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West Coast by foot | Duo hike from Mexico to Canada along PCT
In the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Anthony Sanelli and Dustin Cramer knew they had a problem.
The close friends and 2005 Issaquah High School graduates were in the midst of a five-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Canada and followed a set of footprints off course through the waist-deep snow, leaving them lost.
“There was more snow recorded for the year than in the past 100 years,” Cramer said.
Closing a chapter
It would seem the idea for a hike so monumental in scale would accompany a lifetime of experience and passion for adventures by foot, but both Sanelli and Cramer insist the challenge was an entirely new one.
“My hiking background was not much,” Sanelli said. “But it went from zero to a whole bunch in a hurry.”
The idea of the PCT enticed the two for a number of reasons, namely the locale, variation in environment and sheer distance.
With roots dating to the 1930s, the PCT links the John Muir, Skyline and Cascade Crest trails into a continuous route extending from Mexico to Canada. Along with the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile long PCT became the first trail designated as a National Scenic Trail in 1968 and cuts through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges.
“It was something new for me,” said Cramer, adding he had never before spent longer than two weeks in the elements. “I knew I could do it, I just never had.”
After some research, the two took a weeklong trip by train to southern California, where Sanelli’s grandfather picked them up and took them the rest of the way to the border.
“The PCT was just kind of the end of a chapter of our lives,” Cramer said. “It was the perfect time for it.”
Once breaking into a regular pace of around 20 miles per day after the first week, the two continued through the first stretch of the trail and to Cramer’s surprise, found more than just the great outdoors.
“I remember feeling not too much in the wilderness,” Cramer said. “It was pretty close from town to town.”
Sanelli said that while the trail was not always completely removed from civilization, the opportunity to meet people from local towns along the route proved one of the most valuable assets of the journey.
“Some of the people we met were really cool and extremely generous,” Sanelli said. “A lot of those people are what I really think back upon and think it was really worth it. I got to learn something from them and they got to learn something from me.”
Stopping in town was also a chance to coordinate with family back home, which sent packages of food ahead on the route. But even with outposts along the way, the PCT is no walk in the park and both Sanelli and Cramer said they dumped around 50 percent of the weight they were carrying in their backpacks within the first two weeks.
After working their way into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the biggest challenge yet surfaced when they followed a pair of footprints off course through the waist-deep snow. Initially frustrating, the loss of direction turned into one of the most memorable parts of the trip when the two decided to hike 13,153-foot Forester Pass, the highest pass on the trail.
“We had been lost all day and we turned it around and made something of it,” Sanelli said. “It was not only the most breathtaking view but it was a sense of relief.”
But that doesn't mean it was all smooth sailing.
The pair hiked terrain that was some of the most challenging in the US for the duration of the trip. The more trying feats included 10,000 foot elevation changes in a single day and hiking dozens of mountain passes in total. Sanelli was laid up for a week in town after a poison ivy encounter and of course, there was the wildlife.
Sanelli recalled a particularly memorable encounter one night when he awoke to a startled Cramer altering him of a bear that had found its way into their campsite.
"A bear grabbed my pack while I was sleeping," Sanelli said. "Dustin woke up first and threw a rock at it, then he woke me up."
The bear eventually left the pack, which was remarkably undamaged after the animal opened it by backing up the zipper along its tracks. "I just undid the zipper and it worked fine again," Sanelli added.
Once they hiked out of the mountains, Cramer and Sanelli ended up in Lake Tahoe where Cramer made some quick cash playing the harmonica at local casinos, with Sanelli offering voice and guitar accompaniment. After the weeklong sojourn that spanned the Fourth of July, Sanelli said he was ready to end his trip entirely and it was obvious to both that something had to give.
While both were adamant there was never any type of falling out, the reality was that when they again got back on the trail and reached Bishop Pass, each took on a hike of their own.
To each his own journey
After two months together along the PCT, through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into the middle third of the trip, Sanelli and Cramer split up.
