Between two weeded rocks on the barrier Doc saw a flash of white under water and then the floating weed covered it. He climbed to the place over the slippery rocks, held himself firmly, and gently reached down and parted the brown algae. Then he grew rigid. A girl’s face looked up at him, a pretty, pale girl with dark hair. The eyes were open and clear and the face was firm and the hair washed gently about her head. The body was out of sight, caught in the crevice. The lips were slightly parted and the teeth showed and on the face was only comfort and rest. Just under water it was and the clear water made it very beautiful. It seemed to Doc that he looked at it for many minutes and the face burned into his picture memory ... Goose pimples came out on Doc’s arms. He shivered and his eyes were wet the way they get in the focus of great beauty. The girl’s eyes had been gray and clear and the dark hair floated, drifted lightly over the face. The picture was set for all time.
Steinbeck, Cannery Row
No mice scurried about my tent in the night and nothing had chewed into my food bag. It was as if the rodents had taken pity on me on my final night and left me be. I climbed a bit and then descended down to Holman Pass where I reached a junction with the Pacific Northwest Trail - another long-distance trail that spanned from Glacier National Park in Montana to the Pacific Ocean on Washington’s coast. I passed a man backpacking southbound. “Finishing up today?” he asked me.
I looked out over the trail as it twisted and turned down into a basin before making its final large climb up to Woody Pass. It was exciting, staring out at the final pass of the entire PCT. A small bit of snow sat in the notch between two rounded peaks. I froze in the biting wind as I descended, then began to sweat as I made the climb up to the pass. Hawks filled the sky as I cut across long slopes beneath high ridges. My titanium cooking pot hung from the outside of my pack and made a clanging noise that sounded like a cow bell. I felt instantly transported back to Northern California, where so many cows had grazed alongside the trail. It is fairly amazing how sound or smell can evoke such strong memories and for an instant there on my final day I shot back a thousand miles to the hills above Etna.
I ate lunch looking down on Hopkins Lake, a bluish-gray circle sitting in a little basin far below. A flock of birds appeared below me as they flew over the lake, their dark shapes standing out in contrast to the lighter color of the water. As they passed the lake by and continued on over the forest they vanished. Blending in with the trees, their movement became imperceptible. It was as if the lake had been a window open to a different place, where the birds existed in another world apart from my own.
There was a great sense of peace during those last few days on the trail, in that womb-like atmosphere of an overcast Pacific Northwest day, stuck in the liminal zone between earth and the low-hanging clouds above. I enjoyed the solitude and clarity of those final days on the trail, my mind and body felt as crisp and sharp as the oncoming fall. I was coming to the end of something, an irresistible momentum carrying me forward to the completion of the trail and I had no idea what would happen afterwards, no idea what lay on the other side.
The trail bottomed out in dark tree cover and a loud noise broke the silence. In that lonely eeriness of the forest it sounded almost like a witch cackling. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. Something shot by me in a blur, headed in the opposite direction. It looped back around and flew by me again and I realized it was a pileated woodpecker, the red plumage of its head clearly visible. I stood on a slope and so I was slightly above the bird as it soared by through the trees, its wings outspread. I was amazed at the breadth of its wingspan, so much larger than I would have imagined.
I reached Castle Pass and then entered forest, much of it interspersed with snags and fallen trees. There were some views but I hiked mostly in tree cover. Truth be told, the trail seemed to drag on during those final miles to the border. I felt silly thinking that at the very end. I pulled out my map wondering where I was and realized I had only three-tenths of a mile to go. I was only moments from finishing. I arrived at the wooden structure that marked the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, nearly identical to the one that had greeted me at Campo. Monument 78 - a small metal obelisk - marked the international border and commemorated the Treaty of 1846 which set the boundary of the United States and Canada at the 49th parallel. At Campo the border had been marked by a metal fence; here it was denoted by a clear cut in the forest, only a dozen or so feet wide, extending off to the east and west. There was no one else there. It was how I had often imagined it - that I would reach the border alone - and I was relieved to have the moment to myself. I cracked open the beer I had carried from Harts Pass and sat in the dirt next to my pack as I had done countless times before. Above me the clouds had disappeared and the sun shone down upon that little clearing in the forest so many of us thru-hikers had devoted our summer to reaching.
Plastic Hawaiian leis wrapped the bottom of Monument 78 and I noticed it sat slightly off-kilter atop its base. I removed it to reveal a trail register and other notes and items left by past hikers. I rummaged through them and pulled out a small ziploc bag that seemed to be filled with sand. A note was inside that read:
Kevin Huthman, 1981-2009
Section hiked 2,200 miles of the PCT before dying of lupus in 2009
His spirit completed the trail today, 8/19/2014
He was born the same year as myself and had not lived to see his thirtieth birthday. He never saw the wooden terminus, that metal obelisk or the clear cut in the trees. He never wandered through the lonely Pasayten and counted down the miles to the end of his final section hike of the PCT. I knew nothing about him other than we would have been the same age were he still alive and that we had hiked 2,200 of the same miles along the trail, he ticking off sections over the course of many summers and I doing it as a thru-hike in the same year his family carried that ziploc bag in their packs and finally placed it within Monument 78. I could only assume it contained some of his ashes.
