The Kindness of Strangers
When I first started going on solo backpacking trips, one of the things I enjoyed was having to be self-reliant. It was empowering to be miles away from the help I might need if something went wrong. I felt like the success of each trip was entirely dependent on my preparation and decision-making. I made mistakes, of course, and occasionally I still do. However, these days, I’ve come to expect that my backpacking will go off without a hitch.
The thing that concerned me, when I first started planning for the PCT, was that I’d have to rely on other people. The trail angels who stock water caches in the desert. The staff of the PCTA who update the list of trail closures. Everyone responsible for getting my resupply packages to their destination in time. People I would never actually meet but would have to depend on.
My biggest thru-hiking concern was the prospect of hitchhiking: it seemed like the opposite of self-reliance. By standing at the side of the road with my thumb out, I’d be announcing to the world that I needed help. Without my car, I would be abandoning my independence and putting my faith in the kindness of strangers. I really shouldn’t have worried.
The Lionshead Fire Closure
It was a windy, overcast start to the day on the south slope of Mount Hood. I couldn’t see the sun, but my GPS informed me that daytime had started a few minutes ago. After a couple of miles, I crossed Highway 35 and passed a north-bounder. A few miles and a handful of hikers later, I arrived at the Frog Lake Trailhead. Although the Lionshead Fire closure was only 20 miles long, it effectively took out 85 miles of PCT. My schedule was tight, so I decided to skip the entire section and pick up the trail at Santiam Pass. After waiting about 20 minutes beside (the very busy) Highway 26, a car stopped – my first ever hitch.
The driver introduced herself as Renee (trail name: She-Ra). She was going to PCT Days at Cascade Locks, but went out of her way to drop me at Government Camp. Her organization advocates for Oregon’s high desert, which the 750 mile Oregon Desert Trail passes through. (As more of the west burns, I’m glad we have alternatives to the traditional long-distance trails.) In the rest-area on the edge of town, I checked the bus timetable, and my heart sank. The bus company had temporarily cut its schedule and there wouldn’t be a bus for two days. Time for plan B.
At the gas station, I asked if I could have a cardboard box and borrow a Sharpie. They said “yes” to the cardboard but “no” to the pen. When I pointed to the mug full of pens on the counter, I received a resounding no. I guessed their reasons were pandemic-related. They probably wanted to keep their Sharpies out of the grubby hands of soap-dodging hiker trash like me. Still, I now had a piece of cardboard and a baseline for how much help I should expect from people.
The gas station didn’t sell marker pens, and the general store was half a mile away. Half an hour later, I arrived back at the rest area with my shiny new purchase. I sat down under the eaves of the public restroom to work on my “Madras/Redmond” sign. As the passing tourists cast suspicious glances in my direction, I outlined each letter carefully. I was aiming for a font that was neat and tidy, but not so precise that it might suggest “potential serial killer.” Once I was happy with the result, I went to stand at the entrance to the parking lot. As before, I only had to wait about 20 minutes before being offered a ride. Ethan was driving to Prineville to visit his family but was only too happy to make a detour via Redmond. He literally saved the day.
For my first resupply in southern California, it took more than an hour to hitch a ride to Lake Isabella. There were plenty of gravel trucks going over Walker Pass, but surprisingly few passenger vehicles. It soon became clear that the trucks weren’t going to stop, even if some of them cheerfully honked as they passed. While waiting, I did win a consolation prize though.
The driver of a white van going towards Lake Isabella, without slowing down even slightly, threw me a gift. This driver had skills. Using their left arm, through the driver’s side window, they lobbed a small package up and over their van. The box, traveling at least 50 mph, followed a graceful arc before hitting the ground about five feet from me. It skidded past and came to a halt in some sagebrush. I retrieved it, dusted it off, and examined the colorful artwork: six Little Debbie Zebra Cake Rolls.
