Greg Hummel’s name appears only once in the UCSB basketball record book: He is listed as a letter-winner in 1976-78. He was a backup center, standing 6’9” tall, but in sneakers he would be no match for current Gaucho big man Alan Williams. In hiking boots, however, Hummel was an outdoor legend, known to fellow trekkers as “Strider.” They marveled at the distance between his footprints. Hummel was one of 15 people who walked the entire 2,650-mile length of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1977, starting at the Mexican border on April 2, and stepping into Canada on September 7. A week later, he was signing up for geology classes at UCSB.
Hummel told me about his journey during the 1977-78 basketball season. Although there were stretches of boredom during his 20-mile days, there were many breathtaking episodes in the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges, like the time he had to scale a wall of ice on 13,200-foot Forester Pass, wielding an ice ax to prevent him from falling several hundred feet. “It didn’t matter what anybody else in the whole world was doing that day,” he said. “My life depended on what was going on inside my head and what my body was doing. It was total, absolute, complete individuality. When I made it to the top of the pass, I was crying. I wanted to curse God. The feeling of success was incredible, but it was one of those things that I wouldn’t want to do again. It was too intense.”
Thirty-seven years later, the release of the movie Wild ― about a young woman’s experiences on a portion of the PCT ― reminded me of Hummel. I made an email connection with him. He vividly recalled those heady five months he was on the trail, alone for the most part, before he hooked up with some other hikers in Oregon.
“Every time I see a hummingbird, one day in Oregon comes back to me,” Hummel wrote. “My hiking partner, Paul, and I had been averaging 25-mile days. We were able to sustain a 4- to 4½-mph pace for hours at a time. One sunny summer afternoon, I was leading and Paul began to giggle as I heard a loud buzzing sound. I asked him what’s so funny, and he replied that I had a visitor. At that moment, the hummingbird that had been checking out my bright blue pack came around to face me an inch from my nose, matching my speed but flying backward! This flustered and surprised me so much that I misstepped and fell off the trail, hat going one way, sunglasses another, and pack twisting off into the dirt and branches. Paul was doubled up in laughter, pointing at the chaos that was me and choking out how a one-ounce hummingbird took down a 6’9” hiking machine!”
His fitness for walking up to 40 miles a day was not entirely helpful when he returned to basketball, Hummel said. “Sprinting up and down the court was awkward and difficult with the new massive muscles in my legs … but when I boxed out, no one could move me now!”
When the Gauchos visited UCLA in December of 1977, the Pauley Pavilion announcer introduced Hummel as a guy who walked from Mexico to Canada. “The entire crowd came to their feet in applause,” he said. “I didn’t do it, of course, for applause or notoriety; I did it for the personal freedom and adventure.”
Marriage, family ― five children ― and a 35-year career as a petroleum geologist followed Hummel’s graduation from college life. His job kept him in touch with the outdoors, and he did some hiking in the Rocky Mountains, “with my PCT hike constantly echoing its memories.” Ten years into his career, the California native returned to his roots, settling in Diamond Bar.
During his 1977 journey, Hummel had been treated with kindness by people he met along the way, and he was inspired to give something back. He gave rides and supplies to a few aspiring PCT trekkers. Eventually, he reconnected with other veterans of ’77 through the Internet, and in 1999 they gathered in a park near the southern terminus of the trail. “We were sitting in a campsite, drinking beer and cooking burgers. A few PCT hikers came by, and we treated them. One of them asked what this was, and a cofounder of this event spontaneously replied, ‘It’s the annual day zero Pacific Crest Trail kick-off, or ADZPCTKO!’ And so began what has become the largest hiker gathering in the western U.S. We celebrated our 15th this year.” The man known as Strider, the tall guy who tried to stare down a hummingbird, became president of ADZPCTKO.
Before signing off, Hummel added this to his email message: “I stopped playing full-court basketball at 50, and backpacking just last year, after being diagnosed with ALS.” That left me weak in the legs. I’ve known too many vital people overcome by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: Tom Rogers, a Cal rugby player who became a leading Santa Barbara politician; Mike Caston, former superintendent of schools and inveterate USC fan; and lately, Jim Barber, a UCSB football player in the ’60s, who tries to make it every year to the All-Gaucho Reunion he founded.
That’s why Hummel addressed me through email. His voice is gone. But he is content with what he has, not the least of which is the realization that he accomplished some meaningful things in his life, including that long walk in the mountains. “When I’m 65 or 70,” he told me 37 years ago, “I can look back and say, ‘God, I did it,’ instead of, ‘God, I wish I’d done it.’”
The final line of every message Greg Hummel sends out now is an exhortation he blurted out when a friend heard about his diagnosis: “No regrets! No fears! No worries! No tears!”