Friday, April 11, 2014

The PCT Class of 2021

The class of 2014 has begun hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). With the success of Cheryl Strayed's book on hiking the PCT, "Wild", there are more and more people attempting to "Thru Hike" it. Next year there will be even more hikers as a Hollywood film version of Strayed's book will be out later this year. In case you don't know, a "Thru Hike" is when you hike the entire 2,650 miles of the PCT in one hiking season. The hiking season generally starts in April and lasts until late September/early October.

It is very popular to document your "Thru Hike" on Facebook, Twitter and in blogs. Over the last several weeks, I've been reading quite a few from last year. And this year I've been following six or seven people as they attempt the trail.

You have to put a whole lot of miles in everyday to Thru Hike the PCT in one season. I think the average day is something like 18 miles. Hikers become obsessed with miles. They talk of "Zero" days and "Nero" days. Zero days are days that you rest and hike zero miles. Nero days are days when you just do a few miles, generally to a town to take a zero day.

Most of the people who I've read that attempt these hikes are young people. But there are a few exceptions. I've seen people in their late 50's and even early 60's who are out on the trail this year. And they aren't in as good of shape as you would expect a person to be in order to attempt such a hike. Of course, many people drop out when reality hits the fan. There is no shame in that. I've had to bail on a hike before when conditions were too extreme and dry. And also because I wasn't in the proper condition to attempt such a hike. Still, any effort is admirable.

There also is a page on Facebook devoted to this year's class. It is a very active page, as most people on the trail travel with Smart phones. In fact, it is amazing how much technology a hiker brings with them on their back-to-nature hikes. Most carry a Smart phone, in addition they usually carry a GPS locator (the most popular being "Spot"). Others carry GPS guidance devices that tell you exactly where you are at all times. These devices also beam to Facebook and other programs exactly where  you are on the trail so that loved ones (and total strangers) can monitor your progress.

The art of trail writing is alive and well on these blogs that document the attempts. Some are better than others. Some have great photography. Very few actually write about "nature". A common denominator in all of these blogs is that the hikers love to get to town to eat burgers and drink beer.

Of course it is admirable for all these people (probably over a thousand this year) to attempt such an endeavor. It makes me green with envy to imagine attempting such a hike. To actually take that much time out of your life to do this. Dreams die slow deaths as we age. We come to accept that maybe we won't ride a bike across the United States and we probably will never hike the PCT or the Appalachian Trail. I haven't totally let go of an attempt of the PCT; I'd like to be a member of the class of 2021.

But back to today's bloggers. Hiking the PCT has become an endurance event. An adrenaline event. Reading the blogs, I started noticing a pattern where hikers race through 25 and 30 mile days in order to get to the next town. They travel light, so that they can race quickly. They carry ultralight tents and sleeping bags. Backpacks are commonly under 25 pounds including food and water; some weigh as little as 18 pounds. You tank up in town and your trail time is mostly spent walking fast. The pattern seems to be that very few will spend more than 5 or 6 days (max) on the trail at a time. The norm seems to be 3 or 4. Essentially, these hikes are just races to the next motel room where you will find WiFi and beer.

The trail record was broken by a young woman last year who completed all 2,650 miles in 59 days. This is quite a feat to have accomplished, but something about this type of Thru Hiking just irritates me. I'm attached to the idea that a person should actually spend a majority of the time on the trail. Camping. Enjoying the solitude. But that's another thing: there is very little solitude for the Thru Hiker. They all start together and there is a constant stream of them starting for two months. One blog I read said that she didn't have her first night at a camp site solo until she was 1,400 miles into the trail!

Nobody who Thru Hikes would consider packing two weeks worth of food in their packs. Four days is about the max they will carry. Most won't even cook (except coffee for breakfast). Trail food is snickers bars and nuts and jerky. That's what towns are for: indulging in an orgy of food. And beer.

"Hike your own hike" is a common Hiker expression. It means you set your own rules and nobody else makes those rules for you. But from reading all of these blogs, very few are actually hiking their own hike. But I'm in danger of becoming a little too cynical towards these courageous beings who are out there attempting to hike the whole PCT in one season.

What can you possibly see when you are hiking 30 miles a day? Should I ever attempt to do the PCT, I'd hike my own hike by: 1. cooking both breakfast and dinner (this should be a camping experience and cooking is a big part of that); 2. No more than 20 miles in a day except for long, hot, dry sections; 3. At least half of my "zero" days would be spent on the trial--in a beautiful location; not in a bar or a hotel room; 4. Seems to me 8 nights in a hotel room would be more than enough plushiness for one Thru Hike experience.

