Laina Rose climbs a steep, shale-strewn trail just outside Sierra City. It’s before noon on a mid-June day and warm enough for her to remove her light jacket.
Fellow hikers in town warned her that this stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail was a tough uphill, but to Rose, it’s just another stroll on a months-long journey.
Her light brown braided pigtails have been bleached by high-altitude sun, and her tan nearly conceals her freckles. Her voice is high and she grins as if it would hurt her not to.
Rose, 17, chuckles at an old wooden plank nailed to a fir tree at a fork in the path. The carved sign, which announces “Switchback Spring” to the right, has “<—– Canada Baby!!” scribbled in Sharpie on top.
Canada. That’s where Rose is headed, on a trail that’s come to symbolize both human independence and endurance.
Spanning 2,650 miles, the Pacific Crest Trail drops one pin at the U.S.-Mexico border and the other at the front door of our northern neighbor. The trek through California, Oregon and Washington largely covers mountainous terrain and avoids civilization, passing through 25 national forests and seven national parks.
Rose is making the excursion almost exclusively on her own. On her “thru-hike” – a term that refers to hikers who travel a long trail end-to-end in a single trip – she has gone from from desert brush to the snowy Sierra. But on this day, the Redding native is in a familiar area – Northern California.
Rose stands just over 5 feet tall and carries a 30-pound backpack. Since starting her journey April 1, she has bushwhacked, post-holed and climbed more than 1,200 miles. She’s fast approaching the halfway point in Chester, averaging 20 to 25 miles a day.
Chester is cause for celebration, but Rose knows she still has a long way to go, both physically and mentally. Half of the people who start a thru-hike on the PCT don’t finish, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
But then again, half do. And her time on the trail so far has gone quickly, despite the blisters, sore ankles and loneliness. Was it really months ago that her mom was driving her down to the Mexican border? At the start, her greatest fear about hiking alone wasn’t starving or getting lost or kidnapped. It was simply not finishing the three-state hike.
“Once I became less afraid of not finishing, which was probably when I started getting in shape after a month (on the trail), I was like ‘OK, I’m going to be able to do this,’ ” she said.
Rose rummages through her forest-green pack and locates a Clif Bar. Propped up on a rock, the bag is the size of a small dorm refrigerator and contains her entire life.
Stuffed, shoved, packed and squeezed in it are at least $1,000 worth of supplies including her tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, flashlight, water, first aid supplies, stove, pot, a solar charger for her iPhone and food.
Nuts, dried fruit and jerky are staples. Beans and corn chowder are on the dinner menu. She restocks supplies by picking up packages sent to various post offices near the trail.
It took all winter to plan this trip; buying supplies and figuring out where to strategically mail them. Rose had the help of PCT-planning smartphone applications that give estimations on when and where to mail restock items.
But planning was not the only work that went into her preparation. Rose had to add some bulk to her small frame. “She purposely gained weight this winter,” said her mother, Paula Rose. “People told her, ‘Don’t get on the PCT thin.’ ”
Food for her trip cost $2,000, Paula Rose said. And that’s not including the expense of driving her to Mexico and picking her up in Canada if she makes it.
Rose made money for her trip by working on her parents’ ranch. She thought this would be the perfect time to hike the trail since she has the time and support from her parents. Rose was home-schooled and plans to start Shasta College in January.
Last summer, Rose was hiking with her dad in Northern California and he pointed out where the PCT crossed their path. The more he told her about the trail, the more interested she became.
“She said she wanted to do something epic in her life,” Paula Rose said.
She knew she was going to thru-hike the trail. Not long after, Rose’s sister gave her a book about a woman’s journey on the PCT.
“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed chronicles the inexperienced author’s hiking 1,000 miles of the trail by herself.
The novel had been adapted into a movie. Scheduled for release Dec. 5, it features Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, a young woman looking to put herself back together after her mother’s death, a divorce and a heroin addiction disassembled her life.
It was perhaps not the best book to give Rose.
“ ‘Wild’ is the most discouraging thing in the world” because of how difficult the hike is for Strayed, said Rose, who has encountered problems similar to those described in the book – shoe issues, cooking troubles and becoming lost.
“But I wasn’t not going do it because of a book,” she said.
She didn’t finish reading it, but nonetheless found some of the self-discovery in “Wild” inspiring.
“In the novel (she) never knew she was that strong,” Rose said. “I can relate to that.”
A solo journey
It is particularly unusual for young women to hike the trail alone.
While Wikipedia puts the youngest person to hike the entire trail as 9 years old – and the youngest woman to do it solo at 26 – the Pacific Crest Trail Association said there is no official record.
“There has been a decently long list of those who hike with their parents,” said Jack Haskel, the association’s trail information specialist. He added that he heard of a 1-year-old who thru-hiked the trail, riding in a backpack the entire time.
Beyond the challenges of the trail, women traveling alone face other dangers.
Rose carried her pepper spray in her hand the first couple of days on the PCT, and gripped it a little bit tighter when other hikers appeared. Now the animal pepper spray resides in her pocket for a quick reach.
She said she’s become more comfortable being alone and meeting other hikers. “People look a little sketchy because they’re all just dirty hikers,” Rose said.
Rose said she’s found a community on the trail and has met other women – always older than her – hiking alone. The solo women have shared safety tips with Rose. They told her that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable and gave advice on how to get out of sketchy situations.
Rose and her mom believe the woods are probably safer than most towns. Nevertheless, she’s found support there, too. Many towns along the trail are hiker-friendly, providing places to shower or even sleep, sometimes on hotel floors, Rose said.
She’s been greeted by locals who have heard about Rose thru-hiking by herself. Many have offered to give her any help she needs.
Her parents, five sisters and friends sometimes join her for a few days on the PCT, but Rose is committed to making this trip largely by herself.
Haskel, the trail information specialist, said that it’s best to hike with friends and family. “It’s not wise to travel solo,” he said. “From lightning to dehydration, heat exhaustion, it’s a long list that could go wrong.”
The latter two were an early issue for Rose. She now carries extra water after learning the hard way that two quarts is not enough for drinking and cooking in the Mojave Desert.
Luckily, Rose’s dad was with her when water ran low. They were on a 25-mile stretch where water was scarce. Rose became parched with a screaming headache.
She tried to push through the heat and exhaustion, but had to lie down. After regaining some strength, she continued to walk but her dad carried her pack.
“It was a real wake-up call that you really could get hurt out here,” Rose said.
The call came weeks after that June day near Sierra City. After hiking more than 1,500 miles, Rose had stepped off the trail near Mount Shasta. The flu with a side of homesickness ended her campaign, and she’s returned home to recover – for now.
She hopes to finish the rest of California before fall, and perhaps Oregon and Washington next summer.
A few months ago, not completing the thru-hike would have been her greatest fear realized. That feeling attenuated the more she surrendered herself to the adventure. This hit of the pause button doesn’t discourage her. Not in the least. If Rose has learned anything, hiking the PCT is more about the journey than the destination.
“I want to thru-hike at some point,” she said. “But if I can’t finish this year, then I’ll come back.”