Editor's note: This is First Person, one in a series of occasional essays by Star Tribune staff members or readers. The writer, Henry Funk, is formerly of Orono, and lives in Telluride, Colo.
Five simple granite steps have given a foundation to why I do what I do.
In the summer of 2014, I worked on a trail crew in Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada of California where I built, among other things, five steps along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I learned the storied history of the 2,650-mile PCT, running from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada. While I wrangled massive granite blocks in and out of the ground, I watched as excited thru-hikers quickly passed my granite steps on their way to Canada. I figured they must be nuts; who the hell wants to hike that far?
But something from that season stuck from the Yosemite backcountry. I went back to Minnesota to work for YMCA Camp Menogyn in Grand Marais, the place that first instilled my love for the outdoors. Thus began my seasonal life of guiding with Menogyn in the summer, teaching environmental education on the Maine coast in the fall and spring and working as a snowboard instructor in Telluride, Colo., in winter.
I’d found a way to live my passion and share it with the next generation. Life was good.
Still, those five steps on the PCT kept popping up. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the mid-coast Maine archipelago, the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado — I had plenty of beautiful places to explore. But something about the granite of the High Sierras kept calling me back west. Sure, I liked to spend time outside, but hiking 2,650 miles for no particular reason other than self-absorbed adventure? It still seemed nuts, but when your passion becomes your job, sometimes you lose perspective on why you loved the outdoors in the first place. Maybe revisiting those five steps was what I needed to validate why I do what I do.
So on May 18, 2017, I flew to San Diego to start hiking the PCT from its southern terminus. Coming from various professional outdoor industries, I thought I would be well-equipped to hike for months on end. However, I quickly learned that thru-hiking is a whole other ballgame. The gear is different. The terrain is unlike anything I’ve experienced. And, while I’d led three-week trips before, this was likely to take me four to five months. I’d been planning this since winter, so I set one foot in front of the other and soon lost myself in the unique beauty of one of America’s first National Scenic Trails.
While initially terrified of the first 700 miles of trail, running through Southern California, I came to love the dry, alien terrain of the desert. Sure, there were some less desirable sources of water (a dead rat floating in a buried cistern comes to mind), and I did have to sleep with a rattlesnake curled up beneath my tent one night. Somehow, though, I still was having a blast.
After about 40 days in the desert, with a final week of temps above 100 degrees in the Mohave, I made it to the Sierras. I’d experienced only the northern Sierras of Yosemite, so experiencing the full grandeur of High Sierra granite as I hiked through breathtaking terrain in the Inyo, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national forests was incredible. I woke at 5 a.m. to ascend snow-covered passes before they thawed. I waded through waist-high water a single degree above freezing. I routinely lost the trail to snow. The hike was simultaneously the most challenging and most rewarding wilderness travel I had ever experienced.
Then I made it back to my granite steps. I’d spent the previous day relaxing on the sandy shores of Benson Lake, backcountry base-camp of my 2014 crew in Yosemite. Ninety percent of the shore of the alpine lake was flooded, testament to the mammoth snowfall of the past winter. But I reveled in my memories of the place all the same. I stopped to admire my old handiwork for a minute, but, true to form, I climbed those steps in a matter of seconds. I still had nearly 1,700 miles to Canada after all.
In the end, it took me 127 days to walk about 2,100 miles. Record heat in the Mohave, 200 percent the normal snowpack in the Sierras and raging wildfires across much of Oregon and Washington all conspired to make 2017 one of the most difficult years to successfully thru-hike the PCT.
Unfortunately, I had to skip roughly 550 miles from central Oregon to central Washington owing to forest fires. Even with all those setbacks, I arrived at the Canadian border Sept. 21 after three days of hiking through whiteout blizzards in the northern Cascade Mountains. My body was tired and significantly lighter than when I’d started. But I was wholly content. I still think hiking that far for that long is totally nuts, but there is an awesome camaraderie in joining the wacko thru-hiker community.
I wouldn’t trade my PCT adventure for anything.