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Hiking the PCT

Approximately a zillion years ago, I wrote a book ON A TYPEWRITER. It was a brisk 20th century history of U.S. political dissidents and cultural outsiders, and the newspapers and magazines they started to promote their causes. Each of these groups was itself a subculture—abolitionists, utopianists, feminists, war resisters—but within the subculture, there were invariably splits, splinters and “purges.” I wrote about Marlenites and their little newspaper. The Marlenites consisted of a few members of the Marlen family. They were a splinter group of a splinter group of a splinter group of the American Communist Party.

Oddly, I was thinking about all this as I hiked a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) these past few days. We (son, daughter-in-law, son) had already played twenty questions, name that tune and Stinky Pinky, and there were many miles to go before we made camp. Trudging through scraggly pine forests (I am a Doug Fir girl) with a 28-pound pack on my back, what else was I to do other than contemplate dissident journalism?

Thinking about these splinter groups, these sub-cultures of sub-cultures, my thoughts turned to the PCT subculture. For those who’ve never been on the trail—it stretches 2,650 miles from the Mexican to the Canadian borders (and no, Cheryl Strayed did not hike its entirety)—let me give you a snapshot: PCTers are overwhelmingly white, educated, moneyed, late 20s to mid-30s, and, not surprisingly, leaner and healthier than almost everyone else in America. Of course, there are exceptions. Me, for example. (Just the age thing. Oh, and the lean thing.)

As I learned the lore of the trail from Zane and Liza who had started at the Mexican border back in late April, I began to understand PCTers as less homogeneous than I originally thought. Yes, they were mostly white, educated, moneyed, lean and thirty, but there were thru-hikers and section-hikers and day-hikers. There were SOBOS (southbound) and NOBOS (northbound). There were slack packers (someone else transported their packs for them). There were ultralight folks (base weight of pack 10 pounds or less). There were yellow blazers (they cheat by hitchhiking), blue blazers (they take short-cuts) and pink blazers (they’re on the prowl for, um, tent-mates).

And it seemed that people within each group had strong opinions about people in the other groups. Thru-hikers were the real deal. They considered section-hikers inferior beings. Repeat thru-hikers were really the real deal. They considered everyone else inferior beings. SOBOS ranked higher on the PCT-o-meter than NOBOS. Ultralighters were admired by others, but not as much as they admired themselves. And so it went. A tiny subculture (a few thousand hikers, maybe 700-800 who attempt thru-hiking ) splintering into sub-group after sub-group.

If you don’t see the connection between PCT culture and dissident journalists, you would about 17 miles down a hot trail with a (did I mention?) 28-pound pack on your back.

(photo: Camp feet with Jelly Bellies. All hail Darn Tough socks)


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