BackpackingLight sponsored a father/daughter team on their PCT thru-hike in the summer of 2011. To get the full skinny on what a dynamic duo they are, read their first installment of adventure, Eleven Years Old on the PCT, then their second, We’re Going to Disneyland! (this article), then their third, Sunshine in the Sierra Mountains.
We’re going to Disneyland!
As Sunshine and I prepared for our epic 2,652 mile adventure on the PCT, I noticed a change in my youngest daughter, Annika. Some called it jealousy, but she had a legitimate complaint. Sunshine and I had this great connection between us as we prepared, and we were receiving packages every day from our 19 sponsors. It was like Christmas for us, but she was feeling left out. I was starting to hear her speak negatively about herself, and she was clearly feeling less than special.
Our bank manager agreed to send Sunshine goodies for the trail, and Annika sheepishly hung her head and said, "I like candy too." The manager was so kind, and said "Annika, would you like to be sponsored too?" She then bought them both the same things. However, to complicate matters further, the friend (Shrek) who was dropping us off at the PCT Kick Off event wanted to stop by Disneyland for Sunshine on our way there. The hike was one thing, but how do you take one child to Disneyland and not the other? As far as I know, there is no forgiveness for that!
While laying sleepless in bed like a little kid waiting for the trip to begin (it was like the night before Christmas for over a month), it came to me! We’d bring Annika with us to Kick Off! Win, win, win! She comes to Disneyland. She comes to Kick Off and becomes acquainted with the trail community, and she can see what all the excitement is all about for a thru hike. Shrek agreed to let her ride down with us. I called our friend Chipmunk, who was flying to Kick Off, and she was more than happy to fly Annika home afterward.
(left) Annika on our own adventure this spring. (right) Sunshine, me, and Annika (age 8) on the way to Kick Off.
(left) Annika and Sunshine at Disneyland. (right) The way to Annika’s heart is definitely through her stomach. Remember the applesauce?
Crisis averted! Annika was immediately engaged once I announced that she would be joining us for both Disneyland and Kick Off. She joined us in packing, preparing, and of course buying essential supplies like treats, hiking clothes, and a butterfly net. She and Teresa, my wife, will be supporting us through Oregon in the month of August. Friends and family began sending her packages of camp activities and goodies to keep her busy while waiting on us to come out to the next road.
Kick Off was awesome! It was like camping with 700 of your closest friends. I have always found it difficult to find like-minded people to hike with in our area, but that’s not a problem at Kick Off. Everyone dresses the same, has the same type of tents, wakes up early to get a jump start on their hike, and can spend hours telling you how they cut 5 ounces from their base weight. It’s kind of like a weird hiking cult, except you don’t have to drink any poisoned Kool-Aid… just Gatorade.
Annika had so much fun with us. Of course she loved the excitement of the trip down and Disneyland, but she absolutely loved chatting the ears off the hikers at Kick Off. The Pearl Girls watched her while Sunshine and I knocked out our first 20-mile day from the border. She is now excited about hiking and even asked to go on family hikes each day when she and her mother visited us at Hiker Town last month.
Balls and Sunshine at the Mexican border, day one.
Overall we have been blessed with cool and mild weather, though the first few days were very hot! We had the opportunity to experience the long slog from Scissors Crossing to the third pipe gate water cache, which is the hottest, driest stretch of the PCT. It was 80 degrees by 6:00 AM and gained a degree every ten minutes until topping out at 97 degrees, all in direct sunlight. We started at first light and took several breaks, including three hours off at the water cache. We then had a pleasant stroll into the cool evening as the sun went down.
I’ve still got Sunshine on a windy day.
After the first few days of high temps, it really cooled down and, even on warmer days, we had a pleasant breeze. This weather pattern followed us through the rest of the desert. We did get some high winds on a few nights, and it even snowed once and rained twice while passing over the mountains. Our original intent was to hike 15-mile days, but 20+ miles was a more natural fit for us.
This cool weather allowed us to comfortably bump up our daily average to 25-mile days, including two 30-milers. Sunshine is very driven and seeks to beat her previous distance record whenever we get a chance.
Sunshine has had a few blisters on the tips of her toes, but they healed almost immediately after popping them. She had a head cold at the beginning of the hike, but recovered quickly without complaining. My feet were doing great until my running shoes wore out around mile 300. I continued to push them to 519 miles and paid the price with a large nagging blister under the ball of my foot that persisted for a week. On our first 30-mile day I rolled my ankle with only three miles left to camp. In a futile effort to regain my balance, I spun my upper body to the left while planting my right trekking pole firmly into the ground. The pole broke in half, and I rolled into the brush end over end. I severely strained my left ankle, but continued to our intended camp that night and walked a painful 10 miles the next afternoon. It began to slowly heal over the next few weeks as we resumed our normal milage.
