The PCT Brigade: Trekking the Pacific Crest Trail
March 3, 2016
The 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail, tracing the West Coast from Mexico to Canada, passes through three national monuments, seven national parks, 24 national forests and 33 wilderness areas. But when nine Steamboat locals set out on it last April, they were in it for self-discovery as much as its scenery. Although the hikers met up beforehand at a gathering known as PCT Days and started out together, they soon went their separate ways, following the trail's motto "Hike your own hike." Following are two of their tales.
For Greg Sagan, the trail held special meaning. After beating testicular cancer at a young age, Sagan quit his job as a correctional officer and began exploring the mountains near his Massachusetts home. After following a friend to Steamboat, he became sponsored by Vasque Footwear to complete the PCT, and partnered with the St. Baldrick's Foundation to raise awareness for children's cancer.
Three months of training and trail preparations led to his April 24 departure. His 30-lb. pack held food and water to get him to the next re-supply, be it a grocery store or post office.
"The trail teaches you what you need and don't need," he says. "It teaches you how to enjoy the simplicity of life. It's helped me to downsize and be less materialistic."
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He remembers the PCT community, one that christened him "Zoolander" for his brightly colored pants, fondly, making countless new friends along the trail. But he admits it wasn't all easy. While crossing the Mojave Desert, his feet blistered so much that he was forced to wear Crocs for 60 miles.
Later, while in town restocking, he learned that one of his friends in Massachusetts had passed away. This gave him the motivation to finish.
"Knowing he was looking down on me gave me everything I needed," says Sagan.
Sagan carried a bottle of champagne the whole way to British Columbia, where he popped it open on Sept. 29 to celebrate the trip's end and a lesson learned en route: "You just have to stay optimistic."
Ben Machiela has always loved the joy of the trail. "I'm good at walking," says the former snowboard instructor and ranch hand who now handles maintenance for Bella Vista. "On the trail I was known for being a drill sergeant, always wanting to go, go, go." He applied that same ethos when through-hiking the Appalachian Trail two years ago, where he earned the trail name Wrangler for driving six cows away from camp one night. The nickname also applies to his ability to wrangle food to augment his staples of tuna, Ramen and Pop Tarts. For this, he's grateful for the help of "Trail Angels," which he describes as "helpful, loving people who give without being asked, whether it's food, a ride to town, or a roof for a night. I was amazed at strangers' kindness," he says. "At a grocery store once, a complete stranger paid for my entire food supply. That’s how you make a bearded man smile."
The isolation was also challenging. With limited cell coverage, the only real communication came from posting and reading comments in trail registers. "You had to dig deep for personal strength and to sort out the reason you're there," he says. "Solitary hikers are strong people."
The biggest lesson he learned was the mental stamina needed to finish. He credits his last step on Sept. 20 after 150 days to hiking fast, but taking long breaks. "Stubbornness and hope will get you through," says Machiela, who now has his eyes on the Continental Divide Trail, completing the hiking world's coveted Triple Crown.