Interview with Carolyn “Ravensong” Burkhart, 1st Woman to Solo Thru-Hike the PCT
There is a Kamala Harris (as in the new U.S. Vice President) of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) — the first woman to be in that role, but certainly not the last. Carolyn “Ravensong” Burkhart was the first woman to solo thru-hike the PCT from Mexico to Canada in 1976.
Today, Burkhart still goes by her trail name “Ravensong” and lives in Mazama, Washington, a trail town of the PCT. At 65, she still hikes and trail angels for hundreds of PCT and Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) hikers annually at her home.
I first came across Ravensong’s name in 2017 one week before the completion of my own PCT thru-hike. I stood at the road into Mazama/Winthrop, the northernmost and last town stop before Canada (for northbounders) on the trail, and wondered if I could make it to the northern terminus before snow forecast later in the week.
Even with a full food bag in my pack and confidence that I could hike the 60 miles before the snow, I considered hitching into town. I emailed to ask Ravensong her advice on the weather. She responded with ideas for alternates if snow fell but also an open invitation to stay at The Roost. I decided to keep hiking to reach the terminus before the snow — I made it. But, I thought about Ravensong long after.
Last year, as COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S., I interviewed Ravensong. The annual thru-hiking season was non-existent due to the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s (PCTA) guidance discouraging thru-hiking to protect trail towns, trail angels and hikers from spreading or catching the virus.
We spoke over Zoom from our respective homes while mandatory stay-at-home orders were in place across the country. Ravensong talked about, “the PCT across a lifetime,” her lifetime — learning to backpack on the PCT at six years old, becoming the first woman to solo thru-hike the trail, raising five kids on the PCT; a marriage, a divorce, a career, and a next act as a trail angel and advocate for girls and women to hike safely and confidently.
I found her remarkably open, thoughtful and genuine. 45 years later, her passion for the PCT and the hiking community is as enthusiastic as someone fresh off the trail. Ravensong’s story proves how a thru-hike often remains as significant in one’s life as the day they complete the trail as it does for the rest of their life.
When we said “goodbye,” it felt a like a new trail friendship – one that happened in the course of an afternoon but that would be with me forever.
The ripple effect of Ravensong’s example cannot be overstated. Every year the number of women hiking the PCT as day, section and thru-hikers grows. The 2019 Halfway Anywhere thru-hiker survey found that 40% of the year’s thru-hikers self-identified as female.
The following is my conversation with Ravensong. It has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your name?
Carolyn “Ravensong” Burkhart.
When did you thru-hike the Pacifiic Crest Trail (PCT)?
How old were you when you thru-hiked the PCT?
Did you hike Northbound (NOBO) or Southbound (SOBO)?
What was the start date of your thru-hike?
March 31st (or 30th) – I never remember exactly.
When did you finish the trail?
September 30, 1976.
Why is your trail name “Ravensong?”
I love to identify birds and songbirds.
How heavy was your backpack?
At one point, it was 50 lbs.
How many other people completed a thru-hike in 1976?
About 12 other people. It’s hard to know exactly how many people successfully completed a thru-hike, but that’s the number I knew then.
You are known as the first woman to complete a thru-hike of the PCT, is that right?
I believe I am the first woman to complete the trail solo, although one other woman who finished the trail from Canada to Mexico in October 1976 also claims the title. As far as anyone knows I was the first woman to ‘Solo’ trek the PCT.
There was a woman who did it with her husband a few years before and possibly more. Not everyone has been recorded. People typically did long distances on the PCT on horseback back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.
I knew a couple of other women on trail that year, too, including Jean and Cynthia who completed the trail, too, but they took more time than me and my finish date was earlier. Jean went on to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and I believe was the first woman to complete the CDT, too.
Did you thru-hike solo?
Yes. I didn’t realize at the time that single women weren’t doing the trail. Along the way, people asked me, “You don’t have someone with you?”
I hiked with Jean and Cynthia for a week and I really enjoyed it. And (in certain moments) I hiked with other people I met.
How was the weather on the PCT in 1976?
It was one of the heaviest snow years ever recorded.
