We covered 44.5 miles before we collapsed on the uneven floorboards of the Sawtooth Lodge’s rustic old porch in Grandjean. We peeled off our heavy backpacks and told the cooks they didn’t know what we’d been through as we ordered Reuben and BLT sandwiches with extra meat, macaroni and potato salads, milkshakes and beer. We bought toffee-covered almonds and sour gummy worms for dessert.
Leading up to that, we’d walked through nonstop rain, climbed switchback after never-ending switchback, traversed a field of avalanche debris and got caught in a terrifying thunderstorm on a craggy ridgeline in the Sawtooth Mountains.
The whole time, my thoughts bounced between the beauty of the wilderness, the pain of my backpack straps and the possibility of nondehydrated food in my future.
Never before that moment had a watery vanilla milkshake brought me so close to tears.
I covered 60 miles of the Idaho Centennial Trail in the summer of 2015. My friends accomplished the far more impressive feat of thruhiking the entire 900 miles, from the Nevada border up to Canada. On that trip, it wasn’t the tough dried steak strips or the bag of justadd- water spaghetti or the occasional fruit cup I remembered.
It was the real food: the dictionary-sized “Chickenator” calzone stuffed with chicken, bacon, artichoke hearts, fresh tomatoes and steaming creamy garlic sauce in Stanley. It was the all-you-can-eat taco bar in the only restaurant in Atlanta. It was the juicy Hebrew National all-beef kosher hot dogs someone shared with us at a campground.
There’s something about the deprivation that comes from living in the backcountry that makes everyday food taste (and feel and smell and look and sound) so good.
This summer, I’m taking on the biggest challenge of my young life thus far: I’m hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with my dog, Marcy, from Mexico to Canada.
The trail stretches 2,650 miles through 25 national forests, six national parks and three states. Our departure date was April 11, which means we’ll be somewhere in the Sierras when this article publishes. Eating on the trail is not as simple as picking up a couple of dehydrated meals from REI—although I’ve done that. I have 34 resupply stops along the way, which involved packing 34 boxes of food to send to myself over the five-month journey. I’ll pick each of them up at a post office near the trail.
Buying months of food at one time was overwhelming. My grocery list included 300 granola and protein bars, 100 packets of oatmeal, 70 packets of Idahoan instant potatoes, four pounds of Craisins, more Pop-Tarts than I care to admit, quinoa, instant rice, freeze-dried raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, apples and bananas, 150 bags of tea and 35 dried pig ears—for my dog. (At time of publication, Jessica's dog, Marcy, had to be sent home from the trail.)
I thought buying everything was overwhelming, but then came packing the resupply boxes. Each one took me roughly two hours, times 34. I meticulously measured out serving sizes and calculated calories. According to DietAndFitnessToday.com, the average female burns almost 600 calories per hour while hiking with a 30-pound backpack. That’s around 5,500 calories per day.
Which means I have to eat a lot. Olive oil gives 120 calories per tablespoon; I pour it over everything. Whey powder offers an additional 170. Pistachios? One cup gives you 700 calories and 56 grams of fat. Yes! Want to order that second dessert? Go right ahead.
The vast majority of the food I eat on the trail comes in some sort of powdered form. Brands like Backpacker’s Pantry and Mountain House offer a colorful selection of meals, from Turkey Tetrazzini to crème brûlée (I’m still waiting for dehydrated sushi or freeze-dried birthday cake), but that never compares to eating a five-pound burrito in a tiny town in the middle of the wilderness. I’ve heard of people crying tears of joy over Otter Pops.
This is part of the happiness of trail life, though. You might crave Indian food like a pregnant woman for three weeks straight, and when you finally get it, you appreciate it more than you could have possibly imagined.
I won’t finish my trek until mid-September, when I finally hit the Canadian border. In the meantime, would you—kind reader—please send me several packets of Golden Double Stuf Oreos?