Of Walls & Keys Life discovered on the Pacific Crest Trail

Throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence. -John Muir

Story and photos by Christopher Briscoe

I could smell him from across the room. I walked up to the counter at my favorite Ashland coffee shop, Pony Espresso, a little pissed-off. He had snatched my place on the leather couch - the one where I usually sit. A tall backpack, with things tied to it, like a tiny Christmas tree, leaned next to his tired looking hiking shoes and tanned legs. A cell phone was plugged into the wall, recharging. He grabbed it and started checking his email, as if for the first time. The hiking shorts and T-shirt he wore looked clean but his uniquely strong odor reminded me of the 2 Pacific Crest Trail hikers I'd given a ride last year, into town. As soon as they got into my camper, I had roll down all the windows, wanting to stick my head out into the headwind just to breathe.

I looked around the coffeehouse, noticing that the only vacant seat was just a few yards away from that guy on the couch. I cherished my afternoon Tea Time, sipping and reading the Times. I wanted to enjoy the solitude without having to pull my shirt up over my nose.

My body sank onto an overstuffed chair. I slowly poured English Breakfast tea from the pot, ready to settle into a satisfying read. I didn't get through my first paragraph before I started glancing over at him. Suddenly, I felt really old.

It seemed just a few short years ago when I was that guy. Not a hiker but a biker - a bicyclist - pedaling across America. The first time I went across, I was obsessed with taking the bare minimum and didn’t pack any socks. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a cafe booth, somewhere in Kansas and being overwhelmed by the reek from my own shoes as the fumes wafted up from the floor, building up under my table before drifting to my nose. I remember the look of disgust on some old guy's face, a few tables away, as the stench drifted his direction.

That damn Beatles tune - When I'm 64 - was on an endless loop in my head.

That damn Beatles tune - When I'm 64 - was on an endless loop in my head. Now I'm the old guy, put-off by the young kid - the kid who has the courage to begin molding his adult life in a unique way, that will shape the rest of his life, while his peers walk the well worn path of safety and predictability. For a few minutes, the once rock solid memories of my own adventures faded. I was more concerned about getting my fat ass comfortable in the chair than connecting with an uncommon character who probably had many inspiring stories to share. At 64, my idea of adventure travel was staying a few nights in an Airbnb.

Me, in 1976, pedaling 4,380 miles across America.

He took off his dusty shoes, then his long green socks, worn thin with several black rimmed holes. His feet were red and patchy with 2,000 miles of toe jam. The stench now drifted in my direction.

By the time Will started to talk to me, I was smiling inside, recalling my much younger self, sitting at a bar in Wyoming, taking non-stop to whomever sat next to me. I had been on my bicycle saddle for too long, over too many lonely miles. I didn’t give a damn who it was. I just needed to yap. I needed to talk to a human being.

Will yapped.

“I hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail in 2013. 2200 miles. Although it’s about 400 miles shorter, It usually takes about a month longer than the Pacific Crest Trail because the trail is more arduous. I started this trip from Campo, California, near the Mexican border."

Will Schmitt near Ashland, Oregon.

I sprinkled him with a few questions and the dam overflowed. How many pairs of shoes? (2) How many miles a day do you do? (20-30) When do you think you’ll get to the Canadian border? (November)

On my bike trips across America, folks were redundant with their predictable questions. How many flats you have? (6.) How many miles do you do in a day? (80.) Where do you sleep? (Almost anywhere.) Ever been robbed? (Nope.) Sometimes I got tired of repeating myself and once thought of having a pre-printed paper to hand them with all of the answers. Then I realized that it wasn't about my answers that was needed. It was the human connection.

As Will talked, his energized smile mouthed his stories.

I saw a lot of hikers right out of the gate, doing 30 miles a day, destroying their feet

Will Schmitt, with a degree in marketing, from Iowa, was focused and smart. "I benefitted from never really pushing my body hard. In the beginning, I saw a lot of hikers right out of the gate, doing 30 miles a day, destroying their feet, then having to get off of the trial. For me, I just eased into it, so I didn’t feel that pain of physical exertion. I feel a real sense of joy and freedom when I'm in an aerobic, blissful state that arrives when I'm moving for long distances. I haven’t even had to take any Ibuprofen."

one tiny mistake could have very different consequences.

Many people who had endured my stories of adventures through through the years, often glazed over hearing them. Many just couldn’t relate. I let Will go on uninterrupted. I got it, I understood. I wanted to hear every word. I imagined what hiking in the rain felt like, what encountering a bear might be like, or slowing to see a rattler slither across the path. My brain tried to connect some of my experiences with his. On a bicycle I felt somewhat connected to the rest of the planet by the highway and the many travelers rolling over it. But on a dusty mountain trail that wanders through the mountains and deserts from Mexico to Canada, one tiny mistake could have very different consequences. That kind of isolation takes on a meaning of its own.

I put my reading material down, no longer interested in any of it. I liked the guy. I liked his passion, the details in his stories and the metaphor of the smudged mirror he held up for me. After our enjoyable talk, I offered him a ride back up to the mountaintop trail. His 30 pound pack barely fit in the trunk of my fancy red sports car. He was impressed by the Audi TT and asked if he could snap a photo of it. There was a part of me that wanted to trade him my car keys for his backpack. I drove slowly, wanting to hear more of his stories of the trail.

I expected a story or two about infected blisters

I asked Will, "What was the worst thing that has happened to you on the trail? I expected a story or two about infected blisters or multiple bee stings. I imagined him looking out of his sleeping bag one morning only to see a hungry mountain lion staring into his face.

My question seemed odd to him and made him dig deep. After a long pause he offered, "I was sick with a cold for a week. Does that qualify?"

"Being alone, sick and having to constantly be on the move was a challenge - but at least it kept me from being congested."

Will's eyes narrowed as my question hung in the air. He stammered a bit, pondering and searching the journal entries in his mind.

Then he got quiet, finally coming up with an answer. "The sadness of knowing that you are not going to see friends that you met on the trail again - there is sadness involved in that."

I gave my last Snickers Bar to a couple of guys.

His mind quickly connected his thoughts. "All you have to do is share a moment with people and it seems that you are friends for life. One time on the trail, I gave my last Snickers Bar to a couple of guys. They had to split it in half to share it. The simplicity, the pure essence of life, is boiled down and distilled into a basic recipe of concern for your neighbor."

And connecting to another human being.

The hardest part of the mental game for me is yet to come.

He continued, ”The hardest part of the mental game for me is yet to come. That part is going to be when I return back home - to a life of walls and keys."

Will strums a tune.

I pulled the Audi to the side of the road and popped open the trunk. Will laid his pack down on the pine needles and leaned, still barefoot, against a thick tree. He unstrapped a ukulele from his backpack and strummed. A quiet breeze lifted his tune into the trees. Minutes later, I stood and watched him walk away, down the road toward the trail, until his backpack disappeared - my keys still in my hand.

Created By
Christopher Briscoe
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All photos by Christopher Briscoe.

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