I’ve been dreaming about riding the PCT for nearly 50 years. Bill Aberle and I have been talking about this trip since we were in the Army together, over 40 years ago. I had previously ridden, a chunk here, a bit there, one vacation at a time most of the trail between Lake Tahoe and Hart’s Pass. A few years back I went down to Campo with three friends and the intention to ride north. That was the trip that showed me I wasn’t nearly prepared for a trip of this complexity. Although we did make it as far as Hwy 74 we spent nearly as much time in the cab of a pick-up as we did on the trail. In order to complete the trip some changes were going to have to be made. I realized that planning incorporated more than securing maps of the trail.
The environment along the trail has experienced changes over the years. Long droughts in California have pretty much eliminated trail side grazing for the majority of the PCT there. Rerouting for sustainability has moved the trail away from meadows and lakes and into the forest, where grazing opportunities are rarer, in much of Washington and Oregon. While not impossible traveling with packhorses, living off the land is increasingly getting more difficult. If you are planning a trip of more than a few days to a week, then feed for the horses becomes a more of a consideration than it has been in the past.
In 2011 Janis and I rode the Pony Express Trail. That was a series of 50 mile endurance rides, covering 2040 miles in eight weeks. The XP demonstrated to us what was possible and when we got home we started the serious planning for the PCT trip. One thing we learned on the XP was a horse can go 25 miles every other day, at an easy traveling speed, virtually forever. Except in those few places where it is just not feasible our plan is to meet the truck and trailer each night. There are a few places where the horses will have to be ridden off the PCT to a trail head but not as many as one might think. Our shortest ride is 17 miles and the longest 39. Being flexible on rest days will mitigate undue hardship on the long days.
Basically we are going to treat this trip as if it were a conditioning ride for Endurance. Long, slow miles, I’m hoping to average five miles per hour, 25 miles more or less each day. Meeting the trailer each afternoon will allow the horses more rest, better feed and the best hydration. Those places where the use of a pack horse is necessary I hope to maintain a more moderate four miles per hour and 20+/- mile days. Using two horses per rider means the horses shouldn’t travel more than 75 miles per week. Traveling light, shouldn’t need more than a lunch, water, saw, and tarp as well as the normal items needed on a day ride should make this schedule very doable.
That figures out to about 108 riding days. Depending upon snow levels we intend to start around the 1st of April, reaching Kennedy Meadows the middle of May. Then we will come home until the snow melts down in the Sierras and, if needed, adjust our plans based on what we’ve learned up to that point.
To that end Janis and I have been successful finding spots approximately 25 miles apart, where we can get the truck and trailer to the trail. We located likely camp spots and alternates using Garmin 25K topographical maps, checking them out on Google Earth, in both cases we utilized Halfmile’s waypoints and tracks.
As a final confirmation we spent many weeks of Janis’s vacation time driving to each night’s location and alternate, putting boots on the ground, making sure there would be access and room to maneuver when we got there. For the most part locating the prospective locations was fairly straightforward. There was only one way to get there and our only decision was whether it was possible navigate the truck and trailer on the, often badly deteriorated, back road. Other times there would be a myriad of ways mapped to get to a location however when one actually tried to drive those roads there were an equal amount of reasons they were not passable by vehicle. Initially I thought we could have all the overnight spots, and alternates, confirmed in a couple of weeks. In fact the time required was closer to a couple of months. We probably averaged finding three or four spots per day, I doubt we ever confirmed more than six in a single day. A couple of times we spent multiple days trying to locate a single spot.
Back at home, using the gps tracks we generated on our scouting trips, I created two lists of point to point gps tracks, one for the horse and one for the truck, that would be loaded into the respective gps to aid Janis and I in getting to the same spot each night. In addition we have compiled lists of feed stores that carry the products we use, Laundromats, RV dump stations and other places we might be able to refill our stock water tanks. We are well aware that circumstances change from year to year, businesses open and close, roads get washed out others get repaired. The goal is to remain flexible, we have found as many contingencies as we think reasonable, now we just have to implement the actions.
April 2017 or, one week to go
Time is getting short. Anxiety level getting high. Several factors have changed our plans this past year. First, my buddy, Bill, due to unforeseen personal reasons had to cancel out. We have been dreaming about this trip since the early seventies, it was a hard decision for him, but one that couldn’t be avoided. Then wouldn’t you know the year we chose to go would have record high snow levels in both the Sierras and Cascades. Good new for the farmers, bad news for me. I’m thinking the next time California gets into an extended drought all the need to do to alleviate the situation is get me to plan a PCT trip. The winter weather here in Rainier may not have set records, however the near constant snow and rain storms have limited conditioning rides to next to nothing. We will be headed for Campo with winter shaggy, far from the peak of condition horses.
