Backpacker

The Swede Who Showed America How to Hike

BEFORE APPLYING PAINT, Peter Parsons traced the letters on the back of his canvas rucksack. He wanted the 3-inch-high text to be perfect—no botched lines made by an excited hand. Parsons painted neatly inside the lines, making block letters that read: HEADING “NORTH”—MEXICO TO CANADA. Parsons intended to hike the Continental Divide.

On a one-cent postcard, he’d just written his best friend, “I’m raring to be on the trail again.” Of course, he used the word “trail” loosely. The year was 1924, and there was no established trail leading from where he was starting to where he was going.

Two days into his trek, in southeastern Arizona, Parsons camped on a parched plain 40 miles north of the Mexico border. With smoke tendrils rising from a mesquite and chaparral cookfire, he opened his loose-leaf journal to a blank page and sharpened his pencil with a sheath knife. Preparing for this journey, Parsons had jammed that blade down onto a grinding wheel. In penmanship fine as the pencil tip, his journal noted the result: “Weight of original knife 3.5 oz, as modified 2.5 oz.” He anticipated toothbrush cutting by more than half a century.

At age 35, Parsons had a lean, hard-muscled mill worker’s body. Still, at 5 feet 8 inches and barely 135 pounds, he knew that ounce-counting mattered. Even with the knife-grinding, his 1920s gear meant that his canvas rucksack weighed more than 60 pounds.

Parsons had experience hauling a heavy load great distances. The previous year, on his first attempt at what we now call a thru-hike, he set about walking 1,300 miles from central Oregon through California’s Mojave Desert, covering half of today’s Pacific Crest Trail by piecing together existing routes and cross-country hiking. In near-ideal conditions, Parsons traversed the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. But at the Mojave’s edge, he faltered. After a full day of bone-dry creeks and springs, Parsons wrote in his journal, “It’s best to give up.” Hard words for him.

Since arriving in Oregon in 1909, the native Swede had explored plenty of peaks and distant horizons, but the premature end to his hike through Oregon and California was his first setback. Did that episode compel him to aim for an even more audacious goal the following year? And not only to plan it, but to paint it on his pack? Modest by habit, Parsons tended to downplay difficulties. But he’d not only just set himself a seemingly impossible task—he’d also made sure every stranger he met would know it.

I’ve hiked the Divide, Mexico to Canada, and even when I did it, on the Continental Divide Trail in 2015, many called it the toughest long trail in the Lower 48. Parsons

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