In 1926 on a bleak foggy morning, a textbook salesman/weekend mountaineer, Joe Hazard, had an appointment with a school marm, Miss Catherine Montgomery, to discuss the latest English readers. According to an essay by Barney Mann in the Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, the conversation went awry for a brief moment. Here is the conversation taken verbatim from the Trailside Reader:
MISS MONTGOMERY: Do you know what I’ve been thinking about, Mr. Hazard, for the last twenty minutes?”
JOE HAZARD: “I had hoped you were considering the merits of my presentation of certain English texts for adoption!”
MISS MONTGOMERY: “Oh that! Before your call I had considered them the best – I still do! But why do not you Mountaineers do something big for Western America?”
JOE HAZARD: “Just what have you in mind, Miss Montgomery?”
MISS MONTGOMERY: “A high winding trail down the heights of our western mountains with mile markers and shelter huts – like these pictures I’ll show you of the ‘Long Trail of the Appalachians’ – from the Canadian Border to the Mexican Boundary Line!”
Don't worry. I'm also reading this, and I agree – it's pretty hokey. But I think it's interesting nonetheless. If the above is true, an offhand remark set the wheels in motion for the organization of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Unlike the organization of the AT, The PCT has no visionary like Benton MacKaye, a man who dreamed of a series of hotel getaways providing escape for overworked cogs of the capitalistic machine he thought America would become. Nor is there Myron H. Avery, the man who worked much harder to make the AT a reality than MacKaye could ever claim. Even so, the PCT exists.
Which makes me wonder – why did the PCT work? If it wasn't the love child of a single individual and instead the work of many – why did the idea resound among so many and actually get done? What was the mindset of the people back in 1926? And what were they trying to do when they decided to actually create the PCT?
In this piece, I have no plans on covering the history of the PCT. Others have logged the efforts of the past in much more detail than I ever could. If you are interested in that, names and dates can be found elsewhere. Instead, I want to explore the PCT story as a cultural undertaking, a great achievement put in piecemeal by hiking clubs, dedicated individuals and a society concerned with conservation.
And though Miss Montgomery is important because of her legacy, her seed of an idea could only grow because it was strewn in the right place – The American West, 1920s – among a people dedicated to preservation. The story of the PCT is their story.
Understanding the Past
To understand the PCT, I think it's necessary to understand the idea behind the American West. And for that, we're going to need a little history.
The first Europeans to find California were the Spanish, who took up residence mostly because no one else really wanted it. Other powers were busy settling other areas, and the few towns set up by the Spanish were mostly missionaries set out to “educate” the local Native American tribes and a few trading ports to help Spanish ships heading to Asia. Eventually, both Great Britain and Russia would show up and stake a flag here or there, but the overall population remained sparse.
Spain eventually stopped caring too much about California because their power in the European continent was shrinking. The United States entered the picture by 1840. Soon after, Mexico signed a treaty with the U.S. ceding major lands, including the Sierra Nevadas over to the U.S.
The Feb. 2 treaty was amazing timing for the United States; a week earlier in 1848, James Marshall found gold at Sutter's Mill sparking the California Gold Rush. From 1848 to 1868, the population of California grew from 10,000 to 500,000. And that's ignoring Native Americans, who lost 100,000 in that same time period.
The West Coast began its strange story of uninhibited growth for the next 150 years. Industry after industry found a foothold in California. Agriculture, oil, natural gas – all three exploded over three decades. And then at the turn of the century, Hollywood became a household name. Apparently, the proximity of multiple habitats and almost constant sunny weather made it really easy for producers to schedule shoots and find appropriate backdrops. By the time Miss Montgomery was talking to Joe, aerospace industries set up shop just in time for the world wars.
My point is: the west coast, since 1848 and onward, has grown at an exponential rate practically from zero. There is no such thing as slow growth out there. And today, if you were to chip California off the U.S. Map, it would be the sixth largest economy in the world jumping just over France.
And while the west coast population grew exponentially and natural resources continued to be used up, another group began to fight back: the conservationists.
