2,659 miles completed; Ready for next step

Original Writing – News Story
1st Place

By Kristy Zurbrick – Columbus Messenger

 
The once-in-a-lifetime journey was coming to an end. With his video recorder running, Zack Starr narrated the last few steps, then fell silent for several minutes.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion,” he said.

On the morning of Oct. 3, Starr, a London resident, finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), all 2,659 miles of it, from Mexico to Canada, through the deserts, forests and mountains of California, Oregon and Washington.

What he couldn’t put into words that last day was a feeling of release. Starr started the trek on April 18 and for the next five-plus months, drew time and time again from his well of self-motivation to endure not only the general pain and fatigue that comes with hiking 25 miles a day, but also the acute pain of an irreparable shoulder injury he suffered many years ago while in the military.

“It was kind of like being able to let my guard down…Finally, I could breathe,” he said of finishing the hike.

Starr’s aim in tackling the PCT was to prove to himself that his injury–which at one time drove him to thoughts of suicide–does not dictate what he can accomplish in life. It’s a message he wants to share with other injured veterans.

“You can push through the pain and there is life after injury. You just have to take it one step at a time and always move toward your goal,” Starr wrote on his Facebook page, “Zack’s PCT hike for Veterans.”

The hike was Starr’s first step in a bigger quest to serve as a veterans’ advocate. He is building a website, http://vetconnect.us, to serve as an online community of veterans helping veterans. It will feature inspirational stories of veterans overcoming physical and mental challenges to achieve their goals and will offer connection to resources for care and support.

To raise awareness, Starr is turning his PCT experience into a documentary. He is combining footage and still photography from the trail with journal entries and interviews with family and friends. He plans to submit the documentary to the GI Film Festival, an annual event showcasing films about the American Armed Forces.

“For me the journey is not over,” Starr said. “It is vital that this documentary happen. It is my vehicle to tell my story and get it out to other vets.”

To help make the documentary a reality and to support vetconnect.us, Starr is holding a fundraiser on Oct. 23 at which he will make a presentation about his PCT hike. The event will include an auction. Among the items up for bid are canvas prints of photos Starr took while on the trail. Tickets are $26.50. For details, call (614) 949-1844 or (740) 852-5592, or email info@vetconnect.us.

The hike

On the PCT, Starr, 38, experienced nature in its many extremes, from 100-degree heat to below-freezing cold, from arid desert to snowy high altitudes.

Through parts of drought ravaged California, he carried on his back 15 extra pounds of weight just in water.

“That’s an insane amount of weight to add to everything you’re already carrying,” he said, noting that the weight of his backpack, which contained the food and equipment he needed to live out on the trail, varied from 35 to 42 pounds.

In Oregon, lightning strikes caused fires that closed portions of the trail, forcing Starr to take a 45-mile detour around Crater Lake. Also in Oregon, near Hope Lake, a cold rainstorm left Starr with frostnip on his fingers and toes. Two of the fingers on his left hand are still numb.

Wildlife encounters made for some unforgettable memories, too. Starr said he nearly jumped out of his boots after stepping just a foot-and-a-half away from a giant Mojave green rattlesnake, a species known to be very aggressive. In one day, he came across two bears, but they were more afraid of him than he was of them. The truly scary encounter, he said, was with a deer that circled his tent a coupled of times and threatened to charge him, antlers first.

Snakes, bears and deer aside, Starr said the most life threatening episode on the trail had nothing to do with nature.

“The one day I almost died was from blowing my nose,” he laughed. “I was at about 7,000 feet elevation, and I guess I blew too hard. I got dizzy and stepped right on the edge of an area where, if I’d taken one more step, I would’ve fallen 100 or 200 feet down.”

For most of the hike, Starr was on his own, ticking off the miles in solitude. Occasionally, though, he would join a group of fellow hikers for three or four days at a time.

“There were sections where I met really cool people and made what are probably lifelong relationships,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to hike with people because you’re laughing and telling stories. It makes the miles go faster.”

Many of the stories shared involved food because, on the PCT, hunger is a constant. Hikers can typically carry about six days worth of food and water at a time before they need to replenish. Rationing is of utmost importance.

“The No. 1 thing you think about on the trail is food… It’s all about hiking until your next food break,” said Starr who lost more than 35 pounds over the course of the hike. “I was consuming 4,000 calories a day and still losing weight.”

The hike was grueling, mentally and physically, but when Starr talks about waking up to two inches of snow on the ground, going through five pairs of boots, or being wakened by an animal trying to burrow up through the bottom of his tent, there is only triumph and wonder in his voice.

“It was a life changing experience,” he said.

To read more about Starr’s journey and the reasons behind it, go to https://americanbrumby.wordpress.com/.