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It’s raining at Rainy Pass, Washington. We’re just 66 miles shy of the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail—way up in the pines and the firs and the shifting fogs of North Cascades National Park—and it’s cold. Even now, in the middle of August, there are still patches of snow in the creases of the steep,sharp-ridged mountains above. It’s hypothermia weather. And earlier, as a trail angel named Monte drove us up a mountain road to the 4,800-foot pass, he waxed grandiose, telling us, “You guys are stepping onto the Trail of Death.” Now, I look out the car window, skeptically.
The most venerated hiker in PCT history is outside, however, standing beside the large wooden sign that welcomes visitors to Rainy Pass trailhead. Billy Goat, a retired railroad conductor from Maine, has hiked the entire length of the PCT eight times and most of the route two additional times. He is 77 years old and, ever since retiring at age 49, he has hiked roughly 150 days a year. He is not just another backpacker who enjoys being out in nature. No, Billy Goat is nature. Or at least he’s more comfortable in it than most. At an annual gathering of the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West, as younger trail fanatics slept in warm beds inside a comfy lodge, escaping the autumn chill on California’s Donner Pass, Billy Goat slumbered beneath a towering pine tree, using only a scrap of Tyvek for shelter.
In many ways, Billy Goat looks as old as weather itself. His hair, untrimmed since 2004, is an unruly tangle of gray cascading down from the rim of his broad khaki hat, and his long beard, likewise untrimmed, is a bounteous mist of tiny white whorls. The man could reasonably be cast as God in a movie.
But there is something boyish about Billy Goat as well. He’s a slight fellow, only 5’7’’, and jaunty, so that walking behind him you can see the muscles in his wrinkled, gamey calves coiling and springing. Sometimes on the trail, he spontaneously breaks into his signature ditty: It’s a long way to Canada, but we won’t get there today. We’ll walk and talk and sing and play because Canada’s a long waaay awaaay.
Right now, at Rainy Pass, Billy Goat is not singing. He’s standing beneath the small roof sheltering the trailhead sign and holding his palm out, into the rain, deciding whether it’s prudent to commence our planned four-day, 40-mile hike now, in a storm, at four in the afternoon. Should we say goodbye to Monte, whose battered but heated Honda idles nearby? “I’ve got a lot of respect for this kind of situation,” Billy Goat says, his voice a wise and reedy yelp bearing the distinct inflections of northern New England. Ruh-spekt.
A clap of thunder reverberates in the distance. “Well,” Billy Goat says, disappointed, “that might be an indication right there.” We get back in Monte’s car, and as we’re riding downhill, I’m already thinking about a hotel room and a hot shower. I wonder if we might find a place to drink a beer. Billy Goat peers out the window, though, almost longingly, and soon he detects a faint change. “Look!” he says like a kid who’s been confined on a summer day. “The clouds are lifting!”
A few minutes later, Billy Goat and I are out on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the cool woods, striding amid damp ferns glistening in the late afternoon light. The dirt is soft under our boots and when we come to a little gap in the trees, Billy Goat rejoices. “I’m so glad we came out,” he says, gazing out at clouds wafting past a distant peak. “This is where I belong, out on the trail.”
For many PCT hikers, it’s hard to imagine the trail without Billy Goat. “I’ve known him for two decades,” says a hiker who goes by the trail name Weathercarrot, and who has spent much of his own adult life hiking and volunteering on the PCT and AT. “Why is he such a legend? First, there’s the way his personality, demeanor, and passion capture the spirit of the community so beautifully. And then there’s his sheer persistence. When you wander around as long as he has, you start to span several different eras, with changing communities.”
Indeed, he’s been roaming the PCT for so long that he’s become a character known only by his trail name. (Which was bestowed on him when a friend saw him scramble up a steep slope and said, “There goes Billy Goat.’’) As he puts it himself, “Thirty years ago I was George Woodard. Then slowly, gradually, I became Billy Goat.”
