About a mile and a half south of Campo, just past the pig farm, on a rutted clay road, is a barbed-wire fence that marks the end of one way of looking at the world and the beginning of another. The U.S. Border Patrol calls it the “tortilla curtain,” amused that in spite of the agency’s hard-nosed image, the border itself is really nothing but a flimsy, patched-together snarl of rusted wire that wouldn’t even keep a spirited cow from crossing back and forth as freely as she pleased. Just 50 feet south of the border stands an old shot-up, falling-down adobe Mexican customs house where cattle were once inspected for hoof-and-mouth disease. No cattle cross here anymore. In fact, the only thing making this section of the border seem any different from any other section of border is a hand-painted sign hanging from the barbed-wire fence. The sign, which is only eight years old but is already blistered and peeling from the sun, reads:
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL
- Oregon — 1600 mi.
- Canada — 2700 mi.
The place doesn’t look like much, but it is destined to become legendary. Already it is sanctified by celebrations of joy following months-long pilgrimages and by prayerful rituals hoping to bring good weather and good luck to travelers just starting out on their journeys. Backpackers are a superstitious bunch. Like our religious ancestors, the primitive animists, they’re out there every day getting rained on, frozen, sunburned, and they need every little edge they can get. Underneath the hand-painted sign lies an old pair of running shoes, curled and rotting in the sun like a burnt offering. Someone who has walked a thousand miles understands the ancient custom of leaving a personal belonging at the end of a journey. For someone who hasn’t, the custom should remain a mystery. But it’s obvious to anyone that those shoes are now imbued with the courage and stamina of whoever wore them. They’re magical, causing anyone who looks at them to become suddenly restless to leave it all behind, stuff everything a person needs — less than fifty pounds — in a knapsack, shiver in a mountain stream, lie naked in the sun, get on the trail, and put 15 miles behind him before dark.
It’s an absurdly whimsical idea if you think about it: that there should be a trail 2607 miles long (the sign at the border is no longer correct) winding along the most impractical, though scenic, route nature could present between Mexico and Canada. Such a trail can contribute nothing to commerce. It does not save time. Rather than being a short cut, it is perhaps the longest deliberately indirect route ever proposed by man. And worst of all, rather than employing high technology of which this country can be proud, it relies on the oldest and most despised form of transportation in the world — putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the kind of thing that makes more practical souls groan about the boondoggles of “big gov’ment,” as though they might get their mouths washed out with soap if they said the whole nasty word, “government.” So it has to be considered something of a minor miracle that such a trail does exist.
In some ways, the story of the Pacific Crest Trail is an example of how the idealism of the ’60s survived and became a reality in the ’80s. Most of us don’t wear our Himalayan ice-climbing boots and our Alaskan parkas to school or work anymore. But many people who did, back in the ’60s, are now holding positions of responsibility in “big gov’ment,” and a whimsical idea like the PCT (as it is universally called) somehow doesn’t seem as improbable to them as it might have to their predecessors. Every college student who spent a summer in the ’60s and ’70s wandering around Yosemite, or Sequoia, or the Cascades, came home with an insight into how simple and free life could be, and never forgot it. More importantly, the beauty and grandeur of this country wasn’t just something they would see all their lives in picture books and slide shows. They’d seen it themselves, it was out there, real, and because they knew it was real, that forever changed the way they thought about the land. For the past 20 years this country has been in love with the land.
The notion of a trail following the general route of the Pacific crest from Mexico to Canada had been tossed around in backpacking circles for years. Much of the trail already existed through Washington and Oregon, where you could walk a thousand miles and never leave federal land. In California there was the John Muir Trail through the High Sierra. After World War II, the California state parks department pieced together a route called the California Riding and Hiking Trail, which extended the length of California, including a stretch here in San Diego County. It was intended mostly for horseback-riding clubs, which were more popular than backpacking clubs at that time. The trail tied together bits of existing trail throughout the state and designated country roads which could be used to cross areas where there were no trails. The state never bothered to acquire easements on most of the private land the trail crossed, and therefore the travelers had no legal right to be there. Eventually, much of the access to the trail was blocked by angry landowners who put up barbed-wire fences to keep the trespassers out, effectively eliminating a through route from one end of the state to the other, and soon many portions of the trail fell into disrepair.
The problem seems to have been that there weren’t enough people using the California Riding and Hiking Trail to justify the state’s spending money on it. It’s hard to imagine now, but hiking and backpacking weren’t particularly popular sports at that time. Trail riding had an enthusiastic but limited number of participants, due to the high cost of keeping the horses, burros, or mules. Backpackers were looked upon by trail riders as being abnormally hearty and intrepid souls who trudged around the mountains carrying hundred-pound, wooden-framed canvas packs filled with iron skillets, kapok sleeping bags, handguns (as opposed to rifles), and heavy woolen underwear. In other words, they thought backpackers were nuts, and in some cases they were right. It wasn’t until the development of sophisticated backpacking equipment in the ’60s — notably, aluminum-framed nylon packs, cheap fiberfill sleeping bags, and a whole wardrobe made of miracle fabrics that could keep even a citified dolt warm and dry in a sleet storm — that the sport became popular enough to become a political force capable of lobbying for its own improbable fantasies right along with every other special-interest group in the country.