The End of the Pacific Crest Trail

I wrote about Nat Evan’s walk up the Pacific Crest Trail a few months ago. He’s one of three Seattle artists we covered who followed the 2,663 mile trail from the southern terminus at the Mexico border up to the northern terminus at British Columbia. Each artist traveled the PCT with a unique project in tow. Evans’ consisted of a series of collaborative compositions made with eight other West Coast composers along the way. As he walked, Evans made field recordings using a small, hand-held recorder, then mailed the data files to his colleagues who would compose additional material to go with it. The resulting work (some of the which can be heard on SoundCloud) will be released on experimental music label Quakebasket Records in the spring of 2015.

When I spoke to him before, Evans was in southern California. Now he’s in on the brink of finishing the trail, taking a quick breather at home in Ballard before walking the last 90 miles of his plotted trip (by this weekend he aims to get to Stehekin, a remote settlement at the north end of Lake Chelan). Curious to know what’s it’s like on the other side, I asked him a few follow up questions about his experience.

Like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by the food consumption involved with walking the trail. How much food did you eat? Were you obsessed?
I ate a lot—more than I knew I was capable of and certainly more than I ever have before. Most days on the trail I ate around 4,000 calories. When I came into towns to resupply, I tried to hit at least 6,000 calories to gain a little weight. Food becomes a total obsession for everyone thru-hiking, myself included. I shed tears over the thought of cheeseburgers, had long languorous soliloquies to avocados in my mind, and for some odd reason thought about hot dogs almost every day. My wife, Erin Elyse Burns, was out there for 2.5 months with me making work—video art and photography—and we’d get into epic discussions about breakfast foods, seemingly every candy from our childhood, and hypothesizing what kinds of food might await us days away at the next resupply. I also frequently had dreams about food—especially a recurring one where I’d go to a restaurant and look up at a menu stretching into infinity in the sky and just start ordering everything.

A lunchtime fave: 600 calories!

I read Peter Jenkins’ Walk Across America as a kid and remember this moment where he was stuck in the Appalachians during a winter snow storm. He’d stopped to rest on the side of the road and felt himself getting warm and sleepy—freezing to death. Then a stranger in a truck stopped and handed him an entire bag of apples and told him to eat them all. He said it was an angel that saved his life. Did you have any crazy moments like that?
There’s quite a bit of “trail angel” action out there—people who randomly leave water caches, coolers filled with beer or soda, are offering root beer floats, etc. There are also some people who go over the top—usually they hiked the trail before themselves—who will set up shop and make meals for people, or even offer rides to town or resupply points. The generosity of folks within the thru-hiker community is amazing. At the same time I can’t help but feel that if some of these resources and energy might be better directed at facets of society that are truly in need, not at a bunch of people who decided to go live in the wilderness for a while for fun. I know that sounds callous, and it’s not meant to disparage the incredible kindness (and calories!) of these people, but more a consideration of how PCT thru-hiker culture fits in with the rest of society.

One experience I did have like the one you mention was when I was actually in need. There was an early heat wave in the Anza Borrego desert in SoCal. I had been hiking for a couple of days with this guy from San Diego who was just out for a few days, not thru-hiking, but he was practicing and learning about backpacking in preparation for retiring and hiking the entire PCT in 2015 as a thru-hike. Anyway, the heat those couple days was over 100 degrees. There was almost no shade, and the water sources there were sparse—only every 15-20 miles. I was becoming increasingly overheated and dehydrated and thought I should take a day off and try to hydrate and rest. I knew that his wife was going to try to pick him up that evening, so I asked Don if he could give me a ride when she did. We went into this little desert town called called Julien and Don bought me dinner, then insisted I come back to his house to rest and hydrate. Back at his house he and his wife gave me a pile of electrolyte tablets, a bowl of ice and a 32-oz cup and in so many kind words said, “drink.” I had consumed probably eight or nine liters of water already that day, and by the end of the day had probably consumed 12 or 13. In retrospect I must’ve been incredibly dehydrated. I’ve thought about and appreciated Don’s generosity almost every day since. It’s easy to die in the desert, and I was definitely close to needing medical attention.