“Going our separate ways, for both of us, was probably the best thing that could have happened,” Sanelli said. “Literally, it was like I was refreshed, had a fresh start. I was very motivated.”
Cramer said after being unable to find Sanelli at the pass and then locating his camp up the trail, he decided (as he had before) to set up a camp of his own for the night. When he woke, he was again alone, a water pump left by his friend at his camp.
“We had been together for about two months and it was obvious we needed to be alone,” Cramer said. “That was a huge moment for me personally.”
So for roughly 1,500 miles, both Cramer and Sanelli endured journeys of their own. Both confirmed the obvious: plenty of time to think about anything and everything, some time spent yearning for family, friends or any sign of companionship and other moments taken over with inward questions and revelations.
“It's a perspective to know where and when you are in the world,” Cramer said of his more profound musings during his time alone on the trail. “The one thing I realized, the most courteous thing you can do is be true to who you are.”
Hiking alone for roughly two months left Sanelli with some lasting memories and taught some valuable lessons as well.
“There's those days where you don't talk to someone for 24 hours and you're talking to yourself and it's just nonsense,” Sanelli said. “But sometimes it's not.”
Spanning northern California and all of Oregon alone gave each an intensified sense of the highs and lows of the hike; Cramer said hiking alone at 14,000 feet gave him the true sense of experiencing his own journey and Sanelli added that he now finds himself examining and analyzing his daily life in a new light.
“I was able to find peace and relaxation out there,” Sanelli said. “I'm still learning things about what I learned out there as life goes on back here. I learned lessons out there that I didn’t realize until I face a situation here.”
The more desolate periods of the hike made for a welcome reunion in the Washington Cascades and Cramer said only confirmed everything he already knew about his relationship with his friend and hiking partner.
“We laughed about each other’s beards,” Cramer said. “And it was back on. I love the guy and there was never any point where that was lost.”
Sanelli too said the time alone helped him appreciate the time spent hiking as a pair and also emphasized that while two months on the trail can place a strain on any relationship, there was never any serious threat to his friendship with Cramer, who said he and Sanelli have plans to hike the John Muir trail again when he moves back to California for school.
So after thousands of miles and nearly three months alone, two finished the final stretch just as they started their journey months earlier, together. But with a sense of independence that can only be attained with days, weeks and months hiking and camping alone, undertaking those tasks together became more of a luxury than a necessity.
Back to the Great Indoors
Finishing the hike marked the completion of a five-month journey and the beginning of a lifetime of applying its lessons.
Before the hike, Sanelli studied business at Central Washington University while fighting through an injury-riddled collegiate baseball career after winning the 2004 state title at Issaquah as a junior. He now lives in the Snoqualmie Valley and works at the REI store in Issaquah. A baseball lifer, Sanelli is also the driving force behind Mariners101.com, a newly launched blog in the Sports Media 101 network.
Cramer had previously finished his lacrosse career at Whittier College after an assistant coaching stint at his alma mater that brought the 2008 state championship to a program he helped begin during his freshman year. He is currently working as a bartender in Seattle, gaining experience and saving money for pursuit of a Ph. D in Philosophy.
Both have faced adjustments back to the grind of daily life. But being lost in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, two months along the PCT and a reaffirmed friendship have also offered a new perspective.
“I see people in a hurry all the time,” Sanelli said. “Out there, you can’t be in a hurry or you will drive yourself nuts.”
Cramer added that the trip has left him more open in his communication.
“There is a lot of indirect communication throughout peoples lives,” Cramer said. “When you spend times alone, you are able to me more direct with yourself and others.”
Neither has taken on anything near the PCT since and both recognize the once-in-a-lifetime element that comes with a five-month hiatus from everyday living. But that doesn’t mean the future will be predictable and Sanelli said there is potential for another hike on a similar scale.
“The more time that has gone by since the trip," Sanelli said. "The more I miss being out there."