June 17, 2008

Looking for Happy Trails in the West


Sometimes a little trail magic is what it takes to get a fresh start.

That's what Jacksonville's Matt Balanky, 29, and his cousin Ben Webb, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, are hoping for.

Balanky worked an executive job for Target in Tifton, Ga., and Webb had worked for Tarmac America Inc., a concrete supply company in Fort Lauderdale. But neither were happy and both wanted a new challenge. So the two dropped everything to head to the West Coast, where they are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail together.

Their 2,650-mile trek began April 14 in the vapid California deserts barely north of Mexico. Now it brings them to the Tehachapi Mountains, near the Mojave Desert.

They're two months into a six-month journey to Canada, and they've seen a lot along the way.

From the barren terrain 100 miles out of Los Angeles, where only Fox's brush broke the brown landscape, they saw the city's lights still shone so brightly they blocked out the stars.

From mountaintops, they've peered down at the propeller airplanes sputtering along beneath them. They've seen a spaghetti of freeways, where sodium vapor lamps glow on forever. They've spotted trains from 30 miles away, looking like matchsticks a child is pulling across the floor.

And they heard a mountain lion's scream in the distance as they watched the sun set over Murray Canyon - what they both call the most beautiful portion of the trip thus far.

Their hike lasts 15 to 20 miles every day, and it starts as soon as day breaks.

Balanky and Webb wake up at 6 a.m., often to find frost on their tent. They immediately dress layer upon layer to keep warm. After a quick breakfast, they load up their 40-pound packs and they're on the trail by 7 a.m.

The day usually ends around 7 p.m. when it's time to pitch the tent.

"At the end of the day, you're tired, you stink, you just want to sit down, and you want all the elements to go away," Webb said. "But you've got to clean yourself, you've got to cook and you've got bugs crawling all over you."

They lie down, exhausted, at 8 p.m., and they're usually asleep five minutes later.

Their ascents can be as great as a mile a day, and even though they've been at it for a while, it doesn't get any easier, Balanky said.

What can help, though, are "trail angels" - people who live along the trail and usually have a passion for hiking.

One family the cousins met offered a warm shower, a tasty meal and a comfortable bed for a night - the greatest gift exhausted hikers could receive.

The cousins even awoke one morning to find trail angels stashed cold Gatorade outside their tent. It's the sort of kindness that hikers call trail magic.

"Trail angels are this special sort of people. I don't know what it stems from other than they all have this love of hiking," Webb said. "They have been nothing short of amazing."

On the trail, what's never lacking is comic relief. Sometimes it comes in more normal forms, like jokes and old stories. But the humor is often more crude.

The best example is how they laugh at each other's reactions to poisonous snakes.

Whoever stumbles upon the snake usually jumps "way high in the air," while feet skip and colorful language is uttered, Balanky said. Then the other person cracks up.

They spend a lot of time waxing philosophic. "We like to argue politics all the time and make fun of each other's stances," Webb said. The two's politics are polar opposites, and those arguments can take up more than two hours every day, he said.

The conversation on the trail stays lively, but the cousins swear the time together has brought them closer.

When they've passed through the cool forests of northern California and Oregon and the melting snow of Washington, it'll be back to reality for the cousins. They'll move back to Florida in search of new jobs and new beginnings. But until then, they've got four more months of long days and cold nights ahead of them - plenty of time to let the magic of the trail rejuvenate their [email protected], (904) 359-4268STORIES FROM THE TRAILThe cousins are keeping a blog updated from their journey. Read it at Jacksonville.com/pacifictrail.BLAZING A TRAIL: HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT RATTLESNAKES "They ignite this fear that cuts right to the bone. I hate them, I really do. It's like being a little kid in a dark room and every little creak or bump gets you; makes you think there's a monster."BEN WEBB, Fort Lauderdale man who is walking from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest TrailMORE BLAZING A TRAILTheir most dangerous moment: Atop Apache Peak and without ice axes, they faced a slope so steep and slick that they risked a plummet deep into the valley below by marching down. "We were precariously placing our feet in footholds we made with our tennis shoes digging in," Matt Balanky said. "If we slipped, we would've died. You can't even see what's down there."How they stay energized: They break every hour for a quick snack. Doing so keeps their energy up but doesn't replace all the calories they burn. Balanky's lost 10 pounds while Ben Webb has lost 15 so far.What happens when one gets mad: Spending all day, every day together for months at a time can be wearing. "I had a moment the other day. I went a little crazy," Webb said. "I threw my poles down and stomped around like a child for a few minutes. Matt just laughed at me. He asked me if I wanted to have a snack." Balanky carries the tent and cooking equipment, and Webb carries the food, so one can't abandon the other.How they pass the time: Aside from talking politics - they disagree on nearly everything - "we bounce jokes and taunts and ideas and memories off of one another," Webb said. "It helps rejuvenate our spirits."How tough is the trail?: Both cousins spent time in the military, but "every day is like the worst day in boot camp," Balanky said.What they left behind: Balanky and Webb say they haven't regretted leaving their jobs at all . They do miss their girlfriends, who are waiting for them in Florida, though.What's next after the trail: Balanky hopes to become a police officer in Jacksonville. Webb, eight years away from a government pension, hopes to land a gig doing something in government, perhaps in California.

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