Anyone searching for information about the Pacific Crest Trail on YouTube will undoubtedly find a series of 227 vlogs on Fish Tank's channel.
If it's a "real" thru-hiking experience you're looking for, this is the channel. This is where you go. I've found too many others who don't set a realistic expectation. Jason Ashment (Fish Tank) is emotionally captured by the trail, revealing its deep attraction and beauty. But he also does not spare anyone the less attractive and difficult aspects of living for months on the trail, carrying everything on his back, and walking 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada through desert and mountain wilderness.
I had an amazing opportunity to talk with him and his family about the whole experience. Allyson, his wife, talks about the family decision and support. Jason talks about the backstory, reveals things not captured on the vlog, and announces his next adventure.
This is the transcript of that interview.
David You grew up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, right?
Jason Actually just south of Jackson Hole in a little town called Star Valley - Afton. It's about 45 minutes south of Jackson Hole. So when people in the world ask me where I'm from I just say "the Jackson Hole area" because everyone knows where Jackson is.
David You probably grew up as an outdoorsman, just because of where you're from, right?
Jason I was a very very independent young man. My parents divorced when I was about 14 and they both moved away. I stayed in Wyoming and was just kinda passed around to relatives. Latchkey. I had no rules. Kinda did my thing. Fridays I would hop on my horse or motor cycle and you wouldn't see me again until Monday morning. I grew up real fast. But understand that I wouldn't change my past at all. It made me who I am today and I'm happy with that.
David OK. It's years later. You are just about to finish twenty years in the police force. So, how do you transition from the guy on the beat to the guy on the trail?
Jason In 2016 I was director of security for a couple different ski resorts near Salt Lake City Utah. One of my jobs was just to guard the place. One night I was watching a movie in my patrol car - we're allowed to do that. It was A Walk in the Woods with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. They were old friends; older than me. They hadn't seen each other in years. They were going to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). That movie lit a fire in my soul. I didn't know what the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) was - never heard of it. So I started researching the AT and found out about the PCT - a longer trail near my home in Utah. Then I thought, if the AT would be cool at 2100 miles, how cool would the PCT be at 2600 miles?
On one of my days off in early November 2017 I was on my computer talking with a friend of mine in Colorado about getting our permits for the PCT. I was using my work computer and it didn't allow me access to the site, it kept timing out. So my friend said "give me your name, address, date of birth..." she was filling it in for me. There was one day left... it was April 6th. She hit enter. Thirty minutes later I get my permit. I was approved to start the PCT on April 6th of 2018 - two days after my retirement eligibility date. If I would not have gotten my permit, I would not have retired that year. It sealed the deal.
The very next day I typed up my resignation letter and gave it to my my chief. He said he wasn't going to accept it until March. It sat on his desk for five months.
I knew I was going to retire. I knew I was done. My dance card was full. I was finished with it. I felt good about leaving at the top of my game. But, getting that permit. That was it. It was a sign. So I retired on the 4th. I got on a plane to San Diego on the 5th. Stayed at Scout and Frodo's and I was off to Campo to hit the trail on the 6th, two days after I retired. That movie lit a fire in me that nothing could put out.
David Did you do any prep before you left?
Jason No. Not really. I've always kept it real. I had never backpacked a day in my life before I started in Campo at the southern terminus. I hunted and did some guiding - but that's different; 12 pound rifle, 5 pound pack, every night you go back to camp in the tent or camper. I started with a 40 pound pack. I learned very quickly between wants and needs. I had some fairly well known thru hikers reaching out to me, giving me advise. But, I'm a type A personality. I had to learn it for myself. I sent home 15 pounds when I hit Julian. I hit Kennedy Meadows and sent home another 12 pounds. I evolved as a hiker like a lot of people do. The PCT was the first. That was it for me, ground zero. I got out of my patrol car and just started walking. That chubby little sergeant.
David You lost 50 pounds, right?
Jason I lost 40 something when I came home in 2018. I gained back 25 of that before heading out again in 2019. In 2019 I started in 27 feet of snow at Donner Pass. I was killing myself at 5 to 6 miles per day. And the weight fell off of me. I came home at about 165. I'm at around 200 now. I lost weight way too fast.
