By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Pacific Crest Trail “thru-hikers” are still coming through this mountain town on their journey to the Canadian border. The early birds arrived here in April, while June is late in the season. Most people take four months or more to get to the northern terminus at Manning Provincial Park and prefer to arrive before heavy snow. However, start dates have been staggered this year to avoid over-crowding on the trail and to allow everyone a pleasurable experience because of the increase in hikers in the past two years, partly due to the movie Wild.
Jack Haskel, spokesman for the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) which administers permits for hikers doing 500 miles or more, said there is a limit of 50 people per day at the Mexican border.
“The most popular dates were reserved first and filled up,” he said via email. “There is no limit on the number of long-distance permits beyond that.”
Idyllwild Library staff were still seeing up to four PCT hikers a day last week. This re-supply town is at mile 179 of the route, between Warner Springs and Big Bear.
Some people intend to start the trail as late as July, like Idyllwild resident, Dominic Surina. He said he will do as much of the 2,650-mile journey as he can. The route goes through Southern California desert as well as the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. Some people choose to do “section hikes,” doing a piece of the trail each year.
Most hikers begin from Campo at the Mexican border; however, some hike southbound from Canada and come through Idyllwild in November. The first known hikers to do a successful “winter traverse” from Canada, starting in winter on skis — Justin Lichter and Shawn Forry — are now famous among the PCT community. The men completed the feat last year and the mention of their names to newbie PCT hikers passing through Idyllwild is met with sighs of near disbelief and awe.
While this year’s permit numbers won’t be released until about December, the trend of the past three years indicates what could be an exponential rise in interest. Long distance permits were issued to 4,453 people last year, compared with 2,655 in 2014. The previous year, 1,879 people got the permits, according to the PCTA web site . Some PCT enthusiasts have worried about possible effects on the trail with all those feet on the ground. Meanwhile, finding a room in some re-supply towns has already been a concern for hikers this year.
Lora Benavides was happy to find lodging at Fireside Inn when she arrived in Idyllwild.
“Rooms were at a premium in Julian,” she said. “Some people were almost without rooms. There have been problems getting supplies too.”
She’s not concerned about hiker numbers though.
“You meet a lot of wonderful people on the trail,” she said.
The age range of PCT hikers known to have passed through Idyllwild is 18 to 82. “Turtle Don” Davis of Merced, Calif. is thought to be the oldest of the adventurers.
Chiropractor Jerry Behymer, 70, hit the trail after retiring from his practice in Alamo, California.
“I haven’t had any joint problems but I put that down to my diet,” the vegetarian said. “I do have bistered feet.”
Behymer inquired about chiropractors in Idyllwild. After showering and an adjustment by Dr. Schelly, he pronounced himself “a new man.”
Piers Ellison, 18, is doing a gap year between high school and university in England, where he wants to pursue political studies. His PCT journey will give him a better understanding of the United States, he said. In Idyllwild, he quickly connected with other musicians at Higher Grounds Coffee Shop, where he showed his prowess on guitar. Haskel of the PCTA said Idyllwild is famous for its hospitality.
Interviews with hikers of all ages passing through Idyllwild indicate many are looking for something on the trail, such as walking out pain (like Wild author Cheryl Strayed), trying to figure out professional direction, or how to learn discipline.
“I though I might find God,” Ellison told me, with a smile.
Just after he’d mentioned that at the coffee house, the band, “Change Required,” struck up “All You Need is Love.” Local registered nurse Diana Desrosiers joined hands with others and everyone formed a circle to dance. A few PCT hikers watched by the door, looking like deer caught in the headlights. They were not yet acquainted with the small town intimacy of Idyllwild.
Ellison gladly took part and beamed.
“You wouldn’t find this back home,” he said, amazed. “Everyone’s so concerned about appearances in the pubs.”
As hikers unload oatmeal and pasta they’re bored with, many might be unloading expectations formed in cities. Re-supply towns will do that to you. Some, further ahead on the trail, are just crossroads with a post office and diner or a volunteer “trail angel” who might offer water or a place to sleep.