Conservationist ideas began to take hold of the American consciousness starting with one the America's first true philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. A scholar from New England, Emerson began to play with the idea of man's relationship with nature as he first began to outline a new movement: transcendentalism. He pondered ideas of solitude and of God. He wrote how society can corrupt an individual's worth. As America's populace continued to reach west, his ideas rung out. When news of the great mountain ranges and extensive prairies bounced around the more civilized states, so too did Emerson's thoughts. Henry David Thoreau's Walden followed soon after, published during California's first boom.
Consider that as thousands of people were mining the Sierra Nevadas, both Thoreau's and Emerson's works were infecting those living out west – individuals spending their days not in large cities but in new mining camps just a few years old.
And eventually, by the turn of the late 19th century, the seeds of transcendentalism blossomed into a major political platform. Conservation (and its more liberal buddy, preservationism) became part of the national debate. Soon after, Americans elected a conservationist to the White House.
Before Miss Montgomery wanted to know about textbooks, President Theodore Roosevelt was setting up the necessary tools for the PCT. Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service, established multiple National Parks and, by the time he left office, designated approx. 230,000,000 acres to be under public protection. That's not to say Roosevelt did everything by himself, but he definitely rode the wave of conservationism during the early 1900s.
In other words, he utilized the ideas of the time. At the turn of the century, nature didn't live outside city limits. America's greatest thinkers pondered it. America's citizens lived among it. Cities didn't reign over the landscape. Heck, the great vistas of America had only been discovered just two generations ago. Mt. Rushmore didn't even exist.
Back in 1901, the world still had space. Consider what that can do for the standard American's psyche. Space gives someone room to breathe, to create, to discover, to blaze a new path, to see something that no one had seen before. If you don't like your position in life...then go find a new one beyond the horizon. And even more shocking – the leader of the country encouraged this exploratory lifestyle simply because he lived it himself. He breathed the ideal.
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure ...” Roosevelt said. “Than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Roosevelt even met with John Muir, which has to be my favorite story out of all this...and I think it's relevant to my point. John Muir, as a young man, felt the need to explore the world, which he did. Eventually, he ended up wandering throughout the Sierra Nevadas and became something of a philosopher celebrity – growing this fantastic beard, hauling around Emerson and reading to himself under the stars. If John Muir sounds familiar, his main claim to fame is that he founded the Sierra Club. He was also known as the leading preservationist during the height of the conservation debate.
Well, Muir decided that he wanted to make sure Yosemite became a national park, so he invited ole' Theo out for a romp in 1903. The two met in California and took a train and coach to check out Yosemite. By the time they arrived, Theo was very interested, and he asked for the grand tour of the Yosemite backwoods. Muir said, “love to.” The two headed out (probably with a few secret service) and spent the night under the stars near Glacier Point. By 1906, Yosemite became a national park.
I don't even want to consider how John Muir would be received today. But in 1903, he could ask the president to go backpacking.
A Present from the Past
I may have meandered quite a bit throughout this whole article, but each point was by design (I swear.) What I'm trying to get at – that despite ridiculous growth, despite industry, despite new technology all coming together in this short amount of time, the ground work of the PCT thrived, and it thrived because there was a belief – not a belief held by a select few, but a belief held by frontiersmen, explorers, philosophers, statesmen, bureaucrats, teachers and even the president – that the wild landscapes of America needed to be conserved because the lessons learned out there, out in the wilderness, needed to be available for future generations.
In the beginning, Miss Montgomery had an idea. And after six years of concerted efforts by a number of hiking clubs located along the west coast to organize this idea into something a little more practical, the admitted “father of the PCT” Clinton C. Clarke was proposing to the federal government that it should set some land aside.
Eventually, it worked. Of course, in the 30 years before the initial proposal of the PCT and the National Trails System Act in 1968, there were lots of bureaucratic battles, cartographic efforts (including four years of one man forcing bands of teenagers to get lost in the mountains) and fundraisers. But it still worked.
As for Miss Montgomery, she never saw her efforts come to fruition. She died long before the PCT proper was “officially” finished in 1994. But if you take a look at her, I swear I've seen her face before. The attire may be different, but I've seen those sparkling eyes before. And as sure as there are dreamers, I know I will again.