Shattered on the Pacific Crest Trail

When they wake up broke, broken, and far from home, how do thru-hikers find the will to go another mile?
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Editor’s Note: We usually focus on the pleasures of a long-distance hike. We tell ourselves the pain will dissolve into a march of panoramas from Mexico to Canada. But the truth of thru-hiking is that it is brutally physical. This excerpt from recently published Journeys North by Triple Crowner and PCT trail angel Barney “Scout” Mann follows his northbound Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike in 2007, tracking his experience and those of fellow thru-hikers Blazer, Dalton, Ladybug, and 30-30. Their stories map the glory of the trail but don’t look away from the fear, money issues, and injury that underwrite the experience. And any hiker will recognize the ties that bind this group of travelers. Those considering a long-distance trek ought to know that to travel thousands of miles by foot is to race both the season and the body’s unfolding demise. Every mile has to be earned until, eventually and reliably, something in the body or mind gives. But it’s what hikers do next that defines their hikes—and themselves.

Beginning of the End

Friday, September 7, 2007

The bridge rattled and shook. Through the soles of her feet, Blazer felt the 1,800-foot span jerk as if there’d been an earthquake. She braced herself, pressing her back hard into the railing, and shut her eyes tight. The semi roared by, missing her by inches. Its whoosh sucked her and her pack sideways on the narrow roadbed.

The Bridge of the Gods. Even the name sounds like a rite of passage. Forty miles east of Portland, it spans the mighty Columbia River. Anyone walking across the bridge is acutely aware that the roadbed isn’t asphalt, but an open metal grate. Those who dare to look down see the Columbia’s roiling swells far below their feet, barely obscured by a gossamer lattice of steel. It feels like walking on air.

The bridge is barely wide enough for two lanes, let alone a sidewalk or shoulder. Any ten-foot-wide load requires 24-hour advance notice, a pilot car, and a traffic stoppage. Hikers cross at their own risk—and pay fifty cents for the privilege.

Blazer clung to the outside rail, hating that open grid. In all of her twenty-five years, she’d never experienced anything like this. Looking straight ahead the whole time, she repeated to herself, “This is temporary. People do this all the time.”

Welcome to Washington. Only 500 miles to Canada.

The Ballad of Blazer

It was hard, but finally Blazer broke down and called her brother Ian. She’d stretched her dollars as much as she could—skipping overnight town stays, skimping on gear and town meals. An off-trail friend had helped her stretch a two-month budget to almost four, but the words still felt like sawdust in her mouth. “Ian, I’m nearly out of money.”

The last time she’d seen Ian was when he boarded the bus in Yosemite. That was on the 64th day of her trek. Ian had hiked with her for four weeks, cherry-picking a PCT highlight, the Sierra Nevada. This morning, her hand shaking in the chill air, Blazer had written “Day 128” in her journal. Ian was five years older than her and he’d been the first to tell her about the Pacific Crest Trail. He must be all shaved and clean by now, she thought, but I doubt he smiles as much as he did in the High Sierra. Ian listened to Blazer describe her plight. As soon as it sank in, he said, “You made it this far. You’re not giving up now.” He sent her $500.

Teetering on her financial tightrope had felt worse than any thousand-foot climb under a late-summer sun. I want a trail life like everyone else, with motel stays and town meals, she thought. But she knew $500 wasn’t enough to see her to the end, even if she lived like a monk. She would manage to feed herself and squeeze in with four hikers in a room in town overnight, but her rain jacket needed replacing—the zipper was broken—and that wasn’t going to happen. I’m not asking Ian again. She and Ian had overcome a lot of history to bond in the Sierra. I’d sooner quit the trail than jeopardize that, she thought.

Blazer (right) and Gail wait out the wetness in Ulrich Cabin, Washington.

Blazer (right) and Gail wait out the wetness in Ulrich Cabin, Washington.

