By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — British, Mexican, French, Japanese, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand hikers have been passing through this mountain town in droves in recent weeks, stocking up on food, picking up mail, taking showers and generally kicking back for a day or two off the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Idyllwild is above Palm Springs, in the San Jacinto Mountain Range, at about mile 179 from the southern terminus of the PCT, which is in Campo on the US side of the Mexican border.
Residents are seeing more women hikers on this 2,650-mile route than in previous years. Idyllwild Library is greeting more hikers from Asia and Mexico in particular. Hiking permits and Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) membership is on the increase. According to our visitors from the trail, some women and men have talked about being inspired by the movie Wild released in December 2014, based on Cheryl Strayed‘s book about her own PCT adventure.
Permit numbers for 2016 haven’t been released yet, according to Jack Haskel, spokesman for PCTA, the permitting body. However, overall membership in the association rose more than 18 percent (4,000 people) in 2015. Long distance permits for 500 or more miles were issued to 4,453 people last year. This compares with 2,655 in 2014. The previous year, 1,879 people got the permits, according to the PCTA web site. In 2015, hikers and horseback riders on the trail came from all 50 states, plus 34 countries and territories.
Colleen Tell, an assistant at Idyllwild Library, told me, “We’ve definitely seen more people and, yes, more women coming through this year and there’s more diversity in the countries they represent. More hikers are coming from Asia and we’re seeing some hikers from south of the border.” The library has computers, free water reports and 10 cent paperbacks for hikers, along with maps of the United States and the world. Hikers add a red dot to represent their hometowns.
Pedro Longoria, 26, came up by himself from Monterrey, Mexico. He is a software developer and his family just opened an English school for children.
“I saw a video about the PCT,” he told me. “I got so into it. It’s a perfect time in my life, since things started changing in my job. It’s now or nothing. Monterrey is a big city; we don’t have a lot of nature. This is my first long hike. It has been going great. I met another guy from Mexico and we’re sticking together.”
An Australian from Tasmania and a New Zealand woman told me similar stories. The Australian said he chose the PCT because of all the ecosystems it goes through. The northern terminus is at the Canadian border, at Manning Provincial Park.
A hiker from the Netherlands, Sven Sigmond, 30, said, “There are lots of women and the ones I’ve seen are kicking men’s butts! They have fewer injuries, maybe because they’re more sensible.” Sigmond is among those inspired by Wild.
So, what is it like for women on the Pacific Crest Trail?
One girl who’d been hiking with a male friend, with lots of other guys around them, told me that she has become sick of the “Hey bro” attitude. As she checked into The Fireside Inn here, she was excited to hear that five girls off the trail were already ensconced for the night in a cabin on the same property. She said she sometimes feels treated as less than a guy on the trail. However, when she told her male acquaintance that she’d already done the 2,190 mile long Appalachian Trail, that ended, she said.
Some hikers begin the trail alone or in pairs and eventually find other people to walk with. Some male-female pairs are friends who have met on previous hikes and are traveling together just for company. Not all of the couples are romantic.
One woman told me, “You don’t see a lot of girls out there, so it’s pretty exciting when we run into each other.”
Sydney Cohn, of Truckee, CA, and Savannah Fox, of Buffalo, NY, both 20, chatted with me at the library. Cohn worked at a natural health food store and Fox was at a pizzeria before setting out on this adventure. Fox would like to work at an organic farm when she finishes the trail. Cohn’s not sure what she wants to do.
“We were both doing work-exchanges on farms last year,” Cohn said. “We met at an off-grid farm in North Carolina. We became best buds.”
At the library, Fox was writing a postcard to her aunt and adding dried wildflowers.
“She sent me food packages with little motivational messages. I just overflowed with gratitude,” she said.
Cohn said she feels really safe on the trail. “The hiker community is so giving and accepting. They really look out for each other. I feel safer just not being in a city. A couple of guys camped at our location one night and I wondered, “Should I be concerned about this?” But I wasn’t and it was fine. Hikers treat us like anyone else. Women are treated equally.”
Fox agreed. “The hiker community is astounding.”
Cohn wears a woolen beanie. She shaved her head before this trip. She’s beautiful, even so.
“I didn’t want to deal with washing my hair all the time.” she said. “Being bald on the trip is one of the best things I could have done. No greasy, gross hair. No shampoo. Some people have dreads on the trail. Dreads are hot and heavy and dirty.” Fox agreed. They shower at campgrounds and Cohn carries tea tree oil.
About the gender issue and communication, Fox said, “Guys approach us more on the trail. The girls seem more shy. The girls are more to themselves.”
Do the guys hit on them?
“No, no, no,” Cohn said emphatically, immediately and smiled shyly.
Fox said, “I can tell more subtleties that Sydney doesn’t notice. We haven’t encountered any creepy people though.”
“My mom is the creepiest, PCT cyber stalker ever on Facebook!” Cohn said and they both chuckled.
