An Unanswered Question
The Appalachian Trail is harder than the Pacific Crest Trail. This is the repute in the thru-hiking community, and considering all factors, it is true. There are characteristics of the Pacific Crest Trail, however, that make aspects of it much more difficult than the Appalachian Trail. Most notable of these is town proximity and water availability. Only with years of growing establishment of the thru-hiking culture was I able to get by on my PCT hike, and still I had to rely on the unwavering generosity of strangers.
As I sauntered on some days and trudged on others, my mind free to wander to the deepest depths of muse, I couldn’t help but wonder how people did it before this culture was so established, before the path was independent of motor-vehicle trails and large gaps. And without my fancy guide app that can pinpoint my location even in the center of this country’s most isolated canyons, a savior when snow left me with nothing but a branch of hopeless postholes, how would I have done it?
I had to know, and with all the literary information out there today on thru-hiking, I anticipated finding at least something. My search was to no avail.
When I shared my article The Appalachian Trail Vs. The Pacific Crest Trail: A Comprehensive Breakdown and Bill Jensen commented saying he had hiked both trails, the Pacific Crest Trail in 1977 and the Appalachian Trail in 2017, I knew this was my guy. Per my query, he sat down with me for a forty-five minute interview and itched my curiosity. He has even written a short article in the PCT Communicator about his adventure, something I’ve seen has fled the internet and only exists in the PDF file he sent me.
A lifelong resident of the Portland metropolitan area, Bill went to Oregon State University upon graduating high school to study civil engineering. Feeling burnt out as a sophomore in studies that seemed irrelevant to the outside world, Bill longed for a getaway. This longing often came in the form of dreaming about the Pacific Crest Trail, something sparked by his reading of The High Adventure of Eric Ryback, one of the first memoirs written about a PCT thru-hike. Only nineteen-years old, Bill already had plenty of experience in backpacking, most of this gained from his time in Boy Scouts of America Troop 69.
When Bill was skimming through his college’s newspaper and saw a classified ad headlined “Looking for a partner to hike the Pacific Crest Trail,” he knew what he had to do. He met with the creator of the ad, Bob Alexander, and not long after, they were at the southern terminus of the trail. There were few other hikers out there with the same goal, but Bill told me he was not the only one to be influenced by Ryback’s book, and that year there may have been up to one hundred attempts.
With the culture that exists today yet to be established, group names, instead of individual trail names, were commonplace. Bill and Bob adopted the name “The Portland Trailblazers” in respect of their Oregon roots. The two tolerated each other, though Bill found a pleasant autonomy in the two weeks he hiked away from Bob when Bob fell ill, and when unabating rain in Washington caused them to quit at Stevens Pass, Bill got back on the trail a few days later unbeknownst to Bob and finished alone.
Subsequently, traditional life became the priority for Bill, and marriage, children, and work left a forty-year gap between his thru-hikes. In 2017, he conquered the Appalachian Trail. 2020 was to be the year he would take on the Pacific Crest Trail again, but in respect of PCTA’s request for hikers to delay their trips, he opted for the 486-mile Colorado Trail instead. This year, he circuited the Tahoe Rim Trail.
But how hard was it for Bill to do the Pacific Crest Trail in 1977? And how exactly did he pull it off?
- What was the water situation like in 1977, and what was it like relying on the Wilderness Press Guidebooks and survey compilations from previous thru-hikes?
There were a lot of recurring changes on the trail. The guidebook was not quite current. We did a lot of backtracking and improvising. All things considered, the Wilderness Press Guidebook was a good book. The water actually wasn’t that bad. One stretch was thirty miles and that was kind of rough, but otherwise I think so much of the trail was rerouted to higher ground, and that’s why there are so many more issues today.
- Even today, the logistics of getting to town and resupplying on the PCT are no cakewalk. What was this like in 1977? Were there any specific hardships you had with this?
