July 14th, Monday
Bear Creek to 1261 (Big Creek Road)
Fortunately, it was cooler the next morning. Zach and I woke up feeling refreshed, and quickly packed up to tackle a huge climb. The trail rose steadily upward in the next several miles, covering about 3,000 feet of elevation gain. All too quickly the sun turned hot above our heads, and as we climbed into a more alpine regions, we had no shelter from the light. I began sweating from every pore: my eyebrows, my nose, my chin, my collarbone, my fingertips. My lips tasted salty with sweat. I had to giggle— I had never sweated quite this hard before!
We were trying to make good miles today so that we could end up at our next resupply point, Belden Town, tomorrow afternoon. There was a trail angel there who accepted hiker boxes and allowed hikers to stay overnight, which we were excited about.
However, in the late morning we came across an unexpected sign:
HONKERS PASS TRAIL ANGELS
FREE Laundry, Showers, Food, Mattresses
It had an address and a phone number with it, and we saw that it was about a mile off-trail. Zach and I stopped and stared in wonder. Unexpected trail angels? For real? We debated for all of five minutes, but it didn’t take long for us to decide that a detour for free showers was more than worth it. Our clothes were literally soaked in sweat.
So on we walked, at a much quicker pace, passing over a ridge of mountains before finally stepping out onto a paved road. We began walking down the hill along the shoulder, sweaty and silent.
When we were about halfway there, a big jeep pulled up, loaded down with hikers. “Hop in!” Catdog yelled from the passenger seat.
Zach and I immediately stuffed ourselves in, with our backpacks on our laps. Two girls we’d seen earlier were there (Park and BFF, as they now introduced themselves) too. And the woman driving introduced herself as Nancy, the trail angel!
She pulled up to her cabin, where she lived during the summer to host hikers. It was a huge, beautiful cabin with a large wooden deck complete with a ping-pong table and picnic tables with an umbrella. Attached to the deck was a “hiker hut” just for us.
Nancy, tan and dressed in a floral shirt, and smiling with both her lips and her eyes, was one of the most laid-back people I’d ever met. She moved with natural grace, and opened a huge grill and asked who would like burgers. While the meat was cooking, there was plenty to do: she had a shower, laundry, sewing machine, loaner clothes, and phone!
Overwhelmed, Zach and I grabbed some loaner clothes and treated ourselves to showers and laundry. Granted, we had been able to do laundry in Sierra City four days ago, and had showered just a little over a week ago (not to mention the dip in the Feather River yesterday), but the sticky heat had made us pretty filthy!
Half an hour later, I sat on a picnic bench, my wet hair feeling nice in the heat, the cotton loaner clothes soft against my skin, with my bare feet on the warm wood deck. Nancy put a hamburger in front of me along with a giant platter of fixins and half a watermelon, sliced. A cute Jack Russell terrier and some of Nancy’s grandchildren raced around the pleasant shaded deck and yard.
I made myself an avocado bacon cheeseburger and ate way too much watermelon. Zach and I chatted with Catdog, BFF, and Park. The latter two were finishing out degrees in school— Park, skinny and short, was very close to getting her PhD in neuroscience. Park said that her brother had never gone to college, but instead learned to work on race cars, and now has a lucrative job teaching rich people how to drive their fancy cars. He had amassed quite a bit of money, and had even dated Mark Zuckerberg’s sister for a while. Park, with her mere neuroscience PhD in the works, said she always felt like she was the loser of the family.
BFF, sweet and quiet and nearly my height, had hiked several long sections of trails, including a big part of the Continental Divide Trail, which was a lot of fun to hear about. However, she and Park were getting off trail for a little while here, because they both had foot injuries that needed to heal. They were hoping to pick up around Etna in a couple hundred miles and make it to the border. We wished them luck.
Zach and I, never knowing what to do with ourselves when we had finished our camp chores, decided to walk to the convenience store (about a quarter mile away) and buy snacks and decide what to do. We bought some chips and soda and candy.
Now that we were showered and resupplied, I had an urge to keep hiking— that impulse never quite left me. Zach thought I was insane. “Just remember,” Zach said, “every time we’ve left a trail angel’s house early, we regretted it.”
“Yeah…” I said, still only half-convinced.
When we got back, though, there was a bustle of people, with some new arrivals. The word was spread: Nancy was making lasagna tonight! That sealed our decision in my head, and Zach kindly refrained from saying “told ya so.”
Soon the smells of pasta sauce and cheese wafted outside from the cabin’s open door. Nancy came outside to check something, and Park glanced in the cabin to see a giant flame leaping up from the kitchen. A hot pad had caught on fire! Nancy rushed inside and sprayed it with the fire extinguisher. Again, though, she didn’t seem terribly upset— once the fire was out and she saw that no damage had been done, she just laughed.
Nancy’s homemade lasagna (with the accompanying salad with every fixin you could imagine) was incredible beyond compare. Cheese and oil and pasta sauce and meat all layered together with noodles made my body sing for joy. Zach and I sat crowded around a table with the growing number of hikers, savoring every bite of that gourmet dish. Meanwhile, Nancy left in her jeep to pick up another group of hikers.
Before she got back, a bedraggled-looking hiker walked up. He had slightly curly black hair, a long black beard, and an accent we couldn’t identify. We quickly showed him the free food, and soon he was sitting next to us, chowing down on the lasagna and making appreciate noises.
“So what’s your name?” I asked.
I nearly fell out of my seat. “Happy Man! We camped with you, like, on day three!”
He was surprised to see us too, and did remember us. Seeing him transported me back to the third day of the trail, the day I got my trail name, the day that Zach was limping so badly I thought we were done for, the day that I went to bed crying because our mashed potatoes were grainy.
“Holy cow,” I said. “That was eons ago.”
Soon after, Nancy returned and unloaded a gaggle of hikers. I was pleased to see that we recognized several of them, if only by face. Sideshow and Shuffle I recognized first, as the couple who we’d seen in the desert, at Walker Pass, and at Kennedy Meadows.
The lasagna was all gone by this point, so Nancy fired up the grill and made the new group of people burgers to go with the salad. Two of the guys started a ping-pong game, and a bunch of us hung around and laughed and talked.
We discussed a moral dilemma for tomorrow: Nancy had offered to drop everyone off at a trailhead four miles from where we’d been picked up. Should we skip the four miles, or not? Zach and I were undecided. Some of the people were for sure taking it. Others were on the fence, while some were playfully adamant. “Dude,” one guy said to another, “if you skip those four miles, I’m gonna call you a section hiker the rest of the trail.”
“Oooooooh!” we all yelled.
For sleeping arrangements that night, Nancy laid out foam mattresses in a grid on the deck. Zach and I claimed two mattresses and pulled them together, settling in next to the other hikers like a flock of roosting birds. Some people were still playing ping-pong and drinking a little beer, but by 10:00, pretty much everyone was in bed or at least quiet. Only hikers! We fell asleep, full and warm and happy. This had to be one of my favorite places yet.