Why did you decide to thru-hike the PCT?
The first time I was on the trail (PCT), it was still called The Cascade Crest Trail — I was only three years old. My mother had me backpacking on the PCT by the age of six. I wanted to become a mountaineer, like my brothers, but I was too young. But I started climbing mountains with them anyway.
At 16, I was winter mountaineering on my own. Once on Mount Rainier, I almost didn’t make it out alive — it’s crazy that my mother allowed me to do that alone.
By the time I was 18, I learned that the trail was not just the Cascade Crest Trail in Washington and the Skyline Trail in Oregon; but there’s also the PCT, a trail that goes all the way through Washington, Oregon and all of California.
I wanted to see all the national parks on the West Coast, too —and many of them are the PCT. So, when I discovered the PCT, I thought, “Oh, I’ll walk the trail someday.”
At that point, did you know anyone who had thru-hiked the PCT?
I met my first PCT thru-hiker when I was 19 and worked as a seasonal park ranger on Lake Chelan in North Cascades National Park which is on the trail in northern Washington.
I was one of the first two women hired at the park. We even had to wear skirts then. At the time, the National Park Service (NPS) lost a federal lawsuit saying women could not be federal rangers because they would distract the men.
The thru-hiker was coming through Lake Chelan/Stehekin and finishing up the whole trail. That hiker really inspired me.
I had the idea the year before about thru-hiking, but then I saw someone actually doing it. And, the next year I had the opportunity to do it myself.
How did you turn your dream to thru-hike the PCT into a reality in ‘76?
I saved up my money. And, the art degree I applied to while studying at Bennington College (Vermont) was one that I didn’t get accepted to.
Also, I got distracted in Vermont going up into the mountains and wasn’t on campus enough. I had money saved up from working as a National Park Service Seasonal Ranger the summer before I thought about the PCT.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for (the rest of) college at that point. So, I decided, “This is the opportunity.” And I got out (of college) really fast.
How long did it take to get ready between your decision and starting the trail?
I can’t believe it now, but Jeanie, a friend from the trail, tells me I told her that I got ready in two weeks!
All I had was my sleeping bag. I got a new pack and new boots. The pack I got was built for men. It had metal on the sides and came down around the hips. I had to wrap my ACE bandage around my hips (for padding).
I packed up my food — I made gourmet food combinations and included a lot of powdered cheese for protein and flavor. I realized quickly, powdered cheese isn’t so good in oatmeal. But, I learned to eat it! I also had to order maps from the US Forest Service and US National Parks.
What resources did you use to plan for the trail?
I got “the book” (trail guide). And I had maps from the US Forest Service and National Geographic — back then, you had to write to all the national parks and order maps from them.
And once on trail, I also got a lot of information from people I met in towns along the trail.
Did you see many other hikers on trail during your thru-hike?
I didn’t see many people and often went days without seeing anyone. But, I saw them.
In southern California, I would often go for three days without seeing anyone. But, some of that was walking on roads when I would see people in towns and someone would say, “Hi, whatcha’ doin’?” and I would stop to talk to them.
When I read the trail log at Idyllwild, CA, I remember seeing about 50 people who signed the log, but many of them were only day hikers.
Did you have a support person for resupply or emergencies while you were thru-hiking?
My mother. I relied on her to send packages of food to post offices or ranger stations, and I picked them up along the way. I would call her whenever I arrived to trail towns to update her — remember, there were no cell phones when I hiked.
What did you do for water purification?
I remember water purification tablets. But I really can’t recall — isn’t that funny?!
Did you replace any gear during your thru-hike?
At Mammoth Lakes, I got new shorts. All they had were light blue tennis shorts. My original pair were pretty dirty. So, I got new La Sportiva shorts — they would still be my favorite if I fit into them. Also, I traded out my sports bra for a lightweight, nylon one — more like swimsuit material.
How about your boots?
I used Raichle boots — I still have them.
When I got to the California/Oregon border, I needed new soles for my boots. I went into Ashland and they said it would take a week to get new soles! I thought, I can’t wait a week. So, I continued through Oregon. When I got to Cascade Locks, I got a ride into Hood River and got my boots fixed.