Whether or not people find what they’re looking for on the trail, there are a few rewards many have found already: new friends, a sense of accomplishment, knowledge of California so far and wildflowers. The hills around Idyllwild are flourishing with color, the result of healthy rain a few months ago, which took a little edge off the drought.
“Baloo,” a ski resort worker from Colorado, sent me some photos. He’s taking advantage of the off-season, while his two new friends from other states, hiking with him, are enjoying having final college exams over.
Idyllwild residents Bruce Edward Watts (a wildflower photographer) Jackie Lasater (a native plant grower) and Bronwyn Jones, (formerly of Lily Rock Plant Nursery) identified the flora in these photos as: Showy Penstemon (Penstemon spectabilis), Blue Flax (Linum lewisii), Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum), Purple Nightshade, Wild Sweetpeas (Lathyrus vestitus), Scarlet Bugler Penstemon, Chaparral Yucca, (Hesperoyucca whipplei) and Cane Cholla, Cylindropuntia californica
The floral beauty was a surprise for hiker Matt Phillips, 24, of Brisbane, Australia, along with the “severity of scarcity of water,” he told me, as he relaxed with friends at Idyllwild Library. This is his first time in the United States.
“There’s nothing else like this in the world in terms of eco diversity,” he said. “What hikers are doing is quite a serious sense of achievement.” Phillips has just finished an economics degree and will go into the Australian Army. He learned about the PCT online while looking for “something like 10 grand adventures off the beaten track.”
What’s his favorite piece of equipment?
“My poo bag,” he confided. “It’s zip locked and wrapped in gaffa tape. Everyone’s supposed to carry one, otherwise TP waves around on the trail like Nepalese prayer flags.”
Two of his fellow countrymen chatted with me as they relaxed at Mt. San Jacinto State Park campground. Chris Taylor, 25, and Nick Kerr, 26, both of Melbourne, described themselves as “daywalkers” who’d never done much overnight hiking. The high school friends decided to “just jump in at the deep end.” While they said the trail has been a physical challenge, they haven’t found that to be the most difficult part. They’ve prevented heat exhaustion by getting up early and hiking until 10 a.m., then resting, and hiking again from 4 to 10 p.m. They’re used to a dry environment, so that hasn’t been the worst part.
“The mental aspect is the hardest,” they agreed. “Walking 8 hours straight gives us a lot of time to think and miss home,” Kerr said.”I’ve got a girlfriend back home. There was a lot of compromise we had to make for me to be gone 5 months.” The two men work at a movie theater in Melbourne.
Kerr said his favorite piece of equipment is his iPad mini.
“I spoiled myself. I look at books, movies and video. I have a solar charger and battery pack. I mailed the solar charger to Big Bear. I’m not using it much.”
Taylor said his hiking poles are his favorite gear. He brought them from Oz. “I also love my shorts. They’re convertible to long pants.”
What doesn’t he like?
“I hate my tent,” he sighed. “It’s just not strong enough. It collapsed on me! I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Sven Sigmond from the Netherlands started the PCT on his 30th birthday. Tall, slender Sigmond (nicknamed “Legs”) is a web developer who can only spend 3 months on the trail because he couldn’t get a longer visa. He’ll go hiking in Japan when the time is up.
“The Netherlands is so flat,” he said. “The mountains have been kicking my butt.”
Sigmond also said women are kicking his butt on the trail. “They’re getting less injuries,” he said. “They’re more sensible.”
He said that after seeing Wild, which inspired him to do the hike, he decided to “not be that girl” (Cheryl Strayed) “because she wasn’t well prepared.”
Sigmond happily handed out Toblerone Swiss chocolate as several of us chatted at the campground.
“A trail angel here in Idyllwild offered it to me,” he said, beaming.
We all oohed and aahed and told him he should enjoy this treasure himself, since treats are scarce back on the trail. Instead, he suggested we have a second piece.
“I like to pay it forward,” he said.
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