In the fall of 2020, Signal Mountain native Skyler Baker felt like he was at a crossroads.
Baker, who works for a Knoxville construction management company, said last November he got an email notifying him his apartment lease was up for renewal.
For the then-26-year-old, the email represented an inflection point. Lots of his friends were getting married and settling down, he said, and he knew his days of care-free decision making were numbered.
The question he faced was simple: Should he re-up his apartment lease or clock-out of his job and head for the hills?
For the past few years, Baker has built on his childhood affinity for the outdoors. About seven years ago, a random day hike in the Smoky Mountains sparked an interest in extended journeys afoot. A couple of years later, while working in Chattanooga, he began a trail running hobby that eventually led to running an ultra-marathon.
But hiking was his first love, and by last autumn Baker was nursing a dream of hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which traces the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges from Mexico to Canada.
In November 2020, the timing seemed right to commit. He had just finished hiking all 900 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a feat in itself, and the Western trek seemed to be his next logical goal.
"I realized life is short," Baker said in an interview last week. "Friends around me are getting married and starting families. I thought to myself, 'If I don't do this now, who knows if my body will be able to do it years from now?'"
Baker said he talked to his boss at Christman Co. and received permission to take an extended leave of absence. That, along with the wanderlust sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, was the push he needed to start his journey.
After some longer tune-up hikes in the Smoky Mountains and a trip out West to prime himself, Baker knew he was ready for the challenge. In March, he told his family about his plans, and by May he was on the trail.
The wonders on the Pacific Crest Trail are many, but Baker said three stand out: the unexpected beauty of Kings Canyon in California, the awesome vistas of Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington state near Mt. Rainier and the remote majesty of the North Cascades National Park near the end of the trail.
But only good fortune and the kindness of strangers enabled him to get that far.
About two-thirds of the way through his adventure, Baker took ill. On July 3, he began to feel a piercing pain in his side.
"It was hurting to the point that every 15 minutes I had to stop and bend over," he said. "It was a hot day, and early in the afternoon I had to find a tree to hide behind."
Baker's attempt to wait out the pain didn't work. By the time he was discovered by two hikers, the pain was so excruciating he was flat on the ground. When he tried to regroup and resume the hike, the pain only became worse.
Eventually, the hikers summoned emergency assistance through GPS, and a search team arrived to extract Baker from the trail in a rescue basket.
"There were 10 search and rescue workers running me down the trails for five miles," Baker recalled.
A waiting ambulance took him to a nearby hospital where he received IV fluids to reverse his dehydration, which was the cause of the pain.
"This is 1,800 miles in, two-thirds of the trail," Baker explained. "I didn't know if maybe this was a sign for me to stop."
But after a day of recovery, Baker returned to the Pacific Crest Trail with a friend who had come to visit him. After three days of being shadowed by his friend, Mitchell Hall, a former classmate at Signal Mountain High School, Baker decided to finish the trail by himself.
A last bit of drama happened on his exit from the trail. Because of the closure of the Canadian border due to the pandemic and wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, Baker had to take a winding path to meet his parents at the end of the trail.
The quirky exit required him to rendezvous with a water taxi he had arranged to carry him across a lake to the last few miles of his hike. But climbing over downed trees for miles put him 8 hours behind schedule, and he feared he had literally missed the boat.
Still, from atop a mountain he could see man in a small powerboat docked at the lake.
"I ran down that mountain," Baker remembered. "At this point I had a full beard and shaggy hair."
"Are you the water taxi?" he asked, breathlessly.
"Yes, are you Skyler?" the man in the boat asked.
Baker would later learn that his family had requested the boat taxi driver make one last attempt to find him that evening.
If it were five minutes later, he would have missed it.
As he got into the boat, Baker felt a rush of satisfaction as he reflected on the end of his journey. It had taken him 94 days to cover more than 2,600 miles.
Meanwhile, the water taxi driver radioed his waiting parents, Hamilton County Commissioner Chip Baker and his wife Karlette.
"I have the package," he reported.
Meanwhile, Baker smiled and beheld the sunset.
"I was just sitting back," he recalled. "And it was beautiful."
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.