Growing up on the Pacific Crest Trail

Murrays first group to conquer cross-country trail

Barry, Barry Jr., Bernadette and Colette Murray sitting down for lunch on the Pacific Crest Trail. (Barry Murray)
Barry, Barry Jr., Bernadette and Colette Murray sitting down for lunch on the Pacific Crest Trail. (Barry Murray)

HOOD RIVER, Ore. (KOIN 6) — Young Bernadette Murray cried as she left her classmates in Lagunitas.

Not much earlier her father had come home with an impassioned plea that would change the Murray family forever. Still in his late-twenties, Barry often spoke of returning to a past long gone, and it was in that year of 1968 he decided he, along with his wife Bernice and their three children, would shed modern comforts for the great outdoors.

Barry offered two options: travel across the not-fully constructed Pacific Crest Trail or sail around the world, Bernadette now remembers. And, being that none of the women in her family could swim, the Murray’s choice was made easy.

When asked just how the idea arose, Bernadette harkens back to hours spent in their California living room, not watching television, but diving into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” book series about a pioneer family surviving in late-1800s America.

When asked why they entertained the thought, a simple answer: “We did whatever my father said, pretty much,” Bernadette said as she sipped coffee from her home in Hood River, overlooking Mount Adams.

Bernadette said living in Lagunitas, so close to the hippie haven of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, caused her parents to worry about raising children there.

She recalls living next to Janis Joplin and taking in Grateful Dead concerts perched atop a fence rail. But she also remembers “drugs. Lots of drugs.”

And so the Murrays decided upon the PCT, a 2,500-mile stretch of trail running from Mexico to Canada. Named a national scenic trail earlier that year, much of the route remained wilderness, “just dots on a map,” Bernadette likes to say.

Barry Murray estimated at the time only two-thirds of the Pacific Crest Trail had been completed. (Facebook)
Barry Murray estimated at the time only two-thirds of the Pacific Crest Trail had been completed. (Facebook)

But first Barry, who had worked mines since his teenage years, had to make enough money to afford the trip.

With that in mind, the family patriarch journeyed alone to Alaska in search of silver. Barry’s father, a lawyer of mineralogy, sent him to oversee some of the mine work there, which soon eventually paid off enough for him to fly out the rest of the family.

Before they knew it, Bernadette says, the family was accompanied by a 26-man crew as they braved Alaska’s cold in log cabins not too different than those Wilder detailed. But by the spring of 1969, the Murrays were ready for a new adventure, this time at the Mexican border.

Daniel Boone and the Murray Clan

Barry was the Murray clan’s ever-driving compass, “a veritable Daniel Boone … a mountain man … a horse whisperer,” Bernadette says. He studied hard in preparation for “the pack trip” as they often called it, reading instructional wilderness books, even learning how to shoe horses from a mule skinner.

Not always a miner, Barry had developed a passion for photography from a young age, spending time as an Air Force photographer and a writer and photographer for San Francisco Magazine.

He brought three cameras on the trail, though he would say after that only one worked by the end, and even that one had a bad temperament.

Bernice would be given the difficult task of corralling the children, keeping an eye on their school work — which they often did from horseback — and cooking for the family. She was tough and uncomplaining, Bernadette says. Beautiful too.

Bernadette on the trail, wearing clothes made by herself and her father. (Barry Murray)
Bernadette on the trail, wearing clothes made by herself and her father. (Barry Murray)

Bernadette’s elder brother, Barry Jr., stood 6 feet tall at 12 years old and “became a man” on the PCT.  He was great with animals and was mature for his age, Bernadette recalls. His tent was affectionately known as “The Fart Shack.”

Bernadette was the middle Murray. At just 10 at the start of the PCT, Bernadette embraced the part of young pioneer. Her sandy-blonde hair curled under a cowboy hat in dozens of trail photos. Her trail nickname, “Scout,” fit much better than the over-sized coat she’d throw over herself on cold days.

