Bonita is the friendly innkeeper at the Silver Pines, a very accommodating hotel for backpackers.
audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: Benita, Idyllwild Innkeeper

Stylish Benita made us feel welcome on a "zero-day" stop in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild.
Stylish Benita made us feel welcome on a “zero-day” stop in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild.

It’s Thanksgiving 2020, and like so many Americans, we’re home, grateful for a “warmish” day of 45 degrees and sunshine so we can sit in our courtyard and lift a glass – at a safe distance – with a few neighbors.

Last November, I was walking in the Southern California desert, slowing my pace to enjoy stops along the way and mingle with locals. It’s inconceivable in this moment to consider the freedom and assumptions I made back then – eating in restaurants, shopping at the supermarket and staying at a historic inn without wearing a mask or maintaining distance.

Heck, I even hugged hiker friends who I hadn’t seen in weeks who suddenly showed up in my space. Besides Richard – and my doctors – I haven’t touched another soul in nine months.

Staying at the Silver Pines lodge was one of the highlights of Southern California.

It was just a year ago that I completed the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d dreamed of walking it for a long time, but thought maybe my first thru-hike ought to be something exotic and far away. The reasoning was I could hike on my home-turf anytime, but to travel half-way around the world was going to take much more planning.

And then I was suddenly “boss-free” and at the urging of my husband, who seems to understand me better than I understand myself, I flew out to Washington state on a one-way ticket, joined a gang of hikers and headed up to Hart’s Pass in the North Cascades just to see how far I could go.

By Day 127, I was nearly finished, and headed down the Devil’s Slide to visit the charming mountain town of Idyllwild. A hiker friend had joined me for this section, and while we still put in a good number of miles on those short, autumn days in the high desert, after climbing 10,000 feet up and over San Jacinto Peak, we felt we deserved a day off in this truly idyllic place.

It was a sunny, dry day with a slight nip in the air when Benita welcomed us to the Silver Pines Lodge, handing us a change of clothes while we washed our hiking outfits, and giving us the run of the beautiful grounds . She told us, she’s seen her share of us ‘hiker trash’ but says we enrich the lives of her village.

Days like that, where we don’t have to worry about getting sick or making others sick, will return, I promise you, and they’ll be more precious than ever. Listening to this conversation with Innkeeper Benita, makes me feel strong and brave to face the coming months, knowing I’ll be back on the trail soon enough. I hope some rubs off on you, too.

Suicide Rock from the "Devil's Slide" above Idyllwild in Southern California.
Suicide Rock from the “Devil’s Slide” above Idyllwild in Southern California.
Bob is the caretaker at one of the oddest places along the PCT.
audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: Bob, Hiker Town

People say that you’re going the wrong way when it’s simply a way of your own.

Angelina Jolie
Bob is the caretaker at one of the oddest places along the PCT.
Bob is the caretaker at one of the oddest places along the PCT.

Along the 2600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, there’s an abundance of trail angel generosity surprises.

A few that come to mind include Broken Toe’s encampment where he parked for two weeks at Hart’s Pass just to greet SOBO’s with a warm fire, a fresh vegetables and good hiker beta. Also Big Lake Youth Camp that made it part of their mission to help us hikers with kindness so deep they set aside a building just for us to hang out replete with fresh baked cookies, showers, even a box of second hand clothing to change into while our dirty ones were being washed.

In California, it was a string of pearls of hospitality like Casa de Luna near Green Valley, and Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce, owned by otherworldly souls willing to open their homes and back yards to hundreds of smelly hikers over literally decades.

By far, though, one of the strangest places I came across was Hiker Town. It’s smack dab in the middle of tumbleweeds, jumping cholla cactus and Joshua trees, mountain lions stalking and rattle snakes sunning in the middle of the trail of Southern California desert. I reached it after walking the California aqueduct, water closed in by concrete rushing below me and only available for my bottles at a single faucet before an 18 mile stretch in the blazing sun.

A tour of Hiker Town with its caretaker, Bob.

