There are angels on the Pacific Crest Trail. No, seriously. It's not the high elevation talking.
For avid hikers and backpackers, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest is the holy grail of trails. It runs through California, Oregon and Washington, from the Mexican to the Canadian borders. About 700 to 900 people attempt the full length each year, according to estimates from the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which calls them "thru-hikers." The hardy few who make it -- roughly half -- take about five months to reach the finish line. Hundreds of thousands more tackle the trail a piece at a time.
So when my cousin Zach Padlo, my dog, Sam, and I set out this summer, we planned a 10-day trek from Sonora Pass on Highway 108 to Donner Summit near Truckee. We're no rookies, but the first days are always tough when you start at a high elevation, such as the 9,624-foot Sonora Pass. The three of us hit a wall about mile 26.
For two days, we had labored in thin air under heavy packs, clearing the trail's highest pass between Yosemite and Canada, while attempting an ambitious pace of 15 miles a day. As much as we enjoyed the wildflowers and rocky scenery, the last miles leading to Ebbetts Pass beat up both our bodies and morale. That was when we spotted the cardboard sign.
"Trail magic," it said.
Curious, we ventured down the path and met a Pacific Crest Trail veteran and three companions, who welcomed us into their camp and offered us cold drinks, fresh fruit and, within minutes, hot cheeseburgers. Sam enjoyed meaty treats and a dish of water. We had met our first trail angels, heaven-sent friends of PCT backpackers, who greet hikers with food and drinks. And we met more along the way.
"I've hiked the entire trail three times, and I want to give something back," explained our new friend Lizard. Everyone has a trail name up here -- his companions included Burger Meister and Forever Fifty.
A wonderful hour later, we were back on the trail, with muscles and spirits refreshed. We spent that night beneath the stars at Sherrold Lake. Zach and I enjoyed it, at least. Sam, unused to sleeping outdoors, growled at many unseen critters in the night. The next day, we enjoyed the lakes, streams, meadows and peaks of the Mokelumne Wilderness, feeling stronger as our packs got lighter.
Meeting fellow backpackers was also enjoyable. Many were thru-hikers, who began their journeys in the Southern California desert months before. Along the way, they acquired impossible strength, trim waistlines and distinctive trail names -- including Danger, Polar Bear and Yard Sale. They may hail from dozens of states and countries, but they share a friendly outlook -- and they don't look down on those who hike for days, rather than months.
On our map, the hike to Carson Pass appeared milder than our earlier segment, but outdoors types know looks can be deceiving. Sun, rain, steep switchbacks and tricky route-finding combined to make it longer and harder than expected. Two beat backpackers and one pooped puppy staggered to Carson Pass on our fourth day, when we encountered more trail angels, who were quick to offer fruit, chips, ice-cold sodas and moral support.
The Pacific Crest may be a trail of staggering beauty and endless views, but it's also a community. Hikers experience the west coast of the United States, and trail angels -- veterans of these trails -- offer their support. I've hiked for many years in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere, and I've never seen anything like it. You never know when you may encounter one, but when you do, what you receive is unbridled kindness from the world's nicest strangers. And they enjoy it, too. Hikers, said one, "are so grateful. It's like seeing kids' eyes get big when they see Halloween candy."
Restored by the kindness at Carson Pass, we recovered enough to hike three more miles that evening and camp in the lush, wildflower-filled Meiss Meadow. We slept beside the historic cabin built by the Meiss family in the 1870s, a reminder of life in a simpler time.
Late that night, a pack of coyotes howled, but Sam didn't make a sound. He simply raised his head and perked his ears, then drifted back to sleep, snuggled beside me.
Castro Valley's Matt Johanson is the author of "Yosemite Adventures" (Triumph Books, 2014), a guide to 50 hikes, climbs and winter treks.
The Pacific Crest Trail
The idea: The idea of a trail that stretched from the Mexican to the Canadian border was first suggested by a young teacher, Catherine Montgomery, in Bellingham, Washington, in 1926. In 1932, Clinton Clarke, who is known as the "Father of the Pacific Crest Trail," began exploring the idea -- and in the late 1930s, the YMCA organized relay teams to scout the route, which first appeared on federal government maps in 1939. In 1968, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Appalachian Trail became the country's first National Scenic Trails.
The trail: The PCT starts in the Southern California desert near the town of Campo, just a few miles from the Mexican border, and winds its way through three states, 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks and three national monuments. It ends at the U.S. border near Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia.
The trek: Anyone can hike any portion of this hiking and equestrian trail, but if you plan to traverse 500 or more miles -- as more than 1,800 people do each year -- you'll need a free trail permit from Pacific Crest Trail Association. A "thru-hike" -- completing the entire trail in one trek -- takes about five months. The typical thru-hiker travels south to north, leaving Campo in April or May and arriving at the Canadian border in late September.
The details: Of course, you cannot count on encountering trail angels -- it's kismet if you do. So pack well, train well, hike smart and, before you set a foot outdoors, consult the Pacific Crest Trail Association's website, www.pcta.org. The site includes trail maps, permit information (including camping permits, which vary according to which state you are in and who manages the land), backcountry hiking advice for short and long trips, and a variety of entertaining articles. Turns out there's an Oregon town near the PCT -- Cascade Locks -- that is home to several craft breweries. Thru-hikers, we're told, call that area a zero-day, as in zero miles will be hiked.