The biggest hardship was the lack of information you have now from the internet and modern guidebooks. The towns were not set up. Our resupplies were for ten to fourteen days. I’m not sure if we ever even hitched. It seems we walked everywhere.
- I estimate at least fifteen percent of the trail was sullied by fire in some way or another when I hiked this year, and I see this rate continuing to rise. Some parts of the trail were even closed due to fresh burns. How much burnt forest did you walk through in 77’, and do you have any predictions for the future of the PCT with the rate of fires continuing to rise on the west coast?
I only remember one burn spot. It was in central Oregon. It was maybe ten miles. The bigger issue was coming to clear cuts and not knowing where the trail went. I hope it’s going to get better, but I don’t see it happening. The trail didn’t have closures back then because of fires. The fire thing can be misleading though. Around here we get open-range fires that are better in a year. It seems the fires up north are much more of a concern than down south.
- You mentioned in your PCT-Communicator article that you got lost a lot during your first month on the trail. Was it hard to follow?
It was. It had to do with the trail being temporary and the guidebook not aligning with it. Motorcycle and jeep trails made it confusing too. There were parts of new trail that didn’t align as well. It wasn’t our navigation skills. It was just the updating of the books not being there.
- You also mentioned in your article that Bob got sick and you hiked alone for two weeks, an amazing experience for you. What was it about solo hiking that was so special? Would you recommend this to other hikers?
I hiked all of the trail solo in essence. I wanted to crank out miles and Bob wanted to go slow. We actually had an itinerary because of the boxes and for the most part stuck to it. I love being spontaneous. Hiking with someone else is always a struggle with decisions.
- You and Bob quit at Stevens Pass in Washington because of the weather, but then unbeknownst to him, you got back on the trail and finished by yourself. You said you were embarrassed that you didn’t tell Bob. Have you and Bob been in contact at all since you finished the trail? If so, what have these interactions been like?
Back then it rained a lot more. We got slammed and stayed in a shelter for three days and said screw this and went home. I really felt embarrassed because hiking the trail was his idea. But by the end I just didn’t want to deal with him anymore. He was at the reunion and we talked periodically. He was head of Portland Mountain Rescue for a while. Thru-hiking, as it turns out, was never his gig. In retrospect I don’t think it was a big deal to him, but I just felt bad about doing it.
- Do you know how heavy your pack was when you came out of town and back onto the trail?
Fifty-plus pounds in most instances. We never weighed them though. Lightweight was on nobody’s mind back then. There was no light gear back then.
- The PCT was completed in 1993 in southern California. This means there were gaps in the trail when you hiked it. How did you deal with these?
There were a few gaps in Washington but most were in southern and northern California. A lot of it was jeep trails or road walking. There was also a super old-school map that someone put out that showed the entire route.
- You have recently picked up thru-hiking back into your life again. What about hiking is different now? Do you approach it differently?
I drink the Kool Aid on lightening my load. For the Appalachian Trail I got my base weight down to eighteen or nineteen pounds, then seventeen for the Colorado Trail. The Tahoe Rim Trail would’ve been 12 pounds, but I got shamed into carrying a bear canister. I will never go stoveless. Navigation is the biggest change with technology. The other thing is footwear. We had big boots on the Pacific Crest Trail. I use Oboz now. I’m also not agenda driven anymore. I just have a rough idea when I go out. I stay in hotels now because I’m more financially equipped. The gear is also so much better now.
- Aside from the Tahoe-Rim-Trail overlap, have you hiked any other parts of the PCT since your thru-hike in 77’? If so, what is the biggest difference between it now and in 77’?
Actually no. I’ve only done the section from Cibbets Flat CG to Lake Morena at kickoff a couple times. I noticed trends on the kickoff, and I did trail magic up on Mt. Hood and noticed things there too. I go to Lolo Pass and set up on the picnic ground. Back in 77’ it was all young, white males. Now it seems on most trails the crowds are much more diverse in terms of gender, age, and nationality. It’s a smorgasbord of people out there, which is great to see.
