When Beth Alt agreed to accompany her husband on a 218-mile hiking trip across the most difficult section of the Pacific Crest Trail in California, the extent of her backpacking experience tallied in at a whopping one hike—a single overnight journey on the couple's honeymoon. "It was supposed to be two nights, but I'm an active runner and realized that if I doubled my pace, I would get back to civilized amenities and would only spend one night in the woods," she says. With her husband, Jeff, chasing after her, they were back in the hotel on night two. "The deal was if I tried backpacking, he would run a marathon with me. I spent one night in the woods and he trained and ran the Chicago Marathon."
As it turns out, Jeff would end up getting the better end of the deal: In his new book, “Four Boots, One Journey,” he chronicles the couple's trek across the John Muir Trail, a journey through rugged mountain terrain across three national parks and up to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.
So how did Jeff convince his amenity-loving wife to tackle one of the most grueling hikes in the country? By stretching the truth, of course.
"He said there would be a resort half way," Beth explains. "What he didn't fully explain to me was that to qualify as a resort in the backcountry simply requires cold beer, hot food, and a shower. There were no massages or chocolates on the pillows. The rooms were run down, the mattress was as if a boulder dropped off the cliff and landed on the bed leaving a pit in the center of the mattress for us to roll in. The room would be condemned in most cities."
But the staff was friendly, the food was hot, and the beer was cold, and eventually Beth started letting go of her domesticated ways and embracing the wild—bears, lightening bolts, and altitude sickness included. Yet this trip was about more than forcing Beth to let go of little luxuries. After Beth's brother tragically passed away, hiking became a form of therapy for Beth, and a way to raise awareness about depression in his memory. "I hoped to help other people and families from having to go through what my family has," she says. "The hike gave me something tangible to focus my efforts on."
That's not to say their journey didn't have its bumps and bruises—literally. As the couple was descending Muir Pass, measuring in at 11,955 feet, Beth developed a painful blister on her heel. With a heavy pack on, she lost her balance trying to keep the weight off her injured foot and tumbled headfirst down the trail, almost falling off the cliff-edge trail. "Luckily, I got wedged in some boulders just inches from falling off the cliff. I was ready to bag it right there and then. I had tears in my eyes, and I was in pain."
Add in a steady influx of bears, lightening storms, and a shortage of a toilet paper, and Jeff's book is a hilarious archive of the good, the bad, and the hilarious—though in the moment, Beth says she was totally focused on survival. "[I had] heard that women's menstrual cycles increase in the thin mountain air, which prompted me to bring along a huge supply of feminine products—way more than I needed." Jeff writes of meeting another hiking duo on the trail:
"Beth was now educating the guy's daughter about the thin-air effect. The father-daughter team had been in the woods only a few days. So the next thing you know, Beth was unloading a large portion of her feminine product inventory from her pack and into the young woman's pack. On the streets of L.A. or New York, Beth might have looked rather suspicious passing zip-locked, gallon-size baggies stuffed full of white tubes discreetly from her pack to another, but for Beth, this was business."
So what lessons does Beth have for other first-time backpackers used to the finer things in life? Ditch the lipstick for Chapstick, and always bring enough sunscreen and toilet paper. "Do it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience outside the box!" she suggested to anyone having doubts. "It will be worth it. After I got past the shower thing, I had a blast. Hiking gave me a euphoric state of mind. I was able to relax, get a great workout in, and enjoy beautiful views and awesome sunsets.
And as for what you can leave behind?
"You don't need a stockpile of tampons!"
Buy “Four Boots, One Journey” at jeffalt.com.
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