Journey of a Lifetime

By Beacon Staff

Last Saturday, Bree Fuqua departed Kalispell with only a small backpack. She flew south to San Diego, where a pair of relative strangers, an older husband and wife known as “angels,” picked her up. From the city they drove more than an hour into the wild interior of the Mountain Empire to a marked section of fence along the Mexican border. At that point, the angels said farewell.

Then all alone, she looked north toward home, past the soaring mountains, and embarked on one of the great American adventures: hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

Fuqua, a 31-year-old special education and math teacher at Glacier High School, is pursuing a lifelong dream by attempting to walk 2,650 miles along the PCT. Over the next four months, she plans on following the rugged trail that winds north through California, Oregon and Washington before ending in British Columbia’s Manning Park. Except for a short stretch her sister plans to join, Fuqua is traveling solo.

The PCT is one of the longest and most grueling footpaths in America. Since Richard Watson became the first person confirmed to thru-hike, or go from end to end in one attempt, in 1972, only a small percentage have succeeded in following his footsteps. The number of people who attempt to thru-hike the PCT has grown every year, from roughly a few hundred to more than 800, and about 70 percent are men, according to Jack Haskel, an information specialist with the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Only half typically finish the whole stretch. All together, it is believed that more people have summited Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, than successfully thru-hiked the PCT.

It may be less glamorous than Everest, but the PCT is no less a test of endurance and bravery. Before Cheryl Strayed wrote her best-selling memoir last year, titled “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” fewer people were familiar with this rather obscure trek.

But Fuqua is not seeking attention or acclaim. That’s not what intrigued her when she first learned about the PCT as a teenager growing up at the base of the Mission Mountains in Polson. That’s not why this adventure became a dream of hers more than 10 years ago and stayed with her ever since. That’s not what compelled her to risk her job despite resistance from others.

For those inspired to undertake such an epic odyssey, like Fuqua, the trail offers the chance at a priceless experience, a journey inward and outward that embodies what John Muir once said: “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”

The PCT spans 27 national forests and seven national parks. It crosses the driest desert in the country, the Mojave, and the jagged rock formations of the San Andreas Fault Zone. From sea level it climbs above 10,000 feet and traces the craggy rim of the famed Sierra Nevada mountain range, including the highest point in the Lower 48 states, Mount Whitney, elevation 14,505. At high altitudes it becomes an imaginary path through late summer, forcing hikers to rely on a compass or GPS as they trudge through treacherous snowfields. When the route descends back to sea level, the landscape transforms into dense forests, continuing past the ancient redwoods and volcanic relics, like Crater Lake and Mount Hood. Onward, hikers encounter the peaks and valleys of the Columbia River Gorge. They skirt Mount Rainier and run into Snoqualmie Pass. The trail follows the North Cascades, known for being the wettest stretch, before crossing into the frontier of south British Columbia. The trail finishes in an Edenic prairie known for its sea of floral patterns.

“This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that I have to explore,” Fuqua said last week before leaving.

Five days of food are organized across the floor of Bree Fuqua’s Kalispell home along with sections of maps, toilet paper, lip balm and recovery supplements before being packed into a box and shipped to a checkpoint along the Pacific Coast Trail. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

This will be more than an adventure, though. It’s also a race against time. The average person who hikes the entire PCT takes roughly 153 days. Fuqua has 112. School starts Aug. 25, at which point she’s scheduled to be back teaching and coaching.

Most hikers average 10 to 20 miles a day, depending on the section of trail, and enjoy offshoot excursions, like trips to nearby communities. Fuqua won’t have that luxury. She’ll have to average roughly 24 miles a day, without a single break, in order to make it home in time for the next school year.

This may seem like an unrealistic goal, but it was a feat she was willing to attempt.

“For any other person, I would say it’s crazy, but knowing Bree and her commitment and rare determination, I have no doubt that this is something that is right up her alley and she’ll be able to knock out,” said Andy Fors, a fellow teacher at Glacier and close friend who grew up with Fuqua in Polson.

“She is extremely motivated and there are really no challenges that can be set before her that she steps back from.”

Fuqua was raised in the outdoors of Northwest Montana. Her father, Archie, constantly led his daughters into the wild, cutting trails, riding horses and hiking the nearby peaks.

“Even when we were little kids he would take us way back into the middle of the woods,” she said. “I grew up doing really tough adventures.”

In high school, Fuqua became one of the best track athletes in Montana. She was a three-time state champion in the discus and two-time champion in the shot put. She set state records in both events and was named the Gatorade Montana Track Athlete of the Year. After graduating, she competed at the University of Wisconsin for three years before transferring to the University of Oregon, where she became one of the best throwers in school history.

During her time in Eugene, she began hiking and biking on a regular basis. She once rode 3,000 miles in the summer from her doorstep in Oregon to her parent’s house in Polson. After graduate school, she became a teacher and started an adventure club with a colleague. They would gather groups of kids who came from troubled homes and overcome outdoor challenges, like long hikes.

