Stretching 2,400 miles from Mexico to Canada, the Pacific Crest Trail takes hikers from hot, barren deserts to majestic mountain passes mired in snow. This obstacle course of downed trees, rushing creeks, steep switchbacks and rocky paths presents living dangers as well, such as grizzly bears. But the fiercest, most terrible creatures Steve ’01 and Jane Bolhorst ’00 Fainer met during five and a half months on the trail were undoubtedly the mosquitoes.
What led Steve and Jane to step away from work and into an adventure? “It’s all my fault,” Steve says. “After reading ‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson, I wanted to hike a long-distance trail.” Unlike Steve, who’s an experienced backpacker, Jane had done little hiking, but she elected to join him.
The couple made a 60-mile trek in 2007 to test equipment, food and their resolve. “At first we thought we were in over our heads, but then we decided we wanted to do it,” Jane says. They began planning for an April 2008 start at the border of Mexico and California. After seven years as a youth pastor at Presbyterian Church of Los Gatos, Steve asked for a sabbatical. The public relations firm where Jane has worked since she graduated graciously gave her a leave of absence. The Fainers traveled south to help the youth group build houses in Mexico and began their hike April 13.
Steve and Jane became part of the community of thru-hikers, carrying lightweight packs and spending no more than 10 days on the trail at a time. They trudged up to 25 miles before camping and took frequent breaks in towns intersecting the route to clean up with a hot shower, sleep in a comfortable bed and eat all the food they’d been craving.
In the first few weeks, both Steve and Jane — or Landshark and Caterpillar as they were known on the trail — developed impressive blisters. They rarely traveled alone, meeting thru-hikers with names like Tarzan, Zelda and So Far. “We had the best community in Washington, where we stayed with the same group for most of the state,” Jane says.
Their biggest adventures involved losing the trail, splashing through a river trying to find it or clinging to the side of steep, icy Mt. Baden-Powell as they warily descended. They finally sat down and slid through a narrow, frozen canyon to reach the road.
After 800 miles, they met the John Muir Trail, which travels through eight scenic Sierra passes. “It’s hard terrain,” Steve says. “I felt out of shape. Your faith in God grows stronger as you cross the snow on which you mustn’t slip lest you drop several hundred feet to your mother’s greatest fear.” Steve’s mom, who often took her children backpacking, joined them for three days near Mt. Whitney.
The loveliness of varied landscapes inspired them when they grew weary of walking. Even in the desert, where they hiked at night, “the sunset and moon rise coincided for some serious beauty.” One day they found themselves in the midst of a magical butterfly migration. They even enjoyed the fighter jets flying fiercely over federal land.
Mostly the hike was hard work. “I now have a profound understanding of people who do physical labor,” Steve says. “You don’t have the time or energy to think at the end of the day. I could only be thankful I was lying down. We humans need to be a lot more humble — we have no idea how small we are until we travel on foot. The world is a very big place.”