144 to 152, then hitching to Idyllwild
The next morning, we were both in tip-top shape and ready to cover some miles. We had a decision to make: in nine miles, we would reach a cafe at the crossing of a highway. From there, the trail continued ten miles into the middle of nowhere, then abruptly ended with a trail closure that spanned some twenty miles, due to a burn area. There were a few options:
1) Pay for a ride from a trail angel up the jeep road to where the trail was shut, then hike southbound back to the cafe and hitch over to where the trail opened again.
2) Hike up the trail to the closure, then take a complicated (and unmarked) route of side trails, horse trails, and highway-walking to meet up with the PCT again.
3) Skip all the rigamarole and just hitch into Idyllwild and hike up a side trail back to the PCT.
A lot of people really agonized over these options, but Zach and I, despite our raging insecurity about the trail, decided that it just wasn’t worth it to us to try a fancy detour or backtracking. We were just going to hitch around. This would make some people think we weren’t true thru-hikers anymore, but, for once, we didn’t care.
We were up, fed, packed and ready to go by 6:30am, but the sun still felt like it had gained some serious height and heat by that time. Determined, we plugged along through the hills, leaving the boulders behind. We saw white windmills turning in the distance— a sight that didn’t yet strike fear into our hearts.
On that day we began to realize that Zach’s backpack was in trouble. It was sagging, as if the pack was no longer attached to the frame. It was driving Zach crazy. We switched packs for a while, but it sagged horribly, making the weight strain my back instead of resting on my hips. We didn’t know what to do. We certainly couldn’t afford another backpack— that would wipe out almost all of our budget for the rest of the trail.
Despite that growing anxiety, we busted out nine miles and arrived at the Paradise Valley Café, a mile off trail, too early for the lunch menu. I had my heart set on a burger so I was horribly disappointed to only have egg and pancake options.
At the cafe we split an omelet and a soda, which came out to a cool $18. I was almost in tears. How were we supposed to do this trail on our meager budget if a stupid little meal that didn’t even make a dent in our hunger cost us almost 20 freaking bucks?
Still, I tried to put this aside, and called home for the first time on trail. I was glad to hear that no one was in the hospital (in my previous travels, somebody was always in the hospital and/or almost dying all the time), and surprised to hear that Zach’s family was moving from Portland to St. Louis! That was my first cue that we would be returning to a very different home than we had left.
When I had finished calling people and eating our meager (but, to be fair, very tasty) omelet, we wandered out to the road to attempt our first hitchhike.
On the whole trail, I never once was worried about the safety of hitchhiking. I knew that everyone on trail got to towns this way, and I had Zachary with me in any case. But I did feel a bit awkward as I put on a smile and stuck out my thumb.
I doubt that five minutes had passed when a black pick-up pulled up onto the shoulder next to us. A bright-eyed, blonde-haired woman said, “My car is full of junk, but my husband’s right behind me, and he’ll pick you up!” She drove off, and two seconds later another truck pulled up, and the guy inside motioned for us to throw our packs into the back.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in a seat next to a quiet, rather serious middle-aged man, lean and tan and obviously athletic. I’ll call him “John” and his wife “Eileen.” John knew all about the PCT, having hiked extensively both in the area and in Colorado, and told us that he worked with search and rescue in the area. He said that the reason the PCT was closed was to allow the land to recover from a burn in 2012. “Right now there are a lot of ‘ash holes,’” he said, “left behind when trees’ roots get burned into ash. The holes are very treacherous because you can’t see where they are.”
And somewhere after that statement and within a couple minutes, he said, “Would you like to come to our house and have a shower and do laundry?”
I looked back at Zach, who stared at me, dumbfounded. “Yes… please,” he stammered.
Soon we left the desert hills behind and the car climbed up a winding road into Idyllwild, a town tucked onto the side of the mountain among tall, fragrant firs. I was ecstatic to be in a forest again. John pulled up to a nice house overshadowed by pines, and escorted us in.
