Substitute Christopher Duff to hike Pacific Crest Trail


Some teachers collect vinyl records or souvenirs of past travels, while others house antique coins and stamps in bound folios. However, for substitute teacher Christopher Duff, the entirety of his collection—a collection of memories, that is—can be hastily drawn on a whiteboard: a peanut shape represents San Francisco bay, a vertical line shows the coastline and a horizontal stroke marks Highway 4.

To Duff, the crude map represents the Pacific Crest Trail, a sprawling 2,650 mile hiking and backpacking trail. Duff’s collection is made of the landmarks drawn on the map, each denoting the start or end to a section of the Pacific Crest Trail that Duff has traversed.

This summer, Duff plans to add yet another portion of the Pacific Crest Trail to his collection. In July, Duff will hike 250 miles from the Oregon-Washington border to Snoqualmie Pass. Along the way, Duff plans to hike 12 to 15 miles each day while carrying 40 pounds of equipment.

To train for his trip in July, Duff is also considering other hiking opportunities. “In June, I’m hoping to do two weeks of backpacking to just get in shape for my trip later in July,” he said. “That will either be [hiking] south from Highway 4 or a trip to Mount Whitney, which you need a permit [to climb].”

Originally, Duff’s interest in the Pacific Crest Trail began as a way of pushing his own limits and coping with change. “I just wanted to test myself,” he said. “I was really looking for an inner challenge. I also just wanted to get away from my life at that time. I was switching careers from carpentry to teaching and I wasn’t really sure how that was going to work out. I had some time and I wanted to give it a real think.”

Four years ago, Duff set aside two weeks of his summer to hike the first section of the Pacific Crest Trail near Redding, California. Since then, he’s used past summer breaks to cover the entirety of Oregon, trekking from Ashland to east of Portland.

Being a substitute teacher has allowed Duff to develop his passion for hiking while also working. “When I’m not working full time, I’m able to balance between exercise and work,” he said. “I’m more able to do the things that get me in the shape for this and plan for it. Having flexibility in my schedule helps in a lot of ways.”

Yet Duff’s endeavor to complete the Pacific Crest Trail has hardly been easy; while backpacking, Duff has felt the hardships brought on by hiking thousands of miles. “It’s generally really hard at the beginning of the trip,” he said. “It’s also hard when you’re leaving a town because when you’re leaving a town, you have seven days of food [to carry] and you might not see water for a while.”

Ultimately, to Duff, backpacking for hundreds upon thousands of miles is an experience unlike any other. “You’re hiking for hours upon hours, sometimes not seeing people,” he said. “You’re in nature for days and days at a time, and the people that you meet are amazing because there aren’t a lot of slouches at 9000 feet that are hiking 20 miles a day. You have almost zero screen time. But as a section hiker, there’s a definite sense of sorrow like ‘it’s over, it’s time to go back to civilization.’”

A glimpse of that sorrow is visible in Duff’s eyes as he studies his makeshift trail guide. Then with a smile, the drawing is erased and the whiteboard wiped clean until next time—after all, the map is still incomplete.