Pacific Crest Trail

Barrow, here hiking in Patapsco State Park near his home in Elkridge, figured the time was right for a six-month hiking adventure: He could afford it, he was in shape, and he had no wife, children or mortgage. (Photo by Nate Pesce, Patuxent Publishing / November 4, 2011)

One man had quit the hike just 43 miles in, the pain from his blisters too much for a trek that would last another 2,600-or-so miles. Christopher Barrow's first moment of doubt came less than two weeks later, mid-May in southern California, a day that took him a mile higher in elevation in hot, dry weather.

"It took a lot of mental shoving to get through it," he wrote in a journal that night. "I walked mostly alone today, prayed for the first time in a while today on the trail. It takes some time to quiet my mind."

His pen was not working well. His hands were going numb. The temperature had dropped into the low 40s.

He still had more than four months and more than 2,000 miles to go.

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"Who would have ever thought that a gainfully employed engineer would see pleasure in hiking, eating fast food and sleeping like a bum under a bridge?" – May 13, 8:40 p.m., Interstate 10 in California.

The southern tip of the Pacific Crest Trail is on the outskirts of Campo, Calif., on the border between the United States and Mexico. For 2,650 miles, the trail winds through three states, through deserts and snow and mountains and forests, through Oregon and Washington state and to the Canadian border. Even then, it stretches another nine miles into British Columbia, bringing hikers from the woods to the highway and, eventually, home.

Fewer than half of those who attempt to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail finish it each year, according to Jack Haskel, trail information specialist for the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Of the 500 to 600 who set out, between 200 and 250 continue to the end. This year had even fewer finish, he said, because excess snow made the hike even more difficult. In contrast, 1,716 hikers attempted, and 463 completed, the Appalachian Trail, which reaches from Georgia to Maine, according to an Appalachian Trail Conservancy spokeswoman.

As a teenager, Barrow had once hiked perhaps 45 miles over three days. The allure of a truly long hike didn't come until he had graduated from Long Reach High School and was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland. He had heard about someone who had hiked the Appalachian Trail, and then he read "A Walk in the Woods," Bill Bryson's famed memoir about hiking that trail.

Then he heard about the Pacific Crest Trail, nearly 500 miles longer and less fabled than the Appalachian Trail but, to him, more appealing. He had hiked before in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Vermont and New Hampshire. He knew of the Appalachian Trail's reputation as "the long, green tunnel," with much of the hike staying below the tree line.

"If I was doing something that large and adventurous," said Barrow, a 25-year-old from Elkridge, "I'd want to do it in a place I'd never been before."

Barrow graduated from college in 2008, took a job with Lockheed Martin, moved to Texas in 2009 and then transferred back to Maryland in mid-2010. In January, he told a supervisor that he would need six months of personal leave for the hike.

"That's unfortunate. We'd really love for you to stay here," he recalls her saying. And then a little bit later, she told him: "And if I was your age, I think that'd be awesome."

His job wasn't guaranteed. It has since been filled, although he is still able to apply for other positions in the company.

But this was the right time for him. He was in shape. He had no debt from college, no wife, children or mortgage. He had been saving for a year and a half. He'd need about $1,500 for equipment alone, and between $3,000 and $7,000 for food, motel stays, mailing supplies to himself and replacing gear along the way.

He just needed to convince his parents that it was a good idea.

"After a few hours of nervous climbing we made it to the upper switchbacks and then the summit. I was even able to call so that Mom knew I was alright." – June 18, 8:30 p.m., near Wallace Creek in California, after hiking Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.

Debbie Barrow wanted her son to hike the Appalachian Trail; there are more people there. If he was going to do the Pacific Crest Trail, she wanted him to be with a friend or a family member. Nobody could take half a year off from work.

"If I didn't have a kid at home, I would've gone with him," Debbie Barrow said. "He said he was not going to be alone, but he really went alone."

Christopher was able to put his parents more at ease. He showed them how much research, preparation and planning he'd done. He showed them which towns along the way would have supplies. He carried bear spray his mother had bought him. And he brought a small device with buttons that would send, via satellite, his coordinates to authorities if he was in danger or just needed help.

It also had a button that sent an email to his parents letting them know he was fine. His parents got those messages regularly and could track his progress.