PCT 2011: An Interview with Zane Ritt
“there was a sign on the ground made out of sticks that a hiker before me had made. It read “REAL LIFE,” with an arrow pointing towards the road.”
1. What was the common reason people were thru-hiking in 2011?
The most common theme that brought hikers to the trail I encountered was actually economics. The job market was still pretty lousy in 2011 and most of the younger hikers were out there because they were fresh out of college and were tired of fruitless job hunting, or could only land menial jobs they didn’t really care for so they quit for the summer. Of course there were some older hikers who had been planning for years or even decades, but most folks I met simply couldn’t find anything else they’d rather be doing. As for myself I was working at an outdoor retailer which paid poorly, but was great for subsidizing gear for the trail.
2. What inspired you to thru-hike the PCT? Was this your first hike? What was your experience backpacking pre-trail?
After college my folks got me a ticket to New Zealand as a graduation gift. I spent a year there, working various jobs and hiking anytime I could in between. On one of those hikes I met a fellow American named Brian who also went by the trail name Buck-30, and we traveled and hiked together for 2 weeks. Buck-30 has done virtually every long trail you can think of: PCT, AT, CDT, Arizona trail, CT, Te Araroa, PNWT, Hayduke, INT, just to name a few. When we first met he assumed I was an ultralight hiker based on the Tyvek I was using as a tarp over my bivy as Tyvek is an ultralight gear staple. In actuality, I had no idea anyone else used it for hiking and only had it because my father was a carpenter and always had some lying around. My gear was all hand-me-downs from him; everything was ridiculously heavy and worn out long ago. During those 2 weeks he introduced me to the concept of ultralight hiking and talked repeatedly about the PCT and how I should give it a shot. I was sold. I developed a schedule to plan, prep, and save for the next year to hike the PCT in 2011.
The PCT wasn’t my first backpacking experience, but certainly my first serious thru-hike. My year in New Zealand was the most hiking I’d done up to that point, but the longest trek I did was just 4 days, which was actually my first real backpacking excursion. Not long after I arrived in New Zealand I decided to set out on a hike to pass the time while I was waiting to find a job. I took a bus and it dropped me off on a mountain pass just as it began to snow. I was carrying everything I owned: my laptop, extra pairs of shoes, my DSLR camera and lenses, even some books I never got around to reading. I probably had somewhere around 75 lbs on my back. I made it less than halfway to camp before I collapsed under the weight, wondering if this was how I’d die. That night my stove leaked and set the hut countertop on fire. The stitching on my crappy Keen shoes blew out on day 2. I couldn’t have had much worse conditions when it came to gear and if I was on a less scenic trail that might have been the first and last backpacking I did. Fortunately, it was a gorgeous stretch through the Southern Alps and kept me in awe the whole time through. It was beautiful enough to keep me distracted from the back breaking weight and painful shoes, and once I finished all I could think of was what the next hike would be. Thankfully, I always managed to find a spot to stash the unnecessary gear on every subsequent hike and they were much more enjoyable.
3. What was your trail name and how did you get it?
When I arrived at Lake Morena for kickoff, there was already a good deal of pressure to take on a trail name. All the veteran hikers had their names, some new hikers already chose names for themselves or used the nickname others called them back home as their trail name, and everyone else was dishing out names for new hikers left and right. I knew of 3 at least people who got their names based on the hats they wore. Being named for the gear you carried was a very common trend. I was carrying a soprano ukulele at the time and someone threw out the suggestion of “Smooth Jams” as a name. Not bad, I thought, but I was hoping for something with a bit more story behind it. The next day I met the trail angel Sugar Momma, who was incredulous to the fact that I was old enough to drink beer. She started calling me “Baby Face” and introducing me to people as such, which I wasn’t about to stand for. I corrected her and said I was going with “Smooth Jams,” which was soon shortened to “Jams” and then stylized as “Jamz” because I’m cool like that.
