For years, the Pacific Crest Trail was an adventure that lay ahead of Elena and Gus Wimberger, a once-in-a-lifetime trek they’d dreamed of and planned.
Now, with it just over a week behind them, the Tacoma siblings look back on the characters met, injuries overcome, beauty seen and — during the final stretch when they hiked 48 consecutive hours — the possibility it could have cost them their lives.
“It wasn’t about the finish; it was about the unconditional kindness of the people we met,” said Gus, 18.
Gus and his 23-year-old sister had talked about the 2,663-mile trail for half their lives. They left in May, after she graduated from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and he from Foss High School.
“The toughest adjustment was just so much walking. You’d think there would be plenty of time to work on a journal, relax around the campfire,” Elena said. “We’d get up in the morning, pack, eat a candy bar and start walking. We’d stop when we were exhausted, go to sleep and then start over.”
Hiking from the Mexican border to the Canadian border isn’t for sissies.
First came the blisters, then a third member of their party — Carter Chaffey, who came home early — hurt a knee. Near the California-Oregon border, Elena was hampered by plantar fasciitis.
“I learned how to stretch my feet each night, how to wrap them,” she said. “I didn’t skip a day with it.”
Near the midway point, Gus was hit with tendinitis in his shin. He kept going for nearly a hundred miles, then stopped near Mount Shasta.
“I was going to have to lay up a week, see if it got good enough to go on,” he said. “Elena went on without me.”
That’s when he met “Dirt.”
“He said he was kind of a healer, and that he felt he was there for a reason,” Gus said. “On the trail, everyone has a trail name, and his was ‘Dirt.’ He had this mysterious glass bottle of dark liquid he said was a remedy.
“I took some and started to rub it on my shin and he said, ‘No. Just squirt it in the back of your throat.’ I did, and the next day, there was no pain. He saved my trip.”
Both remember being in a nearly constant state of hunger.
“We’d planned how much to carry between resupply towns along the way,” Gus said, “but until we got going, it was hard to imagine how many calories your body burns through, how much you have to eat. There were times we ran short of food. There was one 20-mile stretch we made on a Snickers bar.”
Often, they encountered trail angels, those who live near the trail and take in hikers for a night or leave food or cold drinks for them. And there were stops when Gus and Elena would hitchhike into a town for a good meal, then hitch back to the trail to start again.
When asked what the best meal she had in five months on the road was, Elena laughed.
“Mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and tuna,” she said. “At the end of a long day, when you’re starving, that was perfect.”
Crossing into Washington, seeing places they’d hiked with family as kids, had the Wimbergers eager to finish.
And then, between Stevens and Rainy passes, the weather turned.
“It was either snowing or, when the trail went down, pouring rain,” Gus said. “We were soaked, and you could wring out our tents and sleeping bags, but we had to go 70 miles to get out.
“Stopping wasn’t an option. All you’d do was shiver, it was so cold. So we hiked the last 48 hours straight. It was the only time on the trail I felt scared.”
Elena would sing songs to keep her brother entertained; he would tell her stories made up from trips they’d taken together as kids.
Gus and Elena got out and hitch-hiked to their grandparents’ home in Winthrop. They were 60 miles short of the Canadian border.
Five days later, Elena drove north with friends, walked the final eight miles and stood on the monument that marks the trail’s end. Gus couldn’t go. Doctors ordered him to stay off badly swollen feet that are still recovering.
“For five months, our life was a 2-foot wide trail that just went on and on,” Gus said. “Now we want to find a job, save money. In the spring, our father is going to Borneo. … ”
Their trip raised nearly $7,000 for Etta Projects, a Tacoma-based charity that helps rural villagers in Bolivia.
Looking over the journal she kept from the trip, Elena found a quote she’d heard on the trail and found it as profound a closure as any.
“We walked along the Pacific Crest Trail to remind us who we are or what we might eventually be.”
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638