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Still, even though he lives the rigorous and finely tuned physical regimen of a pro athlete, Skurka is not one. There is no glory in what he does, no television spots or cash prizes. He does it simply because he can, and the way he describes his most recent journey—the moments that come to mind, thinking back over this Great Western Loop—belie a young, ardent heart determined to have an original life. Picture a Gen Y version of Henry David Thoreau or John Muir, driven largely by youthful exuberance and energy, and learning things that nobody else knows about this country's most precious open spaces.

Skurka describes hundreds of miles of postholing in deep Sierra snow, fighting through miles of alder brush in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, and trying to cross rivers so swollen with runoff he could hear boulders the size of cars tumbling along the bottom. He recalls the Selkirks of the Idaho Panhandle, and how he bushwhacked for days through devil's club and manzanita so sharp they left lasting scars on his legs. But the resounding tone of Skurka's tale—the place he has come to after all this time in the woods—is one of pure, unalloyed joy at the natural treasures this land still has to offer. I could hear his excitement as he recounted his nighttime crossing of the Pinto Basin, a 70-mile (113-kilometer) stretch of the Mojave Desert with absolutely no water. "I started at 8:30 that night," Skurka told me. "I'm hiking cross-country, following the stars, and at 9:30 I hear this hissing. In the sky I see this green glow of cockpit lights, and then a fighter is buzzing me 200 feet (61 meters) off the deck! He blows by and then there's a sonic boom. Later the same night—it's 1 a.m.—there's a half-moon and stars, and I'm not even using my headlamp, and I realize, This is so cool! So I start hooting, Woo hoo! Woo hoo! And this coyote off to my right howls, and then all the coyotes in the basin start howling and I'm out there in the desert with them."

Crossing the Sierra, Skurka said he went five and a half days without seeing another person. At one point while walking at dawn over a vast snowfield utterly alone, he was overcome with happiness, so much so that he again began to scream out loud. This time the refrain was, "Why me?! Why am I so lucky?!" Skurka also glows with wonder talking about places he'd never heard of before this walk, like the Red Conglomerate Peaks and the Bitterroots. "Places that are totally out of the way—where you can look into Idaho and they have huge ranges with 20-mile (32-kilometer) sections of alpine ridge and you don't even know the name of the mountain range! Then you look into Montana and see huge valleys of pasture with no houses, no gravel road, a 50-mile (80-kilometer) view, and maybe some cows. It's mind-blowing how much open space there is!"

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