News - GU Alum Peter Huston Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail

GU Alum Peter Huston Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail

By Dave Bell

It’s 2,653 miles long, stretching from the Mexican border in southern California to the Canadian border in northern Washington.

And along the way, the Pacific Crest Trail will provide enough challenges to test even the sturdiest long-distance hikers. Temperatures range from bone-chilling cold to oven-like days of more than 100 degrees. And the trail tops out at 13,200 feet at Forester Pass in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

It’s not for the faint of heart.

And that’s precisely why Peter Houston of Greenville decided to take it on. He wanted to test himself. And he wanted to immerse himself in nature for an extended period.

Four and a half months

“It makes you realize that you have a level of fortitude that you didn’t know you had,” said Huston, a 28-year-old graduate of Greenville High School (class of 2011) and Greenville University (class of 2015, history major). “But I found that the most difficult part of the hike is the mental aspect. It’s a long trail, and you’ve got to be mentally prepared.”

 Peter_Huston_The-beginning.pngHuston started his trek on March 23 at Rancho Del Campo, Calif., near the Mexican border (pictured at left). He began earlier in the year than many hikers, so he encountered some cold weather and snowy conditions in the beginning. He completed the trail 144 days later, on Aug. 13, at the Canadian border near Manning Park, Wash., northeast of Seattle. For the trip, he averaged about 18.5 miles per day.

“By that time, I was ready to be done,” Huston said. “I’d been on the trail for four and a half months, and I was tired.”

Not wanting to cut any corners, however, he hiked to the very end of the trail at the border – even though that meant he had to go 20 miles past the last town and then hike back to that town to begin his journey home.

Inspired by hiker/friends

Though Huston had camped with his parents (Richard and Ruth Huston) in his youth, and had been a distance runner in high school and college, this was his first extended hike.

“Doing something like this had been in my mind for a while,” he said. “I first learned about the trail from a Greenville friend, Evan Rench, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail – as well as the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail – several years ago. Then, another friend hiked it last year.

“To prepare, I found some workout plans from other hikers and went on some short hikes with all my gear. I wanted to see how it felt.”

Shared experiences bring joy

Once on the trail, Huston started slowly to let his body acclimate. He hiked most of the 144 days, but would occasionally take a recovery day after a difficult stretch. He also took a few days off when he reached Lake Tahoe midway through California.

About 600 miles into the trip, he developed a pain in his shin, but he wore a compression sleeve over his calf to alleviate it. The only other physical ailment was a foot rash, but he treated that with an ointment.

Though he was hiking solo, he would meet other hikers on the trail and sometimes camp with them for some fellowship.

“All of the meetings were by chance,” he said. “If people were going at the same pace and had the same hiking goals, we’d hike together for a while. Peter_Huston_On-the-trail.png

“I realized that sharing the experience with others makes it more enjoyable. From about mile 1,200 to the end, I hiked with a guy from Bend, Ore.”

Food and water, a constant challenge

Keeping himself hydrated and fed on the trail was a constant challenge, Huston said. He carried a small backpacking stove to heat oatmeal, freeze-dried food, couscous, and various pasta dishes. He also ate a variety of seeds and dried berries, and energy bars.

“The trail usually goes through a town about every four or five days,” Huston said, “so that meant I didn’t have to carry a lot of food. There was one stretch in the Sierras, though, where it was more than a week.

Hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was complicated by the requirement that food be stored in a thick, airtight plastic box to avoid attracting bears. Those boxes aren’t required in other parts of the trail, where bears are not present.

Water was a constant challenge, he said. He carried a couple of water bottles and a filter that purified stream and lake water to help him avoid water-borne illnesses.

Doing something difficult and seeing it through 

Other important gear included trekking poles, supportive shoes, and (for improved traction on snowy or icy trails) micro spikes that slipped over his shoes. He wore two different packs on the trail – a larger (68 liter) internal frame pack by Ultralight Adventure in the beginning, when he was carrying more cold-weather gear, and a smaller frameless pack by Dandee Packs during the second half of the trip.

He said that most of the hikers were about his age – in their mid to late 20s – but another significant group was men in their 60s who recently retired.

So, what are the take-aways from the hike for Huston?

“People say that you need a ‘why’ to do the trail,” he said.

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“My original reason was to do something difficult and see it through to the end. You place yourself in a situation where the only way to get through it is to depend on yourself. I learned that I can do that.

“The other ‘why’ for me was to experience nature in such a way that drew me in. After being on the trail that long, I realized how important it is to preserve these areas so others can have life-changing experiences there, too.”

Immersion

Immersing himself in nature during the hike also earned Huston his “trail name” – a common practice among hikers of assigning descriptive names to each other. Huston’s trail name became “Deep Dive” because of his response when asked why he was hiking. “When people asked me why I was doing the trail, I’d say that I like to take a ‘deep dive’ into things – to immerse myself in the experience. The name stuck.”

Now that he’s completed the hike, Huston will return to his job as a sales representative at REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) in Brentwood, Mo. The outdoors store allowed him a six-month leave for what its employee manual termed a “lifetime adventure.”

It's a sure bet that he’ll have more credible advice for shoppers about all manner of camping and hiking gear after his trip.

He also plans do a little more introspection about the impact of his experience on the Pacific Crest Trail. 

“I’m trying to think about how it changed me,” he said. “I want to be intentional about processing it, because I want to get everything possible out of it. I want to figure out what it means for me going forward.”

(Photo above: Huston on Mt. Ranier. Directly below, Huston on Mt. Whitney. At bottom, Huston at the trail's end, more than 2,500 miles from where he started.)

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This story originally appeared in the Greenville Advocate.

This story was published on September 13, 2021