Although I managed to survive my first two trail crew-leading encounters with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) respectfully enough, my third one was nearly my last.
To this day, I can still hardly hear the words “Diamond Peak Wilderness Area” without suffering through a lurid miasma of flashbacks—which have henceforth been associated with the backpacking-induced mixture of strain, pain and outright humiliation I experienced while trying to maintain the PCT in there.
It was summer of 1994, smack dab in the middle of thru-hiking season, and there I was: A bright-eyed, bushy-faced, recent college graduate attempting to wrangle an inordinately rambunctious, excruciatingly diverse crew of 11 young adults on a five-day backcountry hitch.
The sun was blazing. The heat was ferocious. And Willamette National Forest was crawling with a freshly hatched infusion of blood-hungry insects.
Yet, as we assembled our backpacks at trailhead, the primary divisive issue that rippled through our crew stemmed from poetry.
While the overwhelming majority espoused that proper punctuation was absolutely necessary for the ideal expression of verse, a small—but voraciously vocal—minority refused to rescind their sanguine conviction that punctuation was, at best, superfluous.
Compelling as their discourse was, I might as well have been herding cats for all the effort it took just to cajole them up the trail.
“Ezra Pound was truly an incomparable groundbreaker,” I finally told them. “But if you don’t get the GORP divvied up between you inside of the next five minutes, I’m going to keep aspirating your occupational obligations until all that’s left is onomatopoeia.”
Although this inspired (if only marginally comprehensible) little outburst succeeded to re-establish just enough order among the divisive ranks of the literati to make the subsequent five-mile hike into base camp go smoothly, it only took the sudden and completely ill-timed arrival of the Great Intestinal Disturbance that followed to plunge the whole endeavor into chaos.
Unbeknownst to me, the iodine tincture we had been using to treat our water over the previous few weeks was a 7 percent mixture rather than the recommended 2 percent dosage. And a discrepancy in iodine intake like that—as the gastroenterologist we consulted in Bend later told us—tends to cause a marked microbial imbalance in even the most iron-clad digestive tract.
Even before lunch during our first day of work, I noticed that pretty much half the crew had started to spend so much time scurrying off into the bushes, they’d rendered themselves effectively AWOL.
By the second day, I’d become a human Pepto-Bismol dispenser. By the third day, my Pepto-Bismol bottle was empty.
And the fourth day got even gnarlier.
“For cripes sake!” groaned my recently stricken co-leader as she re-emerged from the bushes for the third time inside an hour. “Maybe we’ve got giardia!”
“Giardia?” asked one the last able-bodied poets on the crew. “Isn’t that the name of the small village just outside Florence where Dante went to school?”
“Maybe metaphorically speaking,” I quipped, “but technically speaking, it’s an intestinal parasite.”
And suddenly, just as my face started feeling feverish, my supervisor decided to show up.
“What kind of chicken-scratch outfit are you running here?” she barked.
But before I could muster a word in edgewise, my stomach let out such a powerful, hard-pressing growl that I had to go trotting off into the bushes with a far more urgent agenda.
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