PCT trail angel for a day

Thru-hiker Chase Nelson wrote this piece for our blog after walking more than 1,300 miles. Liz and Denise had the pleasure of meeting this inspiring hiker on their own section hike northbound from Belden, Calif. Chase is also a KEEN Olympus sock tester.

Thin rays of morning light snuck through the pines, striking the post that marks the halfway milestone. We stopped, took pictures, and hurriedly wrote something in the log that seemed meaningful – a note to friends, some words of reflection and some of hope for the remainder of the journey ahead.

My companion was “Birdman.” At the start in April, he was a total stranger. I thought maybe he was a UFC fighter or a Hells Angel initiate when I first saw his stoic look and epic blond beard. We’ve traveled at the same pace since we touched the sheet metal wall that separates Mexico from the United States. Seventy-something days. Now I know he’s not in a biker gang – he’s a biologist, birder, and a hell of a good hiker. And I consider him a good friend.

As we rushed reflection and hurried from the halfway milestone, it seemed more important things lay ahead. Not just another 1,330 miles. Not just Manning Park. Celebration!

My folks drove five hours from Sonoma, Calif., to meet us at Highway 36, a short distance from the halfway point. They were thrilled to celebrate this milestone with us. More importantly they wanted to create some trail magic. This was an exciting prospect for me.

trailmagiccooking2013

Grilling for hikers, a time honored trail magic tradition on the PCT.

People’s generosity has been the biggest surprise to me. They give us rides, offer us cold drinks or food, open their homes, give us hot showers and a chance to do laundry or make a phone call. Some people have been doing this for decades. Sometimes it’s that persons first time being an “Angel”.

On this day, as I walked the few miles down to Chester, both my folks and I were thrilled to take our first shot at being trail angels. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than to treat my fellow hikers – my new funky group of friends – to some good treats.

I know the feeling of having an ice-cold PBR put in your hot sweaty hand. The way a nectarine tastes after five days of energy bars and instant mashed potatoes, not caring when the juice flows down your beard into your neck beard. These seemingly simple pleasures create some of the moments of purest joy for us. Every foot pain, knee ache, ankle twist, headache, bellyache, or bug bite melts away in these moments.

As we set up shop, I was beyond proud of my folks. They had flats of fresh blueberries, bananas, and nectarines. Ice chests of sodas, beers and chilled white wine. A power strip rigged up to a car battery allowed hikers to charge their devices. And lastly, I helped get the grill going and started doling out double cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.

It was a small yet strong crowd. Five thru-hikers joined us as we relaxed and gorged in the shade. We raised glasses briefly in salute to halfway done and more to come. Some headed to town for errands. Others pushed along.

trailmagicchester2013

Liz Bergeron, far left, joins the Class of 2013 near Chester, Calif.

As the day wore on, two section hikers descended the wood and dirt steps north to and across Highway 36. They were part of the leadership of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, Liz Bergeron, executive director and CEO and Denise Gilbert, PCTA board member. It seemed so perfect to also be able to thank these folks who have worked so hard to maintain and strengthen this long and storied trail.

It was a magical day for me. I’d have been thrilled to spend a few more days at that spot celebrating. Alas, as we say on the trail: “Canada ain’t getting any closer on its own.”

So I’m off, back to the dust, the heat, the instant potatoes, my smelly quilt, and my tattered shoes, dreaming of when that fresh fruit and cold beer comes back to me. As I’ve pushed on, I’ve reflected a bit more to realize that what I’ve gotten from the first half of this trip is simple and beautiful: the generosity of folks is truly amazing, surprising in its abundance and in the joy it brings.

So here’s to the angels, to the first timers, the nervous hitch givers, the pick up your tab waitresses, the old wily vets, the water cache pros, the open homes and hot showers, to taco salad and water reports. Thanks for the lessons in generosity and for the grape soda.

See y’all down the dusty trail,

  • Strong Silent Cowboy