Nearing 'Hamer time
Most 16-year-old girls are quite happy to be seeing their friends daily, talking on their cell phones, blogging, tweeting, going to movies and shopping.
Not Eliza Swackhamer. She is preparing to take the solo trip of a lifetime -- a hike, by herself, along the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from late April through the end of August.
Her walk will start in Mexico, then through the Sierra Nevada, Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges heading north to the U.S.-Canadian border through both more lowlands and mountains in Oregon and Washington.
She will begin her walk at sea level and hit the highest elevation at 13,153 feet at Forester Pass in California's Sierra Nevadas. She'll hit the halfway point in Chester, Calif., which is near Mt. Lassen and where the Sierras, Siskiyou and Cascade ranges meet.
She's also the youngest solo female hiker to attempt the difficult trek.
"I like the idea being a single solo female on the hike. I love being out in the world," Eliza said.
There's lots of things that could happen, says her mom Dawn Swackhamer, who mostly worries about dehydration, river crossings and drownings, heat stroke and hypothermia.
"Sometimes I wake up after a nightmare and need to look on the brighter side. But my daughter is strong, aware and informed. She's got a good head on her shoulders and she's a determined little thing," said Dawn.
Eliza's father, Josh Smith, is also super supportive, Dawn adds, "…but he's not a planner, unlike Eliza and me. We like to make plans and plan things out," and that makes life easier for the two women instead of more worrisome.
Her father hopes to join her on some of her trek in Oregon, while her mother plans to walk the first 100 miles with her at the start.
"It doesn't seem very far when you look at the map," Dawn said, "but it is a long way."
While most people may share the older Swackhamer's feelings about keeping children closer to home, Dawn notes that she's watched Eliza grow up and feels her daughter has the background and the determination to do a good job at whatever she does.
After all, she told the Herald, besides her family's support, there is a huge support network system called "trail angels." These are people who live on the trail and protect the hikers by providing shelter, rides into town, help with emergencies and even helping with food packages sent from the families for passing on to the hikers. Some of the sites are mail drop locations in small towns such as grocery stores and restaurants.
Eliza noted she has a list of trail angels who can help her when needed. She also noted that she has a list of people to stay away from. She feels safe because she says 95 percent of the people she can contact are good.
"I also have a list of boundaries and limits off the trail, like where the drug usage trails are located and what I should stay away from," Eliza said.
The trail angels help by providing an address for those mailed packages to be picked up along the trail from a list of names and places on the trail. Prior to the hike, the hikers contact these angels and ask them to receive the package. When she's a few days from that locale, Eliza will contact her home on her satellite phone and her family will send the package so she can restock food and water. This happens every five to eight days.
Hikers need to carry various items, too many items can slow them down.
The packs shouldn't weigh more than 50 pounds. These include a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat, a light jacket, a rain jacket and a puffy coat for the mountains which even in June, July and August might be snow filled,
It's also important to have extra socks, an extra pair of shoes, tape, and tweezers, a lighter to help light a fire for cooking, pills to purify water, first aid for cuts and blisters— which can halt the remainder of the trip.
Most, including Eliza, travel with two sets of clothes; one to wash while wearing the other.
"Hygiene items aren't too important because you know you're going to smell after a day or two and feel dirty," Eliza said.
She also will carry a battery recharger, as well as a location device so "I can reach people in case I have an emergency."
Other items include about five to seven days' worth of food and water. Food and water are very important. So are snacks, Eliza's bedroom is full of boxes of food, some freeze dried, and packets of items like nuts, snacks and even peanut butter and tuna packets. She beamed while showing off her freeze dried ice cream.
Dawn knows her daughter will lose weight, it's a given when someone walks 20-plus miles a day. Eliza said that some of the trail angels own restaurants in some of the towns she'll be walking through.
These places offer cheaper prices, but only to the hikers, like a $1 for a shake and one pound burger. "They look out for the hikers," Eliza said.
The teenager got the idea a couple of years ago. Since then she's read books, accounts and even seen the movie "Wild" to educate herself about the trek. Her take on the movie let her parents know that she is not just strong but prepared for her walk.
"I was raised to be independent," Eliza says. "I love to go hunting with my uncle or hiking in the woods. One thing I insist on is that we eat everything we kill. When I was younger—until I was in sixth grade—I hated to go on family hikes. Then, about that age, I began to learn to like it."
Eliza is used to taking five-day trips, but she says she doesn't know how she's going to feel after five days hiking 20 or more miles a day. But she's excited about pushing herself and discovery new limits.
She notes she will need to be extremely careful not to hurt an ankle and to watch out for insects or other trail dangers.
The teenager has worked and studied to get ready for the trip. In addition, her job has allowed her to pay part of her way. She's saved to be able to use her own money to fund dinners and possible souvenirs when she arrives in a town. She also purchased half her gear and helped pay her plane fare to Mexico, where Scout and Frodo (trail angels) will pick her and her mom up for an overnight, feed them, and provide a ride to the trailhead for a 5 a.m. start.
"I hope she takes time in the moment and enjoys her adventure," Dawn says.
Asked about why she's taking the trip, she said she got the idea when she realized she could get out of school.
"I initially decided I could go when I found out I already had enough credits to miss the third trimester of my junior year. I have all the credits I need.," she said.
She finished the second trimester on March 15 and now is using all her spare time to prepare. But she noted she also will get several credits for the hike including physical education, geology and biology.
She's also using the hike to cut down her electronics use.
"I don't want to be as tangled with electronics as I am now as I get older," she said. "I hope that I won't get bored and need to entertain myself. But I will be able to listen to music when I want, write in my blog occasionally and take pictures. "
Quite active, Eliza likes to play sports. She currently plays soccer and in the past played rugby, touch football and basketball. As the hike approaches, she cites three things she's worried about: enough water and food, not being bored and blisters.
"Blisters have caused such pain and problems to others and sent them home," she said.
To get ready, she hikes as much as possible before her adventure, often with best friend Nathan, who lives nearby. A year older, he would have liked to do the hike, but this is his senior year. The two friends often hike together, sometimes taking five-day trips.
"I have no idea what it will be like, but I plan to finish and be in time to start my senior year," she said with a big smile.
Eliza will be sending the Herald blogs from her trip and maybe some pictures. The Herald wishes her a safe journey and a lot of fun!