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A forest maze

August 1, 2014

The difficult trail conditions continued, and now on top of that, we were getting rained on much of the day.  We had been burnt to a crisp with triple-digit heat the first two days, but now the heavens opened up and we were deluged with rain, in addition to battling washouts along the trail and more and more downed trees.  At times, it looked impossible to get through, and once again I was struck by the way that riding this trail is so different from hiking it.  Over and over again, I have run into hikers who have remarked at how "easy" I have it because I'm riding, or how doing the trail on horseback is "cheating" in some way.  If only they knew the reality!  I understand that hiking has its own problems, of course, especially the physical wear of carrying a pack and actually moving your body across mile after mile of trail.  But riding comes with a whole different set of responsibilities and dilemmas, which I think few hikers fully appreciate.  Only Cliffhanger, the retired horse trainer that I met on the trail in June, and who has been become a wonderful friend and tireless supporter, seemed to know what riding the PCT entails--and that's undoubtedly because he knows horses.  But he also knows hiking, as he has completed the "Triple Crown" of hiking, completing not only the PCT, but also the AT and the CT as well.  So he knows what he's talking about, both in terms of hiking and riding, and he told me that even completing a Triple Crown is nothing compared to riding the PCT.  I think he's being a little overly modest about his own achievements, but his words really warmed my heart--and Alina's too, when I told her about it.  What hikers don't realize is the tremendous freedom that they have compared to riding, and the relative ease with which they can overcome obstacles.  Things that hikers can just scramble over or under (such as trees on the trail) become major problems on a horse, which can't just climb over a log or strap on crampons to walk across a snowfield.  And don't even think about "glissading" on a horse (I know, because Takoda and I did it, and it wasn't fun).  A hiker can stop and rest along the trail, or camp whenever and wherever he or she wants, but with a horse I'm tied to finding a water source, since there's no way I can carry sufficient water for my horse.  Even carrying food is more difficult, as horses require a lot of it, and if you think the horse can just eat "free" on all the grass on the trail, think again--often grazing is strict forbidden in national parks and monuments (and camping near water also restricted), and even if it is allowed, there isn't always good grazing at the places where you need it (or even any at all, depending on the terrain and the weather and the time of year, etc.).  It takes a hiker just a few moments to set up camp or pack up in the morning, but I have to take care of my horse (and sometimes two), which entails unsaddling and grooming and getting water and feed and setting up the highline--and then reversing the procedure in the morning.  I'm often up in the middle of the night making sure the horses have water or food or didn't get tangled in the highline (or get loose and walk away).  I can't just take a "zero" any place that I come to; there has to be facilities for horses available, and often if I do have a "rest" day, that day is consumed in finding a feed store and getting more supplies or trying to locate a farrier or moving my truck and trailer (or trying to find some good Samaritan who can help me do that).  More than any other people on the PCT, riders are dependant on "trail angels" to help them; even those who are technically "unsupported" really aren't, since even if there's no single person following along at times and helping (the way my mom was able to do at times in southern California and for a while recently), we still rely on people to help move our trucks or let us board our horses with them or all the many other things, big and small, that make it possible to achieve our goal.  Not to mention just the sheer sense of responsibility for the health and welfare of a 1000 lb. animal at all times--every decision I make has to be made with the knowledge that my horse is depending on me to keep it safe and sound and trusting in me for everything.  My horse might physically carry me down the trail (although I do spend a lot of time walking every day, often ten or twelve miles, even if that sounds minor to a hiker used to covering that before lunch), but I "carry" my horse on my back in a different way, and it is not a burden to be taken lightly, nor one I can ever put down or leave behind, not for a single moment.  

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