But of course the number of mountain streams he’ll bound across, hopping from rock to rock, is ever dwindling. The man is fragile these days. Three years ago, Billy Goat underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He’s had diabetes for more than two decades. And in 2013, a kidney stone lodged itself in his innards, painfully, forcing him to abandon the PCT and rush to the VA hospital in Seattle, stopping every so often to vomit. The incident caused a gap in his PCT legacy, a 9.5-mile section that he wanted to hike out and back on that trip. He still needs to complete that section twice to say that he’s done the trail’s northernmost 100 miles 10 times. On this 2016 hike, we start at Rainy Pass so he can knock off that missing link before tackling a longer section to the south.
Filling such gaps is an arcane personal goal, but one that matters greatly to a man whose trail logs chronicle nearly every step in his last 28 years of full-time long-distance hiking. Most thru-hikers complete one long trail, savor the achievement, and move on with life. A few chase the Triple Crown. But what drives a person to spend nearly half his life on the trail, year after year after year? I’ve come along to witness Billy Goat cement his PCT legacy and to find out why this unrelenting hiker keeps going—and how he contends with the slowing down and the falling apart that awaits all of us. What happens when he must stop?
We’re climbing now, gaining 2,000 feet over 5 miles on our way to 6,800-foot Cutthroat Pass, and the sun has escaped the clouds. We walk very slowly, a little more than a mile an hour. It’s possible that I, being a long-legged guy 25 years his junior, push the pace slightly. Three miles in, as we near treeline at dusk, he collapses trailside, complaining of chest pains. For a moment he just sits there, gasping, his head pressed to his knees. “Four years ago, this never would have happened,” he says. “I might just have to give up on my effort to hike the PCT. I’m feeling weak and dizzy. Oh, I just can’t do it anymore!”
Back in Monte’s car, Billy Goat’s bad heart had been an abstraction. Now it dawns on me that he could die in my presence. “If anything happens,” I ask, “what do you want me to do?”
Billy Goat peers up for a moment, thinking. “I don’t know,” he finally says. “I don’t know.”
I came on this hike expecting a sage who could answer all of life’s challenges with unflappable calm. He’s a legend, yes, but he’s also human.
Eventually, Billy Goat musters enough energy to set up his tent. Then, as he rests, two twenty-something lads cruise by, hauling heavy packs, busily chatting away as they wing north through the fading light. “Just listen to those young horses,” Billy Goat says. “Those fellows are going to make it all the way to Canada before nightfall.”
When you hike with Billy Goat, you are constantly reminded of his celebrity. Young women in particular bathe him in adoration. At Rainy Pass, a hiker named Hatchet, taking shelter in her tent, beckoned us over to share some grapes she’d bought in town. Then, shyly, faltering, she asked, “Are you—are you Billy Goat?” Another hiker we met, trail name Miss Washington, reminisced aloud about a chance Billy Goat sighting she’d made a few summers earlier. “You were eating a pickle,” she said.
“Isn’t that something?” Billy Goat responded warmly.
To his fans, the man embodies all that’s great about thru-hiking. He’s out there year after year because he loves life on the trail. He’s not trying to break speed records or tell others how to hike. Casual trailside conversations have left many with the impression that he’s simply the PCT’s gentle and beloved grandfather. But his trail persona belies a complex backstory.
George Woodard grew up in northern Maine, within sight of Katahdin. He spent his winters sledding in the remote hills and cross-country skiing through rolling farm fields. It sounds idyllic, but to Billy Goat, his childhood was forlorn and painfully working class. “We didn’t have much of anything,” he says of his family. “We didn’t have indoor plumbing. One house we moved into, we put in electricity, and we thought that was a big deal. And there was nothing to do—no clubs, no Boy Scouts, nowhere to go after school. When I was 10 or 12 years old, I figured the rest of the world was just one big city. I wanted to run away.”
Billy Goat says that he wasn’t comfortable at home, in part because his mother was intrusive and possessed of “an anxiety and nervous disorder” that also afflicts him and his son Toby Woodard, 46, who lives in Maine. Toby says simply, “She henpecked him to death and he couldn’t wait to get out of there. Something really bad happened with his mother. He didn’t even go to her funeral, and to this day he won’t talk about it.”
