University of the Third Age
- Report of meeting about Walking the Pacific Crest Trail
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
Walking the Pacific Crest Trail was the title Heptonstall walker (and Hebden Bridge Little Theatre board-treader) Ray Riches gave to his talk to Todmorden U3A members at their September general meeting. It all started in 1999 when one of his sons invited him to join him and some of his friends in a walk from Mexico to the Canadian border. His son's friends were all in their thirties and, unlike Ray, experienced backpackers. His son told him he was invited along as a kind of elder counsellor.
Ray realised that some serious preparation was needed for such a trek and he undertook regular runs to get fit. Setting off at 6.30 each morning, he started running with a backpack and then added one brick each week to accustom himself to carrying weight. As time went by, this large group of young men began to shrink and eight weeks before leaving for the US, all had dropped out bar his son. Rather than be too dismayed, Ray saw it as an opportunity for some father and son bonding, the two of them together. Then, four weeks before departure, his son rang to give Ray some news. Ray took the good news first. He was to be a grandfather. The bad news was that this had led to his son withdrawing from the trip.
Having told numerous friends and relatives of his plans over the recent past months, Ray saw difficulties in abandoning his little excursion. He set about a crash course in tenting, operating a cooking stove, map reading and whatever else deemed necessary for such an undertaking. He also used the internet to find whatever he could to support what he now thought to be a lone endeavour. This resulted in the receipt of an email informing him he would be met at San Diego airport by one Bob Reece who would drive Ray and other hikers to the Mexican border.
After meeting the other walkers, it soon became apparent to Ray that all the other walkers had far greater experience than he. The struggles erecting his tent was one give away and they soon told Ray he was carrying too much weight. All those good luck gifts given to bid him on his way. Even after ditching these luxuries, the overheard conversations of the other hikers discussing how they saved micrograms in weight, told Ray he was still carrying too much. He fell behind the others but luckily a guy named Ron Mogue was on hand to walk with him.
All walkers are given nicknames and at first Ray was imaginatively called “UK”. It was later changed to “Virgin”, as he was such a greenhorn. However, help was at hand all along the way, including the generous hospitality that many visitors to the US have experienced at first hand. There was food, shelter, clothes got washed, parcels taken in and lifts into town for a hit of junk food were either freely given or a nominal dollar or two charged. Some places resembled field hospitals where battered feet and legs got healed.
Four weeks into the walk, more help was at hand in the form of his mate and fellow Heptonstall resident Trevor Smith, who came out to meet and walk with him. A bush telegraph operates on the Trail and the word was that at Three Points Round House around tea time they would give you free steaks, potatoes and Guiness. Could this be true? Only one way to find out. Ray and companions hiked the 31 miles at top speed and left the youngsters behind. They arrived to find the place in darkness but knocked anyway. A dim light came on, the door flung open, and a warm welcome extended by a man who introduced himself as Dave. “Shower first”, he said. After which, steaks were tucked into and Guiness quaffed.
Having hiked the Californian desert, reaching the snowy Sierra Nevada was a relief and Ray was also joined by his son. But joy was short-lived. Ray developed a hernia the size of a tennis ball. As luck would have it, the hospital Ray went to had a seemingly anglophile doctor, who upon hearing his English accent and learning he was walking the PCT, was only too glad to drop everything and attend to Ray straight away. Ray could complete the Sierra section, he was told, but would have to finish there. And no more heavy lifting. This had caused the hernia in the first place.
Ray recounted all this and more in a funny and engaging way including interesting encounters too numerous to mention here. One such was the naked walker met in the Sierras at 9,000 feet in freezing conditions on Naked Walker Day, held each year in June. This particular one was not completely naked, apart from his boots, of course. He had a camera draped over him and was making a photo-journal of his trip. After about three months of walking, Lake Tahoe was where Ray finished his walk and his wife and daughter were there to greet him.
Ray has been back to the PCT since. But that part of the tale will have to wait for another meeting.
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