David Allyson, Jason is the family man, devoted husband, devoted dad. I saw that a lot in the videos, you could see his heart. Jason, you have a number of years left to work, you have bills to pay, you have kids at home; your wife is going to stick around for months and take care of everything while you're out. Allyson, how is that OK?
Allyson There was just no question about it. Why would it not be OK for him to go. I just don't feel like life is about living the ground hog day where you get up Monday through Friday and do the daily grind and do it all over again the next week. If your family allows it and you have the capability financially and with family support, why not go do these dreams? Why not go do these exciting things that you will not have regrets about. And that's how I've always looked at it. He had a 20-year very stressful career. I thought of it as a very exciting and very health thing for him to do. There's no way of not supporting it.
It definitely was a family decision because it is a chunk of time to be gone. On both ends. He had to trust me to take care of everything: finances, the house, decisions with the kids, knowing there would be times I couldn't reach him.
Jason It was never really a question. Allyson has always been supportive. In 2016 I had this idea of taking our two very young kids and trekking from Peru to Columbia through Ecuador. Her response was, "great, let's go!" She's never shied from a challenge and she's always been very supportive of these kinds of things.
Allyson Jason's career, being away from the family so often because of his job, prepared me for this adventure because I learned to be very self sufficient. I was very confident that I could do this by myself. And it was a very good example for our children because they saw me as a mother and a wife, very supportive of my partner and also being the role model of being self sufficient. It showed my girls that they are capable of doing things on our own, that they don't necessarily need to rely on a partner. They can do it. It's been a great thing for the kids to see that Dad has a dream and he's going after it.
David Was he different when he got back?
Allyson Yes. Besides being thinner and having long hair and facial hair, he had a calmer demeanor. He was always very intense. He came home and he was very mellow. He's more adventurous. It's fun to see him like this, talking about his next adventures. It changed his thinking and trust in people. He used to be a little jaded. It's all been for the better, definitely. It was very healing for him.
I got it all the time from neighbors and colleges - "You LET him do this? Why did you let him go?" Well for one thing they were cutting me down, suggesting I couldn't do this by myself. And the other thing is - why not. Life is so short. If we go live our life then we won't have regrets. Live out loud!
David Thanks Allyson! So, Jason, you get your permit, hand in your resignation letter, the day comes, you're off to Campo, California to hit the trail. Two days later you're at the Mexican border, putting your finger through the border wall (a tradition to be "in" Mexico), hugging the monument... what'd going through your head?
Jason I was picked up at 2:30 am. I left this early because saying goodbye to my kids was hard enough. They knew that when they woke up I'd be gone. When my ride came, I hugged and kissed my wife and I was out the door.
At the border I was thinking, "What have I gotten myself into?!" I thought this because I had so widely publicized what I was doing. Everyone in a 500-600 person police department knew, a thousand-man sheriffs department knew... so many people knew. I remember when I started walking I was was thinking, "What have I done!?" I was loving it, but the reality set in. To watch Scout and Frodo's van pull away and the whole place cleared out like cockroaches, there I was 40 lbs over weight, with this heavy pack, a wad of cash in my pocket, and an endless amount of time... what have I done? That's what was going through my mind.
David To make the story short, because I want them to go see your videos - you start heading north. You go through the desert, get into the High Sierras, you get through that and you're coming down into the Lake Tahoe area in northern California. What happens there? Can you take us through that?
Jason I had been hiking with this couple, Feinschmecker and Chef, who will be my friends forever. They had always planned on stopping at Kennedy Meadows (mile 704) but I talked them into going to Senora Pass (mile 1016) to be part of the thousand miler club. When we got to Senora Pass I knew they were going home. About the same time I had been talking to my wife. She and the girls really needed to see me so they were coming in to meet me at South Lake Tahoe. I had also known my mother-in-law's cancer had hit but I didn't know how bad it was. I had arrived a few hours before they did.
We spent a couple days in South Lake Tahoe. Two things happened. Allyson told me how bad her mom's cancer was. In fact, the first night at Lake Tahoe, her mom had emergency surgery and flat lined while she was in the hospital. The decision was made then. I'm done. I need to go back home to be with the family.