Some months after finishing the PCT I did an online search for Kevin Huthman and clicked on his obituary. There was a small, black and white photo of a smiling young man. He wore glasses and was unshaven. He looked like any young, white male I may have met on the trail that year. He had been valedictorian of his graduating class, earned a degree in computer science and gotten engaged, his obituary read. In the end he had succumbed to multiple organ failures.
I found his father’s hiking website and photo albums organized by each section of the PCT. Clearly I did not know him, but looking at a photo of him as a child smiling at the camera I felt overwhelmed with emotion. He had no idea he would die so young. His parents did not know, nor his brother, nor his sister. I clicked through the photos, recognizing shots almost identical to ones I had taken, little having changed in the twenty-plus years separating them. I saw a young Kevin posing in shorts and short sleeves, standing on skinny legs that hardly seemed like they could propel him up and over the high passes of the Sierras. I saw him perched atop the southern terminus monument. I saw him peaking out from below a Joshua Tree. He posed on the footbridge over Deep Creek before it had been painted in rainbow hues. He hiked down the trail with his brothers, carrying external frame packs nearly as big as they were. He stood at Forester Pass in 1994 high above the spot where I had camped. I saw him, a decade later, just north of the California/Oregon border, atop a large rock formation, lying on his stomach with arms and legs outstretched like Superman as he hovered thirty feet over his campsite below. I saw him in Oregon, caught in mid-step as he wandered through a mass of butterflies congregating at the shore of a pond, many of them captured in flight as they fluttered around his body and head. I saw him posing at Sister Mirror Lake, his arm around his younger sister. And I saw, after Kevin’s death, photos of his sister and father continuing their section hike of the PCT until they finally completed the trail in the same summer I had.
It was all burned into my picture memory.
Soon other hikers began to arrive and within half an hour there were six of us there at the border. I sat back and watched the show as hikers acted out carefully choreographed scenarios they had long planned. A hiker named Big Sauce made a raucous entrance, dancing and singing as he embraced the terminus. He changed into American flag shorts, slipped on a shirt with a huge bald eagle graphic and donned an oversized straw hat. He set up his camera to record, then pulled out his speakers and began to play music. Next he produced a bottle of Canadian Club Whisky he had carried from Stehekin and climbed atop the wooden structure to recite a well-rehearsed speech to the accompaniment of Sister Sledge’s He’s the Greatest Dancer. Two hikers from Germany unfurled their country’s flag and posed for photos atop the terminus monument. A Dutch thru-hiker did the same. Everyone passed around the Canadian Club and took swigs from the bottle. I sat back and soaked it all in, happy for the quiet time of reflection I had experienced and also glad to witness the other side of the coin - the exuberant revelry of a thru-hike completed. Eventually I stood up and made my way across the border into Canada. As I stepped across that imaginary line a perfectly timed gust of cold wind blew through the trees and hit me, as if to punctuate both my thru-hike and the summer season in the mountains.
I dropped my pack at a campsite near Castle Creek and lay down on my back staring up at the clouds, slightly buzzed from the beer and contemplating the end of my journey. As you hike mile after mile across three states you imagine that final moment of reaching the border to be an overwhelming experience, assuming the gravity of it will hit you like a ton of bricks. In reality, however, when you’ve lived out every month and week and day and hour and minute and second that transpires between Mexico and Canada, it’s not quite as dramatic as you might expect. There was no surprise in the end, but the sense of accomplishment was hardly diminished. And with it came the realization that it was all over and I was headed back to real life, full of its own unique joys and difficulties. I couldn’t stay on the trail forever, nor did I wish to. I simply hoped to find the next big thing to work towards, the next passion that would be the first thing on my mind when I woke up and the last thing on my mind when I went to bed.
While the PCT had officially ended, I still had over eight miles of trail leading me to Manning Provincial Park and its lodge. The morning felt dark and dreary and it was easy to believe summer was finished. Fall was quickly approaching, with the dark and wet Pacific Northwest winter fast on its heels. I reached the end of the trail as it met a paved road and that was that. After 2,659 miles and over four months of walking, the trail simply ended. There was nothing else to do but dump the rocks from my shoes and begin the short road walk to the lodge. I rounded the last corner and came to an abrupt stop as a Greyhound bus pulled out in front of me. I looked up at its tinted windows, wondering if anyone I knew was inside. I squinted, focusing my eyes, and I could just make out the shapes of people behind the glass. They began to wave their arms at me and bang on the windows, yet the tinted glass continued to obscure their identities. I raised my arms up in the air triumphantly, grinning from ear to ear, tickled by the timing of it all. The bus turned the corner, pulled out onto Highway Three and continued on towards Vancouver.
