Notes From An Accidental Trail Angel

Hi there. My name is Rodeo Pilot — Rodeo for short. My husband Mike, aka Pause, invited me to write a guest post. And he’s hard to refuse, no?

I guess you could call me an accidental “trail angel” — someone who provides some kind of free service or goods to hikers on the trail. That free stuff is  “Trail Magic.” BTW, Pause has also been called “Magic Mike” because he tends to drag a little magic behind him. That’s me.

Mike lives in Nairobi; I live in Boston, near our daughter who is still in high school. So when we see each other, it’s usually on a trail. Now, I love the PCT. But marching 25 miles a day is not my cup of tea. Not even my shot of tequila.  Walking 8 – 10 miles, on the other hand, is one of my favorite things. So we have worked out the perfect plan: I walk out with him in the morning, usually up a dusty hill about 2 – 3 miles, then back down, passing the kaleidoscope of sleepy hikers heading out in the morning. In the afternoon, I walk into him a few miles, also usually uphill and passing other trudging hikers at the end of their long  days. This way, I meet many many hikers, often stopping to catch a trail name. (Boiling Frog, you say?) I find out if they’ve seen “a tall skinny guy walking fast with a pink baseball cap” and how far back he is. (The answer often: “pausing beside a <insert scenic view here>.”) It’s really the best of both worlds — I get my mini-hike and also meet many of the wildish hikers on the trail that day. I’m never alone and I get some quality time with my man and nature.

During the off hours, I am often in a PCT-friendly town, at a trailhead or driving a road between those two. So angelhood comes easy. Need a lift somewhere? Have you got enough water? Need a snickers bar? I have cooked 10 buttery grilled cheeses in a row (for my first 2 hiker-hungry hikers), done a shuttle to/from the IN and Out Burger 4 times in a row, and have handed out at least 100 ice-cold apples (my favorite form of magic.) And one thing I’ve learned is that being a trail angel brings out the best — and the worst — in people. It’s like group therapy. You get to see how hikers treat the world around them, based on how they treat you.

I always insist on getting the biggest rental car so that we can shuttle the biggest number of hikers. Mike balks at the double price tag at first (+$400 a week!) but then relents and is always glad for it in the end. Last week, we piled in 2 couples and a solo hiker in the rented minivan for the ride from the Spitler trailhead to the town of Idyllwild — about 25 minutes. Before we had even finished the ride, Popeye and T-Rex had insisted on taking us out to dinner that night. The next morning, when we went to pay our bill at the Red Kettle, our breakfast had been magically paid for by the OTHER couple who had been in the car.

And that solo hiker? The one who stays in the most expensive lodge in town for 3 nights and is independently wealthy? He wouldn’t pay for the $1.50 ice cream sandwich my husband wanted after a brutal desert day. He had sat in our minivan with the AC on for an hour, ate my last iced apple, but when my husband didn’t have money on him when we got to the cash register, he bought his own ice cream and sent me trudging back to the hot car for money to buy Mike’s ice cream. And how many miles have we driven him? At least 50. How many homemade sandwiches have I made for him? 3. Offers to drive him 45 miles away to the doctor? 1. But he’s never offered a penny for gas, the way almost all the other hikers do. Now mind you, we both ADORE this guy, and enjoy his company immensely on and off the trail. We really don’t hold it against him at all. But a trail angel can shine a light on people’s relationship with the world. Do they take things for granted? Or are they grateful? It never ever occurred to me that someone would pay for anything for us — and I never ask for or expect it. But it really means a lot when someone makes an obvious effort at appreciation.

Just yesterday, I had offered a guy a lift to a trail as I was hopping into the minivan. When he told me which one it was, an hour away down the mountain, I balked. I had work to do (I was giving a speech 3 days after I returned to Boston and I hadn’t even started it!) And was tired of driving those intense switchback mountain roads. But he pushed. And then offered to pay me. I thought, well, I just put $70 into the tank. And food is expensive in Idyllwild. And we could use the extra cash for this expensive minivan. So I relented. And when we got down to the drop off place at an underpass at I-10, there were some straggling hikers, looking thin and hungry (as they always do!) So I offered to bring them all to the burger joint 10 miles back down the road on my way back to Idyllwild and was busy loading them all in. The original hiker who had offered to pay me? Waved and walked off. “Bye! Thanks!” When Mike heard this story, he borrowed from Carrot Quinn’s PCT memoir and anointed the freeloader with a special trailname, “Anus Face from Outer Space.”

People who take on the role of trail angel do it for the pleasure of doing something for someone who is undergoing such an enormous and arduous personal undertaking. You may not be able to do the hike yourself (though many angels have) but you CAN make their path a tiny bit easier. And that’s wonderful. But someone recognizing your effort with thanks, or even a little gas money, is always a kindness. Later that day, I ran into Popeye and T Rex, the couple who had taken us out the night before. They needed a ride to a different trailhead about 20 minutes down the same winding road, and I was delighted to take them. After we had hugged good bye and closed the car door, I noticed that they had slipped $20 into the area between the car seats. When I tried to give it back? “That’s for Anus Face from Outer Space!” they shouted with a laugh. And it was exactly the maximum amount I was going to allow AFFOS to pay me. The Karma of the trail!

The bottom line: trail angels are not like volunteer firefighters (who are truly heroic!) Once we become a “trail angel” it doesn’t mean that it’s now our full-time  job and we should be expected to do whatever anyone wants or needs at any time.  Trail angels get to decide each and every time what and how they want to provide for hikers. And it’s a true privilege and pleasure.

On my last day in Idyllwild, I breaked from packing to go pick up some lunch. I walked into the pizza joint to grab my take-out order and heard shouting, “Rodeo! Hey Rodeo!” A table of our hiker pals from the original April 5 pod was giving me a whopping hello. Coach, Whisper, Giggles and RoadRunner/Beep Beep greeted me with big smiles and a happy welcome. That’s what being a trail angel is all about.

April 26

One thought on “Notes From An Accidental Trail Angel

  1. I read a lot of PCT blogs. I tell myself that it is to prepare myself for a thru hike myself in years to come but actually, I think I’m addicted to the drama of them. They all have this in common – they are written from the perspective of the hiker. This is the first post I’ve read from the perspective of the trail angel. I think it should be required reading for every potential thru hiker, it should be printed out at stapled to the monument in Campo. Thanks, Rodeo.

    Liked by 1 person

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