In the meantime the fires of '18 hit so hard. Right in front of me they had closed about 60 miles of the trail and hikers were getting off at South Lake Tahoe and hitching up to the Sierra City area. In my ignorance I wanted A-Z, beginning to end, in consecutive order. That's part of the type A cop personality. I just couldn't see myself skipping.
So with the fires and Allyson's mom, and also my two good friends had just got off trail, it just made sense. I need to head home. It was a difficult but yet an easy decision. So I came home, but not for very long.
I was home a couple weeks. It turns out Allyson's mom became much improved. The flat-lining was due to something that happened during surgery; it wasn't due to her cancer. So the immediate threat was gone.
So, I went on a long motorcycle ride with some friends. Remember I buried a Mountain Dew along the trail further north. After that ride I was just sitting at home alone; I had no job; the weather was beautiful... I'm going back on the trail.
I knew the bubble was ahead of me by hundreds of miles. I knew I wasn't going to finish in 2018. But I jumped on the train - the California Zephyr - and got back on trail. I hiked another 170 miles or so to Donner Pass. Part of that was planning for the next year; where do I want to start? Well, the California Zephyr stops in Reno, just a few miles from Donner Pass. Getting back to Senora Pass in 2019 would have been impossible. The roads were still shut down in June because of the snow. It all worked out well.
Along that short segment I ran into Turtle, Pink, and Magic Man - day hikers. I was very pleasant running into them. A very small percentage of people do the PCT from beginning to end without some interruption due to the snow or fires. The traditional thru hiker's mentality is "if you don't do it in a year, you failed". It's all very self imposed. Talking with those section hikers, I was untouchable. "You hiked a thousand miles, holy cow! We're just out for a few days." It all educated me that it's not about the miles; it's about every step along the way. It was nice to hike just 10 miles per day, slow down a bit and smell the roses.
David So, then you come back in 2019 to a ton of snow!
Jason I came back on June 7th because my oldest daughter was graduating high school. So, I stayed for that and we hosted the after party. And the next morning at 1 a.m. I was back on the train. I stayed with Turtle in Reno one night and the next day we were on the trail. I remember looking down into tree wells. There was 25 feet of snow. Snow for 200 or 300 miles. At the beginning we could do only eight or so miles per day. It was tough, but I wouldn't change a thing.
David It seems to me that you got it all. You got everything the trail had to offer.
Jason I hit the Mojave with triple digits. I hit the High Sierras when the vistas, alpine lakes, and flowers ... there wasn't a lot of snow. But I got my snow from Donner Pass to Sierra City and beyond. Remember I fell through an ice bridge when I was with Kilo and Double Take. I was lucky I survived that. So, yea, I had it all.
To this day I lack 30 miles of the PCT because of a fire closure. I'll do it this summer.
David So you had all that fun in the snow, finished the Sierras and Northern California, went on through Oregon, got into the Cascades through Washington, and finished at the Canadian border on September 19th. Pretty emotional. Not just then, but that's part of what made your videos unique. You didn't spare us anything. It was just the real raw experience. So many videos out there only show the good stuff; they glamorize it. They don't get into how hard it is, how painful. They don't talk about taking 10 minutes to move in the morning, the stink, the filth, being cold and wet for days. But you did all that - the good and the unpleasant. That took a lot of guts. I appreciate how you presented this.
Jason I watched a lot of the videos out there about the PCT. The one issue I had was that it was just all high-fives and hugs... teddy bears and flowers. I wanted to give people a realistic expectation. And I'm a very confident guy. I don't care if people see my cry. It doesn't affect my manhood one little bit. And anyone who has watched any of these videos sees that. I have to be careful, even now just talking about that trail. I'll tear up because of the emotion it brings and my absolute love for that trail.
David "The trail becomes a part of you", you've heard that before. I've said it. You've probably said it. True for you?
Jason Absolutely. I don't know if the trail becomes a part of me or I become a part of the trail - but this union happens. For me it wasn't just the trail. It's the people we meet, the trail towns, the trail magic, the trail angels. It's the laying in your tent at night picking out chunks of skin and packing wounds. Everything combines to make it a beautiful, epic, wonderfully difficult, impossible event that I'll cherish forever.
