Opinion: Slow down, you move too fast…

Photo of fast hiker

Photo by Chris Pickering.

“Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day ….  Far more time should be taken.  Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer.  Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature’s darlings.  Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.  As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.” 

~ John Muir

By J.J. King, 2017 P3 Hiker

On August 9, 2013, the Pacific Crest Trail Association reported that Heather “Anish” Anderson traversed the entire Pacific Crest Trail in 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes.  Her remarkable achievement bested the previous record by four days. President John F. Kennedy would have been impressed.

Raised in a close-knit family hallmarked by a competitive spirit toward sports, and as a competitive swimmer while attending Harvard, Kennedy was alarmed by how the health among his fellow citizens had declined during the 1950s. In a December 1960 Sports Illustrated article entitled “The Soft American,” the newly elected president outlined a plan to establish several Federal programs aimed at reversing this deteriorating and troubling trend.

In late 1962, he discovered Executive Order 989 issued by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.  It required United States Marine Corps officers to walk 50 miles in 20 hours.  Kennedy encouraged his current generation of Marines to meet this challenging goal of physical endurance.  What subsequently transpired was an equivalent calling for all Americans known as “Kennedy Marches.”

Image from https://www.jfklibrary.org

If the PCT was attempted as a series of Kennedy Marches, covering 50 miles per day, at a pace of 2.5 miles per hour for 20 hours, one would require 53 days to traverse its 2,650 miles. But such an accomplishment is unrealistic. Hiking for 20 hours every day would not allow ample time for adequate sleep. Point taken.

However, Anish’s record was achieved in manner not unlike a series of Kennedy Marches. Her average pace was 1.8 miles per hour, like many PCT hikers. But remarkably, she kept this pace for many more hours each day than the average hiker, thereby completing the trail within 61 days. In other words, her pace and duration were within eight days of completing the trail as 53 consecutive Kennedy Marches. Eight days! This difference could easily be accounted for by the fact that Anish did not hike for twenty hours a day.  Indeed, President Kennedy is smiling from above.

“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.”

 ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Perhaps John Muir’s suggestion rings true as an option toward experiencing the PCT. While Anish’s achievement should never be questioned as an example of exceptional athletic performance and sustained physical endurance, our Scottish friend Muir beckons us to not race, but rather to saunter. To trod. To stop along the way and get acquainted with those flowers he called “Nature’s darlings.” This was exactly Anish’s approach during her first PCT hike in 2005.  It spanned 142 days, averaging 18.7 miles per day, as noted in “Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook (2017-2018). There are benefits to consider hiking at a more leisurely pace.

Begin each day at an early hour. By rising with the sun, or shortly thereafter, a hiker maximizes his daylight hours to cover a respectable distance without racing. Consider a hiker pacing at two miles per hour for 10 hours, covering an impressive 20 miles a day.  This is a moderate pace, and one that many hikers can realize as a daily average along the trail. At that pace, our hiker would complete the trail in 132.5 days (discounting non-hiking days which vary by person). By adding some essential non-hiking days to rest and replenish her backpack, this hiker approximates Anish’s pace, and would finish within ten days of her first hike.

“Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”

  ~ Mark Twain

Starting your day with an early reveille reduces one’s perception to hike fast. At a two mile per hour pace, you could cover half the 20 mile target before noon, allowing for a leisurely afternoon stroll to your campsite. An early start may also increase your chance to observe wildlife. Animals usually rest during the heat of the day, rather than forage. During conditions of high snowpack, traversing mountain passes and fording creeks is much safer during morning hours—another bit of advice from Yogi’s Handbook. Snow is just beginning to melt after sunrise, reducing the chance of postholing in deep drifts. As snow melts at higher elevations during sunny afternoons, water depths invariably increase downstream. Promote a relaxed pace, observe wildlife, and safely navigate passes and ford waterways with an early start.

By hiking at a moderate pace, you are probably more likely than not to better support at least two goals of Leave No Trace ethics. We are encouraged to carry a litter bag. The chance that a hiker would pause to pick up trash is enhanced while enjoying a slower pace, than if he races down the trail. After all, if your goal is to set a new record, are you truly motivated to stop for any reason other than hydrating, eating, or sleeping? Leave No Trace principles also prompt us to properly dispose waste. We are elevating our level of stewardship by packing out toilet paper with other trash, and not burying human waste under rocks where decomposition is slowed. As a trail runner, would you take the necessary time to dig a six- to eight-inch-deep hole, and one that is 200 feet (80 steps) from campsites, trails and water sources to bury your waste? Muir’s wisdom resonates yet again: far more time should be taken.

An especially important consideration during an extended hike is to safeguard your health. By hiking at a moderate pace, you will reduce the chance of injuries that may necessitate medical care far beyond first aid. The backcountry is certainly no place to experience a stress fracture, muscle strain, or pulled ligament. One may also reduce the chance of developing problems with their feet by hiking slower. A faster pace could spark plantar fasciitis, a particularly debilitating condition that could derail your hike for several days, if not weeks. Blisters could be mitigated by frequently changing your socks. How could you employ such a strategy if you are running?  A relaxed pace lowers your level of stress. Remember, you are hiking to live deliberately on an unstructured and uncluttered schedule unlike at home or work.  Muir noted your “cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

“Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”

 ~ Matsuo Basho

 

Do you plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail a second time? If not, then be sure to slow down on your current hike! This is your one chance to tally many endearing experiences. Pause to ponder the majesty within Washington’s Stephen Mather Wilderness. Take an extended break to study the geology of Evolution Basin in the Sierra Range and Oregon’s vast lava fields. Build your courage for a refreshingly cool and invigorating swim in a nameless turquoise-blue, alpine tarn. But as a trail runner, you could easily bypass these special opportunities. As you arise each morning, ask yourself—as encouraged by noted author Barbara Bradley Hagerty—“How will I use these glorious days for the best purpose?” Absorb these unique experiences enjoyed by a small fraction of your fellow citizens. Be ever mindful of just how fortunate you are to be hiking in the heart of America’s wilderness.

Every speed record will eventually be broken in due time. But the PCTA presents the same medallion to everyone who completes this lifetime achievement regardless of expended time. Hike for several months within a given season, or cobble together the entire trail over many years as a series of section hikes. It simply doesn’t matter with regard to this prized recognition of colored ribbon and embossed metal.

Should you feel compelled to challenge Anish’s record, heed her good example. Hike at a pace that mirrors an average time requirement of five months. Then, if you are still compelled to be a speedster, return again to attempt your prized record. My vote is to embrace Muir’s wisdom, and to saunter at a more reasonable pace, while recalling a simple harmony composed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel:

Slow down, you move too fast

You got to make the morning last

Just kicking down the cobblestones

Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy

Ba da da da da da da, feelin’ groovy

I got no deeds to do

No promises to keep

I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep

Let the morning time drop all its petals on me

Life, I love you

All is groovy

***

I would like to acknowledge Doug Crispin, my good friend and fellow National Park Ranger, who provided reference to the Kennedy Marches as a context to this essay.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton