By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD —They come out of the woods with nicknames such as Hot Pants, Brainstorm, Not A Chance and Cheeseburger. Most can’t wait for a shower. Many will spend the night in a tent again but a few will enjoy a bed in a mountain inn. Then they’ll check for supplies sent to “General Delivery” at the Post Office and send gear home to lighten the load.
These are the intrepid hikers of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, a 2,650-mile stretch of western wilderness that runs from the Mexican border to British Columbia.
It is the tail end of “PCT” hiker season in mile-high Idyllwild on Mt. San Jacinto. The spot is a popular break for the adventurers because of amenities such as developed campsites and a laundromat within easy walking distance. It’s also because of the way locals greet them.
“Welcome PCT hikers!” shouted a huge banner outside rustic Idyllwild Inn this season. Another sign has flapped in the breeze in front of Sky Island Organics, a natural foods store. The late spring/early summer visitors are an economic boon in a town of 3,874 people. The warm welcome isn’t just about dollars. It’s about supporting people with something in common with the town— enjoying the great outdoors.
Residents greet the PCT hikers with sympathetic smiles. They know these travelers are just getting started on an experience that includes a wide range of temperatures and weather, potential avalanches, possible altitude sickness, occasional hunger, snakes, the chance of a bear encounter, a few grumpy fellow travelers, aches, pains and strains. Some local drivers give the hikers a ride when they see them coming up Highway 243 near Lake Hemet, where some exit the trail to get supplies. Part of the Pacific Crest Trail south and east of Idyllwild has been closed this year because of damage from the massive Mountain Fire last summer.
Idyllwild is considered a fun place to stop, according to hikers’ blogs and trail registers. At least 100 PCT hikers have left comments on the registers at the Post Office, state campground and various stores since May 8. They hail from Canada, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Texas, California and other environs.
“Clean sox! Oooh baby!” one wrote.
“Great place for a zero day,” commented another.
“Thanks for the awesome hospitality Idyllwild,” someone else enthused.
“Most of the PCT hikers have a sock fetish,” joked Jim Dover, manager of Nomad Ventures, a rock climbing and hiking supplies store. He brings on extra staff each year during PCT season.
It’s easy to recognize these hikers in town. They’re the especially tired and lean ones, with considerable packs on their backs and sometimes wearing flip flops to let blisters air out. They like to keep their packs on at all times so no one wanders away with the gear. But some make an exception and park their packs outside Idyllwild Library to go in and check email. The library offers each of them a free book. Sara Malm, a Bay Area resident, chose “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to take along the trail with her.
At Sky Island Organics, manager Ryan Jackson offers a recharging station, where hikers can plug in electronic gear and check email, the weather and local resources. They can leave messages on a board that includes offers of rides to reconnect back with the trail. Jackson did half the PCT in 2011, so he knows hikers’ needs. Among the comments on the board are “Last one to Canada wins!” written by “Girly Girl,” and “You rock Idyllwild!”
“A lot of the hikers in our store say they want to come back and live here,” said Dover at Nomad Ventures. “They love the place.”
Getting to know PCT hikers through the registers and conversations in cafes gives a glimpse of a journey that’s more than geographic. For some, it’s a deeply personal challenge, even a spiritual journey.
“They’re all over the map in terms of reasons why they’re doing this,” Dover said. “Some are doing it purely on a whim. Some say they’ve wanted to do it their whole lives.”
Some hikers seem to enjoy traveling with friends and meeting people along the trail, while some enjoy the peace and solitude.
“I feel at home on the trail,” Malm, a 35-year-old contract Hospice nurse, said. “I don’t get homesick.”
She flew down from San Francisco to Campo, the southern PCT terminal, to start the trail. Malm has previously lived in the Rocky Mountains and San Diego. She describes herself as a very spiritual person who plans to become a life coach.
“I’d like to inspire people by showing them you can do anything if you set your mind to it,” she said.
Heather Hausladen hit the PCT after coming back to the United States from her work as an energy analyst in Beijing. She’ll return to China after her adventure.
Hausladen said the PCT takes commitment. “You have to be passionate about it,” she said.
Malm is a foodie. In February she began dehydrating 120 breakfasts and 120 dinners to eat along the trail. She has mailed a lot ahead to “resupply towns” along the route.
Pacific Crest Trail is closely aligned with the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges. It takes hikers through a series of national parks and forests on its way through California, Oregon and Washington, ending on the edge of Manning Provincial Park, British Columbia.
Most hikers try to walk 25 to 30 miles a day. It’s difficult to know how many people complete the journey each year, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), which helps preserve the trail.
“Perhaps 700-800 people head out intending to hike the whole trail in a year. Perhaps 60 percent finish,” the PCTA web site states.
It takes 5.5 months for most hikers to complete the adventure, though a few people take all year and a few have done it in a month, according to the PCTA.
It can be dangerous to hike during snow season. Most people begin at the southern end because of snow packs in the north. In the Fall each year, Idyllwild is visited by hikers who have begun the journey from the Washington end.
The challenge draws men and women of all ages, from all walks of life, for a variety of reasons.
Malm is an ultra-marathoner, who trains on part of the PCT. She pitched her 1.5 pound tent overnight at Mt. San Jacinto State Park campground in Idyllwild. She said her biggest surprise on the trail was how quickly she overcame her fear of snakes.
One ex-pat Australian who has lived in San Diego for a few years, Rodney Scott, hit the trail after retiring from corporate Internet technology work. His American wife retired from her career and they invited their teenage daughter along with them, he said. They stopped at Higher Grounds Coffee House to check email on a laptop, along with another group, some of whom are from Washington state.
Another group of PCT hikers–in their 20s and 30s–joined their Idyllwild friend Andrew Simpson at Cafe Aroma one night. Simpson has previously done the trail.
Neal Hanlin said he was a global account manager in the logistics field before starting the hike.
“The PCT is a great equalizer,” he said. “You get millionaires and you get hobos who’ve hardly worked a day in their lives, as well as students, businessmen … all walks of life … sitting around a campfire without the social pretense of life.”
“You meet a lot of sensitive people on the trail,” said Simpson, a guitarist and sitar player who performs at Aroma.
The hikers agree that many people do the PCT to get away from the rat race and people. The love of travel is a common denominator. One quiet man in the group, who declined to offer his name, said he has traveled throughout South East Asia. Simpson has spent time in India.
What do the hikers think about on the quiet stretches of the PCT?
“Food!” said the group at Cafe Aroma, with a laugh, as they plowed into pasta. Carbs are a must, they said.
Some hikers make a beeline to Idyllwild Pizza Co. to devour a 12-inch each.
After their “zero day” (hiking zero PCT miles) in Idyllwild, the travelers can hitch a ride to Humber Park and hike up Devil’s Slide Trail to Saddle Junction to reconnect with the PCT or take the Deer Springs Trail off Highway 243, just north of town. The next part of their adventure will take them over Mt. San Jacinto down into the desert, then across San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain ranges.
This is not for the faint of heart. But some of the locals in Idyllwild said that the hikers who make it to this town and continue on will likely finish the trail because they will have ironed out their biggest issues by then.
One Oregonian hiker told this reporter on June 20 that he thinks he’s the last one on the trail going north this season.
How does he know?
“We all keep in touch along the way,” he said.
The PCT was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968 and was completed in 1993. The exact length of the trail varies slightly over the years, due to the travelers’ wear and tear on it, according to the PCTA.
For more information, visit the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s web site.