I walked into the brewery, to the immediate smell of hops and malts hanging in the air. I was ready to drink me some damn good beer. I was also here to meet Paul Magnanti, or “Pmags,” as known by everyone out on the trail and his blog, Pmags.com.
I was excited to meet him and happy that we could meet at the Avery Brewery, a local favorite of both of ours. This was my first real interview ever, if you don’t count the janitor and lunch lady for the school newspaper. He was gracious enough to meet me so I could ask some questions about the CDT and get some straight answers.
Pmags did the CDT Sobo starting in July 2006, not taking his first zero day until Salmon, ID. This hike completed the Triple Crowner after starting with the AT, then PCT and finishing with the CDT, as he says most people do. He did miss the San Juans due to heavy snow, taking what he described as the Super Creede cut off. He took routes such as Butte vs. Anaconda, the Gilas in New Mexico for the ruins, and the Winds for their stunning beauty. He’s definitely a ‘Hike Your Own Hike’ kind of hiker. He’s more likely to tell you “it depends”, rather than to tell you exactly how you should do it. His philosophy is: It’s all about what’s best for you and your situation. If you read his blog, it’s not full of technically detailed reviews of the new (insert company) jacket and how the fibers work and moisture transfers or how it could save you from a zombie apocalypse. He reports on how to get good stuff at Costco, a good shirt from Target and why not to eat Value Brand bologna on the trail after 5 days in your pack.
I wanted to know more about the logistics of the trail and what’s real compared to what you hear on the forums from a ‘pack sniffer’ (Google it now, I’ll wait).
You hear a lot of stories about how bad the bears are in Yellowstone, or is it Glacier, or watch out in the Bob Marshall. The perception of bears is not that big of a concern, as long as you stay especially aware around Grizzlies. He does advocate a different hiking style while in bear country. Some of the suggestions he made were:
- Don’t eat where you sleep
- Stop and eat dinner, then continue hiking again
- Camping for the night with your food hung far away.
The chances of encountering a bear can be likely, but more so in Glacier because it is more spread out, with fewer opportunities for the bears to encounter humans and get used to us. Yellowstone is day hiked a lot so the bears are more used to people Also, the large hunting parties in the Bob train bears to avoid humans because, to them, humans equal guns. Typically hunters shoot right above their heads if they have an encounter. I think the hyper-alertness you need to have in these areas is the biggest stress, making it more of a mental game with yourself, than an encounter situation. Pmags relied on his techniques, and didn’t even carry a bear canister through any of these areas, and he hasn’t been eaten yet.
Food & Water:
If you’re thinking about taking snickers bars on your hike, consider that Pmags ate 60 of them in 20 days during his Colorado Trail thru hike. Keeping it simple while your out on the trail is a good policy if you don’t have any dietary or medical restrictions on your diet. If you do, then relying on mail drops and timing your stops in town to parallel the local post office hours will be key. If you can eat anything, then you can rely on mail drops, super markets and the occasional convenient store rotating heating rack. If you’re hiking to a spot that is remote you are going to have to mail yourself food, such as places like Ghost Ranch, but when you hit any larger city with a good food selection you can mail ahead your next 5 packages, as he did. This gives you the flexibility to not have to worry about shipping yourself 26 boxes, paying postage and finding a friend to help you. It provides the ability to pick foods that you like right then, or what sounds good to you for the next couple of weeks. Nothing could be worse then packing something up in March and eating it in July. Who knows what your body will be craving at that time or what just sounds really good. Eating 5,000 cals per day was typical for his hike. Estimating an average of 100 cals per oz makes the math easy to calculate when buying food. Follow the KISS philosophy for food, make sure you have carbs and protein in your diet, such as a simple tuna and rice, and try not to get overwhelmed by trying to calculate the ratio for each type of food.
Pmags is a self proclaimed Dip & Sip kind of hiker, meaning he’s not too picky about his water and uses Iodine mostly to purify. What he’s seen on the trail is mostly hikers who use Iodine or Aqua Mira do selective treatments. Steripens are for religious purifiers and pumps are for weekenders. He’s horrified people such as the Princess of Darkness (POD) out on the Wyoming Basin, doing a 5 min iodine treatment on what she considered to be very suspect water.
