Debbie Gist’s trail story is a tortoise-vs.-hare tale, although in her case the tortoise doesn’t win the race and may not even finish it.
Which does not bother her much.
On April 15, Debbie, husband Steve and Steve’s former college roommate, John Hellman, drove to the California-Mexico border and stepped on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The trail runs 2,650 miles to Washington’s Canadian border, a trip that most experienced hikers can make in about six months.
Debbie, Steve and John are not most hikers.
“I’m 47 and was out of shape when we started,” said Debbie, a Lakewood nurse who was director of perioperative services at St. Clare Hospital before the trip. “Steve is 61 and John is 63. They’ve done a lot of hiking, but none of us is 20 anymore.”
They dubbed themselves “The Three Turtles” and started walking. The plan was to hike all 2,650 miles.
“To finish, you have to be prepared to crank it out. We’ve come to the realization it’s not going to happen,” Debbie said. “We haven’t been able to sustain high enough mileage. Initially, we were doing 10 miles per day, then 15.
“We haven’t been able to consistently crank out 20 miles a day.”
Last week, three months into their trek, the three turtles crossed the thousand-mile marker.
“We’ll do another 700 or so before we’re done,” Debbie said. “Not a lot of folks can say that.”
Last week, all three hikers left the trail at Sonora Pass in California and came home — the Gists to Lakewood, Hellman to Carnation — for a few days. When they start again Sunday, they’ll be joined by Hellman’s wife, Phyllis.
And they’ll start in northern Washington.
“We’re going to do the end of the trail, take a picture at the northern terminus,” Debbie said.
After that, they’ll drop Phyllis off at home, return to Sonora Pass and restart the hike where they left off.
No, it’s not the route through-hikers take.
“Steve and John have been hiking together for nearly 40 years, and they’ve done the Oregon and Washington parts of the Pacific Crest Trail,” Debbie said. “Every year, they’d do a section — that was a condition of our marriage.
“I’d never backpacked until I met Steve.”
On Sept. 22, the two will have been married 25 years. Now retired, Steve was a doctor of internal medicine. The couple has two grown sons
“In 2006 our family hiked the John Muir Trail, which was 220 miles,” Debbie said. “That was the first long-distance hike of my life. It was spectacular, and from then on, I thought it would be amazing to do the Pacific Crest Trail.”
There were things to do first, like get their two sons out on their own or into college. Debbie got her master’s degree in business and the job of her dreams.
“The hospital has been very supportive,” she said. “They’re holding the job open for me until I get back.”
That will be some time in October. The hikers will keep going until the Gists’ wedding anniversary. Then the couple will celebrate in Hawaii and return to their normal lives.
None of the turtles will be the same.
“We’re up and hiking at 5 a.m. and we go until 6 p.m.,” Debbie said. “We’re slower than a lot of hikers, but we’ve seen younger hikers brag about their speed and then be laid up for a week with shin splints.”
Each of the hikers carries about 45 pounds of equipment, food and water on their backs, and each has lost considerable weight.
“Steve and John have both lost about 30 pounds, and I’ve lost 39,” Debbie said. “I had the most to lose.
“We ran into a lot of rattlesnakes in the desert, and we’ve hiked through rain, sleet and snow already. In the desert, there was no water, so we had to carry eight liters apiece — and that was an extra 20 pounds.”
They won’t finish the trail this year.
“I can see us coming back next year to continue, pick up where we left off each year until we finish. I’m motivated,” she said. “The people we’ve met, the country we’ve seen, it’s all been spectacular.
“There are times in the mountains we’re going about two miles an hour, which seems pathetic, but we keep going.”