In my hotel room the film Adaptation played on the television. It was a movie I very much liked but had seen several times before and so it mostly existed as background noise. At one instance, however, Meryl Streep’s character delivers a monologue that caught my attention and I paused to listen. “Most people yearn for something exceptional,” she spoke. “Something so inspiring that they’d want to risk everything for that passion but few would act on it.” She continued, “There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. The reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”
The Pacific Crest Trail had served that purpose for me. It had been my passion since the Fall of 2012 when I committed to the idea of a thru-hike. For a year and a half it had been the biggest concern in my life. I researched the trail and read hikers’ journals. I went on training hikes each weekend throughout the entire winter and spring leading up to my departure for Campo. Then for 131 days I lived it. I experienced everything I had so passionately dreamed about and was fortunate enough to maintain that passion through to the end.
For two years I whittled the world down to encompass only the PCT. There were too many things in my life I felt unhappy about and my single-minded devotion to the trail allowed me to put off dealing with them and to shield myself from any anxiety about the trajectory of my life. I found the notion of the PCT so inspiring that I quit my job, moved out of my apartment and put all of my possessions in a tiny storage unit. There are too many directions to go in life when you aren’t happy, you haven’t found what you’re looking for and don’t even know what you want in the first place. So I simply picked one direction – north, towards Canada. The only problem was that eventually I would reach the end of the trail.
Regarding his time near Lake Tahoe, Steinbeck wrote in a letter to a friend, “You see, dear, the mountains did things to me. The long hermitage put an uncontrollable irritability very near the surface. I am pettish and small, and sullen. The mountains are not supposed to do this but they did.”
The mountains, as it turned out, had done things to me as well - things they were not supposed to do. Transitioning back into life after the trail was as hard as I imagined it would be and then some. I sank into a depression unlike anything I had ever experienced. It lasted nearly five months and it took me longer to pull myself up out of that dark hole than it did to walk across all of California, Oregon and Washington. How could I have one of the most overwhelmingly positive experiences of my life and then just two months later go through the most difficult period of my life? I went from the experience of living life to its fullest to barely wanting to live at all. Of course it wasn’t the mountains that had actually done it to me, but rather everything in my life I had been avoiding coming to a confluence all at once to drag me down.
In the final pages of Tortilla Flat, Danny falls into a deep depression and death draws near to him. He had lost the freedom he once knew and that change in his life led to a dark, downward spiral. One of his friends recalls seeing him in his final days. “I looked at him, and then I saw something else. At first it looked like a black cloud in the air over Danny’s head. And then I saw it was a big black bird, as big as a man. It hung in the air like a hawk over a rabbit hole. I crossed myself and said two Hail Marys.” That same omen of a black bird was hovering above me as well. Perhaps it had first appeared as far back as Crater Lake, when the morning after that cold night when I had felt small and lonely I heard the flapping of its great wings as it flew from tree to tree above me. Or perhaps even before that, outside of Seiad Valley, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye the dark shape of a bird of prey disappearing into the surrounding forest with its meal clutched tightly in its talons. It may have been following me north along the trail ever since and appeared once again as that cackling woodpecker that had looked so much larger than it actually should have been. And with my journey finished at that highway in Canada I had looked up to see it yet again, emblazoned on a road sign, its eyes void and empty and a piercing white. It was the emblem of the Crowsnest Highway, named for Crowsnest Pass further east along the Continental Divide where a list of tragedies had occurred. Over the span of five decades an explosion at a mine killed 128 men, a landslide buried one town and killed ninety of its residents and a forest fire destroyed another. In a second mining disaster, Canada’s worst, the lives of 189 men were snuffed out and thirty years later an airplane disappeared into the side of a mountain along with everyone on board.
And perhaps I saw that bird again later, in a photo of Kevin Huthman, hovering above him like a hawk over a rabbit hole. It’s hard not to consider one’s own mortality when confronted with the death of someone who was born the same year as you and who died much too young. Depression too is a reminder of death, when you find no joy in life and nearly give up on living altogether. Benson writes that Cannery Row, though it doesn’t mention war, is “Steinbeck’s war novel. It was born out of the discovery in war of his own mortality, and out of the haunting question: why does a little girl have to be blown up? What is life, what is death, and what do they mean? He also asks, what are the most important things in life? The answers are simple: life is process, death is part of life; neither life nor death means anything - they simply are; and the important things in life are love and beauty, which bring joy to the process of living.”
