Updated: Feb 13, 2020
The stage before the preparation stage is to do all the arduous paperwork tasks, like, for example, actually getting the licence to walk the PCT. The rules change every year, and this is year is no different - they are changed again. Note well: Permits can only be obtained on two fixed days per annum, and through a lottery system. Good luck!
Prior to getting a PCT permit, one must obtain the Californian Campfire Permit - a permit which absolutely does not permit one to actually have a campfire. Even if it is not asked for at the point of PCT application, it is essential one has completed it before one applies, and definitely before one embarks on the PCT. However, note well: at the strike of New Year it becomes invalid, and as one must carry a paper copy of the fire permit throughout California, this necessitates it to be re-done a few weeks later,
Given the seriousness and devastating realities of wildfire this seems somewhat sensible to me. Less sensible is the requirement to take a large gardening shovel: a piece of kit that absolutely no one argues about, even those with the vaguest of tendencies to have an opinion. Hikers are generally not shy about getting heated when arguing the best kind of shit-shovel for cat-holing (deuce trowel, stick, tent peg, trekking pole, or other poop-scooping mechanism), and yet discussion about the best type of garden shovel is non-existent. In fact, there is definitely a dearth of gardening shovels on the PCT. Come to think of it I don't think I've ever met a shovel-carrying hiker anywhere in the world ever. Thinking about it even harder, if you ever saw someone walking in the woods with a shovel, you'd probably wonder where they'd just buried the body and make a quick exit.
One must also complete a 'Leave No Trace' exam, which would have been, had I not been paying attention, quite taxing. There's a pass-rate of 80%, and yes really do pay attention to the random facts and the very precise words in the fairly lengthy tutorials. Leave No Trace asks you to do exactly what it says on the tin: pass through the pristine wilderness as if you had never been there in the first place. A bit like a ghost, only less haunting.
It is a nerve-wrecking experience getting a PCT permit, not least because more people want to do it than there are permits to go around. It's hard to guesstimate the ratio of applications to licences - possibly as much as four to one, but then the second event day where another one-third of places were up for graps, also saw over 12,000 applications. So perhaps the odds are even longer now.
Without doubt the hours and days after 'Permit Day', Facebook is full of posts from the frustrated. It's a lottery system: the more pieces of technology you use, the better your chances as it's perfectly possible to do multiple log-ins (This may change in future). Thus, applying on a phone, your laptop, your tablet, and your neighbours' equipment is fine. You may even consider mugging a few hapless old ladies for their phones as this will radically improve your odds but I don't advise this. Once you're into the 'waiting room', or PCT portal, you are then randomly given an 'entry number'. Any ticket number less than 4,000 this year meant I was likely to go but anything close to 12,000 would leave me with no chance. Although, as more people cotton on to the multiple devices tactic, these numbers will warp further - unless the PCT changes its approach, which is certainly possible.
Those further back in the queue would be grateful if you then disconnect from all other devices except the lowest number. For the next few hours, all one has to do is watch a little man doing a ton of walking, but actually making no distance across one's screen, except once in a blue moon. Whilst it is a fair reflection of hiking the PCT, entertainment comes from refreshing the screen to see how long the queue as one's eyes will be glued throughout.
My 'ticket' was something around 3,500 on my phone, and 8,000 something on my laptop, and 11,000 something on my tablet . With 3,150 places available that day meant I was a cert for a permit, but I'd be at the back of the queue. It doesn't matter what time you arrive in the waiting room - numbers are still randomly allocated. By the time I was invited in to book my place on the PCT Calendar, all of April (the most popular time to go) and the first half of May was already taken. Late March was near full too.
Then there's a few simple enough on the surface questions but the most important was the estimated finish time. This, for obvious reasons, is dependent on your start time. Once I knew I was March 24th, a quick six month calculation, with a bit lobbed off for travel to and from the trail, had my finish date of Sept 16th. As 'Aliens' we have to assume a maximum of six-months because of the US Visa restrictions.
Of course, I don't have to finish on that date, before is fine, but eyebrows would be raised if I had anticipated a December finish, or highly unlikely, a July one! I also needed to inform them of my starting location (Campo/Mexican Border) and my finish location (Manning Park, Canada). They also wanted to know the number of children I intended to take with me and whether I'd be going by horse. I expect child abduction is probably a very serious offence in America, and I've no idea the penalty for horse rustling, so I've said none and no. Otherwise, they simply wanted my address, email, phone number and name. That's when I realised that "Person Irresponsible" really isn't the best name.