How did you navigate the actual trail back then?
There were different routes for certain parts of the trail. Navigating was a matter of looking at maps, talking to people and asking advice, “Is that trail ok?” “Is there water?” There was a lot of communication with local people (in towns) to find out what route was safe.
About one-third of California was not actually the PCT yet, so there was a lot of road walking and alternate routes. One day in northern California, I met two guys who I had seen before and asked, “What way did you come around Mt. Shasta?” They said, “We came around the east side.” And I said, “Oh, I came around the west side.”
How did you navigate the snow in the record snow year that ‘76 was?
I was good at route finding and crossing snow because I had taken mountaineering classes when I was younger. I later heard (from other hikers) I was called “the route finder” for crossing the snow.
At one point I had injured my foot from bad blisters and I was walking with my right foot turned out. Hikers later told me they would say, “Follow the footsteps where that one foot turns out.”
Another time on Mount Baden-Powell, I was glissading down one side of the mountain. I got to the bottom and thought, Shoot, I came down the wrong way. I hope no one follows my footsteps.
Is there anything you wished your mother told you before you thru-hiked the PCT?
Before I left for the trail, my mom was my cheerleader and my resupply person. But, she didn’t teach me about social things.
I was great at hiking and mountaineering, but not social interactions, like knowing how to protect myself as a single woman on the PCT. And I had an incident happen…
What was the incident?
I was raped on the trail by another hiker at the time. I was young and not very good about knowing how to take care of myself then.
In the Sierra, I was hiking with a couple guys who I felt comfortable with. Another guy caught up to us who I didn’t feel as comfortable around. The first two who I was with took off because the other guy was talking to me. And I thought, “Shoot, now what?” I tried hiking ahead, but he would catch up with me; then, I tried slowing down, but he would wait up.
Another time, I camped off trail, but sure enough he found where I was. And, I got raped. It’s important to me to be honest about it. I didn’t realize I should have just turned around and gone the other direction when he kept meeting up with me.
Did you consider quitting or getting off trail after the incident?
It was very hard. Because, there were other times connecting (with him) at other parts up the trail. But, I didn’t get off trail.
Did you ever feel scared or unsafe off trail during your thru-hike?
Once, after I got to town. I was in Acton in southern California when two PCT hikers walking on the road were hit by a truck and killed. We hear about the things that happen on the trail, but there are things that happen to hikers off trail, too.
How did you communicate with your mom as your resupply and support person?
I called her each time I got to town. As a matter of fact, I called her that time I was concerned about that guy in the Sierra and she wasn’t home.
Back then there wasn’t voicemail or even answering machines. And there were three weeks left to go in the Sierra. So, I just got back on trail and kept hiking.
After you got through the Sierra, did you tell your mom about the rape?
No, I didn’t. Years later I told her. It’s an embarrassing thing to do even today. And back then, people didn’t talk much about those things. Her family talked even less — her mother never even told her about a period.
Do you keep in touch with anyone from your 1976 thru-hike?
Occasionally I would see Cynthia and Jean. And for awhile I would see people at ALDHA-West gatherings.
Did you meet trail angels during your thru-hike?
Back in ‘76, there was no such thing as trail angels. So, for a long time, I had no idea about them. On my thru-hike, I was so excited when someone bought me a can of pop (soda) in town.
How many siblings do you have?
I have three older brothers. One does goat packing in the mountains. He was on the Washington Trails Association (WTA) for awhile. The next brother is nine years older than me and section hiked the PCT. Nowadays, he puts on his backpack and hikes about 8 miles wherever he is.
What did your life look after 1976 when you finished your thru-hike?
I got married and had five children.
All of my children, except for one who is severely disabled, have hiked the Washington section of the PCT. One thru-hiked in 2018. One has hiked all of Oregon.
