As I figured it would be, posting here on the blog will be spotty as I continue with my summer filled with hiking, family camping and other assorted outdoor activities. You can find more details about my latest 5 day PCT hike on this post HERE. This is a story that talks about someone I met along the way and what I learned. Sometimes it’s about more than the miles or the scenery.
This last week I finished my final section hike of the Oregon PCT: HWY 62 by Crater Lake to I-5 by Ashland. It is about 102 miles, made longer by downed trees, miserable mosquitos and some planned and unplanned side trails. It turned about to be more grueling and scenic than I thought it would be, as this section isn’t particularly known for it’s views. But one of the things that makes my long distance hikes most meaningful are the people I meet along the way.
I know some people think I am not enjoying my hikes like they are, especially when they hear that I put in what I call “marathon” days, 26 miles or more, but nothing could be further from the truth. Some days I make time for side hikes up to scenic viewpoints or take a nap by a lake. And some days I get to sit and talk with a fellow hiker about their journey and why they are out on the trail.
On the 4th day of my hike and my first marathon day this summer, after taking a night at the small resort at Fish Lake, I hiked about 12 miles that morning and made it to one of the first of several piped water sources in southern Oregon about 10am. This area has a lot of volcanic activity (as much of the PCT is in Oregon) and there really are no lakes or streams directly along the trail, so hikers depend on springs and wells for their water.
The sign that marks the junction for the Brown Mountain shelter reads (unfortunately in Sharpie) that you are 2/3 of the way through your PCT hike. If you came from Mexico, that is. I didn’t, but you feel a certain kind of connection with the hikers that reach this point and the emotion that they must feel seeing that marker. I have come from Canada in a way, as by reaching this point I have completed those miles from here to there over the last 4 years. Not too bad.
I imagine the shelter at Brown Mountain is for folks enjoying snow activities up from HWY 140. It is a rustic little cabin with a wood burning stove, a picnic table and a good size pumped water supply. These are always fun to find on the trail, a little oasis from sitting on a rock or log and filtering your water out of a buggy lake.
I could see when I arrived that someone else was also taking advantage of the shelter, there was a pack exploded on the table (a common sight) and gentleman who appeared to be assessing his gear and day.
He made room for me at the table and I plopped myself down for what I thought would be a quick little break to get water, snack and take some pain reliever as my feet were starting to ache, no surprise considering the rocky lava trail I had already covered. It turned out that I would be here longer than I expected as I got to know this friendly hiker and his story.
The conversation began as a lot of them do on the trail, questions about gear and how far each of us was hiking. Patrick is 66, from the Spokane area and attempting to hike the Oregon section of the PCT, the same one I was finishing up. His pack is an old-school external frame and weighs as much as Patrick is old (which of his own admission isn’t all that smart). He’s only hiking 7-10 miles a day and has folks helping him out on his journey (and no doubt worrying a little about him). He talked about how he’s trying to eat better and has already given up several bad habits over the years such as smoking, like many of us hopefully do as we get older.
He shared how he was lightening up his pack as he went, he had bought a Sawyer filter and sent his firearm home. I confirmed that was probably a good choice and that he most likely wouldn’t need it. He asked how I kept my phone charged and we compared the weight of our backup batteries. All rather mundane things.
He helped me take some pictures of getting water from the pump and I shared with him some advice about what was coming up ahead on the trail and where he might camp if he wasn’t going all the way to Fish Lake today.
And somewhere in the middle of our visit, he said he had something to show me and he pulled out a plastic bag filled with papers and a noticeable American flag.
He was carrying printouts of the men in his military unit that had been killed while serving and a special page for his friend, Richard “Dick” Harold Simonsen. Patrick said he had these warriors with him because he was worried people were forgetting.
Patrick served in Vietnam 1968-72, roughly the same time that my own father served.
Patrick then shared some of his experiences while he was “in country”, comparing with what we experience while hiking:
They never filtered their water, who had time for that?
They were sick all the time.
The mosquitos were so bad he woke one morning after they had attacked his eyelids and lips during the night to find his face was swollen beyond belief.
Everything was out to kill them. And they were alive by the grace of God.
As I sat there holding the list of fallen soldiers, I thought that my dad could have been one of these names. And then I thought of the blessing that I even existed to be sitting here pondering that very thought.
We even talked a little politics (a very little) and how it made him mad to hear politicians (and one in particular) talk about sending our troops to war like it was a standard practice. He said those folks never served and don’t realize that war should be a last resort. And he should know.
One of the things that stuck in my head was when Patrick said he had some wisdom to share, a saying that he used to tell people. I sat there ready for some military type thing like “Pain is just weakness leaving the body” but what he told me was, “A hamburger and a milkshake.” Huh?
He said that when things looked bad and he was trying to muster the strength to carry on, he would think about what would be that one thing that make a difference. His motivation. For him it was a hamburger and a milkshake. He sounds like a PCT hiker to me! Since we were talking food, I told him that for me it was orange juice (on the trail anyway). That was the one thing that I always craved on the trail and would search out whenever I go back into town.
I asked Patrick his trail name and he told me, “Grunt”. I told him I’d be doing a write up on my blog about meeting him and asked for his permission to share his story. He looked a little surprised when I told him I thought it was important.
I wished him well on the rest of his journey and as I walked down the trail and continued on my own, I couldn’t help but think about my conversation with Patrick. I get to do what I do because of people like him who put their lives on the line. I will never know the sacrifice, hardship or loss they took on. That they may still carry today.
I get to “play” at hardship. I can talk about sore feet and disgusting water sources but it is nothing like someone who goes to war for our country. I am not putting my life on the line.
I will probably never know what that is like.
Many of us will never know.
By the grace of God.
Writing this I realize that I forgot to tell Patrick thank you for his service, so to him and all those men whose names he is carrying in his overweight pack I say thank you.
And if you see Patrick “Grunt” out there on the trail or the next time you see a veteran, if you don’t already, make sure and say thank you for the sacrifices they made and for the fact that you will most likely never know what it meant to make them.
And if you do know what it means to make that sacrifice, I say thank you to you as well.
PS. I love you, Dad.