While I was writing the piece, there were plenty of opinions floating around City Arts HQ about artists hiking the PCT, some pro, some con. You mentioned you are thinking a lot about being white and hinted at the luxury aspect of this project. Having finished the trip, what are your thoughts on that subject?
Walking across these great spaces isn’t something new. In pre-conquest America, the Mojave had traditions of making a foot journey to the east to the Hopi mesas and to the west to the Pacific. But the difference, as you allude to, is that we (like 99% of the people thru-hiking the PCT) are in fact the conqueror. The trail traverses endless spaces that were, until relatively recently, carefully managed and cared for by dozens of tribes who lived in balance with these spaces they inhabit, and who knew the land intimately. Currently, in short, a lot of the land is a poorly managed tinderbox that is constantly being exploited by timber and mining interests. Some of it is pristine wilderness, and yet more of it is land overrun with people, and all of it tied together by a false narrative on signs and placards from the National Park Service or US Forest Service touting the spirit and ingenuity of white settlers and either not mentioning the Native Americans who inhabited the land or making it seem as though the change in conceptual ownership was a mutually beneficial venture. So nobody is inhabiting this land anymore and taking care of it and nobody knows it as intimately as it was, say, 200-400 years ago. In short, that means that if you want to go wander around in the wilderness you need to be prepared to fend for yourself, and that means buying a lot of expensive gear, and having the ability to leave your home—in the case of thru-hiking the PCT for four to six months. Who is that easiest for? Who can most easily come back into society and find a new, random job? Who controls most of the wealth? Who is most “trusted” to be picked up off the side of the road when hitchhiking to town to resupply? White people.

Was it an incredible adventure that will inform the rest of my life and work? Absolutely. But I guess I feel it’s necessary to acknowledge the place of privilege that we operate from. Even the creation of the Pacific Crest Trail is something done from a place of privilege within the federal government while the dozens of tribes located on and around the trail suffer some of the worst poverty in our country.

I enjoyed the concept behind this kind of musical collaboration—musique concrete sampled from the wild as a prompt for traditional composition. There’s a  romantic slowness to the process: sending data cards back and forth via snail mail. The Tortoise isn’t a huge departure from your previous style of working, but it’s probably had an effect on the way you’ll go forward working in the future. I’m curious what that might be.
Certainly a lot of my work in the past has used field recordings, but with this project I was hoping to instill more meaning in them—not just a field recording for the sake of counterpoint or because it sounds interesting. Hopefully, by coupling regional composers with sounds recorded nearby, there’s a greater sense of bioregionalism and place instilled in the music. As for my own music I wrote while on the trail, it was a really different experience getting to work on just one thing at a time instead of four or five—and at such a slow pace! I was able to mull over sounds and ideas for days and days before actually writing them down, and with no input from friends or colleagues, as I was usually out of communication range. What has come out of that is the realization that time is incredibly valuable—perhaps an obvious thing—but one I feel a lot more committed to in regards to making art. Part of that comes from just having a lot of it out there, with no distractions whether you want them or not, and part of it comes from experiencing time in new ways, especially in the desert.

What was one the most unexpected aspects of the trail?
Some of the unexpected was based in my artistic practice and some wasn’t. Walking endlessly and being away from home forced me to be more in the moment, in regards to everything, and the separation from my community was really refreshing and helped me see my role in larger society and how best to create and serve it. The PCT residency made me elude the serious potential for navel gazing that our individual disciplines often lead us to—at least for a little while.

Non-music related, beyond the obvious thing of suddenly becoming more or less a professional athlete for 4.5 months—which is something you take on if you’re thru-hiking—I’d say one of the more unexpected things was pretty much all things food-related. And, not just the obsessions I talked about before, but the lengths you’d go to to enjoy really simple things. Obviously weight is an ongoing issue you’re aware of, so doing something like putting one beer in your pack that you’re saving to drink at the top of a pass becomes extra-special. Or, finding ways to spice up the same boring food you packed for yourself months ago. When rolling through towns I’d hit up fast food places like Taco Bell (so gross! but I’d never been so hungry and happy to eat it!) and raid the condiments to make burritos or mashed potatoes (staples of the hike) more appetizing. Another time we were getting a ride back to the trail after a day off in Portland from a friend and I insisted we stop at a Pilot station I saw a sign for because we’d figured out that they had the best condiment packet selection. Eating a hot dog at 9:30 AM and gleefully stuffing my pockets full of packets of relish and mayo was something I never could’ve envisioned. I’d do it again.