Fox added, “She even found a photo of Sydney on Twitter that she posted on Facebook.”
“Well my mom wants to do the PCT but she think she’s too old,” Cohn explained. “But she’s only 50. I went on backpacking trips with my mom when I was a kid and she would talk about the PCT.”
Cohn also read a book about the trail when she was young, and that also got her interested in the trip.
Most PCT hikers are in their 30s to 50s.
“People kind of revere us for being young,” Fox said. “They say this is the perfect time in your life to do it. Other hikers and people in towns have given us so much food, money, clothes, rides and information.”
Both women carry tracking devices in case of emergency, given to them by their parents and a grandparent.
Cohn has a DeLorme Messenger. Fox has a Spot Gen 3. Each device works off satellites. Options are for immediate SOS help from a helicopter, or for local authorities to come, or for tracking (they can choose how often they check in), and custom messages such as, “I’ve set up camp and I’m safe for the night” or “there’s going to be cloud cover and my GPS may not be able to reach you.”
Unlike some women on the trail, Cohn and Fox don’t mind the “Hey bro, hey dude” banter of male hikers.
“I feel like that’s all we say to each other,” Cohn said, chuckling. “I love doing the hike with Savannah.”
What’s their reason for doing the PCT?
“I don’t really know what to do with my life,” Cohn said. “I have this urge to stick with myself and be away from distractions. I’m learning to take care of myself and I’m navigating those dark places that come up. For example, I’m really irritated by weather. I’m hoping to discover will power. I think this will make me more confident because it’s a physical endeavor.”
What’s their favorite gear?
“Western Mountaineering ultra-light sleeping bag,” Fox said, sighing. “It’s warmth is amazing. I’m a terribly cold person. I love that there are two options. There’s a cord that you can pull around your collar and one that you can pull around your hood.” Cohn concurs. They also mentioned Altra Lone Peak shoes and a chrome foldable umbrella. “It reflects sun,” Fox said. “I don’t know how other hikers make it through the desert without it. It’s your own micro-climate.”
What are these women surprised about so far on the PCT? What do they wish they’d known before they started?
“I’m already so sick of my food,” Cohn said. “I’ve dumped a whole box of stuff. Bean dinners that I didn’t have recipes for and food I brought hoping it would taste good and it doesn’t.”
Fox chuckled. “She’s craving junk food and I’m craving health food.”
Some Idyllwild inns have set out hiker boxes for the travelers to unload or take items. Pasta and oatmeal are getting offloaded. Fox dumped a poncho that didn’t work for her.
“I’m on a tight budget but it’s more important to be comfortable than save money,” she said.
Cohn added, “I’m surprised how strong the heat gets, how much my nose runs, how cold my head gets, how tanned everything is getting, how my blisters healed so quickly, how my feet are expanding. I’m surprised how strong my body is. It can hold sometimes 35 pounds in my pack and it doesn’t really feel it.”
Fox said, “I wasn’t sore for the first week. My body is starting to feel more achy now. It’s a very different experience, learning to be in the moment, when all you’re worrying about is your next step. I’m constantly worrying about the future but this is different.”
Do they get sick of each other, hiking all those miles in the heat?
“We get irritated by things, like a steep hill but we try not to direct it at each other,” Cohn said.
“We just respectively ask not to talk,” Fox added. “We hike separately for a while. When I’ve hiked alone on this trail, at first, there was more anxiety. I didn’t really prepare to hike alone. As the trail goes on and you lose the excitement of it, you get in your head more. But there’s a lot of security having a partner. Recently, it got really hot. You don’t know what the heat’s going to get like and if there’s no one else there…”
Fox said she’s developing better communication skills.
“It’s becoming more and more important to learn how to express myself.”
Cohn added, “I have my moments when I want to be alone to see what it’s like. Savannah is such a saint. When I’m alone, I think, I don’t have anyone that’s watching my back. A friend is good for that, more than a stranger on the trail. We’re trying to balance that more. We’re getting there.”
Postscript: The day after these interviews, I encountered Cohn and Fox in front of the library, with their packs on, ready to get back on the trail. They were excited to have fresh supplies of chocolate and dehydrated icecream. I offered them a ride to Humber Park. The air was hot, so they were thrilled to avoid the walk up the steep roads to Devil’s Slide trail. At the trailhead, we hugged and said goodbye, and as they began their ascent, Fox waved and called to me, “Have a great life!” I chuckled as I went back to my car, which is now filled with the fragrance of freshly washed hikers and tea tree oil. I reflected on the brief moments we sometimes share with others, all on our own journeys. It seems like a metaphor for life, helping each other along the way.
The next day, I encountered three young men sitting on boulders by the trailhead, not looking enthusiastic about getting back on the long journey. “We spent too much time in town,” one, from Kentucky, told me. “It was so cool.”
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