Saturday, March 9, 2013

Part 9 - Trail Angels

Each step, though seemingly insignificant, always put me one step closer towards a short-term goal, such as a road junction, a ridge, a water source, or a longer-term goal, such as making twenty miles for the day, or one step closer to Canada.  I never downplayed or belittled the step I just took, whether it was a few inches or a few feet; in the overall scheme of things, it was equally as important as every other step, and taken together, they would propel me 2,665 miles to the Canadian border.  I could not have done it without the help of every step.

At mile 127, I began seeing small, hand-painted signs that read “trail magic, water, shade, rest, food, etc.”  I followed the signs up a hill and across a dirt road to a twenty-foot-tall silver water tank that stood beside an abandoned forklift and other construction equipment.  I continued to follow the trail as it moved towards what looked to be a house.  I say, what looked like a house, because there was so much discarded building material, construction machinery, and cast-off vehicles and trailers about, that the outline of the house wasn’t readily apparent until I was close upon it.  It was unreal to see a building/house in this barren desert.  There were no other structures around, only this building.  It was so out of place that it seemed surreal.  But it wasn’t. It was Mike Herrera’s place, long known to PCT hikers simply as Mike’s Place.  I wasn’t expecting to see this bit of civilization, so it was a fantastic surprise to come upon it.  

Mike is a trail angel, one who gives of his time and resources to help the PCT hiker, without expecting anything in return.  He does it just because he can.  He, like so many other trail angels have found the secret to incredible joy, that “it’s better to give than to receive.”

Mike’s place is miles from civilization; in fact, I don’t know that Mike even lives here, as there is a caretaker living in the home.  The home is about the size of a double-wide trailer, with a porch that offers shade from the brutal heat of the sun, while off to one side is an oversized garage crammed full of stuff.  Several portable shelters covered with blue tarps are strung together and serve as a makeshift kitchen, under which the day’s meal is prepared.
As I descended the trail leading to the home and makeshift kitchen, dust swirled around my feet and settled into the tiny crevasses and folds of my trail shoes, penetrating my socks and adding to the grime of my feet.  I approached the kitchen area under the blue tarps and greeted several men lounging in chairs in the shade of the tarps.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from these fellows, as they didn’t look like hikers, but almost in unison, they greeted me and welcomed me to Mike’s Place.  They told me to set my pack down and grab a bite to eat from the fixings still on the table.  The fixings were chicken tacos and potato salad.

Judging from the number of hikers lounging in the shade of the porch, I was the last one to come in for the day, as the fixings for making chicken tacos were slim to none.  Nevertheless, I’m able to scrape together enough scraps to make two tacos, and I piled my paper plate high with potato salad.
I found an empty chair on the porch next to a ten-gallon Gott water cooler full of pink lemonade and settled in.  While standing in the kitchen under the blue tarps, I felt that all eyes were upon me as I was the new guy in camp, but now settled in my camp chair away from the main body of hikers, I was feeling secluded and anonymous and I had a chance to survey my surroundings.

To my right stood the large four-car garage filled with tools, stereo equipment, vinyl records, and other cast-off consumer goods, while to the side of the garage was a water tap providing potable water for the hikers.  In front of me was the makeshift kitchen with six large barbeque grills, and to my left were several small buildings and what appeared to be abandoned house trailers and recreational vehicles.  

I struck up a conversation with a hiker who had come in before me and asked him if he knew what the deal was with this place.  He said it was just a place for weary and/or injured hikers to take some R&R.  He said hikers were welcome to stay a day or two and they had access to showers and toilets, a meal or two, and were permitted to overnight in the house trailer and recreational vehicle.  Donations were optional, but twenty dollars was the usual contribution one made to the trail angels.

It felt good to sit in a chair and relax for a bit.  I took my shoes and socks off to let my feet air out, all the while consuming glass after glass of cold pink lemonade.  Several hikers were tending to their feet, bathing them in Epsom Salts or popping blisters and applying new bandages.

