Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.Margaret Mead
It was thick forest and I was heading down – finally – on the last descent in the state of Washington, careening towards the Columbia River. It’s a natural boundary and I’d cross the Bridge of the Gods before heading straight back up again towards Mount Hood and all of Oregon. The rain let up this far south, though mosquitos were out in full force and I had no plans to linger even though I was surrounded on both sides by multitudes of black-, blue- and huckle-berries, all within easy reach. I felt happy and so alive, punch drunk that my intention of walking a little wisp of trail had grown to my being on the verge of checking off an entire state.
A rough section of dirt and rock loomed in front of me, a landslip that appeared to have just been cleared. Unlike hardcore tramping in New Zealand, a landslip of this magnitude was never going to be left there for hikers to climb over. Someone took it upon themselves to dig right into the side of the mountain and create a wider, more stable path. Aside from a bit of dust on my La Sportivas, I barely broke stride.
Ahead, two people covered head-to-toe in long sleeves, long pants, gloves and helmets were lumbering along, snipping away at errant bushes and kicking loose stones aside. Their manner was focused and meticulous, like a proud home owner. It wasn’t just respect and reverence they exhibited for this gorgeous patch of trail, they acted as if they owned the place.
And to be fair, they earned that attitude.
Tammy and John are caretakers of the PCT – perhaps more precisely, of eleven miles of the 2,653 mile-long PCT. For the past sixteen years, they’ve set aside their free time to ensure the trail is walkable by removing downed trees and limbs, cutting back overgrowth and fixing any damage like the huge landslip I managed to simply float over. Why do they do it? That’s simple – because they want the trail here.
Neither of them identify as long distance backpackers. Just like thru-hikers desperate for a break in town every so often – they begin to miss beer and flush toilets.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t hike regularly through this slice of heaven. They clearly appreciate what it takes to not only have the privilege of a national scenic trail in their own backyard, but are aware of all the work involved to keep this trail from being taken away for other uses, like logging roads or other extraction industries. The only way to ensure its continued existence is to care about it.
Later on in my hike, I was startled by my fellow thru-hiker’s comments about maintenance. Some griped about overgrown bushes to a volunteer trail crew using donated time and resources repairing a section wiped out by flooding. Sure, bushes scratch, but a slip down that mountain would have slightly bigger consequences. In the Sierra, a trail crew was building steps out of granite also to mitigate erosion and a hiker told them to their face, while they worked, “I don’t like steps.”
Shaking my head in disbelief as they shared their complaints, I invited each of them – at the risk of coming across as a complete asshat – to try real tramping, New Zealand style. Truth-be-told, it wasn’t because I was a star of that style of walking, far from it. I never handled those trails well. I was an angsty bundle of whining, complaining, four-letter-word using newbie hiker plowing my way through mud, tussock, glacial-melt rivers, miles of marked by nearly invisible orange poles, innumerable landslips, and shoddily-planned trail that never saw the shovel of a single care taker.
Of course, once I made it through, all I wanted to do was return and do it again. I felt proudly chuffed that I could handle such difficult trail and build up the skills I’d need to handle whatever any future trail throws at me.
Coming upon this “stock grade” walk-in-the-park cushy ramp of the Pacific Crest Trail and people like Tammy and John who make caring for the trail a priority, I felt incredible gratitude. I knew a few tumbly rocks and scratchy thorns weren’t going to slow me down, but not having to deal with them, allowed me to enjoy the scenery changing around me, like a slow-motion movie – and enjoy my presence in it. That is a true gift. Thanks Tammy and John and all the many, many caretakers I met on my hike. YOU ROCK!