The Pacific Crest Trail: A National Treasure

It’s a considerable distance from Mystic, Conn. to San Diego, Calif., and also a long haul from southern California to the Canadian border – especially if you’re traveling on foot.

Mystic native Hilary Sueoka and her boyfriend, Dan Stedman, are scheduled to arrive in San Diego later this week via various forms of motorized transportation, and then, after being driven a few miles farther south to the Mexican border, they plan to strap on backpacks and start hiking on The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT).

Five months and 2,650 miles later, after having crossed terrain ranging from scorching deserts to frozen mountain passes, as well as some of North America’s most extraordinarily scenic wilderness areas, the pair hopes to arrive at Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Sueoka, 26, said in a telephone interview the other day from her home in Boulder, Colo, where she has been living since graduating from Colorado University in 2009 with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Always active and adventurous, Sueoka has worked in various outdoor education jobs, including teaching sustainable farming and most recently, at Eldora Mountain Resort ‘s ski school outside Nederland, Colo. That’s where she met Stedman, 28, a Pittsburgh native who earned a degree in aerospace engineering from Penn State but decided, like Suoka, that life is more enjoyable on the trail than behind a desk.

The two decided to plan a long hike together and about a year ago agreed on the PCT, which along with the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast is one of the original National Scenic Trails established by Congress in 1968.

The PCT, which traverses 25 national forests and seven national parks, varies in elevation from just above sea level at the Oregon-Washington border to 13,153 feet at Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada. It also passes through the Laguna, San Jacinto, San Bernardino, San Gabriel, Liebre, Tehachapi, Sierra Nevada, and Klamath ranges in California, and the Cascade Range in California, Oregon and Washington.

While thousands of hikers and horseback riders tramp over various sections of the PCT every year, only about 200 through-hike the entire distance, as Sueoka and Stedman intend to do. Such an expedition requires considerable planning, including caching food and sometimes water.

Sueoka said she and Stedman are preparing about 35 mail drops to friends and general delivery post offices along the way.

Over the past few weeks they have been busy gathering supplies and dehydrating food to conserve pack weight and fuel during cooking on the trail.

“We’d like to keep our packs under 30 pounds,” she said.

Though the PCT had a reputation early on as extremely difficult because of remote sections where it was difficult to resupply, the Internet and cellphones have been a big help.

“It’s gotten a lot easier,” Sueoka said, because hikers can tap online resources. In addition, like the Appalachian Trail the PCT has a corps of generous volunteers known as “trail angels” who often leave food and water along the trail and even offer accommodations and other support. Sueoka and Stedman already have lined up trail angels who will put them up in San Diego and then drive them to the trailhead at the Mexican border.

The two hope to average about 20 miles a day – more on long, flat stretches and fewer on tough climbs, including a possible detour to 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in California, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States.

Stedman has hiked extensively, including an excursion of nearly 500 miles on the Colorado Trail, but Sueoka’s longest backpacking trip has been five days.

She’s up for the challenge and eager to get started.

“It’ll be a real adventure,” she said.

Sueoka plans to keep in touch with friends and family on the trail, calling and posting on Facebook whenever possible. She grew up in Mystic and graduated in 2005 from The Williams School in New London, where her mother, Nancy Spillane, was a chemistry teacher. In 2011 The National Science Foundation named Spillane an Einstein Fellow and she is now living in Washington, D.C.

I also hope to provide periodic updates of Sueoka’s progress. It will be the trip of a lifetime, and I wish her and Stedman good luck, good weather and above all, a good time.

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