Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)
June 1, 1996, was a hot, dry day on the California-Mexico border. The ground was singed from lack of rain and looked like a rippled potato chip. I was wearing shorts and regular running shoes to protect my feet. My cloth lined with supplies was tied around my waist. When I arrived in the small town of Campo, I walked south about a mile into the middle of the desert until I reached a barbed wire fence.
Staked in the ground next to the fence was a sign that read “Mexico” with an arrow pointing south. Another sign pointing north to a trailhead read “Pacific Crest Trail.” I signed my name on the PCT register that was inside a small metal box. I then turned north toward the trail that was faintly carved out of the brush, and I started running.
There was no adrenaline burst when I started. I had a sense of bliss that I was about to see new grounds and that I was making the journey unencumbered. I felt like I had been to one of those spiritual retreats where everyone gives up their possessions.
I began thinking ahead. I knew there would be no water for at least twenty miles. Any groundwater in the area that came down the mountains from the winter snow would have long since dried up. I immediately focused on conserving water.
The first day was harder than I expected. It was so hot and humid that my feet began swelling almost immediately. After just one day, it was clear that traditional shoes weren’t going to work. That night, I turned my running shoes into sandals. I cut the toe box out of the shoes and removed the tongue, giving my feet space to move around and spread out properly when they hit ground.
On the second day, I came upon two men who were hiking down the trail I was running up. Judging by all the gear they were carrying, they were day-trippers. They were moving at a good clip. As I approached, I greeted them with a wave.
“Wetbacks!” one of them said, pointing up the trail. “There’s some wetbacks up there!”
I stopped. “Are they dangerous?” I asked in a concerned tone.
“I mean, I don’t think so,” the other said. “But they’re Mexicans.”
I cracked a smile.
“Be careful,” the first guy said.
“Will do,” I said, giving them a salute.
I continued up the hill. Sure enough, when I came around over the top of the hill, I spotted five guys hiking through the brush. They were wearing beaten-up blue jeans, dirty white T-shirts, and monstrous smiles. Clearly, they were happy to be in California starting their new lives. They all waved at me, and I waved back.
I was surprised by how much I was struggling in the first few days. The heat was affecting me, and my body hadn’t adjusted to the task at hand. On the first day, despite being fresh, I covered only twenty miles. I was disappointed that my body wasn’t responding better.
To improve blood flow, in the first few nights, I found a spot on a slight slope and lay with my head downhill and my feet uphill. I crawled into my bivy sack and put the piece of cloth I had brought over my body. This covered my body while exposing my legs to air. Keeping my legs uphill kept the blood out of them. I felt that this recovered them faster and left me feeling fresher the next morning. I ended up repeating this sleeping process every night of the trip.
Over the next few days, I covered roughly twenty-seven miles a day. For me, that was not much. I kept thinking, This isn’t right. I’ve run sixty-five miles in a day. Why can’t I produce more? Is my body failing me?
Water was at a premium early on, as I knew it would be. In addition to the year being unusually dry, it was summertime, with highs reaching one hundred degrees. Most hikers attempting the entire PCT start out in the spring because the land is still moist from the winter snow. Many of the springs and water sources mentioned in guidebooks were dried up. There were several days when I wouldn’t find any water the entire day.
But even in a dehydrated state, with each passing day I seemed to become more a part of the land. I stopped feeling like a runner or a hiker, and I started to feel like I belonged. I started to feel like the land was moving under me, rather than me pushing over it. Achieving that feeling allowed me to increase my daily distance without any pushback from my body, and I hoped to establish a rhythm.
I zipped through the Laguna Mountains. Once the elevation increased, the shady oaks kept the sun off me. As I came down into the Anza-Borrego Desert, the climate shifted dramatically. The contrast was jarring. I was fully exposed to the sun, and it was torturously hot and dry.
One evening at sunset, I stopped to sleep for the night. I was out of water and feeling dry-mouthed. I reasoned that if I slept, then I would be starting up again in the hot sun, not knowing where I would be able to fill my water bladder. Despite the fact that I was tired, I decided to continue running through the night until I found water.
