In the southern sierra, an old man with an untamed beard hikes a familiar trail, his sinewy legs pumping like pistons for mile after mile toward an ideal and away from civilization.
George Woodard is his name in the legal sense, but he no longer is that person. On the trail he is known by his nom de guerre: Billy Goat.
“George is the name my mother gave me,” he said.
Billy Goat has hiked more than 32,000 miles -- which would have taken him around the world and a third of the way again. He has walked across the South and the Southwest, the Northeast and the West. He has crossed the Rocky Mountains on four occasions, twice in each direction. He has conquered the so-called triple crown of American hiking -- the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails -- multiple times.
He has a wife, his third, and a home in Nevada. That is where George, the 69-year-old retired railroad worker, would live if Billy Goat cared to be George. Billy Goat lives more than 10 months of the year outdoors, drinking unfiltered water from streams, eating vacuum-sealed meals he prepares himself, sleeping under the stars without a tent. He carries what he needs in a backpack weighing less than 10 pounds.
“I’m not on vacation. I’m not out for a weekend,” he said, settling in for the night under a fire-scarred tree next to a gurgling creek and surrounded by the rugged granite outcroppings of the Dome Land Wilderness. “This is where I live. When you do that, all the other trappings of life fade away.”
For six months of the year, Billy Goat’s home is the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,650-mile uber-trail of the West that stretches from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington.
He is a legend in the small but growing fraternity of ultra-long-distance backpackers, renowned for his stamina and trail knowledge and envied for a single-minded devotion to living outdoors. First-timers on the PCT inevitably hear about Billy Goat. They spy his signature entry in trail-head logs -- a red-ink stamp of a goat. Chance encounters are described in awed tones in Internet journals.
I met the most extraordinary man just two days ago. . . .
“He’s the heart and soul of the PCT,” said Monte Dodge, 50, who hiked the length of the trail when he was 19 and does a portion of it nearly every year. “It’s his wisdom, his longevity -- the whole package. He’s a modern-day John Muir.”
The resemblance goes beyond the hawkish nose, determined eyes and gray beard that Billy Goat hasn’t tended in 13 years. Muir spent months at a time wandering the Sierra alone, carrying little more than a blanket, bread and tea as he developed his philosophy of the restorative power of nature on the human spirit.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home,” Muir wrote. On another occasion he observed: “Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad, whatever is done and suffered by her creatures. All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.”
Billy Goat has never read any of Muir’s prose. But more than any scholar, he understands through experience what Muir meant.
They head north each spring from a sun-baked wood marker in eastern San Diego County a few feet from a corrugated-metal wall along the Mexican border.
An encampment of Minutemen, a citizens group that patrols for illegal immigrants, surveys the area from a nearby hill. The only sound is the clink of small metal squares attached to a fence paralleling the border that are engraved with messages denouncing illegal immigration. “This is sovereign America,” one declares.
The writings contained in a log book at the PCT trail head glow with anticipation. “It’s like my life is beginning,” one hiker hoping to make it to Canada wrote. “Scary, new, awesome!”
Each year about 300 people attempt to hike the PCT in one season, generally April to September. Of those, about 60% make it -- fewer people than scale Mt. Everest in a year.
It’s a grueling odyssey through the stratum of the American West. From broiling deserts near sea level to snow fields above 14,000 feet. Along rocky ridgelines and through rain forests. Across swift, frigid streams and plunging canyons. In California, the trail zigzags through the Mojave Desert, the Sierra, Yosemite National Park and the southern Cascades
Planning a Pacific Crest expedition takes longer than the journey itself. Timing is everything: The desert must be crossed before it becomes dangerously hot, while the window for traversing the Sierra’s snow is relatively narrow. A steady pace must be kept -- 20- to 25-mile days are the norm. Daily life is rendered primeval -- food, water, shelter and miles are all that matter. Small-town post offices and other resupply spots constitute stations of the cross for weary hikers.
The challenge is so engrossing that hikers shed their identities and adopt trail names. Tattoo Joe and Mr. Wizard. Bad Pack and Thunder. Dirty Bird, Numskull and Good to Go.
“You’re going to be hot, cold, hungry, dirty, tired, sore all the time. Once you get past that, you’re gold,” said Jackie “Yogi” McDonnell, a 43-year-old waitress from suburban Kansas City who has hiked the triple crown and wrote a PCT guidebook. “Your body can do it. The challenge is mental.”
Because of that, McDonnell has learned it’s impossible to predict a hiker’s ability to complete the trail. An athletic college student on summer break may not have the mental toughness of a 45-year-old who takes on the PCT to exorcise a midlife crisis.
“You’ll see Billy Goat and say, ‘No way, he’s 69 -- he can’t make it,’ ” said McDonnell, who has hiked with him numerous times.
Indeed, at first glance Billy Goat looks as if he might have just emerged from a homeless shelter. Twelve years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
But at 5 feet 7 and 150 pounds, there isn’t an ounce of fat on him. His shoulders are as square as a sawhorse from carrying a pack. His legs, scarred by innumerable cuts in the wild, are as taut as wire rope.
“He’s an amazing man. Ask him, ‘Where do you live?’ and he’ll point to the ground and say ‘Here,’ ” McDonnell said. “He’s so completely comfortable in his own skin. There’s just an aura that surrounds him.”
Toby Woodard says his father has diametrical personalities: On the trail, he is bursting with life -- gregarious, charming, in total command of his domain. Off the trail, he is often stern and moody, an anxious recluse who struggles with depression.
“He is two different persons who has lived two different lives,” said Woodard, 37, who lives in the former mill town of Gardiner, Maine. “The man has walked more than 32,000 miles purely for one reason: to escape from our culture.”
