An Interview With an Aspiring 2017 Thru-hiker
How do you close a circle by walking a line?
If you were to trace the route of the Pacific Northwest Trail with your finger, following map contours across endless mountain ranges and three states, you will have drawn a line connecting the crown of the continent in the Rockies with the sea stacks of the Pacific Coast.
The process of transforming that line, first imagined by the trail’s founder, Ron Strickland, into 1,200 miles of tread, has been a project that has unfolded across multiple generations. Forty years ago, the first end-to-end hikes were completed, and Strickland founded the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. Since that time, the PNT has earned National Scenic Trail status and the trail’s corridor has been continuously refined thanks to the collective effort of the PNTA and a growing body of dedicated volunteers. Without their collective effort, the trail might have always remained, as Strickland described it in its early days, a “Divide-to-Pacific pathway using existing trails, cattle driveways, Indian Tracks and primitive roads.”
Forty years later, aspiring thru-hiker, Analeise Dowd, will set out to find her own way along that meandering line of wild and eclectic pathways across the Northwest. How will her linear adventure become a circular one, which ties the PNT’s past to its present? I joined her for an interview at our Sedro-Woolley office to find out.
Ted called me “ambitious” and told me there were other trails I could do first, like the Colorado Trail or the Arizona Trail.
Q: Most people still haven’t heard of the PNT, let alone aspire to walk its entire length. When did you become aware of this lesser known National Scenic Trail?
Dowd: It was about 11 years ago. I stole my grandpa’s first edition PNT guidebook off of his bookshelf, which was signed by Ted Hitzroth. Ted grew up three doors down from them. Ted and his younger brother John, who we called ‘Hitz,’ were close family friends. Those two were almost like brothers to my mom, Susan. They joined my family on boat and Boy Scout trips over the years, and Ted told us stories from his PCT thru-hike in the 1980s, which really inspired us.
Three years ago I found that guidebook again while I was moving and that’s when I decided to hike the PNT.
Left: Ted Hitzroth’s original hand-drawn maps from his expeditionary PNT thru-hike, in 1983, with Ron Strickland. Right: The original Strickland Pacific Northwest Trail Guide, published by Merle Dowd, Analeise Dowd’s grandfather in 1984.
Q: That original full-length guidebook represents a key milestone in PNT history, right? It was published in 1984, the year after Ted Hitzroth thru-hiked the PNT along with Ron Strickland, the founder of the trail. It was also on that expedition that Hitzroth, the PNT’s original cartographer, sketched the very first maps of the trail for their PNT guide. I’ve read about their momentous adventure in one of Strickland’s other books, Pathfinder. Were your parents ever tempted to join them on their 1983 expeditionary thru-hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail?
Dowd: Well, I was born in 1983, the year Ted and Ron went out….and life changes with a baby. My dad, Richard, was more of a climber than a hiker, but he probably would have joined them for sections of the trail. Dad and Ted became friends when he started dating my Mom, Susan, back when they were still in high school. The three of them went on to explore the Northwest and have outdoor adventures together. Dad and Ted climbed peaks together all over Washington state, including Glacier Peak and Mount Rainier.
When she was 16, my mom rode her bicycle from Mercer Island, in Seattle, to Washington DC, as part of 9th grade class trip. Her teacher called the outing, “cycle mates” and she took 16 kids across the country every year, between 1970 and 2000, so long-distance is in my blood.
My dad did volunteer work doing search and rescue in King County. He helped me to see the importance of being prepared in the backcountry.
Susan and Richard Dowd, Ted Hitzroth and friends prepare for a backpacking trip in the 1980’s
Q: And long-distance hiking and cycling trips would have been much different in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Back in 1983, their equipment would have been a lot heavier and GPS navigation was not available yet. And in the early 1980’s, the PNT was more of a concept than a trail. As Strickland himself put it, the PNT was an “…unsigned, unblazed, pie-in-the sky trail that had been universally written off for dead.”
Thirty four years later, your hike will probably be a very different kind of experience. Most of the trail is still unmarked and will involve some serious challenges you won’t find on other NSTs, like route finding and bushwhacking. But it’s nothing like what Hitzroth would have faced back then.
In later versions of the guidebook that inspired you, Strickland says, “There are two kinds of route-finding challenges on the PNT: (1) how to follow overgrown trail sections and (2) how to navigate cross-country where the PNT follows no existing trail at all.” What are you doing to prepare for these kinds of challenges?
Dowd: I have been working with Ted Hitzroth. When I first shared my plans with him, Ted called me “ambitious” and told me there were other trails I could do first, like the Colorado Trail or the Arizona Trail. But the longer time we spent planning together, he said, “you know what you’re doing; I’m not worried at all.”
I have been hiking my whole life, since I was four years old. My first backpacking trip was in Bryce Canyon in Utah, fifteen years ago. My car broke down in Oregon driving home on that trip and that made it even more of an adventure. It taught me how to figure things out and that was back before [we had] smart phones with internet on them.
Ted and I have gone through my plans and discussed problem solving. He even helped me to figure out what kind of hiker I am. Ted helped me decide whether I was a “TP or leaf person,” or a “one sock or two pair of socks person.” We also went over routes, and he even showed me his original hand-drawn maps.
When she was 16, my mom rode her bicycle from Mercer Island to Washington DC… so long-distance is in my blood.
Volunteers like Ted Hitzroth have always been a crucial part of the legacy of the PNT. Many of them dreamed of traveling on a continuous path from the divide to the sea and dedicated years of their lives to mapping, building and maintaining this trail. But very few of them have had the opportunity to experience it for themselves as an end-to-end adventure. In a real sense, that gift, was willed to our generation, to hikers like you.
