Editor’s Note: Cell service has been lousy as of late and it’s about to get worse. I’ll do my best to post more once I’m out of the Sierras.
June 4th, 2011
There’s a fairly narrow window of time available if one is hoping to attempt a thru-hike. You have to start before the desert becomes unbearably hot and the water sources go dry, and unless you’re with Mountain Ned or a seriously hardcore mountaineer, you can’t pass through the Sierras until enough snow has melted. Then we have to race to Canada before snow hits Washington again, which is sometimes as early as late September.
Since most hikers start within about 2 weeks of each other and the rest about another week on either side, the kickoff event is scheduled when most hikers are at or near the border. While there are some who come to kickoff and start either earlier or later, plenty of hikers, myself included, fly down for the kickoff and start hiking once it’s over. The problem with this is that it creates a glut of hikers all setting out at once, with a much smaller concentration of hikers on either side. This main pack is known as the herd.
The herd can be a blessing and a curse. At first, it’s nice to be able to meet so many other hikers and see who you’re going to be adventuring with for the next five months. If you’re alone, you can find someone to hike with. If you wanted to stay alone, then you’re out of luck for about the first month and a half. At every water source, at every resupply point, and especially at the trail angel’s houses, hikers come in droves. They drain caches in days, clear out stores of hiker food, and take up residence in every square inch of yard space. Our voracious appetites are the real problem, and when 60 of us roll up on a town in the span of 2 days, it’s slim pickings. We’re a modern day plague.
Now the trail angels are very much aware of this, and in the spirit of utilitarianism, cater to the herd more than any others. When the majority of hikers are expected to arrive, they are on their A-game and pull out all the stops to make our hikes as best as possible and remind us of the potential of human kindness. Hikers in front or behind the herd are not forgotten, but might not receive such special attention as they would if they had arrived along with 20 others that day.
One of the best examples of this is what we call trail magic. As I first came to understand it, trail magic was any fortuitous event that occurred to a hiker as a result of being out on the trail. The trail gods would smile upon you and bless you with a helping hand, a subterfuge in a time of desperation, perhaps a guiding light when one is lost. Since arriving, I’ve come to find that trail magic almost exclusively refers to food.
Trail angels and past hikers will often come to the trail somewhere near a road and bring a cooler stocked with soda, juice, fruit, food, and occasionally beer, often along with a register. Tucked away just out of sight of other cars, they are like a small oasis that only PCT hikers stumble upon, and only we could be so elated to find a Shasta Zazz floating in a cooler of melted ice. After eating dehydrated foods and drinking only water and perhaps some gatorade powder for days on end, a soda and a piece of fruit are like ambrosia.
If a hiker is very lucky and has good timing, they might find someone there to hand deliver the magic, often in the form of barbecued food, cold beers, even cakes and ice cream are not unheard of. Almost always this type of magic caters to the herd, so the greatest number of hikers can partake in the merriment that ensues upon finding someone grilling hotdogs and handing out cold beer after walking 26 miles through 90° heat. If you’re outside of the herd, sorry.
Having started the day after kickoff, the gang I was rolling with at the time were still a part of the herd, just at the back of it. It felt like we only passed hikers and no one ever passed us, but we were still sandwiched between a lot behind us and a ton in front of us. We slowly crept up in rank as our mileage was a bit over the average, but the bulk of the herd remained ahead, and the evidence of the carnage they laid on the trail magic was painfully clear.
Whenever we would turn a bend and see one of those blue and white chests ahead, our hearts skipped a beat and our pace suddenly quickened to find what treasure lay inside. More often than not, it was disappointment. Wrappers of donuts, empty soda and beer cans, apple cores and orange peels were the typical fare. If one was lucky, a soda or two might have escaped the ravenous feeding frenzy that had taken place here. Register entries would thank the angels for such refreshing food and beverage, dated just hours prior.
What was really painful was missing the big instances of magic where angels and former hikers came to the trail and served a small feast upon the lucky mob. No less than four times I heard of such amazing occurrences taking place, and each one was missed by no less than eight hours, and sometimes as little as two. It would have been fine had we remained ignorant to the fact that this magic was taking place, but each time we met other hikers who had stayed at the site of the feast, unable to walk from having gorged themselves on so much free, delicious food, and each time they told us how we just missed it and should have been here a couple hours ago. Hamburgers, burritos, ice cream, tequila, pies, beer, all the things that thru-hikers love the most and we missed it each time. My friend Brian even gave me the heads up to the barbecue he was planning, but the brown blazing I was doing after eating something bad at the last town stop kept me from getting there until the next morning after he’d left. It just wasn’t meant to be, I suppose.
It’s only really unfortunate because trail magic is usually in short supply after the Sierras, so I’m told. The herd dissipates and spreads out, so giving trail magic is much less effective, as a day up north will see a fraction of the number of hikers that come through southern California. We’ve seen the most of it, even though we missed it.
I left my original group and moved up in the pack, and am now somewhere in the upper middle part of the herd, currently rolling with Pellet, Drop Dead, Annie Mac and Jimbrick. It’s less than 200 miles before the Sierras begin (technically I’m in them now, but these are hardly mountains compared to what we’re about to encounter), and once that happens magic will be in short supply. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful and I’m happy that my fellow hikers are getting so much and also just to hear that there are people wonderful enough to go out of their way to put on a barbecue for a bunch of smelly transients. And hey, just yesterday I found a couple snickers bars tucked behind a water cache. I really can’t complain.
UPDATE: Since writing this I found trail magic at Walker Pass, featuring beer, soda, junk food, and barbecue. Unfortunately, it’s the one spot that everyone has gotten sick at.