Q&A: Chuck McKeever

It was New Year’s 2013 in the Marshall Islands and the capital city of Majuro was a gallant party, like a lone sequin glittering adrift in the black of the Pacific Ocean. My Christmas break from teaching ESL courses on the outer Atoll of Wotje was coming to an end and the night was mine and my fellow ESL teacher compadres’ last big blowout in the “big city.” The isolation of outer atoll life we all endured for the past several months had dried out some of our vigilance and purpose and will to teach. We were now soaking those parts of us in booze-fueled camaraderie and laughs hoping to bring back some of our vitality.

Chuck Mckeever was from another program but we all were a part of the same community. The vibe was right between us and we had turned our short time together into fertile bonding for maniacs. The last thing I remember of our time together that night was convincing him to shave his glowing red beard into the shape of a lemur’s tail mischievously curling around his mouth. He did. He looked glorious. 

The next time I remember seeing him was 2016. It was a picture posted to Facebook, Chuck’s lemur tail had grown into a big curly mountain mane that rested past his shoulders. He was shirtless and his muscles were taught and sinewy in a triumphant flex as he sat atop the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Isolated from his fiancee of only a couple weeks and a close group of friends and family, he had endured over 2,600 miles and several months of hiking along one of the world’s most storied trails. That experience was glowing on his face. He looked glorious. 

Chuck McKeever at the northern terminus of the PCT

April 16, 2021 marks the fifth anniversary of Chuck’s start on his PCT adventure and the first anniversary of the release of his book that details his journey A Good Place For Maniacs: Dispatches from the Pacific Crest Trail. Based in Seattle, WA, he’s a writer and teacher whose work splits the seam between outdoor enthusiast full of natural wonder and union organizer full of socialist solutions, whose work has shown up in both The Trek and Jacobin. His own website The Crowcialist is a more personal exploration of his ideas, politics and observations on humanity and nature.

If there is a through line in Chuck’s work it’s the understanding that he is a part of a much larger social and environmental framework and that empathy, understanding and human connection is required to improve these systems to work for the most amount of people. It’s what brought him 5,000 miles across the ocean to teach on the outer limits of humanity in the Marshalls and it’s why when he sought to “find himself” out in nature along the PCT it was his interactions with trail angels, fellow thru-hikers and random characters where he discovered his most relished experiences. He found himself in the humanity of the wild. 

The following is an interview with Chuck McKeever. It has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get comfortable living outside all the time? What was always in your mind from a survival standpoint? 

I didn’t spend a night alone until more than halfway through the trail. The first third of the trail is pretty social and a million people are starting out. The first 700 miles of the desert is where the famous trail angels and towns are and lots of people are there. You can hike alone for stretches during the day but you are staying with people most of the time. 

It wasn’t until the Sierra’s around mile 700 where we didn’t want to be alone. I had my core trail family between three and five people. It was a high snow year and a lot of us were new with this kind of thing so it was good to check-in with people about conditions and the best way up over passes. There’s a ton of dangerous river crossings at that point. 

Once my group parted ways — on great terms, we all had different goals — I spent a couple nights alone. I was pitching my tent in the parking lot of a skate park on a highway (chuckles). In other conditions this would be a terrible place to camp with cars going by and worrying about if people were going to take my stuff. But it was nice to have the sounds of other people around you even if none of them are there. It took some building up to for sure. 

A backpack a lot in Oregon and Washington and I camp alone and it never really leaves me. Even now when I backpack there’s still that little bit of aching loneliness. But I think it’s healthy to create that for yourself and cultivate it. 

Goat’s Rock Wilderness in Washington

You noticed that some people were really enjoying themselves out there by embracing being very free and committed to not being committed to anything. But you had a different perspective of wanting very much for this eventually to come to an end so you could get back to your fiance and the life you had left. How did that influence how you experienced and appreciated the trail? 

I felt that pretty keenly for most of the trail. That was one of the big heart-to-heart moments with the woman I was closest to on the trail, her trail name was SoHard. We had met on probably the sixth day and were together for the next 1,300 miles. We had this when we went down to Yosemite. I had been on the verge of tears because I was so frustrated. In my head we were going to go in and get back to the trail to camp. But the group was camping in Yosemite and then spending the whole next day there. I was super mad because I was trying to get home and not stagnate. 

