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Backpacker Magazine – June 2008

The Onion vs. Mr. Magoo

On your mark, get set ... hike. Inside a 5,600-mile footrace on the country's hardest trail.

by: Andrew Tilin, Photos by Timothy Archibald

Many hikers might argue that covering so much ground, so fast, might diminish the wilderness experience. But it also afforded the opportunity to see a lot of wilderness, and enjoy moments that any backpacker would envy. Like one summer night in late July, after the Onion had beaten a path into northern Montana.

He was hiking at twilight, well after sunset, ascending an obscure gulch in Lewis and Clark National Forest, when he heard a disconcerting sound. Some sort of snort from an invisible source. "I pulled out my bear spray, and saw a shadow about 30 yards away," he recalls.

The Onion walked a little farther through the woods, then heard what was actually a wolf, letting loose with a full-blown howl. "He was really close. Then another wolf howled east of me, then another. Pretty soon there were four wolves howling," he later said.

At first, the Onion yelled back in defense. But he quickly surmised that the animals posed no threat, and that sharing the night with a pack of wolves was actually one of the most incredible experiences of his life. "Definitely not a moment when I thought about how I should be paying more attention to grad school," he later quipped. "I stopped screaming and maybe hiked another 200 yards. That's where I went to sleep under the stars. It was awesome."

Likewise, Mr. Magoo had his share of goosebump moments. One early August day, a southbound Magoo ignored the "Closed" sign on the trail that led to Montana's Chinese Wall–a thousand-foot high, 12-mile-long stretch of spectacular limestone cliffs that's a justifiably popular attraction. At the moment, hikers had been prohibited from the vicinity: The surrounding Bob Marshall Wilderness was under siege from a devastating fire. Nevertheless, Magoo was intent on seeing the wall and kept on walking, even at the risk of incurring a $5,000 fine.

"Maybe it wasn't the brightest thing to do," Tapon later admitted, "but I was determined to see the wall." He was so impressed with the rock formation that he decided to spend the night there (also against the rules). In turn, he was treated to an evening concert delivered by a nearby herd of elk, which alternately provided the percussion of their stampeding hooves and the sweet bleats of their young. Even a time-pressed ultra-distance hiker knows how to soak up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Unlike the Onion, Magoo captured an extraordinary amount of his trip's epic moments on camera. He carried a high-def movie camera that he frequently pulled out to ensure there would be plenty of footage for his website, book images, slide shows, and presentations. There's Magoo atop Colorado's Mt. Elbert in a blizzard. There he is at the Canadian border and in the New Mexico desert. Here's a funny photo of cows humping.

The two hikers also differed in the way they occupied themselves on the trail. Where the Onion made up songs and listened to music on an MP3 player, Magoo's MP3 device was loaded with books on tape (including inspiring biographies), motivating speeches (like those written by Thomas Paine), and even language lessons. Yes, you could've walked up to Magoo in the middle of forested Montana (although few did–he didn't see a single backpacker for the first 2,000 miles of his journey) and caught him repeating the phrase "I am an American!" out loud in pidgin Mandarin. "There are one billion Mandarin speakers," Tapon later explained. "Someday I'm going to Asia, and I'll definitely make that trip into a book."

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Francis Tapon
Jan 13, 2009

Ladridi's comment is understandable given the angle the writer took. Ladridi is correct that I took a job at a startup a few months after finishing the trail; however, it was a part-time, unpaid position, which I did more to help out a friend rather than to make money. If I'm a capitalist, I'm a lousy one.

I encourage those who came away with some negative feelings about the article to read my response to the article here:

I appreciate that Backpacker Magazine was fair and printed my short letter after this article came out. Unfortunately, the letter is not on the web, please view that link if you'd like to hear my take on the article. Thank you!

Happy trails,

Francis Tapon

Buck Nelson
Oct 02, 2008

I finally had time to read this well-written article. I just finished the CDT and it's hard to believe any yo-yoed that trail! An amazing accomplishment and adventure for both of them.

Aug 21, 2008

"He had hit the trail for the reasons many of us seek wilderness: to quiet his mind and spirit. He had recently left the Mormon Church and had taken leave from a PhD program; he was troubled by unresolved feelings about God and his future. Magoo, likewise, was motivated by a higher quest: He was a successful MBA who had chucked the corporate world for a dream of turning hiking and adventure into money."

I may be the only one, but I don't think that a dream of turning hiking into money is a "higher quest". When you trade one money-making opportunity (corporate job) for another moneymaking opportunity (hiking/travel books), I fail to see the "higher" status of the latter. He is a capitalist, plain and simple, who simply decided he'd rather be his own boss and figured that notoriety was his currency. (Nevermind that he took a job from a startup after he finished the trip.) Calling that a higher quest is insulting to the people who actually view hiking as its own reward instead of a commodity to be mined and then spent. While I know that there are a number of distance hiking enthusiasts who have turned their passions into profits, I suspect that most if not all of them would view the hiking as the higher quest, not the business.

Aug 20, 2008

How do these ppl afford to do this? Don't they have mortgages and bills to pay?

Downunder Baz
Aug 20, 2008

How about that. When I read the article there were two negative comments directed at the writer and one positive which was directed at the hikers. Go the positive guy.

Aug 19, 2008

A well written article, very enjoyable.

One question, though. Does Backpacker online really need to simulate the epic journey by spreading this out over 14 pages?

Chance Glasford
Aug 18, 2008

The Onion is a stud! and just because he didn't do it first he did it the quicker and did it for the right reason, himself! Over all the artical was great and kudos on getting the word out and giving praise wear it's due!

Aug 13, 2008

Congrats to both hikers. Amazing.
A strong ethos in long distance hiking is "hike your own hike". For Tapon, this meant hike on the trail, and add some extra peak bagging. For the Onion, this meant hike any route in the general area of the Divide, including roads that shaved off elevation and distance. Both valid hikes, just different.

Jean Brodie
Jul 26, 2008

This article would have done better by celebrating both hikers success. "Don't count anyone your friend who tries to clip your wings."


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