While trudging up to the summit of our local ski hill, my best friend and I made a pact. The following year we’d go on a self-propelled trip from our doorsteps in Jasper, Alberta to Puerto Palomas, Mexico. We’d start skiing, turn to hiking when the snows disappeared, then try snowshoeing when winter returned. We even shook on it. It was 2013.
Jasper to Puerto Palomas is connected by a thread known as the Great Divide. Water on the west side of the divide goes to the Pacific Ocean and on the east to the Arctic or Atlantic Ocean. The divide cuts through the vast Columbia Icefields, along the cragged peaks of the Wind River Range and circles the windless Red Desert. The route is roughly 5,500 kilometres—depending on how often you get lost.
What is a long-distance hiker?
There is hiking and then there is hiking. Hiking is what most people know, such as a nice stroll to a meadow with a day pack carrying a picnic lunch. Some more adventurous hikers go into the forest or up mountains and spend a night or two. Hiking is quite different. It likely makes one very, very late for dinner.
A major indicator is the size of the backpack. Hikers don’t have large bags as they forgo luxuries. Some carry no tent, only a tarp. No stove, just an old plastic peanut butter jar for instant noodles and cold water. Let the noodles soak for a couple hours during the final 20-kilometre march and viola! A cold, slightly crunchy supper.
Hikers have trail names. Traditionally, they are named by someone else on the trail. Each name has a story attached to it. Mine was “Muppet” as I apparently had a hair problem.
Life on the trail
The day is spent walking. And walking. And walking. Until you fall over. Most hikers go beyond a marathon in a day, ranging between 40 to 70 kilometres.
Campsites vary. Some are perched between gaping crevasses, others between boulders on top of ridges and some are wedged between highway ditches and a rifle shooting range.
Food becomes everything. You dream of all the burgers you’ve ever loved and the tacos that got away. You become an expert on buffets, able to out-eat anyone. One time on the trail, we met a fellow hiker named Viking. He had long blond hair and a blond mustache that was stained orange from smoking every five minutes. When he ran out of cigarettes, Viking would smoke the map. Once, he went to a pizza buffet. After eating 28 pieces, he was asked to leave.
Although hikers are fit, their diet is often unconventional. Lard on crackers, lonely ketchup and mustard packages and uncooked muffin mix. One time, we came across a hiker smoking and chewing tobacco at the same time. I had to relight his cigarette as his hands were useless in the pouring rain.
At times, water becomes a concern. While the Canadian Rockies are water-rich, the Red Dessert of Wyoming isn’t. It might be 50 kilometres between cattle troughs or puddles mixed with cow feces. Water is precious and standards are lowered.
After the rapidly deteriorating condition of the feet, weather is the main concern. Hiking is a race against Old Man Winter. He’s always nipping at hikers’ heels, threatening to overwhelm them and turn them into snowmen.
Sometimes the unexpected happens, such as developing an unhealthy romantic relationship with the postal service. Hikers send things to themselves in the future, like maps, socks, shoes and Vaseline. Sometimes they even mail their backpack to themselves just a few kilometres down the road. The trail can make hikers desperate and they do absurd things.
The simple life
No matter what the trail throws at you, such as deer stealing gear from your tent so you have to chase them off in your underwear in the dark or people mistaking you for being homeless (although you are technically homeless), there’s always that cup of tea to look forward to at camp.
Trail life is simple. It’s just one foot in front of the other. Turns out if there isn’t an ocean in the way of your destination, it’s probably within walking distance.
Are you a hiker or a hiker?
Comment below with your trail name!
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