By JENNIFER K. BAUER
Movies, books and TV can plant wild ideas in people’s heads.
“Sex and the City” made cosmopolitans trendy. Butt implants are now a thing because of the Kardashians.
Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild,” about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, struck a similar chord. Since coming out in 2012 it has not only spawned a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, it has inspired hundreds to tackle the trail connecting Mexico to Canada. It’s being called “the Wild Effect.”
The book captured the imagination of Sally Imel of Lewiston. A former backpacker, Imel, 61, thought the trail sounded intriguing. Her sister, Lynn Rowse, 64, of Colbert, Wash., read the book and suggested they hike the entire state of Oregon. Imel’s friend Barb Marsh, 52, of Lewiston, saw the movie and, though she had never backpacked in her life, felt compelled to join them.
“Maybe I’ll come back looking like Reese Witherspoon,” she told people before the trip.
The PCT runs 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. Strayed walked the 1,100 miles from California to Washington.
Coordinating schedules and scaling back expectations, Imel, Rowse and Marsh decided to take a week in August to hike a roughly 50-mile stretch of the trail in Oregon — from Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood to the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks.
“We thought, ‘How tough can this be?’ ” Imel said.
“It’s only 10 miles a day, that’s what we told ourselves,” Marsh said.
They didn’t do any conditioning. The first time Imel and Marsh donned their 45-pound packs was the morning they left. How heavy the packs felt was only the first surprise.
They brought along a copy of “Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon and Washington” as a trail guide. After departing the campground at Timberline Lodge, they found the guide to be vague. On top of that, “the trail was not as well-marked as we thought it would be,” Imel said.
Confused about how far they’d traveled, they turned to technology that didn’t exist when Strayed took her walk in 1995, Rowse’s Fitbit tracker, which gave them their mileage.
It was hotter than they imagined it would be, in the 90s, and steeper. They’d thought it would be all downhill from Mount Hood to the Columbia River, but the dusty, narrow trail took them up and down ravines and canyons. In some places, it was so narrow that if another person came along they had to pass chest to chest.
“Every night, my feet were screaming at me,” Marsh said.
A 10-year-old knee injury returned to haunt Imel, whose toenails would eventually fall off.
Each day felt harder as soreness set in from the miles before. Every night they quickly fell asleep in the tent they shared, no one bothering to read the books they’d brought along. They decided they brought too much food and not enough wine.
They were surprised by the number of people they encountered, between 25 to 30 a day, Marsh guesses. They soon noticed people were using their smartphones to navigate the trail. It turns out there are now apps with the latest maps and trail updates that use GPS to show your location. Cell service was available the entire way, but the signal was not strong enough for them to download one.
They were, however, able to text friends and family. That was how they learned that back home one of the worst wildfire seasons in memory had erupted. Breaking news alerts warned of the extreme conditions across the Northwest. On day three, when they started smelling smoke, “it kind of freaked us out,” Imel said.
They tried to text people to find out about local fire conditions but all they got was a message that there was too much traffic on the airwaves. This caused more worry and, not quite halfway through their journey, they decided to turn back.
It took two days and a night to return to their starting point. They drove to where they left another vehicle at Cascade Locks. There they spent another day hiking into Eagle Creek, where chains along canyon walls provide hand holds for PCT hikers. They met some through-hikers, the term for people hiking the entire PCT. One was a young woman by herself who’d left Mexico in May.
“They were so skinny,” Imel said.
In all, the three hiked about 30 miles of the trail.
“What we did was an accomplishment,” Marsh said.
“We didn’t do what we set out to do, but I didn’t feel like a loser,” said Imel, who has a renewed interest in backpacking. “It’s so much freedom to put on your shoes and pack and go wherever you want and see things you’d never see unless you take yourself there.”