Post-trail depression, as I’ve come to learn, is a fairly common experience for many thru-hikers. As the author of one blog explained it, thru-hiking is an activity that requires extreme amounts of exertion and in turn yields extreme amounts of exhilaration for months on end. Over that period of time, the thru-hiker becomes desensitized to the endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline and other chemicals that are released. Once the trail is over, one is so desensitized that the normal levels of activity in day-to-day life fail to create even a moderate sense of well-being, let alone the sheer exhilaration of a thru-hike. That shift in the brain’s chemistry, coupled with the often challenging experience of assimilating back into the “normal world” and getting one’s life into order can lead to post-trail blues which can spiral out of control into the extreme depression I experienced. I have no idea how valid this theory is, but looking back at my experience, it makes quite a bit of sense. Those post-trail months had been a profoundly bleak experience, save for one unexpected result - in the depths of my depression I seemed to develop a boundless well of compassion for everyone I knew, observed or encountered - friends, family and strangers alike. As Steinbeck wrote in Tortilla Flat, “sorrow is the mother of a general compassion.”
It’s all fine to say, “Time will heal everything, this too shall pass away. People will forget” - and things like that when you are not involved, but when you are there is no passage of time, people do not forget and you are in the middle of something that does not change. Doc didn’t know the pain and self-destructive criticism in the Palace Flophouse or he might have tried to do something about it.
Steinbeck, Cannery Row
He looked searchingly at the towering mountains - ridge after ridge after ridge until at last there was the ocean. For a moment he thought he could see a black speck crawling up the farthest ridge. Jody thought of the rapier and of Gitano. And he thought of the great mountains. A longing caressed him, and it was so sharp that he wanted to cry to get it out of his breast. He lay down in the green grass near the round tub at the brush line. He covered his eyes with his crossed arms and lay there a long time, and he was full of a nameless sorrow.
Steinbeck, The Red Pony
So I did not walk into Canada a transformed and infinitely better version of myself. I stepped off the trail as the same person I was when I departed Campo, with all of the same challenges and problems I had been avoiding waiting for me back in Seattle. In the end, all I can really say is that I saw the country and I savored it in the best way I knew how - on foot. I love true things and true things were what I found in the wilderness, living out of a backpack under the sun and stars. I received countless acts of kindness from strangers and friends alike and unlike Doc, to receive their generosity I never had to lie and tell them I was hiking the trail on a bet.
I didn’t go out there in search of anything profound. Unlike the explorer in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, no voice had ever whispered in my ear, urging me to search for something lost and hidden behind the ranges. I hiked the trail because quite simply it seemed like too much fun to pass up. Too much beauty. Too much freedom. I suppose it’s an impressive feat to walk 2,659 miles in a single summer but these days there’s nothing particularly unique about it. Thousands had done it before me and thousands more will do it after me. What matters most is the beauty I experienced out there. And those quiet, calm and serene moments when I was able to exist completely in the present.
Benson writes that to Steinbeck, “truth was the product of poetry, and the kind of poetry that produced truth was the kind that came out of a close and inspired observation of life.” On the PCT I was able to live a simple life. I was able to simply exist, traveling through the world slowly by foot and carefully observing my surroundings. I hope in the pages of this book I was able to capture some of the truth and beauty and inspiration I found out there in the mountains, despite all the “cliffs and brush and rocks and dryness.” In the introduction to The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail, the authors write, “Either way, we all share the secret of the PCT, that sense of wonder. And that explains why it’s here, why so many have added a verse to its grand poem.” I hope that I may have added a verse worthy of that grand poem. But then, as Steinbeck writes at the beginning of Cannery Row, “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise - the quality of light, the tone, the habit, the nostalgia and the dream - be set down alive?”
Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased. I remember a man in Salinas who in his middle years traveled to Honolulu and back, and that journey continued for the rest of his life. We could watch him in his rocking chair on his front porch, his eyes squinted, half-closed, endlessly traveling to Honolulu.
Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
Did you ever go into the big mountains back there?”
The old dark eyes grew fixed, and their light turned inward on the years that were living in Gitano’s head. “Once - when I was a little boy. I went with my father.”
“Way back, clear into the mountains?”
“What was there?” Jody cried. “Did you see any people or any houses?”
“Well, what was there?”
Gitano’s eyes remained inward. A little wrinkled strain came between his brows.
“What did you see in there?” Jody repeated.
“I don’t know,” Gitano said. “I don’t remember.”
“Was it terrible and dry?”
“I don’t remember.” In his excitement, Jody had lost his shyness. “Don’t you remember anything about it?”
Gitano’s mouth opened for a word, and remained open while his brain sought the word. “I think it was quiet - I think it was nice.”
Gitano’s eyes seemed to have found something back in the years, for they grew soft and a little smile seemed to come and go in them.
“Didn’t you ever go back in the mountains again?” Jody insisted.
“Didn’t you ever want to?”
Steinbeck, The Red Pony