The way I would celebrate each kid’s fifth birthday was to do the Shoreline Trail on Lake Chelan going into Stehekin. I took one of my daughters to hike the John Muir Trail (JMT) when she was nine. When they turned seven, I would usually have them start wearing a pack but it would be no more than 10% of their bodyweight. In my journals from then, the entries read, “My pack was so heavy that day,” from carrying extra weight (for the kids). But I loved it.
What was it like to hike with your kids?
People talk about hiking solo as a woman – that’s a challenge. But it’s much more of a challenge hiking solo as a woman with a young child.
Safety. Safety. Safety. I taught my kids lessons like, “What if something happens to me – what are you going to do?” How to be safe. How to ask for help. How to keep warm and dry. And food. It’s a totally different way of life as far as the safety goes (with kids). But, it’s also such a special way to have time together.
Were all five kids enthusiastic about hiking growing up?
I thought getting my kids on the trail was very important. I took them all out, even my child with disabilities.
My son is not as excited about it. When he was younger, he did most of Washington state with me, but he most enjoyed sliding down the snow – glissading. Another spring break we hiked in southern California with my mom, and he didn’t enjoy it. He is fine just taking his dogs walking.
My oldest daughter isn’t interested in long-distance backpacking because she likes to have a warm shower and be where it’s comfortable. Two of my kids really like to hike. One thru-hiked the PCT and the other one goes out and has done a little bit of “living off the land.”
My daughter who is severely disabled cannot speak; but the one thing she can say is, “Let’s go,” which means she wants to hit the trail. The doctors said she would never walk. She has cerebral palsy, autism, and severe intellectual disability. The only difficulty she has is hiking uphill.
Are you married now?
I was married once. But I am not now. I do have a longtime partner, though, now who I love to hike with.
Did you have a career after starting a family?
I was a nurse for the majority of my career. I worked at the University of Washington Hospital and Washington State. I worked in rehab nursing and with the developmentally disabled and then with children with autism.
Later in my career in grad school, I was doing an internship with Washington State where there is a special needs hospital with a program for severely disabled kids. I would ask the parents when their kids were the happiest. Almost invariably they would say, “When they’re outside,” so I would say, “Take them outdoors.”
I told the psychiatrist (I was working with) that I thought we needed to get the kids outside. He didn’t believe me. But, we did go out into the Olympic Mountains for two nights and it was amazing — the kids never seemed better.
My colleagues at the hospital always went out of their way to make sure I got my two weeks of vacation each year when it was prime time for hiking. And that’s when I would usually take one, two or three of my kids to hike.
How did you choose to go into nursing?
My ex-husband encouraged me to do it to earn a good living. But if I was to do it all over, I would do something with art and biology which I love. One of my kids is doing that now. I would have enjoyed doing something like that more. I would even love to be a seasonal ranger again.
How are your thru-hiking memories so fresh after 40+ years ago since they first occurred?
I don’t remember many names of places on trail, but I remember what they all look like. And, I remember a lot of sections. And I’ve hiked certain sections again.
Years ago, I gave talks and slideshows with the Mountaineers and REI and I think that helped remind me, too. This year, I typed out my trail journal from ‘76 and put pictures with it. Rereading my journal and my descriptions of the plants and birds I saw brought even more back.
When I was in my 20s, I had a stroke during childbirth that affected part of my brain that has to do with verbal recall. So, I can remember what things look like without remembering what I said or someone else said. If I can get visual queues or names of places, I can remember more.
I ended up having brain surgery and after that, I had double vision. The doctor said I would probably never have normal vision again. And then, I went out hiking again on the PCT with one of my kids. By the end of the summer, with my eyes going back and forth all day watching the trail and my steps, my vision corrected itself.
Tell me about your mother’s influence on you and your hiking.
My mother was really special to me. She was my role model and a pioneer. My mother took me and my three older brothers backpacking. My dad had nothing to do with it.
She took me hiking from the time I was little. We hiked in Mount Rainier National Park when I was only three. She would talk about the plants we saw when we hiked.
The women’s side of my family had a respect for all life. My mother’s aunt used to climb mountains, too, and was the one she was closest to; she was my mother’s role model. I have pictures of her in 1920 hiking in bloomers in the Olympics in Washington state.
