Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Farewell To Angels

I learned recently that a few of the most prominent and well known Trail Angels of the Southern California PCT were stepping back or retiring altogether, and it struck me that their absence signifies the end of an era, and one that will likely have a profound effect on most future hikers.

I attempted a through hike in 2018, and was fortunate enough to have encountered these amazing people who selflessly opened their lives and homes to thousands of people who try to walk the entire trail in a single season.  My experience was greatly enhanced by their generosity.

To anyone who is not familiar with the idea of what a Trail Angel does, imagine incredible generosity and thoughtfulness offered by someone you’ve never met and who wants nothing from you in return.  In everyday life this sort of unsolicited kindness is not commonplace or expected, so to encounter so much of it on my PCT hike was a real eye opener.

I have to admit that I had always been somewhat of a skeptic when considering the concept of altruism and doing something for your fellow human that did not in some way benefit the giver.  But even before I took one step on the PCT I was to learn just how wrong I was.

Frodo and Scout

Let me begin with Frodo and Scout (their original trail names), a couple living near San Diego who helped countless NOBO hikers begin their odyssey by arranging transportation from whatever depot (bus, plane, or train) the hiker arrived at to their home.  There they were welcomed with a place to stay and an inaugural dinner before driving them the next day a not insignificant distance to the trailhead on the Mexican border.

Hiking the PCT is hard enough, but when you consider the logistics of just getting to the trailhead the help given by Frodo and Scout was invaluable. The amount of coordination and energy these folks put into assisting the “stranger in a strange land” was impressive, and they had managed to recruit an impressive number of volunteers to facilitate the effort.  Looking back on my experience I can truly say that beginning my hike was almost too easy, as all I had to do to was show up.

To express my appreciation I offered Frodo a donation to help with their operation.  He politely declined, and instead suggested I make a donation to the PCTA (the non-profit that helps administer the PCT in all facets).  I also recall Frodo making an impromptu speech after dinner about the increase in “hiker entitlement”.

This occurs when those who offer help and assistance are taken advantage of by some who feel that just because they are through hiking the PCT this somehow makes them “special” and deserving of a free place to stay, rides to town, and being fed.  Most Trail Angels do what they do without expectation of a donation or any financial consideration, but at the very least you should not take what is offered for granted.  Thanks to Frodo I had a better appreciation of what constitutes good through hiker etiquette.


My next significant encounter with a Trail Angel who no longer practices deliberate acts of kindness was in Julian at Carmen’s Restaurant.  I was supremely fortunate to come through when I did because in the spring of 2018 Carmen had already sold her business, and was waiting for the transaction to close.  In the interim she was allowing hikers to stay at her place, either on the patio or inside the café after it closed.

What I really remember most about the whole experience was two things:  First, Carmen hung a banner on the railing in front of the business which proudly stated “Hiker Trash Welcome”.  The second was that after shutting down for the day she allowed upwards of 30 people to just camp out in and around the café, displaying absolute trust in complete strangers who had access to the property after she went home.  This demonstration of faith in people is as amazing to me today as it was then. 

Hiker Heaven

In much the same way as Frodo and Scout took the Trail Angel ethos and industrialized it, the Saufleys hosted an oasis in the desert of Agua Dulce called Hiker Heaven.  On their property they created a combination Post Office, campground, shower and laundry facility, a haven from the relatively inhospitable environment surrounding them.

They accepted resupply boxes and helped hikers to send “bounce” boxes from their converted garage, while also providing an endless supply of loaner clothes so filthy hikers could wash their stinky shirts, pants/shorts, socks, and underwear.  Outdoor showers helped wash miles of trail dirt from grungy bodies, and briefly improved the appearance and smell of legions of hikers.

They also had a cadre of volunteers offering rides to and from town, which was welcome in that they were a few miles off the beaten path.  Although I did not stay with them I made a pit stop for the express purpose of cleaning my attire and person, and was extremely grateful for the opportunity.  I was also able to send a vital birthday card from the trail which otherwise would have required a visit to the Post Office.

Casa De Luna

In many ways Terry and Joe epitomize just what makes the Trail Angel so special.  Like the others mentioned above, these good folks took it upon themselves to open their arms as wide as possible and to welcome every single through hiker to their place, season after season.  Having a unique manzanita forest as their backyard, hikers were given the chance to rest and recover while enjoying a variety of couches and loungers in the front yard.

Evenings featured the signature “taco salad” dinner, where the required attire was the provided Hawaiian shirt, and after supper hikers were given the opportunity to dance for Terry to earn the coveted and highly sought after PCT bandanna.  She also had only one absolute requirement for those who came to stay – a simple hug.  In addition, a bedsheet hung in front of the garage to serve as a canvas for through hikers to record their visit – a visual trail register.

Thank You

As I encountered these incredible people, I always took a moment to express my gratitude for what they gave.  I hope others also said thank you.  Before I set off on the journey of a lifetime I had no idea people could be so gracious, caring, and generous.  Besides the obvious benefit of refuge, food, and simple luxuries like clean clothes, these amazing folks gave me another gift I had forgotten existed – the kindness of strangers.

To all of you who helped make my experience so memorable, please accept my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation.  I know you’ve earned your rest, and I hope other PCT alumni join me in saying how meaningful your time, energy, and dedication was to them.  You will be missed.