To say that Alex Asai is an avid athlete is an understatement. As a child, Asai aspired to one day become a professional soccer player. He later did play on the Oregon State University’s men’s soccer team. In April 2010, he took six months off to hike 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. During the five-month excursion, Asai hiked through desert and snow, mountain peaks, and through 25 national forests, including the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Vancouver, Wash. where he works as a civil engineer.
My longest hike took me seven hours. Yours took five months. What inspired you to embark on this impressive trek?
I enjoy hiking. After graduating from college and finished playing soccer, I got outside doing other things. I began running, hiking and backpacking. I had known about the Pacific Crest Trail before, but I hadn’t really heard of people hiking it until I talked to some friends who did it in 2007. It sounded like a really fun thing to do. In April 2011, I took six months leave without pay and at the end of the month I began hiking at the Mexican border.
Did you hike this entirely alone?
My parents, who drove me down from Oregon, hiked with me on the first day. They then stayed with me for the first night of a kick-off event, which involved the largest group of Pacific Crest Trail hikers from the west coast. There were also hikers who had traveled from New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, and countries in Europe to hike this trail.
I spent one full day at the kick-off event at the border and left the next morning. Most people went in small groups. During the first couple hundred miles, I saw a lot of the same people over and over again – we were leap-frogging.
I was with people basically the whole time. During the first 450 miles, I was with a group of people. After that, I hiked with three others. During the final stretch of the trail, I hiked with one other person.
Share with me some of your biggest memories from hiking the three states.
In California, getting to climb Mt. Whitney was a very cool side trip. It’s the tallest mountain in the “Lower 48.” I climbed to the top with three other people. We woke up at 1 a.m. and hiked up under moonlight, and then we watched the sun rise from the top. A few times, especially in central California and in the Sierras, I had to wade through streams and creeks that didn’t have bridges. The water was cold and at night, my shoes sometimes stayed wet, and my shoes froze overnight several times.
Oregon was forested and flat but as soon as I got to the Crater Lake area, there were mountains all the way to Mt. Hood. After hiking Mt. Hood, we began hiking in Washington. It was one of the most beautiful sections of the entire trail. Pretty much the entire state was beautiful – from the Goat Rocks area, which is south of Mt. Rainier, all the way to the Canadian border. We were surrounded by mountains, the wildflowers were in bloom, it was sunny and we even saw snow. It was amazing September weather in Washington.
This sounds incredibly exhausting. Did you ever want to quit?
I never got to the point where I wanted to quit, but it wasn’t easy all the time. I had been running marathons, and I was in good shape – aerobically. As my start date approached, I started doing longer day hikes, about 15 to 20 miles to prepare my body. What was hardest though, were my feet adjusting to the daily hikes. Just being on my feet with an extra 30 to 40 pounds on my back for 12 to 16 hours a day was tiring.
Tell me about hiking through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
I felt a sense of pride. I remember thinking, “This is where I work.” It was a really good feeling. It was also really cool hiking through the Mount Adams Wilderness and Goat Rocks for the first time on the forest. I hadn’t hiked through the area north of Indian Heaven Wilderness before. When I was hiking through my forest, I actually even met my coworkers who had set up a little event to greet me. As I got farther north in one of our wilderness areas, I ran into our forest archeologist, and even farther north, I ran into more of my coworkers who were working on a project.
I understand you blogged during your five-month hike. What mechanisms did you use to do that?
I blogged using my iPhone. I kept it off all the time except for at night to write. I used it a few times also as a GPS, using an app. Otherwise, I kept my phone off for about 23 hours every day. I never used it when I was hiking, but I’d usually check for service when I was in a town. For photos, I used a separate digital camera.
If you could live in any other time period, when might that be?
I’d choose the same time as John Muir, who promoted early conservation in central California. I’d also like to see a lot of these places where I hiked when they were a bit more wild. Hiking made me appreciate the efforts that people went through to establish the trails and maintain them so well. It’s such a beautiful experience to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and to go to the mountains and see these amazing places.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.