Colette, only 8, was the baby, but a tough baby she was, Bernadette remembers. Being on the trail shaped her more than anything, Bernadette now says.

The Murrays also brought along James Miller, a teenager and friend of the family, who would make it more than halfway before turning back and heading home.

They had also patched together a team of horses — six to ride and another six to pack — that would eventually become an extension of the family.

There was Charlie Horse; Pokeroba, which the Murrays were told meant “Not good for anything” in Italian; Big Enough, Bernadette’s first horse; Crazy Daisy Mae; Jedediah Strong Smith, Barry’s horse; Petite, Chiquita, long spoiled from sugar cubes; No Name the Bone Breaker; Colonel Rags; Skookum, a beautiful horse thought to have gone mad from eating the local weed; Sugar Foot; Traveler; Almost; Hungry, or Professor Hungry; Missy; Ward o’ Manda, or Mandy.

To that point no group — let alone a young family with little to no practical experience — had traveled the newly minted PCT together, and these soon-to-be expeditioners were an unlikely team.

Becoming Trail People

After a year of planning, the Murrays — and James, the honorary Murray — found themselves in Campo, California where the PCT was shown to begin. They’d spend more than a month just outside the Mexican border town, which today boasts less than 2,700 residents.

But the day was coming, and by April 25, 1969 they were ready to go and started off up the trail. Or tried to, at least.

It was 3 p.m. before the family managed to pack the horses and break camp, Bernadette remembers — 3:30 p.m. by her father’s initial recollection. Knowing they couldn’t make much ground with the few short hours of daylight remaining, the Murrays called it a day and hoped they’d be quicker in the morning.

They shaved three hours off their time the next day and were official trails people by the heat of the afternoon.

It wasn’t long before the Murrays would reduce their camp-breaking rituals to under an hour, but as Bernadette remembers, those were the sort of blunders often committed in their early days on the PCT.

The PCT is lined with unnervingly named cities and markers — Disaster Creek, Desolation Wilderness, Donner Pass — but few places along the trail are as dangerous as the Mojave Desert. There Bernadette made her biggest mistake of the journey and one that nearly cost the family dearly.

“I had a water bag over my horn and it was sloshing on my leg, so I started riding side-saddle and I wasn’t paying attention and it slipped off,” Bernadette said. “I got into a lot of trouble over that.”

Bernadette can laugh about it now, but for a family that was already “only drinking a swallow of water every so often,” the price of a lost water bag was high.

Battling the Pacific Crest

As expected, the Murrays ran into other hardships on the trail.

There were rattlesnake scares. There were outbursts from property owners displeased with the advent of the PCT, usually accompanied with loaded firearms. Yosemite National Park rangers wouldn’t issue them a fire permit without a license plate. They lost a shovel. None of these to be ignored, but manageable.

Other challenges seemed less surmountable, Bernadette remembers. Just outside Los Angeles, the Murray’s pace had slowed to a crawl as they and their horses scrambled over the steep embankments of Black Mountain.

The Murrays, who had built up an average travel rate of 15 miles a day, now inched along at a mile-a-day pace. When he wasn’t replacing horse shoes, Barry was transitioning the pathless terrain into today’s PCT. As Bernadette put it, “what trail is there now, we built.”

Nearby lay Lake Hemet, which the Murrays would find out bordered several quicksand pits.

It wasn’t until their horses began to stagger, causing suction sounds with every step, that the Murrays noticed what was happening, Bernadette says. By then one of the family’s pack horses, Skookum, had traveled far into the pit and had quicksand slowly moving up his chest.

“We were so fearful we were going to lose him,” Bernadette said.

Three hours were spent saving the big Appaloosa, Barry later wrote, and their efforts ultimately proved successful. As Bernadette’s memory serves her, her father, the horse whisperer, simply told Skookum he could pull himself out and pull himself out he did.

But there was one fact of the wilderness the Murray troupe couldn’t escape: Mother Nature. The winter of 1969 became “one of the worst” and in October, the family was forced to leave the trail they’d grown to know so well.

