I am sitting on a bed in a mobile home in Agua Dulce, California, freshly showered and in clean clothes. Down the hall is a fully stocked bathroom and a kitchen complete with appliances, plates and utensils. There is a barbecue outside, free rides into town every hour and a half, and a lounge with bean bags and colored LED lights.
This isn’t a hip hostel – it’s someone’s private property, and I’m staying here two nights free of charge. If that’s sounds extraordinary to you, it is, and it isn’t. Locals along the trail have welcomed us into their homes up and down the trail.
It isn’t always a roof to sleep under. “Trail Angels,” as they’re called, might give us a ride from the trail to the grocery store. The first time we hitchhiked, we didn’t even stick out our thumb before multiple cars pulled over. Sometimes, it’s free food. On Monday, as we criss-crossed Highway 2 outside Los Angeles, enough cars pulled over to hand us snacks (and beer) that I began to resent the extra weight it was adding to my backpack.
The hospitality is wonderful to experience, but I find myself asking: Why help us? While I’m wholly appreciative of the generosity we’ve received, I can’t deny that there are people in the world who are more needy than us. The average PCT hiker is a young person with enough financial means to support themselves for six months without income – we’re pretty lucky that we can afford to do this. Our journey doesn’t help others, we do it for ourselves. So why give food and shelter to me, rather than the needy and the hungry?
In some cases, the answer is clear. One car that pulled over on Highway 2 was a couple from Luxembourg. They decided to spend their 8-day vacation driving around Southern California to different sections of the trail, setting up a table with cheese, meat, bread and fruit, and passing out Coronas to the hikers as they walk by. Why would two Europeans spend their vacation like this? Well, turns out the couple met on the trail two years earlier. They were planning to hike the Continental Divide Trail this year, traversing the Rockies, but now she’s about to give birth to a future PCT hiker so they had to put that plan on hold. But even with their history on the PCT, it’s amazing an expecting mother in the third trimester would want to spend her vacation in rural California passing out bananas to smelly hikers.
It other instances, there is a financial interest. In some of the smaller towns we pass through, restaurants offer freebies – hot dogs, biscuits and gravy, apple pie, beer. The bait is effective. The lure of free coffee at a cafe in Wrightwood turned into sit-down breakfast, and we didn’t get back on trail until much later that morning than intended.
The local entrepreneurs know their customers, too. At a cafe near Idyllwild frequented by hikers, one man swung by to offer the latest information on trail closures, while simultaneously passing out business cards for his local marijuana dispensary.
But still, the average trail angel is a local who has never hiked the PCT and has nothing to sell. What explains their generosity? In Wrightwood, California, I gingerly posed this question to the woman who hosted me and three others in her camping trailer for a night. She told me that it started a few years ago, during a particularly cold winter. She saw the hikers camping in the snow, and she felt obligated to offer her living room as an overnight shelter. It turned out easy enough to do, she said, that she kept taking hikers in, even when the weather got warmer.
I expect that it is the local, in-person connection that spurs the generosity of trail angels. Donating to the Red Cross might be a superior cause, but with hikers, the beneficiary of your generosity interacts with you directly, and you witness their appreciation face-to-face. Plus, the homeless might be more worthy of sympathy, but people don’t know what a panhandler might do with their earnings. With a PCT hiker, that mystery is gone: they’re walking to Canada, which is simple and innocuous enough. And you know your generosity is making that journey easier.
I’m in no way arguing that becoming a trail angel is a kind of charity more people should consider, and I’m not downplaying how amazing and heart-warming it’s been to receive this help as I journey northwards. But maybe the appeal of the kind of face-to-face hospitality I’ve witnessed on the PCT could be put to use in other causes. The world is full of trail angels, I’m sure, if they could just connect with those in need nearby.
A huge thanks to all of the trail angels who I’ve met thus far, especially Bonnie and Mark Kamp, and Bob Barge. You guys rock, and your hospitality has made this adventure even better than it was already going to be.
For the trail, here is a photo of Kristen holding a pine cone bigger than her head. She was very excited about it.