Five or six years ago my mom told me she wanted to go to Norway to find our family. I went to the village our family was from. One of the elder women in my family told me, “The women in the valley in our family—as the snow starts to melt— take the goats and the sheep to the high plateau where the reindeer are…they are up there for four months of the year, by themselves making the cheese…and at the end of the four months, they come back down (from the mountains).”
I thought, Are you kidding me? …this is in my blood. At that moment, I looked around and thought, Where I am living now (Washington) looks exactly like where my family lives in Norway.
So, I link my mom’s and my love of hiking to our family and the women in our family who were reindeer herders in Norway. It’s not just me; it goes way, way back.
Is your mother still alive?
My mother passed away a year ago at the age of 95. I was with her as much as I could be the last few weeks and I would sing to her. At her memorial service, I sang an old song and everyone joined in…
(At this point Ravensong started singing)
…“I love to go a-wandering / Along the mountain track / And as I go, I love to sing / My knapsack on my back / Val-der-ee. Val-der-ah….Oh, may I go a-wandering / Until the day I die / Oh, may I always laugh and sing / Beneath God’s clear blue sky.”
What about your father?
He wasn’t into hiking. For my 18th birthday, my parents got me a pair of binoculars that I could take hiking. But, my dad didn’t enjoy hiking — that was my mom’s thing. He didn’t necessarily encourage me, but he didn’t get in my way.
In 2011 you moved to Mazama, WA, a PCT trail town and converted part of your property to host hikers that you call “Ravensong’s Roost.” What is “The Roost?”
It happened when I bought this property. I host hikers at my house and a little cabin on it called “Ravensong’s Roost.” I have a house where I live and another little spot, The Roost, for the hikers. PCT and Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) hikers come through.
People can stay inside the Roost, especially during bad weather. They can also camp outside on the property. And I can help them find alternate routes if they need to (during fires or snow) or a place to stay for a night or two.
The Roost is decorated in all things PCT inspired — a Canadian Room in red and white, a Mexican Room, too, signifying the trail’s northern and southern termini. The bathroom has a hand-tiled mosaic of the Mexican flag and the Canadian flag in the shower done by a hiker who came through and stayed with me one season.
The Roost has a picture of me from my original thru-hike on the PCT; pictures of me with each of my kids — who have each hiked the Washington (WA) section with me at different times; and the dulcimer string instrument I carried on the trail from Mammoth Lakes to Crater Lake — a lot of people carried musical instruments back then.
Why did you become a trail angel?
I didn’t always plan on becoming a trail angel. Awhile back I was hiking from the Mexican border and going through San Jacinto and that’s when I found out about trail angels and trail kickoff. A hiker told us about “kickoff,” and I met some longtime trail angels — Donna Saufley of Hiker Heaven, Ziggy and Bear, the Anderson’s from Casa de Luna.
I used to live in the mountains but once my kids were grown, I decided I wanted to trail angel. When I was raising my kids, I hiked the WA section with each of them and would often hike on the PCT. But when my kids were out of the house, I still wanted to stay involved with the trail. And I wanted to help hikers, and particularly I wanted to help women and let them know, “If I could do it, you can do it.”
Also, living in northern Washington, I wanted to be able to help hikers be alert to weather conditions and alternates if needed. I know the trails well especially during snow.
Sometimes in snow, mountaineering is needed on the PCT. And, once you need to mountaineer, a hiker becomes much more humble; one can no longer hike alone. They need to think and hike as a team — if one person isn’t feeling well or up for it, you have to stick together.
Did you buy your house specifically with PCT access and trail angeling in mind?
I started looking for places at Highway 20 and the cutoff to Mazama. I found this place. I’m accessible from Hart’s Pass or Rainey Pass. Plus, it was in my price range!
I spent a lot of time fixing it up. I live here most of the year and trail angel here in the summers, except for part of the year when I stay with my partner down in Oregon.
How was your first year as a PCT trail angel?
The first year I was trail angeling, a snowstorm came in, and I had to leave before the storm for a board meeting with ALDHA-West.