David Hardest thing you've ever done physically?
Jason Yes. But I don't think the physical aspect is the hardest part. Extremely difficult. I hurt every day. I cried most evenings. But that wasn't the hardest part.
People have asked me what it takes physically to hike the PCT. If you are in relatively decent shape, you can hike the PCT. You've got 700 miles (of the desert) to prepare you for the big ups and downs after Kennedy Meadows. It's the mental aspect. It's the support from home. You can't be worried about things at home. Because it's going to take everything you have every day to get up at 5:30, pack up your house, put it on your back, hike through the snow, rain, wind, blaring heat, filter your water, digging holes. You got to have 100% invested in that. The mental aspect is the hardest part of the trail in my opinion. You find new reasons every day.
But after a while it really gets fun to hurt. I'll never forget walking into Tehachapi, California with Little John. We stunk so bad. We went to Jake's Stake House. It's a high end stake house - linens with candles on the tables. But we walked into that place like we owned it. We hurt. We were bleeding. But the people shook our hands and high fived us. That becomes very additive to where you quickly forget about the blisters and toe nails falling off, and the back aches, and the raw sores. You forget all that because your'e riding on top of the world.
David When you think about the PCT - this is a timed question; you have two seconds to answer - what's the first thing that comes to mind?
Jason It's the great friends I met. All these images of those I met are popping in my head. It's the people. I talk to some of them daily or weekly still.
David What's not on YouTube that you can talk about?
Jason Rerun. He's a class act. PGA professional; former cop. One day at 50 something years old he decides he wants to hike the PCT. We were two peas in a pod. Two Type A personalities. A lot of disagreement. A lot of hugs and high fives. It worked out because of a mutual respect. A lot of our relationship wasn't on the blog because it was two cops talking and that wasn't for everybody.
There was one other instance I will talk about. I've never told anyone this story.
I'm so sorry for the members of the 2018 class I did this too. At mile 612 there's this huge rock with a flat top. The rock is twice the size of my house. I found a way to climb up on it. It was difficult. But I found a nice spot to lay my sleeping bag and went to bed. I was the only one in the area when I got there. This rock had sheer cliffs - 60-70 feet in the air. I woke up in the middle of the night extremely sick. It was one of those sicknesses where I knew I had to get out of my sleeping bag and get my pants down literally in seconds before it went bad. I'm feeling my way around this rock. I fell about six feet down into this crevasse, did my thing, instantly felt much better. Bad tuna or something.
The next morning I woke up to people screaming and swearing. Unbeknownst to me, after I had gone to bed people had come in and put there tents right below me. I remember laying there thinking, "please don't crawl up this rock." They were talking, "maybe it was plane that had flew over."
That's the one thing that did not make it on YouTube. I feel bad to this day. It wasn't on purpose.
David Are you still recovering?
Jason In 2018 I hiked 1157 miles from the Mexican border to Donner Pass. I had a hard time recovering. For a good two months I had the hiker hobble whenever I got up out of bed or laying down. My knees, my Achilles, and my calves. I actually went to a doctor thinking that this shouldn't take so long. And he just told me that I did what the body was not meant to do. I was so out of shape and so over weight when I started. It's just going to take time. I had x-rays. Everything showed fine. It took a months before I could get up off a chair or prone position and not have that 20 feet of hobble. In 2019 it only lasted a couple of days. It wasn't a big deal.
David Was it tough enough to make you rethink if you were going to do 2019.
Jason Heavens no. I was packing for 2019 as soon as I got back in 2018.
David Where's the next adventure?
Jason When I got home I thought that since I hiked from Mexico to Canada, how epic would it be to bicycle from Vancouver to Tijuana? So I went out an bought and built a very high end bicycle. The plan was to leave Labor Day weekend and take six weeks to bike the entire Pacific Coast Highway. But, COVID kinda changed that and I need to be here this year.
To answer your question, yes, something is planned. I have not announced this yet to anybody. I will do it for the first time right here with you.