Racing Winter

On Tuesday, September 11, Blazer journaled: “Today I saw Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier. We hiked around Mt. Adams. I’m stressing about returning to life, to bills and no money!” With nary a gap she went on, “Reunited with Dalton. I’m so glad to be here right now, even though I am sore and tired. About 20 days left.”

They hadn’t hiked together since Blazer left Dalton at Walker Pass. She’d needed to double-time for two days to meet Ian for their hike through the Sierra Nevada. That was back on day 41. Now, ninety days later, both were excited to see the other. She wanted to reach out and tug his bushy amber beard. Both found it hard to believe how long they’d hiked apart. Blazer had been sexually assaulted when she was younger, and for four years before her hike, she had brushed off every request for a date. Dalton was the one who had cracked that shield, the reason she’d become open to trusting men again. At times they’d shared a tent or bed at a motel, but never kissing, never touching. For Dalton, amid the reunion joy, one aspect was bittersweet—he’d heard the trail scuttlebutt about Blazer and her brother’s friend Marcello, with whom Blazer had hiked for three weeks in Oregon. Dalton tried to shake off the feeling of visiting an ex-girlfriend happy with a new partner.

They filled their miles in southern Washington with stories—each had so many. Dalton told her about a dinner at a rustic resort where he’d asked for a big mound of complimentary dinner rolls and the waiter brought him a “freaking mountain.” They exchanged High Sierra tales with Dalton groping to describe the grandeur: “The mountains were storybook. I half expected a unicorn to run across the scene.”

Dalton also brought up their last night together on Walker Pass, how he’d stayed up most of the night. How he’d heard her sobbing. She’d tried so hard to be quiet, but Dalton was only ten feet away and they were both cowboy camping. That is so like Dalton, Blazer thought, finding a way to be there for me, but not letting on. Hearing him talk, Blazer felt like they’d never parted on the trail. Tale by tale their stories rebuilt the implicit trust they’d once had in each other before she’d dashed off ahead to rendezvous with Ian.

There was one thing Blazer did not need Dalton to tell her: why his guitar was gone. Like so many others, he had culled his last ounce of frivolous weight before crossing the border into Washington. At the same time, worried about snow, he beefed up his gear, making room for down mittens, a ski mask, and a second pair of long underwear. Washington was where the trail got serious again. It not only marked the return of big ups and downs, but parts of the trail were as remote as the High Sierra. As the guidebook says, Washington is “real wilderness, not wilderness in name only.”

Around Blazer and Dalton, the change in leaf colors marked the transitioning season. The yellows of the larches and aspens screamed, “Hurry!” The reds of the vine maples and huckleberry bushes warned, “You’ll have to stop soon.” Daylight was pinched at both ends, the weather was deteriorating, and everyone’s bodies were finally signaling that the abuse must end. It was like being squeezed in a vise.

I knew the feeling well. My wife—trail name Frodo—and I were 10 miles ahead of Blazer, hoping she’d catch us soon. We met her early in the hike at a trailside McDonald’s and from then on, our paths crossed regularly and our bond grew. Soon, she started calling us her trail parents, even though she kept us in the dark about her finances.

Like Dalton, my wife and I also made some changes to our gear. We swapped out our two-pound Tarptent for our four-pound Big Agnes, bombproof against expected freezing rain and big enough to bring both our packs inside. We bought new rain pants and gloves, and Frodo bought a double-layered cap. After that crazy day when we both shaved our heads to mark the PCT midpoint, Frodo’s hair was growing in frustratingly slow and it was hard to keep her head warm. We switched our alcohol stove for a canister stove. I’d backpacked for over 40 years, closing in on 10,000 miles, but this was the first time I felt like I was on the eve of a beachhead invasion. Blazer saw us ship odds and ends home, but she had to work with what she was already carrying.

