A 700-Mile Plus Backpack Trek Down the PCT at 75… The Question Is Why?

Why would a happily married 75-year-old decide to spend three months of his life backpacking down the Pacific Crest Trail? It’s complicated…
The sheer beauty of the wilderness plus 50-years of backpacking are important factors! This is Castle Crags in Northern California. They loomed up behind me in the photo above.

“Why?” G, a blogging friend from Florida, asked when I posted my plans to spend the summer backpacking down the PCT. Why would I subject myself to ice cold baths and human-snacking insects? Why would I want to spend 7-9 hours a day hiking over difficult terrain in 100-degree weather while dodging fires, breathing smoke, and carrying a 30 to 35-pound pack? Why would I subject my body to the common ailments of through-hikers: exhaustion, near-starvation, freezing nights, blistered feet, trashed toenails, sprained ankles, shin splints, twisted knees, cranky hips, sore shoulders, bug bites, sun burn and poison oak, not to mention possible encounters with large furry animals sporting big teeth. 

My guess is that G thought 75-year-old men should limit their exercise program to hiking up and down the stairs on a cruise ship or possibly hiking from the TV to the bathroom during a football commercial. Puttering in a garden is also okay; as is fishing off the end of a pier. Going for short hikes is to be encouraged. It helps keep you healthy. But backpacking several hundred miles through rugged wilderness— much of it by yourself? That’s crazy.

Perhaps. But I had been backpacking since 1969, when the PCT was a barely-hatched one-year old, or since 1954 if you counted Boy Scouts. I had started exploring the jungle-like graveyard next to our home at five, and completed my first solo, mile-long hike in the wee hours of the morning when I was seven. While other boys my age had spent their summers playing sports and hoping to dazzle coaches, parents and friends, I had wandered farther and farther afield with nothing but my dogs for company. High school and college had seen a hiatus as studies, work and girls took precedence. But I returned to my wandering ways as a Peace Corps Volunteer, exploring the jungles surrounding my home in West Africa and carrying a compass so I could map them out.  And avoid getting lost.

Cheryl Strayed’s journey on the PCT in Wild and Bill Bryson’s hike along the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods had inspired me to think about undertaking my own long-distant trek. They were admittedly a tad younger when they started their adventures— at 26 and 45 their combined age was less than mine— but I had tons more of experience. I had celebrated my 60th birthday by backpacking 360-miles from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney. Certainly, I could do twice that to celebrate my 75th.

I’d chuckled when I read Bryson’s chapter on a bear he may or may not have seen in the night, and how he had gone scrambling for his pocket knife.  Scary yes— big creatures that think of you as a menu item usually are, especially on a dark night— but I have had dozens of encounters with bears. Once, I woke up at four in the morning with one standing on top of me, sniffing my breath. Now, that’s scary!  Another time I was stalked by a grizzly in Alaska. And then there was the time I had a discussion with one of the great brown bears of Katmai over why he shouldn’t eat me. A ranger had told me that if I encountered a bear out on the trail, I should “speak to it in a calm voice and back away.” But what do you say to a thousand pounds of bulging muscles with four-inch long claws? Read on. 

Unlike Strayed, I knew that seemingly insignificant ounces add up to bone crushing pounds when carried on your back. I’d led hundred-mile backpack trips for 30 years in California and Alaska. Preparing first-time trekkers to go was one of the most important things I did. Now, picture backpacking over 1,100 miles with zero preparation, which Strayed did. While I had greatly admired her fortitude in hiking on the PCT through California and Oregon, I’d cringed at her lack of readiness. But I readily admit that it made a good story and served as an inspiration for thousands of women, and probably men as well.

By now, I am sure that you realize that I love backpacking. I love it for what it does for my mind and my body. It’s amazing how fast the worries of the world fade away when you are hiking up a mountain. And it’s fun to see what a week of backpacking does for your body. But what I like most is that backpacking gets me out into the woods. Time slows down. There is great beauty, and peace, and healing, and maybe even a touch of salvation. As John Muir noted, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” 

This book concludes with my trip down the PCT at 75. I’d started with a goal of backpacking at least 500 miles and possibly as many as a thousand. Between giving my lungs fire-free breaks and providing more time for rest and recovery between trail sections, I split the difference, not bad for seven decades. And I was lucky to have total support from my wife, Peggy. Not only did she join me for three sections of the trip, she was waiting for me at the end of the other sections with a warm smile, a tight hug, and a cold beer. And she had camped out for the week by herself so she would be there to greet me and provide other backup if needed. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

The PCT trip is just a small part of my backpacking story, however. One can have a lot of adventures in 50 years of wandering in the wilderness and I plan to incorporate several into this tale, including the bear stories mentioned above. I also want to talk about the beginning, how I fell in love with the woods and outdoors as a young boy. That always gets a bit iffy in terms of memory. But getting kicked out of the first grade at five for a year was an important factor in that it encouraged me to explore the jungle-like graveyard next to our home. Choosing to sleep outside in the summer, even if it meant sleeping on the ground, was another. Such things tend to stick in your head. At least they do mine. 

