Kennedy: How a Signal Mountain Man Survived Illness and Loneliness on the Pacific Crest Trail


In fall 2020, Signal Mountain native Skyler Baker felt like he was at a crossroads.

Baker, who works for a Knoxville construction management firm, said last November that he received an email informing him that his apartment’s lease was due for renewal.

For the 26-year-old, the email represented an inflection point. Many of his friends were getting married and settling down, he said, and he knew his days of carefree decision-making were numbered.

The question he was faced with was a simple one: should he renew his apartment lease or quit his job and head for the hills?

In recent years, Baker has capitalized on his childhood affinity for the outdoors. About seven years ago, a random day hike in the Smoky Mountains sparked interest in long walks. A few years later, while working in Chattanooga, he started a trail running hobby that eventually led to him running an ultra-marathon.

But hiking was his first love, and last fall Baker dreamed 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 time seemed right to make a commitment. He had just finished hiking the 900 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a feat in itself, and the Western Trek seemed like his next logical goal.

“I realized that life is short,” Baker said in an interview last week. “Friends around me get married and start families. I was like, ‘If I don’t do this now, who knows if my body will be able to do it years from now?’

Baker said he spoke to his boss at Christman Co. and was given permission to take extended leave. That, along with the urge to travel triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, was the push he needed to begin his journey.

After a few long tune-up hikes in the Smoky Mountains and a trip out west to prepare, Baker knew he was up to the challenge. In March he shared his plans with his family and in May he was on the trail.

The wonders of the Pacific Crest Trail are many, but Baker said three of them stand out: the unexpected beauty of Kings Canyon in California, the awe-inspiring views of Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington State near Mount Rainier and the secluded majesty of North Cascades National Park. near the end of the trail.

But only luck and the kindness of strangers allowed him to go that far.

About two-thirds of his life, Baker fell ill. On July 3, he started to feel a sharp pain in his side.

“It hurt so much that every 15 minutes I had to stop and bend over,” he said. “It was a hot day, and by early afternoon I must have found a tree to hide behind.”

Baker’s attempt to wait for the pain to end didn’t work. By the time he was discovered by two hikers, the pain was so excruciating that he was flat on the ground. When he tried to pull himself together and resume the hike, the pain only got worse.

A photo of Deanna Salazar / Skyler Baker is shown starting her three-month hike on the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Eventually, the hikers called for emergency GPS assistance, and a search team arrived to extract Baker from the trail in a rescue basket.

“There were 10 search and rescue officers who took me on the trails for five miles,” Baker recalls.

A waiting ambulance took him to a nearby hospital where he was given intravenous fluids to reverse his dehydration, which was the cause of the pain.

“It’s 1,800 miles, two-thirds of the way,” Baker explained. “I didn’t know if maybe it was a sign for me to quit.”

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 under the supervision of his friend Mitchell Hall, a former classmate of Signal Mountain High School, Baker decided to complete the course on his own.

A last drama occurred when he left the trail. Due to the Canadian border being closed due to the pandemic and forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, Baker had to take a winding path to find his parents at the end of the trail.

The unusual outing required him to make an appointment with a water taxi he had organized to transport him across a lake to the last kilometers of his hike. But climbing over felled trees for miles was 8 hours late and he feared he had literally missed the boat.

Yet from the top of a mountain he could see a man in a small motor boat moored at the lake.

“I came down this mountain,” Baker remembers. “At this point, I had a full beard and unkempt 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 asked the water taxi driver to make a final attempt to find him that evening.

If it was five minutes later, he would have missed it.

As he boarded the boat, Baker felt a surge of satisfaction as he reflected on the end of his journey. It had taken him 94 days to cover over 2,600 miles.

Meanwhile, the water taxi driver telephoned his waiting parents, Hamilton County Commissioner Chip Baker and his wife Karlette.

“I have the package,” he reported.

Meanwhile, Baker smiled and saw the sunset.

“I was just sitting back,” he recalls. “And it was beautiful.”

Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected]

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