The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Walking from the law on the Pacific Crest Trail

 

November 23, 2017

Courtesy of Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson summited Mt. Whitney in California, 14,505 feet.

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Johnson

Until recently, Jennifer Johnson lived in Cathlamet. But she downsized, sold her house, and left her job at Wahkiakum Title and Escrow and Hanigan Law Office in order to take up a grand adventure this year--walking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from southernmost California to the Washington/Canadian border.

Johnson started her journey on April 10 at the Southern Terminus of the trail, near Campo, California. After hiking all the way to Canada, she returned to California in order to complete a section of the Sierra Nevadas that she had bypassed earlier in the year, due to unsafe conditions. She finished the trail five and a half months after she started, on September 30, in Truckee, California.

She walked as few as five or six miles in a day, and as far as 34 miles in one day.

Along the way, she picked up a trail name, lifelong friends, a six pack stomach, and an even stronger appreciation for her fellow humans.

Here is Jennifer, in her own words.

On her first day:

"I'm always nervous about the unknown," Johnson said. "I always second guess myself. That's how I roll. The big monument was pretty easy to find. My mom drove me down there; we took pictures, and talked to the forest service volunteer who was checking permits and taking stats on who was starting. Mom left and I was looking around, and I couldn't find the trail.

"It's day one, I've got my shiny new clothes on, my shiny new gear and I'm already feeling like, what the heck are you doing? I'm the worst PCT hiker, ever. This is a joke. I'm never going to finish this. I can't even start it. I went to the volunteer and asked where the trail started. I felt like a total idiot. He pointed over at some bushes to some orange traffic cones.

"In my defense, it wasn't obvious. For the whole rest of that day, I felt like the biggest fraud. I could not call myself a hiker. It took a few weeks before I found a groove and thought, alright. I can do this."

On hiker hunger and food:

"I was constantly hungry," Johnson said. "There's this phenomenon called hiker hunger. It took a long time for it to hit me, maybe till almost halfway through Oregon. I think by that time my stomach was growling every half hour. You're just burning so many calories. It's hard to carry as much food as you need in order to match the calories that you are burning. You are looking for the most sugar, the most fat, the most calories in the lightest package possible, so it's a lot of those bars that have 450 calories in them. Have you ever had a honey bun? They are disgusting, but they have a crazy amount of calories in one of them. At one point we were eating honey buns with sticks of butter. It was so gross, but that was how we were trying to get the calories that we needed. I never want to see a honey bun again.

"I had tuna fish every day. We packed a lot of tortillas because they are flat. You'd just eat spoonfuls from jars of peanut butter or Nutella. We ate a lot of ramen. With cashews. I carried big bags of cashews and I would add them to everything. Even my tuna fish burrito was usually cheese, cashews, tuna fish, with a ton of mayonnaise from packets spread on it.

"At one point we were trying to come up with the craziest things we could think of to eat. One burrito had a fish theme. We filled it with tuna fish and Swedish fish. I have pictures of some of my friends eating peanut butter, Nutella, M&Ms, and Fritos. Fritos are good. They are just calories and fat. And you can use them to start a fire. Fritos are handy.

"It was hard to get protein, and by the time I got to town, all I wanted was a bacon cheeseburger."

Johnson lost 15 pounds on the trail.

"I was looking at a picture from day one," she said. "I look pasty and I have a little bit of a stomach over the hip belt of my backpack. The last day, there is nothing to me. All muscle in my legs, and no fat. I had a six pack."

On being alone. Or, in fact, never being alone:

"A lot of times on the PCT there are just people everywhere," Johnson said. "Especially in the first 700 miles in southern California. When you get to this place called Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the Sierra Nevadas, you pick up your ice ax, and your crampons, and everything you're going to need for the big mountains. It starts to thin out there.

"I was never alone. Though, sometimes during the day while I was hiking, I would be alone, especially the farther north that I got. Even then I was hiking with people, and we would meet up somewhere for lunch and then plan where we would camp. I always knew that there're people within a couple miles of me at any given time. There were probably only maybe two days where I truly hiked by myself, ate by myself, and camped by myself. That was because I chose to. Otherwise I was never alone. You have to try to be alone out there on that trail."

