Facing a difficult decision? Feeling down? Need some “alone time” to find your center? Consider strapping on a backpack and hitting the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile hiking and equestrian trail reaching from Mexico to Canada.
Originating in desert chaparral near the Mexican border, the route climbs northward along the spine of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, crosses the western arm of the Mojave Desert, traverses California’s high country of Sequoia National Park and Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, winds through Oregon forests near Crater Lake National Park, then skirts the shoulders of volcanoes like Mount Rainier in Washington. Along the way, hikers descend almost to sea level and climb higher than 13,000 feet, The Times reports.
Revered by die-hard trekkers for years, the trail’s popularity has recently ballooned, attracting casual hikers, especially women, since the 2012 publication of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” The arduous and sometimes lonely route beckons seekers who need a change in their lives and believe they might find it on the trail, looking for the combination of “promise and mystery” Ms. Strayed describes.
From her home in Portland, OR, Ms. Strayed told The Times that approximately 1,000 people have e-mailed her, saying, “I have read ‘Wild’ and you have inspired me to do a hike.” Yet at least half of her fan mail is from men, she said, pointing out that the appeal of “Wild” is universal. “One strand of the story doesn’t have to do with the wilderness at all,” she explained. “It’s grief and loss and how to bear what we cannot bear.”
According to Leigh Swansborough, an addictions specialist who has recorded interviews on the John Muir Trail in California, “Wild” has helped many women see that it isn’t dangerous for them to be out in the wilderness. “Cheryl’s book really made it possible and believable for women to see that doing something out of their comfort zone, or very big, was possible,” she told The Times. “Women aren’t really taught that in society.”
In fact, the “Wild Effect” may be just beginning. More readers are discovering the book, which came out in paperback in March, and a film adaptation of “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon, now being filmed in Oregon, promises to bring the story, and the trail, to an even larger audience.
Some observers predict that the Pacific Crest Trail will likely experience its version of “the Bryson bump,” a jump in hikers who attempt the entire trail, similar to the surge in popularity that the Appalachian Trail experienced after Bill Bryson’s best-selling 1998 book, “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.” Similarly, the number of Americans undertaking the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage hike through Spain increased 200% after it was featured in the 2011 movie “The Way,” a tourism official stated.
Donna Saufley a former board member of the Pacific Crest Trail Association who runs Hiker Heaven, a free-of-charge hostel in Agua Dulce, CA, told The Times, “I’m grateful for the awareness that the book has created about the trail. People don’t care about what they don’t know about. The trail needs, and wilderness needs, as much support as it can get. And if it gets people outdoors and moving and exploring, that’s very positive.”
However, a number of trail advocates worry that a surge of popularity could contribute to its being “loved to death” if hikers do not traverse it thoughtfully. It is paramount, they feel, that travelers should be careful with fire, for example, and move respectfully through small trailside communities.
This year, the Pacific Crest Trail experienced a record number of hikers, with permits issued for 1,044 “thru-hikers” (people who tackled the entire distance from Mexico to Canada) and 822 permits for those hiking 500 miles or more. The trek usually takes thru-hikers five months from start to finish, averaging more than 17 miles a day, yet fewer than half of those requesting thru-hiker permits actually complete the hike, the article states.