After a few days hiking together (and still trailing Frodo and me), Blazer and Dalton ran headlong into 48 straight hours of rain. This rain was of a different stripe than what they had previously experienced in Oregon or California, much colder and more penetrating. Worse, they had to camp on an exposed ridge—it was the only usable flat spot in four miles—and the wind howled. All night, Blazer tossed fitfully as rain pinged her Tarptent, gusts finding every crack. Shivering, her mind spiraled into overtime. I’m going to die. The next morning, she journaled: “The worst morning of my life!” Both her shoes and socks were frozen stiff. It took hours before she could feel her fingers.

Between the weather and the diminishing daylight, Frodo and I were frequently driven into our tent. With more time to spend writing our online journal, Frodo called me out: “It’s time for you to ‘fess up—you need to write about your trail injuries. You wrote about mine.” Just north of the Oregon border, Frodo fell like a tree and her two front teeth struck a rock. One tooth was knocked out of its socket and the second broke in half. It was a miracle a dentist in Ashland could save those teeth, but even so, strangers still greeted us on the trail with: “Frodo, how are your teeth?” Now she wanted people to know that I, too, had suffered.

I had cracked a rib at Man Eaten Lake. My bare feet slipped on a mossy rock and I crashed hard on my chest. Hiker pride meant I didn’t tell anyone for two days. For two weeks that meant to cough, to breathe deep, or even to laugh, I had to press a hand hard against my chest to lessen the pain.

Two months earlier, just after Wrightwood, California (PCT mile 360), Frodo heard this whump behind her and turned to see me sprawled, embarrassed, on the ground. My shoe caught on a root and I fell, ripping my pants above the knee and opening a gash. If we’d been in a city, I might have gone for stitches.

Earlier still, in the Laguna, San Jacinto, and San Bernardino Mountains, a muscle knotted behind my right shoulder blade on cue every day at 1 p.m. It disappeared somewhere before the Sierra. Starting in Oregon, both my Achilles tendons had been so tight in the morning that I had to shorten my steps for at least the first forty-five minutes on trail. And I won’t speak of all the blisters and lost toenails. Everyone had those. So, Frodo, that’s my list of trail woes. Now are you happy?

The author and Frodo cover the PCT’s home stretch.

The author and Frodo cover the PCT’s home stretch.

The Pain Train

Understand pain and you understand the trail. In Southern Oregon, a young man jumped on to the trail, planning to “section hike” the entire state. After leapfrogging with us for a few days, he stopped by one morning at a quarter before 6 a.m. as Frodo and I were breaking camp. “Can I ask you a question?” We must have looked like trustworthy, parental types—from his voice we knew he was sharing something in confidence. “Sure, go ahead.” He leaned in close. “So tell me, when does the pain stop?”

Frodo and I burst out laughing. He was so sincere, and with such hope. But what else was there to do? Pain was as much a part of this hike as the pines, the Douglas firs, and the thick-bark cedars. Because the truth is that the pain never stops, it merely ebbs and flows. Sometimes it’s loud and angry. Sometimes it’s quiescent. Sometimes it’s eclipsed by the wonder of the people on the trail.

That section hiker was lucky he hadn’t asked Switch. Switch and her husband had hiked the Appalachian Trail seven years before. So when they hiked the PCT, they were the experts. During the first few weeks someone asked her, “When do you stop hurting?” Switch looked at him, paused, and said in a deadpan, “Three months.” She saw the wheels turning around in his head. The guy nodded, as if thinking, I can handle that. Then she gave the full answer. “Three months after you get off the trail.”

To hike a long trail, you have to learn the truth about pain. There are two kinds: pain that can be tolerated and pain that must be dealt with. Failure to recognize the second puts you in peril.

hikers in snow

Snow and hail greet the stragglers in northern Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness.

One Bad Step

By the time Blazer and Dalton had reunited, Tony was eight days ahead of them. He was focused on the finish line. That particular morning, he was six miles north of Mt. Adams, camping just before the third branch of Muddy Creek, the one with no bridge. He was only there because Allegheny, his current hiking partner, didn’t like to travel at night. That’s how it came to pass that Tony camped for the first time with Ladybug and her hiking partner, 30-30.

