Popular local author to discuss new book at Creswell Library
EUGENE – It was George Mallory – and not Sir Edmund Hillary – who first uttered the phrase “Because it is there,” before attempting to scale Mount Everest, which at 29,000 feet is the world’s highest peak.
Mallory made his attempt in 1922 … and didn’t live to tell about it. But Hillary, along with Tenzing Norgay, became the first person to reach the summit of Everest on May 29, 1953.
A daunting challenge for anyone, in any era, no doubt about it.
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a different kind of undertaking, as about one-fourth of serious hikers manage to complete the trail. With 60 mountain passes and 19 major canyons adorning the 2,650-mile layout, the PCT has nearly 1 million feet in elevation changes – or, roughly, the equivalent of hiking up and down Mount Everest 16 times.
Bob Welch, the popular author and former Register-Guard columnist, hiked the PCT … and lived to tell about it. His book, “Seven Summers (And A Few Bummers),” has been on sale since September and, according to Welch, has the potential to be the top seller among the nearly 30 books he has authored.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Welch said of the book’s popularity at book fairs. “It seemed like every third or fourth person had a connection to the book or the movie ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed. She was recovering after her mother’s death from cancer when she was in her early 20s. She did 1,100 miles from Mojave, Calif. to the Columbia River separating Oregon and Washington.
“But we had 110 people at the Corvallis Public Library, we had 65 at Tsunami Books and 85 at Paulina Springs in Sisters. A lot of book events, I have 10-15 people show up. So I don’t think it’s Bob Welch, I think it’s the Pacific Crest Trail that people are interested in.”
Welch has one promotional event remaining this year. He’ll be speaking at the Creswell Library on Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m.
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Welch had previously written “Cascade Summer,” a book chronicling his experiences of hiking the 456-mile Oregon portion of the PCT in 2011 with his brother-in-law, Glenn Peterson.
“I always loved challenges, and I thought someday I should do the PCT, but I’m working full-time and I couldn’t leave for five months, so I figured maybe I could take two two-week stretches and do the Oregon part of the trail, and Glenn liked that idea,” Welch said.
They did the hike. Welch wrote the book. They checked off a box on their bucket list.
For all intents and purposes, Welch believed his serious hiking days were over.
“Literally, I wrote something in the Guard, because people asked if I planned on doing the rest of the trail. ‘That was an itch I’ve already scratched,’ I told them. I had even written down 10 reasons not to finish the trail.
“Then Glenn texted me one day, ‘Why don’t we do the John Muir Trail in the Hiigh Sierra this summer?’ and I said, ‘I’m in, let’s do it.’ It’s 210 miles – the highest point is 13,000 feet, with five passes of 10,000 feet or higher.
“We got that done, and we were driving home, and I did the math, and said ‘Glenn, we’ve got over 20 percent of the trail done, should we go for the whole thing?
“I said I want to call the book ‘Seven Summers.’ He said, ‘You’re going to do a book?’ I said, ‘Why not? If you’re going to hike the trail, you might as well write a book.’”
“And he said, ‘Why do you think we can get it done in seven summers?’ I said, ‘I don’t, I just like the title. The alliteration is beautiful. Nobody is going to read a book called ‘Four Summers’ or ‘Eight Summers’ or ‘Nine Summers,’ let’s do it in seven. It actually worked out. It took us 10 summers out of 11 years. Between Covid, then Glenn’s mom got sick and ultimately died, and forest fires – that’s where the bummers came in. We started in 2011 and finished in 2022, when we touched Canada.”
Yes, they completed the 2,650-mile journey from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. In doing so, they traveled an additional 17,000 miles while getting to and from their various trailhead destinations.
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Welch said he and Peterson each had one near-death experience – and that doesn’t include their one bear sighting across the trail … or the 5 a.m. morning in Southern California when they awoke to see the eyes of a mountain lion. After making a lot of noises to “act big and scary” to the lion, it eventually moved on.
“Mine was in 2014 coming down from Muir Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. We were hiking frantically to get out of the freezing rain, and Glenn said, ‘You don’t think you can go another four miles?’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can go another four feet.’” I was shivering uncontrollably.
