One early March I set the left boot on the Pacific Crest Trail at the Mexican border. This path runs the Sierra Nevadas for 2600 miles through California, Oregon and Washington to touch the Canadian border. The aim to hike border-to-border in one season requires starting in spring and risking snow in the Sierras. Mountain trail miles translate to bird miles at a 6:1 ratio and mid-June finds me tramping the first snowflakes outside Tahoe.
The trail has been fantastic for three months. There was a western diamondback the size of a Louisville Slugger every other day, lightning storm on a peak with a pot for a pillow, lost cowboy aboard a snow mired horse to dig out, many waterless and foodless days, and run-in with a green sheriff with an itchy trigger finger in a crossroad town who was called by a TV citizen who identified me from America´s Most Wanted as a serial killer. He saw me buy and eat Puss ´N Boots Liver and Chicken because I needed a stake, and the Sheriff ran me off with a tip to watch out for big cats, although there were only bears on trail.
I meet one hiker every other day on the PCT staggering under towering backpacks who refuse to believe I´m a through hiker lightly carrying a fanny pack. The custom waist pack is wreathed by four one-quart water bottles with a down sleeping bag slung beneath, tube tent, maps torn from an early guidebook and can opener. The gross weight sans supplies of eight pounds enables me to outdistance the classic mountain strategy of toting a 50lb pack eight mountain miles a day instead of my flying along the trail at 30 miles a day to connect extended supply and water points. My gear and the weather hold out until a June climb up Tahoe into a freak snowstorm blocks the sunset. A pine at ten paces disappears and the trail vanishes under a snow carpet. The horizon dissolves and without reference points for the compass and I am lost.
I know how To Build a Fire from Jack London´s short story, and the lost cowboy advised me of a snowstorm where he curled up like a C note with a hot cup of coffee in a blanket and waited it out. So on stumbling over a fallen tree I roll with it and make a pine bough bed and overhang. However, popsicle fingers fumble matches into the wet kindling, and as the blizzards rages the weight of snow collapses the boughs and awakens me sputtering white. The sole recourse is a prayer position in the snowstorm with sleet melting off the body and freezes into an exclamation point.
At first light I unfold into a world of white and drape the ice crisped sleeping bag over a shoulder, and aim along an easterly flank to face the sun and thread the mountains. For hours no signs protrude the fresh foot of snow, but in late afternoon a distant hum of cars draws me to a road where I hitchhike out to that hot cup of coffee.
A decade later I return to Tahoe to continue the Pacific Crest Trail and now ultra-light packing that I independently invented is the rage with trailside lodge caretakers shunning me as a weekend warrior under a 20lb knapsack, until I tell them through a crooked grin of the whiteout.