How An Adventurous Schoolteacher in the Washington Backcountry Launched the Pacific Crest Trail
In 2007, Barney Scout Mann hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with his wife, Sandy. A practicing lawyer at the time, his experience on the trail deeply inspired him. But Mann’s inspiration stemmed from more than the sights, nature, and the people he encountered. It was the existence of the trail itself. “It’s really a miracle that in the 21st century, we have a continuous line wilderness trail that runs from Mexico to Canada,” Mann said in an interview with GlacierHub.
Mann joined the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and soon found himself serving on the organization’s board of directors. That’s when he began reading about the history of the trail. At the time, historians and guidebooks alike credited Clinton C. Clarke with the trail’s founding. Clarke was a Harvard graduate and wealthy oilman who began promoting the idea of a western counterpart to the Appalachian Trail in the 1930s. However, Mann also read a book written by Joseph Hazard, a well-regarded mountaineer in the northwest. In Hazard’s 1946 book, Pacific Crest Trails from Alaska to Cape Horn, a short passage about Clarke’s encounter with a woman named Catherine Montgomery caught Mann’s eye.
Hazard, who also sold textbooks to school teachers, describes an encounter with Montgomery a few hours before a meeting with the local mountaineering club in 1926 — years before Clinton C. Clarke began circulating the idea for the trail. Montgomery, a lifelong schoolteacher, excitedly suggested “a high winding trail down the heights of our western mountains with mile markers and shelter huts… from the Canadian Border to the Mexican Boundary Line.” Hazard writes that the very same evening, he took the idea to the local mountaineering club and “favorable action was taken.”
“That’s it — that’s literally all they had on her,” Mann said. “And I wanted to find out — did she do it? Can we establish that? Who was this woman?”
This mystery sent Mann on a years-long quest through old newspaper articles, journals, magazines, and other archival documents to determine that this was, in fact, the first time the idea of a Pacific Crest Trail had been proposed by anyone. “It’s really amazing the sources in which people have left shadows tracing themselves,” he reflected. “I went searching. And I found this woman out of her own time. Proud spinster, which is an ugly word, but it was the word which they used at the time. In fact, she would call herself it before other people could. This was an amazing, vital woman.”
Mann was eventually able to find a key piece showing that it was, in fact, Montgomery who first thought of the idea for a Pacific Crest Trail, via the original meeting minutes of the Seattle Mountaineers that credited Montgomery’s local mountaineering club with the idea. By that point, though, Mann’s research had uncovered a much bigger story of a schoolteacher, suffragette, and avid “tramper” — the contemporary word for hiker.
Born in 1867 on Prince Edward Island, Canada, to Scottish immigrants, Montgomery spent her childhood in Nebraska and set out to western Washington to become a schoolteacher at 20 years old. A little over a decade later, Montgomery accepted a teacher training position for elementary school teachers in Bellingham, where the massive glacier-crested summit of Mount Baker and the surrounding Cascade Mountains are clearly visible. Montgomery would venture into the backcountry on weekends or holidays, often with fellow women hiking partners, and hike deep into the glaciated mountains — an unusual activity for women at the time. “She put up with having to hike and tramp in bloomers, this stiff wool,” Mann noted. “But that’s what it took to get out there. So that’s what she was going to do.”
One of Montgomery’s closest “tramping” partners was Ida Baker, a fellow teacher and founder of the teacher training school where Montgomery worked. The women homesteaded 160 acres together, building a 14 by 14 foot log cabin in an area that took a full day’s train trip and another day’s hike to reach. By tracking down national magazine pieces written by Baker and other women tramping partners, Mann has pieced together a sense of why Montgomery was so drawn to the outdoors. “It was a place she could be herself, without all the stern overlay of being a strong woman in that time,” Mann said. “Everyone said she loved the outdoors, and felt free in the outdoors. It was a place to be comfortable in her own skin, when there were few other places she could be.”
Mann even believes that longtime tramping partner Baker played a role in Montgomery’s formulation of the idea for the Pacific Crest Trail. In 1916, Baker wrote a piece for the American Forestry national magazine, and the school bought a subscription. Five years later, the same magazine published the second article about the idea for an Appalachian Trail ever written. Mann thinks it’s likely Montgomery read this article and was inspired to bring a similar idea to the west coast — in fact, she even brought up the article in her later conversation with Joseph Hazard pitching the idea. “So, it’s this tie to Ida Baker, and Catherine being this woman with a tremendously expansive mind that’s centered on the outdoors,” Mann said. “Her agenda that day, when she’s supposed to be buying textbooks from [Hazard], is ‘No, I’m gonna sell this guy on this grandiose idea.’”
A few years later, Baker died in an unusually strong windstorm that blew down hundreds of square miles of trees. In a article about her death, Montgomery wrote, “Memories of financial struggles, of batching, of transcontinental-trips, or farming together, come to me as I recall the locking of Ida Baker’s life with me, but above all comes the memory of tramping together.” Despite the loss, Montgomery continued pursuing outdoor adventures throughout her life. While there are few pictures of Montgomery in the backcountry, Mann says we can deduce these “tramps” into nature looked somewhat different than what we’d see today. “They have these glorious pictures of people in line with wooden hiking staffs — where today you and I would have crampons on boots and an ice axe in one hand, they had hobnails in their boots and these wooden staves,” he said.
Since Montgomery’s time, climate change has altered the landscape of the Pacific Crest Trail. The Packwood Glacier, for example, was once a formidable obstacle. “It used to be this large thing you would need to think twice about crossing — that’s the type of thing she was seeing in her day,” Mann said. However, it’s now barely there. “Today, the ice obstacles of the Pacific Crest Trail have changed and morphed more to fire,” he said.
Ironically, Montgomery is unlikely to have hiked much of the official Pacific Crest Trail. But Mann thinks that Montgomery’s particular corner of Washington would look almost the same as before. In her will, Montgomery left her home and estate to the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs, which the proceeds to purchase forest land for the public use,* which now includes the Catherine Montgomery Nature Interpretive Center near the town of Enumclaw, WA. “I think she’d largely be astonished that, given these words she spoke that morning, that this huge entity is in place affecting so many people positively,” Mann reflected.
Mann, for his part, believes that stories like Montgomery’s underscore the ways in which individual people can still make a large difference. “People don’t intrinsically care about history. But they can care about the stories, and the people,” Mann said. “I love being able to preserve the story, and the memory.” He’s written extensively about Montgomery’s contributions to the Pacific Crest Trail’s founding, kicking off a new chapter of his career as a writer. And if he were to meet Montgomery, there are just a few things he’d like to learn. “I would just want to sit and listen to her, hear what her voice actually sounded like — hear her talk, in her own words, about any of these adventures that she did. And I guess, just tell her about the outsized impact that what she did actually had.”
*Editor’s note: This sentence was corrected on March 21, 2023. It originally stated that Montgomery “left all of her land to the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs, which used it to establish a protected forest. Much of her land remains preserved…”