By Julie Pendray
It’s 2017. We’re entering Pacific Crest Trail season again. As this year’s hikers decide which shoes to wear and how they’ll approach all the snow in the Sierras, I’m picking up the thread of my series “Heart of the PCT Towns” again. This is about my own journey by car through some of the PCT re-supply locations, with my cat (Michelle), all the way into Canada. Right off the bat, let me tell you — yes, Michelle is doing fine after about 6,000 miles on the road and all the re-settling after our return. It’s not for the faint of heart. However, knowing her, she’d do it all over again. She’s an adventurer.
I got “bitten by the bug” last June while living in Idyllwild (PCT Mile 179), where I’d been interviewing thru-hikers for three seasons. After hosting some at my home and seeing such an increase in numbers coming through town, especially all the women, I got curious about where they would all go. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if all the towns got to know each other more and stayed in touch. That way, we could be more prepared, and also helpful to hikers, by sharing information. Wouldn’t it be interesting if I could go and describe these places for readers? So, I did. Readers found it fascinating. And it changed my life.
It was life changing for Michelle too.
Like any planned story, this one took twists and turns. I set out to do a strictly journalistic account of as many towns as I could. However, readers wanted me to include my own personal journey and they wanted to keep up with Michelle’s adventures too. Now months later, I get it. So, working with hindsight, I’ll be giving you more of my insights. All I can say is that the intense beauty I saw along the way, the exquisite silence, the good souls who helped me, the love, the friendship (which I hope will be lifelong), the alone-ness with nature and the hospitality to this stranger from Canadians, when I was so far from home, still move me to tears when I think of them. Trusting in something much bigger than ourselves — a trust that I really relied on — was pivotal. Many thru-hikers feel the same way. Some call it “trail magic.” Some say “the trail provides.” Some call it God. You can interpret it however you like. That’s the beauty of it.
Why did I need to trust so much? Well, I funded this trip by doing trades for advertising on this magazine in exchange for meals, lodging, gas and more, all the way into British Columbia and back. (No one asked for any favors to be done in return and no content was changed because of them.) Also, because of my limited resources, I stayed in the homes of complete strangers, just as thru-hikers sometimes do. I camped in a tent with my cat. Sometimes we tried sleeping in our tiny car, surrounded by luggage, even in the pouring rain. Other times, we were fortunate to get a lodge or cabin or motel room or bunk at a hostel. People traded with me this way on the spur of the moment, having never met me. They’d never heard of me. Most people had never heard of Idyllwild. I planned virtually nothing in advance. Here I was, a more-than-middle-aged single woman, with a foreign accent, alone in a tiny car with a cat, deep in a forest where I’d never been, telling people I was from a town they’d never heard of. I was asking them for a favor, so I could write a story about the amazing hikers and beautiful trail that draws thousands of people from all walks of life, from all over the world, every year. People did this for me because they loved the story. They believed in the spirit of it. Some people agreed without even asking to see this web site. Some didn’t even look at my years of press credentials that I carried with me. It was simple, honest trust, looking in each other’s eyes. Together, we created this story. Thank you to all who helped along the way. I’m so grateful. You gave me “the story of my life.”
Let’s pick up the thread, on my second day at Mammoth Lakes. I’d gone to bed exhausted the night before, after driving through the night from Big Bear on the previous evening.
I was excited to go to the Mammoth Lakes post office for two reasons. One was to interview hikers. The other was to pick up my own re-supply package — a shipment of freeze-dried meals from a new Colorado company called Paleo Meals to Go. They’d contacted me via Twitter when they learned that I write about hikers and they asked me to try their meals. At the time, I was getting ready to leave Idyllwild, so I said, “Ship them to Mammoth!” I hoped the timing would be right.
On my first day at this beautiful location near Yosemite National Park, I learned my shipment hadn’t arrived. I was a bit worried. I really hoped I wouldn’t have to stay too long to wait for it. But I was in luck the next day. As the postal clerk pushed my package across the counter to me, a brown cardboard box had never looked so good. I was thrilled, both at the expectation of food and for the pleasure of having a communication from someone on this long journey.
I’d skipped breakfast, on my bare bones budget, so I confess that after I ripped open the box in my car in the parking lot, I shook the dried strawberries, almonds and bananas straight into my mouth, not waiting for water. (Forgive me please!) It was soooo good. I chuckled as I thought how this must pale in comparison to how hikers react to their boxes when they get edible treats. I truly lived off some of these meals on this trip. I also shared some. More on that later.
Young people were scattered throughout the post office. Busy clerks said hikers were coming in groups of up to 10 at a time, requesting packages. I approached some slender people wearing the PCT-popular lightweight Patagonia jackets. They had bronzed faces, white sun-glass circles around their eyes and a few guys had the telltale unruly hair. It was mid-June and the sun was shining. They told me they were the first wave of PCT hikers to hit Mammoth Lakes. Some had started as early as March 30 and some set off in April. Getting into Mammoth was treacherous, they said.
