During peak hiking season, Ashland, Oregon sees various Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hikers dropping into town to resupply and enjoy a “zero day.” Join us as we chat with PCT thru-hiker Bill “Samson” Wasser of Madison, Mississippi. On a 2,663 mile solo journey from Mexico to Canada, Samson shares insights on preparation, experiences in the High Sierras and advice for thru-hiking newbies.
What inspires you to take on such a journey?
Well, I retired at the end of 2012 after working almost 30 years for a company and really just didn’t know what I was going to do. I had read about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail so I did that. Then I got it in my system the day I quit the Appalachian Trail to hike the Pacific Crest—it had been on my mind and I just knew I had to do it. Being out in nature, the people you meet, it’s just the greatest job in the world in my opinion.
How do you physically train for such a long hike?
I don’t train as hard as some people do. Back home I’d walk maybe 8 to 10 miles a day, sometimes up to 15, but not each and every day. Part of my training is when I actually get on the trail and I used that to get into shape. I actually ended up losing 30 pounds on this trail so far.
What are the main differences from hiking the AT from the PCT?
The Appalachian Trail is a great trail. The trail in and of itself may actually be harder than the Pacific Crest Trail. The grade on the PCT is a little less. The thing about the AT is that you cross a lot of roads, there’s shelters where you can get out of the storm at night, and there’s a lot more community and people. Starting the PCT on March 13th was early and I’ve been out here alone for long periods of time. Wondering if I wasn’t going a little crazy or insane for being out here alone for so many days and not seeing people. People always ask which is more difficult, the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail and they’re just different. Both are fantastic trails.
After all the planning and anticipation, what was the first few steps like on the trail?
Well it was really neat. My wife flew out with me into San Diego, we drove out that day and she walked the first 2-1/2 miles with me. We got to the southern terminus of the trail where there’s a monument, took all our pictures and everything. Once she took off, I’ve been alone ever since. As I began on my own it really was exciting. I could feel my adrenaline flowing, then I realized that I have a pretty daunting task in front of me.
What types of wildlife have you ran into?
I’ve seen a good bit. Lots of deer, three bears, I’ve heard other people that’ve seen more, but I thought it was pretty neat to see those. I’ve also seen four rattlesnakes. I know people that said they’ve seen four rattlesnakes in an hour at times, but of course I started early. So, yeah lots of wildlife. Probably the most dangerous thing I saw was when I was hiking down to get water one night and I saw something move up ahead, so I hurried up there to see what it was. I was shining my light around a log and it was a skunk. Fortunately it didn’t spray me.
What are your typical meals like?
I usually carry freeze dried meals and protein bars. I carry a lot of chocolate products, peanut butter, Ramon noodles—things you can cook fairly quickly. I eat anything I want to, I’m not real picky. If it’s high calorie, I eat it; I don’t need to cut corners while I’m out here. Calories are good!
Let’s talk about water. Are you carrying it all the time? Are there natural sources for water?
Well, there was one point in the desert where I went 44 miles without water and I had to carry practically eight liters and that was kinda tough. But normally I’ll try not to carry water. I’m one of these people that doesn’t carry water if I don’t have to. If I can go from water hole to water hole I’m good. That was part of my training back home, of course it’s a lot different in Mississippi then it is out here. If I could go 10 or 12 miles without water there, then at least I’d have that confidence and everything to do it here.
Water is heavy, so you don’t want to carry any more than you have to so I try to time it between water holes. I’ll guzzle up at the water source, then walk a certain amount with a certain amount of water. I almost like to run out of water before I get to the next spot because it just means less weight I have to carry.
Any issues with rain or thunderstorms?
Just a few. A lot of snow going through the Sierras, not as much as some of the people that are behind me. I had some of the thunderstorms a few days ago. I know a lot of people that were hurrying on to get down to the lower levels and get camp set up, but I stayed up high watching the thunder storm coming across the mountains—I thought it was fascinating. I just think it’s neat with the power and the lightning and everything. Probably crazy of me to be up there, but I did get down in time to set up my tent just before the bottom fell out with lightning cracking all around, but I was okay.
