At age 65, River Malcolm decided she was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
It was a lofty goal, considering the trail is about 2,000 miles. The goal was made even loftier by the fact that Malcolm is a self-described “not a super athlete” and being “good at getting lost.”
“My goal was to do the whole trail, just not in one year,” said Malcolm, a long-time Orcas resident.
The Pacific Crest Trail, known as the PCT to avid hikers, starts in Mexico and finishes in Canada. The trail travels through California, Oregon and Washington. Hikers experience desert, forests, the Sierra Nevada and views of the volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range.
The diverse wilderness of the PCT is what attracted Malcolm to her goal, but there were also two experiences in Malcolm’s life that led her on a mission to heave on her back pack and set off on a 2,000-mile long walk.
The first was the death of one of her beloved animals. When her dog was dying, he made it clear he wanted to be outside. Malcolm couldn’t bear to be separated from him, so she followed him outside and lay down with him as he passed on.
“I felt the wind and the smell of the pine and the feeling of the earth beneath us,” she said. “And I thought, ‘That’s how I want to die – with the earth beneath me,’ but then I thought, ‘No that’s how I want to live, to be connected to the natural world.’”
The other experience happened several months later in May, when she hiked 350 miles of the Camino del Santiago with her partner. The 550-mile trail is known traditionally as a religious pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.
“I was changed by it,” she said. “During all that time walking I had a sense of stillness.”
The Camino del Santiago gave Malcolm a chance to reflect on what her life meant and what she wanted to accomplish before her life was over.
It was also on that ancient trail that she saw many lone female trekkers and thought, “I could do that.”
For her, the ultimate pilgrimage would be the wilderness of the PCT.
So last February, Malcolm retired from her job as a family and marriage counselor, and started getting in shape.
Training consisted of numerous hikes up Mt. Constitution with more weight on her back each time.
Malcolm describes herself as a real novice as she flew to San Diego in late March to start her first day on the PCT. Luckily, PCT volunteers, also known as “Trail Angels,” met her at the airport, let her crash on their couch and dropped her off at the trail head (near Campo, Calif.,) the next day with two other hikers.
Her plan was to complete 210 miles and arrive in White Water, Calif., in about three weeks.
The first night she camped with the other hikers, but on the second night she spent her first evening alone in the wilderness. It was also only her second night ever pitching a tent in the great outdoors. She had set up her tent in the back yard to practice, but had not been out on a backcountry trail.
“I was scared,” she said.
The wind blew so ferociously Malcolm was afraid that her tent would blow away. Every sound was strange and disturbing.
But camping got easier. Malcolm started using earplugs at night to ease herself into dreamland.
She averaged about 10 - 12 miles of hiking a day.
“I was very good at getting lost,” said Malcolm.
She was also very good at getting back to the trail with the help of a special app on her phone that helped her navigate. She had a map and compass, but did not rely on her skill with them. Instead she made sure her phone was charged.
Overall, the first three weeks was a success and Malcolm left the trail feeling happy and excited for the next section through the Sierra Nevada starting in June.
“It was the best thing I had ever done,” she said.
The next section through 290 miles of Yosemite National Park, from Walker Pass to Tuolumne Meadow, was more difficult than the first adventure. Malcolm, who has struggled with depression all her life, felt those old unpleasant feelings rise up. Now she says her mood may have been attributed to altitude sickness.
The Sierra Nevada is known as one of the most beautiful landscapes in the U.S. but to Malcolm they felt harsh and barren.
“I had a few days when I felt like ‘I hate the Sierra Nevada … I hate everything,’” she said.
But by the time the trip was over she started to fall in love with the high meadows and the idea that she would probably never return.
In September Malcolm completed 320 miles hiking from Bucks Lake and heading south to Tuolumne where she ended her last hike.
Some days were easier than other. Keeping her balance crossing streams on rocks or logs required some training, which mainly involved not over thinking the process. Snow also presented several challenges. Some parts of the trail had so much snow that Malcolm feared slipping into a dangerous situation. Another night the wind blew so hard that she just started hiking at 3 a.m. in the dark because any chance of sleep was lost.
As for wildlife, she saw a Mountain Lion’s footprints in the snow on one trail and on another occasion she saw a bear, but it ran off as soon as it spotted her.
“He just looked really puzzled,” said Malcolm.
Now back on Orcas, Malcolm is recovering from shoulder surgery. She hopes to complete another section of the trail in March.
Sometimes looking back she can hardly believe that she hiked any part of the PCT. It’s even harder for her to imagine she now has 820 miles under her belt, especially since those were miles she earned all on her own.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said.