The alarm goes off at 4:30 am. Dawn breaks faintly to the east. I really should be going. But no. I just do not want to do this: get up and start hiking the Aqueduct, notorious for its flat, dull, hot, dusty, monotonous path across the corner of the Mojave northeast of Hikertown.
By contrast, this bed is so warm and comfy. My wife Rodeo and I have the honeymoon suite. And a porch of tattered comfy chairs and sofas. And our own shower and bathroom. Give this up? Besides, I’m tired from yesterday’s 21-mile trek from Sawmill campground to Hikertown. My legs hurt. It’s cold out.
What do I do? I discipline myself and make the hardened hiker’s responsible choice. I go back to bed. Today’s forecast is for heat, I tell myself. Tomorrow, a cold front rolls through. Hike the hard part in cool 60s and 70s, says the rational part of my brain. I nod in agreement with my Id’s reasoning — and wake up four hours later. It’s Zero Day at Hikertown!
Behind the counter at the Neenach Café, a couple miles down highway 138, Joanne is dancing to a Pandora track of 70s and 80s hits. At a neighboring table, Mission is robot dancing at his table, bemused dad looking on. Mission got his name for his determination to hike the entire PCT in 100 days. On the wall is a world map, with pins marking hikers’ home ports of call. Nothing for Africa, except a couple for South Africa and one for Zimbabwe. I push in mine: Nairobi Mike.
“All these hikers, rushing through. They look just exhausted,” says Joanne, noting my lingering over coffee. She brings a free vanilla-iced espresso. “I wish you a happy and safe journey,” she adds with a kind smile. Along the trail, and life.
Just then that country classic plays, “You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes.” Ridiculous as it sounds, I am suddenly overcome with emotion. Life is so sweet, even the most mundane music. We rush through it, on the PCT making time and mileage. Maybe I’m simply tired. Maybe it’s that 4:30 alarm and my abrupt decision to take a zero. But I realize how important it is to pause, to take notice, watch life, slowly. To live up to my trail name.
Back at the ranch, a mini-drama plays out. Seems there’s a rival hiker hang a few miles down the road called Wee Ville. (This is right out of Dr Seuss, but I kid you not.) It also seems that the Wee Villians have taken umbrage at Hikertown’s profile on the PCT and want a cut of the action. So they allegedly started spreading mischievous rumors: how Hikertown’s owner, Richard Skaggs, so zealously guards his domain that he tosses out hikers who patronize the Wee Ville store and restaurant rather than his own Neenach Café. He’s further reported, according to the often dubious hiker network, to possibly use less detergent when washing his place’s bed sheets than the Wee Villians. And also that his place’s breakfast tacos aren’t as delicious as those of the Wee Villians. It’s war, declares the Wee Ville chief, who stocks an award-winning $42 bottle of white wine made by his daughter-in-law, I believe, that nobody buys. Another Hikertown plot hatched in the mind of the diabolical Richard?
As it happens, the purported villain in this tale has just loaded half a dozen hikers into his Rolls and driven them to Wee Ville for dinner. As none of them likely bought that $42 bottle of wine, alas, the Wee Ville sense of conspiracy against them goes on unabated. But really, who knows the truth about such things?
Richard himself finds it all quite funny. A retired Disney executive, he bought his Hikertown spread as a sort of desert getaway without ever having heard of the PCT. Soon after the deal closed, he and his wife (also a major Disney exec) awoke one morning to find their yard filled with sleeping hikers. “I thought they were hobos,” he says. So he did the obvious Disney thing. He went out and offered them money to leave. “They wouldn’t take it,” he said. It seems they looked like hobos. They smelled like hobos. But they weren’t hobos. “They were hikers on the PCT!”
Richard still marvels as this wonderful discovery. In true trail angel tradition, the Skaggs got into it. His wife gussied up the various farm buildings around the place, re-creating them in the Wild West motif we see today. As the trail’s popularity grew and the numbers of hikers passing through increased, Richard turned Hikertown into a bona fide operation, taking on a manager named Bob, who’s been there more than a dozen years, and installing all the things hobo hikers need – beds, showers, water, soap. Hikertown was born.
He does all this for modest donations that do not come close to covering his costs. But so what? He’s loaded. Besides, he likes the company, the camaraderie and diversity of all the folks from around the world. He also likes giving the younger female hikers a spin in his souped-up, Blade runner dune buggies. But that’s another story. Along the way, he finds time for some high-profile good works. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines some years ago, he marshaled food, fresh water, medicines, blankets and the like from around the county, chartered a plane and flew it all to those in need, personally directing his own humanitarian relief operation.
In other words, he did what he does for thousands of hikers at Hikertown every year: jump to it for those in need, however modest.
I survey this Hikertown scene, replaying itself each day, from the vantage point of my little porch in the early evening, glass of wine in hand, and think about the next 17-mile stretch of trail – essentially a dirt road-walk along the Los Angeles Aqueduct, sometimes open, sometimes running through a huge pipe, but mostly buried in a concrete tunnel. It is notoriously hot and long. Hence the number of hikers opting to do it at night.
I have a day left before flying back to Nairobi for work, just once more before committing myself in earnest to a long march on the trail. How to spend it – on the flats of the Mojave along the aqueduct, or in the hills rising from Cottonwood Creek at mile 435 and on to Tehachapi, 23 miles away?
For me, it’s a no-brainer.