They’re here in droves this year, their dirty clothes, matted hair, and body odor badges of honor in the quest to conquer the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT, which stretches 2,663 miles between the Mexican and Canadian borders, is the Holy Grail for long-distance hikers, and our little town of Mammoth Lakes has historically been a resupply point for PCTers. This year the usual trickle of hikers has turned into a deluge thanks to Cheryl Strayed and Reese Witherspoon.
Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, charts the course of her journey on the PCT. Reese Witherspoon, looking better after what is supposed to be a couple of months on the trail than most of us do after a couple of days, plays Strayed in the recent movie. Think Eat, Pray, Love on the PCT and you’ll get the gist of Strayed’s memoir.
Most of those who tackle the PCT spend months, if not years, researching, training, and preparing for the hike. Strayed, by her own admission, made a few trips to REI and hit the trail in boots a size too small with a ridiculously overloaded backpack. She ran out of water, got lost, and trashed her feet—all in the first weeks of her three-month journey—but she shrugs off a long list of poor decisions with a “Gee, it was bad, but I survived,” attitude. At one point, a woman with whom she became friends on the trail nicknamed Strayed the “hapless hiker,” an understatement if there ever was one.
Strayed had a history of risky behavior that included heroin use before she took to the trail. But on the PCT, or anywhere in the backcountry for that matter, risky behavior by a single individual puts others at risk as well. Every year search and rescue teams from California to Washington are called out to locate and extract lost, injured, and, in some cases, dead hikers from the PCT. Often those extractions take place in rough terrain that endangers the lives of rescuers. While accidents can happen to the most prepared of hikers, more often than not, it’s stupid decisions like those made by Strayed that trigger a rescue operation.
Based on what I’ve seen and heard so far, the Wild year is going to set some records. Reports indicate that large groups of people—eighteen in one case—are hiking together, something the PCT was never meant to accommodate. Despite the fact that hikers are supposed to pack out every piece of trash, from toilet paper to peach pits, litter on the trail has increased substantially. Stops where PCTers have historically been allowed to camp are taking in the welcome mat, and it’s hard to blame them. Conquering nature, rather than enjoying and appreciating it as sacred space, has become the dominant metaphor; Bear Grylls has replaced John Muir.
I’m sure Cheryl Strayed did not intend to spawn the kind of destructive behavior we’re seeing on the PCT this year, but if the trend continues, more stringent regulations will inevitably follow. Which raises a fundamental question: To what extent can we regulate wilderness areas against overuse and abuse before they’re no longer wild?
If you’re interested in exploring that question further, find a copy of Roderick Nash’s classic, Wilderness and the American Mind. Or if you want more about the Sierra Nevada, minus the copious navel gazing in Strayed’s work, read John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. (It’s less than a dollar on Amazon.) Both of those books, as well as my novel, Yard Sale, are available at Amazon.