I have been on the trail for 20 days and covered 380 miles. I have taken 3 zero days (days where in I do not progress on the PCT) and a few days around 10 miles, known has a nero day (near zero). My average mileage is between 23 and 30 miles a day, which seems to be a comfortable pace for me. I begin my days early, around 6:30 am and end around dusk: 7:30 pm. When I walk, I maintain a brisk pace of 2.5 to 3.5 mph. I take at least 3 longer breaks to eat large meals and several smaller breaks to deal with water and foot needs. Day in and day out, this is how my days go: make my miles, fuel my body, sleep and recover. It is a simple life that I truly enjoy, but sometimes things get interesting.
Several days after leaving Agua Dulce and making my way around another closed section of trail (because of poisonous plants) and over Pacifico mountain, I found myself near Sulfur springs. I camped in a flat space just big enough for my tent, surrounded by thorny bushes on all sides. This camp spot set the stage for the events of the next morning. The small, cleared and enclosed section of ground seemed to be this way for a reason. The entrance to the area also had many large branches lying on the ground, as if someone had propped the branches up to complete the 360-degree barrier. Barrier from what? The only thing that made sense was that this must be mountain lion territory. I slept well despite the evidence that there may be something out there.
I awoke early and quickly packed my gear and moved down the trail without cooking my morning oatmeal. As I entered the bottom of the valley and moved along Sulfur Springs, I began to get a weird sense that I was being watched. At first, I thought it might be Bonanza, a hiker from North Carolina I had met the day before. He is the only other south-bounder I have seen so far. I turned around and he was not anywhere to be seen. Then I began to hear odd noises - huffing, grumbling, grunting and maybe even footsteps. Now it was early, and I may have hallucinated all this, but I think I was stalked by a cougar for almost a mile that morning. I walked calmly, occasionally stopping and facing the direction of my "hallucinations", then moved on until I felt there was no longer a potential predator by my side. My suspicions were confirmed later that day when I met some trail runners who told me the area was well known for being cougar territory.
The first 200 miles were very quiet - an occasional north-bound hiker, but for the most part I saw very few people. However, in the past 150 miles I have begun to see more and more north-bound hikers (up to 20 a day). I have talked to some. Most say they are headed to Canada, and most have trail names. A trail name is typically a name given to a hiker by other hikers that describes something unusual or interesting about the person. Here are some of the names I’ve heard so far: Acorn, Coach, SWICK, Bonanza, Woodchuck, Medicine Man, Troll and my favorite - Ninja Tank. I’ve even met trail celebrities such as Halfmile and Deb (the creators of the free Halfmile PCT maps), Ziggy and Bear and Donna “L-Rod” Saufley. Typically, explanations of how the name was earned are not offered. But none the less, it adds another interesting layer to the PCT adventure.
There are 3 main questions that north-bounders seem to have for me:
1. How is the water up ahead?
2. How about the snakes?
3. Why am I headed south?
1. The water has not been much of an issue. There are a couple of stretches around 20 miles where there are no natural water sources and hikers need to carry enough to get through.
2. I have only seen the one rattlesnake and a couple of harmless garter/bush snakes.
3. I like the feeling of being more alone when going southbound. The solitude during the first 200 miles was just what I needed. Even with more people on the trail now, it is still nice to maintain my own pace and not get stuck within the rhythm of the "herd" of hikers.
Only around 160 miles to Mexico. Then, I don't know. I may get back on the trail in Mojave or Kennedy Meadows up north or head back to Washington and begin preparing for the big hike with Anna this summer.
I enjoy my time on the trail in the wilderness the most and am glad for the opportunity to do some solo hiking this spring. I am constantly entertained by the wildlife and plants I encounter. It is easy to fall into the natural rhythms - waking with the birds in the morning, taking rests in the shade during the heat of the day, and going to sleep as soon as it is dark in the evening.
