A Graphic Designer’s View of The PCT (Book Preview)

Somewhere in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, during my 2014 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I recorded in my journal the following thoughts:

I’m excited about creating a PCT book and feel like I need to make it happen. No matter how hard it is or how long it takes. I’ve got to be as committed to it as I have been to hiking the trail itself.

I made it a goal to create a book about the Pacific Crest Trail at nearly the same time I decided to walk from Mexico to Canada. At that time I lived in Seattle and, other than hiking, books were the main focus of my life.

I had been working as an editorial graphic designer, and creating beautiful books packed full of visual interest—typography, illustration, and information graphics—was at the heart of my work.

It was only natural that as I began to formulate a plan for thru-hiking the PCT, I would also begin to plan out how I could encapsulate that experience between two covers.

It is now 2021, and seven years have passed since I reached Canada. That book I dreamed of making was published in March of this year. I find great joy in the fact that for nearly a decade —from the planning of my thru-hike to the publishing of my book—the PCT has been a central aspect of my life.

The Pacific Crest Trail: A Visual Compendium is written, illustrated, and designed by Joshua M. Powell. Published in March 2021 by Sasquatch Books it conveys the experience of thru-hiking the PCT with a combination of text, illustrations, infographics, and maps. The book captures both the grandeur of the West Coast as well as the tiniest things that a thru-hiker notices and experiences.

Writing the Great American Novel Account of Your Thru-hike

A quick glance on Amazon will reveal no shortage of books written by PCT hikers. They run the gamut from self-published works to books published by the world’s largest publishing houses. Did the world really need another PCT book? I often wondered. How might I find a unique approach to the subject?

In a 2015 essay for The New Yorker, the writer (and 2009 Appalachian Trail thru-hiker) Robert Moor wonders why some of the most successful books about long-distance trails (A Walk in the Woods and Wild, for example) are written by authors who did not hike the entire trail. The numerous first-person accounts by actual thru-hikers filling the virtual shelves of Amazon, Moor argues, appeal to a very limited audience: other thru-hikers.

Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed, however, have produced books that appeal to the general populace: readers who may possess no real interest in the pursuit of long-distance hiking. They are not, first and foremost, books about thru-hiking. Rather, they fit into more established and universally accessible genres: a humorous travelogue or a memoir about healing.

As I began the long process of translating my thru-hike into book form, reading Moor’s essay reinforced my notion that tapping into my hopefully unique perspective as a graphic designer would both provide a fresh, visually-oriented take on the PCT and a book that would appeal to a larger audience.

I hoped to create something that would be respected by those who had hiked from Mexico to Canada, while also capturing the imaginations of armchair hikers. The idea was to create a book that could not only be read cover to cover in a typical, linear fashion, but one that the reader could open to any given page and become immersed in a variety of visual and written information, discovering some new detail each time.

Many of the visuals included in the book are what I refer to as “visual collections.” I cataloged all of the recurring elements I noticed along the trail – such as trail blazes, wildflowers, or feathers – and presented them in this grid format. It’s interesting to me to see what’s idiosyncratic about each item within a common group. In this case, each PCT trail blaze has its own unique personality: some are weathered, some have been scorched by fire, while others are punctured with bullet holes.

Documenting the Hike

During my thru-hike, I considered my two most important pieces of gear to be my digital camera and a small, lightweight digital voice recorder. I took 5,394 photos during my hike—documenting everything from the obvious (epic scenery) to the mundane (graffiti found along the trail). Dictating into my voice recorder as I hiked along during the day or in my shelter each night, I compiled hours of audio journals.

On one end of the spectrum, I recorded the profound and poetic moments of life on trail. On the other end, I recording in exhaustive detail the most banal minutiae of a long-distance hike: how many times I cowboy camped, how many times I dug a cathole to relieve myself, or how many blisters formed on my feet. These photos and recordings became the raw material from which I formed my book.

Get the Best from The Trail, Direct to Your Inbox

Much like a thru-hike, the creation of the book was at times incredibly tedious, while at other times utterly exhilarating. I spent hours upon hours transcribing journal entries, creating spreadsheets of data, and ultimately translating them into detailed infographics. At other points in the process, I felt as if I was reliving the sheer joy and freedom of my thru-hike. I took a 132-day experience and stretched it out over the four years it took to complete this book.

