"The Call from the Top of the Mountain," by Lee Benson
The phone call came from the top of a mountain somewhere in California. Richard Jones, the man making the call, wasn’t sure exactly where he was. But he knew where he was going. North.
At least until he hits Canada.
The last we saw of Richard Jones, he was shaking off four and a half months of salt water, having just completed rowing the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands to a place in the Bahamas called Ragged Island, which he ran into while trying to go around. The Deseret News had dispatched me to the Caribbean to find Jones, Stanley-meets-Livingston style. I had been receiving periodic updates from him via satellite phone ever since he left Africa in October of 2000 in his twenty-seven-foot boat, “The Brother of Jared,” bound, he hoped, for Miami Beach.
He came up just short, but still his 3,675-mile, 133-day voyage qualified as only the eleventh certified crossing of the Atlantic by a solo rower and first by a grandfather.
Before the fifty-seven-year-old onetime Moab river runner came back home to Utah, he stopped off at the morning TV shows in New York, where, when asked how he felt, he quoted Mark Twain:
“I’m glad I did it. Partly because it was worth it and partly because I don’t have to do it again.” (Mark Twain quotes…)
That, it appeared, was that.
Until this latest.
On the doorstep of turning seventy, Jones is attempting to hike the length of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, all 2,665 miles of it, encompassing the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. He started at the PCT’s southern terminus in the border town of Campo, California, on April 24. Since then he has covered more than five hundred miles. If all goes well, he’ll celebrate turning seventy on July 9 in the Sierras, and by late September he’ll step into Canada.
About two months ago, Richard sent me an e-mail with details of his newest quest — a kind of encore to the Atlantic row. In early April we met at his home in Sugarhouse, Utah, where he showed me the twenty-six supply boxes packed with nonperishable food and other necessities that his wife, Jodie, would be shipping over the course of the next five months to various mail drops in close proximity to the PCT — a Chevron station here, a campground store there. He also showed me his lightweight pack that weighs twelve pounds at its most basic and somewhere between thirty-five and forty pounds fully loaded.
A lot more people try to thru-hike — that’s trail terminology for making it from Mexico to Canada or vice versa — than try to row the Atlantic Ocean. Between three hundred and five hundred hikers register each season on the PCT — less than half of them actually go the distance.
For weeks, Jones had been gearing up by walking here and there with his pack, routinely making the ten-mile round-trip between his house and downtown Salt Lake City. His most ambitious training hike took him to his daughter Allison’s house in Smithfield, a distance of ninety miles. He did it in three days. At night, to approximate trail conditions of camping where you drop, he slept in farmers’ fields. During the cold nights of March and April, he slept in his backyard in his tent.
Everybody hears their own drummer — Jones’ drummer happens to be Ernest Shackleton.
As “climatized” as he’d ever be, Jones flew to San Diego, caught the bus to Campo, strapped on his pack and was off.
He wasn’t sure he’d hold up. He has the usual problems incident to age — knees, a little plantar fasciitis and some heart history with AFib — so he asked me not to write anything until he was confident he had a chance.
Last week, my phone rang. It was Jones. He was at mile 421, he announced. Somewhere to the east, by point of reference, was Lancaster, California. It was sunset and he was ready to turn in. To get through the hot, unshaded portion of the PCT — roughly the first seven hundred miles — he reported that he was starting out every morning around 4:30 a.m. so he could rest during the heat of the day. Then he’d walk till dark.
“If you want to do the story, that’s fine. It looks like I’m staying out here,” he said after we exchanged hellos.
I asked him how hard it is.
“Harder than I thought,” he said. “On the third day out, I got dehydrated and thought I was done. But I’m still here.”
I asked him what’s the biggest challenge.
His answer, to sum it up: his age.
“I’d say the average age out here is probably late twenties,” he said. “For these kids it’s a piece of cake. Best I can tell I’m the oldest one. I just kinda shuffle up the hills.”
He’d already shuffled up three major mountain ranges; the Cleveland National Forest and the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains.
His favorite moment so far?
That would be the day his wife and some friends surprised him when he walked into the McDonald’s where the trail crosses the I-15 freeway at the Cajon Pass northeast of San Bernardino.
“That was wonderful. We had a nice meal,” he said in classic understatement.
Before he signed off, I had to ask him:
“So is it tougher than the ocean?”
“Much tougher,” he said. “If I were younger this would be easier. At fifty-seven I was in my prime. I could just row all day long. I can’t walk up these hills all day long. Rowing the ocean was pretty boring. The scenery never changed. I had a lot of time to think about things. I can’t do that here because I have to pay real close attention to the trail. I have to be very careful where I place my feet.”
“But I’m glad I’m here,” he added, obviously proud about the twenty-one miles he’d knocked down that day. “You go around every corner and there’s new scenery and new challenges. It’s just fascinating to see what’s over the next horizon.” (Benson 2013)