I also enjoy hiking with good friends like Anna. When I’m alone I have plenty of time to think, but when hiking with friends I have opportunities to share thoughts, ideas, and gain perspective that I may have otherwise missed on my own. No matter alone or with good hiking friends, the trail never fails to be an inspirational experience for all.
I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12 years old, and I’ve been asked this question since I was 12 years old. Where do I get my protein? There is more to this question than meets the eye. Why did no one ask me where I get my beta-carotene? Where do I get my fiber? Why is protein the nutrient that even strangers seem to have a deep concern for in regards to my diet and health? It was this protein question, or perhaps more my own question of why I was being asked this question in the first place, that piqued my interest in nutrition and eventually led me to Bastyr University. Fifteen years after my decision to stop eating animals, with a graduate degree in nutrition, I feel that I can finally provide a satisfactory answer.
The question is taken to a whole new level when put in the context of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Walking 20-30 miles per day, the general consensus among thru-hikers is that high protein foods are essential for muscle recovery. In addition, our food options are limited to what we will carry on our backs. No marinated tofu steaks or soy burgers with cashew cheese.
After reading The China Study, I finally understand why there is so much concern with protein in our culture. Ever since its discovery in 1839, protein has taken center stage as one of the most sacred of nutrients (1). The word has its roots in the Greek word "proteos", meaning "of most importance" (1). It is a vital component of our bodies and functions in a multitude of roles to keep us alive. In the 19th century, protein was synonymous with meat, a cultural association that has stayed with us over the years. Having meat on the table is traditionally a sign of wealth and good health. Upon its discovery, the recommendation for protein was set at twice that needed to sustain the human body due to the cultural bias towards meat and protein and the idea that more must always be better (1).
That is the historical ground on which many people and health professionals still stand in their perspectives on nutrition. But if we take a step back, we start to see that there may be a different story. Healthy populations in Asia, South America and Africa, for example, consume a diet very low in animal protein and have disease rates a fraction of that in the Western World (2). Elephants, Giraffes and Hippopotamuses grow to be hundreds of pounds simply by eating leaves and grass. The full spectrum of amino acids can be found in every plant food (3). Even human babies thrive and grow on a diet of breast milk that is only 5% protein, the same amount of protein that is recommended by the World Health Organization for an adult (3). To put that into perspective, a diet made completely of fruits and vegetables that meets calorie needs is about 10% protein (3).
In the United States, the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein for a healthy adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (4). For a 60 kilo (132 pounds) person, this comes out to be 48 grams of protein. Assuming a 2000 calorie diet and 4 calories per gram of protein, this corresponds to about 11% of calories from protein (9% for a 2500 calorie diet). The recommended 10% of calories (0.8 g/kg) from protein has been reviewed 14 times by a panel of expert scientists (4). Given that a potato is 8% protein, throw in a half cup of beans at 27% protein and we can easily meet or exceed our recommended protein needs on plant foods. By including animal protein and increasing intake to the 17% of calories found in the Standard American Diet, we put ourselves at risk of first, the adverse effects of animal protein itself, and second, displacing the health benefits of nutrient-rich plant foods (4).
So what does this mean to a thru-hiker? With such high calorie needs, we tend to eat more food in general, meaning we will naturally be getting more grams of carbohydrate, fat AND protein no matter what. We are not any more likely to become protein deficient on the trail than off. In fact, breaking down protein is hard work for a body that is already hiking 25 miles everyday. As excess protein cannot be efficiently used as fuel or stored like fat or carbohydrates, the liver and kidneys must breakdown, neutralize and filter all the extra amino acids (3,5). In addition, you actually lose a little bit of water through protein metabolism (5). The whole process puts extra strain on your body when the first priority should really be to feed your working muscles.
I heard a metaphor recently that put things into perspective. It’s like maintaining a house after it’s been built – you can’t do it by constantly providing more walls, floors and ceilings, you need to pay the utilities, keep the lights on, and keep it clean. Proteins are the walls. Carbohydrates keep the lights on.
