Hiker, in solitude, discovers the best in people
While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Rich Steward wasn’t Rich Steward. His name was “Proton.”
Steward, 59, of Mukilteo, hiked all 2,650 miles of the trail in four months and 11 days.
The long-distance trail runs from Mexico to Canada along the crest of the mountains in California, Oregon and Washington.
Steward is one of more than 4,200 backpackers – who each receive trail names along the way – to thru-hike the PCT from end-to-end in a single trip.
“Another hiker early on thought I was really positive,” he said. “He told me, ‘You should be called “Proton” because you’re always positive.’”
He left the Mexican border on May 3 and reached the Canadian border on Sept. 13. He hiked an average of 24 miles per day.
Though Steward has been backpacking for over 30 years, he had yet to complete a long-distance trail. The most hiking he had done in one trip until now was about 70 miles.
“It’s breathtaking,” Steward said. “It’s a national scenic trail – so just seeing it from sunrise to sunset every day – the scenery is unbelievable.”
He prepared for the trip for the better part of a year: He researched long-distance hiking, practiced packing lightweight gear, learned how to resupply his food and water, and trained by adding more and more weight to his pack.
“You take what is absolutely necessary and nothing more,” Steward said. “There’s a saying that goes around: ‘If you need it and you don’t have it, then you don’t need it. You get by with a lot of things you think you need, but you don’t.”
Necessities vary from hiker to hiker: Though he wore the same clothes for 134 days, he didn’t go without toilet paper.
His average day went as follows: Wake up at 4:50 a.m. Eat breakfast, break down camp. Hit the trail by 5:30 a.m. Take a break at 10 a.m. Hit the trail again by 10:30 a.m. Eat lunch at 2 p.m. Arrive at camp at 7:30 p.m. Set up camp, eat dinner. Go to sleep by 9:30 p.m.
“It’s an exercise in determination,” Steward said. “You have to be willing to get up every day, no matter how you’re feeling, and walk all day. I walked somewhere between 12-15 hours every day, though I would try to take a rest day once every 10 days or so.
“It’s just getting up and walking, all day, every day.”
His experience was nothing like Cheryl Strayed’s trip whose hike is the subject of the 2014 film “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon. He had a few close calls with rattlesnakes and suffered a lot of broken zippers, but that’s about it.
Steward hiked by himself most of the time, but he would meet up with other thru-hikers for breaks, lunch and to camp.
“We’d agree to meet up at mile 1232 for lunch,” he said. “We would just know 18 miles up the trail we’d be meeting.”
He hiked the last 1,950 miles of the trail with a 31-year-old woman from Cincinnati.
Steward met Susanna Bost – her trail name was “Dreamcatcher” because one of the Native American hoops was tied to her backpack – while taking a break on their way through the Mojave desert.
“Rich was a very routine-oriented, disciplined hiker, which was helpful for making sure we got up early and got our miles in for the day,” Bost said.
“On tough days, Rich would sometimes make a smiley face on the trail out of rocks or sticks if he was ahead of me. Mostly we would just try to stay positive and keep each other motivated.”
Steward and Bost already have plans to go back to the PCT next year as “trail angels” – those who provide assistance along the trail, whether that’s food, water, shelter or a ride into town.
“They’ll load up a cooler with beer, sodas and ice – and bring chairs,” Steward said. “It really restores your faith in humanity. It’s the most amazing part of the trip.”
In 2,650 miles and 134 days, Steward learned that most of us are kind and generous, on and off the trail.
“If I had one takeaway, it’s that people really want to do nice things and be nice people,” he said. “It makes me want to be a better person. It inspired me to want to go out and do more – because I can.”