PCT section E, mile 454 – 548, Agua Dulce to Tehachapi, via Hiker Town mile 518 in the SW corner of the Mojave desert.
After weeks of hiking through a mix of forested and chaparral mountain ranges, some with snow, others bright green with spring grasses and new growth, I entered this drier desert section with mixed feelings. On the one hand, this was what I had come for: to experience the desert and meet my fear of dry, waterless and shadeless trail. On the other hand, my overworked and painful knee made me wonder if I should leave the trail to let my knee heal. However the rest and hospitality at Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce gave me the courage to tackle the next stretch.
Trail magic sustains and supports long distance hikers. There comes a moment on a long hike you don’t anticipate, can’t plan for in advance; a moment when you need support from others on the journey. L-Donna (and her husband) at Hiker Heaven has dedicated 20 yrs of her life to supporting PCT thru hikers. A hiker herself in the past, she knows the needs of a thru hiker and opens up her property 3 months of the year for hikers to rest, get laundry done, repairs made, charge electronic devices, re-supply, mail stuff home, receive packages, watch movies, rest and hang out with other hikers, shower, cook and exchange trail information. L-Donna does everyone’s laundry for them! She has a few volunteers who manage the mailing and post-office pick-up, and live in a colorful VW-bus on the property. All of this is offered at no charge. There isn’t even a donation box; you have to make an effort to contribute monetarily to this venture.
When I walked off in the early morning from Hiker Heaven through a landscape of horse ranches, with smells of fresh cut hay in the air, I wondered what motivated Donna to do this service year after year. She wouldn’t tell me as she spent an afternoon cleaning the hiker trailer, changing linens on the couches by the TV, and scrubbing the hiker kitchen. “Can I help,” I asked? “No, you can help by getting out of here and sit somewhere outside and rest your knee,” was her answer. She runs a tight ship, has a list of rules of conduct, keeps the place cleaned up and looks after everyone. I saw others around her pick up on her generous spirit and share resources, or form new alliances for hiking. Donna is an ambassador for community building, for spreading kindness and, albeit temporary, offering a world of harmony. Flashbacks to my commune days in the 70ties went through my head as I hiked on. Where did it go wrong with the communal spirit of the 60ties and 70ties I thought. Will young people (and older ones) figure it out this time?
Soon my attention was on climbing the exposed slope to my camping destination for the night. A cool breeze kept me from overheating and fortified by Hiker Heaven rest I hiked 17 miles that day, despite my bum knee. The next few days friendly faces of hikers I had shared a room or campsite with in the last few weeks kept popping up. I now was part of a group that moved along the trail at a similar speed. I had a trail family! The magic of a trail family is the moral boost you get when the going gets tough. A smile, a shared rest stop, someone to complain to about pain, temperature or trail condition. Also someone to share lunch and siesta with. So I talked with the Finnish young couple about their plans for moving to Portugal, listened to the 50some woman who left home and husband to give herself a new purpose as she was dealing with an empty nest, and shared shade with my Welsh Brexit-man on a windy spot near the only cistern with good water that day. Travelers who have an open itinerary opened up about life and ideals, and together we puzzled over new solutions to age-old societal problems.
On the fifth day of this section, after a loud night time thunder storm, I walked through orange and yellow flower meadows down into Mojave valley’s Hiker Town. Hiker town looks like a movie set out in nowhere, right along the trail. It is a conglomeration of wild west movie set fronts with rooms built on to accommodate hikers at $10.- a night. Laundry can be done by hand, a shuttle takes you to one of the two cafe/stores where you can get a meal and re-supply. This is corporate trail magic. A large corporation, Tejon Ranch, established with a movie producer’s money owns the land and the “town. For the longest time TJ Ranch resisted to open their land to a trail for thru hikers. After much back and forth the PCT organization pulled their trump card to get the last part of the PCT completed. They threatened to start condemnation procedures. TJ Ranch surrendered, and they completed the trail. In the process of dealing with hikers, caretakers of the Hiker Town property learned that hikers aren’t dangerous or irresponsible and a re-supply stop was born. I think the magic that happened was that hikers changed the TJ people’s outlook and a place with trail magic could exist.
As I hiked the chaparral covered mountains with my bum knee, I had concluded it would be better not to risk permanent damage and cut my trip short in Tehachapi. The open desert lay before me and I wanted to experience walking through the Mojave flat land. Three days to Tehachapi, could I do it? An exposed, windy 18-mile walk to the next water source lay ahead. As we were sitting around with other hikers and talking about our hikes, a man arrived who joined the conversation. When I mentioned needing to go slow and hoping to make it across the aqueduct, he offered to be my walking partner. And so an angel walked into my hiking life. Attilio’s caring attitude, his willingness to go my pace and make sure I would be OK, has given me hope and confidence in humanity (maybe he was a real angel and showed up to teach me how to be a better human being). He shared stories of his life, his indigenous Mexican heritage and family (the Carlos Castaneda theme was still hanging around!) and his outlook on bringing humans together by being nice to them was a shot in the arm for believing that we can live in harmony with strangers, that we can build a world in which we support each other with no need for monetary return. I learned on this section hike that the more vulnerable I was, the more support came my way. A’s girlfriend picked us up at the trail head to Tehachapi. A day of rest and getting clean and I had a ride to the airport with my hiker angel.
30 Days and 30 nights of roaming the desert was a soul journey. It gave me 350 miles of hiking, a new look at life, a respectable 2000 miles of PCT trail under my belt, a slimmer self, new knowledge about my bodies limitations, and a new love for the possibilities of humanity.