On their 50th birthday, many people choose to celebrate by taking a vacation or throwing a party with friends and family.
Veronika Smilak took the road less traveled — literally.
The Los Altos resident commemorated the half-century by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Smilak’s birthday present to herself was the time it took to complete the 220-mile trip: 22 days.
She started late — her birthday was January 3, but she didn’t start the trek until Labor Day — and finished September 24.
“As it was my 50th birthday, I just decided to milk it (for the whole year),” Smilak said.
As assistant scout leader of Boy Scout Troop 37, this wasn’t Smilak’s first foray into the wild. His longest hike before that was Mount Whitney, which is over 20 miles round trip. But that was in 2004.
The Pacific Crest Trail took it to another level. Before embarking on his pre-mapped route, Smilak hiked three different sections of the trail for training purposes.
“I just needed a lot of mental preparation,” she said.
Then, after packing a heavy backpack with 40 pounds of food, water, all-weather clothing, and a first aid kit, Smilak began his journey from Emerald Bay to South Lake Tahoe. In just over three weeks, she completed her hike at Devil’s Postpile National Monument near Mammoth Mountain.
Smilak may have done it alone, but she wasn’t alone.
“Never,” she said. “I never thought that I I was alone, even if I was all alone.
A mother of two sons, Smilak said she needed time to herself and enjoyed the quiet. She returned to Los Altos rejuvenated.
“I didn’t even realize there was so much noise around me,” she says. “It’s 7:30 a.m., and even the birds were quiet (on the trail).”
On cool evenings after a long day of hiking 8 to 10 miles, Smilak said she would find the “best spot” in an area surrounding a lake. She spent the hours before bed cooking dinner, swimming and even playing poker.
“That’s how you know you’re really alone – when you’re playing poker against yourself,” Smilak said with a laugh.
Her independent and adventurous nature was evident at a young age. At 15, Smilak said she organized unsupervised canoe camping trips with her brother and a few best friends.
“We learned how to budget and plan food for six to eight of us for a few weeks, plan meals that wouldn’t need refrigeration (and) make paddles out of bark and wood if we ever lose one,” she said. .
Along the Pacific Crest Trail, Smilak got food, water and other necessities every five days from food stations, pre-ordering weeks in advance.
Although she was alone for most of the trip, Smilak said she encountered others hiking the entire trail, or sections of it.
“Hikers or section hikers were always the nicest people,” she said. “We were exchanging information and giving advice, especially those who were heading north, since I was heading south.”
Other hikers gave Smilak the name of her trail – “Veri Rocky”, a combination of her Slovenian nickname Veri and “Rocky” because she would “never use toilet paper”, she confessed jokingly.
They may not have been with her, but Smilak credits the friends she camped and canoed with as a teenager for encouraging the spirit of adventure that led her to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail at the age of 50.
“I think you have to have friends who are also adventurous, who take risks and who have the ability and the will to step out of their comfort zone,” she said. “The rewards are worth it.”