There are many trails, and then there is The Trail. I will be speaking of The Trail symbolically, metaphorically, and of at least one empirical reality—The Pacific Crest Trail.
Anyone who goes out even a little bit into some wilderness area will have some experience of hiking on some trail—and the joy, the views, the exposure to the wild, the wonders, the effort, the challenges, etc., etc. But there are three trails within the U.S. that are extra, extra special: the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. From “Hiking the Triple Crown”: “…it is the three great north-to-south trails—the so-called Triple Crown trails—that have captured the imagination of long-distance and weekend backpackers alike.”
The Appalachain Trail (from now on referred to as the AT) is 2167 miles long; the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT) is 2650 miles long; and the Continental Divide Trail (the CDT) is 3100 miles long. Each of these follows one of America’s three great mountain systems; the variety of terrain and ecosystems represented in these trails is nothing short of mind-boggling. Each of these trails has its own challenges and its own attractions, and their distances can make it almost seem “beyond reach”; but “trail dogs” will tell you that most anyone in good health can do these trails—the key ingredient is desire. Of course it is quite possible to do these trails in segments—some people hike only for a few days on one of these trails ; some stay on the trail for a few weeks; and others go the whole way and this usually takes several months. Whatever it be, rest assured that you will learn something about yourself, about life, about reality, when you get on one of these trails.
Among the three great trails, there is one that stands out above the others: the Pacific Crest Trail. Among “trail dogs,” people who have done these trails and many others around the world, the PCT may rank as the very best long trail in the world—characterized by incredible views, enormous challenges, the longest stretches of unremitting wilderness, and ranging from sea-level desert to over 13,000 feet footpaths around glaciers. Within this stretch the PCT overlaps another trail which was established independently, the John Muir Trail (JMT). The PCT with the JMT runs for a bit over 200 miles from the Mt. Whitney area to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. The John Muir Trail is generally considered the “Jewel in the Crown” of the PCT. It is the most challenging and the most beautiful part of the PCT. Most hikers need about 15 days to do this segment(but of course some do it in less time but I don’t understand why rush through this beautiful country) and food resupply is very difficult. Also you spend a lot of time above 9000 feet and this causes altitude sickness if you have not acclimatized(hikers who come from LA or the Bay Area who just hop on this trail get it bad if they don’t take the time to acclimatize). But the reward is almost an unspeakable beauty that John Muir wrote about so eloquently—calling this area the “Range of Light.” You encounter numerous peaks over 14,000 feet, glaciers, numerous pristine high mountain lakes, and real solitude—some find it difficult to be by themselves night after night in an absolute wilderness!
Here are some photos of the John Muir Trail as found on Google and taken by various hikers at various times:
The popularity of the PCT has increased over the years, but the number of people who do the whole trail is still very small. Around the year 2000, there were about 200-300 people who started on the PCT at the Mexican Border heading north. Only about 50% of those who started made it to the end. Now that figure is more like 800 people who start and the percentage of finishers is much higher. Normally the south-to-north direction is considered the best way of doing it, but many have also done the opposite direction. You generally start in the Southern California desert in April, then you make it to the High Sierras about June, and then you end by the Canadian border before the winter snows come.
Equipment issues are interesting! You will need something like a 0 degree sleeping bag for the High Sierras in June (most of the trail here is over 9000 feet)—at night it will get down to something like 20 degrees(some make it with a 20 degree bag but you might then have to sleep a bit chilly at times); the lightest small tent possible; a bear canister—yes, this is mandatory in the High Sierras because the bears will come after your food if it is simply in the backpack! Usually you can pack about 10 days worth of food in one of these bear canisters—you learn to cut down your needs to the bare essentials (no pun intended!!) What you stuff in the bear canister would make a Desert Father proud of you! Resupplying on the JMT is particularly difficult—there are only about three possibilities and 2 of them require you to detour from the trail quite a few miles. At Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, those who continue on the PCT can easily get resupplied at a grocery store by the trail or have supplies sent to them to the post office that will hold packages for them. In fact some of the hikers send food packages to themselves at various spots along the trail which they pick up as they get there.
Here are some quotes about the JMT and the PCT from several books:
From The John Muir Trail: “The John Muir Trail passes through what many backpackers agree is the finest mountain scenery in the United States…. This is a land of 13,000-foot and 14,000-foot peaks, of soaring granite cliffs, of lakes literally by the thousands, of canyons 5000 feet deep. It is a land where man’s trails touch only a tiny portion of the total area, so that by leaving the trail you can find utter solitude. It is a land uncrossed by road for 140 airline miles …. The JMT is not a place to hike on impulse. Its length, its remoteness, and its great changes in altitude mean that you must plan your hike if you are going to enjoy it, or even to complete it.”
From Hiking the Triple Crown: “The PCT is a “hiker’s hike,” no question about it. Much of the trail passes through large tracts of wilderness, including the High Sierra complex (the longest wilderness in the continguous states)…. There are no shelters to congregate hikers together, and trail towns are farther apart with fewer hiker-oriented amenities.”
Like I mentioned above, at Tuolumne Meadows there is a grocery store, a post office and a grill where many campers and tourists and hikers take time out for refreshments. Sitting at the outdoor tables is fascinating because you see so many different kinds of people. There are the tourists who are in a hurry to see as much as they can and then hurry home; there are the campers and short-term hikers who are obviously enjoying the wilderness; and then there are the long-term hikers coming off the PCT or the JMT for refreshing and refilling their supplies. You can see from their faces, their bodies, and their eyes that they are in a different space. There is something about being on such a trail that has a deep effect on a person. Many have written that this hike has changed them and their lives—a truly transformative experience. On such a journey, of such length, with such challenges, where you are largely removed from the structures and supports of modern social life, the way you normally live your life and your whole identity comes into question. At the very least you begin to see through the multitude of superficial and trivial pursuits and gadgets of our modern existence. When you are on The Trail, the wilderness is silent about who you are—or better, it speaks in a language you yet do not understand. Perhaps after many, many days of hiking 15 miles, then sleeping on hard ground, then getting up and hiking another 15 miles, then sleeping on hard ground again, when life has been stripped to the bare essentials, perhaps then, just perhaps you might begin to catch a whisper of what the wilderness is saying—it is God’s Wisdom speaking to you, Hagia Sophia, and just perhaps you might begin to hear that voice within your own heart.
One final thought: The Trail is ultimately a symbol and a metaphor for the whole religious/spiritual life. I will leave it to you to work out the details of this connection, and perhaps you will really need to have hiked quite a bit to see the connection, but it is there. Suffice it to say that just as there are not many who take up these long trails, there are also very few who take up the real spiritual journey—there is a price to pay and there is a need for a kind of desire that surmounts all obstacles to see it to the finish. Already in the Gospels there are plenty of indications that not many want to really do this. They are more like “tourists” who want a picture of Jesus, and a label to wear that says:”Christian” or maybe just “religious.”