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Hiking the PCT With My Son

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Apparently, ‘mother-son PCT section hikes’ are not really a thing. According to just about everyone, few teen boys want to spend 5+ days (and 70 miles) hiking through the wilderness with their moms. Thankfully, no one told my 16-year-old son Nate.

Amy at Jefferson
Amy poses at Jefferson Park during her Central Oregon section hike of the Pacific Crest Trail with her 16-year-old son, Nate, this summer. All images: Amy Whitley

No one in our family loves to backpack more than Nate and I, and no one else had the luxury of a week free in July to devote to the trail. For Nate, our section hike was a warm-up: he plans to thru-hike the entirety of the Oregon section before he graduates high school.

For me, at the risk of sounding completely corny, it was nothing short of an honor. Watching my firstborn stretch his legs, take charge, and own the trail gave me a glimpse—nay, a very clear picture—of the man he’s rapidly becoming.
My view—mostly of the back of his heels as he took the lead—was of a capable, happy, intelligent, and hard-working young adult. He took charge, made meals, read maps, and did dishes. He owned his experience, proving himself to be a capable outdoorsman, mature teenager, and generally awesome all-round human being.

Nate at Three Fingered Jack
Nate at Three-Fingered Jack.

We spent four perfect, blue-sky days and one horrific, ice-wind-sideways-rain day hiking from McKenzie Pass to Olallie Lake, Central Oregon. We passed through the Three Sisters and Mount Jefferson national forests, stopping three times for backcountry permits and once for a resupply box, hiking an average of 12-15 miles per day. We jotted down notes about what we learned, mostly by headlamp before we crashed for the night.

Nate at viewpoint
Taking in the view with her son led to some thoughtful realizations while on the trail.

  1. The trail is everything. It’s amazing how fast this happens. Even after less than 24 hours, the PCT became our super-highway, our social network, our home, the given path for hours of stream of conscious thought, and ultimately, our exit strategy. Most of our topical conversation revolved around mileage, landmarks, and terrain. We learned to read ‘sign’: cairns indicating the direction of the trail, sticks pointing to water sources, zip-locked notes wedged into rock crevices, addressed from hiker to hiker.
  2. Thru-hikers are crazy good people. And a little crazy. Anyone devoting four months or more of their life to hike from Mexico to Canada is a person you want to get to know. They’ve been out on the trail a long time, and they’re delightful to talk to, in a free-spirited, social-conventions-be-damned sort of way. We asked their trail names, and learned of their favorite PCT sections and wildest stories. We swam with them in lakes, camped with them at night, and always wished we could keep up. Shout out to Hot Mess, Iron Chef, and Whiskers. Godspeed on the trail, you three.
  3. Data book entries can be vague. When you spend most of your afternoon looking for a ‘shallow pond by a mountain meadow’, every vista you pass can begin to look the part. Carry both a topographical map as well as the data book pages you need.
  4. Time can be measured in miles. After a few days on the trail, it no longer mattered what my watch said. We’d be at camp when the miles were accomplished, simple as that. Taking a break one afternoon with a trio of thru-hikers, we asked them how long they’d known each other. The answer: “About 1,800 miles.”
  5. We could be partners on the trail. It’s complicated to be a mom of a teen. You have to be in charge in a big way, but also give them some rein to learn responsibility. Any parent of a teen knows how exhausting this dance is. On the trail, we could take a break from the mother-son thing. Nate became an equal: if I was setting up the tent, he was starting dinner. If I was putting away dishes, he was stringing up the food bag. It was a refreshing change for both of us.
  6. Mashed potatoes are king. We packed a lot of highly nutritious, protein-rich foods. All we wanted at the end of the day were carbs. Lots and lots of carbs.
  7. You can smell day hikers coming along the trail. Their deodorant, perfume, and lotions hover like a cloud around them. It’s actually off-putting, which makes it baffling when you see them scrunch their noses at you. Side note: spilling an envelope of tuna into your backpack on Day 2 means you’ll never NOT smell like tuna. Ever again.
carl lake

Would we do it again? Well, there’s a map of the entire PCT on the wall of Nate’s bedroom. Our tiny 70-mile section has been highlighted, with a note written below in Nate’s hand: Only 2,580 mi to go.

Oboz that made the trek: Nate wore Oboz Bridger BDry and I wore Oboz Mystic BDry all 70 miles.

Amy Whitley is a freelance writer, family travel blogger, and outdoor adventure columnist in Southern Oregon. The founder of Pit Stops for Kids, Amy also works directly with family travel brands and services as Trekaroo's sponsorship manager and is the Southern Oregon expert for Travel Oregon. She can be found @pitstopsforkids.

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