Saved By Angels

Up In Smoke

Even before I got to Hart’s Pass, I knew something was wrong.

There were signs. When I topped the pass just south of Harts, I saw white smoke billowing into the sky a few of miles distant. And the wind had picked up that morning. The previous day the ranger at Rainy Pass told us the trail to Canada was still open, but there were wrinkles of concern around her eyes.

“Don’t chance it if the smoke gets bad,” she said, “It’s not worth the risk.”

We were all looking forward to Harts Pass because we expected magic, a last hurrah before the final push to Canada, the PCT’s iconic northern terminus, and the end of our long trek. Sure enough, when I stepped onto the dirt road leading to the ranger station, I saw clusters of hikers with beers and paper plates of food grouped in quiet conversation. It reassured me, and yet, something wasn’t right. There were too many people, and the vibe was wrong.

I made eye contact with a German hiker I knew. “There are so many of you,” I had joked on more than one occasion, “pretty soon the trail signs will be in German too!” He lifted his chin in recognition, picked up a beer and walked towards me, nodding his head as if he were acknowledging a sad truth.

“Have you heard the news?,” he asked, handing me the beer.

I shook my head, afraid of what he would say.

“The way to end is closed my friend. The rangers shut down the trail an hour ago.”

In my heart, I already knew.  But it didn’t matter, his words hit me like a sucker-punch to the gut. The beautiful, hopeful vision I’d carried for over 2600 miles, of standing before the PCT’s Northern Terminus in triumph and glory, was gone. Burned away in an instant.

Up in smoke.

Dazed and disappointed hikers after the PCT closure at Harts Pass.



Magic & Deliverance

I walked over to the campsite where the trail magic was happening. Weaving my way through the throng of hikers, I came to the cornucopia of generosity the angels had laid out for us. There was a picnic table laden with snacks, coolers on the benches packed with soda and beer, and a nearby grill with sizzling burgers. I deeply appreciated everything, but after so many miles and so much magic, I also felt like I’d earned it. Shame on me, I just saw the food and barely noticed the angels.

Grabbing a paper plate from a small folding table holding buns, pickles, and condiments, I stumbled over to the young woman working the grill.  She smiled, slid a cheeseburger onto a bun, and plopped it on my plate.

“You hiked a long, long way for this burger, and you deserve it!” she proclaimed, “That’s pretty awesome.”

I numbly accepted the food, mumbled thanks, and tried to acknowledge her kindness. It was hard, though; I felt defeated, not awesome.

I’m smiling, but inside I’m dying. Stopped 30 miles short of Canada, my dreams of attaining the Northern Terminus burned away by the fire.

I eased into one of the empty camp chairs the angels had arranged in a circle around a gas heater. I took a swig of the beer, bit into my cheeseburger – delicious! – and watched the hikers around me. My trail companions displayed a range of emotions. There was frustration and disillusionment, of course, but also outright sorrow, anger, and defiance. Some were in tears, others vowed to push through no matter what. Fire and smoke be damned.

Yet there were also nods of acceptance and exhaled breaths of relief. The worst had finally come, and yet here we were, still whole.

I think most of us were simply numb, unsure of what to do next. So, we sat, ate, drank, and talked. We talked about the trail and the fire, about how far we’d come, and asked one another if this was really it. We discussed options, commiserated, and struggled to come to terms with what lay before us.

Saved By Angels

Slowly, the shock wore away, and we began to realize, and then deeply appreciate, how lucky we were to have come on angels and their healing magic.

Can you imagine, we asked each other, what would it have been like if the angels hadn’t been here? Coming to the pass, learning of the closure, and having only our crushed dreams to share? No restorative food and drink, no kindness to comfort us, no warmth of support?

True angels, the Smith family brought magic, kindness and comfort to Harts Pass when it was sorely needed.

And consider this: Our angels, the Smiths, this gracious family of caring souls, had driven their two vans three hours from their home in Wenatchee, up the rough and just recently cleared road from Mazama to Harts Pass, and lost a muffler along the way. They’d bought the groceries, paid for the gas, put in the work, and gave their time to bring a feast of encouragement and support to the trail. Crates of food, a grill, tanks of propane, coolers of soda and beer, and all the accoutrements that magic requires.

They had done all that for us.  All that work and effort. For us.

Stopped so close to Canada, so close to the end, reeling shock and disbelief, they were our redeemers. Our ministering angels. They saved us from bleak devastation and unalloyed despair.  Like medics in the aftermath of a lost battle, they kept the food coming, spoke words of encouragement, and helped coordinate evacuations down to Mazama. They fed us, soothed our spirits, and most importantly, they helped us navigate that last and most difficult part of our journey: its ending.


Trail angels embody that divine spark we hope is inside each of us. They give much and give it freely.  All those amazing people and their random acts of kindness.

Is there a hiker whose spirit has not been lifted by the sight of a portable awning, a smoking grill, and circle of chairs in a parking lot or forest clearing?

They don’t just bring magic to the trail, they support our journey with soul-nourishing succor. From Mexico to Canada, in small towns, isolated trailheads and trailside parking lots, they are out there rooting for us, helping us achieve our dream, wanting us to succeed, and doing what they can to make it happen. Trail angels provide strong evidence that the world is a good and caring place, that people help one another, and that our lives are blessed.

Angels like John, the guy wearing the “Namaste” t-shirt in the photo at the top of this post. He gave three of us a ride from Burney, CA, to the PCT trailhead. He looked like Santa, had the gentleness of a Buddhist monk, and the patience of a saint. He unhesitatingly offered to take us back to the trail, then waited nearly an hour while we scrambled to get our shit together. What a mensch. And like so many others, he was happy to help.

His t-shirt was spot-on too.  Namaste – “I bow to you” – is a bit of cliché these days, but the Sanskrit word retains its gravitas and conveys deep appreciation and respect. It fit John perfectly because that’s how treated us, and it was how we felt about him.

And so, to John, the Smith family, and all the other angels who graced my path last summer, namaste.

Bless you all.

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Comments 3

  • Mark : Mar 20th

    Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.

    • Todd Wellnitz : Mar 22nd

      Trail angels were a super-important source of moral support on the PCT. Given that the CDT is less popular and traverses less populated regions, I’m expecting trail angels will be fewer and farther between, which will only make them and their magic more precious. When I complete the Triple Crown, God willing, I’m looking forward to doing some magic myself. I owe it to those who come after me.
      Thanks for reading, Mark.


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