Ladybug seemed taller than her 5’5”, and younger than her 50 years. Her bright brown eyes, straight nose, and well-proportioned face might have graced one of the marble statues atop the Acropolis—appropriate for her Greek lineage. She spoke with a Southern accent and had the long arms of a competitive swimmer, which she’d once been. On the PCT she found hitchhiking a snap.

A thousand miles south, Ladybug had taken a bad spill and broken her right hand in a nasty spiral fracture. The cast had to stay on for eight weeks. At the time, she’d been hiking casually with 30-30. Now Ladybug couldn’t even pack her gear. Staring at the prospect of a one-handed hike, she knew she needed help. “What do you think, 30-30?” He didn’t think twice.

Even with assistance, the pain was staggering at times. It was hundreds of miles before it subsided and the bones knit back together. But Ladybug didn’t consider quitting—she had made a promise. Her sister Cheryl had died nine years before from breast cancer. In her last months, she confided her biggest fear, “I’m worried no one will remember me.” Ladybug made her sister a promise: “You will not be forgotten.” She had dedicated her hike to her sister and was raising money in Cheryl’s name for hospice care for people with cancer. A broken hand would not drive her off the trail. By the time Ladybug reached Washington, the cast was gone and the pasty flesh on her arm had tanned.

Tony knew none of this when, at dusk, Ladybug and 30-30 pulled into camp. He and Allegheny had already turned in, and the four spoke only enough to establish that they had each previously hiked the Appalachian Trail. Ladybug and 30-30 were also in a pre-celebratory frame of mind. With only a few hundred miles of Washington left, Ladybug knew she was going to finish.

The next morning it was time to cross the third branch of Muddy Creek. Allegheny left first and negotiated a narrow, slippery log over the stream. The Muddy was fast and deep, its milky-white glacier runoff obscuring a jumble of boulders jutting from the floor of the waist-deep flow. Fifteen feet long and three feet above the water, the log bowed under Allegheny’s weight, but he was loathe to wade through the icy water on such a cold morning. He was well out of sight when 30-30 crossed, using the same route. Then came Ladybug’s turn.

This is no big deal, she thought. I’ve done so many log crossings. She put one foot in front of the other, as 30-30 watched. Then she felt the log bow. He saw her hesitate. Should I be doing this? Should I turn back and wade across? Her debate ended abruptly. Whoosh. The soles of her feet flew off the log. She dropped three feet, and her left leg slammed into a submerged rock. The blow shattered her tibia and fibula—in that moment, she knew that she’d broken her leg. Flailing her arms, she fought to keep her head above the rushing water as 30-30 hurled himself into the icy flow to reach her. When he pulled her head and shoulders out of the water, she shouted, “My hike’s over!” He quickly shot back, “Don’t say that.”

Broken Dreams, New Promises

When Tony arrived at the stream, Ladybug was still lying in the water. She refused to be moved or touched, but Tony and 30-30 were afraid that she’d go into shock. Once they’d helped her out of the stream, the two used a fireman’s carry—their hands crossed and grasped beneath her rear end—to carry Ladybug as gingerly as possible back to where they had camped the night before. She screamed the whole way. Once there, they laid out a Therm-a-Rest pad and made a nest out of their three sleeping bags.

They were deep in the Mt. Adams Wilderness of the Cascade Range—the closest civilization was the sparsely settled Yakama Indian Reservation. They had no cell coverage, nor any idea where the nearest ranger station was. Two miles ahead, barely warranting a number, was Forest Road 5603. “I’ll go for help,” Tony said. 30-30 would stay with Ladybug.

When he reached the road, Tony found Allegheny sitting on a rock. After he explained what had happened to Ladybug, the two pored over their maps. What a crap shoot, Tony thought. Which way to go? The guidebook maps covered such a narrow corridor. He took off, jogging east, because the maps indicated that at a crossroads three miles away there might be a ranger station. Allegheny would man the trailhead, ready to flag down any vehicle coming from the opposite direction. Back at camp, 30-30 gave Ladybug ibuprofen, but it did nothing for the unbearable pain in her left leg. She could only lie there, alternately crying and whimpering, not knowing how soon Tony would bring help.

