Field Notes: Wild's Impact on the Pacific Crest Trail

July 18, 2016

An interview with perennial backpacker Tami Asars

By Dutch Franz

Photo at right: Guidebook author Tami Asars on the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

A question seems to compel each of us onto the trail and the bigger the question, the further we seem to venture into the deep woods to find the answer and ourselves.

This was the premise of the book Wild by Portland, Oregon author Cheryl Strayed; that to answer these big-life questions you somehow have to get lost before you can be found.

The popularity of the book, which was published in 2012 and the 2014 release of the movie inspired by the book, has driven record numbers of hikers onto the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), in part, to find the answer to their own deep questions.

According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, thru-hiker traffic on the PCT increased 137 percent from 2013 to 2015.

In her own way, writer, photographer, and perennial backpacker Tami Asars has been helping people find answers, and themselves, in the deep woods for years as a guidebook writer and former REI guide.

I recently caught up with Asars after her latest endeavor to write the definitive guide book for Washington’s portion of the PCT, Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington (Mountaineers Books).

A hiker follows the trail cut into the rock near Joe Lake north of Snoqualmie Pass. Alpine lakes are hidden gems found in the rugged terrain of the PCT. Photo by Tami Asars

The PCT covers 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. Washington’s portion is approximately 500 miles and boasts some of the best views on the entire trail. When asked about her experience on the PCT, Asars talks about, “moments of peacefully, haunting quietness,” and wonderful encounters with total strangers.

On one section of the trail Asars recounts such an encounter.

“We were so deep in conversation that we nearly missed the most brilliant sunset I’ve ever seen! As we stared at the hues of reds, pinks, yellows and turquoise melding into the setting stars over Mt. Adams, we were hypnotized into a stilled state of awe. Sometimes the most brilliant of life’s moments unfold at the most unexpected times.”

One-of-a-Kind Journey

When asked about Wild’s impact on the PCT, Asars says that, “many backpackers are frustrated with the constant comparison of their adventure and that of Wild author, Cheryl Strayed.”

Asars has found that thru-hikers on the PCT are normally experienced backcountry travelers looking to test themselves on the trail while enjoying a one-of-a-kind journey. Still, she says, these seasoned backpackers get compared with Strayed, and her experiences become synonymous with all PCT hiking for those not familiar with backcountry travel.

“The Strayed book is brilliant,” says Asars. “It is well-written and engaging, but it isn’t a correct depiction of the average PCT journey.”

While the movie may be linked to the PCT, Washington section hikers don’t have to be in the dark, like Strayed was. Asars got the idea for her book after repeated contacts with backpackers on the PCT who were struggling to find accurate information.

A sign marks a significant entry point along the trail

“The idea hit me when I met an enthusiastic group of retired gals from Virginia who had flown to Washington to hike a section of the PCT,” says Asars. “They showered me with questions because they were struggling to find information about the terrain, camps and water sources ahead of them.

I found myself being a walking resource along the trail for section hikers who had questions. It occurred to me that there wasn’t a perfect resource out there for folks who wanted to hike a section or two, and not necessarily the whole state. Thus, the idea was born.”

A particular problem that Asars wanted to solve was the conflicting GPS tracks that can confuse backpackers on the PCT. Asars says the biggest challenges were integrating the most current GPS technology with mapping software.

Asars cross-referenced the GPS data tracks with a variety of mapping software and other trusted resources to provide the most accurate information possible.

At the end of our conversation, Asars shared her philosophy about being on the trail.

“I always say that the feather in your cap is not that you hiked X amount of miles along the PCT, but rather that you experienced the wild backcountry with the muscle and mental power of your beautiful, human self.”

Tami’s guide book will be out this September in a full color coffee-table style edition. Read more details at www.tamiasars.com.

Dutch Franz is a Seattle-based freelance outdoor adventure journalist and writer. His work has appeared in numerous regional magazines and his short stories have been published in two anthologies.