A SOBO’s Song
“Oh my God, this is the ending. This is over. What is beginning?”
Cole Blume, 34. Eugene, Oregon.
Start/finish day: July 16, 2017 to November 14, 2017 (122 Days, 114 on-trail, 8 zeros; 2440 miles walked, 220 detoured because of wildfires—to be walked in 2018!)
Favorite piece of gear: I really loved having an actual pillow with stuffing. It’s a little REI travel pillow I bought years ago. When I was going to Europe to walk the Camino de Santiago in 2016, my sister-in-law made an impromptu pillow from a piece of red and yellow paisley fabric that she’d kept from my grandma who passed away that same year. So not only did I sleep better because of that pillow (and great sleep was everything, but I also loved having something that my sister made for me, out of something that reminded me of a beloved grandma, that had been on another really important journey.
Highest mileage day: 40.5 (Burney Mt. Guest Ranch to Hat Creek)
Favorite trail town: Stehekin
Trail name: I only had a trail name for a few days before deciding to stick with Cole, but for about a week in July I was William Shatner. My buddy, Vanguard, gave me the name after I caught up with him and Candace at Brush Creek in Northern Washington. Vanguard had left camp first that morning, I followed, then Candace. But when I was the last person to arrive at the bridge over Brush Creek for a morning break, I had to explain why I fell behind. We had just met the night before, so at first I felt shy to share, but I knew better than to keep secrets on the PCT. “Well, back up on Glacier Pass,” I told them, “I sharted my shorts a little and needed to pull over for a costume change.” We all had a good laugh and shared our respective stories about soiled drawers. When it was time to start again down the trail, Vanguard asked, “You ready to go, William Shatner?” I love the original Star Trek movies, and had indeed shat myself a bit at the start of the day, so the name stuck. I didn’t end up walking with Vanguard after Glacier Peak, so I let the name go too.
1. Why did you decide to go SOBO? Timing mostly. I’m the associate director of a summer music academy for high school singers from around the country that’s part of the Oregon Bach Festival in my hometown, Eugene, Oregon. I love that job and it doesn’t end until mid-July every summer. So when I saw that a normal SOBO timeline departs in July, it was a pretty natural way to go. I was intimidated by the intensity and endurance requirements out of the gate when walking the PCT southbound, but had enough backpacking experience and felt strong enough to make a successful go of it. As I read more and more about hiking SOBO, I realized that starting at the northern terminus would give my hike that quality that I was hoping for most in the first place—solitude.
2. Describe the dream you had that inspired you to thru-hike. Was this something that had been on your mind before this dream occurred? In March 2017 I had just moved home to Oregon from a job opportunity that didn’t work out in Austin where I tried going in January of the same year following a walk on the Camino de Santiago in Fall 2016. I took my time driving home from Texas: I spent a week at a monastery in the desert outside Santa Fe, went hiking in Colorado, drove back roads in the Great Basin. Then, I had two weeks in Hawaii visiting my sister who worked in Honolulu. We were both going through big life transitions at the time that began with significant break-ups. I was about a year and a half into mine while hers had just begun. We spent a lot of the time together talking about what was going to happen next to us. I really felt like I had no idea and didn’t know where I belonged. I was wandering, drifting. When I got home and was visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Seattle, I had a bad dream that I was dead (probably brought on by too much boxed Cabernet). In my dream, I had to face the Angel of Death, who in this case was played by Burt Reynolds dressed as Sheriff Dodd from Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I pleaded with him that I couldn’t possibly be dead—I had too many things left to do. After stating my case a number of times, he finally dismissed me back to life. My sister-in-law picked me up in my dream and returned me to the living. She asked on the drive, “What will you do now?” When I woke up, the only thing I had going through my head was, “I have to walk the PCT.” It had been a dream of mine since my first long backpacking trip in August 1997 as a Boy Scout, which happened to be on the PCT, and on which I happened to meet a thru-hiker. I always thought thru-hiking would be something I would do, but hadn’t though seriously about it for at least a year. That dream really jolted me into action to start living my dreams in real life.
