A recent best-selling book and blockbuster movie featuring the trials and travails of a young woman traversing portions of the Pacific Crest Trail has nothing on the tale of Willie Amarillas.
The 69-year-old Nipomo man with one replaced hip and a reconstructed knee completed the entire 2,666-mile route from Mexico to Canada in one through-hike that spanned nearly five months.
"It was exciting and a tremendous experience. I didn't know what to expect when I started. I didn't know how far I'd be able to go with my hip. I just kept going," Amarillas said.
Amarillas, a long-time distance runner and member of the Sierra Club, had hiked sections of the trail and other high mountain locales during trips to the Sierra over the past 20 years. But he also had a family to raise, a mortgage to pay. He was a welding instructor at Hancock College and building inspector while also running his own company, Santa Maria Welding. Carving out six months to take a long hike was never feasible.
Two years ago, he retired.
"I love this retirement thing. There are so many things to do. I also paint, do sculpture, lots of hobbies. I never have any time when there's nothing to do," Amarillas said.
Between art projects, he trained for his solo trek with long runs and practice hikes with a heavily laden pack.
On April 6, with the support of family and friends, Amarillas hit the trail.
"It's unfortunate about the drought, but the drought conditions made it perfect for hiking. There was still snow in the highest parts of the trail and in the passes, but a lot of it was more clear than you typically see," Amarillas said.
Despite his experience and training, Amarillas encountered blister problems common among most long-distance hikers in their first 200 miles.
"Your feet just aren't used to walking that many miles day after day. My feet were totally blistered out. It was really painful. I just doctored them up the best I could and kept walking," he said.
Named "Just Willie" by other travelers, Amarillas often found himself hiking and camping with others traveling the storied trail. The highest concentration of hikers was found in sections throughout southern and Central California, but those quickly dropped off as trailheads became increasingly remote and the trail ever more rugged.
"The streams were flowing. The waterfalls were flowing. The rivers that we had to forge were rushing. It was amazing," he said.
There were bear and deer along the trail, rattlesnakes and marmots, but there wasn't a lot of time to take it all in if he planned to complete the trek before late summer snows blocked access to northern reaches of the trail for the season.
"You watched your step more than you watched for animals. There were so many hazards -- roots, stumps or rocks -- that you're concentrating on where you're going. The animals sense you before you get near them," Amarillas said.
Amarillas marched ever northward for 12 to 13 hours each day, sunup to sundown, often without taking his eyes from the trail. There was no fishing, no smelling of wildflowers, no sleeping in or leisurely naps under the pines. Often, he'd find himself enjoying the company of other adventurers, but at times he'd go days upon days without seeing another human soul.
"I like backpacking leisurely with a fishing pole, hanging out in the pools, but this was different. I was on a mission. We only had so much time. I was always excited to keep going and to see what was up ahead. Even our breaks were really short. Sometimes, there was no break," Amarillas said.
He also experienced every imaginable weather scenario the mountains held: rain, hail, heat and drought conditions. There were insects of all sorts: flying, crawling, sucking.
"I just kept on it, stayed on it. I felt rally good," Amarillas said.
He managed the entire trek without falling ill, but a few missteps led to falls from which he's still recovering.
Along the way, he picked up packages a friend mailed to support the hike. They included replacement shoes and other equipment.
"There's a section of trail where you cross a highway by Sonora Pass. There's food and water. People rest and visit here. This hiker started reciting a poem. It was really good. Another hiker recited a poem, then they said, 'Hey, Willie, do you have a poem?' I wanted to share 'A Camp' by Robert Lewis Stevenson, but I didn't have it memorized. I called my friend who was sending packages along the way and asked her to find it and put it in my next package. She said she already had. Stuff like that just kept happening, and you had to just keep asking how this could possibly be," Amarillas said.
Amarillas resupplied his food stash at convenience stores, gas stations and towns near the trail. Occasionally, he stopped long enough to do a load of laundry.
At Lake Chelan, he diverted from the trail for a visit with his son.
Forest fires in Washington forced this year's hikers to reroute their journey to circumvent closures.
"Every day the trail tests you, whether you're fording rivers or going over mountains," Amarillas said.
The biggest challenges were snow-covered passes where there were no real trails to follow.
"You follow other people's footprints, hoping they knew where they were going. Of course, in parts it was so steep, if you did fall, you're going tumble down a long way before you're going to stop," Amarillas said.
Washington proved the most difficult with some sections of single-track trail passing along ridge crests that plummeted on both sides.
"There were trails in Washington where you had to be really careful with every single step to avoid any kind of fall. There were parts of the trail you could barely crawl over," Amarillas recalled.
Toward the latter part of the trail, Amarillas had his daily routine, and his pack load, down pat.
"Pack weight was the most important thing. My base weight without water and food was 17 and a half pounds. That's about 28 to 30 pounds with food and water," he said.
Already fit and lean before he set foot on the trail, Amarillas was particularly surprised by his own weight loss on the journey.
"It's remarkable how much weight you lose. I lost around 25 pounds. I came home looking like a skeleton. Everyone loses weight because you're burning so many calories, and you're eating Top Ramen or freeze-dried meals. You're just not getting enough calories. You're working on a deficit, so you're slowly starving to death," Amarillas said.
On Aug. 25, Amarillas reached the monument that marks the northern end of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Then he hiked eight miles to the nearest paved road, took a bus to Vancouver, then hopped aboard the train for a relaxing ride home.
"I kept looking out the windows at the mountain ranges and thinking, 'I walked all of that,'" Amarillas said.
After a good rest, he's back in action, running again, getting rid of trail kinks and thinking about heading east to take in the Appalachian Trail or parts of the Continental Divide Trail.
"I probably wouldn't do the whole PCT again because it's not easy. It's arduous, really. It's not for the average hiker. Plus, I'm running out of time; the average hikers on the PCT are in their 30s or 40s," Amarillas said.