This was the type of decision I often had to make in survival situations. I had to ignore my immediate needs and look ahead. Sleep was important but water was more critical.
It turned out to be the right choice. The terrain was very open and there were no snakes, which would have made night running dangerous. The night sky was so clear that the trail was illuminated by a three-quarter moon that lit my way over the open terrain.
Early the next morning I found water. I pressed on across the desert. Soon, I rose into the San Jacinto Mountains. For most of the way, chaparral, a wiry shrubbery, brushed at my legs and arms. The climb was nothing compared to the descent. Leaving San Jacinto, the plunge was some eight thousand feet, passing through nearly every life zone in the state.
The down run was intense. The trail was steep with switchbacks. The drop was greater than hiking from the top to the bottom of the Grand Canyon—twice. The previous year I had trained in the Grand Canyon, so I was used to hitting the four-thousand-feet elevation mark and being done. But this time when I hit it, there was yet another Grand Canyon to go.
I made it down in about three hours, but I was completely out of food. I hadn’t started out with a lot of food, to keep the weight of my pack down. I had finished all my food except for a tiny bit of chia seeds. Those would have to sustain me for several days until I picked up my first shipment or reached a town.
The San Jacinto Mountains were twenty miles from the top to the bottom. As depleted as I was, I still had to cross the desert flats and then run back up the other side to reach the town of Big Bear, which is basically at the same elevation. In Big Bear, I could find food.
I gutted out the ten miles across the desert, passing underneath the I-10 freeway, and then began the climb to Big Bear. I could feel my blood sugar crashing. I was having a hard time even lifting my arms to keep them in sync with my legs. However, my legs were in such good shape that I was able to run without pumping my arms. I let my arms dangle at my sides like an ape and continued running.
A couple miles before I reached Big Bear, about six thousand feet up, I spotted a car. I was so depleted that at first I thought it was a mirage. But as I drew closer, I could see the outlines of a person hunching over the trunk. This was the first person I had seen since the Mexican immigrants several days earlier.
It was a lady organizing her belongings. I stopped and told her what I was doing. She didn’t seem impressed or unimpressed. Actually, I wasn’t sure she believed me. I asked if she had any chips or other food that could help me balance my blood sugar. She dug into her pocket and produced some hard candy, for which I was grateful.
When I reached Big Bear, I was happy to see civilization and food. I decided to treat myself—and also to put some much-needed calories in my body. I had twenty dollars on me. My first drop was in Agua Dulce, another 110 miles away. I had shipped both money and supplies, so I wasn’t worried about spending money. I went into a diner and downed a burger and a milk shake.
After my all-American dinner, I camped outside of Big Bear. Because of the elevation, the night was bitter cold. When I lay down to go to sleep, my legs were cold. As uncomfortable as I was, my thoughts turned positive. The cold would heal my aching legs. It was the first time during my run that I was fully and willingly surrendering to the elements.
The next morning, I got up at 6 a.m. to get moving. I dropped into the Deep Creek Hot Springs canyon and headed toward the Mojave Desert. I was running down the trail when I came upon a guy sitting in his camp. He looked like he had just woken up. The guy was very fit, unlike some of the hikers I had seen in town.
He had reams of expensive gear strewn out all over the place. There must have been forty pounds of everything from tents and sleeping bags to cooking equipment and hiking boots. It looked like he had bought out the REI store.
Because he was almost directly in my path, I stopped. The guy gestured at the gear. “I bought all this fuckin’ gear to hike the trail,” he said. “I have a zero-degree sleeping bag, and I was cold last night.”
“Really,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic.
He shook his head in disgust. “I was going to do the whole trail, but this gear isn’t working out for me,” he said. “I’m done. If your car is around here, I’d like to get a ride out of here if it’s not a problem.”
“I’m heading north up the PCT to the border,” I said. “I’m on foot.”
A perplexed look came across his face. He pointed to my wrap. “With just that?” he said.
