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.
"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.
Still, there still were days, sometimes three or four in a row, with no contact. During those periods, Debbie, admittedly emotional, was not allowed to call for help unless her husband, Jamie, was also worried.
Barrow completed practice hikes, including one in April on the Appalachian Trail, which has steeper rises and falls than the Pacific Crest Trail, which is meant both for hikers and horses. He did 65 miles in three days in Virginia, matching the rate of about 20 miles a day he would need to finish the West Coast hike in time.
On May 1, at 7 a.m., Barrow began hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on the Mexican border in Southern California. He saw his first rattlesnake within hours and was 20 miles in by 4 p.m. He added another 30 miles his second day.
Hikers mail food to themselves several stops ahead, sending supplies via general delivery to post offices and businesses in towns that have become accustomed to visitors from the trails. Every five to seven days, Barrow would do laundry, grab a shower and search for beer, soda, ice cream and milkshakes.
The southern California section is about 700 miles, much of it high desert, where the temperatures can rise above 100 degrees and where sometimes water is only available from locals who leave gallons for those passing through. Barrow carried 10 to 15 pounds of water in those sections, along with his 20-pound pack, plus the weight of his food.
After that came the High Sierra — the Sierra Nevada mountains — probably the toughest part of the trail.
"Without ice ax or microspikes I decided to glissade down the backside of this mountain, trying to avoid rocks and head in the general direction of where I thought the trail should be." — July 15, 9:30 p.m., atop switchbacks after Barker Pass in California.
Hikers receive trail names, nicknames that come from their personality, their mannerisms or, as in Barrow's case, something stupid done along the way. "Roadrunner" was bestowed on him after an accidental detour, when he went off trail and walked for 17 miles on paved road.
It wasn't his only time off the trail. There is one moment that stopped Debbie Barrow's heart when she saw it on video later: her son crossing a semi-frozen lake by himself.
"If he had dropped through there, nobody would've known where he was," she said. "I have retrospective gasps of fear that I didn't have during the hike."
For most of the hike he wasn't alone, however, but with two women, trail names Drop-N-Roll and Ninja, who accompanied him for the final 2,000 miles. They gave each other companionship, a feeling of safety, and, at times, support during difficult river crossings.
"I went into this thinking it was going to be me, God and the wilderness for six months," he said. "I think I can count on two hands the nights I was alone."
They went through the High Sierra, much of it between 8,000 feet and 12,000 feet in elevation, where snow still remained for hundreds of miles. At one area near Lake Tahoe, the previous winter had brought 740 inches of snow.
"There were people who had done this before who didn't think anyone was going to finish because of how much snow there was," Barrow said. "But I didn't know that."
Barrow and his hiking partners started walking in snow June 15 and regularly had it beneath their feet for a month. Earlier in June, the trio made a side trip to Mount Whitney. In July, Barrow hiked to Lake Tahoe, where his parents were visiting.
Their pace quickened. On Aug. 12, after 1,692 miles in California, they entered Oregon, where the trail was more flat and each day brought them nearly 30 miles farther.
They got lucky. Wildfires broke out in California and in Oregon in spots they had just recently walked through.
They were in Washington by September. "It's characterized by most folks as a giant cloud," Barrow said. "We had great weather. I'm surprised at how little Washington is mentioned as a beautiful state to be hiking in."
Nevertheless, the group didn't dawdle. They did 40 miles on their last day, Sept. 24, including the final miles past a monument and into Canada.
"Getting to the end was kind of surreal," Barrow said. "It was amazing just to think I walked here from Mexico."
"Hard to believe that the journey is finally complete. Just a few short days of travel and I will no longer be Roadrunner, but will return to life as Chris." — Sept. 24, 11 p.m., Manning Park in British Columbia.
Barrow didn't leave his parents' home for two days after he returned to Elkridge. He soon got back out into the world, this time driving even longer than he had walked on the Pacific Crest Trail, visiting friends between Maryland and Florida. He also went to Pennsylvania to see Drop-N-Roll and Ninja.
He has no plans for another long trail.
"If I do something large and adventurous, it'll be in a clearly new vein, like biking or running or sailing," he said. "I know what long-distance hiking is like and I do enjoy it. But I think it's cool to try something new."