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May 2000

The Prophet Of The PNT

With the fervor of a pulpit-pounding evangelist, Ron Strickland has wandered the land, preaching the gospel of the Pacific Northwest Trail he hoped to create.

The lanky, narrow-boned man at my side spies two hikers headed our way. Ron Strickland steps to the side of the trail and slips his pack from his shoulders. He calmly glides his hand into the pack’s top pocket as if he’s done this a thousand times. Out comes a yellow pamphlet, which Strickland flips in his fingers to expose the prominent title to the dayhikers.

By the time the middle-age couple reaches us, the evangelist is ready, and my gaze has dropped to the dirt in embarrassment. Looking earnest, helpful, and not to be ignored, Strickland pipes up as the targets draw abreast. “Did you know you’re hiking along the Pacific Northwest Trail?” he inquires.

“Why no,” they respond, just a little startled by the directness of the question, as well as by the proffered brochure and business card. But they’re intrigued, as it turns out, and I watch with growing fascination while Strickland proselytizes. The duo apparently owns a nearby restaurant, so Strickland suggests that they offer discounted meals to thru-hikers trekking the entire route from Montana to the Pacific Ocean.

“But how would we recognize such a hiker?” one asks.

“Simple,” says Strickland, pulling down his sock, “by their tan lines.”

By the time Strickland picks up his pack, the hikers have been converted into loyal supporters of a trail they’d never heard of until 10 minutes earlier. They stuff the brochure into a pocket and head back toward the parking lot while Strickland and I continue west.

We drop out of sight of Washington’s famous poster-mountain, Shuksan, and flow through knee-high huckleberries in Swift Creek’s headwaters. As dusk gathers, we barely make out the dark shape of a black bear scampering into the timberline forest. Suddenly, it’s as if a heavenly light brightens the trail. The energy radiates from Strickland, a few paces ahead of me. Ecstatic, he explains that 2 weeks earlier he’d spent hours right here, thrashing through brush so thick he didn’t know when the trail was underfoot. Tonight the path is clear, the brush at arm’s length, and our feet effortlessly strike trail dirt even in the gloaming. Strickland stops frequently just to soak it all in. “It gladdens my heart to see this work,” he understates in a mannered accent that’s nearly British and certainly New England prep-school proper.

Moments such as this are like messages from heaven to Strickland, who has been toiling for nearly three decades to realize his dream of a 1,200-mile trail. He envisions it as one of America’s great long-distance trails, a continuous ribbon of waffle-stomped dirt leading faithful hikers down from the jagged Rockies, across pine-shrouded ridges and sage-covered deserts, past glaciers and volcanoes, over island-studded inland seas, through drenching coastal forests, and finally into the heavenly realm of one of the world’s great coastlines, where all good hikers must eventually rest. The rapture of the Pacific Northwest Trail.

A native Rhode Islander, Strickland was 26 years old and pursuing his doctorate in international studies in Georgetown, near Washington, DC, when he discovered the divine in a book by Northwest sage Harvey Manning. Upon reaching a mountaintop in Washington’s North Cascades, an inspired Manning penned the words, “Tomorrow the Pacific Ocean!” Though heartfelt, the exaltation was uttered with Manning’s characteristic tongue in cheek, given the long and often trail-less distance between the Cascade Crest and the continent’s edge. Nevertheless, not long after his hyperbole was published, a letter landed in Manning’s mailbox asking what progress he’d made in the Pacific’s direction. The year was 1970, and a fervent Ron Strickland soon followed his correspondence westward to retrace Manning’s route on the Boundary Trail. The notion of connecting, by foot, the continent’s spine with its western edge seemed somehow pure, natural, and necessary. So he went west to see if “Tomorrow the Pacific Ocean!” might in fact be a true, if unintended, commandment.

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