The sun was high in the sky when Tony reached the crossroads. When he saw what was left of the building, he was crestfallen—there was only a cracked concrete foundation. He caught his breath and then continued east. Finally, Tony saw a car belonging to an off-duty Yakama Reservation policeman. The officer had no radio service or way to contact the outside world, so they started driving back to Allegheny. On the way, they saw a logging truck and flagged it down—that driver also had no radio contact, but offered to drive to the nearest town. “I’ll send medical help,” he said, and then mentioned it was 30 miles away.

When the car reached the trailhead, Tony hurried back to the campsite. He let 30-30 and Ladybug know how soon help might be there, then turned right around and went out again. He wanted to be there to lead in the rescue crew. By this point, Tony had walked, jogged, or run at least 10 miles. It felt like it had been days since he had come upon Ladybug and 30-30 at the Muddy Creek crossing.

The weak sun had passed its zenith when a Yakama Tribal ambulance finally arrived. Two EMTs and four members of the Yakama Nation Foresters hiked back to where 30-30 was waiting with Ladybug. The EMTs then went to work stabilizing her leg. She pleaded for painkillers, and couldn’t believe it when they answered, “We can’t. We’re not authorized.” Next, they loaded Ladybug onto a stretcher and headed back down the trail to the ambulance. Taking turns in teams of four, they inched ahead in 200-yard increments. The trail was narrow and depressed, like a trench, and the stretcher carriers fought to keep their balance as they continuously bumped against the sides. Even with the Therm-a-Rest and sleeping bags helping to cushion her, Ladybug continued to beg. “Please give me something.” Worse, she was losing circulation to her left foot.

They were close, a quarter mile from the road, when two burly paramedics from the town of Yakima arrived in the heart of the afternoon. Finally, finally, painkillers. Finally, some measure of relief for Ladybug. Back at the road, they planned to transport her by ambulance. But they’d grown increasingly worried about the state of her foot. If gangrene set in, she might lose it—or worse.

They called in an army helicopter.

At the Yakima hospital the next morning the doctor told her, “I can’t count how many places your leg is broken. It looks like a bomb shatter.” He minimally set and cast it so she could fly home. 30-30 was there—after Ladybug left in the helicopter, a sheriff had driven him over 50 rumbling miles of washboard and potholes to the hospital. Before he left to head back to the trail, he made a promise. “I’ll hike with you next year. I’ll help you finish.” No matter how unlikely that seemed, given the state of her leg, she made him write it on her cast. “I’ll hike with you next year. —30-30.” A few days later, she flew back home to Ohio. Her husband Bruce had paid for a full row, all three seats. He sat just across the aisle. Ladybug stared at 30-30’s promise as the plane took off.

Eighteen screws and two plates. That’s the hardware it took to wire her bones together. One doctor said, “You’ll never hike again.”

Ladybug closed her ears to the naysayers. From her wheelchair in rehab, she stayed focused on a piece from her plaster cast. When the doctor cut off that first cast, Ladybug had insisted, “Make sure you give me this part.” It held 30-30’s promise to hike with her the next year. She was determined to hold him to it.

Author’s Note: I’m often asked: “How do you prepare for a thru-hike?” I point to my head. “You have to really, really want to do it. You have to be mentally tough. Some part of your psyche has to become a clenched steel fist.” Perseverance—Blazer, Dalton, Ladybug, and 30-30 had it in spades. But that doesn’t guarantee success. There’s an old truism about the best things in life, whether a strong relationship or a thru-hike: You have to earn them. And while the journey may be the destination, as is often said, sometimes you can’t fully understand what it took until you’re standing, beaten up but beaming, at the end.

Barney “Scout” Mann is a Triple Crowner and trail advocate. This year, we dubbed him the “elder statesman of the trail.” With this new book, Journeys North, we’re ready to add another title: master storyteller.