Hiking 1,500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail was more than a chance to revel in scenery from the desert to the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada for Steve Ghan of Richland.
“I saw stunning combinations of polished white granite, majestic ponderosa pines or rugged junipers, and pristine alpine lakes,” he wrote in his trail blog. “I swam in lakes as high as 11,000 feet and soaked in hot springs with spectacular views.”
But he also had a mission. The hike was a chance to spread the word, hiker by hiker, about his passion for a national policy to prevent climate change.
He’s well known in the climate science field. For the past two years, Clarivate Analytics has named him one of the world’s most influential climate scientists, based on the thousands of times that other climate scientists have cited his work.
But this year he launched his second act, retiring from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland and starting to spend more time on climate change policy than science.
“Research is fascinating, but at this point to me it is just refining conclusions,” he said. “ We know enough to take action.”
It’s not his fellow scientists he wants to influence, but the citizens who could join him in advocating for policy solutions.
That’s how he came to be on the Pacific Crest Trail, wearing a hat with the words “Make Earth Cool Again” as a conversation starter from late July through late October.
He’d hiked the Washington state portion of the Pacific Crest Trail as a 16 year old.
It was a coming-of-age experience for him, and he set a goal of hiking all of the trail from the U.S. border with Canada in the north to the border with Mexico in the south.
It took him 45 years to return, with a plan at the age of 61 to hike the section from Dunsmuir in northern California to the Mexico border.
Rather than doing the entire trail at once, he wanted to take his time and savor the experience, he wrote on his blog.
He soon found that instead of the 15 miles a day he had planned to hike, he built up to routinely hiking 25 miles a day and one day covered 27 miles.
He never felt physically challenged and rarely felt tired, he said.
He carried calorie-dense food with him, purchasing supplies at larger towns along the way and sometimes mailing more ahead to himself at the smaller towns.
There were days when the scenery was spectacular.
“I like big views, and there were lots of them,” he said.
There were also cold nights — his choice of a quilt instead of a mummy bag to eliminate some weight in his pack was a misstep — and rainy nights.
He spent one long night with a fellow hiker who was developing signs of hypothermia, pacing around the camp in his rain poncho and singing “It never rains in Southern California” and other songs about rain to keep their spirits high.
“When you lose everything else you still can choose your attitude,” Ghan wrote on his blog.
On the parts of the trail where the scenery was less interesting, the people were still fascinating, he said.
He met “Shoe Crew,” a couple from Lithuania who hiked in $2 shoes. “Rat Trap” lost a lung to pneumonia and was hiking the trail to break out of his depression.
“Sherpa” got his trail name after carrying the pack of an injured hiker, Ghan wrote in his blog.
The trail name given to Ghan by other hikers was MECA, short for the saying on his hat.
It proved a good way to bring up climate change.
“Everyone was receptive to the message (that) we could limit climate change without growing government, hurting the economy or restricting freedom,” he said.
He advocates the proposal of Citizen’s Climate Lobby, which would put a price on fossil fuels at the source — whether mines, wells or imports — with the revenue collected returned as an equal dividend to every resident.
The proposed solution is designed to appeal to both Republicans and Democrats as a market-based solution that releases the need for onerous regulations because there would be no carbon cap.
Ghan learned to introduce his topic by saying “I’m working with 100,000 others on a problem many have given up on,” he wrote in his blog.
Changing minds is a process, Ghan said.
“I’m not under the illusion we can convert every member to the Citizen’s Climate strategy,” he said. “But we can nudge everyone.”
He persuaded some people to join the organization and is hopeful in time that their interest will bloom into new Citizen’s Climate Lobby chapters.
In the meantime, he improved the Earth in his own small way.
His Boy Scout training came into play as he left the trail better than he found it, he said.
He broke off low hanging limbs that could whack hikers and rolled aside logs that blocked the trail when possible.
He also picked up trash.
In nine days he found seven helium balloons along the trail, which must mean there were tens of thousands in the 20 mile-wide mountain ranges he crossed for the last 200 miles of his hike, he said.
“People, when you release a balloon to the sky they all go somewhere,” he wrote on the blog. “So don’t do it.”
The hike was a partial fulfillment of a lifelong dream, he said.
But he’d exchange the experience for a durable and effective climate policy, he said.
He’ll be back on the Pacific Crest Trail next summer, wearing the same “Make Earth Cool Again” hat.
He’ll be starting at Dunsmuir again, this time heading north through Oregon and Washington to the Canadian border.
He’ll also be taking pledges to raise money for Citizen Climate Lobby. Email him at email@example.com.
His hike this summer should raise about $11,000 for the group from people who pledged and then were given the bonus of being able to read his trail blog as he added sections.