Accident-prone: (left) my ankle, (center) my trekking pole after injuring my ankle, (right) my foot after extracting a cactus spine.
Ah, magic makes it better!
One fun tradition is everyone’s trail name. Normally you are awarded a trail name after some crazy event happens to you. Some of this year’s names are: Crumbs, Free Range, Push, Jack Sparrow, Hikeroholic, Drop Dead, Spidey, No Amp, Blood Bath (yes, there was a small accident), Top Shelf, Stumbling Goat, and Thumper. Speed Bump was road walking when he passed out from the heat, landing perfectly perpendicular on the road, all while wearing safety yellow. Phantom Jimbrick is from Australia, where “Jimbrick” means “turd.” I’ll let you use your imagination on that story.
Drop and Roll caught her down jacket on fire and really had to use the drop and roll method that we were all taught in elementary school, but never have to use. Let’s not forget about the Three Bears: Papa Bear, Momma Bear, and Baby Bear. That’s right, Momma Bear is carrying one-year-old Baby Bear on her back from Mexico to Canada, while Papa Bear carries an enormous pack with most of the family’s gear. Wired actually mails her laptop to each resupply stop so she can catch up on all her TV shows. She also has trouble sitting still. Pepper and Mace from Israel decided it would be a good idea to test their bear spray on each other. It really didn’t work out as they had hoped. Air Lift was air lifted off Fuller Ridge for food poisoning. Grenade put a stove fire out by leaping on it with his foam sleeping mat. Skinny-D was caught skinny dipping on her first day.
All the hikers out here are so amazing. My story of losing my job just before the trail is not a unique one. Many are overcoming physical limitations and refuse to let tragedy, surgery, or injury hold them back. There are many war vets finding peace with themselves and others in the quiet wilderness. Still others are just starting out life with a firm grasp of who they are and what they are capable of.
Trail Angels and Trail Magic
Trail magic ranges from a cache of water to fruit, soda, beer, or junk food to full on barbeques. The first few days after Kick Off, there were still a lot of the previous year’s hikers in the area, so we had magic at most road crossings for a while. In fact there was so much beer the first three days, we thought maybe the PCT meant “Pub Crawl Trail!” Actually, everyone has been very responsible and respectful while enjoying libations around Sunshine. It seems just as we are having a hard day, magic shows up.
(left) What, desert asparagus? (right) Trail magic!
Trail angels provide essential acts of kindness such as, but not limited to: rides to and from town, showers, laundry, meals, mail drops, and some even let you spend the night in their home. Some angels have done this for years while others just help at the spur of the moment when they see a need. Our new friend Lizzy had recently been wronged by some people in her life. While at confession she told her priest that she wanted revenge on these people. He told her that if she wanted to get over the anger and bitterness, she would need to commit a random act of kindness for a stranger. The next day, three smelly hikers (Goose, Sunshine, and I) walked into her town. She brought us to her home, let us clean up, said we could help ourselves in the fridge, we watched a movie, got a good night’s sleep, she made us a wonderful breakfast, and drove us back to the trail in the morning. Thank you Lizzy, and thank you Father Frank!
While staying with another set of angels, Terry had her granddaughters come over to play with Sunshine. It was nice to see her be a kid for the evening when the trail often demands her to be more mature. Sunshine’s favorite town experience was riding a former Disneyland horse. Donna taught her riding skills while letting her ride in the corral by herself.
Sunshine has no trouble getting rides of any kind. Me, on the other hand…
It is so interesting to see the contrast in human nature. We have seen the very best in people and the worst. What could possibly make someone so angry and bitter that they would flip an 11-year-old girl the bird for trying to hitch a ride back to the trail? Weren’t we intended to be kind and helpful to one another? Hiking the PCT has given us the unique opportunity to see this contrast from the outside and re-evaluate what we want out of life. Is chasing the "American Dream" really worth all the pain and anger we see in people? We were meant to be surrounded by the beauty and peace of creation and the ones we love, not have our souls crushed by a greedy, heartless boss. When they told me to pick a career according to what I love to do, I thought "I love making money." Boy, I messed that one up. If you’re not quite ready to chuck your career for a five- to six-month thru hike, I recommend the 220-mile John Muir trail. The PCT shares 180 remote and wild miles with it. I believe it is the best 180 miles of the PCT. We are learning so much about life and ourselves from the kindness of others. I know this experience will help Sunshine make good life decisions in the future.
(left) Sunshine rocking out. (right) Crossing Fuller Ridge.