On making friends:

"It's almost like a shared tragedy," Johnson laughed. "Alcoholics understand other alcoholics immediately because they are starting out with a common bond. It feels like that on the trail. You are starting out with a common situation. You meet people and you already know certain things about them because of what they were doing. You know they just went through that 105 degree day like you did. You know they've been eating tuna fish for 70 days in a row. If nothing else, you can talk about how hungry you were, how uncomfortable you were, or how beautiful that view was back there. People were so willing to help. If someone was short on food, you gave them food. Everyone pitched in.

"Outside Agua Dulce, Calif., I was planning on making it to Casa de Luna to stay the night. It was getting late and I was coming down off this hill when I saw cars speeding down the highway. I thought, it's going to be tough hitching a ride.

"There was a Subaru across the way, and the lady told me that they'd been waiting for me. They'd been there all day waiting for hikers. She had apples and oranges, first aid, water, pop, and more. She asked if I needed anything and told me to get in the car to get warm. They were just driving people to and from Casa de Luna all day. Talking to people and listening to their stories. They didn't want anything. That happened everywhere. It was amazing.

Usually a lot of the trail angels had done portions of the trail, or had completed the trail. They knew what you had been through and they were instant friends. I had random people read my blog and send me contact information for when I reached their town.

"I did make some good friends. It's neat. I heard from a lot of people on the trail that said this restored their faith in humanity. I already know a lot of amazing people, so I already knew what humanity was capable of, but it was really nice to see people helping people just because."

The worst:

"We were supposed to get an inch of wintery mix right before Sonora Pass," Johnson said. "It rained so hard. It rained harder and harder and harder. By 11 p.m., I woke up to find myself floating on my inflatable mattress. There was so much water under my tent, it was splashing up and getting my stuff wet. I fell asleep around midnight and around 2 a.m. I heard my friend Matthew yelling at me to get up. I was having this dream that people were slapping my face with wet fabric. It had snowed so much it had collapsed our tents. I had to get up and clear the snow from my tent every hour until 6 a.m. It didn't stop snowing. By the time I woke up, everything was soaking wet.

"The next morning it was sunny, thank goodness, so we could lay our stuff out and get it a little dry, and warm up a bit. We were in a canyon and had to hike up to about 10,000 feet. The clouds came in and started raining and snowing again until the snow was up to my knees. The highway was closed and we had to walk nine miles to the town. The snow was going sideways. I had icicles hanging off my eyelashes. This was in September. We were about nine days from being done.

"By the time we made it down to this town, which was actually a pack station, I couldn't feel my hands, face, or feet. We were soaking wet, cold and miserable.

"They were booked up.

"'Lady,' I said, 'I'm not going back out into that weather. I will sleep in your lobby with all these dogs wandering around before I go back out there and try to sleep in my soaking wet quilt and tent.'

"Thankfully a room opened up. Thankfully there were only a couple times like that."

The best place:

"I was walking along this ridge in the Glacier Peak Wilderness where you could see for a long way," Johnson said. "I could see this big valley below me and huge mountains above me. I felt so tiny. I looked at those mountains and thought there was something so old and ancient here. The energy and the spirit of that place, I felt like I connected to that place somehow, more than anywhere else on the trail. I turned off my headphones for a lot of that and felt like I could be out there forever. That's where I finally felt like a hiker, like I belonged out there.

"That was my favorite place."

On rodents:

"One night when we had come out of Trout Lake, Wash., it was so hot and humid," Johnson said. "Our campsite that night had mice in it. I was too tired to care, and it was so hot I didn't want to set up my tent, so I cowboy camped. I could see a mouse running around. I had figured out by this time that if I left my hip pocket open, which I used for snacks, the mice would come and eat the crumbs at night, and go away. They never ate anything else, they never chewed through my stuff or got in my tent. It was like I had come to an agreement with those rodents. I give you some snacks, you eat them and then you go away. As I fell asleep I could see one in my hip pocket eating crumbs. I woke up a couple hours later, and it was curled up in my hand, asleep."