I found that to be an incomparable gift. If there’s one piece of advice I would give to any aspiring thru-hiker, it would be to record a daily diary (I recommend the digital recorder because, for me at least, there simply wasn’t time to keep a written journal and hike 20+ miles a day, and as I noted above, you can record your journal as you hike).

When your hike is completed, take the time to sit down and transcribe it. This record of your hike will be a treasure you return to time and again, allowing you to hold on to the smaller details and memories that inevitably slip away.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One is “The PCT at a Glance” and includes a variety of infographics, lists, anecdotes, and history about the PCT and my own experience thru-hiking the trail. In this opening spread, I’ve given a visual overview of the PCT, depicting the five regions of the trail along with their lengths in trail miles.

A Trail of Innumerable Meanings

An early draft of my book had the working title A Trail of Innumerable Meanings. This title captured for me the idea that thru-hiking is an endeavor comprised of opposing experiences.

There’s excitement balanced with monotony. There’s a great sense of freedom, though you are bound to a predetermined route full of numerous things (weather, wildfire, dry stretches) that remain out of your control. You can exist fully in the moment, while at other times you yearn for what lies further down the trail. It is a slowing down of life while walking a marathon’s length each day. It is quiet introspection mixed with the camaraderie of other hikers.

In the same way, I hope that there’s a sense of duality to my book. It is both universal and personal in its scope. It captures both the world around me and the world inside my head. The book contains cold, hard data alongside humorous, poetic, and philosophical observations. It is both left-brained and right-brained. It is visual and literary.

Part One begins with this spread of infographics and data about my thru-hike. Some data is universal to all PCT thru-hikes, such as the highest point and lowest point of the trail. While other data, such as how many pairs of shoes it took me to make it to Canada, is of course unique to my own hike.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, but …

With all that is visual about my book, there are still many aspects of my hike, perhaps the most personal aspects, that were best expressed through the written word.

I write about my struggles with post-trail depression, an experience many thru-hikers may be familiar with.

I write about finding a copy of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and gaining inspiration from that Californian writer as I walked the length of his home state. The protagonist in Cannery Row is a thru-hiker—long before the notion of thru-hiking existed. He walks from Indiana to Florida with a knapsack over his shoulder, benefiting from the generosity of others the same as I did during my hike, whether from trail angels such as the Dinsmores or the stranger in Sisters, OR who anonymously paid for my breakfast.

I also write about the 30 minutes or so I spent alone at the Northern Terminus before other hikers arrived. While I was there, I discovered a Ziploc bag inside Monument 78 containing the ashes of a man born the same year as I. Over the course of a life ultimately cut short, he had section-hiked over 2,200 miles of the PCT with his family. He died of lupus before he reached the age of 30 and before he could hike the trail in its entirety. In 2014, his father and sister carried his ashes along the northernmost section of the PCT so that his spirit might complete the trail.

It was a profound and moving way to experience the end of my thru-hike and fostered intense feelings of gratitude, not only to have the incredible privilege of thru-hiking the PCT, but to simply be alive. I feel gratitude as well to have been able to create this book and to share it with others, including the father of that section hiker. I’m thankful, as a father myself, for what he told me—that a week spent on the trail with someone you love is worth an entire year in the noise and confusion of everyday life.

If you are inclined to pick up a copy of my book, I hope that you enjoy it. I hope it reminds you of the wonderful (and difficult) times you spent on the trail, gives you a sense of the beauty and challenges that await you during the thru-hike you are currently planning, or allows you to vicariously experience what it might be like to hike a trail you have no desire to ever hike yourself.

A Look Inside the Book

I documented every wildflower seen on my hike (more than I could fit on a two-page spread) and from this collection, it’s clear: nature is the best designer.

 

A chart depicting notable wildlife of the PCT, many of which go unseen by thru-hikers.

 

Several hundred miles into my hike I began to notice how many bird feathers could be found lying on the trail and so I began to document them. I found 35 feathers in total. The most frequently found? The beautiful and boisterous Steller’s jay.

 

Left: For many thru-hikers, the people met along the way are one of the most important aspects of their hike. For those thru-hikers, I walked with for extended periods of time I created an infographic showing the parts of the trail we hiked together. It adds meaning to my hike to be able to easily see where and for how long I spent time with those I met on the trail. Right: Wilderness Area signs are a particular favorite of mine—a human touch and a bit of graphic design tastefully incorporated into an area otherwise defined by a lack of human presence.