- Are there any new hikes in the works for you?
I toyed with the Arizona Trail. I toyed with the section-hiking Continental Divide Trail too, but that was just my ego wanting to get the triple crown. The current thing I’m considering is the TransAmerica bicycle trail. It’s mostly on country roads and highways. The idea is a very recent development and I’m not sure if it’s real yet.
- Thank you for doing this interview, Bill! Are there any final things you would like to say?
Donate to PCTA. The work they do is underestimated. It’s a shame they’re going to lose Liz Bergeron, and I just hope they can retain the mojo she brought.
I was surprised to find Bill doesn’t recall struggling too much with water retention. Sure, expectation could play a major role here, but I was led to believe the route I traversed was the most ideal for water. To think there was water just below in many parts, on an old route, puts many of the struggles I had in perspective. For me, carrying four liters was arduous. For Bill, this may have been the norm, and with an expectation of carrying this much water at minimum, I can see how water retention may have not seemed too taxing on him.
For the views, I suppose I would trade some water sources for higher, more-scenic ridge walks. Jeep trails and road walks do not appeal to me, though with this I have all the more respect for Bill for dealing with this mundaneness.
I have more respect for a hiker who covers twenty miles with a fifty-pound pack than one who covers thirty-five miles with an ultra-light set they spent a fortune on. Thru-hiking challenges today are based on mileage, not weight. But why? I think because miles are relatively easy when you’re used to walking long distances everyday, and challenges are only fun when—well—we are confident we can complete them. For all you mileage junkies, I recommend for your own sake you try a challenge that involves weight to see how tough you really are. You’re not tougher than Bill in 1977, I surmise.
Four days is the longest I desire to be in the backcountry. Anytime longer than this accentuates my hunger and dilutes the pleasure of hiking. Ten to fourteen days—that is absurd. I give props to Bill for doing this, and despite having backpacked over 5,000 miles since I graduated college, am embarrassed to say I’m not sure if even I could bear the burden of rationing and carrying food for this length of time.
The Pacific Crest Trail has been scathed by the detriment of fires in an exponential manner over the past several decades. As I’ve said to many hikers, if you plan on doing the Pacific Crest Trail, do it now. It is withering. I am dumbfounded to hear the trail was hardly sullied when Bill hiked it. I envy him for this experience.
No matter what trail you hike, following it will be a challenge to some extent. Even with all the upgrades, cairns, and trail placards, I was still lost on the PCT quite a bit this year. Bill’s struggle with Bob reminds me of my Appalachian-Trail thru-hike with my friend, and in truth, it is the only story I have heard that reminds me at all of it. This is why I am so passionate about Boot Camp for Stoners. “Hike your own hike” is such a platitude at this point. I doubt it resonates with hikers much at all, but damn me if it’s not true.
I believe I am an ideal fit to write this article because though I am a young hiker, I do not “drink the Kool Aid” on the craze of lightweight gear. I also don’t backpack in trail runners, something I’ve found to be keenly unique of myself. My backpack, a sixty-five-liter Deuter, is another piece of gear not seen hoisted on the backs of young hikers. I saw perhaps two on my PCT thru-hike, and they belonged to section-hikers, ones at least a generation older than me. It’s interesting to hear someone like Bill, who has hiked in archaic fashion, is so open to change.
The trail has grown more diverse over the years, and while this is great, we still have ways to go. Consider reading my article Backpacking’s Dearth of Diversity: A Problem That Can’t Be Ignored for more insight on this. As time progresses, diversity will increase, but this does not mean intervention is a bad idea.
If you have the funds, donate to the Pacific Crest Trail Association. With all the work they do, it is a wonder they do not charge for distance-hiking permits.
Thank you, Bill Jensen, for volunteering your time and energy to make this article happen.
If you would like a copy of Bill’s PCT-Communicator article, send us an email and we’ll get it to you.
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