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.
It was in 1968 that Congress passed the National Trails Systems Act. The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail were designated as the initial components of an entire network of scenic trails throughout the country, including a Continental Divide Trail, a Lewis and Clark Trail, a Santa Fe Trail, an Alaskan Gold Rush Trail, a Mormon Trail, a Daniel Boone Trail, and many more. The act called for the PCT to travel “generally along the mountain ranges of the West Coast states” and was to be administered by the Secretary of Agriculture (who oversees the U.S. Forest Service) in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior (who oversees the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management). The act established an advisory council to study matters relating to the trail, authorized the purchase of rights-of-way on private land, and authorized the use of condemnation proceedings to acquire private land, if necessary. Congress then set aside $500,000 to begin work on the Pacific Crest Trail.
It all looked fairly simple on paper. But in reality Congress was asking for a cooperative effort among the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Border Patrol, three state forest agencies, three state parks agencies, dozens of county governments, and hundreds of private landowners. The last time that many bureaucrats and landowners agreed on anything in this country was when they conspired to steal the American West from the Indians. Now, 16 years after its inception, the PCT is 100 percent complete in Washington and Oregon, perhaps 90 percent complete in Northern California, and less than 50 percent complete in Southern California. In San Diego County construction has been finished on 50 miles out of a planned 112 — the rest passes on temporary trails or dirt roads. It isn’t that we are dragging our feet down here, it’s just that so much of the trail up north was already in place, while down here it passes more on private land, requiring negotiations with each landowner. The forest service expects to have the trail 100 percent complete by 1986.
Probably 95 percent of the hikers who walk the entire PCT start at Campo and work their way north. The reason for that is a simple lesson in geography: the trail requires about five or six months to complete. If you start at the Canadian border and hike south, you will have to begin after the snow has melted in the Cascades — sometime in late June or early July — and you will very likely be getting snowed on in the southern Sierra when you arrive there in October. But if you start at the Mexican border in May, you can hike most of the trail snow-free.
But why Campo? The sunny, backward little town where everyone seems either to work for the border patrol, or else is running from the border patrol, has never been famous for being the start of anything. In fact, everything seems to end there, including television reception, Route S-1, and the U.S.A. Actually, Campo was only supposed to be the start of the temporary route. The permanent and more scenic route was to begin at Tecate and pass through the open, roadless desert north of there. The PCT advisory council drew that route on its maps and just assumed that someday the trail would go that way. Then somebody decided to ask the border patrol what it thought about it. “We were glad they asked us,” says Bob Stille of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Campo station, with a tone of edgy understatement. “The route they had in mind started at Tecate and meandered along the border for a ways, passing through areas where we operate all the time, tracking and doing surveillance [of illegal aliens]. We have electronic sensors in there, and the hikers passing through would have constantly been setting them off.” There was also some concern that the illegal aliens might use the PCT as a thoroughfare out of the border area, but this was only a minor concern, “since the aliens already have so many trails through there, one more wouldn’t make that much difference.” At any rate, the border patrol’s complaints that the Tecate route would open up an area of the border which was essentially closed to legal traffic were forceful enough to get the permanent route changed to Campo.
Looking across the oak- and sage-covered Campo Valley, you can see Mt. Laguna 30 miles to the north. On a clear day, 30 miles doesn’t seem too far. Unless you’re on foot. Carrying a 50-pound pack uphill, it takes two days to hike 30 miles. Going downhill, you might be able to go a little faster, but if you do, you’ll pay for it that night with pain in the knees and calves. Say you planned to hike the PCT in six months, and you hoped to hike every day, rain or shine, sick or well, tired, bored, hungry, or sore. That means you would have to average 15 miles a day, and to most hikers after a month or so of 15-mile days, the United States starts looking like a very large place, and the PCT starts looking like a very long, grueling death march. That’s why very few hikers complete the trail in one year. The forest service estimates fewer than 50 people a year hike the entire distance. Many more people complete it in sections, returning each summer to hike another few hundred miles.