WORTHINGTON - Aaron Grafing has always relished physical challenges.
From his childhood, when he scaled backyard trees in harrowing fashion, to his teens, when his physical derring-do impressed his Worthington High School teachers enough to name him the 2010 Physical Education Senior Student of Excellence, Grafing has always pushed himself a little further.
“I played basketball, soccer, ran cross country - I’ve dabbled in a lot of sports,” said Grafing, the son of Mark Grafing, Worthington, and Lori Grafing, Minneapolis.
Now a resident of Minneapolis, Grafing hasn’t owned a car for the past few years; instead, he uses a bicycle as his primary form of transportation.
“I bike year-round for everything from getting groceries to going to work,” said Grafing. “Rain, sleet, snow, it doesn’t matter.
“Financially, biking is an awesome choice and it keeps me in shape, but primarily it’s an environmental decision because I’m trying to reduce my own carbon footprint as much as possible.”
But it’s Grafing’s recent extreme adventure that has led this Worthington native to consider his life from a new perspective.
From May 8 to Aug. 19, Grafing traveled the first 1,561 miles of the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a hiking and equestrian trail that cuts through the highest points of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.
The PCT includes 25 national forests and seven national parks. Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling 2012 memoir of her time on the trail, “Wild,” was made into a 2014 movie starring Reese Witherspoon that garnered two Academy Award nominations and put the PCT on the map of public awareness.
However, Grafing wasn’t an early PCT adopter; it was less than a year prior to his hike that it flew onto his radar screen.
“I had no idea it existed until just over six months before I took my first steps on it,” said Grafing. “It was almost 100 percent on a whim.”
Since his years as a Boy Scout in Worthington’s Troop 121, Grafing had harbored an interest in rock climbing. That expanded when he studied at Iowa State University.
“They had a rock wall there, and I met a gentleman in a drawing class who was big into climbing,” said Grafing.
It was a handful of Grafing’s hometown buddies who further whet his appetite for heights and hikes. Beginning in 2012, Grafing embarked on an annual ski trip with friends and fellow WHS Class of 2010 mates Kyle Hain and Evan Almberg, along with their Class of 2011 pal Shane Pedersen.
“That was my first time in the mountains,” said Grafing of a trip to the Bozeman, Mont., area, adding that Hain loved it so much he eventually relocated.
“After Kyle moved out there, we stayed with him for a week so I had a couple extra days,” Grafing said. “Evan and I climbed Storm Castle Peak in the Gallatin range, and I came away addicted to it and wanting to do more of it.
“I didn’t even care about snowboarding anymore; I climbed a second peak, Mount Ellis, a few days later.”
The total solar eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017, offered another chance for Grafing to step outside his comfort zone and follow his own path.
“Through a stroke of luck and weird happenstances, I climbed the middle Teton with two complete strangers I’d met on Instagram,” said Grafing, detailing how he reached out after seeing a photo, connected with two friendly strangers, got his work shifts covered and was on the road “with two random guys” within 24 hours.
“We summited the middle Teton to watch the Great North American solar eclipse, and it was the most moving experience of my life, spiritually,” he said. “It was otherworldly, truly incredible, and I came home hungry for more experiences like that in my life.”
A few months later, Grafing stumbled on the PCT during an Internet search.
“I thought, ‘This is it, this is exactly what I want to do right now,’” said Grafing.
A permit is necessary to hike the PCT, and although he missed the window for the first round of permit releases, he made it in during the January 2018 slot.
“Once I received the permit, I started planning, researching and buying gear and getting ready,” he said, admitting his previous backpacking experiences had been in three-day stretches.
“I was very green heading out; I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
Following high school, Grafing had undertaken two stints of study at ISU and one at the University of Minnesota before breaking from higher education simply to work.
With his PCT hike looming, he discontinued his month-to-month Minneapolis apartment lease, sold most of his possessions (he currently owns no furniture) and took a leave of absence from his server job at two acclaimed Minneapolis restaurants (Burch Steak & Pizza and Martina, run by award-winning chefs Isaac Becker and Daniel Del Prado).