Dowd: And my dad did volunteer work doing search and rescue in King County. He helped me to see the importance of being prepared in the backcountry. A lot of people today are not and end up needing help.
My dad, he could get anywhere without even looking at a map. His sense of direction was that good. I’m not that good at knowing exactly where I am, but I have made a lot of effort in training and using the tools I need for navigation. I have great instincts that I’ve learned from my dad but I don’t naturally have that skill.
Q: Navigation will be a part of your journey. Many hikers find partners to better deal with trail challenges as a team. On their ‘83 hike, Hitzroth and Strickland became “hiking buddies,” but were “near total strangers,” when they met. Strickland offers another valuable insight in that collectible PNT Guide you have, “one or more companions can be a help or a hindrance, depending on your relationship. The solo hiker is his or her own boss and can often see wildlife that a noisy group will miss. He or she is also a potential victim of accidents and loneliness.” Will you be hiking alone or with a partner this summer?
Dowd: I will be hiking most of the trail alone. But my mom, my friend Chad from Montana and Ted are all planning on joining me for a few sections. I like my alone time. The only thing that makes me nervous is sleeping outside alone. But that’s a fear I will get over relatively quickly.
Q: Mountaineers call their adventures “bids” and “attempts,” because despite their best efforts to prepare, they may not summit. I have heard thru-hikers adopting these terms to keep a similar frame of mind. That mindset can also help them to minimize the chance of an accident by reminding themselves that bailing out, when the risk is too much, is always an option.
Thru-hiking the PNT doesn’t involve technical mountaineering, of course, but the risks on the PNT are very real, and the challenge formidable. Many have found it to be more difficult than they expected. Comprehensive records of PNT attempts don’t exist, but it is believed that only half of all end-to-end bids have been successful. As lightweight gear continues to evolve and more resources become available to PNT’ers, that ratio will probably improve. Still, it has not been unusual for aspiring hikers to quit, openly admitting to “exhaustion,” in the first 100 miles of trail. And at least one hiker has had to be rescued after a serious accident. Ultimately, preparation, weather, decision-making, and even luck, will determine whether a thru-hiker reaches the sea stacks on the Pacific Coast.
With the weight of all of this history behind you, what is your attitude about finishing the trail? Is it Cape Alava or bust? Or do you think you’ll find what you’re looking for somewhere along the way?
Dowd: I like the end-to-end idea. I have a great sense of myself and what I can do. This journey means so much to me and all that encompasses it. I have a degree in photojournalism. Whether I hike to shoot or shoot to hike, I could take way too long taking pictures. But I want to capture all that I can, all those moments. If I go slow, then I go slow, but I will make it!
Q: How have the people in your life reacted to your decision to take a summer off to thru-hike?
Dowd: [My hike] affects so many people around me. My mom, my friend Amanda, and others, have been inspired to get outside and hike and learn more about how to do it right.
I have worked long hours for a large clothing retailer for the last seven years. When I told my boss that I was taking this trip, he told me, “you can only go for 30 days.” But I just want freedom when I’m on the trail, not a date to be back by. When I told him I was leaving anyway, he said “I don’t understand why anyone would do this.” I love what I do and my team, I just don’t want to do [this for work] anymore. I want to work outside. The closest thing I get to that at this job is standing near a sunbeam streaming through a window.
But I have gotten tons of support from family, they are my biggest inspiration. I needed to do this. There were no questions about why. My grandma always expected me to take this walk. When I told her I planned to thru-hike this summer, she said she had been waiting a long time for me to tell her that. My grandpa said, “I’m glad you’re going, but I wish you were going with somebody. I wish your mom could pick you up at every town so you won’t have to hitchhike.”
Q: That is a nice aspect of the PNT, with savvy resupply choices, you could hike the entire trail without needing to do any hitchhiking. In the past, Bonners Ferry, Idaho, fifteen miles south of the trail, was the one unavoidable hitch.
Speaking of family, the name of your blog is Hikes for Dad and I know that your family’s connection to this trail has a lot to do with your decision to hike the PNT this summer. When you think of the 1,200 mile journey ahead, what makes you think of him?
Dowd: The whole trail! We have spread Dad’s ashes on Mt Rainier and other places that were meaningful to him and I will carry them with me this summer. Knowing my dad will be with me along the way to guide me makes me know I can do anything and I will make it to the end.
I miss his voice and have been looking at old photos of his adventures with my mom and Ted, as I prepare for this trip. I don’t do much without thinking about him. If Dad was here today, he would definitely come with me.
Analeise Dowd and her father, Richard Dowd (1956-2006)
That seems like a fitting tribute to your father and his love of the outdoors. Thank you for sharing your story with us – it ties the Pacific Northwest Trail’s past to its present in such a compelling way. This year also marks another important milestone in the history of the PNT – the 40th anniversary of the first end-to-end hikes of the PNT, back in 1977, and the founding of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association.
The Class of 2017 looks like it might be the largest in PNT history, so you might find some company along the way after all. I wish you luck on your end-to-end adventure.
Dowd: This is something I have been waiting 11 years to do; I am so ready for this journey! Even the things I may be nervous about aren’t going to stop me from doing this. Fear holds too many people back and I have held myself back for too long by thinking there is going to be a better time later. If you say, “some day,” that day may never come – you just have to make it happen. Life is incredible and everyone needs to experience it and all of its natural beauty.