That'd be my plan if I joined the Class of 2021.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Napa Valley Wealth, the CIA and Peter Matthiessen

I had an unstructured day in the Napa Valley today. I had a class yesterday and I'd have to come back here for work on Sunday, so I just decided to stay in the Napa Valley for the weekend. Of course, the place is crawling with tourists. The wealthy variety. If they aren't members of the ONE PERCENT, then they are at least in the top FIVE PERCENT.

Wealth intrigues me. It's a bit like a car accident: I try not to stare at the privileged, but I can't help it. Sitting in an espresso joint in St. Helena, I sat at a big table with my lap top. One older gentleman was actually reading a book; the majority of the very busy cafĂ© patrons had their noses in lap tops and smart phones. A well kempt man next to me was attempting to teach some assignment to his daughter. The daughter didn't resemble any child that has lived in my household: She was demure, also well kempt, wearing a dress, hair combed in a way that only a trip to a hair dresser could fashion it. She was polite with her father; she carried herself well as she worked on the homework assignment. You could tell she was being prepped for some Ivy League school: a future Yalie. Or Wellesley.

And the people around me carried themselves with a snootiness and a self confidence that only comes with having a future where you need not worry about anything. And you've had the best of everything given to you: clothes, education, organic chow, healthcare, wellness coaches, yoga, therapists. Their health radiates in trim vital bodies shaped well from gym visits and spa treatments.

Poverty leads to ugliness. Weathered skin. Poor teeth. Worry lines around eyes and forehead. Those who wish to raise the retirement age to 67 or 70, certainly don't know how debilitating it is to your health to be poor. Worry kills. So does financial insecurity. Poverty is the number one cause of mental illness. Raising the retirement age is just a bad joke played on the poor. The poor will certainly not make it much beyond the retirement age, which I think is the design.

Money buys happiness. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

I walked to the Sunshine Market in St. Helena. This is the local grocery store where you can buy Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in one aisle and a $650 bottle of Cabernet in the next. And the Cab isn't even behind a lock and key. It just sits there on the shelf amongst other bottles of $100 plus bottles of wine.

And when you go to the checkout stand, what do you see? A refrigerated display of caviars of the world. Most checkout stands have gossip magazines and chocolate bars. St. Helena has caviar displays instead.


Enough of wealth, I head back to my dorm room to do some laundry and read. It was there that I read a New York Times article on Peter Matthiessen. Later in the day, I learned that Peter died (a coincidence had the NY Times article published on the day of his demise; the article was amended on-line to mention Peter's death). Peter was a son of privilege, much like the people I'd been watching in St. Helena. He was uncomfortable with it, but he never gave up his fortune to the poor as Jesus instructed rich people to do. No, he lived with that discomfort and used the money to live a wonderful life. He traveled and wrote books about his travels. Bad things do happen to rich people, and The Snow Leopard was written about a grief stricken trip to Nepal to photograph the elusive Snow leopard. Rich people get to grieve in more interesting ways. And write books about the experience.

I've never been able to make it through The Snow Leopard. I find environmental Buddhists boring (Gary Snyder take note). I did enjoy Matthiessen's classic Wildlife in America--a book that doesn't appear in the biographies of Peter--but really, it is a great book. If anything, just read the first chapter about the Great auk.

Matthiessen was part of a generation that still revered the novel. Much like Ed Abbey, who considered himself more of a novelist than an essay writer, Peter Matthiessen also felt that the novel was his highest achievement. And Peter is the only writer who has won the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction. Quite an achievement.

And so I will give The Snow Leopard another try. And I will give Shadow Country a read. And also At Play in the Fields of the Lord (a book that Abbey cited as a tome he wished he had written).

Matthiessen lived in the same house for sixty years. He didn't live in opulence. Although he did spend time as a spy for the CIA back in the 50's. Some say he started The Paris Review with CIA money. He ran in literary circles generated by rubbing elbows with the Oligarchs at Yale and the East Coast Literary Establishment. But that doesn't mean he didn't have talent. He did. But talent is easy to find; opportunity isn't. The only difference between writers like Matthiessen and wannabee writers in some English Department in a PoDunk University is connections and opportunity.

Good writing is easy to find. All you have to do is have something to say and say it well. Many do.