Hiker prepares for final leg of triple crown
It’s almost time.
Dale Baker is counting the days when, from a remote desert location on the border of Mexico and New Mexico, he’ll begin heading north for a five-month, 3,028-mile-long backpack along the Continental Divide Trail to the U.S.-Canadian border.
“You never know what you’re going to see day-to-day,” says Baker, 64, who plans to begin hiking April 25.
The Continental Divide Trail is Baker’s final link in his pursuit for the Triple Crown of long-distance backpacking that includes the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian trails. Along with being the longest of the three at nearly 3,100 miles, the Continental Divide Trail includes elevation gains of 917,000 feet. Much of the hiking is at elevations above 10,000 feet, with the high point being Grays Peak in Colorado at 14,278 feet.
Baker plans to cover at least 23 miles a day and complete the journey by September, before serious snow falls. He expects he’ll require at least four pairs of lightweight running shoes — a pair is good for 600 to 700 miles. Snowshoes may be necessary over some New Mexico mountain passes, while the likelihood of grizzly bears in Montana means he’ll be carrying two bear spray canisters and packing food in bear-resistant sacks.
Long distance backpacking is something Baker started on a whim in 1998. During time-off from his job as a personal care provider, “I had an old backpack and basic gear and I decided I was going to hike Oregon.” He began near the Oregon-Washington border and 43 days later ended his trek in Northern California’s Seiad Valley carting his 70-pound pack.
Over the years Baker has hiked more than 15,000 miles, including four thru-hikes on the PCT, each covering about 2,650 miles, and the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. His first PCT hike was in 2002, which he repeated a year later “because I knew I could do it better. You don’t quit learning.”
In between the long treks, Baker reeled off a series of lesser known but challenging backpacks, including the Oregon Coast and Arizona trails and, last summer, the 485-mile Colorado Trail.
In 2015 he and a friend he’d made on the Appalachian Trail hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim to rim in a day, a distance of 47 miles. “It killed us both,” Baker tells with a weary smile. A year later he did it again.
His backpacking adventures have always included challenges. He tells of dangerous river crossings while, unusually, hiking the Appalachian Trail from north to south, and nightly body checks for ticks. Because of downpours, he spent some nights in shelters infested with “rats and people snoring.”
In a Sky Lakes Wilderness outing, he awoke and discovered his flask of whiskey had been stolen. While camping “cowboy-style” in his sleeping bag on a 2020 Arizona Trail hike, his baseball-style hat and prescription glasses disappeared. He found the hat, which had been eaten by pack rats, but not his glasses. Because of the pandemic, Baker spent two weeks waiting for a new pair.
“I couldn’t read or anything.” Now he carries two pairs. Another trek was delayed when he spent six days in a motel, possibly suffering from giardia.
But the biggest challenge happened in 2013 on an aborted Arizona Trail backpack. Because of a severe drought, usual water sources were dry. Parched and seriously dehydrated, Baker used his Garmin smartwatch to seek help and was airlifted to a hospital by helicopter. A Garmin inReach, which can send and receive messages and that be used for navigating a trail and trigger SOS messages, is part of his backpack arsenal. A year later he returned better prepared, and completed the 800-mile trek across deserts, mountains, canyons and wilderness.
Things happen, but he emphasizes the vast majority are memorable in good ways.
Early on, after passing a husband-wife couple on the PCT, “they thought I really walked fast.” So they dubbed Baker as “Mercury,” which since then has been his trail name.
Mercury speaks fondly of stops in small towns where he and other thru-hikers pause to spend a night in a motel, shower, visit laundromats and, importantly, resupply food at local stores. “The people are so kind.” He tells of experiences with “trail angels,” people who often camp along trails and provide free food, beverages and other delights. “That’s when you meet some really, really nice people.”
Wildlife sightings are common. He’s seen cougars, black bears, mountain goats and more. One morning, while cowboy camping, he opened his eyes to see a curious black bear nearly face-to-face looking at him curiously. It galloped off when Baker moved.
He thrives on being outside, hiking and experiencing life without comforts. “When I’m on the trail I appreciate those little things we take for granted,” which he describes as “easy life” comforts like soft beds, hot showers, filling meals. “Sometimes I just want to get away from all that.”
A self-described introvert, he enjoys hiking alone. “I’m really OK with my thoughts … I’m good, I’m happy … I want to settle down but I just can’t.”
Baker, the son of Beverly and the late Jim Baker, spent his first 27 years in Klamath Falls before moving on, with several years in Eugene. After retiring as a care provider, he moved back to Klamath Falls last year. His mother’s long-time partner, Dan Harris, sometimes joins him for short backpacks and day hikes.
When asked why he does long-distance hikes, Baker answers, “I’ve just got to have something to shoot for. When I’m not on the trail I get restless.”
Baker says he’s learned that, “After a thru hike, I’m ready to go home.”
From experience he knows, “I’ll come back a skinny dude again. I’ll get back to eating the way I like to eat.” But, as he also knows, “When I get back home, I’ll rest a few days, and in three or four days I’ll be back hiking.”
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.