“I told them what I was doing and that I’d be back,” said Grafing, leaving on good terms and with employment offers upon his return.
On May 8, Grafing touched the fence at the monument of the trail’s southern terminus in Campo, Calif., and set off.
His beginner’s errors - starting with a pack that was too heavy and underestimating the need for water in the hot, dry California desert country - were ultimately factors in his inability to hike the entire 2,653 miles.
Grafing quickly learned that descents were harder than ascents - “They bang up your ankles and knees, and the terrain is rugged and rocky,” he said - and his need to hike an extra five miles (for a total of 20) to obtain water on the first day led to a problem.
“My ankle was hurting and a Canadian guy named Riley who was on the trail had an Ace bandage and wrapped it for me,” said Grafing.
His second day “was the hardest of the entire thing,” said Grafing, who limped only six miles.
“My hike really ended on that first day, but I wrapped my ankle daily and kept going,” he said. “My body adapted, and I basically had a mild amount of pain all the time.”
Injury notwithstanding (his hike concluded when he was stopped by intense pain in his right foot, and he discovered when off the trail he had a stress fracture in his fifth metatarsal), Grafing had an incredible experience most of the way. With a portable battery along, he was able to charge his cell phone and call friends and family occasionally - sometimes from mountaintops, where cell reception was often best.
He summited Mount Whitney (a 14,000-foot peak) with 15 other people, and Mount Muir on his own.
“I’m maybe a little bit of an adrenaline junkie,” laughed Grafing, acknowledging his goal to climb all the “14’ers” in the lower 48 states (he’s conquered three of 67 so far).
Surviving on fare that was far different from the gourmet delicacies he’d enjoyed at his restaurant job, Grafing sometimes regaled the fellow travelers he encountered with tales of the delicious food (halibut, scallops, tartare, desserts) he could currently only dream of.
“It probably cost me about $100 a week to survive on the trail,” said Grafing, listing items such as Pop Tarts, vegan protein cookies, instant oatmeal mixed with cold water, peanut M & Ms, tuna, nuts and tortillas with peanut butter or Nutella as trail staples.
“But I was so hungry it didn’t even matter,” he noted. “I lost 25 pounds in the first two months because I couldn’t possibly eat enough to keep up with calorie output.
“My upper body looked like it did when I was about 12, but my legs looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.”
What Grafing gained was far greater than the weight he lost: lasting friendships and passing acquaintances with people from numerous countries (Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, Nigeria, Japan, Peru, Spain, Israel and Germany), a renewed appreciation for the value of water and a clarity about what he wants from life.
“I’d like to develop a career as a adventure photographer, freelance filmmaker and mountain climber,” declared Grafing, who is again employed by Martina and relishing one of the dishes he most missed while on the PCT trail - Schupfnudeln with Gorgonzola cream sauce and a shaved walnut/chive garnish.
“To oversimplify it, it’s like mac and cheese on steroids,” said Grafing of the concoction credited to chef Isaac Becker, a James Beard Award winner.
“I started craving it after about a month on the trail.”
Dubbed “Blue Beard” by his trail mates, Grafing is currently living with hometown friend Pedersen, an engineer at 3M, and a couple of Pedersen’s professional colleagues.
“I slept in a bed only twice over three months,” he said, explaining why his present set-up - a yoga mat topped with his hiking pad in a corner of the 3M employees’ apartment - suits him fine.
“I bring some diversity to the friend group,” he smiled. “It’s a ‘variety is the spice of life’ kind of thing.”
Above all, Grafing has learned that it’s acceptable to be who he is and to pursue the dreams he holds dear.
“I’ve stopped questioning whether what I want is OK or what other people think about it,” he said.
“Hiking the PCT helped me find a tribe of people who are doing something a little against the grain; I know I’m not alone.
“I learned how similar we all are as humans, and it made the whole world seem a little smaller.”