When Billy Goat was 17, he followed his uncle into the railroad business. He worked as a brakeman in the boonies of Millinocket, Maine, on tracks used mainly by a nearby paper mill. It was cold work—a matter of digging the switches out of the snow at 3 a.m.—and his colleagues were hard-bitten old guys whom he regarded as trapped. One man kept telling Billy Goat that as soon as he retired, he was going to Florida with his wife. “He’d never been there,” Billy Goat says, “and as he was driving down there, he died. He died somewhere in North Carolina. I decided, ‘That’s not going to happen to me.’”
To that end, Billy Goat left his job at age 20 and joined the army. He served two years in Germany during the Cold War. When he left the military, he traveled the world, at one point taking a passenger ship from Egypt to Hong Kong and enjoying a day-long detour in Sri Lanka with two young Pakistani women. “We rode around in a taxi cab and saw elephants in the river, and rubber trees and forests. I felt so lucky,” he remembers. “I kept thinking, ‘I have three sisters back in Maine and they wouldn’t even know how to change trains in Chicago.’”
After that, Billy Goat’s life might have blossomed into a hippie daydream. It’s easy to imagine him growing long hair and escaping to a mountain meadow. But he didn’t. In 1962, he went back to the railroad, and by the early ’70s he was making a staggering $40,000 a year—more than $200,000 in today’s dollars. He was married with two children. He owned a brand new house in New Hampshire and drove a 1972 Plymouth Satellite. But he couldn’t enjoy the American dream. “I wish I knew how to make myself happy back then,” he says. He hadn’t yet realized what is now his life’s guiding principle: “If I get too bored, if I don’t move around, I can get depressed.”
Billy Goat’s marriage ended in 1976. Afterward his son, Toby, lived with him full time for two years. Billy Goat was confident that hiking would be good for his son, but his efforts were met with mixed success. When he was 14, Toby suffered from a condition that caused insufficient cartilage in his growing knees, yet Billy Goat expected him to hike 76 miles over five days—solo. “In the morning,” Toby wrote in a recent essay, “I have to use my hands and arms to pull myself upright, then walk for up to an hour like Frankenstein with my knees locked.” Eventually, at age 17, after three summers of hiking section by section—mostly with Billy Goat—Toby completed every mile of the AT. But he still didn’t feel he’d satisfied his dad. “Even into my thirties,” says Toby, who says he suffers from chronic depression, “I was still trying to please my father.”
Billy Goat’s daughter, April Woodard, who is 48 and an artist in rural Massachusetts, likewise describes her dad as demanding. “With him,” she says, “you’d better know how to make a good campfire. Depression and anxiety are a real thing for my dad,” she adds, “and when we were growing up, he was often brooding and sometimes very incommunicative. His coping mechanism is hiking—the longer he’s off the trail, the harder he finds life to be.”
On the second day of our hike, I awake at dawn. Billy Goat is already outside his tent, rummaging around in his backpack. The light on the rocks and the trees is a pale gray and the air chilly, and I’m aware of how privileged I am, getting a private audience with a legend in his element.
We shoulder our packs. “Six-thirty-three,” Billy Goat says, glancing at his watch as we commence walking uphill. Later, he will write down this departure time, along with the distance we hike, in a notebook. He’ll record how long each of our rest stops are. Ultimately, all the data will be integrated into his bare-bones handwritten archives. “It’s interesting to look back,” he says, “and to see how many times I started out before five in the morning, and how many 14-hour days I’ve done.”
Hiking is Billy Goat’s job. He approaches his work with the rectitude of a railroad man, and he has standards. He is appalled by the profusion of ill-equipped soul seekers that have washed up on the PCT since the 2012 publication of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. “I see a lot of hikers who have no idea what’s in front of them,” he says during a break later that day. “They just want to drink beer and smoke pot, like the Pacific Crest Trail’s nothing but one big party.”
