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The Joy of Walking: Stories from an Outlaw Trail

Megan Kimble reviews Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America, by Ron Strickland

Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America, by Ron StricklandI’m a day-hiker. For me, a trail begins and ends at a parking lot. I rarely think about the trail itself—it’s just there. On a good trail, the narrow path that winds through a forest or up a mountain seems as innately woven into the landscape as a creek bed. But how does a trail come to be? Unlike a road, a hiking trail attempts to offer a natural track into a wilderness that purports to be trackless. Before we can venture out off the parking lot into the wild, someone must first forge a path for us to follow.

For the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (PNT), that someone was Ron Strickland. Strickland spent the better part of his youth bushwhacking through the Northwestern United States, physically carving much of the PNT across 1,200 miles of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America is the story of that journey. Strickland surveyed hills, cut down trees, trampled ground, and hammered in stakes, transforming the PNT from a concept to a reality.

The book claims to be a history of trail making; according to the dust jacket, of “untangling bush and bureaucracy to establish one of the world’s most beautiful trails.” That it is not. In an early chapter, Strickland discusses initial opposition to the trail—in 1970, many Northwest conservation groups preferred their wilderness to be left trackless—but then bounds forward, ignoring the four decades of political struggle that endured until 2009, when Congress added the Pacific Northwest Trail to the National Trails System. Though the premise is misleading—this is not a history of how the PNT came to be—Pathfinder is a different, equally important history of the trail, that of its psychological import on the lives that tread it, and Strickland is an amiable hiking companion.

Instead of rehashing old politics, Strickland just takes us on the trail. He introduces us to its characters, to moonshine peddlers and gold prospectors, and reveals its lore through stories of trail magic, and the lost art of net fishing. He muses on why it is that people hike and invites us to share in his personal epiphanies. Five of Strickland’s previous seven published books are oral histories, and the best parts of Pathfinder are where Strickland does what he does best: collect stories. Over three decades of hiking, Strickland has interviewed the best of the characters of the Northwest, and in Pathfinder, we get to see them in their natural setting, from Bill Tilly, the back-country miner, to Sheila Pearson, an overweight middle-aged woman who thru-hiked the PCT and lost 134 pounds in the process.

In Pathfinder, Strickland reminds us that a hiking trail is first and foremost a creation of community, encapsulating not only the landscape through which it cuts but also the people who tread its paths. “There is a temptation to understand wilderness only in the absence of humans. I prefer a more complete view that treasures the backcountry’s legends and tales. Such stories sit lightly on the land and add immeasurably to our enjoyment,” he writes. The stories of the PNT are indeed enjoyable and lighthearted, and Strickland guides us along the trail with grace and humor.

One criticism initially leveled against the Pacific Northwest Trail is that the path itself would not, in fact, sit lightly on the land, that it would become “another . . . trunk line trail, three feet, four feet wide.” Strickland mentions the criticism, but his readers are supposed to simply accept that his own good intentions would prevent this fate. 

Illustration by Elise Zoller
One of the 29 ink illustrations by Elise
Zoller in Ron Strickland's Pathfinder.

Illustration by Elise Zoller.

In 1970, Strickland was pursuing a doctorate in political science at Georgetown when he discovered the works of Northwestern conservationist Harvey Manning, who invited readers to come enjoy the wilderness of the Northwest—and then help save it. Strickland bolted from graduate school and started bushwhacking. Strickland hadn’t yet relocated to the Northwest—hadn’t yet begun mapping his trail—when he began lobbying Congress to designate the still-nebulous Pacific Northwest Trail as a National Scenic Trail. At the time, only the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails were designated as such; adding another required a “process . . . so arduous that only a very stubborn sort of foolish dreamer would attempt it,” writes Strickland.

It also required local support that Strickland didn’t have. Northwest conservation groups like the North Cascades Conservation Council (N3C) worried that the trail would “impose irreversible damage on the wilderness resource and detract from the wilderness experience of the visitor.”

Strickland decided to prove them wrong and build the trail anyway. “My fellow conspirators and I decided to fight back by physically building the trail for free and out of sight of our Seattle opponents,” he writes. “PNT became . . . an outlaw trail.” He joined forces with a 60-year-old park ranger named Max Eckenburg. They were broke but determined, and in 1982, they began sculpting their masterpiece, tracking through the Northwest for nearly a decade.

Throughout Pathfinder, Strickland seems less like an outlaw than a benevolent and bumbling uncle, but the book is written for those who already know of Strickland’s reputation as the bad-boy of the hiking world. In 2000, Backpacker magazine profiled “The Prophet of the PNT” and described him as “a pulpit-pounding evangelist,” an article which Strickland proudly quotes within Pathfinder. (That same profile, incidentally, details a much more complete history of how the PNT came to be than you’ll find in Pathfinder—a worthwhile primer for Strickland’s tale.) It takes a zealot to build a trail through 1,200 miles of wilderness at the edge of a country, and to his credit, Strickland doesn’t pretend to be anything but “willful and eccentric.”

Strickland’s Pacific Northwest is a “remembered landscape” and hiking along the PNT is “less a series of GPS waypoints than a series of memories.” Pathfinder is this series of memories, an accumulation of little moments and outback characters and Strickland’s own relationship with the trail. Strickland’s tales are enhanced by occasional ink illustrations by Elise Zoller scattered throughout the book, quiet sketches that recreate the spare splendor of hiking along the PNT.

“A trail is sometimes not just a footpath but also a hint of the people who have passed ahead of us,” he writes. Framed under a different premise—not as a history of the PNT but rather a history of those who hike it—Pathfinder is like an enjoyable day-hike: a pleasant reminder of what nature has to offer.


Megan Kimble runs, hikes, and bikes around Tucson, where she’s a student in University of Arizona’s MFA program for creative nonfiction. You can find her on her blog, www.megankimble.com, or in her kitchen, where she’s often making chocolate or burning toast.
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Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America

By Ron Strickland

   Oregon State University
   256 pages
   ISBN 978-0870716034


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