Ranging 2,650 miles from Canada to Mexico, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail roams from alpine crags to desert lowlands as it courses through Washington, Oregon and California. Longer than the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail is not something within most hiker's reach, at least not in one bite.
Indeed, only about 180 people a year manage to cover the entire distance on a thru-hike. But there are thousands more who manage to hike parts of the trail, which winds through parts of Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Lassen Volcanic, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades national parks as well as Devils Postpile National Monument.
With a history that drifts back to the 1930s, it's not surprising that the trail has collected more than a few written thoughts down through the decades. Some are simple journal entries by hikers, while others are more polished narratives that highlight experiences along the trail. Some narratives have gained even more noteworthiness by their author's names: Barry Lopez, William O. Douglas (yes, the former Supreme Court justice!), Jack Kerouac, Patrick F. McManus, John Muir, and even one Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
It was such a rich and wide-ranging collection that prompted Rees Hughes and Corey Lee Lewis, two professors with impressive outdoor and literary resumes of their own, to sit down and produce The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, a two-volume collection of stories that share in common the Pacific Crest Trail.
"We both have always found the weight of a book justified when backpacking despite the increasing emphasis on 'ultralight' backpacking," Mr. Hughes, whose walks along the PCT date to 1981, explains when asked what motivated the two to compile the anthology. "I know that I never found the perfect book to take . . . and I was always on the look out for a literary companion appropriate for the Pacific Crest Trail. For a number of years I kept the idea tucked in the back of my mind and when I met Corey I found the ideal partner to make the project happen.
"... We met each other when we became part of the managing team developing a outdoor wilderness orientation experience for new students at Humboldt State University. In the process of working on that program we learned of our shared passion for the PCT and, on a walk one noon some five years ago, decided to collect stories and create The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader," he added.
The knowledge they amassed through their individual pursuits along the trail, and in their work through Humboldt State, helped lay the books' foundation.
"I had been leading groups of university students on the Pacific Crest Trail for several years, on week-long backpacking-oriented classes in which students studied environmental writing while out in the backcountry, reading John Muir, for example, while hiking the PCT near Yosemite," says Mr. Lewis, who teaches creative writing and literature. "I had also spent years running trail construction crews throughout the Sierra, and in Reading the Trail (a book Mr. Lewis wrote that looks at the writings of John Muir, Mary Austin, and Gary Snyder as they relate to the Sierra), developed methods for uniting trail protection and maintenance with enviromental education. So, Rees's idea for an anthology resonated with my own past experiences with the PCT."
The two volumes are divided by location: One focuses on writings tied to the trail in California, the other focuses on those in Oregon and Washington. To make it even easier for readers to zero in on a specific area, the books are divided by trail sections, ie., Southern California: Land of Little Rain, Southern Sierra: Range of Light, The Oregon Cascades: Forests Forever.
Mr. Lewis and Mr. Hughes reviewed well more than 1,000 articles before winnowing the final section down to the nearly 100 that are contained in the two books.
"We really looked at three kinds of stories. Stories from people we called hiker writers," says Mr. Hughes. "A quarter are more historical in nature. We looked at a number of old journals and accounts to select the pieces that we included. In addition, we received some wonderful contributions from members of OCTA (Oregon-California Trails Association) and the association of retired United States foresters on people and places relevant to the modern PCT (Naches Pass Road, Jim Beckwourth, Cy Bingham, etc.).
"And lastly, we considered many, many possibilities for the more classic stories and authors (Stegner, Muir, Native American stories, etc.) and picked a select few."
There are relatively simple entries, such as Linda "Blue Butterfly" Bakkar's two-page account of battling the wind while hiking a California section in the semi-arid mountains south of Walker Pass -- "A gust of wind slammed me toward the hillside, and I had to reach out with my poles at an angle against the slope to regain my balance. I began again, but the wind pushed at me from the front, and I struggled against it." -- and wonderfully crafted narratives such as David Rains Wallace's environmental dissection of the Siskiyou region (The Klamath Knot) in northern California and southern Oregon:
I knew the Siskiyous are among the richest botanical areas of the West, and I soon saw evidence of this. ... Ravines contained so much blossoming azalea that the forest often smelled like a roomful of fancy women, and rhododendrons were in flower on one flat bench. There were more orchids than I'd seen anywhere. California lady's slippers hung over one rivulet like tiny Japanese lanterns dipped in honey, and I found three species of coralroot, red and orange orchids that have no green leaves, lacking chlorophyll. Farther up the trail, where snow melted recently, pink calypso orchids had just burst through the pine duff.
The forest that overshadowed these flowers was among the most diverse I'd seen west of the Mississippi. Besides the Douglas fir, tan oak, madrone, golden chinquapin and goldencup oak I had expected just east of the coastal crest, I found ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, sugar pine, western white pine, knobcone pine, and incense cedar. Moist ravines were full of Port Orford cedar, a lacy-foliaged tree with fluted bark like a redwood's. The diversity became confusing; it seemed I had to consult my tree field guide every few minutes.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, weighs in on the most talkative species of wildlife in the Sierra -- the bluejay -- in a wonderful yarn that puts the owl to shame, Krystal Rogers relates encounters with camp-raiding black bears along the section of trail that climbs up and over Donohue Pass in Yosemite National Park, and an historical account by Theodore S. Solomons delves into the origins of the John Muir Trail, which overlaps the PCT through Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.
Though trying to pick a favorite is much like trying to pick a favorite among your children, Mr. Hughes said one story that stood out to him came from a hiker who completed two thru-hikes on the PCT ... a quarter-century apart.
"There is an interesting story at the end of the California volume written by Jerry Smith of Corvallis, Oregon. Jerry thru-hiked the PCT twice 25 years apart. His reflections on those two experiences and how the trail has changed may best capture the contemporary trail experience," said the editor. "But, there are some wonderful stories that have give a more historical sense of the trail experience. One of those is a wonderful adventure story taken from William O. Douglas' memoir, Of Men and Mountains, which is included in the Oregon/Washington volume. Douglas, who was 17 at the time, was accompanied by his 13-year old brother on a multi-day backpacking trip along the route now followed by the PCT southeast of Mt. Rainier.
"Since the trail is so diverse, from the arid southern sections to the wet and cold North Cascades and everything in between, it is hard to pick one piece that conveys setting," added Mr. Hughes. "But I would say that each of the seven sections of the two volumes has at least one story intended to capture the setting of that particular section. In the 'Cascades and the Klamath Knot' section (California volume), there is a wonderful excerpt from David Rains Wallace's "The Klamath Knot" that does just that. Mary Austin's "Land of Little Rain" does that in the 'Southern California' section."
Combined, these two volumes capture various aspects, elements, and experiences along the Pacific Crest Trail. There's no need to read them in any order, or even cover-to-cover. Rather, you can peruse them by simply opening up to a new entry and read from there.
While some entries might not be as polished as others, that's not a fault of the editors, but a strength of the collection. Indeed, the diversity contributes to the richness of the two volumes and offers varying insights for the aspiring hiker or armchair adventurer.