Hikers' helping hands

A long-distance hiker was hauling an efficient, 10-pound pack on his back, stuffed with only the bare essentials. Yet "Charlie," a 30something who only wanted to give his trail name, was perfectly content when he was coming down the Pacific Crest Trail near Mount Ashland on July 7. He was sipping a cold can of Coke that a trail angel had left for him.

Trail angels are people who donate supplies and their time — sometimes their front lawn and showers — to help hikers traversing parts or all of the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the Mexico-U.S. border to Canada.

Since hikers moving 20 or more miles a day don't want to be weighed down, they quickly run out of dehydrated food and water. A welcoming sight is anything cool, fresh or indulgent left for them by a stranger.

Who are these benevolent souls who clear the path after storms or fill a water cache? Few are known by name.

Trail angels aren't likely to brag about the good deeds they do, says Bea Gilliam, who owns the Ashland Mountain Supply store on the Plaza and has seen hundreds of hikers who stop here after walking 1,700 miles from Mexico or shorter sections of the PCT.

"No one knows who puts the food and drinks on the trail around here," she says. "That's why they're called 'angels.'"

A few blocks away at the Ashland Outdoor Store, the staff lets hikers park their backpacks for the day so they can be unburdened while they find inexpensive eats, the post office to collect their resupply boxes and a computer to plan the next steps on their journey.

On the store's front counter is a leather-bound book that PCT hikers sign when they arrive in town. Jeff Henderson, who works at the store, says sometimes trail angels will write in the book and offer help.

Most of the time, however, customers overhear hikers' needs and offer to drive them to a trailhead or get them medical attention if needed. Recently, a PCT page was added to the store's website (www.outdoorstore.com/forum) to allow hikers to connect with trail angels.

A Eugene couple whose trail names are "Snowplow" and "Rubber Legs" posted that they need a ride to the Siskiyou Summit trailhead in mid-August to start their journey to Willamette Pass. "We can walk it if we have to, but pavement isn't our preferred way to start a hike," wrote Ron and Julie Cluster. "Will gladly chip in for the gas."

Volunteers willing to help hikers are as unique as the PCT itself, which includes long walks through desert and snowy passes. In some parts, there are legendary trail angels who open their property to 50 or more hikers at a time for free. Other spots are less organized, but equally generous, says Jack Haskel of the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

In the Ashland area, there isn't a homeowner who hosts a large number of hikers, he says, but "there are quite a few friendly people in town. Ashland has a general reputation for friendliness."

Some traveler accommodations, such as the Ashland Hostel, Ashland Motel and Callahan's Mountain Lodge, have earned reputations as welcoming to scruffy, dust-laden hikers.

During this time of year when the PCT hikers are arriving, Ashland residents anonymously set up a trail angel station at Old Highway 99 and wait to offer rides or a place to camp. Other angels leave ice chests or a lidded bucket filled with drinks and food on the trail.

Although Charlie benefited from someone leaving soft drinks on the trail near Mount Ashland, that's not recommended, says Ian Nelson, who manages and maintains the trail in Northern California and Southern Oregon for the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Coolers of food or drink on the path create problems for the wildlife.

A U.S. Forest Service map of the Pacific Crest Trail reminds hikers to leave no trace on public lands, especially wilderness areas, and states that bears who find food become destructive and dangerous when they go looking for more, and often have to be killed.

"It's controversial," says Donna Saufley, a beloved trail angel who welcomed 600 PCT hikers at her Agua Dulce property in Southern California this summer, about 100 more hikers than last year. "Hikers leave trash in the containers, the wind blows, animals come and things happen. I understand both sides of the argument."

Saufley (whose trail name is "Lightning Rod" or "L-Rod" for short) and her husband, Jeff ("Mumbles"), have been welcoming long-distance hikers — blistered by the rocky road and beaten down by the elements — to their property, called Hiker Heaven, for 16 years.

The couple have set up tents and cots for 50 people and offer showers, laundry, first-aid, computers and mail service, all for free.

Volunteers make breakfasts and provide rides to people who have walked 454.4 miles to reach them. It's 60 miles round trip to the nearest REI store to buy new shoes, which last only about 500 miles.

Saufley, 56, who didn't know the term "trail angel" until she heard it from the first hikers she helped out, says, "They come from all over the world and you couldn't ask for a nicer bunch of people."

Her voice gets soft when she speaks about those who decide to tackle the trail. "The people who choose to do the PCT and what the PCT does to them is humbling."

She pauses, then adds: "Helping them is our way of celebrating them."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.

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