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Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with Mark Nienstaedt ’79

Not long after sunrise on May 7, 2011, Mark Nienstaedt set out from the Mexican border east of San Diego, CA, to conquer the mother of North American “Thru” hikes – the storied and majestic Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. 143 days and 2,665 walking miles later, on September 26th, Nienstaedt reached Manning Park, British Columbia.

“I was raised on Hans Christian Anderson fairly tales,” Nienstaedt relates in his online trail journal. “Characters are always venturing off into that most magical of all destinations — the wide world.”

Nienstaedt is no stranger to physical adventure. He caught the bug when he was a 15-year-old cross-country athlete in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

“My running coach Joe Bloom, a shrapnel-disabled World War II veteran, dared me between my junior and senior high school years,” Nienstaedt recalls. “He challenged me to run 1,000 miles during the 90 vacation days of that summer and I did.” That fall the hard work paid off and Nienstaedt lead his team to a conference Championship season.

Garnering inspiration elsewhere those same years, Nienstaedt watched his neighbor and boyhood friend Mitch Mode attempt to ride his bike across America. Mode never made it, stopping short in the Dakotas. “This may have looked like failure to others but to me it was the coolest thing. I resolved I would ride a bicycle across the country myself one day.”

Of course, by his mid 30s, Nienstaedt did bike Trans America from the Alaskan panhandle to Maine. He didn’t stop pedaling for two and a half years exploring some three dozen countries on four continents. Now 57, the former lawyer and high school social studies teacher has cycled more than 50,000 miles worldwide. 

Recently, Nienstaedt has been padding his adventure resume with a hiking dossier. In 2002 he “thru hiked” the historic Appalachian Trail and since then his Pilgrim walking adventures have included the Camino de Santiago/Way of St. James and Via de la Plata in Spain and the Olavsleden/Way of St. Olav in Norway.

Nienstaedt’s life hasn’t all been easy. Still an enthusiastic cross country skier-athlete, in 1998 Nienstaedt was struck by a car early one summer Sunday morning while roller ski training. The collision nearly killed him. A serious head injury required 64 metal staples in his skull.

While this kind of traumatic experience could have changed Nienstaedt’s life for the worse, it only fueled his desire to explore the wide world.

Nienstaedt reflects on his near fatal accident and recognizes the importance of living each day to its fullest. Bicycling western Alberta, Canada, Nienstaedt learned of an Indian Reservation with a small town bearing the name “Head-smashed-in Buffalo Jump.” Cycling Iceland, Nienstaedt enjoyed the rascal protagonist of “The Saga of Ref the Sly”. In quest of the fullness of each day, Nienstaedt now walks the Pacific Crest Trail under the nom de Guerre “Buffalo Jump Sly”. Mischievously, he has signed all of his trail journal entries – “Very…Sly!”

This intrepid hiker logged about 12 to 14 hours on his feet each of his 143 days on the PCT, sleeping almost exclusively in a small lightweight tent and using his jacket as a pillow. This Spartan routine has carried him through what was possibly the toughest year ever on the PCT.

“Due to late lingering winter snow, the high altitude California Sierras were really difficult,” he noted in an interview while on the trail. “I’ve had to band together with other hiker friends I’ve met along the way and join forces to figure out how to get through.” 

Nienstaedt likens one of his experiences on the PCT to the biblical story of Saul on the way to Damascus. He had his own epiphany while amidst the vast wilderness loneliness – returning to civilized life, he will consider practicing law again, work he hadn’t done since the early 1990s when he left Oregon to return to his native Wisconsin.

In Oregon, Nienstaedt spent 10 years practicing law east of the Cascades where he served as Wheeler County district attorney before taking down his shingle to take up the traveling life.

“There I was in the high Sierras when suddenly I started questioning myself. Soon I had decided I wanted to look into studying for and taking the Bar exam in Wisconsin,” he says. “I always previously told people I would never practice law again. Now I’m thinking I may want to close out my productive working years in the career I was originally educated for.”

This time, however, Nienstaedt would practice law on the other side of the fence.

“I’d like to try indigent criminal defense work. The challenge would be to do something really positive with it,” he says. “If I could manage to positively alter the course of just one person’s life that might be a real accomplishment.”

Nienstaedt admits he has been inspired by his sister-in-law’s decision to pursue her doctorate degree while in her 50s. He concedes he has not been particularly understanding or supportive of her decision to return to school. He simply didn’t get the point of it.

“On the PCT, I started thinking, ‘Well, so what if she goes back to school only because it’s personally satisfying.’ Then, the light turned on for me – what matters is that it makes sense to you.”

The drive, self-discipline, and work ethic required for Nienstaedt to conquer physical challenges will prove necessary if he embarks on a return to the law.

“The tougher the challenge, the greater the potential satisfaction,” he muses. “Do you really want to test yourself? Of course you do.”

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