As he speaks, Billy Goat fishes into his backpack and pulls out a 1-pound block of Shurfine Monterey Jack Cheese and begins eating it, directly from the package. The single-item snack is an exact repeat of his breakfast, and during our first two days together I never see Billy Goat eat anything but that cheese. I’m able to mark the passage of time by the dwindling of the block, and all the while I’m awed by how little Billy Goat carries in his 12-pound pack. He doesn’t have a stove, opting for ready-to-eat food. He carries no water filter (he trusts the streams) and he doesn’t bring a book. “All I do,” he tells me, “is eat and walk and sleep.”
There’s an animal quality to the way Billy Goat fits into the landscape. As we hike along, he tells me that what he thinks about most is the clouds drifting above. He delights in the purple wildflowers we see, but has no interest in learning the names of these plants, and he walks, always, with a kind of primal intent. He’s not out for a wander.
Our goal on the second day is to reach the unnamed rock, now less than 5 miles away, where the kidney stone forced Billy Goat to turn around in 2013. We’re hiking to the spot and back. Billy Goat climbs Cutthroat Pass slowly, refraining from prolonged conversation. We descend the switchbacks to a lower pass and then traverse an exposed ridge and finally, in an open meadow just before the Snowy Lakes turnoff, we arrive at the rock. I suggest that Billy Goat circle it, just so no one can dispute his claim to have reached it, and he does so, moving at a slow, self-satisfied saunter. “Well,” he says, “that one was plaguing me for three years.”
We turn around without pausing and hike for another mile and then Billy Goat stops and slips off his pack. “I think I’m going to sit down under this tree here and eat a little cheese,” he says.
These days, when he’s not hiking, Billy Goat hangs his hat in Syracuse, New York, renting a room in the home of a woman he describes as a “very good friend.” Amoeba (she prefers to go only by her trail name) is a 72-year-old retired insurance underwriter who accompanies him to all his doctor’s appointments—and like everyone else, calls him Billy Goat. “I enjoy helping him,” she says, “and it’s nice having him here, too. I have a big old house with a lot of room.”
Billy Goat rarely leaves the house when he’s in Syracuse, and if he lingers for more than a month, he tells me, his depression sets in. “I just lie around and do nothing and I can’t seem to pull myself out of it,” he says.
In 2014, Amoeba coaxed Billy Goat to try psychiatric counseling, but he balked after one visit. “This woman wanted me to do these breathing exercises,” he says, speaking of the therapist. “It was just a lot of hokey pokey. My cure”—he gestures at the towering mountains nearby and the blue sky above—“is right here, on the trail. When I get out here, I just forget what all my troubles are.”
That’s easy to see just by watching him interact with other hikers. He’s charming, smooth. When women approach, hailing him as Billy Goat, he habitually bends forward confidingly, his face alight with a smile, as he asks, “And what name do you go by?” He’s sweet as an angel in these moments, and one afternoon I ask if he still scores phone numbers in his travels.
“I do,” he says, his voice rising with glee. “I do! I do!” He tells a story about meeting a woman in her 60s while waiting for a bus just two days earlier. “If you’re ever going through Ashland, Oregon,” she told him, “give me a call.”
For all his bluster, I sense that Billy Goat only goes so far down the playboy path. He speaks fondly of Amoeba, calling her his “ladyfriend,” and he admits that he needs her. “I’ve got a good situation going in Syracuse,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to mess that up. When you get older, I guess what you look for is companionship.”
I try to get Billy Goat to imagine a time when companionship might be his only salve. What would his life look like when he is too old to hike? “I don’t like to think about that,” he says with stiff discomfort. “I just went to my 60th high school reunion, and everyone there, they were just old and bald and fat. They had great-grandchildren and canes and walkers. I don’t want to be old. I just want to keep hiking.”
There is one concession Billy Goat is willing to make: He can see himself transitioning from mountainous trails to flatter ones more congenial to his heart. He has his sights on the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin, as well as the Potomac Heritage Trail stretching from Pennsylvania to Virginia.
Toward the end of our second day, we pass some overhanging rocks on an exposed ridge and Billy Goat says, “I’m always looking for places like this, where you can wait out a storm. I don’t want to die up here.”
