SALT LAKE CITY — Back home from the ultimate walkabout, having spent five months this spring, summer and fall covering every inch of the 2,650-mile long Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada, sleeping under the stars, soaking in the solitude, communing with nature, watching the sun set over the Mojave desert, the Sierras and the Cascades, celebrating his 70th birthday all alone atop a majestic mountain peak, guess what intrepid adventurer Richard Jones can’t stop raving about?
“It was a wonder to see nature’s beauty, but especially man’s beauty; the kindness to one another,” says Jones as he gives his feet — and everything else — an extended rest at his Sugar House home after 155 days on the trail. “I tear up every time I think about it.”
Back on April 24, when he stepped off the bus in Campo, Calif., tapped his toe in Mexico and headed north toward Canada, Richard’s biggest concern was himself. Namely, how would a soon-to-be-70-year-old with an abnormal heartbeat and other issues incident to age fare on a five-month, getting-away-from-it-all hike through two mountain ranges and three states?
It wasn’t the first such stunt he’d pulled like this. This trip was an encore to the 4,000 miles Richard bicycled coast-to-coast from Oregon to Virginia in the summers from 1988 through 1991 and the 3,675 miles he rowed across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Bahamas in the winter of 2000-01.
This distance was a bit shorter. But this time he had no bike and no boat — just his feet. And all those miles on them.
So, how hard was it?
“Harder than I ever imagined,” Richard confesses. “Starting out, I thought I still had it. I didn’t consider myself a senior. But maybe I am a senior.”
No matter how strong his legs got, the hike never got easier. Especially the ascents. “I had to force myself up every hill,” he says. “I’d take 20 to 40 steps, then stop and rest. The whole way. These kids, they didn’t have to stop and rest like I did.”
He estimates the average age of thru-hikers is 34. Most are in their 20s. He met just one person older than him, a 75-year-old man.
Along the way he lost 40 pounds — the exact weight, coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally), as his fully loaded pack.
Overall he gained 315,000 feet in elevation — the equivalent of 11 trips from sea level to the tip of Mount Everest. His pace was a consistent two miles per hour. When you factor in a couple of rest days, his daily average worked out to almost exactly 17 miles. Or eight and one-half straight hours of walking every single day.
His goal was to be finished by Sept. 25, before winter storms hit the Washington Cascades.
He almost made it. Just a couple of days from the Canadian border, it started to rain.
Richard was water-logged and dragging when he came to the last “civilized” outpost — a cement toilet in a remote campground.
He spread out the contents of his pack under the cement roof and ate a peanut butter and jam sandwich — his go-to meal — for about the 300th time. He was all alone.
Then he watched a car pull into the campground. It was a husband and wife out for a late-season drive. They talked. He told them what he was doing. Their response: They gave him the sandwich they’d packed for their lunch. A big, fresh sandwich full of nutrients his body craved.
“They said they’d just get another one where they got that one,” says Richard. “I saw that the entire hike. Man acting towards humanity the way we’re supposed to.”
The next day, as he was beginning his final ascent to a 7,000-foot peak, snowfall started to obscure the trail. Just then, another thru-hiker came up behind Richard, a 34-year-old who went by the trail name of OTC. Richard had seen him earlier in the summer but not since.
They hugged, walked together through the snow and camped near the summit at a lake OTC knew about that had good shelter. Richard had camped alone almost every night but not this night. “It was such a comfort to have someone else there,” he says.
The next day Richard covered the final downhill miles to the border alone. He flashed a broad smile and took a selfie with his cellphone when he arrived at the monument marking the trail’s northern terminus. It was straight-up noon on Wednesday, Sept. 25. Right on schedule. Then he walked eight miles to the Manning Park Resort to meet his wife, Jodie, and celebrate joining a club that, at last count, has 2,773 members — the number of people the Pacific Crest Trail Association (pcta.org) credits with hiking the length of the PCT since it started keeping track in 1970.
This year, 145 hikers have to date checked in and been designated “2,600 milers.” The class of 2013, Utahn Richard Kimball Jones among them. He’ll never forget the year he got away from it all to walk from Mexico to Canada — and all the nice people he met along the way.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org