“The snow’s ok but the river crossings are scary,” Faraday Borg of Norwich, Vermont told me. “Since Mt. Whitney, we’ve been on snow. You have to start early in the day before it gets heavy. A few people have slipped in the rivers and been washed away and they’ve had to pull themselves up and out again. Sometimes, the water’s up to your waist. You’re supposed to unclip your backpack before you cross but I don’t.”
“You should,” P. J. Coleman (alias “Youngblood”) of Richmond, Virginia, told her in a concerned tone.
“Yeah, I should,” Borg sighed.
These two were in a group of four, aged 19 to 26. One from Melbourne, Australia received her trail name “Oakley” because her real name is Annie Trumble. Meanwhile, Nicholas Boam, of Vancouver, Washington, couldn’t remember at first whether he was 24 or 25. The trail will do that to you, I thought. Boam’s nickname was “St. Nick.”
Did they carry different footwear for snow and river crossings?
“No,” they all answered.
Borg said, “Sometimes I take my shoes off for river crossings. I can feel what’s under me, so I get a better foothold.”
“I don’t!” Youngblood said, looking at her, worried.
“Either way, our feet are always wet,” said Borg. “It’s not good for our skin. Mine’s starting to peel off.”
I asked them how they all funded such a long trip and what they do for a living back home. All exclaimed, “Worked my ass off! Then saved!”
When I told them I was traveling on a shoestring budget myself, they said, “Yeah, you can pretty much join the club.”
Borg said she’d pulled herself out of school for a semester and worked full-time as a nanny.
I asked what they thought of Idyllwild, my home base.
“I really love Idyllwild,” St. Nick said wistfully. “The layout and the small community … the people all seem to really care about each other.”
The others reflected on good times on their “zero day” there. Some remembered arriving during a snow storm in April. They remembered “dollar tacos and cheap margaritas.” Another recalled a relaxing day at Mt. San Jacinto State Park Campground in beautiful weather the same month.
“I just partied,” Youngblood said. “We stayed at Idyllwild Inn and we made a big batch of spaghetti and a cake for someone’s birthday and invited about 20 people over. She said it was the best birthday she’d ever had.”
Food is a favorite topic with PCT hikers. Youngblood had his refueling modus operandi down. While in the Cabazon area, off I-10 near Palm Springs, he’d made a beeline to Morongo Casino for the buffet. I’d recognized him as a probable PCT hiker when I overheard him telling people he was going to head to the buffets at South Lake Tahoe.
Boam talked about chowing down on “pizza, hamburgers, Mexican and Chinese food … all the usual cravings,” while in Idyllwild. He said he usually stays with trail angels. In Idyllwild, he stayed with real estate agent Tiffany Raridon, herself a hiker.
Mammoth Lakes is at mile 906 on the PCT. By now, the hikers said, their bodies were used to the work. Borg and Youngblood agreed they don’t get sore anymore.
“I never thought it would happen,” Borg, said.
“We’re superheroes!” Youngblood exclaimed.
These hikers were all staying at Red Meadows campground. They’d caught a shuttle bus into town.
I was hungry as a horse (travel and mountain air always give me an appetite), so I later visited Shea Schat’s Bakery for a hearty roast turkey sandwich. My conversation with Shea was even heartier, as she organized the bread display. We seemed like kindred spirits in those 20 minutes together. What a busy place! Even though the treat supply was enormous, I managed to restrain myself from ordering sweets.
That evening, one of the locals gave me a ride up to Minaret Viewpoint, near the road down to Red Meadows, which was closed to the general public at the time. The cool wind lashed against my face as I got out of the car and looked out over the massive glacial valley between Mammoth Mountain and Yosemite National Park. Standing there reflecting on the magnitude and force that carved that landscape was one of the most exhilarating experiences of this trip. I’m originally from the tiny nation of New Zealand. As I stood at this viewpoint in awe of the vast scale of nature in North America, I felt small next to it. That felt good — comforting in a way. It was certainly humbling and sort of exciting, with the anticipation of more great views on my adventure. I thought to myself, “There’s nothing like this in New Zealand.”
The woman who drove me there there was a friend of Lynne Blanche, owner of a vegetarian restaurant called Lynne’s Garden of Eat’n, where I’d eaten dinner. A few of us women enjoyed a glass of wine together there. Blanche also makes packaged dehydrated vegetarian meals for backpackers under the name Just Add Water Supply Co. We had a great chat about the health needs of long distance hikers. We feel that many thru-hikers don’t eat well because they’re so worried about saving money and the space and weight in their packs. Some live on dry noodles and cereal because it’s lightweight and cheap. Sometimes they don’t have the energy to cook at night.
As I drove back to my quiet surroundings at Edelweiss Lodge, I felt a bit sad about leaving the next morning. But I needed to move on. A part of me did feel that leaving Mammoth was the real beginning of being beyond my comfort zone. I was now getting past an easy drive home, should I get desperate for funds. It would be a long drive for anyone to come get me, should anything happen to my car. But I felt called to this trip. Everything would work out.
Thank you to all the hospitable folks at Mammoth Lakes who helped me. I hope to be back!
In my next piece, you’ll learn about my journey through the night to Lake Tahoe.
To read more in this series, click on Travel in the top menu of the home page.
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