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The Path of Kindness

'Trail angels' provide water, food, even lodging for hikers on the Pacific Crest

July 17, 2002|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By his 454th mile, with the brutal Mojave Desert just ahead, 33-year-old hiker Daryl Waycott would not mind news of, say, a quick, biblical kind of thunderstorm--which sounds farfetched, maybe, but it's funny how wistful thinking can play out on the rugged Pacific Crest Trail. This time, though, by the time Waycott hikes out of the Angeles National Forest, there are no such glorious tidings of creeks and springs that runneth over.

This year, on the 2,650-mile PCT, the lack of rain--not to mention the heat--is the talk of "through hikers" who are trying to complete the entire route by September or so. On the Southern California part of the rugged trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada, the long-distance hikers are more vigilant than usual in the back country and remote deserts, checking out mudholes, horse troughs, any potential water source. On a hot day, even if you carry 10 pounds of water--about 1 1/4 gallons--you can run perilously low. But just as the worry begins to creep in, Waycott said, he somehow stumbles upon the wondrous.

All along the trail, he is discovering the work of what long-distance hikers call trail angels, or volunteers who devote themselves to providing help along the way. Trail angels, for instance, figure out the spot at which hikers are likely to run into trouble, such as a spring that is listed in a 2-year-old guidebook as a water source--and then turns out to be dry. Unbidden and often anonymously, the angels haul water to the most worrisome places on the trail, up mountains and through deserts, restocking the containers every few days for waves of hikers. (About 200 PCT "through hikers" set out every year; 50 or 60 will finish.)

On a recent morning, Waycott is taking a rest day at the high-desert home of trail angels Donna and Jeff Saufley, near Santa Clarita. Waycott, a software engineer from Bristol, England, had heard about the angels from a friend who had hiked the PCT. But he didn't understand their worth or anticipate a dry spell like this one. From home, he had mailed a package full of supplies to the Lake Hughes post office that could be held for him and picked up before he hit the High Sierra. As it turns out, he won't be needing the ice ax, crampons and other mountaineering gear, Waycott noted with a grin.

Waycott, who is quiet and easygoing, set out on the trail in early May, after flying to San Diego and making his way to Campo, a small town near the Mexican border.

The temperature soared as Waycott headed north with a 25-pound backpack past Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead. He stopped in shade to rest. He waited for cloud cover before moving on. "I thought I was going to have real problems, and then it was right there ... It's amazing when you come across a trail and the cache is right where you need it. You're almost out of water and suddenly there's 5 gallons of water! Wow, someone has really thought about this and where to put it."

One by one, in no organized network, the angels have popped up since the PCT was dedicated in 1993, said Joe Sobinovsky of the Sacramento-based Pacific Crest Trail Assn. In dry seasons like this one, the angels play a particularly important role, said Sobinovsky, program director for the nonprofit group, which promotes and helps maintain the trail. "If it weren't for some of these guys leaving water, it would be a tough year," he said. "When they run across this stuff, it's unbelievable."

Angels are a tradition on long-distance footpaths such as the 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia. On that trail, through hikers help themselves to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that angels hide for them in trees.

On the PCT's Southern California segments, no one knows who all the angels are. Long-distance hikers either stumble across the largess or hear about "caches" by word of mouth. Clues often point the way to the hidden water. Rocks, for instance, are arranged to spell out "H20" with an arrow in the dirt pointing to jugs of water tied together with string.

Near the southern beginning of the trail, angels named "Larry, Larry and David," leave a homemade cabinet stocked with 30 or so 1-gallon jugs of water and a note inviting the hikers to help themselves and have a seat--on chairs labeled "2002 PCT" that the trio built.

Just before hikers reach the western Mojave, they might hear about the angels who provide a cooler stocked with soda, water and beer by a creek. Near Palm Springs, two trail angels have set up a trailer dubbed the "Pink Motel," which offers the backpackers fresh fruit, bread, cold water and other free refreshments.

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