Go, Wheeler, Go! La Jollan embarks on lifetime adventure after college

When La Jolla native Tom Wheeler started college at UC Santa Clara four years ago, he didn’t know what the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was. Today, he has walked over 2,000 miles of the 2,650-mile hiking trail that runs almost parallel to the West Coast from the Mexico to the Canadian border, and is on his way to complete the odyssey.

“I had never heard of the Trail. I didn’t grow up doing much backpacking or camping. My friend and I were talking about plans after college, when she said, ‘I really want to do the PCT.’ So during my freshman year, I joined an outdoors club at UC Santa Clara called Into the Wild, and fell in love with the wild,” Wheeler said.

The son of Bird Rock residents Doug and Jane Wheeler, he started his path in June (after graduation) and expects to finish by next month. To better his chances with the weather, Wheeler began 90 miles south of Sacramento for the northbound trek. “I started in the middle (of the Trail) so I could be ahead of the snow in the Sierra Nevada and ahead of the heat in the desert. Then I walked up to Canada and reached The Cascades, and by then it was August. I took 10 days off in Chicago, and flew back.”

When he spoke to the La Jolla Light, he had started the Trail south from Lake Tahoe. “I really wanted to do the PCT because of its incredible beauty and having time to think about what I want to do for my career,” he said. He majored in environmental science and entrepreneurship, and so far has figured out a “general direction with a few specific ideas.”

Wheeler embarked on the Trail with a partner, but she quit two weeks into their adventure after suffering an injury. “The Trail is a communion with Nature and yourself, but it’s also very tough, and if you’re not willing to push through the really tough times, it’s very unlikely that you will complete it,” Wheeler explained, adding that oftentimes hikers run out of food or water, injure themselves or go through all kinds of hardship to finish the Trail.

He said he appreciated the companionship when he had it, having someone to fall back on, but also learned a lot from being on his own. “After a month, I was able to settle in and be more comfortable alone,” he said. From then on, he continued solo, finding the occasional partner or group of friends to camp or hike with. “Nature is why you start the PCT, and the community of people is why you stay,” he said.

He pointed out that physically, his feet have grown one-and-a-half sizes larger and he’s lost a few pounds and grown in strength. But his Trail trek also produced emotional, intellectual and spiritual changes. “It’s been a lesson ... if you’re tired, just take a day off because that’s how people quit or get injured. I didn’t encounter anything like that because I’m just going at my own pace, not trying to keep up with someone else; there’s an emotional balance.”

In the logistics chapter, Wheeler said he didn’t leave anything to chance. He bought all lightweight backpacking gear, as opposed to those who hike in a more minimalistic manner. “A lot of people won’t bring a stove, so they just eat cold dehydrated food for the whole Trail, which I personally couldn’t do. I really like the morale booster of a hot meal.”

For supplies, he took a “hybrid” approach. “There are three ways of resupplying: one is just totally winging it, buying food at the towns on the way; then there’s the hardcore backpacker who sends himself something at every stop and only eats that; and then there’s the hybrid, where you send yourself some stuff and supplement it with additional food from that town.

“In the beginning I was eating a lot of granola bars, beef turkey ... but my taste shifted away from that and with the hybrid resupply I have my basics but I can add other things.”

Want to know more? Wheeler has been sharing experiences, thoughts, pictures and video via his website