Early in the 1970s, Ron Strickland
— a young, novice hiker with an audacious idea
— launched a campaign to link Glacier National Park’s alpine meadows with the Pacific Ocean via a new, 1,200-mile footpath across three national parks and seven national forests. In 1983 Strickland and his fellow explorer Ted Hitzroth thru-hiked the proposed trail’s full length east to west to publish its innovative guidebook. He
— along with countless other volunteers
— lobbied landowners, raised money, and dug dirt until, in 2009, the U.S. Congress added the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail to America’s National Trails System.
Ron Strickland is the author of nine books about hiking or oral history. The former includes guidebooks, a memoir, and a literary anthology. The five oral history books showcase the culture and twentieth century history of America’s disparate regions.
— Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America, Strickland describes the process of untangling brush and bureaucracy to establish one of the world’s most beautiful trails. He intersperses colorful portraits of memorable trail characters, insider tips about favorite hikes, and news about the coming renaissance of hiking. Strickland says, “The adventure is just beginning.”
In addition to being founder of the trail, Strickland is also past executive director of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, and of Scenic Trails Research, an organization dedicated to developing new long distance hiking resources. He is the recipient of numerous conservation honors, including the 2010 L.L. Bean Outdoor Heroes Award.
A few weeks ago, Meanderthals spoke with Ron about helping us introduce a new Interviews section to the hiking blog and he graciously agreed. The process was a remarkable education for me personally. I learned of Ron’s tremendous passion and drive, and the wit that has kept him sane despite all the red tape he had to endure through the decades.
[Meanderthals] Thank you very much Ron, and welcome. So, let’s get started:
In Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America you wrote that “A man on foot has a lot of time to ponder those who have gone before him, but what he is really doing is creating his own narrative that he can reflect upon and enjoy later.” When you were a young man, what was the enticement of hiking for you, and of the Pacific Northwest? Now that you have dedicated your life to trails and hiking, what has it meant to you?
[Ron Strickland] My intent until about the age of thirty was to pursue a career in government service, preferably in international affairs. That dictated my choice of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service for my undergraduate degree. But by the time I completed my Political Science doctorate (also at Georgetown) I had become obsessed with wilderness preservation, the subject of my dissertation.
At the age of twenty-five, I flew from DC to Seattle, knowing no one, and hiked the Cascade Crest Trail from Snoqualmie Pass north to the Canadian border. After that walk I was addicted to the freedom and adventure of backcountry wandering. In retrospect, 1968-1978, the period of my most fervid wilderness focus, was also the Counterculture era. Though I had a de rigeur beard, I was too studious to be a hippy, and, having grown up in the country, I had no desire to become a back-to-the-lander.
Instead I self-consciously declared three goals for myself, and I stuck to them. They were: earn a doctorate; publish a book (River Pigs and Cayuses); and create a long distance trail modeled on the Appalachian Trail. Those goals led to others, and today I focus on: cherishing my wife Christine Hartmann; publishing a novel; developing the transcontinental Sea-To-Sea Route; and remembering my mentors by passing along their spirit.
[Meanderthals] As founder, planner, and builder of the Pacific Northwest Trail you spent a large portion of your early and middle adult life dedicated to your dream. You lived the trail … you lived the wilderness. What was the beacon that kept you going no matter the challenge?
[Ron Strickland] I loved the backpacking and the trekking with great passion. And I was very lucky that that segued into developing a route for the future Pacific Northwest Trail. The funny part was that after only a half dozen years I began to act as if the PNT already existed. It had volunteers (well, a few) and it filled the same niche in its region that the AT did back East.
I used my graduate school education (about the National Wilderness Preservation System) to advance the PNT cause. However, let’s face it, I often thought that I had a tiger by the tail. Though I believed fervently in the PNT, progress was painfully slow.
When eventually new people such as Jon Knechtel took over the PNTA’s management, I was finally able to – would you guess – leave the organizing and developing and lobbying in order at last to do some serious backpacking (completing the Pacific Crest Trail in 2004 after having begun in 1968.)
[Meanderthals] During the years when you and Max Eckenburg were surveying trail locations, charting terrain, then chopping and digging, you relied on a clinometer, a steel surveying tape, and your eyes to find the most beautiful features of the mountains. What was that back-breaking work like
— the vision you had for transforming that ruthless wilderness into an actual walkable pathway?
[Ron Strickland] Because cross country exploration would be essential, I sought out the ready smile and crushing handshake of the aforementioned Max Eckenburg. In his black beret, red suspenders, logger boots, and thick woolens, he looked woodsy enough to grow moss.