I nodded. He was speechless. He didn’t know if I was messing with him or if I was some kind of badass. He went back to shuffling his gear, and I went on my way.
As I ran, I thought about people who try to re-create creature comforts in the wild with expensive camping gear. I didn’t want to be judgmental. It is better than sitting at home and not trying to enjoy the wilderness. But the true experience of hiking the PCT or camping out in the mountains requires a modicum of separation from your living room.
I couldn’t help but see the irony. Ultra-light sleeping bags weighed less than a pound. I had wanted to purchase one for my trip, but they were $250, well above what I could spend. Here was a guy who had an even more expensive zero-degree sleeping bag, and he was cold. In contrast, my system was to use the cold to regenerate my legs.
I smiled. While this guy was anchored to his gear, which would take him an hour to pack up, I had slept better and packed in thirty seconds. I had lived with the land, and it had taken care of me.
Emotionally, it was very Zen-like to wake up every day and know that I had one task: to run north. Most of the trail was two feet wide, with sand, pebbles, mud, or pine needles underfoot, and an endless sky in front of me. Every single step I took, every breath I drew, there was something captivating to behold—from plants and trees to creatures of all shapes, sizes, and sounds. I felt a duality with my body and spirit, as if they were working in unison while my feet danced over the trail.
Not knowing what was over the next hill or around the next curve was exciting. With each amazing vista I took in, I was compelled to push forward to see if there was an even more amazing one over the next hill. Being constantly surprised by the beauty of the terrain was the greatest joy of the journey.
There were obstacles in different parts. As I was coming down out of the San Bernardino Mountains into the Mojave Desert, ticks blanketed me. I had to stop every hundred yards and brush swarms of ticks off my legs. Then I’d run another hundred yards and repeat the process.
I did this for several miles through the area near Silverwood Lake until I reached the desert. Luckily, only a few bit me—on my testicles. That’s where they end up when you can’t find them. The problem is that you don’t notice when they bite you, but when you find them and pull them off, the spot is tender for a couple days.
The Mojave Desert had one bizarre spot. I was running along and hadn’t seen anything for eighty miles. Then all of a sudden, the trail crossed a highway right next to a convenience store. It was literally in the middle of nowhere.
I went inside. The store was empty, except for the cashier. I picked out an orange juice and a large bean burrito. I walked up to the counter to pay. The cashier quipped, “Don’t eat much, do you?”
I thought he was making fun of me for buying the overstuffed burrito. Preparing to explain to him that I was running the entire PCT, I asked him what he meant. He told me that two hikers who had come in the previous day bought ten Big Ed’s ice cream sandwiches (which are as big as they sound), sat down in front of the store, and polished them all off. I thanked him and headed out.
I began to think about the odd human interactions I was having. The people I encountered seemed to be using the trail for their own ends. The Mexican immigrants were using it to escape and rebirth themselves. The day hikers were trying to escape their daily lives. The guy with all the gear didn’t seem to be trying to escape anything. But I seemed to be using the trail to find something.
After covering roughly 450 miles using only the supplies I had brought—plus the burger and shake, and burrito and orange juice—I arrived in the town of Agua Dulce to pick up my first drop. Unfortunately, the box was not there. I had mailed the first two boxes the day before I left. I then planned to call my mom at certain intervals so she could mail the other two boxes.
I calculated that I was several days ahead of schedule. I was totally famished, and it was a hundred miles until my next drop in Tehachapi. I had just $1.10 on me. I needed to figure out how to get the most nutrition out of my very limited budget. I ended up buying a bag of corn tortillas, three rotten bananas for half price, and a few limes. That was all I ate for the next hundred miles.
The naturalist John Muir called the High Sierras the “Range of Light.” The range has some of the most majestic scenery in the world. There are piney forests interspersed with haphazard grassy meadows. Lakes connected by small fords dot the landscape. Immense conical peaks of granite that reach thirteen thousand feet in parts wall in the entire two-hundred-mile stretch. Even in the summer, the higher elevations are coated with snow and ice. Other sections have glaciers that never fully melt.
