Cliffside grilled cheese

This story was written by PCTA’s Spencer Valenti, featuring narration from a fictionalized hiker who encounters Spencer on the PCT and learns about our work. Though the specific hiker might be made up, encounters and conversations like this are not uncommon. We hope you enjoy this chance to get to know Spencer, his work, and PCTA’s appreciation for our volunteers.

It was warm and little overcast from what I could make out beneath the trees in the wee morning under the crag. I heard the next 10 miles going up into Castle Crags was brutal, so it meant an extra early start for me. It took 8 hours and all 4 liters of water I packed. The best part of this story is what happened just after those grueling miles, and the chance encounter that followed…

I plopped down on the first rock I saw, too tired to even look up and see the view I spent 8 hours hiking for.

“Hello!” I heard from off to my right, slightly uphill from my rock.

“Hey,” I grunted, thinking it’s one of the hikers I’ve been seeing here and there.

“Do you want a grilled cheese?” asked the voice, causing me to sit up and look over in alarm.

There on a nice perch, with camp stove going and grilled cheese items neatly stacked to one side—in a bright orange Hawaiian shirt and hard-hat—he was sitting.

“Who are you?” I inquired.

“I’m Mr. Kitchen!” (Spencer Valenti, his name, I would later learn)

“And you are just out here cooking food for hikers?”

“Yes! Well… no, but it is my lunch break and I’ve got some extra supplies, and you look pretty beat up,” he said as he gestured to his supplies.

“Lunch break? Do you work for the trail?”

“I do… sort of. I work for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and I’m currently scouting the trail for future volunteer projects. I am the Regional Trail Stewardship Coordinator for Southern Oregon and Northern California.”

“Oh, so you are the one out here cutting and moving all of these logs I’ve seen?”

He smiled, “it’s not just me, it’s a collective effort. I work with volunteer groups and corps crews, leading them in maintenance projects.”

I heard a splash and immediate sizzle from Mr. Kitchen’s frying pan. Shallots and garlic, the scent wafted down towards me, a grumbling from my stomach overtook the sizzling sound in my ears.

“How long did it take you to move that log?” I asked, gesturing to a huge 5-foot wide one.

“That one? A six-hour workday for me and three others.”

“But…. I’ve seen so many logs like that. Don’t chainsaws exist? Wouldn’t they make it faster?”

He chuckled slightly, “they sure do, but so do wilderness areas. As stewards of this trail, we work to maintain and respect the sanctity of the wilderness. Its more effort sure, but it’s important to leave as little of an impact on the environment as we can.”

He dumped the perfectly golden caramelized shallots into a side bowl, tossing them with some spices. For a moment we sat, and I thought back to all the logs I’ve seen since starting the hike. Mr. Kitchen tossed a pat of butter in his pan followed by a thick slice of local artisan bread, a layer of cheese and shallots, and then a second slice of bread.

“It must be hard to get all of this work done.” I thought aloud.

He replied, “It is, it takes many hands and many hours to do the work that needs to be done. That is why I am so grateful for the volunteers that help us, without their effort it would be an impossible task.”

“Is it worth the effort?” I asked.

“More so than you can imagine. Is it worth the effort hiking the trail?” He asked back.

“Yes… well, most of the time it is.”

“Knowing that the work I help accomplish out here improves the quality of a hiker’s day on trail, even if only for a few miles, makes every ounce of effort very worthwhile. You seem to be doing a whole lot better already.” He jokingly added.

Watching him construct the most perfect grilled cheese had caused me to forget the troubles I had just faced, climbing up through the crags. It was mesmerizing, from the moment he added the shallots, and now the flip, showing off the most golden and crisp grilled cheese I had ever seen.

“I guess the good moments make up for the few bad ones, and all of the rain I had to hike through.”

“They always will, especially moments like these,” he said with another smile while handing me my grilled cheese. Then he gestured to the cliff side.

In the short time I had been up there I had not once bothered to pay attention to what lay in front of me. Now with grilled cheese in hand, aches in my body fleeting, sun shining down, and a view of a lifetime, I knew it had all been worth it.




Author: PCTA Staff

The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians, and for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.