x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Climb every mountain

Into the wild John Henzell treks across the US from the Mexican border to the Canadian in a non-stop journey that changes his life.

On a chilly September morning in the Cascade mountains of the Pacific North-West, I reluctantly left the warmth of my sleeping bag then stashed everything I had into my backpack and began hiking north. There was nothing unusual in this because since a similarly chilly morning on the US-Mexican border in April, this had been my life. For a little over five months and more than 4,000km, I'd been hiking north along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that threads along the spine of the mountains of California, Oregon and Washington. But today was different. Today, the Canadian border was only a few hours' hike away.

About 350 or so of us had headed north from the Mexican border with the intention to hike to Canada in one go. Most aspiring thru-hikers would succumb to failings of health, motivation or finances and only about 120 of us would make it, earning membership of a select group with fewer members than those who have successfully reached the summit of Everest. From the Mexican border, we'd gone through the dry and rattlesnake infested hills of southern California as the trail led us through six of the seven climatic zones in the United States, with only the Alaskan permafrost tundras missing.

Our route then skirted around the urban ugliness of Los Angeles via the unexpectedly attractive San Gabriel Mountains and then reached the starkly beautiful granite mountains of the High Sierra range. A particularly snowy spring had left these still hidden under snow and we'd had to use snow shoes and ice axes for a 320km stretch without crossing a road. In all we would be in snow for six weeks, sometimes all day, before a combination of summer temperatures and lower altitudes made the difference.

By the time we emerged from the High Sierra section, each of us had what is known as "the look". Part of that is from being lean and fit. When I emerged from the 320km wilderness, my cheeks were hollow from weight loss and I could see my ribs protruding for the first time since my teens. But it was more than that. More than a tan caused by ingrained dirt as much as by sun. There's something intangible that comes from having hiked for three months and that shone through in our demeanour.

Early on, when we were asked where we were hiking - "From Mexico to Canada," we'd reply, straight-faced for maximum effect. We'd be greeted with expressions of disbelief. After the Sierra, there was still an element of incomprehension - "You're hiking how far?" - but the disbelief had disappeared. By then, our soft office-bound bodies had become accustomed to hiking. On my first day from the Mexican border, I had been wiped out from covering 22km but now we regularly hiked more than 50km a day without ill effects unless we did too many of them in a row.

In time, though, we realised the physical effects were secondary to the more profound cerebral ones. To some Americans, it seemed both abnormal and threatening for us to have stepped off the endlessly bigger house/boat/SUV/mortgage treadmill. But it was equally interesting to see how quickly we'd recalibrated our lives and expectations to realise that money was just one of the symbols of wealth and counted for little if not matched by time, health and freedom.

For the final 2,500km, I hiked with an environmental consultant named Robert who, at the age of 42, was horrified to realise that he went to so many black-tie functions for work that it was worth buying a tuxedo instead of hiring one. So he retired. And now we felt incredibly wealthy and privileged if we found a creek with water that didn't need to be filtered or a campsite with a view or even just a nice sunset.

Gradually the dust and heat of California merged into the rolling hills of Oregon and finally into the damp forests of Washington, where we were chilled by a week of freezing drizzle. As the landmarks passed, the goal of reaching the Canadian border slowly changed from being incomprehensible to being possible, then probable and, finally, nearby. There was a strange process of marking the countdown. The last national park, the last week, the last town, the last road, the last pass, the last night of camping. And then, from our campsite on that chilly September morning in the Cascade mountains, we followed the trail as it threaded its way north.

After three hours of walking, a clear-cut swathe about 15m wide and running due east-west, we emerged and spotted the border marker and the wooden plinth stating that this was the northern terminus of the PCT. The feeling was remarkably uncelebratory, but that was appropriate because this epic 148-day hike had always been about the journey and not the destination. Besides this, there was nothing else to show we were at an international boundary. We still had to hike for another 14km before we reached the next road, on the outskirts of the Canadian resort village called Manning Park.

As we stood on the side of the sealed road, there was no marker showing where the PCT headed into the pine forest on the other side of the road because it didn't continue. We were done. Finished. Finito. The end. On this night I wouldn't break out my tent and cook food I'd carried on my back. I wouldn't be serenaded to sleep by the sound of a bubbling stream under a sky of swirling stars. The next morning I wouldn't lie in my sleeping bag, putting off the point where I had to get out and stash everything I had into my pack so I could continue hiking.

The next day, I'd start returning to the more complicated world where the day's goal not only isn't measured in kilometres or height gain but is unlikely to be empirically measurable at all. The longest journey, the Taoist saying goes, begins with a single step. And it ends with one too, but they don't tell you about that. jhenzell@thenational.ae