When I was driving to the meeting, I saw the dark clouds and wondered, “What’s going to happen to the PCT hikers?” I told a hiker I noticed coming off the trail, “Go stay at my place and make sure any hikers coming out of the snow know they could stay at my place and wait out the storm.”
By the time I got back, the house was full and there was only enough room for me to roll out my sleeping bag and sleep.
How do hikers find you and your trail angel spot, The Roost?
People find me by word of mouth, the Guthook app in the town of Mazama or by my website usually. I don’t market my place as much as some other trail angels, but I love having people come stay. I like to be able to help hikers finish (or start) the trail in a way that’s safe.
It’s been different this year due to the pandemic and PCTA guidance about responsible hiking during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How many hikers do you usually host in a season?
In 2019, I had about 400 hikers — both PCT and PNW hikers.
The only hard thing about trail angeling (during thru-hiking season) is that I also still want to get on the trail and hike.
In 2019, how did it feel about being awarded, “Trail Angel of the Year,” by ALDHA-West?
That recognition was very special to me.
Do you still hike?
All the time! I still have itchy foot syndrome and love getting out to hike on my own or with my partner. My home is so close to the PCT so I get on it often.
I’m 65 now. I realize things are changing fast and I can get injured more easily. I still want to keep going. I have someone that helps me out at the Ravensong’s Roost, now, too, so I can hike a bit more.
I would like to finish the PNT — I’ve done parts of it. And, I’ve designed a wintertime route east of the Pacific Crest that goes from Canada to Oregon.
But, the real trail I still want to do — is one I started last year — is the full length of Norway, where my family is from. You have to combine different trails to do it and use a map and compass.
Do you have a philosophy for hiking now?
Billy Goat once told me, “Things are going to happen to all of us; and sometimes we need to go slower; and when we do, we can start to look at the intricacies differently. There’s magic in every moment and we can look at it a different way.’”
The PCTA asked aspiring thru-hikers in 2020 not to thru-hike due to coronavirus. How was that for you?
I didn’t host due to COVID-19 to keep people safe. I needed to keep things safe for myself and town per the PCTA guidance not to thru-hike as a measure of caution. There’s been a lot of COVID on the west side of the Cascades in the western part of Washington and we want to keep people safe.
In a few years, do you want to find someone to take over Ravensong’s Roost for you?
Yes, eventually. You read my mind.
In 2019 I purchased a tiny portable cabin and fixed it up so someone could be here, host and trail angel while I go hiking. But, that’s not happening right due to COVID-19.
Do you think the pandemic has applicable lessons to the trail?
Yes — being responsible is as much about protecting yourself but also protecting the people around you and in the trail towns.
One of your passions is educating female hikers on preparedness and personal safety on trail – how do you do this?
It’s so important to talk about safety issues so women feel comfortable and empowered.
I like to encourage women to listen to their gut; listen to what their intuition says. I wish I had done more of that myself (when I was younger). I got into risky situations and didn’t even know until it was later.
Years ago I started doing a woman’s gathering at PCT Kickoff, the annual festival to celebrate the hiking season, with Marmot, a triple crown thru-hiker. We talk about safety and preparedness. Marmot tells a story about coming upon a group of PCT hikers at a risky river crossing. The guys were keen to go across. Marmot saw it and said, “That’s not safe.” She turned and started walking upstream and soon the whole group was behind her. It doesn’t have to be what you say, but your actions, too.
A New York Times article focused on group decision making in the mountains. Who makes the safest decisions? Men and women together? Just women? Just men? The men would say, “It’s the men.” And the women would say, “Oh yay, the men.” The research shows women make the safest decisions. So, that’s part of what I talk about in those safety decisions, and I say, “Follow the women.”
It’s also good and important for women to have trust and code words (if need be) among one another to keep each other safe for the tough times; the hypothermic times; or the “I’m going to die times.”
One time I met an older couple — a man and a woman. They got to the steep area north of Cutthroat Pass. He had years of experience. The woman said, “I don’t feel comfortable going any further.” So, they headed down to the old PCT and started road walking…That’s a key element of being a humble mountaineer — being humble and turning around even though you’re 25 yds from the summit; turning around and seeing how everyone feels and making a decision based on that, even if it means turning back.
