Decision Points

This week I listened to George W. Bush's (G.W.) narration of his autobiography, "Decision Points". From his first person perspective, the book covers the major decisions of his two terms in office as President of the United States of America.

After listening, I just wanted to hug the guy. As a man I believe he is widely misunderstood. A countless many shoot their criticism from the hip at G.W. just at the mention of his name. But I speculate most of his critics would shift some of their positions of criticism against him after hearing his take on the issues from his own voice. And even if a hardened few see this book as little more than a propaganda reel, I do believe the intellectual integrity of all criticism against G.W. can only be strengthened by giving this one a read.

Out of respect for the man, and not an edorsement of any particular policy or ideaology, I'll quote what he says is his most meaningful accomplishment as President.

"History can debate the decisions I made, the policies I chose, and the tools I left behind.  But there can be no debate about one fact, after the nightmare of September the 11th, America went 7 and 1/2 years without another terrorist attack on our soil." -- George W. Bush

Just off the top of my head I can think of terrorist attacks in California, New York, and Florida within the past year.... This book was written in 2010, over a year after George W. Bush left office.

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As I churned out the miles listening to this book I began to think about my own decision points related to the Pacific Crest Trail.

On the trail nearly six months now, just a year ago I decided to quit my steady job as a civil engineer in Columbus, Ohio. In the face of $600/month student loan repayments, one month short of the work experience to qualify as a Professional Engineer, I quit. I emptied my 401k, drove to San Diego, and sold the car I was just about to pay off.

Actually, take a step back. A nested decision point was my choice to drive to San Diego. My original start date was April 11, as stated on my thru-hike permit. But just days before my flight, I got an inkling to just drive, to just let it ride, and embrace the moment. I metaphorically ripped up that plane ticket. Over 6,000 road trip miles and one surf toe injury later, I arrived at the United States border of Mexico in Campo, California on April 24.

On the trail the choices were mostly limited to variations of distances to cover between resupply points and what time to wake up and go to bed.

But about halfway through, my water filter broke. From there on out I haven't treated any water aside from a dozen or so iodine tablet treatments. The water has just been that good from northern California up.

Other choices were less risky, like replacing my lost spoon with a tent stake after Lake Tahoe; or, taking that side trip to Yosemite at the expense of two days. 

Along the way, a more serious decision for others, many common locations signaled an end to the trail.

As unlikely as I thought it would be, I encountered my first person to quit the thru-hike to Canada on Day 2.

More would certainly quit than I would personally encounter. But with regularity, common exits for failed thru-hikes occurred after Mt. Whitney, Tuolumne Meadows, Lake Tahoe, and the small towns of Northern California. The Oregon border, and to my surprise, the Washington border were also popular end points for many.

Even more surprising, just this past week, with only 190 miles go, I heard word of 10 hikers quitting the trail. I even saw a guy ahead of me turn around and pass me on his way back to the nearest road.

Each individuals' personal choices to quit the trail at any point are complex and I won't pretend to have a simple solution for all cases. Even more complex were the choices many hikers made to skip miles.

A starting point for estimating how many hikers reached their decision point to quit the trail is 50%. Lumping off half is easy work. A better estimate is complicated by incorporating the hundreds of hikers who skip hundreds of miles to allegedly be completed at some other time... Word of mouth estimates of the fail rate from hikers I've encountered range from 50-85%.

Skipping miles or quitting were never really options for me. Pressed with the choice early on in southern California I hiked a 50 mile section of trail other hikers were bussing around. From what I could tell maybe only 20% of hikers elected to take this risk, in the face of a potential four digit fine.

My goal all along, which I would many times say aloud to myself over the past year, "I will walk from the U.S. border of Mexico to the U.S. border of Canada this summer."

And to this point, I have pulled within 80 miles of Canada.

The decision point I faced this week focused on the weather. Conventional wisdom is to be off trail by October 1. If you're reading at the time of this post, today is Thursday, October 13.

Last Friday, as I walked down to Steven's Pass to head for Skykomish, hikers with the most recent weather report broke the news of the coming weather. This news, I suspect, influenced at least some of the 10 hikers that quit at Steven's Pass this past weekend.

Back on trail by last Friday evening, after a welcomed night in a Skykomish motel, the rain began to fall. Between 11pm Friday and early Sunday morning, an inch of rain fell.
As a play on the weather, I had downloaded the movie "The Perfect Storm" on my phone. I was too cold and wet in my tent to watch.

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Almost precisely at Mile 2,500 on Sunday night, snow began to fall. Not until Tuesday when the sun came out was I able to dry out my sleeping bag.

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Rubbed raw by four days of hiking and four nights in a wet sleeping bag, my feet were better off in sandals than shoes, regardless of temperature.

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This past week I covered my toughest 100 miles yet, my hardest week. For some perspective, after covering 18 miles on Tuesday I asked Snooze Button how much climbing was required to do 20 miles the next day. He chuckled while looking at the map, "8,000 feet."

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All the ins and outs of a tough week aside, I stepped onto the bus to Stehekin, Washington today (81 trail miles from the border) and read the weekends' weather report. On Saturday, two days from now, "There is a 1 in 3 chance of a storm long to be remebered to hit northern Washington."

Now somewhere in my raising I learned "2 out of 3 ain't bad". But facing a "storm long to be remembered" at 7,000 feet above sea level is enough to give me pause...

Falling trees are deadlier than bears.

In my next post I'll cover Stehekin, possibly America's best kept secret. But long story short, it's the last weekend of the season up here. Nothing's in stock. And the motel is $155 per night.

To ride out the storm I caught the day's 3 hour ferry ride to Lake Chelan, a small Washington city with standard motel rates.

Decision point after decision point I continue to take a "find a way" approach to Canada. My spirits are still high. This is far from a death march. And I'm pretty damn glad to be out here each and every day.

Completing this walk is my personal mission. But I reflect on the freedom that allows me to pursue the life of my choosing. And in that reflection I see the men and women who sacrificed their lives, who bore the burden and historical criticism of tough decisions to settle and defend the land that includes the land I walk on; land that Thomas Jefferson once purchased for 3 cents an acre from France's Dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The thought of these men and women motivate me to not give up, to find a way. And on a more personal note, I don't want to let down all the kind folks who have helped me make it this far. All those that gave me rides to and from the trail, a bed to sleep in, food, beer... I want them to have helped a guy who walked all the way from the U.S. border of Mexico to the U.S. border of Canada, not one who decided to finish 100 miles short.

PCT Mile 2,569.4.