In choosing the location for a new trail, the first thing to know is that every inch of ground, however wild looking, belongs to somebody. For our proposed route beside Samish Bay, that somebody was the Washington Department of Natural Resources. So I sought permission to build what DNR called a “scratch trail” (i.e. a glorified game trail).
After obtaining DNR’s permission, the next step was to locate a way down to Samish Bay from a North Cascades outlier range known as Chuckanut Mountains. “Steep as a cow’s face,” is how Max put it.
Only my relative youthfulness enabled me to keep up with the old-timer whenever he disappeared into the ferns, blackberries, and ocean spray. Following him I began to earn my degree in “bucking the brush.”
Over the next ten years, off and on, we located trail across steep, convoluted country from sea level at Samish Bay to about 4,000 feet on Mount Josephine, 64 miles to the east. The landscape was a crazy quilt of overgrown clearcuts, impassable swamps, briar-choked hellholes, and gigantic second-growth fir.
My job during each reconnaissance was to mark our passage with blue-and-white-striped surveyor’s tape. Pretty soon colorful ribbons laced our slopes until we knew every smile and dimple. The two tools I used most though, were Max’s clinometer (a slope measurement tool) and his 110-foot steel surveying tape. Our trail location bushwhacks sought the ideal combination of features, directions, and grade. A complication was the need to maintain a 10% or less average grade.
It was not enough to walk through once or twice and then start chopping and digging. No, first Max had to sit at his drafting table to manually redraw our surveys to scale of 12 inches to the mile. Then after innumerable reconnoitering trips, we measured the final route in 110-foot increments by slinking the tape through the ferns and rules. I recorded each of those segments’ azimuth and angle of rise or fall in a rainproof book. Later Max plotted the figures on his big chart.
Max used to say, “Ron, this trail will be so good that I could take my grandmother up in a wheelchair.” Today the Blanchard Hill section that he designed is his much-loved memorial.
[Meanderthals] When drumming up support for the ongoing work on the PNT, you conducted hundreds of interviews with legends of the backcountry. You traveled with a tape recorder as much as a backpack. You looked upon wilderness as more than an absence of humans. The stories of the land, told by the legends, added to the total potential. You must have derived great joy from bringing the storytellers into the fold. How did you hit upon the idea of using the value these old-timers presented in recruiting the communities that built the trail?
[Ron Strickland] In 1978, I began to interview old-timers along the route of the PNT. The previous year PNT thru-hikers Janet Garner and Rex Bakel had told me about Ralph Thayer who came into what is now Glacier National Park five years before the park was established. I wanted to hear what Ralph had to say about establishing trails for the Forest Service in the 1920’s. (My education at the School of Foreign Service had been heavy on history, always one of my favorite subjects.)
So I sought out the old forester, using directions from Janet and Rex. Ralph Thayer’s stories were so fascinating that they (and those of subsequent interviewees) persuaded me that I loved the backcountry not so much because of a myth of its never having been touched by human hands, but because of its totality of experience – including that of people on the land.
Then, the more alert I was to this local history angle the more I was able to recruit volunteers to develop the Pacific Northwest Trail. (Simultaneously I published five oral history books, and I began three additional, as yet incomplete, volumes.)
[Meanderthals] Your anecdotes in Pathfinder about your experiences with the backcountry legends are priceless. Would you share one of your favorite stories?
[Ron Strickland] I encourage people to read the stories that I included in Pathfinder. And more than that I urge my readers to meet today’s leaders of the trails community.
Trail clubs exist in every part of the country. Join one or more. Volunteer to help in any way that you can. That is what I did, beginning at the age of nineteen with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in Washington, DC. And I am currently a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
America is full of “backcountry legends”, and you can meet them and collect terrific stories. Better yet, you can become such a person yourself and inspire the next generation. Pass it on!
[Meanderthals] Your experience with Meadow Bloom, the autistic teenage girl afflicted with leukemia, is quite poignant. You recovered from the sadness of her passing by realizing that she was one of the best teachers you ever had. You have lived a life of charity. I suspect the International Glaucoma Association (IGA) is important to you. You said, “To be part of a loving community is the best trail magic of all.” How can we grow that community?
[Ron Strickland] My wife, Christine Hartmann, and I attend the annual meetings of the Glaucoma Research Foundation in San Francisco. She has glaucoma, and she is currently writing a book about patients’ experience with the disease.
Human beings are very social animals. And to participate in a cause – whether trailbuilding or disease fighting – is not only socially useful but also personally satisfying. All it takes is that first little step. Join a group that piques your interest. Meet some like-minded folks, and you will be surprised by the result.