At the end I was invited to donate to the PCTA, which I happily did, but somehow I wasn't paying attention and ended up paying much more than I pledged for 'postage and packaging' of a magazine to my house each quarter. The first copy contained articles I'd already read on their blog whilst I was waiting for entry to the PCT Calendar. An hour later, Facebook was lit-up with people woo-hooing and people boo-hooing. It took less than three hours from start to finish to apply, and four hours before all the dates had gone. A second attempt in January for those who missed out is possible, although far fewer permits are offered.
Some would argue the rules for a PCT permit can be gotten around, for those of us considered 'aliens', the rules cannot be gotten around because of the road-block called 'obtaining a US visa'.
This is an expedition in itself. For a PCT hike one cannot travel on an ESTA, which allows entry for up to three months, instead one must apply for a US B1/B2 visa. For that, one must have a valid passport which is not going to expire in the next six months. Mine was due to expire about the time I expected to arrive in Oregon.
The joy of modern technology means one can now take one's passport selfie in the comfort of one's home. Unfortunately, all 192 of them were rejected by the UK passport portal and I had to go off and find a photo booth. And now one has a very unflattering passport photo that not only has me aged me a decade older than the last unflattering one, but resplendent with double chins, wrinkles and a few facial scars, all of which never showed up in the photography of yonder year. I am, however, recognisably me in an image of 3.5cm by 4.5cm.
Once that is done, discover that the 'Mercans don't like that size and repeat the whole procedure again, including failing every single attempt to submit a photo online - not least because they have a 240kb upload limit, but a demand for a high-spec photo. This simply is beyond my technological expertise, and that of my 'pooter. So off I went to acquaint myself with the photo booth again, this time to expand all my aging flaws to 5.1cm by 5.1cm.
And then to complete the visa application itself. It is lengthy, arduous, complicated and utterly boring, although the question 'Are you a terrorist?' provides momentary relief. I also thank God that my criminal record has me recorded as holier than the Pope. I am also not a dependent drug user so that's good.
Once that's uploaded and one is utterly frazzled, one then goes to another place to book an appointment. One is then sent several emails informing one of what might be needed to bring to the interview - these seemingly ask for different things. Destroy a rainforest in printing them all out, then take them to the London US Embassy. There you will wait in the rain for several hours protecting one's documents under the person-in-front's umbrella, queue for several hours inside, then sit for about an hour in the waiting area, before being interrogated for a few minutes - it really was a quick fire round. You'll have all your slightly damp documents ignored, at least I did, but as I got a visa I wasn't going to ask for the complaints department even if there was one!
Fleetingly, one is thrilled by the visa, but before one has left the building, fear kicks in because this is really happening.
At some point between getting a PCT permit and a US Visa, focus must be turned to Canada. At the end of the PCT, if one gets that far - and many do not, one must cross the border. One is absolutely not welcome to Canada without, you guessed it, another permit. The alternative is to turn around and hike 30 miles back the way you came and to try to hitch to a place with civilisation from a sparsely populated region in North Washington. For us aliens, this decision is best made before even getting a California Fire Permit! After all, one must, to satisfy the Americans, get a return flight from somewhere, although a return flight is not essential, it sort of helps convince them you don't wish to stay forever. However, you cannot get a Canadian Border Permit unless one has an American Visa.
Then apply for the permit to enter Canada: this takes eight to ten weeks to process and one must have before you set off to America in paper form. Mine was declined because scanning a document into PDF is just not possible for my machinery. Any funky ways around that I know of really didn't comply. In this case, make sure you have a good friend, who is 'in' with their IT department at a large professional corporation. They will rescue you. Try not to cry if your paperwork is rejected several times - it is merely good psychological training for the PCT. With less than eight weeks to go, I still didn't have a Canadian permit application pass muster...I was practically on first name terms with the people with the 'reject' button. In the end, having finally figured that my printer was automatically shrinking the application form by a mere half-inch, and having got every other document into PDF format, I finally got one submitted and accepted. Rather than eight weeks of waiting, it came back three days later...
I'd spelt my name wrong. Now I have a shiny new Canadian PCT Entry Permit with my name corrected in ink, scanned and approved. I am an idiot.