4. What was your favorite day on the PCT?
Picking a favorite day is incredibly hard because there was something every single day that made me stop in my tracks and just say “Wow.” The natural beauty of the trail I was expecting, but the incredible and incessant generosity of everyone I met really caught me by surprise. This was exemplified during my second to last day on the trail, when I had just about 30 miles until the Canadian border. I passed by a trailhead and came across some day hikers who recognized me as a thru-hiker and stopped me to ask questions. Never passing up the chance to try and yogi some food I always obliged them and answered with a smile. After chatting for a couple minutes, the gentleman I was talking with glanced down at my feet. My shoes were in tatters, my socks showed through large holes on the sides, and the cushion was so worn out I’d long ago lost feeling in the soles of my feet. He asked “What size are you?” and after seeing that we wore the same size, said “Here, take mine,” and began to unlace his shoes. I said “I can’t take your shoes, and you need them for your hike, and anyway I only have thirty miles left,” to which he replied, “Yeah, but you have thirty miles to go, and I only have three.” That kind of staggering kindness and generosity was prevalent throughout the trail, and really took me by surprise. I thought I was hiking to get away from civilization and humanity, but instead I found the best of it.
My worst day was in central Oregon when the bugs were at their worst. It was hot, there were literal clouds of mosquitoes, and I only had warm, murky lake water to drink. The mosquitoes were driving me mad and any 5 second rest meant a dozen suddenly swarming your face and any exposed skin. I was covered in 100% strength DEET which still wasn’t quite enough. Late in the day as I was tired and irritable from battling the bugs all day, I felt one biting me in the one spot I failed to spray, around my armpits. I yelled in frustration and frantically grabbed my spray bottle and angled it up under my raised arm. As I squeezed it the spray mechanism failed and it turned into a solid jet instead of a fine mist, and shot straight up into my eye. It burned like fire as I fell to my knees, dropping my pack and crawling towards the nearest water. Trying to see through the tears I waded through mud into a scuzzy pond and frantically splashed it into my face, afraid I might lose sight in that eye from the chemicals that were etching lines into my watchband. I must have gotten 30 bites on my back as I splashed muddy water into my face. Thankfully the burning finally subsided and I made camp shortly thereafter, lying in my tent listening to the drone of thousands of mosquitoes all around me.
5. It’s been almost 6 years since you began your thru-hike. How do you think your life would be different had you never hiked the PCT?
Had I not completed the PCT, I think I wouldn’t be too far off from where I am now. I would likely have the same job I’m in, be in the same relationship, and from the outside it would probably seem that things aren’t all that different. What the PCT really changed for me was my perspective. The trail taught me what it meant to truly be happy, and showed me what’s really important in life. Words fail me when trying to describe that feeling. At the end of the day I would collapse into my tent, exhausted, malnourished, burnt, bruised, scraped, and covered in a millimeter of dirt and sweat, but would fall asleep with the biggest smile on my face wondering how I got to be so lucky that I could be doing this day after day. There’s a real liberation when life is stripped down to its most essential elements. No job, no bills, no obligations, no stressors. My only concerns were to make it to the next town before I ran out of food and to not die along the way. That was a kind of freedom I’d never known before, and taught me to really appreciate what I have right now and to always try to keep things in perspective.
Of course the exception to that is ultralight gear. In a more tangible sense, had I not done the PCT I’d be much a richer man from not upgrading my kit over and over since then.