[Meanderthals] I sense a greying of the hiking community. You’ve spoken of mentoring as a way of continuing the evolvement of our National Trails System. Before embarking on his now famous Sea-to-Sea trek, Andrew Skurka wrote to you seeking advice and logistical planning tactics. Do you get a sense of a new generation of young trail lovers coming on board to help protect the existing infrastructure?
[Ron Strickland] When I took up hiking in the early 1960’s, I was almost always the youngest person in any outing. Most active hikers and club types were at least in their fifties – many much older. Is today’s situation really any different than that? I am not sure.
All I can say is that Andrew Skurka was, and is, an exceptional person. And part of my deepest joy in life has been to meet such can-do twenty-somethings.
I confess right here that the hidden agenda behind my memoir Pathfinder was to plant seeds in receptive minds. After all, people have come to me every year, beginning in the 1970’s, for advice about hiking. I have almost always encouraged them, but they put the effort in and to them the credit is due. The results have often been very heartwarming.
[Meanderthals] You said, “The future of America’s trails depends on our many trail-maintaining organizations. The prosperity of those groups will rest upon the shoulders of day hikers. It is the people who actually do the work who make our trails possible, and it is from the ranks of day hikers that future volunteers will come.”
In these times of tight budgets, all over the country state and local governments are cutting back on funds for parks and recreation, conservation and natural resource protection. Mountain clubs and conservancies are taking up the banner, but still shortfalls exist.
Is this more likely to have an effect on existing trail maintenance, or new trail planning and building? Can we still do both? Do you have faith that the grassroots local hikers will work together to assure existing trail infrastructure is maintained?
[Ron Strickland] Actually I am very worried about this. A new report indicates that only a quarter of the Forest Service’s trails meet the agency’s standards.
And, of course, there is the Richard Louv argument that kids lack early exposure to the outdoors. In the end I believe that the next generations will get the outdoor opportunities and the systems of trails that only they can create and preserve.
[Meanderthals] With so many miles on your boots, you are bound to have some cherished favorite places.
[Ron Strickland] I do and I have described some of them in Pathfinder, and there’s my Pacific Northwest Trail Guide. As a lover of guidebooks, it was inevitable that I would eventually write multiple versions of the PNT Guide, “a labor of truly obsessive love” that compressed 1,200 miles into 400 dense pages of technical writing.
After Andrew Skurka used it during several PNT thru-hikes, he called it a “treasure hunt” because it seemed to describe less a trail than a series of arcane clues. For me personally, however, the emotional significance of my several editions was that they contained less a set of directions than a collection of between-the-lines memories.
My overall feeling is simply one of gratitude that I have been able to live so many backcountry adventures and to know so many fabulous fellow enthusiasts. Where is my favorite place? That is like asking a parent to name his or her favorite child. I have 1,200 favorite miles that Congress stamped with its imprimatur: Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail.
[Meanderthals] You have a few goals for the National Trails System: A) develop the transcontinental Sea-to-Sea Route, B) expand the number of major long distance trails, C) create a National Trails Center. What is the progress on these fronts?
[Ron Strickland] A) This year I published a guidebook to the North Country National Scenic Trail. My goal was actually to help to make the NCT more of a success. Despite having had “national scenic trail” status ever since 1980, the NCT is still very little known nationally. I am very eager for it to flourish not only for its own sake but also for the future of the Sea-to-Sea Route. The NCTA has accepted the notion that its 4600-mile trail should be expanded east to the Appalachian Trail and west to the Continental Divide Trail. As soon as that is accomplished the C2C will be a de facto reality. I encourage any hiker who lives in the Midwest to join in the fun.
B) New long trails always take many decades to take hold. The most likely candidate for completion now is the wonderful East Coast Greenway. But there are many, many local projects. Right now is a joyous time to be a trails person in every region of the United States.
C) Regrettably no progress on the National Trails Center. It needs an eager beaver who will take on that challenge …
[Meanderthals] I don’t envision you to be one to go gently into that good night. What’s next for you Ron?
Aside from hiking in the Pacific Northwest at the end of this month, my current goal is to complete and publish my tenth book, a picaresque novel called The Big One.
[Meanderthals] Thanks so much Ron. This has been a true delight.
I can’t recommend Strickland’s memoir enough. If you have interest in learning what it takes to start a new National Scenic Trail, be sure to pick up a copy of Pathfinder
— Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America from Oregon State University Press.
You can get a personalized autographed copy here.