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Review of “Tell It on the Mountain: Tales from the Pacific Crest Trail”

Posted by Jim Steele on October 20th, 2013 filed in News

The thought of spending months in the wild, hiking a trail like the Continental Divide Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, initially elicits a feeling of romanticism in me. Knowing that you are going to experience something new every day … the thought of waking up surrounded by mountains, morning after morning … experiencing an enormous variety of nature, from deserts to pristine alpine lakes … the view from all of those high mountain passes … escaping the modern conveniences that I love (probably too much) … having all that time alone with your thoughts … it all makes me wish that I was one of those people embarking on a thru-hike of one of these sprawling trails each spring.

But then I remember the downsides. The constant wear and tear on your joints. Eating tasteless camp food for meal after meal. Being completely at the mercy of the weather. Being gone from home for months on end. Carrying a heavy pack day after day. Blisters. Mosquitoes. Infection. There’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re averaging 20 miles every day, week after week, month after month.

A Pacific Crest Trail sign in front of Mount Hood near Timberline Lodge.

A Pacific Crest Trail sign in front of Mount Hood near Timberline Lodge.

Lisa Diener (director, editor and writer) and Shaun Carrigan (producer and director of photography) have managed to show both sides of the Pacific Crest Trail experience in a new documentary called “Tell it on the Mountain: Tales from the Pacific Crest Trail.” The two-hour movie follows seven backpackers who are trying to hike all the way from the Mexican border to the Canadian border through southern California, the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. The director and producer outfitted these hikers with cameras so they could tell their own stories as they tried to complete a 2,663-mile journey that could only be described as the trip of a lifetime. You feel the enthusiasm as they start, and then you feel exhaustion begin to set in as the distance from the trailhead grows.

The director and producer found a truly eclectic group and skillfully allowed them to use their own words to tell the story; the narrator is silent for most of the two-hour film. You’ll meet three people who have come from Europe to complete the PCT, a couple who plan to get married in the middle of their journey, a man who has hiked the PCT so many times that he might as well change his address, and an old codger named “Billygoat” who doesn’t let the fact that he’s about 70 years old keep him off his feet. Who doesn’t want to experience an adventure like this through the eyes of someone nicknamed “Billygoat”?

The characters all have their own stories, and it doesn’t take long before you’re rooting for each of them to make it to Canada. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Not everyone is able to finish and even for the hikers that do, the ending isn’t necessarily 100% happy. One backpacker has a major surprise in store, and his story alone makes this movie worth watching.

These hikers, along with the trail angels (volunteers who provide support to thru-hikers) and a “section hiker” (a person hiking only a portion of the PCT) who covers 300 miles in the Sierra Nevada, tell the story of the PCT better than any narrator could. You learn about what drove them to try something that seems nearly impossible to a flat-lander. You experience the challenges of the trail – the contaminated water, the terrifying, unbridged crossings over roaring rivers, health issues like infected toes or sciatic nerve pain, the logistics of making sure that your next batch of food is waiting at the next supply point – through their own eyes. You see the beauty of the trail, from the barren sections in Southern California to the endless passes of the Sierra Nevada to the isolation of the PCT in Washington. Perhaps most poignantly, the hikers tell you what nature means to them and what draws them to the PCT. You won’t forget their words.

I’ve hiked sections of the PCT in Oregon and Washington. Two summers ago, I ran into a group of thru-hikers at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and talked to them about their trip. After they told me what they were doing, I said something like, “That sounds incredible.” Having seen “Tell It on the Mountain,” I understand the slightly hollow, exhausted look I got in return as they were mere hundreds of miles from their goal.

I’ve also hiked some sections of the Continental Divide Trail in Yellowstone, hiking to the Shoshone Geyser Basin and Summit Lake. I remember seeing the CDT logos along the trail, but I never fully appreciated the implications of a 3,100-mile trail stretching from Mexico to Canada. I’ll never take one of those signs for granted again.

Overall, this is a well done documentary that does an excellent job of showing both the beauty and the agony of a 2,600-mile thru-hike through the eyes of a truly interesting cast of characters. I wish that there had been more time to talk about the Oregon and Washington sections of the trail; it felt like the California sections received a disproportionate amount of attention. I wish that there had been more time to explore the actual logistics of the trip, like what’s in the hikers’ backpacks and what they do to remain healthy on the trail. And I wish that the producers had decided to letterbox the footage shot by the hikers, which didn’t have a full widescreen aspect ratio, instead of stretching it; the distortions, although relatively minor, were distracting. But these are minor complaints about a documentary that I thoroughly enjoyed.

And you’ll be glad to know more about the Pacific Crest Trail – it’s a hot topic right now. Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” has led more and more people to consider a thru-hike. Closures of sections of the trail in Washington during the government shutdown forced some hikers to take an unfortunate detour. And early snowstorms left one hiker stranded. And a hiker this year finished the trail in less than 60 days, averaging 45 miles per day.

Contest: Two readers of The Mountain Goat will receive a free DVD copy of “Tell It on the Mountain!” One copy will be awarded to a randomly drawn reader. The second copy will be awarded to the reader who sends me the most interesting personal story from the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, or the Appalachian Trail. To enter the random survey, complete Contest 1 below. To enter the story contest, complete Contest 2 below. Complete only one survey; readers completing both surveys will be disqualified. Names, addresses and emails will be used only to notify winners and ship the DVDs; you will NOT be added to any mailing lists. However, your stories from the PCT, Continental Divide Trail or Appalachian Trail may be used in a future article on The Mountain Goat. The contests are open through November 4, 2013, or until 100 entries (per contest) are received. One entry per address.

Disclosure: A review copy and the two contest copies of “Tell It on the Mountain” were provided to The Mountain Goat.

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