6. Do you have any advice for people setting off to thru-hike this year?
For this year in particular, try not to get too caught up in the snow hype. It’s shaping up to be a big snow year in 2017, and when it is there are always folks who talk about it like it’s the end of days. 2011 was the biggest snow year in decades but was compounded by an unseasonably cool spring which kept the snow around much longer than usual. When we were approaching Kennedy Meadows there were all kinds of rumors and we didn’t know what to expect. Trail veterans were predicting no one would complete an uninterrupted thru-hike that year. Some were saying the Sierra was completely unpassable, and needed a month or more yet to thaw out. Through the desert I was repeatedly told “slow down, you need to wait for more snow to melt!” Others suggested flip flopping up north, returning later once conditions were more favorable. In actuality, the folks that waited longer had more trouble with the river crossings as they swelled more and more as the snow melted. The folks that flipped up north were only greeted by more snow. I’m not suggesting to head blindly into the mountains and to disregard all warnings, but just know that there could be some hyperbole from folks who are reading the same snow reports, but aren’t actually there themselves. It’s very easy to get psyched out and afraid. Hiking through all that snow was incredibly hard and grueling, but it was also pretty magical. Most people don’t get to see those mountains under a blanket of pure white unless they’re hardcore mountaineers, so I feel very lucky to have been able to experience it like that. Keep an eye on the snow pack levels and know that once the weather warms up the melt comes fast. A couple weeks can mean the difference of multiple feet of snow. Know your limits and what you’re comfortable with, and make your own choice with the understanding that it won’t be easy and those plans might have to change on the fly.
A favorite section of the trail is very hard to pick because I loved it all. I don’t do well with heat and thought I’d hate the desert, but found it to be amazing. The Sierra Nevada was grueling but incredible, Oregon was basically a nice vacation from the endless hills of California. If I had to pick one area, I’d say the Northern Cascades. It was as beautiful as the Sierra but not quite so demanding. Hikers had spread out enough by that point that there was solitude if you wanted it and had time to reflect on the last 2000 miles. By that point everyone is in fantastic shape, you have your gear and routines dialed in and 30 mile days are no problem. I’ve been back and section hiked there many times since. Everything north of Snoqualmie Pass is just magical.
8. Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently about your hike in 2011?
If there was one thing I’d change from my hike, it would probably be planning on hiking with a partner. A friend of mine from New Zealand was also planning on hiking that year and we decided to hike together. We only made it about 200 miles before we decided we’d be better off going our separate ways. Our hiking styles and speeds were too different, which is something you don’t know until you’re actually out there and doing it day after day. After that I jumped around from group to group and then did everything north of the Sierra solo. Another thing I’d change is not having any timeline to complete the trail within. My parents were teaching abroad that year and I had a plane ticket to visit them, putting me under a deadline to finish. There was a group of friends I’d have liked to continue to hike with, but I sped ahead and finished a couple weeks earlier than them. Having said that, finishing a little earlier than most made for excellent weather through Washington. All my friends behind me complained that they hadn’t seen any of the Cascades as they were inside a cloud the whole time, but I only had 2 days of rain the whole state. Also, I’d have had a proper GPS system for the Sierra with all that snow. Smartphone GPS has come a long way since 2011, but back then it was not very reliable when outside of cell range for a couple days. I had to tag along with a group if for no other reason than to make use of their dedicated GPS unit, as we wouldn’t see the trail for days at a time and any landmarks were all under a few feet of snow.
9. The times you wanted to quit: what kept you motivated to make it to Canada?
I know everyone says they had thoughts of quitting throughout the trail and had to convince themselves to keep going, but I never did. I had an old knee injury flare up the first week of hiking which I was afraid might take me off the trail, but it cleared up in time and quitting was never even a consideration after that. The trail was home, and returning to “real life” was never more tempting than the incredible sights I was able to witness each and every day I was out there. Some folks relished their town days and drew them out as long as they could, whereas I made my resupplies as quickly as possible so I could get back out there. I took to trail life a little too well, and reentry into the civilized world felt disingenuous, like I didn’t really belong there anymore. That feeling passed quickly enough, but there was a period of time when my thoughts were focused on nothing but getting back to the trail.
10. Describe your last day on trail and the moment you made it to the Northern Terminus.
My last day on trail was very bittersweet. I was proud of what I knew I was about to finish, but I didn’t want it to end. If I’d had the time and the money, I’d have turned around and walked right back to Mexico. When I rounded a corner and saw monument 78 I came close to crying knowing that it was over. I took some photos, signed the register, and continued on into Manning Park. Shortly before the trail ended and connected with the highway, there was a sign on the ground made out of sticks that a hiker before me had made. It read “REAL LIFE,” with an arrow pointing towards the road. I hopped on a bus and 36 hours later I was back home in Portland, already dreaming about when the next time would be I could get back out there.
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