“But I guess if you had to pick a place to die,” I say, “here might not be bad.”
“I don’t see it that way,” Billy Goat says. “I don’t want to die anywhere.”
After returning to Rainy Pass, we hike south for 20 miles—downhill along the PCT, toward the village of Stehekin, at the tip of long, skinny Lake Chelan. It’s sunny and cloudless. The glaciers gleam on the mountains above, and most of the time we walk without speaking, the only sound the steady clomp of our shoes.
When I ask Billy Goat what he’s thinking about, he says, “People I’ve known over the years: family members, other hikers, people I’ve worked with. All the memories I have when I’m out here are positive.” He tells me that in recent years he’s grown closer to Toby, his son. The two men now talk on the phone several times a week. Toby says Billy Goat has mellowed over the years. “He’s told me, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do. You’ll always be my son.’”
Perhaps because I’m not his son, I sense a nearly unwavering lightness about Billy Goat. And though I’m hiking with a borrowed pack and far less outdoor knowledge, he never casts judgment. Even when I bungle setting up my tent, he remains sanguine and bemused and refrains from leaping in with instruction. He has no interest in running my show, but he seems attuned to how I am feeling. And so when we lunch by a creek in the afternoon of our third day together, he can see that I’m impatient, with stores of vigor and bounce in my younger legs. He proposes that I go ahead and meet him in Stehekin.
I do. I hike solo for 10 miles and then, per Billy Goat’s recommendation, I dine at the Stehekin Ranch, receiving a cool reception as I skulk into the line for the buffet. “You can only fill your plate once,” the server says, eyeing me warily.
The next morning, I repeat this line to Billy Goat and he rolls his head back, cackling with delight. “Oh,” he says, “they’ve seen old Billy Goat one too many times.”
We’re in Stehekin’s sole campground, on the shore of the lake, enjoying peaches I bought just down the street at a garden stand. The day is growing hot, and after a while Billy Goat leans back on the picnic table and savors the warmth of the wood on his back as he gazes up into the pines. “I sure do like it here in Stehekin,” he says.
I realize I’m going to miss him. In an hour, I’ll take a ferry down the lake, toward civilization, as he preps for his next adventure—108 miles south along the PCT to Stevens Pass, Washington. After collecting resupply boxes, he’ll set off carrying 12 days of food along a remote section of trail.
I look at his slight frame and know that he could die between Stehekin and Stevens Pass. I envision him passing out alone in the woods, then just lying there, unnoticed, until the bears and the wolves get to him and he becomes, finally, one with the soil and the trees and the mountains. He’s taking a risk. But Billy Goat is who he is because he makes decisions we’re trained to regard as audaciously wrong—like hitchhiking after the age of 70.
As we make our way down the road toward the boat dock, I try not to worry about him. The man himself is in high spirits, particularly after a bus pulls up and a young woman steps out, tall and lean and blonde. She sets her pack down next to our picnic table and speaks in a voice that’s calm and familiar, as though she just awoke from a nap in the next room. “Hi, Billy Goat,” she says with a southern accent.
When I leave, the woman is sitting at Billy Goat’s table, marveling that he drinks straight from mountain streams. “You don’t purify?” she says. “That’s awesome! I’m not there yet.”
Thirteen days later I get a phone call. Billy Goat. He made it out of the woods; now he’s sitting in a Motel 6 in Wenatchee, Washington. “I’ve been eating for two or three hours straight,” he rejoices. “Cheese, bread, pickles, pears, nuts. And now I’m just about to dip my feet in the bathtub. Oh, what a luxury this place is! Oh, it’s just wonderful!”
The next morning, he boards an Amtrak train. He rides for almost two days and then meets a friend in St. Paul and gets a ride east into the wilds of Wisconsin. The Ice Age Trail lays before him now, gentle and rolling and lined with maples and cedars. Fall is coming and the leaves will soon be changing. But hiking season is not over.
Bill Donahue lives in New Hampshire, where he is halfway through hiking the state’s 48 4,000-foot peaks.
From December 2016