Hiking across the West Coast: Wilson native spends summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Drew Butler
dbutler@gannett.com
Hales Brown at the terminus of the 2,653-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail. The trail stretches the entire West Coast from the Mexican Border to Canada, and Brown hiked its entirety over the course of 142 days this summer.
Brown looks toward Mt. Rainier from the Goat Rocks Wilderness area of the Cascade Range in Washington State.
Brown with hiking partner Jacob Streett at the 2,000 mile mark on the PCT. The pair met two years ago while both were hiking the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast.
Brown at the summit of Mt. Whitney in California's Sierra Nevada Range. Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
A view of the scenery along the trail in Northern California.
The view from the Cajon Pass located between the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California.
Brown in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range located in Central California.
The view of a mountain lake in Washington State.

Two years ago, Wilson native Hales Brown hiked the Appalachian Trail, a trek that stretches from Georgia to Maine. This year Brown decided to embark on another cross-country hiking adventure by undertaking the Pacific Crest Trail.

The 2,653-mile PCT begins near the Mexican border, and runs through California, Oregon and Washington before terminating near Canada. Brown hiked the trail in its entirety from May 12 to September 30.

In preparation for the Appalachian Trail, Brown spent months — if not years — researching the trail and gathering all the necessary equipment. This hike, however, was a bit more impromptu.

“This year I had decided that I wanted to focus on building my career in the outdoor industry, but that changed with the pandemic,” Brown said. “By the time May arrived I’d been furloughed from my job in Washington State on Orcas Island, and I was waiting to find out if my other work guiding hiking in Yosemite was going to pan out. But by the first week of May I found out that everything that I had set up for the rest of the year was either officially furloughed or on hold.”

With their entire schedule suddenly wide open, Brown decided to hike the PCT with their friend Jacob Streett. The pair had met while hiking the Appalachian Trail, and Streett had already made all of the plans for the hike.

“He was prepping and telling me about all of his planning,” Brown said. "He let me know that he was getting information from other hikers about the resources he needed to make sure he was safe on the trail. So, when the free time landed in my lap, and with all of the experience and the gear I had from hiking the Appalachian Trail, I decided it was the best move for me to go along with him. With my ambitions to work in the outdoor industry, I knew it would be wonderful experience.”

Brown said the PCT offers a much larger diversity of landscapes and wildlife than what is found on the Appalachian Trail.

“We call the Appalachian Trail a green tunnel because it’s very mountainous and forested pretty much the entire way through,” Brown said. “But on the PCT you get to go through so much biodiversity and scenery. Every few hundred miles you come into a completely different terrain.”

Along the hike Brown saw several bears, some mountain goats, and was even joined by a fox for about a quarter of a mile. Brown also saw several rattlesnakes.

“The rattlesnakes were my main source of anxiety when it came to wild life,” Brown said. “Surprisingly they weren’t that bad in the southern desert, but in Northern California they were hiding around every corner on the trail right at my feet. There was an adolescent rattle snake that jumped out at me right when I came around a corner on the trail, and it just about nipped me. That was my scariest moment I think.”

Another memorable experience came when hiking to the peak of Mount Whitney on June 24 when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake stuck nearby.

Though not officially on the PCT, Mount Whitney is nearby and many hikers choose to make the detour because the mountain is the tallest in the contiguous United States.

“It was around 10 or 11 in the morning, and my hiking partner and I were about a mile from the summit,” Brown said. “I heard a sound almost like an airplane, and I turned to look at Jake to ask if he heard it too. Before he could answer me, the ground under our feet just started shaking, and we just looked at each other with wide eyes and braced ourselves. It was very intense.”

Brown said the quake lasted only a few seconds, and they continued on to the summit where they watched search and rescue helicopters surveying the area to check for rockslides. Brown said there were no rockfalls in their immediate vicinity, but they did watch one from across the valley.

While in Oregon, Brown and Streett decided to challenge themselves to hike 60 miles in one day. They chose the location because it matched up nicely with their schedule and had relatively easy terrain. They also decided to each make the hike solo and meet up at a designated location.

“I started out at 5 p.m. so that I could hike through the night at the beginning because I knew that would be the most mentally challenging part,” Brown said. “It was kind of creepy. At one point I came out into a clearing, and the only light I could see was coming from my headlamp. As I turned, all of the sudden there were about ten sets of glowing green eyes that just stopped me in my tracks. I think it was a heard of elk, and suddenly there was a stampede as they all cleared out.”

Brown said the most challenging part of the 60-mile solo hike came in the last hour when a lava field slowed things down a bit.

“In Northern California and Oregon there are a lot of lava fields,” Brown said. “By that time my feet and my body were already so sore, and I was just trying to push through and hike over all gnarly, sharp, jagged lava rocks. That took a lot of mental determination to push through, so I turned on my best tunes to really motivate me to get into the zone and finish.”

Brown arrived at the designated meeting spot at almost exactly 5 p.m., 24 hours after setting out.

“I got to the 60-mile mark, and there was my buddy who had already finished his challenge,” Brown said. “His tent was all set up, and it was just an awesome moment to sit down, relax, celebrate and share stories. We both agreed that we felt like it was an awesome accomplishment, but we never want to do something like that again!”

For the most part, Brown said the weather was wonderful throughout the majority of the hike. There was no snowfall, little rain, and they even managed to avoid the numerous wildfires that affected the western states during the summer.

Unfortunately, the weather eventually caught up with them in the Northern Cascades in Washington State near the end of the trail.

“I had all of my gear for rain and cold weather, but because I had not had to use it too much until then, it hadn’t really been well tested,” Brown said. “It turns out my rain gear is great for a light rain for a couple hours, but it’s not for an all-day downpour in near freezing temperatures.”

The cold and rain hit right as they were coming into a 125-mile portion of the trail with no nearby towns or shelters. Brown said there was one escape route in the area, but it was closed because of the wildfires. So, they were forced to hike for a few days through the cold and rain. Brown was soaked to the bone by the end of the first day.

“That night I thought that since my tent and sleeping gear were dry, it would be okay,” Brown said. “I was hoping the next day it would be sunny for a bit and I would be able to dry my things out. Well, the weather was exactly the same the next day, and my only option was to put on my wet and cold hiking clothes and my soaked rain gear. That same pattern continued for two more days while we were in the wilderness.”

Eventually it started sleeting, ice was forming on the grass, and the trails were full of standing water because of the heavy rain. Brown said they were hesitant to stop even briefly to get a snack because their core body temperature would drop every time they stood still.

“I was just thinking I’ve got to keep moving and not stop until I can get into my tent, my dry clothes, and sleeping bag to get warm because that’s the only option I’ve got,” Brown said.

Finally, after days of wet and cold, Brown and h hiking companion made it to a shelter near Stehekin, Washington.

“We were the only ones there, and we hung up all of our wet clothing and gear in every corner of that space,” Brown said. “It was amazing to be somewhere warm and dry and to know I was going into town to get a hot meal. I’ve never appreciated staying in town so much in my life!”

Though difficult, Brown said the experience provided valuable life experience.

“It was trying, but I’m thankful for having moments like that because those are the ones I learn and grow from the most,” Brown said. “It was a crazy few days out there, but in the end, I was thankful to have those learning moments.”

After completing the trail Brown once again began to focus on their career.

“I’m trying to step back into the outdoor industry,” Brown said. “I’m spending some time applying for jobs and trying to get back into doing some guide work or program management for an outdoor program. I’m seeing where life sends me next and what my next adventure can be.”