Toby’s parents divorced when he was 5, and for years he had little contact with his father. The two eventually bonded through a shared love of hiking. He calls his father BG; he is known as SOBG -- Son of Billy Goat. “The only reason we have any relationship at all is because of the trail,” he said.
George Woodard grew up in northern Maine surrounded by poverty and the infinite outdoors that would become a respite for a troubled soul.
Woodard left home at 17. A poor student, he had no interest in college and sought a railroad job because it was steady and paid well. Except for a stint in the Army, he would work for more than 30 years as a conductor and yard foreman for a number of railroads in the Northeast, including Amtrak.
“When I was in my 40s I was bound by my job,” he said. “I would dream and fantasize about hiking all the time. And when I would finally go, I used every available moment. I would drive back just in time to go back to work.”
The outdoors lifted his mood and silenced his anxieties. A roof over one’s head was nothing more than a cage, he concluded. Woodard lived frugally, stockpiled money and, at 50, retired and escaped into the woods.
“We’re only here for a short while. Time runs out on us,” he said. “When we’re in our 30s, we think we have lots of time. I’ll do things later, we say. But now is later.”
Mary Woodard, 63, a former chemist, met her husband in the mid-1990s when Billy Goat hiked through the Colorado town of Buena Vista, where she lived.
Today, they have a unique marriage: He hikes. She runs their home in Wellington, Nev. -- and provides support on the trail by mailing out resupplies of food, using Billy Goat’s railroad pension. She also spends weeks every summer as a volunteer “trail angel,” leaving out jugs of water for thirsty hikers and picking up garbage along the PCT.
When Billy Goat comes home for a break, he prefers to sleep in the garage, which is equipped with a workshop where he prepares his meals. It doesn’t take long indoors for his mood to darken, his wife said.
“He doesn’t want anyone to know his real name because I think he knows that George isn’t really likable. . . . When he’s off the trail, he’s Billy Goat Gruff,” she said, laughing. “He hikes because it makes him feel good. He’s addicted to it.”
Billy Goat’s first fix of the day begins at or before dawn. Once he gets going, he rarely stops. His steady, slightly bowlegged march propels him at 2 mph for hours on end. He stops only to eat a stew made from a mix of dried groats, beans and vegetables.
His day typically ends after dark. His goal is to cover ground, not to linger and drink in the grandeur of the outdoors.
“It’s beautiful and all that,” he said. “But it’s the walking that I’m interested in. Doing it every day and the challenge of that. I’ve hiked in plenty of ugly places.”
Over tens of thousands of miles, Billy Goat has developed a Zen-like asceticism in which life is reduced to one dimension, a straight line toward an ever-receding goal.
“The reason people fail is they start dreaming of home,” he said. “They think about how nice a bed is. How nice a bathtub is. Wouldn’t it be great to have hot water? Home is wind-free, dust-free, ant-free. You meet people on the trail who say, ‘I haven’t had a shower in days.’ If that’s so important, why are you out here?”
Billy Goat has learned a great many things living outdoors. How to find water where there seemingly is none. How to utilize a cluster of boulders to hang food overnight out of the reach of bears. How to navigate using a compass and map -- a dying art in a world of global positioning devices, which Billy Goat would no sooner carry into the woods than he would a bowling ball.
He is obsessed with shedding every last unneeded ounce, a passion common among ultra-long-distance hikers. He carries one spoon; who needs a fork? Why lug a fancy Swiss Army knife when a simple paring knife will do? He has an expensive lightweight backpack and a high-quality down jacket and sleeping bag. He goes through four pairs of trail shoes a year -- boots are too heavy. He doesn’t bother carrying extra socks or underwear.
When traveling between trail heads, he’d rather sleep in his car -- a battered 1990 Toyota Tercel dubbed the Goatmobile -- than a motel.
“The more you hike, the less you need,” he said. “You find out you don’t need a big first aid kit. I carry just some moleskin and a bandanna. . . . People always say, ‘What if? What if? What if?’ I don’t think we should be too consumed with what-ifs. . . . I’d be more afraid of what I’d encounter on the streets of L.A.”
It’s a philosophy he freely shares with younger hikers. Given his age, almost all of them are.
Claire Porter, a 26-year-old from Minnesota, started out on the Pacific Crest Trail in early April with a friend who was forced to drop out because of a back injury. She pushed on and intends to finish her first hike-through before the snow falls.
She ran into Billy Goat near a mountain pass where the PCT transitions from the desert into the high country.
The two hiked together and shared a camp near a stream.
As the sun set, they talked strategy: the merits of crampons versus an ice ax in the snow up ahead. Whether a tent was needed at points up the trail. How much equipment was necessary.
Porter pulled out a satellite beacon that e-mails her parents with her exact location at the push of a button. In an emergency, she could send out a call for help.
“It’s worth the weight for the peace of mind my parents get,” she said. “I’m kind of a gear nerd.”
“I’m not,” Billy Goat mumbled to himself.
He got up and demonstrated how one piece of gear -- a tarp -- could be used both as a tent and a rain poncho.
“You look like a wise sage,” Porter said as Billy Goat modeled the poncho. “A guru with your cloak on.”
Soon, a nearly full moon lit up the night sky, and the only sound was the gurgle of the stream.
Early the next morning, the two parted company. Time is of the essence on the PCT, especially when one is 69. Billy Goat needs to keep moving.
His goal is “50 by 80" -- 50,000 miles by the age of 80, more than 1,600 miles a year.
“The only thing he lives for is to be on the trail,” his son said. “When the point comes when he can’t go out and walk a couple thousand miles -- he’s scared to death of it.”
But today is not that day. The sun is barely up and Billy Goat is adding to his internal pedometer, legs pumping like pistons up and over a ridgeline, each step taking him further away from a man named George.