Kennedy Meadows is regarded as the gateway to the High Sierras. The area, at an elevation of 6,100 feet, has a small resort, several campgrounds, and a resupply station for hikers heading up into the High Sierras.
I had shipped my third drop to Kennedy Meadows. Inside was my sleeping bag, a necessity in the High Sierras, as the temperature would drop to the freezing mark. Fortunately, the box was there. I unpacked my coat, the food, and some money. I rerolled my wrap and set back out as fast as I could.
I didn’t like stopping for too long in the towns and talking to people. I wanted my interactions to be with the land and its natural elements. Almost on cue, I spotted my first mountain lion.
I was near Walker Pass heading up into the Sierras. The trail I was running on was an open ridge. Immediately adjacent was a ridge where the mountain lion was walking parallel to me.
I slowed down. I wasn’t afraid, but I also wasn’t sure what the lion would do. The lion kept moving and periodically looked over its shoulder at me. We were paralleling for about a mile. I hoped the mountain lion didn’t regard me as an invader of his land, but rather as someone who wanted to learn about it. After a mile, the lion rolled his head at me and split off in a different direction.
In the nearly hundred miles from Kennedy Meadows to Trail Pass, the elevation rises from 6,100 to 11,000 feet. With every thousand feet, the temperature dips a few degrees. I soon realized that the north sides of the peaks had snow and ice in the mornings, while the south sides were slushy because the sun was baking them. I was hitting the north peaks in the morning and the south peaks late in the day. Ideally, I wanted this to be the other way around so that the north peaks would be slushy, allowing me to make my way down. Early in the morning, the north peaks were still frozen solid, leaving me to figure out a way to descend safely.
Depending on the ice and the steepness, I used a host of techniques. I sharpened sticks or used sharp rocks to chisel my way down. Occasionally, I would take sticks and wedge them in the ice below me and slide down. Other times, I would use longer sticks as brakes. I knew that if I started to slide without a braking mechanism I would end up pinballing off the trees.
For a two-hundred-mile stretch, from Mount Whitney to Tuolumne Meadows, the terrain was composed of undulating passes of thirteen thousand feet that quickly dipped to eight thousand feet in a valley and then rose back up to thirteen thousand feet.
The highest point on the PCT is Forester Pass. Officially, the elevation is 13,160, though the sign marks it at 13, 200. The most surprising thing about being that high on almost all rocky terrain was the amount and variety of flowers.
Like a driver on a road trip marking towns as destinations, I set out to sleep on the top of every mountain. I had slept on mountain peaks many times before the PCT run. To avoid any nighttime drama, I always found an isolated peak so the bears didn’t pay me an unexpected visit in their search for a midnight snack.
Most days, I went to sleep when darkness took hold and woke up just after first light. Some nights provided a welcome deep sleep. Others were too magical to miss.
Before reaching the High Sierras, I had camped on the very top of Mount Baldy at ten thousand feet. The city lights of the Los Angeles Basin glowed in the distance below as far as the eye could see. I knew the hustle and bustle of life was occurring. I could see it, but I was at such a distance that I didn’t feel it.
In contrast, the volcanic peaks of the Sierras were lit only by the moonlight. There were no signs of any people. Within a matter of a hundred miles, ten million people had vanished.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig talks about how it is better to travel than to arrive. That is exactly how I felt when I hit the final stretch of the PCT in the Cascade Range. Unlike the Sierras, the Cascades were mostly flat with gently undulating terrain that was a pleasure to run. My legs felt like wheels gently rolling across the land.
The most beautiful area was the Lassen Volcanic National Park. The trail takes you to the east side of Lassen Peak, away from the tourist area located on the west side. Lassen Peak is still an active volcano. The heat from the ground warms the azure geothermal lakes that dominate the area. I swam in one lake that must have been eighty degrees.
The day I arrived in Seiad Valley, the final stopping point before the Oregon border, I ran fifty-five miles through a forest of Douglas fir. It was one of my most productive days in terms of distance. I had found my rhythm. I camped overnight and then went for pancakes in the small town the next morning.