Have you been hiking solo this whole time?
Yes, I’m one of those strange people. I do primarily a solo hike. Most people try to go with others since there’s a comfort level when hiking in small groups. I have hiked with other people some, but I’m pretty comfortable out there and so I enjoy my time alone. I like being able to get up when I want to get up, stop when I want to stop and leave towns when I want to leave. So yes, I’m primarily a solo hiker.
Hard question, best view so far?
Well I loved the High Sierras. I’m not used to anything like that, plus it was the experience of being out there by myself, early in the season and seeing those snowcapped mountains. To be at 12,000-13,000 feet and see across the great expanses, the ponds and everything else was just great. Feeling like I’m the only one in the world out there that’s seeing that view at that point in time. I just loved it, but everything’s beautiful. That’s one thing great about the Pacific Crest Trail, it doesn’t have the typical rainfall that the Appalachian Trail does so you get to see wonderful views. I even love the desert. Being from Mississippi, seeing a cactus is extremely interesting. I like seeing rattlesnakes, cactus and all that kind of stuff. I just find it fascinating.
What’s been the hardest climb so far?
Probably the hardest climb I did was exiting out of the High Sierras and going over Bishop Pass while going into snow. It was an extremely long pass and being at that altitude trying to post hole through the snow and then trying to find a path and climb across rocks. I couldn’t see the trail, I didn’t know where the trail was, so I had to use my GPS to figure out how to get to the pass. It took forever—putting one foot in front of the other and I felt like I was climbing Mount Everest or something. It was such a relief when I got over to the other side. Of course while getting over the other side I was going down through the more snow, so it was pretty tough.
Any advice on other hikers considering the PCT?
Do your homework and then just do it. And get good equipment. Make sure you’re in fairly decent shape, you haven’t got to be in perfect shape because you’re going to get into shape. But the main things is to just do it and not be scared. So many people are scared to take that first step and you have to remember that it’s an adventure.
How did your Bio Skin Calf Sleeves feel on the trail?
They worked out fantastic! I found them to be the greatest thing in the world because I didn’t have to worry about the foot part of a typical compression sock. For one thing I could just slip them on over my calves. Even when I would lay down at night and take my socks off I would leave the compression sleeves on and got the added benefit at night. Really I think it’s helped my legs a tremendous amount.
A few times I was wading through streams that were literally almost up to my waist and my calf skins would get soaking wet, but they’re still good, they didn’t stretch out—which I assumed that they would after such a long period of time, but they’re still as good as the first day I put ‘em on.
Have any moments that were a bit scary or any close calls?
Not really. You see I grew up out in the woods. My father always had me out hunting and fishing, and I always had an outdoor job.
The only time on this trip was when I had been in the High Sierras for several days—there was a small feeling of depression. When I was trying to go over that next pass it was snowing and I was thinking to myself “What in the world? I must be crazy nuts to do this and if I do try to go over this pass I think I’m probably going to die or get caught in a bad snow storm.” Now that was the worst feeling I had and I actually turned around and felt good about bailing out cause I would’ve been stupid going over the pass at that time. But then I ran into these two kids in their 20s, and one of them is a world class survivalist-type hiker. They were well prepared to go over the pass so I went with them. Then that scared or depressed feeling kinda went away.
People always ask about bears and wildlife and such, but I’ve never had problems with any kind of wildlife. As far as just being scared I never really have. I know some people get scared, but even with the lightning storms it actually gives me an adrenaline rush—I’m probably stupid for standing there watching the storms, but I like it.
Any self-discovery moments on the trail?
Well, I don’t know exactly. I know people say that hiking a hike like this will change your person, but I don’t believe it really changes a person. I believe that it just brings out your strong points, your weak points or whatever. I feel like I’m the same person when I finish the trail as I was at the beginning. Now, I’m probably better in many ways, but you know I just love the experience while I’m out there. So I’d say the trail in and of itself hasn’t made any great life changing moments, it just makes me want to hike more.
A big thank you to Samson for taking the time to meet with us and share a few experiences during his PCT journey. You can follow Samson on Instagram: @samson_pct_