Parkinson's Diagnosis, COVID-19 Pandemic Push Washington Couple to Realize Lifelong Dream of Hiking the PCT


For two decades, Barry Brown dreamed of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The 2,650-mile route that winds its way from Canada to Mexico seemed like a wonderful adventure. A challenge and something that would test his "endurance." But the demands of everyday life — a business, children, mortgages and bills — took precedent.

Until everything changed, first with a Parkinson's diagnosis and then, more recently, a global pandemic. Brown, 60, first noticed the tremors, a hallmark of the progressive neurological disorder, about five years ago, although he lost his sense of smell, another possible symptom, nearly a decade back.

But it's a slow-moving disorder and Brown's business as a commercial print broker demanded his attention. Until it didn't. As COVID-19 raced around the globe, orders dried up. At the same time, the tremors and other symptoms worsened.

He started looking for other jobs, said wife Jenny Brown, 49, but Parkinson's limited what he could do. He felt hopeless, in part because one of the lesser known impacts of Parkinson's disease is a reduction in dopamine, a hormone associated with happiness.

Barry was depressed.

"I was desperate to find something that would give him more purpose and kind of inspire him again," Jenny said.

Why not the PCT?

With little left holding them back, the couple started training and packing. Barry told his clients he was taking a five-month break, for medical reasons, and Jenny, who is in school at Spokane Community Falls, took the summer quarter off. On April 7, they started hiking from the trail's southern end on the Mexico-U.S. border.

It all happened rather quickly, but the uncertainty about how fast his disease will progress helped force the decision.

"We don't know if I'm going to be able to do it the next year," he said. "We had this odd opportunity."

On April 7, they started hiking from the U.S.-Mexico border. Within the first 200 miles they hit a setback when something popped in Barry's right foot, forcing them off the trail and to a hospital. At first, they thought it was a hairline fracture, which would have ended the endeavor. It turned out to be a ruptured plantar tendon and by May 22 the duo was back on the trail, although they skipped the Mohave Desert as it was too hot.

On April 11, they celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary and on July 6, Barry turned 60. The couple hiked through freezing conditions, side stepping steep snow slopes, and sweated through blistering heat. It was a challenge for them, they said, particularly because some of the symptoms of Parkinson's — reduced balance and a tendency to drag his left foot — made traveling over rough mountain terrain difficult.

"Yeah, he had a daily fall," Jenny said. "Some days, multiple falls."

The scariest moment came crossing a steep snowfield in California. Jenny led, using their poop shovel to cut steps in the slope while Barry followed behind holding onto her backpack.

By the time they finished at the Canadian border in Washington State on Aug. 22 at 1 p.m., they were ready to be done.

"We wanted to get back home and get in our queen bed," Barry said.

"Our bodies were wearing out," Jenny added.

Of course, there were sublime moments throughout the trek. The drama of sunrise. The total relaxation and bodily exhaustion following a hard day. And an odd coincidence. While cresting Forester Pass, near Mount Whitney in California, the Browns ended up with 12 other thru-hikers, five of whom were from Spokane. That included Gavin Cooley, Spokane City's former chief financial officer.

"That was just crazy," Jenny said. "It was fun."

The lasting takeaway from the experience was the direction and hope provided.

"I feel like I got my husband back," Jenny said.