Evans searches for elusive PCT do-gooders.
Since summer began in Mammoth, it’s been hard to miss the influx of backpackers through town. Some post up at the laundromats and coffee shops, others queue up to send and receive packages at the post office. Some are on short backcountry trips, but others stop here as part of their long trek along the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) that runs 2,650 miles from Mexico, through California, Oregon and Washington and then up into Canada.
I recently heard talk about trail angels along the PCT and began a mission to track at least one down—a quest that has proven much more difficult than I imagined.
First I had to ask: What is a trail angel?
Jack Haskel, Trail Information Specialists at Pacific Coast Trail Association (PCTA), said trail angels “are individuals who get a real kick out of giving back and doing something nice. They are interested in the PCT but maybe can’t get out and hike themselves.” Trail angels give free rides, provide free food, hand out water and supplies, and even restock designated areas out on the trail.
“Trail angel is a catch-all term with no system behind it. There are no requirements. Some people who are doing trail angel activities have no idea people call them that. Others have been doing it for months at a time for decades,” Haskel said.
“Trail angels are people doing planned and unplanned trail magic.”
My obvious next question: What is trail magic?
“Trail magic refers to almost not random coincidences” such as being picked up and offered a place to sleep right after wishing for that very thing, Haskel said. Or stumbling into poison oak and then finding calamine lotion in a cache just up the trail.
One hiker’s blog, inspireout.org, explains, “We could not be successful if it weren’t for random acts of kindness (known as “Trail Magic”) that these incredible kind-hearted people or persons perform on a regular basis. Trail Magic includes transportation, accommodation, food, etc … You may not remember us, but we definitely remember you!”
The blog writer listed Sy and Haillee for “the ride back to Horseshoe Lake” and Kevin at Footloose as an angel who gave them trekking poles from his garage—although, I couldn’t track any of these people down. Several friends around town admitted to giving hikers rides from Horseshoe, Red’s Meadow and around town. But they had never heard of trail angels either.
As I began scouring the Internet trying to find trail angels in Mammoth, or at least somewhere in the Eastern Sierra, I came across a hiker’s blog with a photo of Rick Dodson, a retired firefighter and volunteer member of the Mono County Search and Rescue Team. Dodson is nicknamed Big Red and the photo caption reads, “Big Red lives here in Mammoth, CA and has gotten off-trail, but has become a first-class trail angel instead.”
Finally! A real life trail angel!
“I wasn’t the true sense of a trail angel on the PCT,” Dodson said. He explained he had met hikers while solo-hiking 300 miles on the southern section of the trail. “I was going in and out of Red’s Meadow picking up some of the people I hiked with.”
“True trail angels are along the areas of trail where it’s pretty desolate, pretty dry. When there is a real need for water and food,” he said. Dodson doesn’t call himself a trail angel, reserving the term for people who follow hikers the entire length of the trail or help out “with a specific purpose.”
“They’ll bring out food, water, beers, sodas,” he said. Dodson has heard of an ice chest on top of Silver Pass, between Bishop and Tuolumne, that people stock with “old cheap beer and candy bars” but it’s not always full. And Dodson hasn’t been there himself.
Doug Burchwood at Mammoth Mountaineering said the shop gets “tons” of PCT hikers coming into their store to restock supplies and repair equipment. “This is their main stop. I call myself the REI fix-it guy,” he said. But when I asked him about trail angels, he had never even heard of them.
As I tried my best to explain what the angels do, he mentioned a “kid” that hands out buttons and water at different trail heads in the area in an attempt to “get (hikers) all stoked out.” He said hikers bring the buttons into the store with them—buttons with a picture of the kid’s face.
Jon Crowley, also at Mammoth Mountaineering, knew about trail angels but couldn’t think of anyone specific—until he remembered Dodson. “Every time I see him, he’s talking about how he gave these hikers a ride,” he said.
When I mentioned I had already spoken to Dodson, Crowley admitted he probably doesn’t consider himself an angel. “I have a feeling hikers call people trail angels but no one really calls themselves a trail angel,” Crowley said.
Dodson, Crowley and Haskel all said trail angels aren’t as common in the Eastern Sierra as other parts of the PCT. “Water isn’t as hard to come by and hitching into town is easy,” Crowley said. “It’s more common down in the desert where there used to be water sources but there no longer are. Some people make it their job to stock hundreds of gallons of water for hikers.”
“In the Eastern Sierra, business owners are exceptionally kind to through hikers on the PCT and John Muir Trail,” Haskel said. “They go above and beyond to help hikers up the trail—from Independence, Lone Pine, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. There’s less of a need for trail angels and free places to stay.”
Haskel also mentioned that sometimes trail angels are actually trail maintainers, helping preserve and build sections of the trail that are in disrepair. “We’re always looking for more volunteers in the Eastern Sierra,” he said and urged potential volunteers to contact the PCTA for more information about how to get involved.
I still haven’t found a self-designated trail angel—someone consciously performing trail magic for PCT hikers. Someone who believes in the PCT and hiking to the extent of spending their summers or days off restocking caches and waiting at trail heads. But apparently they exist.