For some, summer is a time to relax and burn some vacation time. But for Andrew Bentz and Spencer Chase, this summer presented a prime opportunity for them to stretch themselves to their mental and physical limits.
In May, the two La Cañada High School grads headed for the U.S.-Mexico border town of Campo with their sights set on hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail all the way north to Canada.
The arduous trail takes some as long as six months to complete. Bentz and Chase, however, completed the journey in half the time, logging nearly 30 miles a day for three months and becoming "hiker trash," an affectionate term for people who make hiking a lifestyle, in the process.
"You can always tell PCT hikers," says Bentz, 22. "They're dirtier, their clothes are ripped. They're people who've quit their lives almost and dropped everything for this fantasy they pursue — talking to them is really inspiring."
The pair has been hiking since Boy Scouts, taking regular family hikes on holidays. But it wasn't until Bentz started planning his own treks at age 18 that he began to seriously consider hiking as more than a hobby.
When he expressed his desire to hike the PCT while on summer break from Brigham Young University, mom Jeanine Bentz recalls her reaction.
"I was like, 'Stop. Get a job. This is not a lifestyle," she says. "He said, 'Mom, this is my internship.'"
Just weeks before departure, Chase decided he wanted to go, too. A recent UC Santa Barbara graduate, the 23-year-old was seeking direction.
"I was working a job I didn't necessarily love. I felt like I needed to do something to change," he recalls.
Preparations were intense. Because the ultralight backpackers planned to leave with little more than the shirts on their backs and a few necessities, Andrew Bentz made a spreadsheet of 22 locations off the trail where both men's families could send food and provisions.
There had to be enough snacks to provide the 4,000 daily calories they needed to survive, and it was crucial each pack reach its destination in time.
Meeting other PCT hopefuls provided welcome company as the hikers moved through scorched desert landscapes to the High Sierras, suffering the physical consequences along the way.
"My feet were covered in blisters; there was a new one every day," Chase recalls. "(Sometimes) the boredom was as bad as the blisters."
One respite came in the form of "trail magic," a term for supporters randomly blessing hikers with meals and refreshments. At least once, the friends were treated to the impromptu surprise.
"We were at this hot, desert pass and were all just sweating and sitting under trees trying to get out of the heat, and this lady pulls up and says, 'Hiker trash, come get your trail magic,'" Andrew Bentz says, recalling a feast of bagels, drinks and cold cuts. "It must have been a couple hundred dollars she spent and expected nothing in return."
On Aug. 16, the pair reached the Canadian border, their journey ostensibly over.
That victory gave Andrew Bentz the confidence and training he needed to reach another personal goal — to break the record for fastest hike of the 220-mile John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
On Aug. 25, just three days back from the PCT trip, Andrew Bentz laced up his hiking shoes once more. Three days later, he'd broken the record, finishing the John Muir in three days, 11 hours.
"It's been my goal for so long now," he says. "It felt so good to finally do it."
Now back at school, he hopes to learn more about how to turn his interest in creating lightweight hiking gear into a small company. Meanwhile, Chase is traveling and visiting with friends as he works his way southward to his Echo Park home.
The friends believe their shared adventure changed them for the better, even though the enormity of it all still hasn't fully registered.
"I still don't quite understand what I did or why I did it. It's just something I felt compelled to do," Chase says.
Andrew Bentz says the trip taught him an important life lesson.
"There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to do what you love in life," he says. "If you're not doing what you love, quit and start over."