A Pacific Crest Trail Journey: Part 1

A hike to Canada never occurred to me as I explored snowy slopes and peaks of Sonora Pass. I drove up to the 9,623-foot crest of Highway 108 when it first opened in spring. A late-season tour on my cross country skis made a perfect day and inspired my first-ever outdoors article. Too bad I wasn’t smart enough to respect the High Sierra sun; bright red sunburn advertised my mistake for a week.

That was my first Pacific Crest Trail experience, though I’d never heard of it before. I skied along the PCT for several miles without knowing it until years later.

Most who attempt a PCT “thru-hike,” to cover the 2,650-mile trail in a single year, begin at the Mexican border. A smaller number begin at Canada’s boundary.

But my route on the PCT has detoured more than most, with early jaunts in Emigrant Wilderness, Devils Postpile National Monument and especially Yosemite National Park.

The trail’s builders completed their labor in 1993, just before I moved from San Francisco to the foothills of Tuolumne County. Long before hearing about it, I walked the trail in bits and pieces as I learned my way around the mountains. I was 24 and felt immortal as I discovered the Sierra Nevada’s abundant splendor. Every experience left me wanting more. There were plenty of other lessons to learn along the way.

A climb up Yosemite’s Cathedral Peak introduced me to rock climbing; my partner and I felt like giants when we achieved its scenic summit. How beautiful were Eichorn Pinnacle and the Cathedral Lakes in alpenglow. How foolish we were to start and finish so late, forcing a descent in cold darkness. Other climbs ran behind schedule, causing unplanned nights on high, rocky ledges. Start early and prepare for surprises, I learned.

The John Muir Trail summoned me many times, starting with a 50-mile segment from Onion Valley to Mount Whitney. That four-day outing to the highest point in California was a thrilling adventure for me, my Uncle Ted and cousins Peter and Maggie. But in classic Johanson fashion, we underestimated its difficulty. Slow progress on our first two days made our last two days murderous. Mountain miles are more about the mountains than the miles, I discovered.

That was actually my first overnight hike on the PCT, which overlaps with the JMT for 160 miles, though I gave that no thought. Hiking the full 221-mile JMT alone was a big enough objective that took me ten more years. Without cousin Andy, it would have taken far longer.

andy padlo led multiple journeys on the john muir trail

Andy padlo (Left) Led multiple journeys on the John muir trail

Andy led student groups on the JMT about a dozen times. He was a high school teacher, and by that time, so was I. With my brother Dan and my dog Gracie, I joined him for segments and eventually the full route. High peaks, green forests and dreamy blue lakes filled many happy days. Everyone loved the challenge and camaraderie. Despite Andy’s great cooking, we all came back famished and thin. Hiking up to 20 miles a day for weeks expends more calories than anyone can carry, I found. Sometimes we got so hungry that the kids begged other hikers for food.

My Dad accompanied me to Shadow Lake when I attempted Mount Ritter, which he climbed as a teen. I was more than twice that age when I tried to follow suit but didn’t come close to summiting. Scaling a 13,149-foot peak takes more time and better gear than I anticipated. I would need to prepare better and try again.

Finally, other PCT sections attracted my attention. Cousin Zach, my dog Sam and I hiked from Tuolumne Meadows to Echo Summit. We met our first trail angels, the heavenly and absurdly generous people who help PCT hikers for free. Four of them camped at Ebbetts Pass for a weekend and revived us with hot burgers, fresh fruit and cold beer. Meeting people so selfless and kind in my own stomping grounds astonished me.

whitney summit

Hikers enjoy a sunrise atop mount Whitney, the highest point in California

Other PCT segments I enjoyed included skiing beside Lake Tahoe and through Ansel Adams Wilderness, hiking from Donner Pass to Sierra City, and trekking from Tuolumne Meadows to Devils Postpile in both summer and winter.

Other lessons could fill a book; here are a few that every PCT hiker should know. Always think about water: how much you have, how much you need, and where to get more. Lighten your pack; good gear is worth the money.  Get used to hitchhiking; unless you have support lined up along the way, it’s how you’ll get into town for your resupplies.

The great Canadian trio Rush is my favorite rock band and I’ve probably annoyed hiking companions by playing their tunes while driving to the trail. One of their songs named “Dreamline” includes these words: “When we are young, wandering the face of the earth, wondering what our dreams might be worth, learning that we’re only immortal for a limited time.”

That sunk in over the years. My Uncle Ted, who taught me to ski, died a year after our Mount Whitney adventure. Gracie Girl the Wolf Dog accompanied me on countless runs, hikes and adventures, and left us after ten joyful years. My parents raised my brothers and me with camping trips and unconditional love. Dad died of cancer at age 77. Later that year, Dan and I returned to Mount Ritter and climbed it in his honor. Mom had a special love for Lake Tahoe and took us there for many family vacations. After cancer took her at age 78, Sam and I ascended nearby Waterhouse Peak for her.

tom and diane johanson, the author’s parents, introduced their sons to camping

Tom and Diane johanson, the author’s parents, introduced their sons to camping

Yosemite Sam the Samurai Dog is still with me, though he’s no spring chicken anymore. For that matter, neither am I. Now in my early 50s, I stay fit though arthritis in my knee and hip have reset my limits. I still like “wandering” but I’m no longer “immortal,” just as Rush predicted. My joints don’t like me running like I once did but don’t complain, as much, about hiking long distances. Not yet.

My combined PCT outings covered 400 Sierra miles over a quarter century. If I’m going to hike the remaining 2,250 miles, I need to hurry up. My wife Karen encouraged me to live my dream. I took a one-year leave from teaching at Castro Valley High School.

A rare shopping spree equipped me with a lightweight backpack and tent. I sorted my gear and shipped food boxes to key trail towns. Karen and Sam, my trip’s first trail angels, dropped me off at Amtrak where I caught a bus to adventure.

Canada, here I come.

matt and karen johanson, and dogs sam and elliot, embraced before the adventure began

Matt and Karen Johanson, and dogs Sam and Elliot, embraced before the adventure began

Matt “Detour” Johanson describes his journey on the 2650-mile PCT in this series. Next time: the North State.


Main image: Sonora Pass hosted author Matt Johanson’s first Pacific Crest Trail experience

Read other articles by Matt Johanson here.