I had not heard good stories about Hiker Town, mostly that the owner is known to ask inappropriate questions and come on strong to young female hikers. He wasn’t around when I arrived – or if he was, after taking one look at me, he must have decided not to bother. I felt reasonably safe especially wince my friend Callum was right behind me on the trail.

Hiker Town’s sprawling acreage abuts a busy highway. There’s one modern house shaded by trees with a spiffy little patio, but all the others are tiny cabins, seemingly left overs from of a B movie of the Wild West variety. There’s a bank, a sheriff’s office, a school, the mining supplier, even a brothel.

I wandered about and finally found Bob building the outdoor shower. Wisps of hair on his grown and full, neatly trimmed gray beard, Bob appeared harmless enough in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, far more appropriate for the Venice boardwalk than this dusty place. A videographer who won three Emmies for his work on Columbo and The Rockford Files, Bob has lived here over a decade and greeted thousands of hikers. When I asked him how he liked living in the desert, he replied resignedly, “It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.”

Bob doesn’t move fast, but he got me quickly settled in my own private cottage, one without designation aside from a sign reading, “If you’re lucky enough to be at the beach, you’re lucky enough,” underscoring my Venice Beach association. The space was barely big enough for a brass bedstead holding a lumpy mattress and a creaky old chest of drawers missing most of its knobs. Good enough for this thru-hiker, I decided, and dumped my stuff heading to the newly constructed outdoor shower before the sun went down and the air chilled.

One of the "cottages" at Hiker Town lifted from a B movie set.
One of the “cottages” at Hiker Town lifted from a B movie set.

Callum arrived just as I dried off and was ushered to his own cottage and shower. Bob drove us (without incident) both fifteen minutes up the road to the convenience store for a mini resupply and dinner. It was dark by the time we returned. Three other hikers had arrived to stay, along with a couple I’d met on day two back in Washington. We sat out on the patio to share a soda before they head into town.

“Why not just stay here?” I asked before they left. “We’re right on the trail.”

They repeated the disturbing stories I’d heard, and, as if to put a finer point on the situation I faced, asked if I’d looked under the bed yet. What could possibly be under the bed!? They gave few clues before their ride arrived but I wan’t about to look all by myself in the dark.

So I headed to Callum’s cottage, who was already in bed at 7:30 since everyone knows that 7:30 is “hiker midnight.” Even so, sweet Callum obliged bringing his headlamp. He got down on his knees on the dusty wooden floor to get a better look. “Ah, there they are!”

They??

“Black widow spiders. But don’ worry. They won’t hurt you unless you agitate them.”

I never got around to asking Callum how many spiders were calling my ned home, though I realized he was right. Those black widows had zero interest in me. So far on this hike I’d walked in a snowstorm, been visited by a bear, stirred up a rattlesnake and walked a helluva long way without incident. I was pretty sure the local residents were going to leave me alone.

And just like that, I fell deeply asleep.

The tiny cafe in Neenach about fifteen minutes drive from the trail.
The tiny cafe in Neenach about fifteen minutes drive from the trail.
audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: Casey, Sonora Pass Resupply

In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.

Elizabeth Gilbert
"Goldilocks" picking up her bear canister and resupply at Sonora Pass resupply.
“Goldilocks” picking up her bear canister and resupply at Sonora Pass resupply.

It was a cold, blustery day with dark clouds threatening as I dropped down to the highway at Sonora Pass late last September on the Pacific Crest Trail. The wind was so intense, it literally took my breath away even as I paused to take pictures and enjoy this sensational scenery right on the edge of Yosemite National Park.

Ahead was the Emigrant Wilderness, an exposed crossing of over ten miles at high altitude and I was fairly certain this was a no go day for me, but I needed a resupply and that would require a hitch deep down into the valley. With weather like this, the trail was empty.

At the tiny turn out, a few scattered picnic tables stood watch over the approaching weather, along with a single RV. On its door read Sonora Pass Resupply. The proprietor, Casey Cox, was cozy warm inside with his beautiful, blue-eyed dog named Lucky.