 

Left: While not exactly LNT, hiker-made mileage markers – composed of rocks, pine cones, sticks, or lichen—are a recurring visual element found on long-distance trails. Right: A visual representation of all the mountain ranges traversed by the PCT.

 

I documented a variety of “ephemera” I found along the trail and in trail towns. As a graphic designer, I couldn’t help but take note of the typography on a National Forest sign or the vintage neon signs found in trail towns.

 

We don’t necessarily think of buildings when we think about the PCT, but it was fun for me to document each structure found along the trail or in trail towns. Some will be recognizable to any thru-hiker and may hold fond memories, such as the Cajon Pass McDonalds, the Kennedy Meadows General Store, or the stone shelter atop Muir Pass.

 

Part Two of the book goes into detail about the experience of thru-hiking each major region of the trail.

 

Each region begins with a spread like this, including a brief intro and lists of my favorite toponyms (names for topographical features), every song stuck in my head while hiking, and the mental struggles I dealt with in that particular region. As any thru-hiker knows, it’s predominantly a mental game.

 

I also created maps for each region and tried to pack in as much information about my experience as I could. I’ve noted major landmarks and towns as well as memorable experiences. I show how much of the trail I covered each day, along with corresponding mileage, weather, and phases of the moon. On this map of Oregon, I’ve highlighted in red the most difficult dry stretch and thirstiest time on the trail for me. In yellow, I’ve highlighted my biggest-mile day on the PCT.

 

Northern California was the most mentally difficult section of the trail for me. Mount Shasta, which thru-hikers can see for almost five hundred miles, seemed to motivate me to keep hiking. When there is such an imposing feature on the landscape it allows you to gain a true sense of your progress, as the volcano grows larger each day and then eventually recedes behind you, towards the opposite horizon. Here I’ve depicted various views of Mount Shasta (a nod to Japanese artist Hokusai) with a map locating each viewpoint.

 

As much as any epic view, the trail towns of the PCT were a huge part of what I enjoyed about thru-hiking. Many of these small towns have a timeless quality, where aspects of vintage Americana have yet to be replaced. Vintage signs from the days when advertisements or signs were still handpainted always caught my eye.

 

For me, the most unique feature of the PCT is the string of volcanoes lining the trail from Northern California to Canada. I included an illustration of each volcano, along with their profiles set to scale. Also noted are the elevation and original Native American name and corresponding tribe.

 

Part Two of the book includes illustrations of many of the views found along the trail as well as an elevation profile running along the bottom of each page. I’ve included in the profile how much ground I covered each day, noting my daily mileage as well as memorable landmarks such as the high passes of the Sierra Nevada.

 

Left: While land acknowledgment may sometimes seem like an empty gesture, especially from a white author, it was important for me to recognize that the national parks and wilderness areas thru-hikers travel were created by the forced removal of Native people, creating a false notion of “pristine, uninhabited” nature. Right: Vintage PCT trail blazes, some 80 or more years old, still mark the trail in the Pacific Northwest.

The Pacific Crest Trail: A Visual Compendium is available online or from your favorite bookstore.

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Comments 3

  • JhonyAdam : Oct 6th

    Great review. So much so that, _The Pacific Crest Trail: A Visual Compendium_, is in my Amazon Cart right now.
    ” . . . argues, appeal to a very limited audience: other thru-hikers.”
    • Please don’t forget us wannabees. And day and section hikers. Somewhat vicarious hikers or simply fans of the sport?
    The books _Wild_ and _A Walk in the Woods_? Nice enough I guess. But certainly not keepers–for me anyway. IMNSHO both cannot compare to _Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart, by Carrot Quinn. And oh so many, many others.
    Looking forward to having my own copy of _The Pacific Crest Trail: A Visual Compendium_

    Reply
  • Josh Johnson : Oct 8th

    Fellow graphic designer, writer and thru-hiker here … WOW! You packed a TON in this book and the scope of this isn’t lost on me. Great job following this through to completion and I can tell it was a labor of love. I expected this to me less personal and information dense than you took the time to make it and i’m truly impressed. Thanks for sharing this and I hope people grab this and dig into what you’ve put together.

    Reply

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