Do your on trail experiences feel intertwined with whom you are off trail — as a mother, as a woman, as a nurse ?
They do. I often talk about “the PCT across a lifetime” because it is one’s way of life, one’s way of interacting.
I think a lot of it comes from how hikers think and help each other out, too. A lot of people would think, “What the heck are you doing (to help people so much)?”
Another part of it also comes from being part of the native American community near the Bearing Sea where people help each other out, no matter what. This is what people have done in indigeous cultures forever. And on the trail, the hikers are kind of like an indigenous community.
After your PCT thru-hike or subsequent hikes, were certain off trail interactions difficult for you?
I had a lot of stuff like that. I think it is the whole thing about the trail.
But also as one of the last trail angel’s on the northern end of the trail, I see a lot of hikers thinking, “Where do I go from here — after their thru-hike?” So, I often tell hikers to come back for a couple of days after they finish their hike to have a moment to acclimate and think about it or talk with locals who were once in the same spot.
As for myself and the difficulty to exist off trail, I was in a very, very difficult marriage — a domestic violence situation — for a long time. The one thing I kept in it for was my two week vacation once a year to go hiking on the PCT each year — that’s what kept me alive (during hard times).
Each time I had been out (on trail) and would get out, I would think — If I could face a cougar, like I did on the PNT, and pepper spray it…If I could face wolves, like I did on the PCT across a campfire — then I could get out of this marriage, and eventually it worked.
Did your ex-husband go hiking with you?
No. I only brought my kids.
Was there ever a time in life when you were not hiking?
One of the reasons I was a little hesitant about divorce was because I valued the two weeks each year when I could get a little help with my kids and could get on trail.
Once I became a single mom, it became harder to go backpacking. Around that time I had young kids, including 3, 5 and 10 year olds, and one with special needs and I was all by myself. I remember going to work at that time — I was so tired. I would get to work, go into the bathroom stall and put my head on my knees for a two minute rest.
Five years ago, a writer for the News Tribune wrote, “Carolyn Burkhart would like to meet Cheryl Strayed,” the author of Wild. Have you met her?
No. I would still like to meet her though. Hers is a very different story (than mine). I often thought we could help support women on trail together.
Many people go out on the PCT (because of her book) but they aren’t fully prepared. She did not hike the High Sierra or Washington state, two potentially dangerous sections, and that is not clear (in the book).
Did you keep a journal during your thru-hike?
I did, everyday – how many miles I hiked; every place I camped. I have them all in plastic bags.
(Reading from her journal)
“…there were five PCT hikers at the campground last night but I missed them… They all started before me. I go slow; but I keep going, so I guess I am not so slow after all.”
“We had a nice hike and talked through the forest sunshine. I set up camp…in a nice ridge meadow… My hips are getting toughened, but the blisters on my feet are getting worse… I had pancakes and ham for dinner, without the sauce. It was pretty good except for the orange (powdered) cheese in the pancakes…I put cheese in almost everything to add protein to the mix. It’s quite foul tasting. Thank goodness the seven-grain cereal with dried fruit… And…Sierra Cafe Ovaltene, creamer, nutmeg and cinnamon.”
“….coyotes cried several times during the night…not too far away. I am not so afraid of night and being alone in it down here. It’s not like I am used to back home in the Cascades. I am more trusting of the animals than people on the trail. Maybe I learned that in Outward Bound…”
Do you want to turn your 1976 trail journal into a book?
Yes, but how does one put this together? I need a ghostwriter.
When you read your 1976 journal, does it transport you back to your thru-hike?
It does. I don’t always necessarily remember everything that was going on, but I remember a lot!
With your kids, are you more candid about difficult topics than your mom was with you?
I was more forthright than my mom; but not as much as I would have liked to have been. Some of that was because of the difficult marriage I was in — and even then making sure the kids wouldn’t do what I did.
When did you meet your current partner?
