For Ron Ulrich, hiking cross-country while garbed in a variety of wedding dresses is perfectly acceptable – as long as the gowns are tasteful.
“A seamstress helped out for months before the hike as we tore out linings and ‘de-bedazzled’ the frocks,” Ron said. “‘Leave no trace’ is a hiker motto. For me, it had to be, ‘Leave no lace.'”
For nearly six months (26 weeks), Ulrich thru-hiked the 2600-plus miles that constitute the Pacific Crest Trail, all while wearing 26 used bridal gowns donated by friends and supporters.
Believe it or not, the charming, gangly hiker from Portland, Oregon was most concerned with the practicality of being jewel-free while doing the wedding march through the wild.
“I couldn’t be dropping beads and sequins on the trail, nor could I have them tearing up my pack, so many hours were poured into keeping them pretty but ‘trail safe,'” he said.
The hike was completed last year, but Ron already has donned his hiking boots once again, beginning a new trail last month. For his latest trek, however, he is keeping it simple, attired in tuxedo shirts, ties, and black kilts.
“This time, I am hiking the Continental Divide Trail,” he said. “It should run around 2700 to 3100 miles from Canada to Mexico, depending on which routes I choose. I’m starting on June 15 in Glacier National Park and should finish at the Mexico border in late November.”
This latest excursion will take him through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, along the Continental Divide. With a background in photography that dates back more than 20 years, he will be focused on capturing scenic shots throughout the hike to add to a proposed book about his misadventures.
Some of his Facebook fans and others who have followed his hiking adventures through his website blog at www.hiking26.com will no doubt be a tad disappointed to learn this hike will be “frock free.” Since 2010, Ulrich has fashioned a persona and a nearly mythical status as the mysterious hiker that roams the wilderness, muddying up the trains of his current gown, chest hair curling out from the bodice, often encountering others who…..well, also march to the beat of their own drummer.
“I met a couple on a weekend hike from outside of Portland,” Ulrich says. “I happened to be carrying an extra wedding gown with me. (The man) asked to wear it, and together we had an impromptu photo shoot on the side of Mt Hood. In Washington, two hunters, compete with camo face paint, walked down the trail. I stepped aside, beyond slightly embarrassed, and said, ‘I have no reasonable explanation for what you’re seeing.’ The hunters slowed a bit, and one stopped just long enough to pat me on the shoulder, smile and shake his head. The fact that two men of such masculine caliber went so far as to make contact was amazing.
“A couple weeks later, I had an encounter with a Marine, also out on the trail for a weekend, clad in military camo, and after I chased him down to return a jacket lying on the trail that had to be his, he grabbed me and gave me a huge bear hug, so thankful that I would expend the energy to do so.
“The lesson I learned on trail is that people are different – better, kinder, nicer.”
And one question, one word, has resonated from the lips of friends and family for years. Why? What would make a seemingly well-adjusted boy raised in the vanilla-tinged Midwest leave his traditional values behind in such a strange (yet fitness-conscious) way?
It was while working as a young photographer for a small town Missouri studio that Ulrich’s affinity for the betrothed attire was born. A coworker, sensing Ulrich’s (admittedly) unusual admiration for her wedding gown, sold it to him (“‘Cuz I am strange that way,” he says.). For 10 years, that gown sat quietly hidden in Ron’s stash of stored treasures, until an unlikely occurrence brought it back out into the open.
“I found some wedding gowns in a dumpster up in Canada, and I felt the need to rescue them,” he says, no trace of remorse or embarrassment in his voice. “They sat in my storage shed outside of my cabin, living with the squirrels, until I went hiking into Hells Canyon on 4th of July weekend, 2010. I often tried to include something funny in my Facebook photo albums, so I took an American flag and wedding gown on the hike. My buddy Tom laughingly took photos of me standing on a precipice in the canyon, dressed in white, mustached and booted with a flag blowing in the breeze.
“However awkward it felt to post it publicly, my friends all found it to be a great photo. So when I decided to hike the PCT, I thought the only way to pay for it would be to get a gimmick. The gown popped in my mind, and suddenly I had a plan.