In April of 2021 Fish Tank is going to hike the Appalachian Trail. I don't plan on doing the whole thing at once because I really stumbled into a wonderful job that has provided some financial blessings that we've never experienced as a family. I just don't feel good about saying I need 5-6 months, boss. I'm pretty sure I can swing three months. So I'll do half the trail in 2021 and half the following year. I think for a 50 year old guy, it is the smartest thing to do. You get to enjoy it. You get to break it up two years in a row. You're not out there killing yourself. So, that's the plan. Oh, and Fish Tank is going to get the triple crown. I'm going to be part of that group.
There's a book that talks about how thru hiking will break your heart. And it's true. The Pacific Crest Trail has absolutely broken my heart. I never knew what that meant because the book doesn't really explain it. As a hiker you have to figure it out for yourself. For me, it absolutely broke my heart because I fell in love with it. And now you have to learn a way to balance this life with that life - my two loves. This is my first love, my wife, my girls, my home, the security. But I love the trail. And I don't mean just the PCT. I love the lifestyle.
Three months at a time. I wouldn't have changed a thing about my PCT experience. Breaking it up in two years was perfect.
I'll never forget. Early on I hiked with Yukon, The Machine, Chief, and Skid Mark. Skid Mark was a skinny young guy and he was just flying. He got a hold of me in May 2019 and told me he was so envious that I get to go do it again. He told me that he did it. He's done, He bought a new home. He got married. Him and his wife are just starting out. That's when it hit me - here's a guy who hiked it in one year, but I get to break it up and do it two years in a row. That's great.
David Well, you my friend have been a source of inspiration and motivation for a lot of people. I'm sure you're going to get comments for years to come. I wanted to acknowledge that because you've been that for me. Your videos have been a good source to remind me of why I love the trail so much and to keep it fresh. I felt like I was there with you for much of the way. So, I appreciate that.
Jason I'm truly humbled. A shout out to Mrs Fish Tank for making all those videos. It's crazy. You might remember that I had a charter school from England was following the videos. Kids came to that school wearing shirts that said "Fish Tank Totally Epic." Their mantra at the school was to "live out loud." The administration contacted me to thank me for having content that was so wholesome. They didn't have to worry about what will be on the videos. Every Friday they opened up the Headmasters gym and while the kids eat lunch they played the videos. That really hit home when these kids were sending me emails and messages. I have messages from all over the world. It's all been extremely humbling. The vlog originally was just for family, but it kinda just took off.
I wanted to tell you that the videos will be changed due to some copyright stuff. Although we did get permission to play all the music we have on the channel - the rules changed for various countries and they've taken some of them down. So, we're going to re-do all of 2018's videos. It's a huge undertaking, but we just want it to be out there as an educational source.
David The Jason from three years ago is watching this now. What do you tell him?
Jason You go boy! You're going to do it! And stay off that rock at mile 612. Bad things will happen. That's what I would tell him.
In all seriousness, I would say, "enjoy every minute; embrace the suck; because when you get home you're going to miss it more than you can even imagine." Not a day goes by that I don't think of the Pacific Crest Trail. I miss it horribly. I have a love affair with that trail, the culture, the people, the trail angles, that vagabond hippy lifestyle. I'm in love with it. The whole experience. I'm just humbled by it. I'm so thankful that I had the opportunity.
Totally epic. Understand that I went from 20 years of having to wear the uniform, the haircut, walk a certain way, talk a certain way, act a certain way, be in a certain place at a certain time, having to justify everything I did to the attorneys, judges, society, media... to overnight instant freedom. I was at two completely different ends of the spectrum as anyone could ever be - and it happened between April 4th and April 6th. To me that was totally epic.
When I went back in 2019, "totally epic" didn't roll off my tongue because I had become used to the freedom. In 2019 it was "simply amazing." So, totally epic in 2018, simply amazing in 2019.
David Thanks for hanging out with me today.
Jason Absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me. This has been fantastic. Thanks for your friendship and support. I'm sure we'll talk again.
We need to finish this correctly. Like always, I hope this finds you healthy, happy - finish it.
David And well! Fish Tank out!
See the interview on YouTube: