PCT hikers are a different breed

It's easy to spot long-distance hikers who have arrived in Ashland after trekking 1,700 miles or so on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico on their way to Canada.

Known as "thru hikers," they look tired, dirty and in need of a cold drink and platters of food. Their sturdy legs are carrying the lightest possible backpack. But most of all, they are equipped with self-deprecating humor.

"Thru hikers' food consumption in trail towns is the stuff of legends," says veteran hiker Chuck Chelin, who lives outside Sandy. "They have the metabolism of a red-hot woodstove. Who else do you know would buy a jar of mayonnaise and eat it with a spoon?"

Portland-author Cheryl Strayed, who hiked through California, Oregon and Washington and wrote a best-selling memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," describes her hair during the journey as "coarser and strangely double in thickness, sprung alive by layers of dried sweat and trail dust, as if I were slowly but surely turning into a cross between Farrah Fawcett in her glory days and Gunga Din at his worst."

Dee Collodel, who helps run her daughter Daureen's Ashland Motel, says she can spot PCT hikers by their calm demeanor. "They are very nice and interesting," she says, diplomatically, while sitting at the reception desk of the motel Tuesday morning. "They just want a comfortable bed and a hot shower. We always give them lots of soap."

Endurance hikers rarely jump into the motel's pool, Collodel says, because they're too tired. "They just want to rest up and get back on the trail," she says, adding that she and her husband, Dino, are "not outdoors people, but we enjoy the people who are."

Yes. PCT hikers are different.

Start with the tradition of trail names. Hikers travel in anonymity because they are anointed with nicknames by other hikers that reflect what they did, said or liked along the way. "WeatherCarrot," "Whistler," "Sandals," "Sheepdog," "Boo Boo," "Tequila Kid" and "Fireweed" have roamed the PCT.

Long-distance hikers also look different from your average backpack-bearing visitor. Here's a quick head-to-toe account:

Overall appearance: Lean, muscular, without extra bulk. "That gaunt look is the reason bears hide their own food in trees when thru hikers are in the area," says Chelin, whose trail name is "Steel-Eye" and is known around the world as the man who has been hiking the PCT since 1965. After one of his end-to-end hikes on the 2,663-mile trail, he pulled on his jeans he had left at home, buttoned them up and watched them fall to his ankles.
Faces: Dirty in spite of well-intentioned spit baths. Men have shaggy beards. Women go without lotions or makeup
Legs: Slim, tightly corded. Women's legs are almost as hairy as the men's.
Strange tan lines: Tans start at the bottom of shorts and end at the top of gaiters. Hands are dark except across the back of the wrists, which are covered by hiking pole straps.
Clothing: Shabby, faded and mismatched. A lightweight backpack means no extra set of clothes (maybe a spare pair of socks). So what is being worn gets worn out. Steel-Eye's long-sleeved shirt made it 700 miles before it was retired. Shoes last about 500 miles.
Sweat stains: Evaporated sweat leaves a salt crust around clothes and hats and makes them stiff.
Laundry: On-trail sloshes in a river and a wring-out. Ashland's public laundries get a workout when the bulk of the PCT hikers arrive from mid-July through mid-August. Signs request that sleeping bags not be crammed into washing machines and muddy stuff be rinsed off before going into a load.
Injuries: Blistered feet, missing toenails, broken bones, bug bites, you name it. Author Strayed compares her skin that was rubbed by the hip belt of her over-sized backpack to "tree bark and plucked dead chicken flesh."
Appetites: Young male hikers burn about 7,000 calories a day. Trail-town eating is centered on all-you-can-eat buffets, snacks and beer. Says Steel-Eye, "they remember Miss Piggy's advice on dieting, 'Never eat more than you can lift.' "
Perspective: As Strayed writes: "I didn't think the words 'only' and '200 miles' belonged in the same sentence." Adds Steel-Eye, " 'Pretty soon' to a thru-hiker means a walk 332 miles away to Cascade Locks, while, to a day hiker, it means 20 miles to Pilot Rock."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com

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