One such trip included a 530-mile hike with a group that included a 15-year-old girl from a broken home, where no one in the family had graduated from high school.

“She learned so much along the way. Now she’s a senior and competes in sports and she’s the president of her class. She hikes all the time,” Fuqua said.

“I’ve done trips on my own and I know how much I learned and how much it was transforming for me, and it’s neat to pass that along to the kids and see it do the same thing.”

Fuqua eventually moved to Kalispell to become a teacher at Glacier, and she remained active outdoors. That’s how she met two hikers in the summer of 2011 on a section of the Continental Divide Trail. They had hiked the PCT. “They encouraged me to not let that dream slip away,” she said.

But that meant overcoming one of the biggest obstacles in her way.

“I’ve always wanted to do it, but I’ve never had the guts to ask for the time off (from work),” she said.

In order to hike the trail, she’s missing the last four weeks of this school year on unpaid leave. She’s also missing the final weeks of track season as an assistant.

Last summer, Fuqua approached Glacier’s principal Callie Langohr. Even though it meant disrupting her classes, Fuqua vowed to find substitute teachers and make sure the class assignments were prepared.

But still, it was less than ideal to miss that much time, and also risk not being back in time for next year.

“I felt like such a hypocrite asking to get out of all these obligations because it goes against everything I stand for,” Fuqua said. “But at the same time, this has always be at the back of my mind. It’s been a dream for a long time. I decided I have to jump on the chance.”

The Pacific Crest Trail – Bree Fuqua will hike from Mexico to British Columbia, Canada. | Map courtesy Pacific Crest Trail Association

Langohr and the other teachers and coaches gave Fuqua their blessing, but the school board needed to approve her absence. After delaying a decision for almost two months, the board voted 6-5 in November in favor of Fuqua.

“We are supportive of Bree’s hike along the Pacific Crest and will be anxiously awaiting updates along the trail,” Langohr said. “It will be a source of inspiration for many in our Glacier community because successful completion of the hike will take determination, patience, courage, and perseverance. We are cheering for Bree.”

Over the winter she began training and preparing. During the coldest nights she would sleep in her backyard in her tent. Almost every day, she woke up at 4:30 a.m. and walked at least five miles, and another five miles at night after school and practice. When she needed groceries, she’d walk to the farthest store. She hit the gym and went to physical therapy to iron out old kinks from competing in college.

Rarely does the PCT come in contact with civilization. The more common encounters are rattlesnakes and black bears. There are the trail angels, though: people who volunteer support or resources, like water and food, to hikers along the way.

In order to make it back in time, she needs to stay as light and agile as possible. All she’s carrying is a backpack weighing 14 pounds with a sleeping bag, tent, cell phone, bear spray and other small necessities, like a bar of soap and knife.

For food, Fuqua’s sister, Jess, is mailing compact packages with Clif Bars, dehydrated fruits and vegetables and other high-calorie items to certain locations near the trail, where the angels will protect them. She’ll have to live off each small box for 100 to 150 miles at a time. A small water purifier will allow her to keep a few ounces of water handy at all times.

While training, the word quickly spread through school. Soon students were curious about the trip. She began designing class assignments around real-life examples, like distances per day and how many calories she would need to consume during her daily marathons.

As Fuqua hikes now, she’s relaying back information to classes that are following her progress.

“She works with a lot of students who face adversity every day, and for them to personally know someone who’s going to take on a task like this, something that is so taxing and so difficult, I think it’s a really neat experience for them,” Fors said. “And for her colleagues and other staff members, they see a teacher willing to really push themselves and take a risk like this. It’s inspiring.”

Yet one of the common questions she was asked was “why?” Why risk your job, you’re livelihood? Why try something this difficult?

“Really, part of the reason I felt like I really wanted to do this trip is because this will test every single weakness I have, from spiritually to physically, emotionally and mentally,” she said.

It can be scary, but it can also be rewarding.

“You learn so much about yourself,” she said. “A lot of people look at this and think it’s this horrible, daunting thing, but the freedom you get on a trip like this, where your only worries are what you’re going to eat, where you’re going to sleep and what you’re going to drink, it’s just absolute freedom. When I’m doing something like this, I feel like I’m doing exactly what I should be doing in life and I’m exactly where I want to be and I just love it.”

In the days leading up to last weekend, her family visited along with friends who wished her good luck. She went over her gear and supplies yet again, making sure every detail was in order. One of her main goals for the trip was to live in the moment, yet she couldn’t help but fixate on the end goal. She understood maybe she won’t finish the entire stretch; that forces beyond her control could determine her fate. Every possible worst-case scenario crossed her mind and all of her fears surfaced leading up to Saturday.

But none of it was enough to stop her from pursuing the greatest adventure of her life.

“I’m excited. I’m sure I’ll be running around like a crazy person all week,” she said. “But I just can’t wait to be standing there, looking north just knowing I have a whole summer full of adventures.”

To follow Fuqua’s adventure, visit www.flatheadbeacon.com for updates. To send her words of encouragement, email [email protected].

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