They had ridden 1,361 miles to Mount Lassen, and would be right back there again the next year to pick up where they left off.

Taming the Trail

It was June when they rejoined the trail. Barry began work at a marble mine in the salt flats of Utah and the Murray children were enrolled in a one-room schoolhouse whose students didn’t quite know how to handle their new classmates.

James opted to stay home for the Murray’s second bout with the PCT. Now 18, James worried another year away from a traditional classroom would hurt his chances at dental school.

But even without James, the Murrays were poised to make good time on the remainder of the trail, about 1,150 miles. Barry Jr. was growing all the time and was able to help his father out with some of the work James’ vacancy created, and Bernice, Bernadette and Colette had come to know their way around a campfire.

PHOTOS: The Murray’s adventures on the PCT

They were hampered by two things as they moved toward Canada: the first, Bernice was hurt after her horse, Crazy Daisy Mae, fell on slick granite.

The weight of Crazy Daisy crashed down on Bernice’s knee, causing it to balloon within minutes. A trip to the emergency room confirmed Barry and Bernice’s fears: multiple ligaments had been strained and a cast was recommended.

But a cast meant their days on the trail would again be over, and that, Bernadette says, wasn’t about to happen.

“He said, ‘What do you want to do?'” Bernadette recalled her dad asking her injured mother. “She said, ‘Let’s go.'”

The second delay was more easily predicted. While living in Utah, the Murrays couldn’t help but notice that Crazy Daisy Mae had become pregnant, and after bonding with her through those first months, the family decided they couldn’t leave her behind.

The Murray expedition got as far as Indian Heaven — Bernadette’s favorite spot on the PCT — in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest before Crazy Daisy Mae could go no further.

In the days following the birth of Tagalong, Colette came down with a severe stomach flu. With her illness growing worse, Colette’s parents decided neither she, Crazy Daisy or Tagalong should continue. Skamania County’s Saddle Club president — by this point the Murrays were attracting quite the following — soon came with a truck to take them from the trail.

The remaining travelers — Barry, Bernice, Barry Jr. and Bernadette — rode with bittersweet emotions for the rest of the trail, Bernadette remembers. The last day, Oct. 7, 1970, was filled with silence.

“It was a happy, sad day,” she said. “Very sullen … it was hard to believe it was actually over because it seemed it would go on and on and on.”

Back to the Future

Life off the trail moved fast for the Murrays. Barry sold his family’s story to Life Magazine in a captivating eight-page spread, along with pieces in Holiday Magazine and a number of international publications.

His photos circulated around the world, too.

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The Murrays quickly became legends within America’s growing adventure community. Bernadette remembers well the flood of calls that poured into the Murray household after news of their journey traveled. Many who had hiked the PCT would eventually make their way to the Murray home, sometimes even staying on the family couch.

Bernadette herself made history. With Colette falling just short of finishing the trek, then-11-year-old Bernadette became the youngest person to ever complete the Pacific Crest Trail, a record she would hold for nearly 40 years.

The PCT saw a tremendous amount of interest in the days after the Murray epic. Mirroring their journey, a teenager named Eric Ryback hiked the PCT from Canada to Mexico — SoBo, as its called — at the same time the Murrays were traveling north.

Ryback claimed he was the first thru-hiker to complete the new trail, and would ultimately write a tremendously popular book about his experiences, “The High Adventure of Eric Ryback: Canada to Mexico on Foot.”

In Bernadette’s words, “what began as a trickle became a flood.”

Perhaps no other book drew more attention to the PCT more than Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 New York Times best seller “Wild.” The book, which depicts the Portland author’s 1,100-mile journey across the trail as she battled grief and drug addiction, was adapted into a feature film released earlier this month.

Bernadette, now 55, says she has “great appreciation” for Strayed’s story. And while some trail advocates have been critical of Strayed’s portrayal, Bernadette says the PCT’s renewed popularity doesn’t have to be negative.

“More than anything, I would say to the naysayers: Write a best seller,” Bernadette said.

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