“’Park Bench.’ The Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hiker.”
“Thru-hiking is the process of hiking a long-distance from end to end. The term is most commonly associated with the Appalachian Trail, but is also used for other lengthy trails and long distance hikes, including the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Thru-hiking is also called "end-to-end hiking" or "end-to-ending" on some trails, like Vermont’s Long Trail.” (1)
Before 3 July 2008, I did not know about “thru-hiking” or the Pacific Crest Trail. It was in the middle of the night, just after having parked a rental recreation vehicle in an open field in advance of getting onto the Pumas County California fairgrounds for the High Sierra Music Festival (HSMF) that I met my first Pacific Crest hiker and that he was hiking the trail from end-to-end in one long hike. In the dark, in the middle of the night, I talked with this figure of a man who had learned of the festival from other thru-hikers and had come down off the trail to volunteer at the festival and get a free pass to all the festival music. For maybe an hour we talked in the dark and then I headed to bed and never expected to see this strange hiker fellow again.
BUT, as it would turn out, he apparently had not had enough of me or I of him as we met again on the 3rd day of the concert and I asked him more questions about thru-hiking. Why does anyone do it? Do you get lonely hiking by yourself weeks on end? Ever afraid of wild animals? Ever run into hikers that are lost or that have lost it on the trail? Sure you going to hike it all? Ever get lost yourself? On and on I went with questions and this thin, 6 foot tall fellow from Ohio answered them all except, why and his name. Eventually, he told me his name was “Park Bench” and I said, no way. Turns out that thru-hikers are given nick names by other thru-hikers and as this fellow would often sleep on a park bench along the trail, other hikers had begun to call him “Park Bench” and so that was his name. Real name? He never told me. Why he never told me, I am not sure. Given the mystery as to why he would hike 2500 miles alone and never giving me his name or I never capturing a picture image of him, I have wondered since, if he was in trouble with the law somewhere and hiding out on the long trails of America. Or perhaps he had been in trouble with the law at one time and was trying to forgive himself by spending so much time alone, walking, walking, always walking, like the character in the “Forrest Gump” movie that run across America.
All toll, I saw and spent time with Park Bench many hours while at the festival, fixing him dinner one night at the RV and then providing him all the beer he could drink another night. Besides the term “thru-hiking”, I also learned that I was what he called a “trail angel” or someone who helped those on the trail with some sort of comfort.
In the end, I am not sure what exactly intrigues me about this Abe Lincoln sort of looking fellow from Ohio who spends so much time on long mountain trails. Perhaps that he does it at all. Perhaps that he sleeps under the stars for months at a time. Perhaps that he has so much confidence in himself and his ability to survive.
He told me that once, he fell and injured his back and had to lay where he had fallen for a week before he could pull himself to his feet and continue on but he did continue on. Another time, he broke his ankle and again had to remain in the same spot for days before his ankle would allow him to resume his hiking.
Throughout all our discussions or rather my questioning, I would constantly go back to the basic question of why do it, never receiving any sort of real answer. Then one night he brought along a fellow thru-hiker he had met at the festival in hopes that this second, virgin, thru-hiker named “Libido” could answer my why question. Turned out Libido was 19 and really did not have a clue as to why he was on the Pacific Crest Trail.
And so that is a thumbnail of a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker I met named Park Bench. Since I met him several weeks ago, I think of him ever so often and how much further up the trail he is now. I certainly have no doubt he is humping his butt up and down the mountains of California as I write this and will make it to the end before the snow settle in Washington state.
Would be nice to reconnect with Park Bench someday but I doubt it ever happens. Just one of those strange people you meet in the middle of the night that introduces you to a completely foreign world.