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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.

Strickland emerged from the Northwestern wilderness a true believer. The Boundary Trail, with its sweeping alpine vistas, endless miles of wildflowers, and vast expanse of unroaded wilderness, confirmed the divinity of Manning’s pronouncement. So Strickland continued west across the North Cascades, then traversed the Olympics as well, and didn’t stop walking until he finally reached the Pacific. Manning’s will was done. Strickland’s mission was just beginning. The National Scenic Trail System was 2 years old, with but two designated routes-the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Strickland was determined to add another long path, this one traversing and connecting mountain ranges, rather than spanning them.

In the 1960s, well before his Northwest journey, Strickland had wanted to be a fighter pilot, but had dropped out of ROTC because his reflexes and eyesight weren’t jet speed. “I’d have been the first one shot out of the sky,” he admits. “The slow pace of long-distance hiking suits me much better.” The late ’60s saw Strickland enroll in graduate school and marry.

His studies dragged on during the early ’70s while Strickland steeped himself ever more deeply in the twin subjects of trails and wilderness. Though his doctoral studies began in the international arena, his long hike in Washington state taught him to pursue his true passion: wilderness.

At home, the topics were academic and political, but each summer, as the snow melted from the high country, Strickland would make a multimonth pilgrimage west to scout and line up support for the PNT. Finally he changed his dissertation to “the congressional politics behind the Wilderness Act,” a subject straight from his heart. He was, by his own definition, “a hopeless trails addict-that was all I could talk about back then.” Even in bed, he would read to his wife from Thoreau and Sigurd Olson. And she would lobby him, unsuccessfully, for children. The pattern didn’t change when, with Ph.D. in hand in 1976, he began to take “a variety of meaningless government jobs that taught me to hate bureaucracy.” He believed ever more passionately in his dream and redoubled his campaign for a congressional study bill for the PNT. “All my free time went into the PNT,” he remembers. “I wanted the PNT no matter how much work it would take.”

It would take more than mere work. In 1977, while Strickland was west yet again, his wife called him and told him she was tired of his procrastination on the kids issue and not to bother coming back. “This pleased me fine,” recalls Strickland, despite his deep affection for his wife, “because I wanted to work on the trail full time. So I quit my job, divorced my wife, and moved to Seattle.”

At the end of that eventful summer, Strickland greeted the PNT’s first thru-hikers, Janet Garner and Rex Bakel, as they ended their 3-month journey at Cape Alava, Washington. Garner went on to write a cover story about the hike for Backpacker (issue 34, September 1979). The hike itself was a dream Garner and Bakel had first picked up from Strickland’s 1974 call to arms, also published in Backpacker (issue 7, Fall). Three more hikers completed the entire route later in 1977, the first of two dozen end-to-enders over the next decade. Strickland continued to scout improved linkages and incorporated the not-for-profit Pacific Northwest Trail Association. Local recruits in Idaho erected the first PNT trail signs that year, as well.

But not everyone believed in Strickland’s dream. To his consternation, the most troublesome infidels came from the Northwest’s conservation establishment; as a group, they were appalled and incensed by Strickland’s “environmentally damaging trail idea,” to quote Polly Dyer from the North Cascades Conservation Council. This puzzled Strickland because he wanted the PNT to be a “wilderness trail” with relatively difficult access and few signs or shelters. And, based on his extensive studies of the wilderness preservation system, he viewed hikers as defenders of wild places, allies in preservation. Still, many of the Northwest’s leading conservationists believed that a nationally recognized trail would attract an abundance of backpackers, which to them was anathema to real wilderness. Grizzly researchers in Montana didn’t want a trail through bear habitat. Seattle’s The Mountaineers club objected to more people tromping tundra in the priceless North Cascades and Olympics. The Olympic Park Association sought to avoid “further depredations” of the tidal reaches. The USDA Forest Service feared funds being diverted from other trail efforts.

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