NEENACH — For its 25th birthday, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail got a new leg--its last one.
U.S. Forest Service crews recently carved out a 7.5-mile segment near this remote community east of Gorman, completing the 2,638-mile transnational trail, which will be inaugurated in a "Golden Spike" ceremony near Acton on Saturday.
While hikers have journeyed along the trail since its founding in 1968, it wasn't until now that they had an unbroken path to follow.
But for Cam Lockwood, a trails coordinator for the Forest Service who worked on 133 miles of the trail over the last 20 years and has hiked another 500 miles of it, the end is part of another beginning.
"The emphasis up until today was to get the trail completed," said Lockwood, who used a bulldozer-like contraption to cut the final segment of the trail. Now parks officials need to compile detailed information on the new twists and turns of the trail. "We literally don't have a completed map of all the parts of this trail."
But every year a couple dozen people hike the trail's length from the Mexican to the Canadian borders, and they have passed their knowledge of it on to hikers like Joel Hathhorn, who ran into Lockwood just as he was putting the finishing touches to the trail.
By last Thursday, Hathhorn had carried his metallic blue ice ax through more than 500 miles of desert. It'll come in handy later.
The 27-year-old civil engineer had been traveling along the edges of the Southern California desert for 27 days, going 25 miles a day, his heavy black hiking boots browned by dust.
Now, standing on the edge of the Antelope Valley, he was tired of it.
"Let's face it, the Mojave Desert is a pain," said the travel-worn hiker from Portland, his soiled football jersey bearing an equally grimy 1985 Orange Bowl patch. "It's hot and dry. You get one good view, and then it's the same view for 400 miles."
But it's just the beginning of a journey that is bound to become more interesting. Soon, that path will take Hathhorn to the Sierra Nevada, where he will climb to elevations of around 13,600 feet, mostly through snow, ice and freezing creeks. Then he'll need that ax.
Hathhorn asked Lockwood if a portion of the trail up north was clear. Lockwood assured him it was. Hathhorn nodded.
Each year, several dozen "through hikers" like Hathhorn travel the entire trail. Other hikers, "end-to-enders," take the trail a section at a time over several years.
Before setting off, Hathhorn bundled up about 30 parcels of provisions for a friend or relative to mail to him at various post offices along the route. Post offices will only hold packages for 30 days, so they have to be mailed in stages.
Then he packed a tent, sleeping bag, compass, clothes and mountaineering gear into a backpack, all of which weighs about 30 pounds on a good day. It will weigh more than twice that when the pack is fully loaded with food and water, and there are points on the trail where he will go days without a chance to get more of either.
Then, taking a six-month sabbatical, he started off in mid-spring from Campo, Calif., hoping for good weather.
With luck, he will arrive at the Canadian border in October, before the weather gets too cold.
"I'm an outdoor nut--I'll do anything," he explains, needlessly.
Most through-hikers travel alone because, Hathhorn said, "if you're not married to the person you're hiking with, it's real tough to deal with someone for five months straight, day in, day out."
The idea for the trail was conceived in the 1920s, said Alice Krueper, local coordinator for the volunteer Pacific Crest Trail Assn. Krueper is an end-to-ender who finally finished the trail in September after several trips beginning in 1986.
The first annual Pacific Crest Trail Conference was held in 1932 to raise interest in the idea, Krueper said. But when its founder, Clinton Clarke, died, so did the conference.
The national trail idea was resurrected in the 1960s by Warren Rogers, said Krueper, and the result was the National Trails System Act of 1968. The act tied together various trails already in existence to form the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and also established the Appalachian Trail, a system that runs from Georgia to Maine.
The Pacific Crest Trail will be dedicated in Soledad Canyon, outside Acton, with the driving of a ceremonial golden spike as part of National Trails Day. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt will be among the dignitaries attending.
The Pacific Crest Trail is more than 500 miles longer than its East Coast cousin; it crosses 19 major canyons, passes 1,000 lakes and climbs 57 mountain passes. Krueper said she prefers the Pacific Crest trail because it takes hikers from desert chaparral to snow-topped Sierra.
Not everyone goes on foot.