3. What is something you missed the most during your hike? What is the thing you miss the most now? I’m a conductor and teacher of choirs, and a classical singer. On the trail I really missed making and teaching music. I sang every now and then but singing is hard while you’re walking and out of breath. There was a piano at Burney Mountain Guest Ranch and a ton of music books. I loved hanging out for an hour and playing piano when I was there and that was the only time in four months I got to do that. One of my favorite trail memories is being inside after dinner with six other guys who I’d hiked with for a few days (Barry, Jeff, Eric, Goon, Bootstraps, and Sharkbait). There was a big thunderstorm rolling through and I led a sing-a-long of “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor from the piano. As for what I miss now—the simplicity of my days. I miss the peace of mind (even when I was stressed about food or weather, it was still clear thinking), the silence of the forest, hiking to the next horizon or pass everyday, and just the joy that I found in so many normal things: short conversations with passing hikers, a good night’s sleep, and twice-daily Snickers bar (maybe it was three or four by the end).
4. If you (or when you) re-hike or go on another thru-hike, what would you do differently? What tactics, tricks or strategies would you stick to? I would try to drop a few pounds from my base weight. I tried really hard to get it low before my hike, but was replacing a lot of gear and couldn’t afford to make everything UL. I would also pack a lot fewer boxes for resupply. I think I had 20 boxes shipped or brought to me over the course of the PCT. Packing all my food boxes in advance definitely saved me some time and money on the trail but not so much that I think it was really worth it. It was definitely a way of dealing with the stress and anxiety of planning my first thru-hike. As for what I would stick to—I would definitely create my own dinners again from freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients. I always ate better and healthier (and more satisfying) food than I saw other people on the trail eating—lots of veggies, good protein, fats, even a vegan meal.
5. How have you changed from your SOBO hike? I honestly think I’m more of an introvert that I was before. I thought I might get lonely on the trail, but I never did. I was frequently alone (about 50% of my nights I camped alone) but never felt lonely. I really loved the quiet. We live in a world with so much chatter and clutter. I was sensitive to those things before but now I notice a much stronger reaction, sometimes visceral. Whereas before I might have just endured the noise, now I make an effort to find quiet. I also started paying a lot more attention to my inner compass. I’ve been thinking of what to call it, and at least now am naming it my “spirit voice.” This contrasts with the “should voice” which very rarely leads me down a happy path. The trail helped me hear better when I needed something. At the beginning of my hike in July for instance, “I’m hungry,” often led to negotiations such as, “Well, maybe hike another mile and then have a snack.” Or, “I’m three miles from camp, I should wait to eat then.” Little by little I learned to stop those negotiations and listen to what my body and heart were telling me, and giving less heed to the incessant chatter in my head. So eventually it go tot the point when, “I’m am so tired,” or “I am out of water and am thirsty” was followed by “Stop and rest right here,” or “Filter water at the next opportunity.” I learned a lot from responding to really simple needs like hunger, thirst, and fatigue. And I was always happier when I did.
6. If there was one component of your hike that you could keep forever, what would it be? (i.e. friendships, trail body, mind, strength, discipline) I miss the physical aspect of the trail so much. It was the first time in my life when I felt really strong and now I’m struggling with feeling relatively sedentary. I would rather walk twenty-five miles than run four. I was in such good shape. I lost fifty pounds. Above all, I miss the routine that centered around being physical during almost all hours of the day. It was so empowering.
7. What advice would you give first-time thru-hikers? Remember the mundane, the ordinary. Take pictures of camp, food, dirty feet, people. Write down what you do every day. It doesn’t have to be a journal, just a bulleted list of the day’s events, people you meet, the highs, the lows. I did this for the first month, but never developed the habit. So I only have a good recollection of 25% of my hike. I can piece together a lot by remembering, looking at maps, pictures. But I wish I could remember more names and specific experiences. Also, always carry chocolate. Always more chocolate.
8. Upon arriving at the Southern Terminus, what was going through your head? It was pretty beautiful. It was about 3:00pm, the light was gorgeous, the afternoon was warm. My folks had come down from Oregon and were waiting at the end with snacks, beer, champagne, cigars, and some homemade signs. I finished with four other friends (two couples who came to the trail together and like total badasses did the whole damn thing SOBO with continue miles and road walks despite the fires—incredible), so it was a fantastic experience to share. We spent the last four nights together but had also leapfrogged each other since Lassen. I was feeling some pretty wicked extremes of emotion as I climbed up the little hill to the monument, trying not to sob, and at the same time thinking, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. This is it. This is the end. I am here. I am here. I am here.” And also, “Oh my God, this is the ending. This is over. What is beginning?” The agony and the ecstasy indeed. I gave my mom a huge hug, then my dad. Welcomed my four friends who were close behind, then popped some champagne corks, lit stogies, put on some tunes, and had a dance party to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
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