Billy Goat, the PCT Guru

An excerpt from the PCTA’s 2016 publication of  The Pacific Crest Trail, Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail.  The book is available on Amazon and in the PCTA online store.

By Mark Larabee and Barney Scout Mann

Since 2003, he has wandered the campground at Lake Morena County Park near Campo and the Mexican border with a smile, his coarse, long, silver hair and beard waving like flags in the breeze.

He’s such a recognizable fixture at Kick Off—the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off—his legend betrays any possible anonymity. He’s barely able to make it 10 feet, let alone to the restroom, without someone coming up to greet him, shake his hand, or take a photo.

“I met you hiking in 2012,” one gushing fan exclaims, putting an arm around him while the cameras click. Billy Goat’s face lights up. “Oh yeah, how are you?”

Billy Goat at the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off, 2015. Photo by Mark Larabee.

Pleasantries are exchanged, hands shaken, questions about the year’s plans asked, and advice given—all with the grace of a person who unwittingly finds himself at the center of attention. Except Billy Goat’s 15 minutes of fame goes on.

“That’s very typical of what happens 20 times a day,” he said following the encounter. “I have no recollection of him. I’m sure I met him, but I meet lots of people on and off the trail. I talk with them. I pay attention to what they have to say. It’s almost like it’s my job, like I’m the ambassador.”

Not surprising since he spends most of his days on a trail somewhere. It’s his wisdom every new class of PCT hikers comes for. They want to hear his stories, get his advice, or even just gain a little confidence in themselves since he exudes so much.

“I tell people two things: give yourself three weeks to get your body in shape and get your mind in shape,” he said with a happy chuckle. “Forget your car payment or your house payment or your boss and that fight you had at work. You just forget about all these things that seem so trying.”

Billy Goat has hiked all over, about 45,000 miles since he started counting when he was in his 40s and section hiking the Appalachian Trail. He has hiked 13,000 of those miles in the last seven years. He said his goal is “50 by 80,” or 50,000 miles by age 80. He’s almost there on both counts. He has until 2019 to finish the last 5,000 miles.

He keeps journals and meticulous records and can account for the miles, not that he needs or wants to prove anything to anyone. “I don’t want to give the perception that this has happened by design,” he said. “I have become Billy Goat by happenstance. I don’t do anything different than anybody else. I just walk. I might do more of it. Hiking is where I’m most comfortable.”

And in that statement he reveals a lot about himself and his motivations. When pressed, the real guru comes out. “I have some discomfort with other situations in life, loud music and this rat race we all live in,” he said. “I can socialize when I’m comfortable—if I’m where I want to be. With these people, I am. We have this thing in common that works.”

He hikes alone a lot but is not averse to hiking with others.

“I can do it either way,” he said. “There’s a lot of give and take when you hike with a partner. If I waited for someone to hike with I would never go any place. I would think I’m a loner more than not.”

Billy Goat enjoying the PCT from Glen Pass, 2005. Photo by Deems Burton.

Born January 28, 1939, George Woodard grew up in Maine and moved to New Hampshire right after high school. He has three younger sisters who he calls on birthdays but rarely sees in person. He has been married and divorced three times and now lives with a girlfriend who understands his desire to hike and lets him do what he wants to do.

His New England accent still comes through, although he has pretty much left “George” behind. “No way, nobody even knows that name,” he said. “My mother used to call me that. I hardly even recognize that name.”

But he wasn’t always Billy Goat. That’s a person he became after he put his career behind him and made a choice to pursue his love of walking.

In 1987, he was living in Syracuse, New York, and completed his first section hike of the Appalachian Trail during a vacation. In 1989, he retired after a 30-year career as a railroad conductor. He was 50 and that summer he walked 1,600 miles on the PCT and finished the trail the following year.

“I knew that was what I wanted to do. It was just a matter of getting the numbers lined up.” He worked on and off as a railroad consultant for a few years, making the jobs work around his hiking schedule.

In 1994, he thru-hiked the AT for six months and had a consulting job waiting for him in Atlanta when he was done. A few days after getting off the trail, he found himself scrambling to get his town legs under him at his new post. He had a pager and office phone, employees to manage, and a demanding boss. “It was too much,” he said.

He found a way to live more simply. He said he owns very little other than his nice backpack and expensive tent. He doesn’t own a car. “Stores just saturate you.” He has enough money to live comfortably. “You make it work. We get into big holes, getting married, making babies, and getting a mortgage,” he said.

While some might say he has sacrificed a lot for his lifestyle, he would disagree. “It’s a trade-off, not a sacrifice,” he said. “I think it’s a fair trade-off for what I get out of it.”

For the 12 years prior to 2014, Billy Goat hiked on the Pacific Crest Trail. Even he knows that his passion for the trail seems a little strange. But he equates it to gardening. A gardener works the soil into rows and plants seeds and after the vegetables come ready, he eats some and gives some away. And the next year, he does it all over again. “For what?” he asks.

“I really like this trail. When I finish a hike, I start thinking about the next year a day after I get home. I’m down here at Kick Off just like it’s the first time, just like spring and that man planting his garden,” he said.

In January 2014, things changed. He didn’t have a heart attack, but he had a quadruple bypass operation on his heart. “That really knocked me down,” he said of the operation. “I’ve walked every day since then. I’m so focused on being able to backpack.”

Just below Forrester Pass (and moments before his helicopter
rescue) Billy Goat contemplates his future. Photo by Julia Trebilcox.

The PCT, he said in 2015, would have to wait at least another year. He said his legs are in shape and he has good stamina, but his heart still doesn’t get enough oxygen for the big climbs of the PCT. His 50,000-mile goal looms, but Billy Goat is trying to keep it in perspective.

“I’m trying not to be so 100 percent goal oriented,” he said. “I’m not thinking about 1,000 miles. I’m thinking about being out there in the summer—just being there and enjoying it.”

Yet it’s evident he’s struggling.

“I’ve got to keep moving. It’s so ingrained in me,” he said. Then, in the next breath, “Probably those days are over. I just have to come to grips with that reality.”

Ever the guru.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.