Beaker, a retired schoolteacher from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was showing the younger hikers how to lance a blister and swab the open wound with an iodine antiseptic.  Iodine with alcohol stings like you wouldn’t believe.  Beaker told his patients to grit their teeth and hold onto their ears as he poured the yellowish orange liquid into the open sore, and scream they did, but he assured them that the blister would heal much quicker by doing so.  Some of the hikers I knew by their trail names and others only by their face.  New hikers I met were Beaker and his wife, Dragon Fly, and Doodles and Clair, two young girls hiking together.

After a two-hour break, it was time to get back on the trail.  A few hikers were staying the night, and several had already left, but at 2:00 p.m., I shouldered my pack and headed back out into the desert sun.  My belly was full with real food, and I’d resupplied with four liters of water.

The trail - dry and dusty and void of any real green vegetation, began a gradual ascent up the east side of Bucksnort Mountain.  Not far from Mike’s Place, I passed Maggie from Oakland, California, sitting in the trail eating snacks.  She missed out on chicken tacos at Mike’s Place as she arrived after all the food was gone, but she did resupply with water.  I guessed Maggie to be in her mid-twenties, and as we both walked at about the same speed – two miles per hour, we passed each other frequently on the trail.  Sadly, I never got to know her or hear her story.  She reminded me of a schoolteacher from the television show Little House on the Prairie

As the trail continued to climb in a northwesterly direction, I had a grand view of the Anza-Borrego Desert several thousand feet below me.  As hot as it was walking in the shadeless terrain of boulder-strewn Bucksnort Mountain, I was grateful the trail builders didn’t have to route the trail down through the desert, for in this part of Southern California, much of the land is in private hands.  In other areas where the trail has passed through lands in private ownership, the trail builders have had to route the trail in a haphazard manner to avoid conflict with the landowners, often resulting in a trail that is circuitous just to get from point A to point B.

To my left appeared the community of Anza.  From my vantage point high on the mountain, the community appeared to be nothing more than a grid of dirt roads graded into the desert soil, but the guidebook asserts that phones, laundry, groceries, hot showers, and campsites are available at reasonable costs.

After leaving Mike’s Place, there were two more water sources before reaching Highway 74, also known as the Pines-to-Palms Highway, which lead to the Paradise Café.  The first was at Tule Springs, and the second was a water cache maintained by a trail angel.  One mile east of the trail junction with Highway 74 was the all-important Paradise Cafe where water, chocolate milk shakes, and pie were available.  Between Mike’s Place and the café, it was twenty-six miles of desert, and without the water cache maintained by the trail angels, it would be difficult to cross this stretch of barren, mountainous terrain.

At the water cache maintained by trail angels, I met hikers Beaker and Dragon Fly, educators from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and a few others who were resting in the shade of chaparral bushes.  When I meet new hikers, I ask if they have a trail name, and if they say yes, I write it down in a small notebook; that way, I can address them by their name and say, “Hi” when I meet them again.  As I became acquainted with hikers and their idiosyncrasies, I realized that the trail name attached to a hiker, more often than not, revealed a quirky characteristic about the hiker, while others simply had hilarious names in keeping with the lightheartedness of the trail experience, i.e., Leftovers, Puddle Jumper, and Track Meat.

I saw a middle-age female hiker resting under a bush and inquired about her trail name.  She didn’t answer me directly, but from her speech, I detected what I perceived to be a European accent – German maybe.  She said,

“First tell me something about you.”

I told her my trail name was Rabbit Stick and I was from Salt Lake City.

“Oh,” she said, “Are you a Mormon?”

I answered in the affirmative.  She said,

“How many wives do you have?”

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question, and generally it never bothers me, but the tone of her voice and the manner in which she asked the question really irritated me.  I thought she was either incredibly stupid, not knowing that polygamy hasn’t been a part of Mormon culture for over 130 years, or she was just trying to make fun of me.  Without answering her, I turned and walked away.  She was a slow hiker, and I never saw her again.

Table Mountain is the name of the desert terrain I’m currently walking over.  It was hot and dry and the trail was dusty and rocky as it followed the ridgeline along the mountain.  Heat waves shimmered on the desert floor below, and though not seen, the Salton Sea, that inland sea with salinity greater than the Pacific Ocean and formed by a flooding Colorado River in 1905, lay just over the horizon to the east.