“As my creative and crazy mind kicked into action, I realized the hike would take nearly 26 weeks. ’26’ would work for a theme! I was thinking the divorce rate in America would make acquiring 25 more wedding gowns to hike in easy.
The next few months were dedicated to reading up on the PCT, launching a website, raising money for the “26” hike by selling T-shirts with his signature logo (mustache floating above a wedding gown)….and begging, borrowing, and dumpster-diving for wedding dresses.
“The gowns and crazy ideas took over my life, it seemed. There may be guide books to get a hiker down the trail, but none to teach a blue collar man how to tear up wedding gowns enough to make them hikeable, but not so much that they didn’t look like wedding gowns any more.
“I began running around in nature, wearing the dumpster gowns I had on hand, taking my photos, being silly, and posting them on my Facebook page. I even borrowed a friend’s high-dollar gown to carry around with me for diversity in photos.
“I was headed to Portland for a Red Dress fundraiser with a red wedding gown that I dyed in a 55-gallon drum over a bonfire in the backyard when I spotted a great photo opportunity along the Columbia River. Once I started taking photos, I thought about the loaner gown stuffed into a container in the back of my truck, set up my tri-pod, donned the white beauty and set the camera timer. Sitting riverside on railroad tracks on a wet gloomy day, the photos turned out interesting and dramatic. So what I ended up with was something that could be considered art.”
The 38-year-old former industrial painter was the subject of a nondescript upbringing in St. Louis. He says his family adjusted long ago to his quirky endeavors (his mother and sister sent food during his PCT trek, while his father sent him mini-kites and light up disco rings to keep his son entertained on the trail).
Leaving his career for his art was not quite as easy.
“Quitting my job as an industrial painter to do this was very scary,” he says. “I have always had a great work ethic and walking away from a job to do this seemed crazy. I had the full support of my boss and employer though, and I was lucky they kept me on until I needed to leave.
“I moved into a room in my friend’s barn to avoid rent, put all of my belongings in storage, and spent four months from that point wrapping up work and living in a giant bridal closet over a mound of hay bales. My closest neighbors were a horse and three goats, and running water and a bathroom were across the garden.”
The now-notorious PCT thru-hike officially began in Campo, California, on April 6, 2012, weaving through California, Oregon and Washington before ending in the wilderness of the Canadian border on September 20.
“I hiked alone,” Ron says. “It was a record easy year as far as weather, with very little rain to endure or snow to traverse, as well as a record number of hikers on trail. Between weekenders, section hikers, and the 1000 people who registered to thru-hike, there were plenty of people out there. It wasn’t quite the nature adventure I hoped it would be, but still amazing.
“I’m close to a lot of the people I met out there. There’s a very large thru-hiker community in Portland, so I still hang and hike with them from time to time. It’s great being with ‘my people’.”
Ulrich found that just as so many other brides have discovered, once the dress is off and stored away, the honeymoon is over. He moved to Portland, spent months looking for work, and settled into a post-hike depression, watching movies on the couch and reliving his fond memories on the trail.
“I had turned into a couch potato, quite the opposite of the highly active person I was for six months,” he said. “(Then things turned around.) I finally found a job, and then realized I was committed…..committed to hike again.”
With the full support of his partner, a painter and cyclist who met Ron during the PCT trek and traveled to whatever part of the trail Ron was on during weekends to spend time together, plans for the CDT excursion were born.
“The CDT is the hardest of the ‘triple crown,’ the three long distance trails in the U.S.,” he said. “Many of the hikers I met on the PCT last year are on the CDT this year so I wanted to be out there, too.”
Currently tuxed-out and trudging through the trails, Ron already is planning his next hike, determined not to be that poor, lonely soul who is “always a bride, never a bridesmaid.”
“I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail next,” he says with a smile. “Most likely in bad bridesmaids gowns…”
To learn more about Ulrich, his photography, and his hiking adventures, check out his website at www.hiking26.com. To contribute, go to his donation page at www.gofundme.com/hiking26CDT.
(originally published in fURvor Magazine, July 2013)