurse from Tennessee. She and Kristi are cancer survivors and were friends before the trail. Adrianne's cancer has returned twice so she lives trying to pack in as much into life as possible. She's 41. Her mother died at 43 with the same gene mutation.
Cowboy was a jailer in Lodi for over 30 years and a farrier. He's the color and life of our tramily.
Faisal was high up in the Twitter food chain until five years ago when he left corporate life and became a wanderer.
Lulu is a nurse practitioner from Hawaii.
How about a trailmance story? Cowboy (63) and Lulu (50) began sparking. Cowboy, recently dumped by his girlfriend of eight years, just wanted to get laid. Lulu, now on her eighth trail fling (in nine weeks), decided she wanted something long term (you know, like three or four days). Neither communicated their wants/needs to the other. They shacked up in one tent. Lulu says they were intimate. All Cowboy knows is that he didn't get laid so after two days he moved back to his own tent. They were both angry. Lulu spent the next week telling everyone Cowboy was a jerk and he snarled at her whenever she was near.
Who needs cable when you've got Pacific Crest Trail drama?
The trail through the Sierra is controlled by the passes. In theory, it's best to climb a pass in the morning and descend into the next valley by afternoon, camp there and wait for morning to attempt the next pass. This is snow related thinking--frozen in the mornings, slushy in the afternoons. Since there isn't any snow to speak of this year it hasn't mattered how we tackle the passes. We've been over these:
Forester (the highest)
(Off trail Kearsarge x2 to and from Bishop)
Muir (Eight of us stayed the night in the Muir hut--I estimate the temp at 0°F or below. Someone went outside no longer than 30 seconds with a cup of water and it froze. I had to sleep below a cloud of pot smoke but on the upside Peter, stoner-in-chief ("Shrooms anyone? Peyote?"), had a great play list and an external speaker that he put on the mantel next to John Muir's brass head)
Selden (my favorite so far though Muir is the second)
(Off trail Bear Creek and Goodale passes to and from VVR)
Most passes require a climb and descent of 2000-3500 feet. This is net elevation and doesn't reflect how many times one might have to climb those feet. Think up and down and up and down. The Muir approach, for example, climbed for 10 miles like this and descended for 19.5.
I've searched for language to describe what I've seen and experienced. I simply can't find any. It is a great irony that in wandering through one of the most geologically violent places on earth I can experience such peace and joy and rootedness. Maria Popova describes it well:
"One of the strangest paradoxes of life is that our most intimate knowledge of things often comes from their opposites; that presence is most sharply contoured by the negative space of absence; that busyness reveals the value of stillness, loss the magnitude of love. Contrasts are how we orient ourselves and calibrate our feelings, the height of our fears fathoming the depth of our hopes. Thoreau knew this when one cold winter day he filled a diary page with his recipe for kindling inner warmth: "Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary."
Opposites don't always work smoothly. Cowboy was alone for two days and when he stumbled into my camp he cried. He had nearly quit the trail from loneliness. He was desperate for human contact.
There has been little snow on the ground, the river crossings have been low (and thankfully the most dangerous are over with) and we've had no precipitation since mile 152. This year may go down as the easiest PCT hike ever, though it ain't over yet...
There is the ongoing tension between miles and food and wanting to stay. I've seen places of such beauty I could stay forever. But the miles don't hike themselves.
I haven't heard from my feet in many weeks. The new shoes out of Kennedy Meadows have worked well (as in comfortable) but started falling apart at mile 80 (Altra Timp 3). I hope they make it to mile 1150 which timewise is half the trail and where I'll take a few days off and shop for something better.
I may have mentioned that most hikers go full-ape--meaning no haircuts, no shaving, no deodorant (men and women). We cover this with the saying "Embrace the suck." Well, this ape is getting a shave and a cut. Enough is enough. As for deodorant, it's simply a lost cause. It can't keep up. Going au naturale is expressed as Fragrance of the Earth. We are very earthy. And this, in addition to dirty and torn equipment and filthy clothes, is the mark of the through-hiker. We can't smell each other but I'm sure others can. We instantly know a section hiker by smell--soapy, shampooy, and much too clean looking. I linger as long as possible breathing in the scent of a section hiker when they pass.
The attached photo of me as "The Wanderer" looks over Kings Canyon, 2000' below and extending six miles to the west. At the far end you turn north, to the right, and begin the 10 mile ascent to Muir pass.
I've also attached a photo of Cowboy in Muir hut (the effects of the trailmance debacle having worn off).
Notes from the Trail 5/27/21
I am at mile 702-ish, Kennedy Meadows South. This means I've completed the infamous desert section and that I'm more than a quarter finished. I'll stay here a few days until I figure how I want to do the Sierra. Water is no longer an issue but for resupply there are no good options. One of the old salts (Legend) recommends going out (meaning off trail) frequently in order to carry less.
With the elevation (mostly 10,000+) frequent resupply makes for happier hikers, he says. I may follow his plan which would mean going out to Lone Pine after four days and then out again at Bishop. Both require long side hikes and hitches to town.
I've changed out my shoe/sock system at an outfitter here and already my feet are happier.
Frequently now, and with increasing intensity and duration, I experience non-hiking. These are the moments, or hours, I really don't know, when my feet have nothing to say, my legs are quick and powerful, my body is relaxed, my stomach is quiet, my mind refreshingly empty, and my pack weighs nothing.
If I am there at all, and again I do not know, I float along the path, a breath among many others, seemingly untethered to the earth and yet never more part of it. This, I am thinking, is the mystery of long distance hiking. It's taken a month to lay aside the "normal" concerns of life, worries about water and equipment and food and navigation and family and home (or lack of one!) and the endless niggling of the psyche. It is simply wonderful. Nourishing. Rewarding. It fills me with anticipation for more. I tried to share this with a twenty-something and he simply couldn't relate. I think he thought I was on shrooms. Kids...
On the back of the Backpacker's Pantry meals (good food) is a quote from Thoreau: "Live in the seasons as they pass: breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth." I have yet to find a better way to describe how we are best in relation to the earth than that--"resign yourself to the influence of the earth." Not even intentional attention, just resignation.
I'm sure that many hikers are discovering that you can't out-hike life's puzzles, dark voices, bad memories, sadnesses, and the endless machinations of the psyche. But the trail does provide alternative strategies, extra resources. It gives time and space to hold these things.
As Virginia Woolf wrote, "The compensation of growing old [is] that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light."
The trail is all that. The power to take hold of experience and turn it around slowly in ample light.
It seems the snow is essentially gone in the Sierra, at least from a hiker's perspective. Great for us, not good for California. I'm at least two weeks ahead of a normal PCT hiking year.
The lack of snow will make it more so.
San Bernardino and the Coachella Valleys filled with clouds