Cacti, Manzanita, and chaparral shrubbery was the predominate vegetation along the desert corridor.  The area was so devoid of moisture that even lizards would sit on rocks with their mouths open revealing their pink tongues and mouths as though they were soliciting water from passing hikers.  Horned toads, rattlesnakes, lizards, and roadrunners make up a short list of wildlife that scurried back and forth across the trail.

I was on a mission now, to make it to Highway 74 before 7:00 p.m.  One mile west from the point where the PCT intersected the Pines-to-Palms Highway was the Paradise Café, which meant chocolate milk shakes and pie, two of my favorite comfort foods.  I tried to keep a steady pace as I moved along the trail, but the heat had a debilitating effect on my body, causing it to move slowly in order to conserve energy.  In the course of several miles, I passed six hikers sprawled on the ground, laying on their Z-pads in the shade of trees, rock ledges or chaparral bushes, whatever they could find, which wasn’t much.  Eventually, I too went down and crawled under a bush to get some needed rest and relief from the blazing sun.

As the trail crested over the last ridge in the distance far below, I spotted the sinuous ribbon of paved asphalt of Highway 74.  I picked up the pace a little bit, and swung my trekking poles in cadence with my moving feet and counted one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and then repeated the sequence.  I did this over and over until I was off the mountain.  Not far from the road, I saw a blue pop-up tent with people milling around it which could only mean one thing – trail magic and cold sodas.

The trail angel under the blue tent was Dr. Sole, a self-taught foot specialist who provided first-aid assistance to trail hikers with feet problems, and he had no shortage of patients this evening looking for help.  Dr. Sole, whose real name is Hector, is a retired long-haul truck driver.  Several years ago, his son hiked the PCT and Hector went to visit him.  In camp he noted the appalling condition of the hikers' feet, and had empathy for them; he resolved to learn what he could about the proper care of feet, that he might provide a measure of relief to them.  

I moved past the pop-up tent to the edge of the open field and set my backpack down.  From habit, when encountering a new and unfamiliar situation, I quietly moved to the edge of the crowd, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, to allow time for observation and to make an assessment of the situation unfolding before me before joining in the conversations.  I observed the hikers, about a dozen of them as they mingled among themselves, and listened in on conversations, trying to glean as much information as possible about the protocols of this particular trail angel site.

I wanted to know if there was food and drink available, if the small water cache I spotted beside the wire fence separating the highway from Dr. Sole’s tent was for the hikers, and most importantly, might there be transportation to the Paradise Café a mile down the road; also, was it permissible to overnight in the open grasslands surrounding Dr. Sole’s tent?

A number of hikers were gearing up to cross the highway and head up into the mountains.  They had been here for several hours and wanted to make some miles before dark.  I saw other hikers talking with the driver of a midsize van making arrangements to be driven to the Paradise Café.  As they were getting into the car, and without asking for permission, I squeezed in with them.  I needed that chocolate milk shake.

This large metal tank is the first thing one sees when coming into Mike's place

 Dragon Fly and Rum Monkey soaking their feet in Epson Salts, at Mike's place.

 Lotus and Hermes relaxing in camp chairs at Mike's place.

 If a hiker arrived early enough, there were plenty of fixings for chicken tacos.

 Beaker and Dragon Fly helping hikers lance their blisters.

Just relaxing at Mike's place before heading back out into the desert, the brutal sun.

 Typical trail dirt at the end of a hiking day.

Two retired school teachers, Dragon Fly and Beaker, from Coeur d'aLene,  Idaho, hiking the trail for a second time.
Beaker signing the trail register at the next water cache. Trail angels maintain these caches. Without them, it would be neigh to impossible to hike through the desert. It was here, in the shade of the Chaparral, that I encounter the female hiker who wanted to know how many wives I had.

 Where the trail crosses Hwy 74 leading to Junction and the Paradise Cafe, trail angel Dr. Sole (first name Hector) has set up his medical clinic to help hikers with their injured feet.

Dr. Sole at work.

Some hikers needed help more than others. Fortunately, I never needed his help.

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