I didn't always find soulful campsites on the Te Araroa.
audio narrative

TA audio narrative: hitting a wall

The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within – strength, courage, and dignity.

Ruby Dee
I didn’t always find soulful campsites on the Te Araroa.

On day 99 of my thru-hike of the Te Araroa, I completely lost it.

It was a combination of utter exhaustion walking a non-existent trailthe rocks hurt my feet and the grass is taller than my head! – being overheated and hungry, and having spent the night in a hut with a couple of unfriendly Kiwi trampers.

I turned on video to capture this very real moment of just how difficult thru-hiking can be on all parts of our person – body, mind and spirit.

It cracks me up looking back from the comfort of my air conditioned studio that I laugh at myself, even when crying so hard the snot is leaking out of my nose…

audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: Joshua, fire manager

Firefighters never die, they just burn forever in the hearts of the people whose lives they saved. 

Susan Murphree
Joshua was leading a crew building a firebreak on the Pacific Crest Trail through Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California.
Joshua was leading a crew building a firebreak on the Pacific Crest Trail through Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California.

Last September, I walked through the final bit of the Cascades heading south, or SOBO, on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The hike through Lassen Volcanic National Park took one day, but it was a heavenly day of sunshine and cool air, most of the park all to myself, shared with with my thru-hiking friend, Klaus.

The park is full of lakes, and, though chilly in the morning shade, I was urged on by his jumping straight in, to ever so slowly wade into the deep azure of Lower Twin Lake. At that moment, my friends, I felt I’d never been so clean and refreshed in my entire life.

Yes, the best part of hiking south is that the trails were nearly empty in the fall and I finally found solitary campsites and deeply longed for quiet.

Lassen was no exception.

Judy met a guy with a much lighter tent while hiking the Appalachian Trail and it was not a "coffin" but rather, a palace. That just pissed her off, so she went designed her own ultralight palace.
audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: Heart Fire, tent maker

Long distance hiking is not a vacation, it’s too long for that.

Ann Zwinger
Judy met a guy with a much lighter tent while hiking the Appalachian Trail and it was a palace. That moment pissed her off, so she designed her own ultralight palace.
Judy met a guy with a much lighter tent while hiking the Appalachian Trail and it was not a “coffin” but rather, a palace. That just pissed her off, so she went and designed her own ultralight palace.

At a tent site high up on a ridge in Washington, I met two women sitting on logs next to their individual mineral green tents and passing a small flask betwixt themselves. They lifted their outstretched legs as I passed, since that was the only route to a tiny spring – described as a “crisp, cool, mystical, scoopable pool of water” below the trail.

As it goes with all backpackers sharing a space, the two were friendly, eager to share about their day’s hiking. For them, it was a return to familiar ground, which last summer had been shrouded in smoke with no views available at all of splendid Goat Rocks or Mount Rainier himself, shining high above.

Fortunately, it had been a gloriously clear day, so all had been rescued – and that might have explained the celebratory Scotch which was eventually offered to me.

Melinda and Henry planned to hike the PCT from south to north, but came across deep snow and dangerous river crossings in the Sierra, so flipped up north to Washington and headed south to meet the spot where they left off.
audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: ‘flippers’

Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.

Simone de Beauvoir
Melinda and Henry planned to hike the PCT from south to north, but came across deep snow and dangerous river crossings in the Sierra, so flipped up north to Washington and headed south to meet the spot where they left off.
Melinda and Henry planned to hike the PCT from south to north, but came across deep snow and dangerous river crossings in the Sierra, so flipped up to Washington and changed directions.

Change is not easy.

Most of us would prefer to keep things right where they are. We’d rather not, thank you very much, risk change that might bring on unsettling feelings of having no clue what we’re doing, or worse, having to start all over again. Kind of like when you choose that card in Monopoly – go to jail, directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

When I started walking the Pacific Crest Trail last July, it was all about survival of my spirit. If I could just get out of town for a few weeks and start walking again, I might clear my head and maybe the drastic changes happening in my life that were making me sit bolt upright in bed every night in a state of panic, would just go away.