I remember once, hiking through the North Cascades, I had a protein shake for lunch. My body was so busy putting energy into breaking down that protein that I had nothing left to hike. More blood was going to my digestive tract than my muscles and brain. I felt drowsy. I’ve learned a lot since then. I won’t be carrying protein powder with me on this thru-hike. I will be eating things like dehydrated hummus, refried beans, cliff bars, Probars, walnuts and chia seeds, spread throughout the day. A big meal at night will help with general recovery while I rest – but it’s not just the protein that does that. It’s the combination of macronutrients, micronutrients, antioxidants and bioactive compounds. It’s the whole meal, the whole food. The whole picture.
While it is true that protein plays an important role in maintaining vital body functions and initiating muscle recovery, it’s not the only factor. When we eat more food, we get more protein. Protein is everywhere.
1. Campbell, TC., Campbell, TM. The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2005. Print.
2. Gregger, M. Dr. Burkitt's F-Word Diet. http://nutritionfacts.org/video/dr-burkitts-f-word-diet/. Accessed April 17, 2014.
3. McDougall, J. "When Friends Ask: Where Do You Get Your Protein?". April 2007 Newsletter. http://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2007nl/apr/protein.htm.
4. Campbell, TC. The Mystique of Protein and Its Implications. http://nutritionstudies.org/mystique-of-protein-implications/. Accessed April 22, 2014.
5. Wood EJ. Marks' basic medical biochemistry: A clinical approach (third edition). Biochem Mol Biol Educ. 2009; 38(7):722.
I hit the trail out of Mojave my first day around 8:30 in the morning. Luckily, my hitchhiking out of town had coincided with a marathon. After waiting about an hour by the road I eventually gave up and started walking the 11 miles to the trail. I had covered about 3 miles by the time a marathon staff person in a white sedan picked me up and took me to the trailhead. So I was off – starting my hike with a steady climb for about 8 miles through a windmill farm.
A lot of people dread the uphills and rejoice at the downhills, but I’ve found that I feel the most alive and motivated while climbing. It feels good to work up a sweat, feel my heart pounding and my breath getting faster. I can envision my muscles soaking up the oxygen that is being absorbed through my lungs and delivered by my blood, circulating faster and faster through my arteries and veins. I feel strong and energized in a way that I never find if I am not working hard. Not to mention the rush of endorphins and the feeling of accomplishment at getting to the top. After all that, it does feel nice to have a downhill rest for a while. I guess you can’t have one without the other…
I ended up doing 42 miles that first day. Not my intention… but I got to my potential camp around 6 pm, ate dinner and looked at the map. Seventeen more miles of flat walking along the LA aqueduct. This section is notorious for being hot and monotonous during the day. I decided a little night hiking was in order. The cool breeze made the walk much more pleasant and the bright stars and crescent moon provided inspiring scenery for an otherwise uninspiring landscape. Forty-two miles on Day One is not the general recommendation. A smarter strategy to prevent blisters and muscle soreness is to start out slow and acclimate your body to the constant demand of walking. But since I was already in good shape from several months of training and excited to finally be on the trail, I felt that the miles would not phase me. Now, several days later, I still feel strong and have no regrets, though I doubt that I will be repeating that days' mileage anytime soon.
Many miles later, after a pit stop in Lake Hughes for a veggie burger and a trail detour to avoid a burn area, I found myself in a small desert oasis. Local trail angels, the Andersons, have set up a water cache nestled under some low growing trees. Just to make sure we don’t miss it (or to keep us company as we hydrate?), they've hung up some decorative monsters and skeletons. I considered staying there for the night. Such a lovely nook with plenty of water.
I made a delicious and energizing meal of buckwheat noodles, mole sauce and peanut butter, which tasted like a trail version of pad-thai. A few minutes later a trail-runner came passing through. His high energy level motivated me to push on to Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce. I later caught up with him at another water cache 8 miles down the trail where he shared some running stories and pictures of rattlesnakes from further down the trail. I told him snakes were one thing I hoped to avoid on this trail. Little did I know...
