They couldn’t be with him every step of the way, but Robin Johnson’s family was along for the journey as he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail this season.
The emotional support was constant as family members even packed food for some of the caches along the 2,661-mile route. Robin’s parents, Frank and Dianne Johnson, drove to Mount Rainier National Park earlier this month to visit and resupply Robin and his loose-knit on-trail community of “through-hikers” as they marched over Chinook Pass.
“He stunk to high heaven and I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Dianne said after meeting her son for the first time in months.
“The through-hikers (hiking the entire PCT in one season) make use of all their time. Even when they’re taking a break to eat, they’re making repairs, using needle and thread. Robin was using dental floss to sew up a hole in his shoe.
“We saw many hikers as we parked next to the trail at the pass, but the through-hikers stood out,” she recalled. “They all look alike after 2,300 miles, but you didn’t even have to see them. You could tell by listening to their footsteps. They all have a distinct 3- to 3 ½-mph pace.”
“That’s walking with a purpose,” Frank said with the authority of first-hand experience.
Robin started hiking north from the Mexico border in April. About the same time, Frank started hiking around Spokane wearing a backpack, sometimes four or five hours a day, during any free time from his electrical contracting business. He was training months in advance for a summer rendez- vous in the Sierras of California.
Never mind that Frank, 58, already was lean and fit from cycling and other athletic pursuits. He was planning to jump in – at altitudes ranging above 14,000 feet – with his 25-year-old son and a freight train of through-hikers hardened by six weeks on the trail.
“I knew I had my work cut out for me,” Frank said. “But I looked at this as the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The family was supporting Robin’s post-college quest as early as Christmas, when he found a few choice ultralight hiking essentials under the Christmas tree.
“Everything they carry is ultralight,” Frank said, noting that Robin’s Tarp Tents Contrail is a trail-tested one-person shelter that weighs just 24 ounces.
As he trained, Frank realized he also could benefit from gear upgrades. “I needed to lighten up just to keep up,” he said. “Weight isn’t such an issue for normal backpacking, but every ounce counts to through-hikers.”
By June, Frank was geared up in every way to join his son for 335 miles in 19 days, including two rest days, on the trail through the Sierra-Nevada Range.
“Robin and the other through- hikers had been on the trail for 650 miles and were already wearing stuff out,” Dianne said. “His dad shows up (on June 4) looking like a kid on the first day of school.”
Said Frank, “Previously, I’d carry 55-65 pounds, especially when I brought a couple bottles of wine so Dianne wouldn’t be so scared of the bears at night. But on the PCT, the base weight for my pack was 22 pounds, plus 3 pounds a day for food, plus water. Robin’s base weight was just 18 pounds, but then, I had to carry more aspirin.
“Learning to pack light will add years to my backpacking career.”
The Sierras were grueling and unforgiving, with serious ups and downs. Indeed, the father-son team followed a PCT spur up Mount Whitney, elevation 14,505 feet, the highest point in the lower 48 states.
“We covered 62 miles in the first three days after I joined them,” he said. “Luckily they took a zero day after that. I needed the rest. I ate a few more aspirin than the rest of the through-hikers.”
After about 10 days on the trail, Frank hit his stride.
“They would still walk away from me, but I would catch up at lunch and at night. You’re with them on the trail, even if you’re not exactly together. I thoroughly enjoyed walking sometimes for hours by myself.”
After 19 days, Frank split ways with Robin in Yosemite National Park and solo hiked 36 miles to reach transportation home.
“He raved about his experience,” Dianne said. “But then it was like he went through withdrawal. He got so mopey I finally said he should go back to the trail again.”
Frank jumped at the chance, timed so he could walk four days with Robin through the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
“There were so many journeys within that journey,” Frank said. “It wasn’t until I rejoined him for four days (and 100 miles) in the North Cascades that I sorted out what was so great about this.
“It was cool to be out there with him in his element. He’s doing something he strived for, something he’d researched and planned, something he loves. … He had a smile on his face.”
Trail time together took their relationship a notch above the pride parents takes in seeing their offspring excel.
“I became the student and he was the teacher,” Frank said. “That’s an awesome moment for a dad.”
Last Sunday, Robin finished his PCT odyssey at Manning Provincial Park.
“It’s a proud day at the Johnson house,” Frank posted on Facebook.
“Our son and his friend Joel completed the PCT: 2,661 miles, 4.5 months, 629,899 feet ascent, 628,623 feet descent, about 5,250,000 steps
Not that anyone in the Johnson family was counting.