Wednesday, May 7, 2008


Following my Pacific Crest Trail section hike last week, I had the good fortune to attend the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off (ADZPCTKO, 'the kickoff', or just ADZ).

I didn't really have an idea what to expect. Sure, I'd read about the kickoff in trail journals, and Paul (Potential 178) told me how much fun he had at the '07 gathering, but it was still something of an enigma. In thru-hiking circles the kickoff is both praised and opposed to both ends of the spectrum. Proponents laud the camaraderie, education, and nostalgic benefits, while detractors complain of the 'herd' (too many hikers starting at once) and lack of solitude. In the end, the 'hike your own hike' mantra seems to prevail.

So, it's the Thursday before the kickoff weekend as Paul and I hike South into Lake Morena. Already there's so many tents scattered about it looked like an REI truck exploded. Of course, on closer inspection, most of the lightweight shelters wouldn't be found at REI, being a breed currently known only to thru-hikers and well educated backpackers. Silnylon, Tyvek, and even some Cuben Fibre tents prevailed.

We found the registration tent and received our name tags and camp site assignments. After setting up, we went up to the disappointingly provisioned 'Malt Shop' to get a snack. Fortunately, a local entrepreneur had set up his chuck wagon, 'Ray's Bitchen Kitchen', to augment the food supply. Ray had never met a vegetarian before, so I was happy to enlighten him on the ins and outs. I had a 'bitchen' plate of beans and corn with a warm tortilla and "seriously, no meat at all?".

Once we had settled in, I followed Paul around to meet some of his friends from previous hikes. I quickly took a liking to Squatch and Jester, as they shared my immature joy in bathroom humour. Squatch is a famous character on the PCT, being the producer of numerous movies about trail life. He also has an unfeasibly large fanny-pack which provided for hours of entertainment. Near our campsite we met up with a group we had run into back at Warner Springs, where we recycled some trail jokes and stories. Nitro, Tomato, The Onion, Heinz, Swifty, Ducky, Nano, Bearcant and I formed an entourage for the remainder of the weekend, staying up late by the fire and disturbing as many people as possible. This nucleus attracted many visitors, and we were regaled by stories of both the trail and real life.

I should make a side note about trail names here. Hikers come from all walks of life (pun intended) but mostly none of us were ever those cool frat guys with names like "Pinto" and "Flounder". In response, the concept of trail names was invented. The best trail names are given on the trail, by other hikers, usually inspired by an event or character trait. Some trail names stick for life, while others are only for that year's hike. Paul's trail name, 'Potential 178', is one of those names that comes with a fantastic story. Let me explain. No, there's not enough time. Let me summarize. Paul was given a hard time by US Customs last year, where it was deemed he may be a burden on the US economy, or a 'potential 178' in border-guard lingo.

Anyway, back to the kickoff. Besides sitting around in the shade drinking beer, there were other events and happenings. We saw slideshows from previous year's thru-hikers, a screening of one of Squatch's movies, gear contests, auctions, and informative seminars on trail conditions. The highlight of all these events had to be the ones involving trail legend Eric Ryback. Eric is famous in the hiking world for being the first to thru-hike the PCT, among other achievements. He has been detached from the hiking community (in fact, he didn't know there was such a thing), and it was only after some family members of his who hiked the trail last year that he got in touch with the ADZ planners.

The first presentation involving Ryback was a panel of 'old timers' giving their views on the trail from the 70's compared to now. A few of these were trail-hardened octogenarians who enjoyed berating us youngsters and our cel phones and MP3 players. The panel started to slip into a "you damn kids these days" speech, but then it was Eric's turn to talk. He was so positive, and excited about the trail community, that the whole auditorium gained a buzz of electricity. His now-famous comment was "I'm tempted to go and call my wife and tell her I won't be home for 5 months" (or words to that effect). Eric was astounded to discover the sense of community and fellowship among the hikers. He didn't lecture us on how hard he had it, instead he shared his excitement in the new gear and technology available. Not to dismiss the other panel members, some did have interesting comments and it was fascinating to hear about their adventures, but I couldn't help wanting to hear more from Eric Ryback.

Fortunately, there was more. Saturday evening presented us with a slide show and talk from Eric, featuring slides (yes, actual 35mm film positives, no Powerpoint!) from his 1970 hike. Equipped with jeans, a wood framed pack, and no sunglasses, Eric started in a snow-covered Washington and hiked south to the Mexican border. The crowd was very receptive, and nobody soured the mood with questions about the controversy involving his thru-hike (witnesses claim he hitchhiked around some of the areas. We all chose to not care. Hike your own hike.) The day also gave me the opportunity to explore the specialty gear makers' displays, and meet the people behind the gear. I chatted with Henry Shires (Tarptent) and got a preview of his new tent design. I'm ready to order when you are, Henry!

On Sunday, Swifty hiked down to the border (I really wanted to go, but my knee was acting up and I didn't want to do any more damage). Instead, the entourage piled into two cars to drive down to the border and meet her. We stopped for a gallon or two of ice cream before hitting the dusty road to the border fence. The border was an odd mixture of barbed wire, sheet metal, and sponsored placards from insecure Americans. I'm sure the scene of a bunch of dirty hikers posing for photos made the minutemen nervous, but they didn't interfere.

Other memorable times involved cooking burritos for 500. You've never cooked until you've cooked refried beans on a barbecue. The volunteer spirit was in full-force in the kitchen area, and there was never a shortage of volunteers. We also performed interventions, helping overpacked hikers lower their pack weights. The remainder of the time was usually spent hanging out with other hikers, while my evenings were spent with the entourage around the campfire. One evening was spent at 'the cabins' which is an area noisy hikers are encouraged to go to, to avoid disrupting people at the campground who need an early start the next morning. The party at the cabins was a riot, and, after a bit of night hiking, I got to bed at around 4:00am. Not typical hiker bedtime!

On Monday morning the air around the campground was quiet and solemn. The thru-hikers left for the next leg of their trip, and the rest of us packed up for home. It was sad to say goodbye to my new friends, and we promised to keep in touch. Hopefully, a group of them are going to visit me in Victoria late summer and hike the West Coast Trail. I'm already counting down the days!

For more photos check out Mad Monte's and Splash's photo pages.