By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, CALIF. — It’s one thing to start a journey. It’s another to complete it.
This month, the tiny mountain community of Idyllwild has hosted southbound travelers on the final leg of the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. In spring and early summer, local businesses fed, entertained and re-shod the northbound hikers heading from the Mexican border to British Columbia. Some stores set up re-charging stations and offered discounts for the weary travelers.
Now, the locals are at it again.
“We’ve had about 15 hikers through in the past week,” Evelia Nash, co-owner of Idyllwild Laundry Service said on Nov. 10.
Among the washers and dryers, Alexis Ballinger and Jacob McGowan, both 24, were easily identifiable as “through hikers,” with their string-bean frames, as they sorted clothes, backpacks and plastic bags of granola bars. Ballinger sported a medium-dark tan. Her abdominal muscles, exposed by her athletic outfit, looked rock hard. When she smiled, her bright white teeth were an advertisement for good health. Her shiny, long, dark-blond hair was freshly washed, as she prepared to leave town.
Ballinger and McGowan, from Washington State, smiled at the locals with glowing rosy cheeks and bright eyes that showed how much oxygen they’d been pumping through their veins, plus the “high” of being on a journey among nature. The two exhibited the weary humor that slogging it out for months on a trail will engender.
“We’re ‘Flip’ and ‘Flop’,” Ballinger said of their trail names. The monikers refer to the one pair of Flip Flops they’ve shared, to air out their feet on “zero days” of no hiking.
“I haven’t had a single blister on my feet” Ballinger said. “But my toes went numb after about a month and they’ve stayed that way.”
She has, however, worn holes in the back of her shirts from carrying her pack.
McGowan has gone through six pairs of shoes.
“My best ones are trail runners by ASICS,” he said. “Alexis wears Brooks Cascadia. Those are the most popular.”
Many PCT hikers wear Flip Flops when they stop in supply towns to shower, wash their clothes, collect their General Delivery mail and have a pizza.
Carrying just one pair saves weight.
“People start out with more gear on their backs,” McGowan said. “But toward the end, they’ve given up a lot of stuff. Do you want my quarters for the dryers? They’re too heavy to carry.”
Ninety percent of people who hit the PCT begin at the southern end, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). These are called the “NOBO” (northbound) travelers. The southbound route is known as “SOBO.”
The route is closely aligned with the Sierra and Cascade mountains, going through national parks and forests in California, Oregon and Washington. The trailheads are at Campo in San Diego county and Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia.
Most people try to hike 25 to 30 miles a day, according to the PCTA. It’s difficult to know how many of them finish the trail each year, the organization states on its web site.
“Perhaps 700-800 people head out intending to hike the whole trail in a year. Perhaps 60 percent finish,” according to the web site. It takes 5.5 months for most hikers to complete the hike.
McGowan gave up his project engineering work in the foundry industry in Spokane, Wash. for the adventure. “The company was very understanding,” he said. “They told me I could call them back for a job.”
Ballinger put her teaching career in Hawaii on hold. Her school has recruited her back, she said.
The friends started from the northern trailhead to accommodate the end of Ballinger’s school year. McGowan said it wasn’t too bad because the snow pack in the Sierras was pretty light.
Even so, sleeping on snow wasn’t Ballinger’s favorite part of the adventure. “It was kind of scary,” she said.
McGowan, a fair-skinned redhead with a considerable beard, found the desert heat more disagreeable.
They don’t regret giving up their jobs, they said, and they’d do a long hike again, but try a different one for variety.
They said they didn’t have any bear encounters but they started seeing snakes as they hiked into Southern California.
McGowan had another potential risk to consider: his Type 1 Diabetes. He carried a GPS tracking device on him, so his parents wouldn’t worry, he said.
“It has an SOS alert on it. In the event I don’t check in on Facebook or something, they know where to find me.”
Idyllwild is home to several people who have hiked through town on previous PCT excursions then decided to come back and live here. Among them are Alice and Paul Bodnar who did the hike in 2012. They and their business partner Ryan Linn have developed smart phone apps for long distance hikers, called Guthook Guides. The guides offer information about supply towns, scenic aspects, etc. The Bodnars’ business is High Sierra Attitude. They make the guides for the Android system and Linn makes them for the iPhone.
The name of the guides came from Linn’s trail name Guthook. Linn, who lives in Maine, also has a company called Guthook Hikes. He and Paul met when they thru-hiked the PCT in 2010. Paul has thru-hiked the PCT three times — 1997, 2010 and 2012, Alice said.
McGowan said he’s eager to try some of the apps.
