Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, a review


Chris Townsend’s latest book is an account of his 2,650 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982. It made a rattlin’ good read for a dismal Boxing Day. It’s no mean feat to write a book of a trip that was over thirty years ago.

While not as detailed with anecdotes and observations as his other books (a function of time, I guess), it’s still a gripping read. I had to force myself to take breaks between chapters in order to savour the experience.

Although the immediacy of the trip has dulled with time, the passing of the years has enabled Chris to give an interesting perspective on both what has changed and what has stayed the same. In the intervening years, Chris has revisited some of the areas that the PCT passes through, giving an additional viewpoint.

From today’s perspective it is easy to underestimate what an achievement completing the PCT was. In 1982, 120 thru-hiker permits were issued for the PCT. Out of those that started, only eleven, including Chris, finished. Nowadays, 1000+ start each year and the PCT Association reckon about 50% complete the trail. Incredibly, more people have climbed Everest than have completed the PCT.

Today, there’s a wealth of information on the Internet, books and trail diaries, as well as apps and GPS way points available for anyone intending to do the PCT. Back in 1982, there was very little info. Fortunately for Chris, Warren Rogers, one of the PCT pioneers took Chris under his wing and helped him with planning and logistics.

Nevertheless, this was a huge step into the unknown for Chris. He had no experience of the terrain, especially desert walking. He had to learn quickly about how to cope with conditions, especially water and foot care.

In 1982, there was a lot of snow cover in the High Sierras, which made conditions even more arduous than normal. This is where the PCT turns into a very serious adventure. Any accidents here could have been fatal, and there were a few close calls. Nonetheless, the reward was a true pioneering experience and a deep appreciation of the wonders of nature.

These days, with so many hikers, the PCT can be quite a social walk. Keith Foskett’s book, The Last Englishman about his PCT hike is full of slightly eccentric characters. Back in 1982, the PCT could be a more solitary experience. Chris was fortunate, though, in having some good companions in the High Sierras, without whom it would have been even tougher and more dangerous. I found the traverse of the High Sierras a gripping read.

Once into Oregon and Washington, the walk becomes more solitary as the companions separate and go at different speeds. Inevitably, some sections in Oregon are not particularly scenic, but once into Washington, the majesty of the mountains return. Unlike Keith, Chris had reasonable weather to finish the PCT, even though a few days were rainy.

In these days of ultralight gear with cuben fibre and silnylon, it’s easy to forget how heavy the gear could be back then. Chris’ base weight was over 20kg. With food on the long stretches, he was carrying more than double that, often in heavy boots and with no trekking poles.

Another big difference is photography. Using film, meant rationing shots and not knowing whether the picture was any good until it was developed. The pictures are all taken from the slide pictures that Chris took on the trip. While they don’t have the sharpness of modern day digital pictures, they actually enhance the book. It’s like looking through a slightly misty window into the past.

The quality of printing and photographic reproduction is excellent. Unlike many modern books, it has been well edited too. I only spotted one very minor typo.

In summary, if you like Chris’ previous work, then you’ll like this. If you’ve not read anything by Chris, then this is a good place to start. His later trail books on the Yukon, Arizona and the Pacific North West are treasures waiting to be found. Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles is like the hors d’oeuvre, the entrée into Chris’ long distance hiking memoirs.

Disclosure: this was a Christmas present

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