The living room was large and high-ceilinged, with pleasant white walls adorned with Thomas Kincaid paintings. Two black labs, a grown-up named Digger and a puppy named Boomer, came bounding up to greet us, along with Eileen. Eileen quickly showed us around the house, trailed by their labs. “Here’s the laundry, and the detergent. This is the bathroom— feel free to use any of the soaps or shampoos. The back deck is a really nice place to relax, if you want to just read or call anybody. And here’s your bedroom, if you want it,” she said, opening the door to a beautiful spare room with a comfy-looking bed.
We stared, uncomprehending, but she, without skipping a beat, headed back into the main room. “Now, let’s see, what do we have to eat?”
Exchanging looks to make sure we were experiencing the same hallucination, Zach and I followed her. By the time we reached the kitchen, she already had out bread, deli meat, and mustard. “Do you like cheese? Swiss or havarti? Would you rather have ham or turkey? Mayonnaise and mustard? With some lettuce?”
We answered in short affirmatives, still dazed. I began to giggle. As if something had just occurred to her, she turned abruptly to us. “I’m not making you uncomfortable, am I?” she asked. “I mean, you don’t have reservations at a hotel in town or anything, do you?”
My giggling turned into laughter— I just had no category for how to respond to this. “No, no,” I said. “No, this is amazing. Like, really amazing.”
With a friendly smile, she went back to sandwich-making, and soon gave us heaping sandwiches, followed by another round of heaping sandwiches, followed by freshly-made quesadillas, interspersed with chips, orange juice, and chocolate truffles. She was one of those people who has the gift of making hospitality seem like you’re doing her a favor. She put us completely at ease, as if we were long-expected guests that she was really excited to see.
We chatted and talked about our families and our jobs. We found out that they were Christians, which was the first time we’d met anyone of our faith on trail. After she had fed us, she said, “You know where everything is,” and left the house to run some errands. John was out in his workshop, and Zach and I were alone in the house, like we were members of the family who were trusted implicitly.
And so, as with Monty, we didn’t question it. We just enjoyed it. We took luxurious showers, washed our clothes, played with the dogs, and sat in the sweet cool sunshine of the mountains on the fragrant pine deck, watching a little stream wind its way through the backyard, while Steller’s jays played in the trees overhead.
“Well,” I said, “I’m pretty sure not all of our hitchhiking experiences are going to be like this.” And we both laughed, and sat together barefoot in the sweet sunshine.
In the end, we spent the night there— we just couldn’t leave such wonderful people. Eileen made us spaghetti with homemade sauce, garlic bread, and salad for dinner. Zach sorted through our packs, consolidated everything, and got rid of well over a pound of belongings. Then he turned his attention to his poor sagging backpack. We realized that the entire frame pocket had torn out, making it so the pack had no structural integrity.
John said that he happened to have a sewing machine specifically for backpacks, but when he looked at Zach’s backpack, he said that the tear was too hard to reach. Now Zach and I were really at a loss. Our only hope was to get the pack to an REI to attempt to exchange it— but it was nearly a hundred miles to the nearest place where we might be able to get a hitch to an REI.
John was determined to find a solution, and he talked about trying to exchange Zach’s pack for him. In the end, none of the solutions seemed workable. Finally, John said, “Okay, just tell me this: how much longer are you going to be hiking?”
Zach stared at his broken backpack in despair. “About four months.”
“I think I have a backpack that you can borrow.”
Zach looked up, unsure. “For the rest of the trail?”
“Let me get it.” John went out to his workshop and returned with a heavy-duty Mountain Hardware backpack. “It’s not my favorite, because it doesn’t have outside pockets. But if you want it, you can borrow it and just send it back after the trail.”
That was another point when we were dumbfounded.
“I think I’m going to cry,” I said.
“No, none of that,” John said, clearly not one to endure displays of emotion. “This is something I can do for you, and I think it will be easiest for everyone.”
That night, lying on a plush bed in a spacious room, smelling of honey-scented soap and fresh-laundered clothes, Zach agonized over the offer. Accepting a favor from a friend is one thing, but accepting a favor from a stranger is quite another— we knew we had done nothing to earn this, and there was nothing we could ever do to pay it back. It’s oddly stressful, accepting favors like that. And incredible.