While my emphasis will focus on the adventures, I also wish to encourage my readers to think of the wilderness as one of our most precious heritages, taking us back to our very beginnings as humans. When we lose our connection with the outdoors, we lose a bit of our humanity. We owe it to ourselves to reconnect or maintain our connection, even if it is simply going for a walk in the town park and listening to the birds sing. And we owe it to our children, grandchildren, and future generations to protect the world’s remaining wilderness areas. 

So, let’s get started as I tackle the insane task of leading a group of 61 people aged 11 to 70 on a 9 day, 100-mile backpack trip across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The event kicked off my part-time career of leading long-distance backpacking treks and guaranteed that backpacking would always be a part of my life.

That I survived the experience and had any kind of a career at all was close to a miracle…

NEXT POST: On Thursday, Peggy and I continue our exploration of America’s backroads as we follow “The Loneliest Road in America,” Highway 50 through Nevada and into Utah.

28 thoughts on “A 700-Mile Plus Backpack Trek Down the PCT at 75… The Question Is Why?

  1. Fifty years ago, I couple of my friends decided to canoe from Northern Minnesota to Hudson Bay. They didn’t make it. Instead they wound up wintering in a remote native settlement in Northern Ontario.

    One of the guys married a local girl and went back to live there, until the settlement was abandoned.

    All of that is another story, and maybe another and another and another.

    But the thing is great quests like you describe are transformative. All of my friends lives were changed. From then on, even though they failed to meet their goal, they approached every challenges with a confidence they never would have had before.

    We hear tales of kids in elite colleges hiding safe spaces or shrieking in anger at the slightest offense. Perhaps what they need is a walk in the woods.

    • Couldn’t agree more. Over the years I have taken numerous people on 100-mile backpack treks and 500-mile bicycle treks. While these adventures may not be as long as mine and the one your friends went on, I have still seen many lives changed as a result, especially with people who have never taken on such a challenge.
      I think young people going out on such an adventure would be great for them, and I’m not talking just about kids going to elite colleges. One thing is for sure, the challenge is as much mental as it is physical. Meeting any kind of tough challenge can be a mind altering experience. Thanks for your tale. Much appreciated. –Curt

    • The one standing on me Koji, had found my plastic rum bottle and sunk its teeth into it, thus letting the rum drain out. That was almost as bad as eating me. 🙂
      I confess I’ve walked up a few cruise ship steps.
      Thanks! Curt

  2. I never asked why, Curt. I was too envious. 🤔
    Unlike you, I have zip experience backpacking although I always liked walking. But the opportunity never arose or other things seemed too important.
    I enjoyed reading about the hike the first time and will enjoy it again.
    P.S., did I tell you I had a cousin who was the lobbyist who drafted the Wilderness Bill for Congress. He died too early, but his widow was present when President Johnson signed it.

    • I fell in love with backpacking early on Ray. I discovered it was a great way to get back into the woods. 🙂 And then I did the first trek for the American Lung Association as a successful fundraiser, which gave me an excuse to incorporate backpacking into my life. That story is coming up next.
      No, you never did tell me about your cousin. What a great story. America owes him an incredible debt of gratitude. –Curt

  3. I can see a 75-year old having an adventure, not sitting in front of the TV watching court-TV every day (like my in-laws did). But you’ve got admit Curt, you are one of a kind doing 700-miles along a coastline that was in the middle of raging fires. You are also lucky to have a woman who understands you!!

    • Very lucky, G. Even more lucky to have a buddy that loves to get out there and do it with me. I confess, G, your question gave me an opening to explore the topic. 🙂 Plus, I think what you have done in exploring World War II to be ver adventuresome, just an adventure of a different type. –Curt

  4. I would not ask Why? I would rather ask Why not? You are an example for us, and age is just a number, right?
    We definitely need to learn more about Earth and Nature, to be kind to each other. And while we learn a thing, why not having some fun?
    I can’t wait to hear you “bear” stories🙂

    • Which is pretty much the way I think about it Christie. But G was legitimately curious. Plus it gave me an excuse to explore the topic. 🙂 When I get around to talking about the trip, which is a long ways into the book, I had some serious questions about going out and doing it as well. I had thought my backpacking days were over. Plenty of bears stories coming up. –Curt

  5. Curt I’ve always seen you as someone who squeezes every moment of living for all it might hold. That you are healthy enough, brave enough and adventurous enough to hike as you do at 75 is one of the most inspiring things I have encountered. It keeps my whining down to low level when slogging up some short incline on a hike. 🙂

  6. Curt, your spirit is strong and ageless, and I love that it continues to inspire you to keep hiking and exploring. I give a huge shout out to Peggy for the freedom and support (and cold beers!) she shares with you. When two people can be independent together, relationships thrive. Looking so forward to reading more!

    • Thanks much, Kelly. Adventures are lit enhancing in the planning, doing, and looking back on. Not to mention keeping Peggy and I younger than we might be, otherwise. 🙂 And I am lucky to have such a good friend and companion— who fortunately, has a sense of humor. Grin. –Curt

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