Door Dalene de Vente and Arno Pouwels
Ever heard of the footpath between Mexico and Canada? The Pacific Crest Trail is longer than 4,000 km. A South African, Arno Pouwels, took five months to complete this route through snow and desert, four pairs of shoes and past bears and mosquitoes.
Early in the morning on April 9, 2022, we stand at the Pacific Crest route’s starting point in Mexico: an almost unreal moment. All around us are tourists taking pictures and the excitement is palpable everywhere. A few weeks ago I met Janneman on Instagram. Yes, he also wants to go for a walk. We talk about everything: hiking equipment, accommodation, travel plans. But now we are here. We know one thing lies ahead of us: the route we will never forget.
We start together as a group of people. People who later become your family: together you face the new normal. The people around you make you climb giant mountains. Their positivity makes you persevere to the end. The route already kicked off with adventure on day 1. There was a giant swarm of bees that attacked us and we had to run 100 m back for shelter. Afterwards we see a rattlesnake that someone almost steps on!
Throughout the route, everyone also gets a special nickname. Somewhere along the route something happens that is unique to you and the people around you give you a nickname. Your real name is then forgotten. The busy, normal and everyday life is left behind and you find your new identity on the trail. Sometimes it happens on day one, other times a little later.
I got my nickname in a cowboy town, Lone Pine. The village is about 1,450 km on the route. A few of us were looking for beer. I hear my one walking partner, Elaine (later called Spikes), laughing and calling me. On a beer called Nordic Jam there is a picture of a Viking with a big orange beard like mine! That’s where I get the name Nordic Jam.
I don’t even know the real names of many of the people I walked with. A few of them were Giggles, Raisin and Shuffle. Giggles from Germany got her name when she tried marijuana on the trail for the first time and couldn’t stop laughing. Raisin accidentally fed raisins to a dog (apparently dogs can die from them). Shuffle walked 5,000 miles for charity. He walked all the way from Boston, across the country, and then another part of the PCT as well.
What to expect?
We used the FarOut app to plan. It tells you exactly where there is water, campsites, villages, etc. We always looked for a bigger campsite because there were quite a lot of people in our group. The campsites are usually a bit off the route, but you can sleep anywhere along the route, it doesn’t have to be a marked campsite on the app. I always slept under the stars (“cowboy camping” as they call it in USA). I probably used my tent 10 times on the whole route: just when it rained or when the mosquitoes started to bother me.
In the Sierras we walk through the snow for large parts. Sunglasses are very important when you walk here, because the reflection of the sun on the white snow is very sharp. On the Muir pass we meet Dundee, a man who has been walking without sunglasses for two weeks. The white parts of his eyes are burned red. Blood red. Fortunately, a girl in our group, Tink, gave him a pair of sunglasses.
One of the hardest things is the mosquitoes in the Oregon. Many people even avoid that part of route. You cannot stop for 10 seconds: then you are surrounded by fifty mosquitoes. In the nearest village, all the mosquito repellent was completely sold out. There are even people walking in full bug suits. I now know that when someone says mosquitoes in Oregon are bad, they are not exaggerating.
High above the clouds
Mount Whitney is not actually part of the Pacific Crest Trail, but because it is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, our group decides to climb it. As one walks in the dark and looks up at the giant mountain we have to climb, you only see headlights of people on the route above you merging with the stars. We started early to watch the sunrise. But I pass most people. I arrive at the mountain hut and realize I am all alone on the highest peak of the mountain. It was 4 o’clock in the morning. I have never experienced such silence, so every now and then there is a breeze that is ice cold. I sign the pedestrian register (hiker logbook) and then watch the sun rise. I sit in my sleeping bag, because at this altitude the temperature is far into the negative. The sky changes color in front of me and the stars disappear one by one. Around me are the happy voices of the people arriving and taking pictures.
However, everything is not always moonlight and roses. Some people had to quickly go back down, because they got altitude sickness. We later found out that three people had to be evacuated by helicopter the day before we were there because of this disease. Unfortunately, someone has also died on Forester Pass (the highest point on the PCT) due to alleged altitude sickness.
“There’s a bear!”
The one day I walked with Kelsey (Garbage Woman) and Barbara (Stitch). The colors in Washington were something special. As you walk on the mountains in Washington and look down, you see only colors: The blue-blue lakes, green trees, even greener grasses, wildflowers in all colors, the rocks on the mountain in different shades. After a big climb we took a break on top of one of these remarkable mountains. In the distance, a pika screams (something you constantly hear throughout the day, but never see), their screams travel for kilometers through the valleys. As we were looking at everything, I suddenly saw something moving far down in the valley. “There’s a bear!” I shouted. The three of us had not seen a single bear up to this point and so hoped we would see one on the trail. It enchanted us all day, even if the bear disappeared into the woods after a few seconds.
For old times sake…
The last day was a mixed bag of emotions. There were six large fires quite close to the trail. Everyone was a little tense and anxious, but also excited to finish after almost 5 months.
Early that morning we start walking. We climb the first steepness still in the cold of the morning and from the top we see the one fire. We see the flames, but at least they are still some distance away. We walk together in a line the whole time until we get to the monument, tell stories about the route and get nostalgic about the past few months.
Completing the route is anything but easy. The discomfort goes along: Your body is sore and stiff in the mornings. Sometimes there is heat. Sometimes it is very cold, but still there was everything I expected. It’s much more mental than physical. I never got to a point where I thought I didn’t want to finish anymore. I kept thinking: I have to get out in Canada. It drove me.
When we finally got to the border and saw the terminus, there was only shouting and cheering, tears of joy after months of hard work to get to this point. We are inside a cloud of smoke, so we can’t stay too long, but everyone must first get photos and the walkers’ register (hiker logbook) sign.
On September 6, 2022, after 4,270 km and 150 days, we will reach the end of the route. Me and my walking partner, Anti-G, stay at the monument for a while. There is a silence during which both of us just think back on everything that has happened to get to this moment, before we realize we have to get out of the smoke. It was a strange feeling to finally be done with the trip.
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