“Glenn is the Eagle Scout/doctor, and I’m the guy who got kicked out of Cub Scouts/writer
I’m very impetuous and spontaneous and he’s very methodical, quiet, calculating.
“But at that moment, I was helpless. I couldn’t perform the simplest of tasks. Finally, he kicked into his Eagle Scout mode, and I think he saved my life. He was able to help me get into my sleeping bag and get some food, and soon after that I was OK.”
In 2021, Peterson suffered from heat exhaustion in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains.
“I had a book coming out, and they wanted me to do six weeks of interviews for it, and I delayed our trip until June and there was record heat in the entire United States – it was the hottest summer ever,” Welch recalled. “We stupidly decided to get up at 2 a.m., go to Portland, fly to L.A., Uber out to the trailhead, and start at 1 in the afternoon going up 6,000 feet in 90-degree heat with a basting warm wind in our face.
“We did it because we wanted to get in half a day of hiking before so we wouldn’t have to struggle at the end to get to Kennedy Meadows on time the next day. We should have gotten to L.A., gone to bed at 6 and got up at 2 a.m. but we got greedy and Glenny broke down the next day.
“The irony is that the next day, a friend of mine who lives here in Springfield, Geoff Tyson, who read my book ‘Cascade Summer,’ wanted to try that trail and only lasted two days. He was overweight – self-admittedly overweight – but he lost 60 pounds. I was really proud of him. He carried 70 pounds on his back. … But he only needed half that weight. Then later, he finished the Oregon trail, then he went on to do the whole PCT.
“Anyway, Geoff had done this stretch, and he said whatever you do, don’t take the acorn trail to a little town called Wrightwood. But I had to get Glenny some help. We had to find an Urgent Care or a place where we could get food and water and rest. I called and asked Sally if she could drive over to Geoff’s barber shop and see if he could call me, but she said she was in Albany with her mom and dad.”
Ultimately, Welch reached Geoff, who said a lot of young partiers frequent that trail and get up with hangovers, so he just likes to avoid them. He said the trail is steep but safe.
“Glenn was OK but he was gassed, so we had to fly home after that,” Welch said.
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After spending weeks – or sometimes months – together on the trail, PCT hikers form a special sense of community. Everyone bands together – but like they say, there’s usually one bad apple in every batch.
“People don’t realize how tough it is to make daily plans out here. Few places are campable, like in the San Jacinto Mountains – you can hike that way for eight miles with no place to camp,” Welch said. “I liken it in the book to musical chairs, when darkness hits when the music stops – if you’re hiking in the dark, when the music stops, if you’re left without a chair, you’re out.
“We found a dry creek bed and we went past this guy in the front. He popped his head out, and he said, ‘I highly recommend that you go two campsites down, about two-tenths of a mile away.’ It was the only hint of rudeness we saw on the whole trip.
“Most people help each other out, and there’s something out there called trail magic. This guy from Australia on the second day left a note with a 24-ounce Foster’s Ale that he left on a stump with a note that says “Pay it Forward.”
“This other guy from Australia greets us in the Northern Cascades and says, ‘Hey mates, how about a hot dog?’
“You’re eating your 795th Snickers bar, and just the thought of a hot dog is something you dream about. That’s like a filet mignon of the PCT. He’s got tables of fresh fruit and vegetables. His son had just hiked the PCT and every year now he comes down from Seattle to serve up some trail magic.
“But the best trail magic, though, happened when we got to the bottom of Fuller Ridge, which comes off Mt. San Jacinto, an exposed 20-mile switchback, with no water, no shade.”
“Are you the Oregon Boys?” we were asked upon our arrival. “Your friend Geoff is here.”
“I said ‘Geoff Tyson.’?” I look over and see his white 1999 Nissan pickup – he drove 1,000 miles – and he’s got tacos and lemonade. He said, “I know what a bitch Fuller Ridge is, so I thought you guys could use some trail magic.
“This is just the hors d’oeuvres, I’m taking you guys out to dinner in Palm Springs.”