15 years ago in the Goat Rocks Wilderness on the PCT in Washington. She was a friend of my sister-in-law. I was hiking a long stretch on my five days off from work. One evening, she arrived at one of the campgrounds where I was.
Do you and your partner hike together?
Yea. We both love the outdoors and still hike together. But, she’s 10 years older than me, so she doesn’t hike as fast or as much as me anymore.
She lives down in Oregon and I live in Washington. I know the birds. She knows the plants. It’s great to be able to share the outdoors and time on trail together.
Today, do you prefer to hike close to home or further away?
Mostly I stay close to home. There’s such amazing country here and much more to see. And there’s history here from my family — my grandfather, my mom and others nearby. The modern age focuses a lot on the here and now. But, when I went to Norway, there was a lot of talk about history.
Is there anything that is not well-known about you?
I am connected to a family in Alaska who shares the same Sámi heritage as my family in Norway. There is a lot of family connection and connection to the land.
Did you ever feel timid as a woman to do things most women aren’t doing?
Nope. My mom did that for me. She always said, “Go do that.” It definitely wasn’t mainstream for women back then to do the things I was doing; I was a little bit of an oddball.
Where do you think your mom’s self-confidence and confidence in you came from?
Her mom was pretty rigid. When I was climbing trees, my grandmother would tell me to get down. And my mom would encourage me to do what I wanted to.
When I wanted to take a mountaineering course with Outward Bound, she encouraged me. She encouraged me to go up Mount Saint Helens. And then for (thru-hiking) the PCT, she also encouraged me.
She stepped out of bounds for most women then. Maybe she was a little blind, too, though. My great aunt, my mom’s aunt, also encouraged me.
Is there anything about the PCT that you still want to discover?
I would like to do more winter trekking and figuring out other routes off the PCT. A couple years ago, I put together a route that goes east of the trail.
There are some wonderful areas that the trail misses. Basically, I just still want to get out there.
What is your favorite section of the PCT and why?
I’m not sure I have a favorite, but the section close to home in Mazama — The North Cascades, Snowgrass Flats and Goat Rocks in Washington— is special to me. I also love the Sierra in California.
One thing is the beauty and the other is the home base connection, which some of Washington has for me.
The PCT seems woven into every fiber of your life and who you are — do you agree?
For many hikers, a thru-hike is a dramatic departure from their life before or after the trail; but for me, it is connected to who I am, how I choose to live each day and where I’ve lived.
I have a picture with my mother on the last hike she did. She was 85 and (still) backpacking in Chinook Pass. She was with my brother and wasn’t carrying her own pack, but she was still out there. Even when one goes back to the same place, it’s always different; maybe it’s a different season or it’s different weather. Maybe even you’re different.
There’s something really special to not rush. Our culture today values winning and racing. People sometimes get so caught up in going fast but are underprepared. Often when I see people on trail or see them come through The Roost, I see folks shivering and shaking because they traveled too light and the weather has changed and didn’t have enough to stay warm.
Is there any gear from 1976 that you still use today?
I don’t use the boots. The backpack – I use that more for show and tell, but I still like it. I would use it for winter trekking because it would carry more weight.
The pot and pan I used for many years.I still have the little gas stove and propane tank (which you can’t buy anymore) for it.
Are the red bandanas in your trail pictures special?
I like red bandanas—no major significance.
Are you still in touch with anyone from 1976?
I am in touch with two women — Jean and Cynthia who are in Eugene, Oregon. We see each other from time to time at ALDHA or other events. Both of them are still active but don’t hike with packs as much anymore.
There are a couple other people I have seen once or twice over the years; and I exchanged letters with other hikers over the years. I also received a letter from a postal carrier I met in Acton from my thru-hike.
What are lessons the PCT is still teaching you?
The trail is always teaching me. I am still learning from my original thru-hike, from my subsequent hikes with my kids, hikes with my partner and on my own and from the hikers I meet.
What is your favorite section of the PCT and why?
I am not sure if I have a favorite section; but the section close to home in Mazama in northern Washington is special to me.
What is your best advice for aspiring PCT hikers?
Stay safe. Know the risks. And keep going!
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.