She flung the mouse before realizing what it was. Who knows who was more startled, Johnson finding a mouse in her hand, or the mouse, mid-flight.

On things you need:

"The farther along you go, the lighter you want your stuff to be," Johnson said. "The more that's on your back, the slower you are, the harder it is, especially when you get up in elevation and are doing mountain passes. Some days in Washington is just up and down all day. I switched to a tent that was almost two pounds lighter than the one I was using. You just start ditching all the things you don't need. You think when you go out there that you are going to need all these things to make yourself comfortable. I don't need a pillow. I had a little inflatable one. It was a little luxury to have, but it was another six ounces I could save myself. I decided that the pillow had to go. It's nice to have little luxuries, but you just end up with only the things you need. You discover that that is enough."

On quitting:

"We got to a point where quitting could not be in your vocabulary," Johnson said. "If you were going to finish this thing, you couldn't think, 'Well, I could always quit.' You just think, I'm going to do this. This is going to happen. I'm going to finish. I'm just going to get from point A to point B every day. I'm going to do the next thing I need to do. Eat the next meal I need to eat and stop at the next town I need to stop at. After awhile quitting dissolves from the possibilities in your mind. From the people I talked to that finished, that was something that happened to everybody. It was a crucial thing that had to happen for you to do this whole trail. You had to stop thinking, what if I can't do this? Your first thought is that this is hard, but your next thought is this is hard, I'll be glad when I'm on the other side of it. Granted there were a few days where I thought, 'I quit!'"

On change:

"I don't feel like I came off the trail a totally different person," Johnson said. "But I feel like I had so much time to spend with myself, in my brain, that after awhile I just began to realize stuff about myself that I had been ignoring, or burying under distractions. I do want to lead a simple life. I have been doing things to please other people and not because I really wanted to do them. By the time I got to the end, I didn't feel fundamentally different, but I felt more relaxed, more centered, more grounded. I realized I don't need much. I need enough to make me comfortable, but I don't need half the physical stuff I thought I needed. I survived everyday with a shelter, a sleeping bag, a few items of clothing that I wore everyday, shoes, and food. That was enough. It's nice to have the creature comforts now. I sure do enjoy bed and a hot shower. I sure do like that. But do I need certain things? No. Life can be so simple. I'm just a little more aware of my desire to keep things as uncomplicated as possible. That may be the biggest way that I may have changed. I've become more me."

Upon her return:

"My knees are starting to feel a little more normal," Johnson said, a month and a half after her walk ended. "I had a lot of pain in my knees. They were swollen almost the whole time. I got plantar fasciitis in one foot that I managed with shoes and insoles. After I figured that out, the pain was minimal.

"They are still hurting. One hiker called them December toes, because her feet started to feel normal again around Christmas. I feel like I'm old. In the last week, I started to have feeling back in my shoulder blades. The weirdest thing, for at least a couple weeks, is that I would go to sleep and wake up and have no idea where I was, or I was convinced that I was on the trail.

"I would get carsick a lot. I think it was from the speed of travel. It started happening in southern Oregon. Every time we got in a car, I started getting carsick.

Courtesy of Jennifer Johnson

Walking along the PCT south of South Sister in Oregon's Three Sister Wilderness.

"Going into stores and seeing 47 different kinds of mustard. It's too much input. It makes me pretty anxious. I think it's mostly passed. It's hard to be around a lot of people. It's getting better. But I like quiet."

What's next:

"I plan to climb Mt. Shasta and do some day hikes around here this summer," Johnson said. "In 2019, I'd like to hike the Pacific Northwest Trail, which starts in Glacier and heads west across Montana, Idaho, Washington and ends at the coast. It travels along that northern boundary, not too far away from the Canadian border. I think it's about half the length of the PCT. It's really beautiful and a lot less people hike that trail. I think it's an even better chance to try to do what I really didn't accomplish on the PCT in terms of getting a wilderness experience."

To read more about Johnson's experience, check out her blog, walkingfromthelaw.com.

 

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