Steamboat Springs' "Wrangler" Returns to the Trail
● By Grant Johnson
Look below to find an up-to-date map of Ben's progress so far.
Life is reduced to its simplest form in the wilderness. That minimalism, combined with the randomness of new adventures along the trail, lures long-distance hiker Ben Machiela into the backcountry year after year.
A snowboard instructor and ranch hand in Steamboat, Machiela left the Yampa Valley in late April, bound for Campo, near Tijuana on the Mexican border. There, he and a group of about a dozen friends begin a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Final destination: Manning Lake just across the Canadian border, 2,663 miles away.
Only 50% of hikers who begin the long hike through California, Oregon and Washington will complete their journey. But Machiela’s not worried: unlike some hikers who take on the challenge with obsessive determination, his approach is more laid back.
It took him two seasons to complete the Appalachian Trail after he ran out of money in 2012, his first summer on the trail. He returned in 2013 and completed the remainder of the distance, from Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., to Mount Katahdin in Maine. “I don’t care how long it took, I did it,” he says with a shrug.
Along the way, Machiela earned the moniker, Wrangler, when he rounded up six cows and a calf and drove them away from the campsite one night. Accomplished hikers often earn relevant nicknames; they cannot choose them themselves, but they are a tribute to their standing in the hiking community.
Machiela’s intention is to complete the entire Pacific Coast Trail in one summer. The PCT summer hiking season opens with a kickoff tent festival, which includes seminars, gear and video contests, stories and campfires. After that it’s out into the unknown; for Machiela, that means heading home.
“I hike for the enjoyment of the woods and to get out of society,” he says.
As much as possible, the PCT skirts civilization. The trail begins at an elevation of 2,915 feet. From there, it climbs to the Laguna Mountains, dips into the desert, then winds through hills to the San Jacinto Mountains, where it reaches an elevation of 9,030 feet before plunging to its lowest point, crossing Interstate 10 at San Gorgonio Pass (elevation 1,190 feet). Then the PCT climbs to the crest of two ranges, San Bernardino and San Gabriel, passing near Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead. From here, hikers can see both the Los Angeles Basin and the Mojave Desert. Trailside water is scarce in this portion of the trail, where summer temperatures range from the 80s to the low 100s.
In central California, the PCT enters Sequoia National Park,
merging with the John Muir Trail and traveling along the steep slopes of Mount
Whitney (14,505 feet), the highest point in the contiguous United States. For
180 miles, the two trails merge, offering the most famed hiking route for
scenic beauty in western America.
In northern California, the PCT extends from the southernmost Cascades to the “Big Bend,’ a journey marked by solitude. The trail traverses Lassen Volcanic National Park and continues north along the extremely dry Hat Creek Rim toward Mount Shasta, which dominates the skyline. It then turns west toward more fertile lands, crossing the Sacramento River at 2,130 feet before climbing again into the mountains connecting the Cascade and coastal ranges.
The PCT enters Oregon at Siskiyou Summit and from there,
hikers enjoy a relatively easy hike through fairly consistent elevation, with
the exception of the Columbia River Gorge. Prominent volcanoes and numerous
lakes are hallmarks of this section of the trail, of which the chief attraction
is Mount Hood.
Washington is the last state crossed by northbound hikers. This section begins at the Columbia River and ends at the Canadian border. It starts with a lengthy climb out of the gorge, and climbs to terrain noted for lakes, huckleberries and seemingly ever-present rain. Mount Rainier (14,410 feet) towers over the trail, which continues into the North Cascades. Here, hikers climb again and again from deep canyons to high mountain passes. The North Cascades are rugged, wet and prone to storms, with 750 perennial snowfields and small glaciers. Hikers who end their PCT journey in Washington in the fall are rewarded with a colorful display of western larch, whose deciduous needles turn bright yellow in September.
Along the PCT, hikers may encounter not only remarkable geologic features, but also diverse wildlife, ranging from rattlesnakes, lizards, coyotes and cougars in Southern California to beaver, fox, deer and elk in the Cascades. One of Machiela’s best memories of the Appalachian Trail happened on his birthday (June 13), when he met up with a baby raccoon. He had just finished laughing with a friend about his own meeting with the kit when it crossed his path, too.
Animals aren’t the only creatures that appear randomly. Several thousand people hike the trail each summer, and Ben enjoys making new friends along the way. “You have to be a little crazy to go in for five months,” Machiela says. “And some people exceed those limits.”
When he talks about what he’ll see along the Pacific Crest Trail, Machiela gets a little nebulous. It quickly becomes obvious that he isn’t setting out with specific expectations. While the spectacular scenery, extreme physical challenges and potential wildlife sightings are compelling reasons for his journey, he understands that it’s the unexpected adventures that can be most rewarding.
“All I’m doing is walking,” he says, oblivious to people’s incredulity. “I’m good at it.”
He likes the challenge of being self-reliant. A “cowboy camper, ” -he sleeps on the ground or under a shelter made with his tarp and trekking poles. Even by long-distance hiking standards, he travels light: fully loaded, his pack weighs only 25 pounds; including 5 ½ liters of water.
Planning ahead is key. In preparation for the trip, he dehydrated everything from jambalaya to jerky. He carries homemade oatmeal packs, which include bananas – also dried by Machiela. He mails food drops to himself along the way, and depends on the kindness of “trail angels,” volunteers who refresh water supplies at various points along the way.
Every four to six days, Machiela estimates, he will have to leave the trail and hitchhike into town for supplies. It’s in town that the expenses mount, he says, because it’s hard to resist the temptation of a meal, shower and maybe even ice cream.
Then it’s back to the place he calls home: the trail.
Tips for first-time hikers:
- Careful food preparation is key
- Buy the lightest gear you can get
- Choose durable, multi-function tools
- Must-haves include sunscreen, a straw hat and comfortable hiking shoes (his choice: Solomon running shoes, 2 pair)
- Sleep is essential (Advil P.M.)
- First-aid kit staples: Super glue and Neosporin
Data from Ben's GPS tracker