Tyson, a longtime barber at Mike’s Barber Shop, which recently moved from Springfield to Eugene, will always treasure his trail experiences.
After all, it’s not every day that you meet a couple of new friends from another country (France) who invite you to come and visit them, which he did the following year.
“The PCT is the only place where a barber from Springfield can hike 100 miles with a nuclear physicist from Slovakia and get invited to go to France to visit friends you met on the trail,” said Tyson, who still makes regular trips to trailheads with Good Samaritan offerings of trail magic to weary hikers.
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The Oregon Boys had a lot of supporters, but Bob’s wife, Sally, and Glenn’s wife, Ann, were the key players. About two dozen times they sent packages to little resorts or checkpoints along the trail.
“The support we got from Ann and Sally, they dropped us off, they picked us up, they organized food, we had it easy in terms of support,” Welch said.
“We ran into this kid from Sri Lanka named Eagle Eye – 40% of the PCT is international hikers – and I got a phone call six weeks later, Eagle Eye was stranded five hours away in Shasta City, Calif. I concocted this plan, I asked Sally, who was half-asleep, ‘What would you think about five PCT hikers spending the night here?’ We had a great time, we invited Geoff over, it was an experience you would never have unless you ventured out onto the trail yourself. We went to Ariana, Walmart, the Post Office, we went to get their prescription drugs, and we didn’t get them to the trailhead until 8 the next night.”
Sally said the PCT commitment was more than what she imagined.
“I’m OK by myself, but it gave me a taste of what it would be like to lose a spouse,” said Sally, whose longest time apart from her husband was 21 days.
“If I’d known what I was signing up for, the time, the money, the sacrifices, I might have thought differently. But it was fun for me to be a part of his adventure. My relationship with my sister blossomed, just as Bob and Glenn’s did.”
As Welch indicated with his “getting kicked out of Cub Scouts” quote above, he and Peterson were much like the Odd Couple on the trail.
“We’re so different, people would remind me, but that’s probably why it worked,” Welch said. “We complemented each other. My strengths were his weaknesses and vice versa. I only remember two moments of friction, and he might feel differently. ‘Glenny, it would have been nice if you woud have asked me if I had another four miles in me, huh. You know, I’m in this thing too.’ But he keeps things to himself. We’re different that way.
“I was really blessed to have a friend and brother-in-law who was not in it for himself. … Glenn said, ‘Don’t go on just to appease me. If you go on, I’ll go on; if you leave the trail. I’ll leave the trail.’ There were times actually when I felt selfish – there are times at night when you’re walking alone looking for water – that’s a recipe for death – there’s a train of people walking up the trail and we were the caboose.”
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Never a competitive athlete, Welch ran cross country in high school and now enjoys playing golf and sailing. To get ready for the PCT, he did some P90X training and walked Mount Pisgah and Spencer Butte countless times. Then halfway through the trail, he added swimming to his routine.
“That helped me to train without the stress on my body,” said Welch, who had MCL knee surgery in 2017.
The most common question he gets nowadays? Are you going to do the Appalachian Trail, which at roughly 2,200 miles is about 450 miles shorter than the PCT?
“No. This time my body is going to answer for me. The hardest thing is sitting in the “L” position and putting my socks on at 4 a.m. I’m 69 years old now. … I do have a fascination with the Pacific Crest Trail – I don’t love hiking, but I love the people on it. We’re going to do 10-12 miles a day rather than 18-20 … stop and read and take a nap – we’ll continue to do a little of that.
We’re just talking about doing 5-8 day trips.”
Welch has some time on his hands. He came to the Register-Guard in 1989 as a features writer, then was features editor before becoming a general columnist for 14 years. He left the paper in 2013, but came back from 2016-18 as Associate Editor during the rise of Trump.
“I was essentially the Letters to the Editor editor during that time,” Welch said. “Sometimes we got 400 letters a week and we only printed 6-8 letters a day. It was a fascinating experience.”
Many readers of “Seven Summers” say it’s a fascinating experience that they wish would never end.