The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, is like the western U.S.'s version of the Appalachian Trail. It spans more than 2,650 miles and trails through diverse environments from hot deserts to heavily forested areas.
Brooke Osborne, a 2004 graduate of Loyalsock Township High School, hiked the Appalachian Trail with the Penn State Outing Club while in college.
As she traversed Tennessee and Georgia, she met other hikers here and there.
"Their stories, and the idea that I was standing on a trail that stretched over 2,000 miles, was enough to make me interested in long-distance backpacking," Osborne said. "In 2009, I had three months free and decided that I would use them to hike as far as possible on the AT."
After 1,200 miles, she said, she was hooked. Once she finished the Georgia-to-Pennsylvania leg of the Appalachian Trail, she set her sights on the "triple crown" - hiking the nation's three long-distance National Scenic Trails: the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail.
Osborne, 26, now lives in Fort Collins, Colo., and works as an ecologist. She is the daughter of Pamela Bossert and David Osborne.
She recently finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada.
"As an alpine ecologist, the prospect of walking through high desert into the Sierra Nevadas and then the Cascades had me excited," Osborne said.
And so it begins
The trail begins on the U.S./Mexico border in Campo, Calif., and ends on the U.S./Canada border just south of Manning Park, British Columbia.
She began her trip on April 25, with her hiking partner Gavin Morris, of New Tripoli, whom she met on the Appalachian Trail.
The two finished their journey Sept. 21.
Early on, the trail was a gentle grade to accommodate stock animals such as horses and mules.
"This allowed us to start out in the desert, hiking 20-mile days. After a month or so, we were averaging between 27 and 30 miles a day," Osborne said.
Hiking those kind of miles can take a toll on a pair of shoes. The two went through nine pairs of lightweight trail running shoes. Each pair lasted about 600 miles.
Vast and beautiful
The scenery took Osborne and Morris across vastly different landscapes.
Some of the places she experienced still are embedded in her mind.
The Pacific Coast Trail Association website lists the areas the trail passes through. They include the Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Mt. Whitney, Yosemite National Park, Marble Mountain and the Russian Wilderness in northern California, the volcanoes of the Cascades including Mt. Shasta and Mt. Hood, Crater Lake, Columbia River Gorge, Mt. Rainier and the remote Northern Cascades.
Passing by Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48, Osborne said a group of hikers she was with woke at midnight and hiked to the summit, so they could watch the sunrise.
"Looking up the mountain and seeing light from our friends' hand lamps, moving up the switchbacks in the dark, and seeing how much higher we had to climb up the rocky face, was exciting," she said.
And, seeing the sunrise definitely was a highlight.
Into the fire
Hiking through central Oregon, she and Morris, along with some other hikers stumbled onto a wildfire and called the fire department.
She said wildfires affected the trail a lot this year.
"Although the flames stated out small, there was an incredible wall of smoke and heat. Occasionally we heard loud crackling and a whole tree would go up in flames because of its dry needles," Osborne said.
Thirty minutes after their call, small planes and a helicopter could be heard overhead. The wind from the rotors threw dirt and stones in their faces.
"The helicopter just hovered above the trees and dropped us a note with instructions to follow them away from the spreading fire," she said.
"Once we made it far enough south of the fire, they lowered us water and a satellite phone and eventually three smoke jumpers arrived to help get us out," Osborne added.
Darkness had settled in by then. With their head lamps on, they walked single file in front of the fire.
"Everything was orange and glowing around us. Sometimes it was difficult to see or breathe because of the smoke," Osborne said.
Every three to seven days, Osborne and Morris would walk or hitch a ride into town to resupply.
Even though it was just the two of them out on the trail, with some fellow hikers here and there, they had a support system at home.
"If we knew there were no grocery stores for an upcoming stretch, we would mail food ahead to ourselves," Osborne said. "Friends and family had the PO addresses of several towns we planned to visit and sent us many encouraging notes and care packages, as well as replacement gear we left with them when necessary."
Just as along the AT, there are "trail angels" who look out for hikers along the PCT.
"Their generosity and love for the trail cannot be overstated,"?Osborne said. "Sometimes they offer rides or leave coolers of cold drinks and fruit on the trail."
Some will stock water caches along long stretches in the desert. Others will open their homes to hikers and offer laundry, showers and Internet access.
One family had turned their garage into a makeshift post office so hikers could send and receive packages from the desert, Osborne said.
"Many times we emigrated from the woods to cross a road and would be met by trail angels cooking out and offering us hamburgers and comfortable chairs," she said. "Being cheered on in this way by strangers was a powerful motivator."
Eating food high in calories was a must, because every day was full of hardcore hiking.
"I carried the lightest and most calorically dense foods I could find,"?Osborne said. "Often we ate instant mashed potatoes or noodles with loads of olive oil. Breakfast and lunch were typically granola bars and salami with cheese, or peanut butter and Nutella. It's almost impossible to eat enough. Meal planning is a challenge."
The weather was near perfect for the five months they spent on the trail.
"(One day), rain came as we were hiking over a lava field. Think black exposed rock that normally roasts hikers," Osborne said. "Also, because last year was a very low snow year, many of the passes and river crossings that tend to stop through-hikers short of their goal were clear and relatively easy to cross."
Crossing sections of central California became a little rough. The mosquitoes were the only thing that ever made Osborne consider quitting.
There were times they couldn't stop for a water break without being swarmed.
"After a few days, it was enough to make you miserable," she said.
Osborne was very fortunate to not have suffered any serious injuries from her starting point, all the way to Canada, and she knew she could make it.
"Through-hiking is not difficult. You have to maintain a very simple daily routine: walk, eat and sleep. Once you settle into it, you can go forever," she said.
Osborne offers simple tips to those who might be considering a long-distance hike.
" 'Hike your own hike' is a common motto on long-distance trails. The idea is to focus on your own experience and expectations," she said.
Another favorite is "don't fight the zero," which refers to the day you break from hiking to recuperate.
Life after the PCT too some getting used to. She had spent five months on the trail, away from cities and crowds.
"Sleeping in a bed was strange,"?Osborne said. "Immediately after finishing the trail, we went to Seattle and were overwhelmed by noise and crowds."
Today she can be found in Fort Collins, Colo., working on a manuscript about her research on the effects of global change in the Rocky Mountain National Park. She is making plans to start her doctorate degree in ecology.
She relishes the trail experience.
"I was fortunate to have the opportunity and flexibility to pull off five months of wandering around in the woods. But I know that for many, making time for a long-distance trail or other major expedition can be nearly impossible," she said.
"Still, I believe the most difficult part is making the choice to do it. It's about committing mentally and then taking care of whatever else arises," she added.
Osborne already is planning to tackle that third peak on the hiking crown - the Continental Divide Trail.