The rest of the day was a steady climb to a natural spring followed by long descent into Agua Dulce. About 3 miles before arriving to town, I had my first encounter with the Mojave Desert's Diamondback Rattlesnake. I found him sitting in the middle of the trail, soaking in the sun. Several minutes passed as I attempted to negotiate with him through multiple means - banging my walking stick, stomping, rolling rocks. It finally became clear that he would not move without force. A firm nudge with the end of my walking stick was enough to convince him to begrudgingly move off the trail. I walked swiftly past.
I made it to the Saufley’s aptly named “Hiker Heaven” here in Agua Dulce after a 27 mile day, where I sit writing this blog, enjoying some chips and salsa and the company of other hikers. The hiker community is a unique and wonderful circle to join and I feel immediately welcomed here. I am grateful to the support of strangers in so many ways and am looking forward to more trail days ahead. Thanks to Donna from Hiker Heaven and my new runner friend, Ken, I am armed with advice on how to avoid and better deal with snakes and am on to the next hundred miles.
Spring Break 2014. We find ourselves drawn towards sunnier locales, as most Seattlites do. For us, this means a tour of the desert canyons of Utah. As Ross had already left town to help build a kitchen for his brother in Colorado, we took this opportunity to meet in the middle as he travels the country toward southern California for the first portion of his thru-hike. Anna drove down from soggy Seattle and we found ourselves in Moab, Utah. Our agenda was to get back into hiking shape, test out new gear we’d acquired over the winter, tie up some loose ends on our Nourishing Journey project and see some beautiful things along the way.
The desert is a world far removed from the lush green ferns and conifers we are accustomed to in Washington. If it weren't for the familiar green of shrubs scattered throughout the landscape, we may have thought we were on another planet. With new scenery comes new challenges - like sand in our shoes.
As we entered Canyonlands National Park, we were immediately greeted by winds ranging from 20-30 miles per hour, with the occasional 50 mph gust. This made our descent into the canyon all the more exciting. We started our trip on one of those trails that comes with a warning sign - "This trail is strenuous and not well marked". It meant a lot of climbing up, down, around, over and between boulders, traversing the land like mountain goats, trying not to be blown away as we scaled from cairn to cairn. Invisible, yet so powerful. Ten miles in wind is as strenuous as twenty without.
Though not exactly a welcoming first day, the canyon was full of gifts and surprises. There was, of course, the natural beauty of canyon light and shadows surrounding our walk. Despite the harsh landscape and weather, we felt profoundly connected to inherent serenity of the painted red walls and spiny, dry flora. Then, there was the five dollars that flew across the trail in front of Ross' feet. And the pair of camp shoes we found sitting, waiting for us around a bend. New shoes and five dollars for beer. Trail magic!
We continued our canyon trek up, back down, and up again. This desert hike was the perfect opportunity to see how much water we could fit into our packs if necessary. Four liters, it turns out, is about as much water weight that Anna's Gossamer Gorilla Pack can handle. Ross' ULA Circuit, on the other hand, had a comfortable carrying capacity for several more liters if necessary. Good to know. But we'd much rather travel light between frequent water sources when possible. We wish we were camels.
Our efforts paid off as we dry-camped, with no water in sight, at the base of Taylor Canyon. We rehydrated beans, rice, couscous, and vegetables, spending the night next to a couple towering rock formations named Zeus and Moses.
As this Canyonlands adventure comes to end, we are preparing for the next steps in our journeys. Anna is driving back to Seattle to finish up the last quarter of graduate school in dietetics, while continuing to prepare for the southbound thru-hike with Ross in July.
Ross is planning to head to Las Vegas for a few days of R&R before traveling to Mojave, California. He is eager to start his southbound flip-flop hike in just a few days, completing 500 miles to the Mexican border. Intent on spending as many days in the mountains this year as possible, his bag is packed and his legs are strong. The trail awaits.
With many more miles and vistas to come, we're both looking forward to the adventures that lie ahead.
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