A video shows Jon Anderson shuffling toward the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. He carries 20 pounds of supplies on his back and sports a thick white beard that has taken five months to grow. He hasn’t showered or washed his clothes in two weeks, and he appears elated. At 71 years old, Jon has just walked 2,650 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada, a feat that approximately 400 people accomplished in 2022, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the not-for-profit group that oversees maintenance on the route.
Jon breaks into song, humming a simple and clear tune, one that he wrote during his trek.
“I crossed deserts, I walked rivers, I climbed mountains,” he sings, touching the wooden monument that designates the end of the trail. “Just to see you. Just to be here.”
This video spread quickly across the internet in late September. In the short clip, Jon is identified solely by his trail-name, Pa’at, which means bighorn sheep in the native language of the Cahuilla, a tribe from Southern California. Jon chose the name after it was suggested to him by a friend who is a Cahuilla tribal member. Nobody knows for sure if Jon is the oldest person to ever finish the PCT—that title was reportedly claimed by an 81-year-old named Al in 2018, however the Pacific Crest Trail Association says it cannot verify the age record. Record or not, Jon figures he’s one of the oldest to finish the hike in 2022, based anecdotally on the other, younger people he met along the way. And that’s worth singing about.
“That song I sang was the pent-up emotion in me for my journey, but it was also the song for everybody else [who walked],” Jon told Outside from his home near Corvallis, Oregon. “They weren’t as old as me, most of them, or none of them, but it was hard for them, too.”
Jon says that his friends and family were “a little concerned” when he announced 2021 that he was gearing up to walk the full length of the PCT. His wife, Flip, who is 69, was also part of his journey, but she had to bow out after completing 70 percent of the trail.
While loved ones may have been concerned, they ultimately weren’t surprised, he says.
Jon and Flip have always pursued adventure. In fact, their PCT hike marked the 50th anniversary of their meeting: a chance encounter in Southern California’s San Jacinto Mountains in 1972, when Jon was a wilderness ranger and Flip was on a backpacking trip. Ever since, they’ve spent their free time exploring wild places up and down the West Coast.
The PCT takes, on average, about five months to complete. Hiking it required more preparation than all their previous trips. Jon and Flip started training earlier this year on a 4,000-foot peak near their home, first by walking ten miles at a time and eventually building up to 18. They completed these walks while carrying 30-pound packs. They also practiced trekking across snow with microspikes attached to their shoes—a skill that later served them well. And to make sure their sleeping gear was warn enough, they camped out on their back porch seven different times.
“There’s plenty of young people that say, ‘Well, I’m young and I’ll just get in shape as I start hiking the trail,” Jon says. “But we knew we needed to be in shape, ready to hike the long miles, right from the beginning.”
Once Jon and Flip officially set out on the PCT in March, they quickly settled into a daily routine. They woke up in the dark, around 4:00 A.M., and packed their belongings by the light of a headlamp. They skipped an early meal and instead hiked until they got hungry. Each day they walked at least 18 miles, occasionally getting up to 25. They stopped around 7 or 8 P.M. to find a suitable spot to set up camp for the night.
Jon carried pruning shears and a small collapsible saw, and cut any overgrown brush or branches he noticed on the trail. Whenever they got internet, he posted detailed photo galleries of what he saw to Google Photos for his family and friends to see: bright orange mallow flowers, white blooms of datura, a lengthy gopher snake.
For the first few months, Jon wore only one t-shirt, day after day. It read: “I was made for this.”
“I felt like it was a statement about who I was,” he says. “I love natural things. And I love discovering things and sharing them with people.”
The going wasn’t always easy. Early in the journey, Jon and Flip realized they were losing too much weight, and started adding candy bars to their diet. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada forced the couple to sleep in eight-degree weather and navigate exposed slopes with ice axes. One day, Jon and Flip walked through the blindingly white snow for hours on end. That evening, Jon closed his eyes, and it felt like they were on fire—he had suffered snowblindness.
“I hardly slept because the pain was so excruciating,” he says. “It wasn’t just the pain, it was also the fear; I was afraid that I had damaged my eyes for the rest of my life.” The following day, running on little sleep, he had to hike with blurry vision. His eyes returned to normal two days later.
Flip battled athlete’s foot and painful blisters, and later she endured debilitating hip pain. Finally, after roughly 1,800 miles, she left the trail. “Even in the midst of the pain she would be smiling, just loving being there,” Jon says. “But physically she just couldn’t do the miles that we were going to have to do to finish the trail before it got too wet and cold.”
For the remaining month and a half, Jon went at it alone, hiking a daily average of 22 miles and not taking a single day off. The thought of walking by himself wasn’t concerning, he says. He was prepared, and used to the pace after months of hiking.
When the end was virtually in sight, with just 75 miles left, he felt a powerful draw toward the trail’s final point “It started feeling like there was a big elastic band connecting the front of my shoes and the terminus,” he says. “It felt like every time I picked my foot up, it wasn’t just me pushing my foot forward, it was the band pulling my foot forward.”
Jon reached the Canadian border on August 30, dirty and singing.
The 71-year-old has practical advice for others who want to hike the PCT: adequate training and proper gear go a long way, and he doesn’t recommend taking full rest days. But after walking thousands of miles, Jon also knows a more simple truth.
“One foot in front of the other,” he says, “will take you a long way.”