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We Walk Landscapes

It was midway through his hike on the Appalachian Trail that Jack “Found” Haskel (trail name, “Found”) learnt that the Pacific Crest Trail Association wanted to hire him. Jack, a seasoned thru-hiker, readily forfeited the completion the hike – which would have been a prestigious notch on his thru-hiker belt – to take the opportunity to work on a trail he was passionate about. Today, he is a trail information specialist and trail first-responder, and he works to connect others with the Pacific Crest Trail and to enhance the community and culture that surrounds the experience of thru-hiking the trail. Jack tells his story.

Every year during the snow-free months, my friends and I, both new and old, lace up our trail shoes, stuff tarps into backpacks and start walking. We do this nearly everyday, with each night spent sleeping in the dirt, 20, 30, 40 miles from our last camp. We walk 10, 12, 14 hours a day. Within a week we’ve walked over the horizon; within a month we’ve journeyed through states or countries; and, by the end of the season, continents have been crossed.

We’re a community of long-distance hikers – a sub-culture that not a whole lot of people know much about. Yet, there are tens of thousands of us around the world, and the community is ever-growing.

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As a kid, my parents often took me out into the wilderness; we’d hike into the woods, swim in lakes and sleep in tents. When I was six years old my dad took me backpacking. By 10 or 11 I was basically obsessed, and would frequently log onto internet message boards to discover more about hiking.

My father had been hiking long distances years before I was born – his guidebook was heavily annotated with information from trips past, notes he’d gathered about water sources, advice he’d gleaned from whomever had my job in that day, and plans for future hikes. He loved to talk about his time hiking to Mount Lassen in Northern California, the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range – one of his personal triumphs. It was no wonder then that he so readily supported me when I set off after college to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

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It wasn’t until after I started working for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, however, that I took a deeper interest in my father’s hiking exploits. And it was only then, while sitting at my desk one afternoon, that it really dawned on me that I was a second-generation PCT hiker. My father introduced me to the Sierra Nevada, and it was our early visits that inspired me to hike, and now work on, the PCT. When I was about 10 years old he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him that I wanted to work for a wilderness organisation, and that’s pretty much what I do. I work day-in and day-out to make the PCT experience better for others. The trail is that beautiful; it’s worthy of being my life’s work.

The PCT runs from Mexico to Canada, 2,650 miles (4,260 km) across California, Oregon and Washington. Often mistakenly thought to be on the coast, it threads through mountains, forests and deserts not far from cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. It’s one of our country’s eleven National Scenic Trails and is arguably truly one of the best trails in the world.

The PCT is beautiful – I realised this within the first 50 miles. I hear people fret and complain about the prospect of walking the first portion across the dry, dusty desert of Southern California, but once I was out there, once I saw it, experienced it, lived it, I knew I’d always be an advocate for it.
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The PCT is beautiful – I realised this within the first 50 miles. I hear people fret and complain about the prospect of walking the first portion across the dry, dusty desert of Southern California, but once I was out there, once I saw it, experienced it, lived it, I knew I’d always be an advocate for it. From the desert, the PCT climbs ridges thousands of feet high. It passes through oak woodlands, pine forests, crags and boulder fields. Views extend far and wide. I spent five months walking through these wild, scenic and serene places.

Months went by and I was still walking. Winter was coming. It was getting dark and cold, and I hadn’t rested for five months. By the end, was I ready to be done with the PCT? Yes, mostly. I hadn’t seen home, changed my clothes or done many ‘ordinary’ things for a considerable amount of time. But despite this, I still wasn’t ready to be indoors.

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For nearly the next five years I prioritised travel, mostly to wilderness areas. I walked the Continental Divide Trail, the Colorado Trail, and the southern 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve guided backpacking trips, kayaking trips, skiing trips and trips for struggling youths into the Utah deserts. The PCT led me on this path; I’d always loved hiking, but my time on the PCT taught me that difficult challenges are to be savoured and adversity is where you grow. It taught me that nature is important and balance comes but doesn’t always need to be present. My time on the PCT was a life absurdly out of balance: walk, eat, sleep. No job. No time with my family and friends back home. No stuff. All nature, all exercise, all freedom. Today, I’ve got ‘things’ and I live in a city – fundamentally, I believe that happiness requires a balance.

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There is something about the PCT that sticks with people. Walk the trail and you’re likely to think about it every day for the rest of your life. The PCT draws people from all over and from all sorts of backgrounds. Doctors share dirt patches with fast food workers. Seventy-year-olds become friends with teenagers. Everywhere there is shared experience. Roughing it. Travelling north. Crossing passes. Hitchhiking to the same small towns. For many, when they look back, I’m sure they’ll think their time on the trail will fall in the category of ‘life well lived, time well spent’.

However, even after I’d walked it, I knew very little about the PCT. And I don’t suspect many others do either. The trail exists because passionate people banded together over a grand idea and over decades put in the work. It’s hard work too: cutting tread, raising money, rebuilding, promoting, protecting, hashing out compromises, establishing organisations and partnerships, donating not just time but money too. I had no idea about the continued championing that is still needed. No idea about the monumental yearly efforts. No idea about how wildfires come through, landslides happen, and trails can just disappear. It seems so obvious to me now: a ribbon of wildness in the form of a trail 2,650 miles long, of course, needs support. Good things happen through hard work and perseverance – a lesson I learnt on my PCT thru-hike. And this is the reason that the trail exists.

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Today, my job is to help people connect with the PCT. I help get people out on the trail; help fuel their volunteerism; help advise them on trip planning; issue permits, and act as a resource. The longer I do this job, the more deeply I understand that I’m just one person in the long line of people that have and will devote themselves to the PCT. I’m coming through and doing my part. Others are too. Others have in the past and others will in the future. And it’ll be the passionate ones, the ones that say yes, the ones that step up and take action, who will get the most out of the trail. That’s how it works.

Wilderness areas and trails aren’t everyone’s passion, but if they kindle something in you, then welcome to the fold. Dive in more deeply. Sign up. Show up. Lace up your shoes. Pick up some loppers. Include nature, recreation, maybe even the Pacific Crest Trail, in your charitable giving. Life’s much richer when you take steps towards your passions, and the Pacific Crest Trail is a world-class place to stretch those legs.

See you out on the trail. •

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This story is from Volume Five

The Great Outdoors Volume

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