Former North Hills Woman Hikes 2,653 Miles

 

Maddies Smithgall and Nick DiNardo

Don’t ever tell Maddie Smithgall to take a hike—she might just take you up on it. Maddie, 28, of White Hall, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last year. The Pine Richland High School and Syracuse University graduate began the trek with boyfriend, Nick DiNardo, who had previously hiked the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.  

“Nick had hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2017, and in 2018, we started thinking about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, but then life got in the way, and then COVID hit, so we couldn’t start until 2021,” said Maddie.  

Like the Appalachian Trial, which runs south to north or vice versa from Springer Mountain in George and travels approximately 2,200 miles ending in Mount Katahdin in Maine, passing through 14 states, the Pacific Crest Trail begins at the Mexican border and traverses 2,653 miles through California, Oregon and Washington to the Canadian border.  

The Pacific Crest Trail is not the longest north/south trail in the U.S. That honor goes to the Continental National Divide Scenic Trail, which also starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian, but it follows the Continental Divide and along the Rocky Mountains and crosses five states—New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana—and clocks in at about 3,000 miles over rugged mountainous terrain.  

Maddie and Nick began their hike on April 10, 2021, and finished it on September 22, 2021, more than 150 days later, only taking 20 days off when they logged zero miles for the day. “It was a good time for us to do it,” said Maddie, who is a graduate nursing student at the University of Pittsburgh. “I didn’t have class or a job, so it all worked out.” 

People often train for such a long excursion, but Maddie didn’t. “Some beginner hikers train before setting out, but I didn’t outside of my normal trips to the gym. I like backpacking but the longest trip I’d been on is 70 miles.” 

It is estimated that 5,000 hikers complete the Pacific Crest Trail each year. “The hardest part was the first two weeks, adjusting to all the walking,” said Maddie. “Every day, we’d wake up and just walk. Most days we did 20 plus miles and the highest we logged was 42 miles in one day.” Along the way, Maddie wore out five pair of shoes. 

The Pacific Crest Trail was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968 and has primitive camping sites scattered along the way, some with fire rings and access to trail foods. “We carried a tent, but we only set it up once while we were hiking through California when it rained. Hiking mid-summer in California made it too hot to sleep inside a tent, so most nights we slept under the stars in our sleeping bags,” said Maddie. “We did set up out tent more while in Washington as it rains so much more, and it was colder at night.” 

They met other hikers on the trail—some big groups of hikers and some smaller—and they met people from all over the world. One thing that surprised Maddie was the shocking amount of cell phone service she had on the trail. “There was one long stretch of about eight days when we were going through the Sierra Nevada mountains that we had no service,” said Maddie. “It was also pretty remote in Washington near the Canadian border. We were without cell phone service there for about 4-6 days.” 

The pair would pick up provisions at gas stations or stores near the trail that would need to last them for 3-5 days. It was also while hiking the Sierra Nevadas that they had to make provision for eight days’ worth of food. “There is nowhere to get off the trial while in those mountains, so we had to buy food for eight days and carry all the food in bear cans, which are made to keep the bears from pilfering the food,” said Maddie, who did see several black bears during the hike, but they never bothered them.  

“We also saw lots of deer, rabbits and Golden Eagles, which was really cool. Luckily, I never saw a mountain lion, but I heard them roaring at night, which was a bit scary,” she said. Luckily, there was no time while they were hiking that they were sick either. 

Maddie’s pack weighed approximately 35 pounds, and she did lose some weight during the trek. “There is just no way you can eat enough to maintain your weight when you are moving all day long,” she said. 

Most of us living on the East Coast think very little of wildfires, but that is a concern when hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. “We had no issues with wildfires,” said Maddie. “We could smell smoke a lot, for months, and often we’d pass through a town and then find out a week later that a fire had swept through there.” 

The elevation is also something that hikers can find daunting. “You start off the hike in the dessert at about 1,000 feet, and when you hit the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s about 10,000 feet above sea level. I have exercise-induced asthma, and when you combine the elevation with moving so fast, it can be a challenge, but I eventually adjusted to the altitude,” said Maddie.  

The chance to take a hot shower was sporadic. “Sometimes, fellow hikers would check into a hotel and let other hikers take a shower,” said Maddie who is an avid reader and missed books, but they were too heavy to carry along the trail.  

“I thought I would miss more than I did,” she said, “but the scenery is so overwhelmingly beautiful that it keeps you engaged. I really liked Oregon. The trail takes you through this volcanic wilderness area, and the mountains are so different out west. At home, our mountains are so old and rounded and covered with trees. In Washington, the Cascades are so majestic and rugged and peaked. It all feels so different from what we are used to on the East Coast.” 

One of Maddie’s favorite memories from the hike is discovering a lake that no one else can get to, only hikers. “Hanging out there by that lake, you are amazed at how big and beautiful the world is.” 

Although she knows it sounds cliched but being out on the trail for nearly five months, taught Maddie to take things one day at a time. “I feel I’ve gotten better at taking things as they come. When you are first starting out on the trail, and you are facing hiking more than 2,500 miles, it seems overwhelming and impossible, but I learned to take it one day at a time and keep moving ahead,” she said. “That and persistence can take you to wherever you want to go.” 

By Janice Lane Palko