Intercepting Dad on the PCT

On May 16th, my dad sent me an email with a plan that would get him from mile 566 of the Pacific Crest Trail in Tehachapi to mile 942 in Tuolumne Meadows on June 8th—23 days later. On the surface it seemed like a “walk in the park”—an average pace of 16.3 miles/day when he had been doing 19 or 20. However he had 4 resupply stops to make on the way which would consume 2-3 days of hiking time. Subtract those 3 days, and suddenly he was looking at a strenuous 18.8 miles/day pace, which made him increasingly nervous as the mountain passes in the Sierras got higher, scarier, and snowier.

June 8th had become a pivotal date because Stephanie and I had a wedding to attend in San Francisco on June 7th. That made the 8th the very earliest that I could join him in Tuolumne. Our initial projections had him arriving a day or two early, but as it happens, on June 7th, his Spot locator beacon put him at mile 928.5, or 13.5 miles from Tuolumne Meadows. Incredibly (and quite frankly, a little superhumanly) he had accomplished the plan he’d sketched out more than 3 weeks and 376 miles before—to the day.

On June 8th, Stephanie and I woke at 5 in order to be on the road by 6. Dad wouldn’t be arriving in Tuolumne Meadows until that afternoon (we were planning on spending the night in a tent cabin), but if we could make it to the Wilderness Center by 11, I’d have the best chance to snag one of only 6 first-come, first-serve wilderness permits for the following day (because all the reserve-in-advance permits for my trailhead had been reserved in advance). I was a little anxious during the 5 hour drive, but in the end I was able to get my permit without issue.

Once that was settled, our only mission was: find Dad. And for all we knew, he had already arrived and was wandering around looking for us (neither of us had any cellphone reception). We checked in at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and left a note, we went to the Grill for lunch and left a note, we stopped by the Wilderness Center and left yet another note. With no sign of him back at the Lodge, I thought it’d be fun to walk up the PCT a little bit, maybe we’d actually intercept him on the trail! If he was doing 30 minute miles and had left around 6 that morning, he’d be arriving sometime between 1 and 2. It was 1:30. So we sauntered up the trail in our flip flops, found a picturesque place to sit down by the side of a stream, and waited.

Not more than 15 minutes later, we saw a man with a white beard approaching. It was him. I waved, got up, and started walking towards him as he hiked towards us. It wasn’t until he was immediately in front of me that I realized, “This isn’t my father.” I think I told the confused man “Sorry, I thought you were my dad.” I can only imagine what he must have been thinking. Another 10 minutes passed before a second man with a white beard approached from the distance. This time he called out, “Hey!” with recognition. This was my dad. We hugged. He was so skinny. And bedraggled. He looked worn out. Even though it had been a shorter day mile-wise, that section of trail had been especially arduous, and he was utterly exhausted. We hiked with him back to the Lodge where our car was waiting with two ice cold bottles of Coke, and we were ready to whisk him off to the Grill for a double bacon cheeseburger.

Justin and Brian (son and father) at mile 942 of the PCT in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite
Father and son, reunited