Updated: May 31, 2019
If Trail Angel is a new concept to you, know that the title is very fitting. A Trail Angel is a generous person that goes above and beyond to help out hikers along a trail like the PCT. But it is more than just generosity and kindness, Trail Angels are shepherds of the trail and know when, where, and how hikers need help and often provide recurring aid year after year in all forms: food, water, shelter, resupply, equipment, car rides, encouragement, advice, moral boost, and much more. They are loved by everyone and are somewhat celebrities in the hiker community, yet you probably wouldn't know who they are until meeting them as they helped you.
Needing Some Help
At mile 109, the Warner Springs Community Resource Center, I was resting my knee in hopes to be back on trail very soon. Volunteers at the Community Resource Center generously look after hikers and offer oils, Epson salts, ice, and food (part donation, part freely) as well as a place to camp. After a day of rest, I knew that my knee would need a little more time unless I wanted to deal with persistent tendinitis and potentially a severe injury.
I struggled with deciding to leave the PCT to heal. Mentally, I have prepared to be living along the trail for several months, but considering to return home felt like my journey ended before it started. Instead of focusing on my immediate decision to leave, I dwelt in regret and tried blaming myself for past decisions and wished I'd chosen different strategies in recent days. It always makes sense in hindsight what "would have been best," but during that moment, how could one know an unpredictable outcome if it wasn't on the radar? I had decent plans to address more dramatic circumstances and this was the result...now learn. I decided that staying in Warner Springs was not in my best interest while watching hikers coming and going as I remained committed to healing; seeing hikers push-on with knee pains would only temp me to continue hiking at my first improvement.
It was bitter to stand by the road with my thumb out while the next steps of the trail were within view. For a good hour, I stood hoping for a ride to get me close to Ramona, where I could rent a car and drive home through LA. It was 3:30 pm and the car rental closed at 5:30; time was short and I considered sitting back down and elevating my leg for another evening. That's when a Trail Angel was hiking to the nearby parking area and offered me a ride to a hwy intersection that was along their route, more than half-way to Ramona. I expressed my concern for time and getting stranded if I didn't make the time. I was a little confused and indecisive, but the Trail Angel provided reassurance about how the ride to the intersection would improve my chances of getting into Ramona.
I accepted the offer and learned within the first few minutes that this person was a Trail Angel and her name is ICE. She had been near mile 50 during the previous week handing out customized buffs to hikers; she graciously offered one to me. The buff is fantastic and shows several pictures she took of iconic locations along the southern PCT segment. A generous gift along a generous ride.
The buff given by ICE with a note "Made for you Dear Hikertrash...with love from DNA, Mama Bear, and ICE"
Going above and beyond, ICE drove me the entire way into Ramona and waited to make sure the car rental was open. Like every Trail Angel, when offered anything as a thank you, they humbly decline and wish you farewell. ICE went well out of her way to drive me to Ramona and is such a pleasant person to talk with. I am one of thousands of hikers and feel very fortunate to have received the help given to me. Thank you ICE!
A Culture of Altruism
Social media provides opportunities to praise those deserving it. I'm thrilled to see the internet being used in this way; it just goes to show how a powerful tool like the internet can become another place where we, as humans, express our need to be social and fulfill our emotional side. It's as though engineers designed rockets to explore the unknown and people end up using rockets to send each other little love grams. We are social fiends!
A complete aspect of human behavior is seen by how we have perverted social media to serve the self and we are often unaware that we do it. It's not necessarily a bad thing; we have social needs and if we are not receiving them, we will over reach for it. I am touching on this aspect because trail life is heavily influenced by social media and often dominated by the selfie - "Check the box, I did this." There is a strong sense of self-proclamation and yearn to define one's identity by doing something extreme or showing people how kind we are. In a way, doing said "thing" is truly extreme or kind, and self-promotion is only the human nature of wanting to earn credit for proof of a virtue. That's not such a bad thing really and we all do it in some form, social media or not. The point is, we can tell when an act of kindness is self serving vs when it is truly altruistic...although the difference may be subtle, it means the world of difference.
The PCT is surrounded by selfless people that help hikers fulfill their journey. There is just so much excitement and inspiration to see people devoted to a journey of unknowns. In a way, I think a Trail Angel empathetically understands the awaited life journey ahead for thru-hikers more than the hikers do themselves...after all, us hikers tend to obsess over logistics and mileage and often "forget" about the journey. I think Trail Angels are astutely aware and motivated to be a part of our journey.
With that, Trail Angels act in kindness without a photo or post on social media; covertly helping people without returns. Although some hikers do thank them on the social web, there is no competition for praise or renown, no opportunity to be conceited, nor material reward to be had. Often the only recognition a Trail Angel receives is from the individual being helped at that moment. It is a contagious behavior that inspires a culture of kindness and selflessness shared by the trail community. The wheel never stops turning...and the PCT is turning some good stuff. A thru-hike of the PCT is a rewarding experience simply for the culture alone; it reminds us of the good in the world and that there is plenty of it.
"It's like in the great stories Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened. But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for."
- J.R.R. Tolkien