When McGowan returns from his hike, he will become volunteer director for Camp Stix Type 1 Diabetes Youth Camp, which provides 175 children with a camping experience each year. He has volunteered for the organization for several years, he said.
Ballinger volunteers as a mentor for Special Education teachers. She spent last year finishing her Masters Degree, teaching full time, training for a half Ironman and doing her volunteer work, she said.
“I really burned myself out. I was so tired of school. It was great to get out for a while.”
Two other SOBO hikers who passed through Idyllwild this week also came down from Washington, where they’ve been in college. Anna Herby, originally from Virginia, and Ross Scherer, of Wisconsin, set out in July after Herby’s graduation with her Masters Degree in Nutrition. Scherer has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutrition and Exercise Science and is applying for graduate programs in Nutrition. Their trail names are “Mud” (Scherer, age 31) and “Bug,” (Herby, 28).
On their blog, called “Nourishing Journey PCT,” these experienced hikers have written, “Over the years, our strengths have balanced out one another’s weaknesses, allowing us to cover miles with ease and enjoy the views and our friendship along the way. In addition to our shared love of nature that drives us forward on the trail, we share a passion for nutrition that drives us forward in life. We are excited to carry insights about food and health with us on our journey.”
While in Idyllwild, Herby and Scherer enjoyed dinner at Cafe Aroma.
“We started the PCT from the north so we could have a quieter experience,” Herby said, “although it has been really fun meeting people along the trail.”
“We’ve really enjoyed the scenery,” Scherer added.
Herby said she has learned from the trail that “when things get hard, the best solution is to just keep walking and eventually something will change, usually for the better. Ross’s lesson is how easy it is to be happy with the simple things in life — food, water, shelter and a friend to talk to,” she said.
Ballinger said the hike has restored her faith in humanity.
“Whenever we stop in a town and hear the news (in the media), we get bombarded with stories about crime and what’s wrong in the world. But as soon as we get out on the trail again, people are so nice. It makes you realize there’s good in the world.”
“There was this woman we met the other day. She insisted on cooking breakfast for us. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Ballinger said she learned from the trail that it’s okay to slow down and not always push herself. That’s part of the wisdom she plans to convey to future students.
The hike also taught her how much she can endure.
“The mental and emotional challenges were way harder than the physical,” she said with a sigh of fatigue. McGowan concurred.
“Even just hiking with someone for so long,” McGowan said. “Hiking every day.”
“Sleeping on the ground every day … “Ballinger added.
“Some days, we just wonder what we’re doing,” said McGowan. “All we know each morning is that we have to hike today.”
“You take one day at a time,” said Ballinger. “Yesterday is gone and we don’t know about tomorrow, so you just stay in the moment.
McGowan learned that it’s okay to accept people’s help.
“I grew up as the only boy in my family. I was expected to do things for myself,” he said. “But we’ve had to ask for a lot of help along the way — hitching rides, getting directions, asking for information.”
The pair came into Idyllwild in the morning, through Humber Park in the San Bernardino National Forest. A resident gave them a ride into town, where they enjoyed breakfast at the Red Kettle, then came straight to the laundromat. Then they hitched a ride to Paradise Cafe at Paradise Corners, on their way to San Diego.
“We’re not going to stay the night. We just want to get this done,” Ballinger smiled. “Plus I have a package to pick up at the cafe.”
What’s the first thing they’ll do after this is over?
“A burger,” Ballinger said. “Beer and a burger.”
“Mmm,” McGowan agreed.
Their faces showed their minds cogitating over the type of menu details that PCT hikers salivate about while hiking, according to various first-hand accounts of those passing through Idyllwild.
“A blue cheese burger,” McGowan added.
“Yeah, a blue cheese burger,” agreed Ballinger, with a sigh. “I’ll hike miles for a blue cheese burger.”
They plan to either fly or take the train back from San Diego.
At the laundromat, Nash, who is now intimately acquainted with PCT hikers’ needs, told the pair, “There were some hikers in last week and they were checking prices. They’re going to fly back because it’s cheaper. They said the money they’ll save flying can be used to get a hotel room in San Diego and lie on the beach for a day.”
Nash said the women hikers have been saying, ‘Oh, a hot bath would be so good!”
“Everyone’s saying, ‘Oh to be able to stay in a hot shower as long we like!”
Postscript: McGowan & Ballinger have been in touch to say they have completed the hike. Congratulations!
An earlier post on this blog featured interviews with northbound PCT hikers. To read that piece, click here.
Copyright to Julie Pendray and SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com