Hiker Heaven is closed. So says the definitive guide to the PCT, Halfmile.
Or maybe not so definitive. For clearly, Hiker Heaven is wide open — a scene, in fact, come to Earth from another world. But where? Mars, maybe, or Neptune. Or some interstellar heaven hosting an advanced form of life utterly different from what we are used to on the PCT.
This becomes obvious as soon as I hop off the white pick-up shuttle and enter the gates of 11861 Darling Road. There stand the official greeters — Matt, Mango or some other volunteer host. “Welcome to Agua Dulce! Welcome to Hiker Heaven!”
Your stay begins with an orientation. “This is the kiosk,” Matt informs half a dozen of us. It’s actually a garage, but a garage transformed into the humming, thrumming hub of an operation run with military precision.
Posted on the kiosk are water reports, mobile numbers of local trail angels, passwords for the hyper-fast internet and wifi, schedules for shuttle drop-offs and pick-ups in town. “Here are your hiker boxes,” says Matt, pointing out the USPS mailings neatly arranged on head-high shelves in alphabetical order.
But wait. There’s more. Much more as Matt’s tour goes on. “Here’s the post office, where we can mail anything for you,” like bouncing cold weather gear up-trail to the Sierras where it will be needed. Outdoor showers are under those shady trees; in-door baths are in the trailer over there. Each is equipped with razors, towels, soap, shampoo and conditioners, scissors and nail clippers — even a weigh scale, which informs me I’ve dropped to an appalling 145 pounds for someone who’s 6’3″.
There are also a few private bedrooms, kitchen and living room where hikers kick back for snacks, dinner and TV. When I look in, a hippie-ish guy is playing the guitar. Later, a young woman attacks the guitar with particular gusto, singing along in an enthusiastic cross between a yodel and primal scream.
Geodesic domes double as sleeping tents for those who don’t want to pitch their own and don’t mind sharing. There’s one tent for recharging phones, another for sewing and repairing clothes and gear. Laundry is done all-day. Just grab a mesh bag, marked with a metal identification number, and drop it off. It will be returned, fresh and clean, within an hour or two. Metal shelves are filled with “loaner clothes” to wear while yours are cleaned: shorts, Ts and shirts, sandals, neatly divided into men’s and women’s.
A phalanx of ten PortoPotties handles nature’s needs. Hikers relax in camp chairs under the trees or lounge on sofas looking out from various terraces and porches toward the mountains beyond. The music play list, from morning Segovia to evening Bill Monroe and Mountain Stage, is one of the best I’ve heard. Hikers pitch their tents around a gardened campground; there are chickens and a rooster that likes to peck particularly at women’s legs as they pass. And lots and lots of friendly dogs, all sizes and shapes.
Everyone I know on the trail seems to be here, all at once. I’ve scarcely walked in the gate than someone calls out “Mike! Pause!” It’s Popeye and T-Rex, who I haven’t seen since Idyllwild. Bee Hive, Taco and the crew are there, along with Charlie Brown, Simon Says, Mad Max and his side-kick Gretchen. At Hiker Heaven, you get a lot of trail love.
The Saufleys, Donna and her electrician husband, Jeff, have been a PCT institution for 21 years. Hiker Heaven is an oasis that sees about half of everyone who thru-hikes the PCT. Two decades ago, that meant a couple hundred. This year, Donna expects to break 2000.
Today alone, she expects 90 or so hikers. The crush season is coming up, she says — the three weeks bracketing Memorial Day at the end of May. “Last year we got 129 hikers in one day,” she says — too many to accommodate. Soon, she adds, Hiker Heaven will check permits to make sure only legitimate PCTers are taken in.
The night features a hiker symphony of sorts: snores and snorts at close quarters and, yes, farts near and far as well as the distinctive sound of sleepers scrunchscrunchscrunching on their inflatable air pads, trying to get comfortable. Morning brings a cacophony of dog barks, rooster crowings and donkey brays, not to mention the grunts and yawns and moans of rousing hikers.
I catch the 8:30 shuttle into town for breakfast with Popeye and T-Rex, then spend much of the day zeroing at Hiker Heaven. In the afternoon, Donna drives me to the nearest Metrolink, 20 minutes away, where I take the train into Union Station in LA.
I am flying back to Nairobi on business tomorrow. I tell myself that I am not leaving the trail, that I will be back when the snow melts in the Sierra. But I feel unutterably sad.
Matt snaps my picture for the Hiker Heaven 2018 year-book. “OK,” he says. “Hike safe and be well.”