Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America
by Ron Strickland
Reviewed by Barney Mann
Ron Strickland is the father of the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail. He is a latter-day trailblazer, author and the paterfamilias of the nation's newest national scenic trail.
Pathfinder is Strickland's eighth book, and for a zealot -- being "focused" alone doesn't drag a wild-dream mountain trail into reality -- Strickland is more than a passable scrivener. Pathfinder interlaces tales of the trail's founding with steep ascents and descents to match the Pacific Northwest Trail's jutting terrain together with a potpourri of Northwest outback characters, other trail "bad boys" like himself, love in the outdoors (nee sex), backpacking tips and a vision of hiking's future.
Pathfinder is like a snowmelt freshet broken free of Strickland's hard-won trail, a 180-degree turnabout from his seven previous efforts -- five collections of oral histories, one anthology and a 1-pound-plus trail guidebook. Here, Strickland lets his own voice loose at last.
In 1970, 27-old Strickland conceived the idea of the Pacific Northwest Trail, a continuous path from Glacier National Park in Montana to the Pacific Ocean. But after 10 years, the trail received a death sentence. A congressional study concluded "it is overwhelmingly evident ... the trail ... is neither feasible nor desirable." Strickland and his Pacific Northwest Trail went underground and fervent volunteers hoisted axes and pulaskis to make the trail an on-the-ground reality. On March 30, 2009, recognition caught up to reality, and the Pacific Northwest Trail became a congressionally designated National Scenic Trail.
A decade ago, Backpacker magazine branded Strickland a "pulpit-pounding evangelist," but in Pathfinder Strickland is all rosy-cheeked uncle, joshing, cajoling and entertaining, repeatedly poking fun at himself. A Strickland pratfall opens the book. At age 7, a jelly-sandwich-toting Strickland won entrance into his first tent. Heaven. The "canvas hut practically sang of the great outdoors." Then his sandwich plopped, jelly side down. Song over. Long before becoming a trail founder, Strickland was a pup tent reject. "Scram, creep."
Sixty years and 23 chapters later, yet again in a tent with food, Strickland recounted that as the temperature plummeted, his new wife Christine wolfed down a slumgullion dinner. When finished, "she looked expectantly at me as her breath danced in the headlamp's beam. 'What's next?' she purred." She wasn't talking dinner. Strickland proceeds, but here I'll let the tent flaps discreetly close.
Slumgullion: a watery stew. It's Strickland's favorite dish. Occasionally, as in navigating the newly minted Pacific Northwest Trail, you may feel lost, but on the whole, Pathfinder is funny, poignant and unsparing in candor. Entering at "Scram, creep" and exiting at a sultry, "What's next?," Pathfinder portrays a kaleidoscope view of a modern trailblazer's life.