Beginner Backpacker - Mike

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

“I think one thing that happens on those trails if you do them day after day, week after week is that you develop a real toughness that you didn't have before. Backpacking is ten times harder than it looks even if you're in moderately good shape.”


Mike heading back from Keyes Lake to the Florence Lake parking lot, two hours into a 14-hour, 15 mile hike.

Michael (Mike) Tyler (now 53) and his wife spent two months extensively planning out every stop on their 3.5 week long summer trip to France and Spain. They couldn’t wait to do the Historic Paris walking tour, stroll the grounds of Versailles, visit the quaint towns of central France’s Loire Valley, explore caves in Dordogne, and experience the cultures of Bilbao, Ronda, Madrid, Granada and Barcelona in Spain.


But when the COVID-19 virus spread across the world, Mike and her wife had to cancel their long-awaited trip and quarantine at home.


For the remaining three months of the school year, Mike (a high school journalism advisor and teacher) focused on professional development based around transitioning to an online education environment. His days bled into endless monotony and countless hours of screen time.


Mike said he considers himself lucky, for his home in the beautiful coastal town of Santa Cruz, the strong support from his wife and the youthful enthusiasm from his two adult kids all made quarantine bearable. Yet, he still felt downcast at times, especially because online schooling made “teaching four times harder than it usually is and maybe one-fourth as much fun.”


At the beginning of June, his brother-in-law Chad Thistle (a mailman from Santa Rosa) unexpectedly called Mike and proposed going on a 4-day backpacking trip in the Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park. Although Mike had never been overnight backpacking before, he immediately embraced the opportunity to escape routine.


“We were all wanting to get out of the house,” he said. “Backpacking is the kind of thing that I would do because I’m always up for an adventure.”


Chad packs his gear into his backpack in the parking lot near Florence Lake

He expected the trip to be relatively easy since he workouts often, runs 4-6 miles a few times a week, and frequently hikes, but was humbled by how difficult backpacking turned out to be.


Mike and Chad began their trip on June 22 at the parking lot near Florence Lake in Kings Canyon National Park and hiked about 4 miles to the other end of the lake. By the end of the day, Mike was exhausted from carrying his 35-pound backpack and completely fed up with the relentless buzzing of mosquitoes.


The next day, they were supposed to hike the John Muir Trail to a meadow at 13,000 feet, but fatigue and the granite littered ground slowed their pace. After walking for eight miles, they camped a little beyond John Muir Ranch alongside the “fast-moving and powerful” San Joaquin River.


“Your steps are constantly kind of unsteady, so it's very tiring on your feet….your feet

just get battered,” Mike said of the loose granite that litters the trails.


On the third day, Mike and Chad hiked six miles to Sallie Keyes Lake, traveling along a tiny portion of the Pacific Crest Trail — a 2650 mile long National Scenic Trail along the West Coast of the United States.


Left: Mike standing in front of Sallie Keyes Lake; Right: Mike looking at the trail map, taking a rare break from having to wear headgear over his face to keep mosquitoes from biting.


“If I were a human resources person and I saw somebody on their resume said that they had completed the PCT, I’d be very interested in hiring that person because that is a truly dedicated, phenomenal hard-working person who just has a well that they can tap into that most people can’t,” Mike said.



On the third day, Mike and Chad hiked six miles to Sallie Keyes Lake, traveling along a tiny portion of the Pacific Crest Trail — a 2650 mile long National Scenic Trail along the West Coast of the United States.


“If I were a human resources person and I saw somebody on their resume said that they had completed the PCT, I’d be very interested in hiring that person because that is a truly dedicated, phenomenal hard-working person who just has a well that they can tap into that most people can’t,” he said.


Beginning at Campo, a small town on the border of California and Mexico, the PCT transverses the Laguna Mountains before dipping into the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and then climbing into the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain ranges. It then runs through the Sierra Nevadas, past glacier lakes and through coniferous forests, and enters the lush wilderness of the Cascade Mountains in Northern California before going into the relatively flat topography of Oregon. Finally, it enters the rugged terrain of Washington, beginning at the Bridge of the Gods at the Columbia Gorge, meandering through the Cascade Range and around Glacier Peak, and ending at the United States-Canada Border in Manning Park.


The high peaks of the Sierras

Along the trail, hikers encounter drastic temperature changes — from about 100 °F in the desserts to 20 °F in the snow of the Cascades. They have to meticulously plan out the trip in advance, making sure boxes with food, gear and clothing are sent to various supply stations along the route. Water sources are sometimes as far as 25-30 miles apart. For the average hiker, the trail takes about 4-6 months to complete.


“Anybody who goes out [to backpack], especially the PCT hikers, is a different breed,” Mike said. “You want to talk about a grind. What they're doing is just amazing.”


On the third day of their trip, a woman in her late 50s or early 60s who was hiking the entire PCT by herself, approached Mike and Chad and suggested a place to camp in Keyes Lakes Park. She described the surrounding area, recommending the best trails to take. Another PCR hiker, a woman in her 20s, seemed to “glide along the trail,” hiking about twice as fast as Mike and Chad could, according to Mike.


They also met a woman who had formerly hiked the entire 2,500 miles of the PCT. When Mike asked how she was able to endure the journey, she explained that it “was an exercise in pain — months and months of pain. I think she was amazed she had done it,” Tyler said.


Mike and Chad’s trip peaked at an elevation of 12,000 feet at Sallie Keyes Lake. From the tan rocky banks, Mike could see the snow covered peaks of the majestic mountains and a triangular, tree-covered isthmus that stretched into the water.




“Nobody was around and it was just so pristine up there,” Mike said. “Being in nature was humbling and gave me a certain reverence for being alive that I sometimes lack when I'm in civilization.”



Left: Sallie Keyes Lake as seen from the John Muir Trail (part of the PCT); Right: Chad sets up his tent beside Sallie Keyes Lake. Mike and Chad were the only people at the lake that night.



“Nobody was around and it was just so pristine up there,” Mike said. “Being in nature was humbling and gave me a certain reverence for being alive that I sometimes lack when I'm in civilization.”


For Mike, the hardest part of the trip was the last day. He and Chad hiked 15 miles downhill from Sallie Keyes Lake to the parking lot, covering the same distance in one day that they had covered in the previous three, which took them about 14 hours. They got rained and hailed on and even had to filter water from lakes and streams.


“That [hike back] was grueling and awful,” Mike said. “It would have been a lot easier just to quit and set up camp for the night and then go the next day, but we really wanted to get out of there. We felt like we had had enough and we were kind of being driven crazy by the mosquitos.”


Mike said that this trip was a “test of character” and he developed a newfound respect for backpackers.


“I think one thing that happens on those trails if you do them day after day, week after

week is that you develop a real toughness that you didn't have before,” Mike said. “Backpacking is ten times harder than it looks even if you're in moderately good shape.”



*Note: On September 4, 2020, about 2 months after Michael’s backpacking trip, the Creek Fire ignited near Shaver Lake in the Sierra National Forest (the cause is still under investigator). Evacuation orders were issued for around and north of Florence Lake. As of November 17, the fire had burned 379,895 acres and was 78 percent contained.

Much of the area that Michael saw during his trip was likely severely damaged due to the fire.


Mike in front of the entrance to John Muir Ranch, a horse ranch that serves as a PCT resupply station.

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