She told me that if I wanted to go home so badly, I could leave, we were at a National Park. I had to sit back and think about why I wanted to be there and what I wanted to get out of this. But that tension never left me, though the balance became better. The last two weeks on trail I was hiking 30 miles a day, I wanted to be done (laughs). 

There’s a specific point in the book while in Tahoe where you wrestle with the fact that by you doing the PCT you were living other people’s dreams. What kind of pressure did you feel to have a certain kind of experience and “find yourself” out there versus the reality of your experience? 

My buddy from Tahoe who picked me up, his girlfriend had a map of the PCT on his door and I was looking at this map thinking, she really wants to hike the PCT and I’m 1,100 miles in and I’m not completely sold on it. In my head I had set out to prove not only that I was tough and able to do this insane athletic feat but to “find myself” in the wilderness and spend my time in quiet reflection. But all the moments I look back on with the most fondness are with people. 

The friends I met out there or the kindness of total strangers who fed me and put a roof over my head or wouldn’t take money from me for gas. These people just wanted to do something nice and that happened so often out there, there is a real community of people who want to do this. People are in it for the love of the game and they want other people to just find their joy.

People hiked through last year even though the Pacific Coast Trail Association said not to go. I can’t imagine wanting to do that because trail angels weren’t hosting, people weren’t giving rides, restaurants were closed. All the support and meaningful social interactions you get were shut down this year. I guess if you want to spend months in your head just grinding it out that was it. I loved the scenes and the views and the beautiful backcountry but the people were the best part. 

(Left to Right) Lefty, SoHard and Stoic at Mather Pass in the Sierras

In Tahoe you do a lot of reflection and talk about how you’re wondering if you’ve missed the point of the trip if all you do is endure the final stretch. At that point of your trip in Tahoe, what was fueling you beyond endurance to keep going? 

A part of it was total luck. All the things started adding, like my foot getting better and not making every step miserable. I think the part you are referencing is the day after I had decided not to quit. I ran into these two wonderful people that same day and after my water bottle broke I had to drink from a creek and didn’t get sick. All these things added up over a stretch that I felt the universe was not out to get me and maybe I should enjoy it. It was a weird position where I had just done 1,500 and should have seen it as some accomplishment but I had 1,100 to go. How in the world am I going to do this? But after a few days the balance in my head shifted and I thought it was possible. 

What parts of you resonated with people in the past during the 1800’s or so who had to live outside like that all the time? 

I tried not to romanticize it too much and think I was just like them because every four to seven days I had an opportunity to just bail (laughs). I felt it most keenly when I was in the Sierra’s and especially on the John Muir Trail. Not that John Muir was the first person in that area, obviously the indigenous people had been hunting and gathering there since the time of the pyramids. But the only way you could get to these spots were from the PCT and it was the only thing that existed for miles and miles and miles in the wild. I did feel some kind of kinship there because my feet took me there and all the people I encountered over the next couple days were experiencing the same thing.

Near Muir Pass in the Sierras

What the hell was the download process you went through to get this from your experience and crafting it into a cohesive, honest narrative? 

I knew in advance that I’d like to make a book out of this one day and it was honestly what kept on the trail for some of the harder days (laughs). If I quit now I’ll never turn this into a book and I’ll have to give up on two dreams instead of one. I was journaling every night and there were a handful of times where I’d stop on the trail and write something down immediately. I was taking pretty thorough notes on what was happening to me, while also keeping a blog going at the same time too.

I was really grateful for that when I went back and started going through all my notes and I had fleshed my notes out into blog posts. It was a short enough amount of time where I was able to recall missing details. The harder part for me was figuring out what to cut. This edges out my year in Marshalls for how well chronicled it is. Even just the upgrade of using my camera versus a digital camera (laughs). 

Were there any social or personal patterns you experienced on the trail that you didn’t notice or piece together until you looked back on it? 

I did notice a cycle of where my good days and bad days were happening on the trail, which were related to how closely I had just been able to go to a town or talk with friends. The first day out of town was usually the hardest for me, not only because my pack was fuller but because I had probably called Allie the previous night and had to say goodbye for a week. It was this weird sense of not wanting to linger in the town but also not wanting to leave because it gave up all that modern convenience and the people I cared about. By the third day I was usually taking things in more clearly and having fun with my trail friends. I didn’t notice that as concretely out there. My saddest days were after I couldn’t drink a beer and hang out (laughs). 

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