The trail is full of learning opportunities. We spend the entire day discussing the history, geology, biology, and botany of the lands we pass through. There are so many educated and interesting people on the trail to add their knowledge to our "classroom." We have hiked with two math teachers who have taught Sunshine math games to keep her sharp. She has been completing the math and spelling worksheets provided by her teacher. We read together each day and are now uploading books to my iPod to save on pack weight. Social science seems to unfold all around us during the day. We have already solved the entire world’s political and economic problems between us. She said I should run for president. We spent an entire day walking through world history starting with Abraham and Isaac through present day and how that history has shaped today’s world. When meeting hikers from foreign countries (about 20% of the hikers are foreign), one of her first questions is "What is your country’s economy like right now in comparison to the US?"
I was cursing our ZPacks Hexamid Twin tent all night during our first bad wind storm of 50+ MPH winds. We finally left the tent down so as to not damage it. Later the next day, I learned that the only tents spared from being blown over were the heaviest free-standing ones, so I could have saved my curses. We learned to shorten our guy lines, make our trekking pole more vertical, and Sunshine now puts big rocks on the stakes while I’m setting up. The tent has proved itself now in two rainy wind storms. For an 11-ounce two-person tent, you just can’t beat it! I do recommend this tent.
Sunshine loves her waterproof 9-ounce Backpacking Light Cocoon Hoody. While setting up in the rain one evening, it kept her warm and dry while my UL MontBell Down Jacket was rendered worthless in seconds once wet.
(left) Our ZPacks Hexamid Twin tent. (right) Backpacking Light’s two-pound Absaroka.
Our 20F and 30F MontBell Spiral Down Hugger sleeping bags have been more than warm enough for us so far. They are super comfortable, and we expect to be plenty warm in the Sierra with some added clothing that we haven’t had to use yet.
Sunshine also loves her 2-pound Backpacking Light Absaroka pack. It has just the right amount of padding. Its internal frame and suspension supports her 15-pound total load perfectly. The top center compression strap even serves as a load lifter. Her only complaint: it needs a port for her drink tube to exit the pack.
The iPod Touch upon which I’m writing this article has been handy. For no monthly charge, we have been journaling in the wilderness, then sending it in via the internet when we get to town. We can talk face to face with her mother and little sister with the Face Time app, check email and Facebook, read books, listen to music of course, take and send the pictures you see here, and even order gear to be sent ahead. Talk about multiuse ultralight!
Sunshine is also excited to use her ultralight ice axe for the first time in the Sierra.
Flora and Fauna
Like most, after only driving by, we thought the desert would be harsh and ugly. That just isn’t true. Upon closer inspection, it is more of a rugged beauty with explosions of vibrant color and life mixed into the dry and rocky back drop. We had no idea how many different species of cacti there were. Everything in the desert is sharp, so choose your sleeping mat location wisely.
We have seen much more wildlife than expected in the desert. We have seen many large deer, ten snakes (including four rattlers), countless lizards and horny toads, rats, mice, squirrels, a fox, desert tortoise, quails, dozens of jackrabbits, and what we think was a ferret. We hear coyotes nearby every night, but have only seen one.
One night while hiking to avoid the hot day, we heard what sounded like a motocross bike, but as we got closer in the dark, it became louder and more organic sounding. Just as I realized that it was a wild boar, Sunshine nervously said, "Dad, I can see its eyes." We continued to bravely walk past, pretending not to see it so as to not provoke it. As we passed, it began to stomp and squeal loudly, but never charged.
Our view from the tent.
As of the 10th of June, we have walked 703 miles to Kennedy Meadows, just south of where the John Muir Trail dissects the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. We have left the desert that we’ve come to know so well and are now in the spectacular Sierra mountains. We will be crossing through snow and raging streams and climbing passes between 10,000 and 13,200 feet every day. We are excited for the new adventures and beautiful views, but a bit nervous about the added difficulty and dangers. Keep us in your prayers, but know that we are being safe and cautious. Our plan is to slow down, travel in groups, and take a day off at every supply point. Once we are through the majestic and breathtaking Sierra we can kick up our milage to make it home for middle school in mid-September. Thank you again Backpacking Light for your sponsorship! Thank you to all our readers for your kind words of encouragement after our last article!
(left) Filtering water. (right) Yep, we slept in that.
Many had asked how they could contribute to our journey, so I added a PayPal donate button on our "About" page on our trail journal. I especially enjoyed hearing that we were an inspiration for other parents to get their children out more. We also enjoyed seeing your pictures and hearing some of your family stories. Please keep following our amazing adventure!
We will tell you all about our exciting tales while in the Sierra in our next installment. In the meantime, please take your kids on some wilderness adventures of your own this summer and tell us all about it in your comments. Two of the greatest gifts we can give our children is our time and the wilderness.
Miles to go before we sleep.