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About Utah: 69-year-old Richard Jones attempts hike from Mexico to Canada

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 12:45 p.m. MDT

Utahn Richard Jones takes a civilized break at a camp store adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Richard Jones

The phone call came from the top of a mountain somewhere in California. Richard Jones, the man making the call, wasn’t sure exactly where he was. But he knew where he was going. North. Always north.

At least until he hits Canada.

The last we saw of Richard Jones, he was shaking off four-and-a-half months of salt water, having just completed rowing the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands to a place in the Bahamas called Ragged Island, which he ran into while trying to go around. The Deseret News had dispatched me to the Caribbean to find Jones, Stanley-meets-Livingston style. I had been receiving periodic updates from him via satellite phone ever since he left Africa in October of 2000 in his 27-foot boat, “The Brother of Jared,” bound, he hoped, for Miami Beach.

He came up just short, but still his 3,675-mile, 133-day voyage qualified as only the 11th certified crossing of the Atlantic by a solo rower and first by a grandfather.

Before the 57-year-old onetime Moab river-runner came back home to Utah, he stopped off at the morning TV shows in New York, where, when asked how he felt, he quoted Mark Twain: “I’m glad I did it. Partly because it was worth it and partly because I don’t have to do it again.”

That, it appeared, was that.

Until this latest.

On the doorstep of turning 70, Jones is attempting to hike the length of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, all 2,650 miles of it, encompassing the California, Oregon and Washington. He started at the PCT’s southern terminus in the border town of Campo, Calif., on April 24. Since then he has covered more than 500 miles. If all goes well, he’ll celebrate turning 70 on July 9 in the Sierras, and by late September he’ll step into Canada.

The preparation

About two months ago, Richard sent me an email with details of his newest quest — a kind of encore to the Atlantic row. In early April we met at his home in Sugarhouse where he showed me the 26 supply boxes packed with non-perishable food and other necessities that his wife, Jodie, would be shipping over the course of the next five months to various mail drops in close proximity to the PCT — a Chevron station here, a campground store there. He also showed me his lightweight pack that weighs 12 pounds at its most basic, and somewhere between 35 and 40 pounds fully loaded.

A lot more people try to thru-hike — that’s trail terminology for making it from Mexico to Canada or vice versa — than try to row the Atlantic Ocean. Between 300 and 500 hikers register each season on the PCT — less than half of them actually go the distance.

For weeks, Jones had been gearing up by walking here and there with his pack, routinely making the 10-mile round trip between his house and downtown Salt Lake City. His most ambitious training hike took him to his daughter Allison’s house in Smithfield, a distance of 90 miles. He did it in three days. At night, to approximate trail conditions of camping where you drop, he slept in farmers’ fields. During the cold nights of March and April, he slept in his backyard in his tent.

It begins

Everybody hears their own drummer — Jones’ drummer happens to be Ernest Shackleton.

As “climatized” as he’d ever be, Jones flew to San Diego, caught the bus to Campo, strapped on his pack and was off.

He wasn’t sure he’d hold up. He has the usual problems incident to age — knees, a little plantar fasciitis and some heart history with AFib — so he asked me not to write anything until he was confident he had a chance.

Last week, my phone rang. It was Jones. He was at mile 421, he announced. Somewhere to the east, by point of reference, was Lancaster, Calif. It was sunset and he was ready to turn in. To get through the hot, unshaded portion of the PCT — roughly the first 700 miles — he reported that he was starting out every morning around 4:30 a.m. so he could rest during the heat of the day. Then he’d walk till dark.

“If you want to do the story, that’s fine. It looks like I’m staying out here,” he said after we exchanged hellos.

I asked him how hard it is.

“Harder than I thought,” he said. “On the third day out, I got dehydrated and thought I was done. But I’m still here.”

I asked him what’s the biggest challenge.

His answer, to sum it up: his age.

“I’d say the average age out here is probably late 20s,” he said. “For these kids it’s a piece of cake. Best I can tell I’m the oldest one. I just kinda shuffle up the hills.”

He’d already shuffled up three major mountain ranges in the Cleveland National Forest and the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains.

His favorite moment so far?

That would be the day his wife and some friends surprised him when he walked into the McDonald’s where the trail crosses the I-15 freeway at the Cajon Pass northwest of San Bernardino.

“That was wonderful. We had a nice meal,” he said in classic understatement.

Before he signed off, I had to ask him:

“So is it tougher than the ocean?”

“Much tougher,” he said. “If I were younger this would be easier. At 57 I was in my prime. I could just row all day long. I can’t walk up these hills all day long. Rowing the ocean was pretty boring. The scenery never changed. I had a lot of time to think about things. I can’t do that here because I have to pay real close attention to the trail. I have to be very careful where I place my feet.”

“But I’m glad I’m here,” he added, obviously proud about the 21 miles he’d knocked down that day. “You go around every corner and there’s new scenery and new challenges. It’s just fascinating to see what’s over the next horizon.”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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