The horses aren’t a real big issue. It was always our plan to do the desert then come home and wait for the snow to melt. So riding shorter days while the horses toughen up won’t really affect our overall time line. The deep snow has definitely thrown a monkey wrench into the gears though. I gave up on the idea of a straight through linear trip as the snow got deeper. The plan now, option 2, is after our break when we finish Southern California we will skip the Sierras and ride the trail through Northern California and Oregon, starting in June. We should finish at the Columbia River and be able to go back and pick up the Sierras after the snow has melted some. We will finish off with the state of Washington and the North Cascades. Option 3 would be to switch up the Washington and Sierra riding, depending upon where the snow melts first. Option 4, would be to ride where I can as much as I can, then go back and pick up days in the higher country however I can.
With only a week left until Janis and I head for Campo it is time to start loading the trailer. Final adjustments to the truck and trailer have been completed. Now all that remains to be done is load the gear we plan to take. I don’t know how prepared I would be without Janis. Her organizational skills and attention to detail is second to none.
Five minutes before we hit the road.
At long last the truck and trailer are loaded and are ready to to. Janis and I are in the truck, horses are in the trailer and we are headed south on I-5 to begin our adventure. It is my intention to use our inReach communicators to produce a track so that you can follow our trail in real time. My goal for today is to figure that technology out and get it posted to the website.
Janis had a dream the other night where I confessed that in fact I’ve talked about this trip for so long to so many people that I felt trapped into going. There is more than a little truth in that assessment. It seems that in the past six months events have conspired to hamper my success. The snow, Bill’s problems, ill prepared horses and a growing concern of mine regarding my aging physical status have all led to a growing sense of unease. On the other hand, I am going, WHOOOHOOO, there are good times to be had. New trails, new people, new experiences, it doesn’t get much better than that.
We arrived here in sunny Campo last night after an eleven hour drive that stretched into fifteen due to LA & San Diego traffic. I don’t know how the locals deal with daily commutes under those conditions. Dog, horses and people were more than happy to get out of the truck upon arrival at the Camp Legett Equestrian Events Facility, CLEEF. A beautiful camp spot with two large roping and gaming arenas, lots of event parking as well as nice pull through camp sites with fairly new pipe corrals. Except for a couple guys doing some maintenance on the big arena and the Border Patrol in trucks, SUVs, quads, side by sides and helicopters we have the place to ourselves. After the hectic activity and cold and inclement weather of the past few weeks it is pleasant to lounge around warming ourselves in the sun. We are only a quarter mile from the Southern Terminus Marker so Janis and I rode over to take some pictures and sign in on the southern most log book.
Standing at the marker scanning the panorama from west to north to east one has a view of Southern California desert. Rounded hills covered in brush, tattooed with dirt roads, sparsely decorated with dusty ranches and out buildings. To one accustomed to the verdant green of the western Pacific Northwest the landscape at first seems lonely and desolate. But given a patient eye the setting gains a peaceful quality and shows signs of life, a dust devil lazily wanders down and across a road, a bird flits from under on bush to the next in search of seeds or bugs. However turn around to see the southern scene and one is confronted with the border wall stretching as far as the eye can see, east to west. Not having been there I can’t say whether the Roman built Harridan’s Wall in England or China’s Great Wall were more or less effective in keeping the hordes out, but the feeling it gives me is, it is more effective keeping me in, I wonder if, in some degree, the East/West Germans would understand. All I can say without qualification is that it is not aesthetically pleasing. I’m thankful that I was lucky enough to be born on the side I was.
It looks like some work has been done
on the wall since I was last here. At
that time there were some small holes in the metal plates, large enough to get
your arm through and touch the Mexican side.
They had been cut from the US side with a torch and you had to be
careful when pulling your arm back you didn’t scratch yourself on the
slag. I suppose they were for
peepholes. The other thing that had
changed was the border patrol. They are
headquartered on the old Camp Lockett army base, located along the half mile
long side road that runs from the state highway to the Southern Terminus. From the headquarters a near continuous
stream of vehicles passed our camp spot on their way to patrol the dirt track
that parallels the wall. Frequently they
would stop and question us about our intentions, checking out the backs of our
trailers, though not the LQ portion.
While the agents were polite once we explained what we were doing there,
they never the less admonished us for leaving footprints leading from the
terminus to the wall and back, across said dirt track. The dirt road is kept meticulously groomed by
all the Border Patrol vehicles, which pull arena drags, making fresh foot
prints easier to spot. This time there
didn’t seem to be near the vehicular traffic, and what there was paid us no
mind, even though I had left clearly visible tracks across the road.
The credit for any success this trip might have deservedly belongs to the four lovely ladies I am traveling with. I would like to express my appreciation firstly, lastly and forever to Janis, who makes the whole adventure possible. Next are Mercedes and BG, my trusty, I hope, mounts. Rose doesn’t really do anything to keep the wheels turning, but she is a good traveling companion.