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Hiking His Way Through 7 Pairs of Shoes

Brian Robinson's record-breaking, 7,000-mile trek took him through brutal weather, lonely days and bouts of palsy.

November 21, 2001|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ALTOS, Calif. — And to think it all began with a question about impossibility.

What was something in the world of hiking that no one would ever accomplish? What was beyond comprehension, mused Brian Robinson as he sat around with some of his buddies a few years back.

The question itself should be put in context. Robinson was a hard-core hiker who had already conquered the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the Mexican border to British Columbia.

He finally settled on this for his answer: hiking all three of America's major trails--the Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trail--in a single calendar year.

This year, Robinson accomplished his vision of impossibility, hiking all 7,371 miles in less than 11 months. After slogging through snowdrifts and freezing rain, after dodging deadly lightning on bald mountain ridges and, perhaps most of all, fighting through months of lonely solitude, Robinson became the first person to hike the Triple Crown in a single year. In the process, he hiked through 22 states, yo-yoing up and down the nation at a blistering average of 30 miles a day.

"Most people thought it was impossible," he said in a recent interview. "There were times when I didn't think it was fun, but there was never a time when I said I was going home."

To put his accomplishment in perspective, only 27 other people have completed the Triple Crown in their lifetimes. In the close-knit world of long-distance hiking, no solo hiker has ever managed even two of the National Scenic Trails in a single year. The feat is roughly equivalent to walking from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.--three times.

"What he pulled off is an amazing feat," said Joe Sobinovsky, the program director for the Sacramento-based Pacific Crest Trail Assn. "It's hard to grasp what it must have been like."

During his marathon hike, Robinson walked through some of the roughest and most scenic terrain the United States has to offer. He wore out seven pairs of running shoes in the process and ate his way through 6,000 calories a day--about triple the average person's intake. When he reached a town, he would inhale pizzas and whole chickens.

He went through days when he would have to stop every few minutes to pull off ticks, and it was not unusual for him to wake up in the morning covered with ants. He walked long stretches where there was no water at all and others where it seemed the rain would never stop.

At points along the trail, he had to patch his cracked feet together with duct tape. And in the early going, he developed a form of palsy that paralyzed the right side of his face for weeks. Still, Robinson kept going, usually rising at first light and sometimes hiking by headlamp long after the sun was gone. "I've likened the physical toil to the ante in a poker game," said Robinson, a computer systems engineer who became known as "Flyin' Brian" by other hikers. "It's by no means the hardest thing. It's having the mental toughness to stick it out in the tough times."

Long-Distance Runs

to Train for Trek

As he approached 40, the lanky Robinson knew that time was running out to make an assault on the Triple Crown, that eventually his body would not be up to the task. Beginning in 1997, the single UC Berkeley graduate took up a strenuous regimen of long-distance running, logging an average of 50 miles a week on dirt trails near his San Jose home, which he upped to 90 as the beginning of the trek approached.

Next, there was the matter of plotting a course, of trying to analyze what route would work. And then there was the minutia of figuring out where food drops should be mailed along the way, what equipment to bring or, more to the point, what not to bring. He enlisted his father, Roy, who had recently retired from the Southern Pacific Railroad, into the scheme.

Furniture went into storage. He quit his job of 17 years with computer manufacturer Tandem (now Compaq). And on Jan. 1, he stood at Georgia's Mt. Springer, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and began walking the 2,168 miles north toward Maine's Mt. Katahdin.

The beginning did not bode well. Two inches of snow were already on the ground at the trail head. The temperature that night fell into the single digits. Yet for Robinson, it was glorious. The sun, after all, was shining.

"I'd certainly trade the future for a whole winter of days like this," he wrote in his diary that night. As it turned out, that would not happen. Not even close.

Thru-hikers, as these long-distance trekkers are called, are a mixed lot. They range from PhDs to high school dropouts and often go by such trail names as Sunshine and Seahawk, Red Owl and Semper Fi, much the way truck drivers give themselves handles.

The only known study of them shows thru-hikers to be more introverted than not, comfortable with the solitude of the trail and themselves. And, as Robinson's friend Sean Bourke, a.k.a. Sage, put it: "You have to really like walking."

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