I had heard there was a pancake restaurant that had a standing hikers’ challenge: if you could eat three pancakes, your order was on the house. I was hungry and running low on money, so I decided to give it a try. When I entered the restaurant, I immediately spotted the cook. He was a huge man, bearing at least 450 pounds. He had his back turned to me. As he was tending to the pancakes, he shifted to the left, exposing a sign on the wall that read: “Never Trust a Skinny Cook.”
“Sir, can I have three pancakes, please?” I asked.
The cook looked me up and down. A slim and fit 160 pounds when I set out, I was now about 145. “Why don’t you start with one,” he suggested.
And so I had my second sit-down meal of the journey. The pancake was bigger than the plate and three inches thick. I sat down and went to work. I managed to eat the entire pancake, which tasted more like birthday cake. Frankly, it was horrible. I felt so sick that I gave up the challenge. I paid $1.50 and left.
That night, I camped out and reminisced on what I had accomplished. I had been running for fifty-seven days. But my journey really was a series of moments, all different in length, strung together, and I had been present in every moment. My goal had been to finish the trail in a reasonable amount of time. I was curious about by how much I could beat the previous records, not for publicity but for myself. I had proven that a younger person could set an ultra-ultra-distance record and hold up physically. By any measure, I had bettered the fastest time by half.
I probably had the chance to create a marketing opportunity of my run and pocket a decent amount of money right from the get-go of my career, but that wasn’t what I stood for. I was turned off by commercializing the experience and, for that matter, by the running-and-fitness market in general. By seeking publicity for the run and the record, I would have been participating in the very aspect of running that I despised. I had initially thought that would be part of why I was doing the run. But doing the run changed everything. The last thing I wanted was to diminish my experience by endorsing a power bar.
If anyone cared to check, there was proof I ran it in fifty-eight days, as I had signed and dated all the registers I passed. But I didn’t want to find out what it meant to someone else, because I knew what it meant to me. And, inevitably, someone would say that my pace was impossible and that I must have scoped out the registers and driven the highway, hiking in at points and signing the registers.
I felt a sense of accomplishment, but not in the modern way. Some people actually feel a sense of accomplishment when they take a plane halfway around the world. They’ve traveled far to a foreign land. But what have they accomplished? When you can take a journey on your own body power—a mile, 10, or 1,727 in this case—that is an ultimate sense of accomplishment.
Some people want to learn what they are capable of, but they never push their limits to find out. I had done that. Though I had lost fifteen pounds, I felt no joint or muscle pain. I had gone through one pair of modified running shoes. The only problem I encountered was a queasy stomach the final week—which that hubcap of a pancake didn’t help. The most interesting physical change was that my feet spread out as if they had been flattened by a truck. I later figured out that my shoe size went from 10.5 to 12.5. As my mileage decreased over the ensuing months, the size returned to normal.
On the final morning, I awoke with one question on my mind. “Am I doing this run for me or for others?” The goal had essentially been accomplished: I had run it faster than anyone ever had. I didn’t want to plant a flag with my name on it as a challenge to others to beat my time. I was actually pleased that I had concluded that the goal was somewhat hollow, for it was the trails of the mountains that were the experience, not the end point.
I had made my decision. I packed up and ran fifteen miles toward the Oregon border. Less than two miles from the state line—the finish line to the California section of the Pacific Crest Trail—I stopped.
I felt joy and humility, but most of all respect for the land and for myself. I took a deep breath, the best of the entire trip. And then rather than run the two miles to the border, I turned around and ran fifteen miles back to Seiad Valley. That afternoon, I caught a bus back to Seal Beach.
In making that decision, I eliminated any chance for commercialism. I decided not to formally cross the finish line. Anyone who bothered to check all the PCT logs from Campo to the Seiad Valley would see that I had run nearly all of the PCT in record time. But nobody would check, because I hadn’t signed the final log. Partly, I was being defiant. The border was just an artificial line. But mostly, I was showing that I had done it for myself.