This year marks the 30th anniversary of Strickland’s first exploratory hike toward the Pacific Ocean, but for the trail and its founder, the milestone is far more than mere chronology. During the past 12 months of hiking various parts of the route and interviewing dozens of people involved with the trail, I’ve come to embrace the vision personally and to believe that the critical moment has arrived when one man’s vision becomes an unstoppable movement. I’ve met people who remember Strickland from decades-ago visits as a frugal eccentric wandering the remote byways of his proposed PNT. Occasionally, I’ve encountered folks who think Strickland’s devotion has gone too far, his recruiting becoming more zealotry than boosterism. To my surprise, even some of his most ardent recent followers seem to have had enough of their minister’s omnipresent hand. Says one, “He’s the founder and the guidebook author, but now Ron should pull out completely.” While ringing harsh, the sentiment in fact reflects a critical step in the evolution of the PNT, revealing a deep belief in the dream itself apart from the dreamer. These recruits look back at Strickland’s previous decades as having been spent wandering in the wilderness, and they think that it’s time to get things done right.
All of which suits Strickland just fine. “It’s like watching children grow up and leave home,” he sighs over the roar of our campstove beside the Swift Creek Trail. Still, he’s smart-and tired-enough to see that he’s come a long way since 1970 and that an independent PNTA is the best thing that could happen to his dream. “It has been an extraordinary thing to think up this idea and see it come to fruition,” he muses, a little prematurely. “The way I see it now, I’ve been richly paid for those many years.”
Strickland has already set his sights on hiking long-distance trails in Europe and on writing novels when he pulls out as chief prophet for the PNT. Before he can get to new dreams, though, he has one more summer of trail scouting and a year of writing for the second print edition of The Pacific Northwest Trail: A Guidebook, due out in 2001. Then he’ll move on, satisfied that the trail will outlive him and that his decades of work will not have been in vain. He smiles, quietly sipping from a glass of red wine under an altar of old-growth Douglas fir. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon enough there really will be a trail stretching from the Continental Divide all the way to the Pacific Ocean.