I bought a one-way ticket to Bellingham, Washington and planned to carpool with a trail angel who organized a caravan of rented vans. She ferried thirty hikers to the trailhead at Hart’s Pass. I was surprised by the number of us and soon learned that there was only a handful actually starting the trail. Most of the hikers were what we called “flippers,” hikers who needed to change their intended route because moving forward was impossible.

The metaphor in that bleak moment of my life was not lost on me. Circumstances beyond their control forced them to reckon with the situation, make a decision, and act. Not everyone was happy or comfortable with what needed to be done, but they figured things out and finally placed themselves over a thousand miles from where they left off.

audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: Milk Jug

The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible, and achieve it, generation after generation. 

Pearl Buck
"Milk Jug" was the youngest solo thru-hiker on the PCT in 2019.
“Milk Jug” was the youngest solo thru-hiker on the PCT in 2019.

As I headed into the Blisstudio this morning to do my eLearning workout homework, I thought of a wonderful quote I read a while back about youth. I have to admit, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself starting all over in something new at age 55, needing to adopt a “beginner’s mind” while taking lessons from someone younger and more successful than me.

These are humbling times for all of us and I think it’s worth contemplating these words right now. They’re attributed to Luella F. Phelan, of whom I sadly can find absolutely nothing about on Dr. Google. If you have followed my blog at all, you’ll notice nearly every quote I refer to is from a woman. And if you know anything about women, our histories are often lost to time.

But at least we still have this amazing statement.

Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind. People grow old only by deserting their ideals and by outgrowing the consciousness of youth. Years wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul…. You are as old as your doubt, your fear, your despair. The way to keep young is to keep your faith young. Keep your self-confidence young. Keep your hope young.

Luella F. Phelan
Art of the State Parks

audio narrative: Afton on the Stay-at-Home-Order

Finally I saw that worrying came to nothing. And gave up. And took my old body and went out into the morning and sang.

Mary Oliver
Afton State Park before the shut down

last years oak leaves make a wonderful crunch as I walk

I gather speed as my car swoops down a winding roller-coaster of road. The posted speed is 25, but she lunges forward, whining after I downshift all the way to the bottom until leveling out, then slowing to a creep, back up the other side. I pass a curtain of silvery birch. Snow blankets the slopes to my left, the chairlift is still now. Oak Savannah on my right, is crispy brown and dry.

This is Afton State Park. It shares a name with the quaint village nearby which took its name from Robert Burns, “Sweet Afton.” Fields roll toward vistas, three hundred feet above the Saint Croix River, Minnesota and Wisconsin’s natural border. Afton is home to gold medal winning crosscountry skier Jessie Diggans, and the grandly named Afton Alps, the largest ski area in the Twin Cities.

We’ve been told by our governor to stay home – but not stay indoors necessarily, urged to get outside while still keeping our six-foot distance. The parking lot is full and people walk in small clumps, crunching through last year’s leaves. An ice island of phantom ski tracks and long-healed thunderbolt-shaped cracks is filled with migratory birds. The crackly noisemaker call of sandhill cranes competes with a neighbor’s revving engine.

Art of the State Parks

audio narrative: Walk in the Time of Coronavirus

But the beauty is in the walking – we are betrayed by destinations.

 Gwyn Thomas

Oak leaves seem to float atop melting ice.

an early March walk at Lake Maria State Park

For many of us, early March was “before” and now we reside in “after,” or perhaps more accurately, “during.” It’s hard to remember so many freedoms we enjoyed only a few weeks ago. And I don’t speak simply to being able to come and go as we please, congregate and share activities without a thought, or that our lives had some semblance of stability.

What I refer to is the loss of our dreams, ones we could plan for and bring to life, ones that sustained our hard work and focus, ones that made life rich and worth sacrificing for.

Now, we isolate and we wait.

Believe me, I am committed to what it takes for our common welfare, but I wonder if we’ll lose something from this time. If that’s hubris, then ok. If it’s hope, I’m heartbroken.