Trail Towns, Trail Angels, Orange Buckets and Not Stinking
Trail towns are all about food. It’s the first thing you think about when you hit town and are craving the calories you just burned. Pmag’s food of choice is good old-fashioned pub grub; Burger, Fries, Salad and a local beer when he could. When he hit a town and wasn’t starving, he would get a hotel, take shower, do some laundry, then get some food, shop, send emails and do any mailings. Get the things you need to get done first, before you crash into your bed and start catching up on ‘Honey Boo Boo’. Taking a shower first is the important part because, as he says, “its one thing to have a big beard, another to stink.” Be considerate of the locals. They are not there to gush all over you because you’re walking across America. Trail Angels are there to help because they are great people and want to support you and the trail, but they are not your parents. Don’t expect them to give you something because you’re a thru hiker; a simple “please” and “thank you” go a long way, in his book. Leadville is what he calls a real hiker town with a great hostel and wonderful mountain town feel. Salmon, ID is another great town even if it is a 50-mile hitch there. Most trail towns these days have a restaurant, bar or library where you can get Internet access if you need it. If you’re worried about that, you can utilize a bounce bucket that you send from town to town. Pmags used a bright orange Home depot bucket because it was lightweight, durable and every post office employee could easily spot it, lowering your chances of it getting lost. These days you can’t rely on payphones anymore (seriously, when was the last time you saw a pay phone?), so bouncing a phone or iPad could be great for you. You can also bounce chargers, self-addressed stamped envelopes, maps, medications or whatever you need along the trial.
Electronics & Mental
The use of electronics on the trail is a hot debate for any hiker regardless of ability. Pmags will say to take what is best for you but he doesn’t see it as a necessity for the hike. If you want to bring it, cool, but hiking the CDT and the American West, for that matter, isn’t that difficult, navigationally. As he says, “Harder was having to worry about navigation, not navigation itself but, worrying about navigation, can’t just zone out, you have to be on the ball“. Even today he doesn’t think that he would take a GPS with him, which is the way that I plan on traveling as well.
The one question I find myself asking anyone who has done any large athletic feat is how you handle it mentally. How did you push yourself to accomplish what you have accomplished? The CDT is beautiful in many ways, but there will be boring sections, hard sections and times when I am just going to want to get off of the damn trail. Making the transition from backpacker to thru hiker as he says is a transition from the mentality of a typical weekend backpacker who is hiking to camp, to that of a thru hiker, who is hiking to hike, not to camp. These two activates are totally different. A good way of seeing if you are up for a thru hike is to go out for a week, hike to hike and see if you enjoy hiking with a pack on all day. In the end, if you can’t make that transition from backpacker to thru hiker, the trail will be very difficult for you. If you go out there with a romantic view of the trail and deny the realities of it you will probably not make it. You need to stay positive and understand your abilities. I once read a quote saying that ‘thru hiking is about becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable’ and I think that’s true.
So what does the future hold for the CDT?
The CDT has changed since his sobo hike in 2006 with his pocket mail and heavier equipment. Today we are fortunate to have an ‘official’ route now with the introduction of the Bear Creek maps and the wonderful Ley maps being continually updated. Books like Cheryl Stayed will help create a buzz about the trail, but only a temporary bump in numbers of participants. Pmags says that the CDT will become more like the PCT in the future with a more ‘official’ route and unofficial side trail options. He doesn’t think the trail will ever be finished because the CDT will always be a HYOH kind of trail, and he likes that about it. He speaks to the population surrounding the trail. With very few large cities near the trail, it will always lead to it being less worked by volunteers, less used by hikers, and have fewer resources, compared to the AT or even the PCT. This rural aspect of the trail means that it will never truly be completed. It will always remain a rugged patchwork of trails that will lead people along the Continental Divide and provide them with an experience of a lifetime. Will a book about the CDT create more buzz about it? Sure, but in the end it will always be a special trail for everyone.
Pmags has had some great adventures in his life, like hiking the long trails or enjoying his passions for backcountry skiing and climbing. He’s enjoyed the time and reflection the trails have provided him and have made him part of who he is today. I know that the itch will always be there for him to be active outdoors, and I hope that I can get the same attitude as him during and after my CDT experience.