A long time ago we bicycled to the top of Carson Pass, which sits on California Highway 88 not far from Lake Tahoe. We stopped to take a few pictures, enjoy the views, and nosh down some Fig Newtons, and while we were sitting there Bigfoot emerged from the woods and stood squinting in the sun. He spotted us, sauntered over with clumsy strides, looked us over and sniffed the air. “Fig Newtons, eh?” he said. “You planning to eat all of those?”
This specimen’s name turned out to be Mike. He appeared to be healthy, notwithstanding his Silly String hair and grime-streaked skin. Mikefoot was halfway through an end-to-end journey along the Pacific Crest Trail; his hiking companion was a brown teddy bear strapped to his backpack. We were the first human being Mike had talked to in more than a week. “Who won Wimbledon?” he wanted to know.
To repeat, this was a long time ago—way before cellphones, before the World Wide Web, even before the Walkman. When you hike the PCT these days, it’s a lot less lonely.
But that’s not to suggest this 2,650-mile hike has become easy. It’s still an arduous trek across remote and rugged terrain, traversing the spine of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges. A cellphone and an Internet connection are nice to have, but they don’t make the trail any easier. Particularly not when you’re hiking on a prosthetic leg, as Sam Maddaus is doing.
A Navy veteran from Minnesota, the 28-year-old Maddaus embarked on March 17 and as of this writing is somewhere in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles, roughly 450 miles into the trip. The Mojave Desert looms next, followed by a steep march up to the Sierras’ highest heights. He won’t hit the Oregon border until midsummer.
“He’s doing about 15 to 20 miles a day,” says Maya Maddaus, Sam’s younger sister and periodic trail partner. “Physically, he’s walking better than I’ve ever seen him walk. For him to put in as many miles as he has without pain is incredible.”
It’s particularly impressive given that Maddaus (an LBKA since 2017) is hiking on a prosthesis that he obtained mere days before he started out. It was custom-designed by Tillges Technologies, a central-fabrication facility near St. Paul that’s affiliated with Tillges Certified Orthotic Prosthetic. The company had to hustle to get the finished product delivered to Maddaus before he set off.
“The final fitting came together just before he hit the trail,” says Maya. “The timing caused a fair amount of anxiety, but it was worth it. It’s so eye-opening to have real comfort. He’s never had a leg that’s worked this well for him before. It’s always been a struggle.”
In some ways, Maddaus told us back in February, the PCT trip marks the culmination of a long process of reclaiming ownership of his body. “At first, after I lost my leg, I started feeling like I was at the whim of this clinic, or that doctor, or whatever,” he said. “There was all this back and forth, and I finally decided enough was enough. I had to figure out how to fix things for myself and re-learn how to be physical in my body again.” He started working with a personal trainer and studying yoga, and he volunteered for a nonprofit agency that supports prosthetic care in Central America.
Because of that history, Maddaus is raising money during his trip to help amputees who are facing mobility challenges of their own. He’s hoping to raise $50,000 for the Right to Walk Foundation, a two-year-old nonprofit that’s affiliated with NatGeo explorer and amputee tech innovator Albert Lin. You can make a pledge online at this link, or via Instagram at Maya’s feed (@lostandfound_trails) or the Right to Walk feed (@right2walk). The money supports Right to Walk’s mission of helping amputees overcome barriers to mobility, from insurance coverage to prosthetic devices, rehab, physical therapy, mental health, employment, and beyond.
You can interact with Maddaus and follow his journey at Maya’s IG page. She periodically meets up with him on the trail, corresponds regularly via cell (when he has a signal), keeps him stocked in clean liners and salve, and provides Fig Newtons and scoreboard updates as necessary. She reports, paradoxically, that the trail has actually gotten easier since Maddaus moved into the mountains. The first few couple hundred miles of the PCT are flat, hot, and sweaty, which forced Maddaus to stop every hour or so to wipe down his leg. Some days he’d wake up before sunrise, hike until the weather got too oppressive, sit out the heat of the day, then tack on some early-evening miles before making camp. In the mountains, the difficult ups and downs are more than balanced out by the cooler temperatures.
Stay tuned for more reports from the trail as the summer unfolds.