Ron Dobra of Greenville walked into Silverthorne, Col., on Aug. 29 this year and achieved a feat that few backpackers can claim. It’s the day that the 63 year-old, retired music teacher from the Greenville school system, became what is known in long-distance hiker circles as a “Triple Crowner.”
He’s now one of only around 300 people who have the distinction of hiking all three north-to-south long trails in the U.S.; the Appalachian Trail (AT), Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Their total mileage is over 7,400 miles.
There are no official records, partly because of difficulty in verifying claims; and mainly be-cause that’s really the way it’s played in the hiking community. Dobra says he did it, and you just have to talk to him to believe it. He describes the route in detail, and did so for all three hikes, in journals and e-mails from towns to friends.
He started with the AT in 1988 and 1989, hiking it in his summers off while working the teaching job. But, when he hiked the AT he didn’t intend to be a Triple Crowner. On the AT hikes, he said, “I didn’t know about the other trails, honestly, so I’d never heard of being a triple crowner.”
Then, in 2006, Dobra, living in Shirley at the time, “Walked out the door of my house in Shirley, down to the Route 15 trailhead, 6 miles, up to Abol Bridge, then to Cap Gaspe at the end of Quebec; tres cool,” he said. Beyond Katahdin, it’s the International Appalachian Trail, (IAT), a distance of around 800 miles, and took him from June 27, to Sept. 10. Although not part of the Triple Crown, he hiked it anyway.
The next year, from May 2 to Oct. 2, he hiked the PCT, a high elevation route, except for the Mojave Desert, where water supply is a problem. The 2,600-mile long trail took him from the desert, across the Sierra Nevada where elevations of 9,000 feet are common, into the North Cascades and forests of Oregon and Washington. Hiking that trail was, “Kind of a retirement gift to myself,” he said.
By then the idea of hiking the Continental Divide Trail and completing the trio of hikes had entered his thoughts. So, in 2008 to check out the terrain, he hiked south through the first 350 miles of the northern end of the trail; from Waterton, Canada and Glacier National Park to Helena, Mont. From that experience, he knew what to expect when he came back the next year to finish the entire trail. At least that was his plan.
In July of 2009 he started where left off the year before. But a month into the hike catastrophe struck. He wrote in e-mails to friends that he filled up at a spring, set his pack down while he looked for the trail, which is notoriously poorly marked for the majority of its length. “The trail is only 70 percent complete, and little more than half with tread way, signs and a lot of navigating by cross country and very few people out hiking it,” he explained.
When he set his pack down, his GPS was on top, and his trekking poles were leaning on it. After finding the trail, he returned to where he thought he left the pack, to find it gone. He found the spring, but searched in vain for the pack. At this point he was above 9,000 feet, 18 miles from the last town and without food, tent or sleeping bag. He spent two nights there until another hiker came by. They both searched. Still, there was no pack.
The hiker gave him some of his food. Dobra returned to the last town, Lima, Mont., where he was given money by a local motel owner, since his wallet was in the pack and he caught a bus to Oregon. There, he took 10 days off at his sister’s, re-equipped and returned to the trail, further south.
To get away from Montana and to have a “positive trail experience,” he said, he picked the trail back up in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. There he encountered marked trail, high mountain passes of over 13,000 feet where he would travel for four or five days above tree line and with abundant wildlife. In one e-mail he wrote, “I’ve seen more wildlife, elk, deer, a black bear, which I almost bumped into and some antelope at a distance.”
When he reached the physical end of the trail in the October that year after hiking 1,600 more miles, he still wasn’t done. This year he went back to hike the middle part of trail, the rest of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and the north end of Colorado, about 900 miles.
He hiked through Yellowstone National Park; the Wind River Range at heights of 11,000 feet; down to the Great Divide Basin for 120 miles of desert walking carrying 4.5 liters of water, and after two months finally completed the CDT and the Triple Crown.
Now that he’s had time to reflect on his achievement, he knows which trail of the three is his favorite. “I think the PCT, a hikers trail, is my favorite. It’s well graded and marked. There’s a great scenic bang for the buck, especially the Sierras and the North Cascades. Also, there are enough people to feel supported, but not the AT crowd scene,” he said. His trail name is “Zen Quake” and “I hike because I love to get back in shape, albeit painfully,” he added. “I’m also a New England Transcendentalist. I find my God and spirituality in nature.”
The CDT was the hardest trail, mainly due to navigation problems, he said, although the best part of the CDT was in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. “They are very vast, high and not crowded by a lot of other people.”
At this point in his hiking life, he’s got his pack weight down to somewhere between 35 and 40 pounds, including 15 pounds of food for 5 days and water. Dobra’s also learned a few lessons about himself and life on the trail. “Start slow, listen to your body, take your first instinct and don’t skip stuff to save time or weight.”
After hiking over 7,400 miles of the longest, hardest, most mountainous country in the United States and 700 miles on the IAT, he has another goal in sight. He hinted at it in his last e-mail from Silverthorne, Col. It read, “So having done the Triple Crown, I think, (and my body insists) it’s time for something different … hut to hut in Switzerland?”
Hike on, Ron.