The Pacific Crest Trail runs two-thousand-six-hundred-fifty miles from Mexico to Canada. Usually a few hundred hardy souls make the trek every year. But, this year about ten times that number are attempting the arduous journey. Lesley McClurg hiked a section of the trail to find out what’s driving its popularity.
The Tuolumne Meadows post office in Yosemite National Park is packed. Ragged hikers wait in a long twisting line outside.
It’s 6:00 PM. The post office was supposed to close at four, but postmaster Michael Kochakji says he’s staying open late to clear out the piles of resupply boxes that have been sent ahead by family and friends.
This is his 18th summer in Yosemite.
“This year it’s particularly busy because some people are saying the book ‘Wild’ and the movie ‘Wild.’ Last year ‘Wild’ was a big deal because Oprah put her stamp on the book is what we were told,” says Kochakji.
It’s called “The ‘Wild’ effect.” Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir was published in 2012, and the film starring Reese Witherspoon came out last December.
Before ‘Wild’, about 300 permits were issued annually.
The Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates this year’s tally will be more like 3,000.
The non-profit promotes and protects the trail.
Witherspoon’s face is front and center on their website, and one click brings you to a video starring Cheryl Strayed.
Her story begins in the scorching Mojave Desert.
A group of hikers in Yosemite were tormented by the same question as they trudged north from the Mexican border.
“The sun comes out and you just hide or you’re going to die. It’s the worst place on Earth. There’s no water. No water. The desert will murder you. It wants to. It wants all your moisture for itself.”
But, none of them regret the nearly 1000 miles they’ve walked so far.
The drought is making the trek easier than usual. High mountain passes are free of snow which means fewer mosquitoes than normal.
Rachel D’antona stops for a drink of water on the trail. She’s a bartender in Franklin, Tennessee.
“I cannot believe I’m here,” says D’antona. “It’s unbelievable.”
She’s walked 20-30 miles a day. It’s taught her a lot about herself.
“I was definitely a stubborn human being in the real world, and I think you got to let that go out here,” she says. “You just got to go with the flow and have a good time.”
Ryan Bovinet is from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. When he started hiking he said he was burnt out after working as a chef in fast-paced restaurant.
During the two months he’s spent on the trail he’s lost forty pounds, and he says his mind is clearer.
“It’s really focused my brain and kind of focused my thoughts which are normally kind of incoherent and disconnected,” says Bovinet.
He says the trail has challenged him on every level.
“Some days it’s just hard and you want to leave, and you want to go home. And, you want TV. And, you want your phone,” says Bovinet. “You want service!”
But, Bovinet is becoming more comfortable without his gadgets.
Back inside the tiny post office, packages are tightly stacked from floor to ceiling. Boxes spill out into the adjoining café.
Hiker Max Bennet is praying new shoes sent by his girlfriend arrive soon.
Duck tape holds his weathered boots together.
It hasn’t arrived yet. Bennett retreats disappointed.
He and his buddy Cale Rogers pass the time digging through a box of free stuff to find dinner. Anyone who wants to offload extra weight can leave food or gear in a crate outside the post office.
“Oatmeal. We found a mountain house and freeze dried mozzarella cheese,” says Rogers.
Bennett checks for his package one final time.
“Thank you so much!”
He hugs the box to his chest.
Every hiker at the post office said they would be both counting down the miles ahead to the Canadian border, and at the same time savoring each step.