Shortly after 11 a.m., a car pulled over. The driver introduced himself as Brian, an Emergency Medical Technician who lived in Mountain Mesa. He dropped me off (at least five miles beyond where he lived) at the Grocery Outlet in Lake Isabella. Before going inside, I took a few minutes to search for nearby hotels on my phone. While I was browsing, a car stopped and a man exited the passenger side.
He walked over and offered me a brown bag. “Would you like a sandwich?”
It took me a moment to comprehend, but then I saw the logo on the side of his car. It belonged to a homeless-outreach charity. I declined his kind offer, almost apologetically. As he got back in the car, I heard him explain to the driver what had happened. “He’s a hiker, not homeless.”
After watching a beautiful sunrise above an inversion layer, I left camp and descended into the cloud. The rest of the morning was cold, damp, and windy. The trail was mostly downhill, but by walking quickly, I stayed warm without having to use extra layers. At noon, I arrived at the Cajon Pass McDonald’s to find it extremely busy. I took off my backpack while I assessed the situation.
The drive-thru line was backed up into the street, and the parking lot was half-full. People who would normally have sat inside the restaurant were eating in their cars. All the seating inside McDonald’s was closed, but a handful of people were ordering at the counter. Half of the outside seating was also closed.
Returning to my backpack, I opened it and started rummaging for my jacket. I was already starting to shiver, and I’d definitely need the extra layer while sitting outside. I also wanted to cover my filthy t-shirt before going inside to order. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone get out of a car and walk in my direction. As they approached, I looked up to see a man with a concerned look on his face.
As I met his gaze, he spoke. “Are you OK? Are you hungry?”
This time, I knew instantly what was happening. I assured the Good Samaritan that I was fine (which was true) and that I wasn’t hungry (which was a lie). He looked a little embarrassed and didn’t hang around for me to explain further. If he had, I would have told him that his gesture wasn’t just kind, it was genuinely touching.
To the east of Silverwood Lake, I met an 80-year-old day hiker named Frank. He was bird-watching at the side of the trail and we chatted for a few minutes. I happened to mention my ongoing craving for fruit, and Frank reached into his pack and gave me a banana.
Now, every time I eat a banana, I’m reminded of that afternoon. In fact, even though I’ve been off-trail for several months, thoughts of the PCT frequently pop into my head. What’s surprised me about these spontaneous memories is that they’re not all sunrises and sunsets, or moments of solitude and self-reliance. Many of them involve the people I met and how they helped me in some small, or perhaps significant, way. Maybe gratitude is slightly addictive.
One last thing. My apologies if I chatted with you and we didn’t get around to introductions, or if I subsequently forgot your name. To everyone I talked to: thanks for making the PCT more enjoyable.
Alania, Beth, Big Red, Billy Goat, Bitchin’, Bojee, Brandon, Brian, Bunkhouse, Cameron, Cheez-Its, Christina, Chuckwalla, Coffee Break, Crazy Uncle Rick, Cutie, D’Shawn, Dabbles, Denise, Doug, Ellis, Eric, Ethan, Frank, Good Grip, Grahams, Grandpa Mac, Guppy, Hanna, Happy, Hawaii, Hot Start, Jack, Jackrabbit, Jazzy, Jeff, Jessica, Jewel, Jim, Joe, John, Jon, Jordan, Kathleen, Kemo, Kendra, Late Show, Laura, Lauren, Lightning Rod, Lobo, Marta, Meltdown, Noah, Old School, Pacman, Pancake, Paul, Queen Fireball, Rachel, Ralph, Ramona, Rooster, Rotisserie, Ryan, Sarah, She-Ra, Slowly Dying, Snack Pack, Soul, Sparky, Spider, Spud, Stacy, Stephen, Stickers, Suzy, The Librarian, Toes, Too Tall, Tortoise, Trash Panda, Trevor, Tristan, Wendy, Where’s Linda?, Whisper, Wolfman, Wonder Woman.
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