Hiker Heaven

Day 26: Stealth camp outside KOA to Hiker Heaven (The Saufleys’)

Trail miles 444.3-454.5

May 29, 2019


While I was rolling my sleeping pad in the morning, my nose began to bleed, streaming down my face and dripping bright red in the dirt before I could bring my hand up to pinch my nostrils closed. My nose has bled at least once a day for the last week, probably as a result of the drastic changes in temperature and humidity that have accompanied the recent storm cycle. During dinner last night, while attending to another nose bleed, I half-joked with Danish that my body was falling apart.

Although the extensor tendon pain that plagued me on the way into Wrightwood had largely abated on the most recent section of trail, a recent day without sun gloves (I thought the intense itching I felt in my hands was a heat rash, so I ditched the gloves and opted for sunscreen for a day) had left the backs of my hands covered with sun blisters. So while I felt the time had come to rejoice in my pain-free foot, my grotesque hands and my constantly bloody nose reminded me that I was not out of the woods (or the desert) yet.

I held my bleeding nose and watched my friends pack up and walk away from camp.

Many slow minutes later, my pack packed and my nose clotted, I set off on the steep climb into the hills. Massive faces of exposed conglomerate adorned the hillsides. I tried to keep my friends in sight, but eventually they disappeared over a ridge and I slowed to photograph the flowers and to ease the strain on my tired legs.

Hot Hands, who had slept four miles south of my camp at a beautiful site near a stream (in hindsight, I should have stopped early the evening before and enjoyed a quiet night there instead of camping near the KOA and the noisy road with our other friends) caught up to me at the top of a rise where I’d stopped to rest and to contemplate the traffic on the freeway in the valley below. It was stunning, after weeks of walking, to watch hundreds of people pass by along the freeway in cars and trucks. Even more overwhelming was the recognition that driving plays an absolutely central role in their lives and in the lives of so many other people in California, the United States, and the world. In my life off the trail, I am one of these people, driving a car between the often widely dispersed vertices of the graph that is my life.

Hot Hands and I walked down the hill together, catching each other up on the latest gossip in our trail family: who had camped where during the storm, and what people were thinking regarding the snowy Sierra (Hike through or flip? It’s the hottest question on trail now.).

We arrived at the interstate, where the trail travels through a tunnel with a small stream running through it. Many miles prior, after hiking out of Cajon Pass, where the trail traveled under an interstate and a railroad track, Hot Hands and I had discovered that we share an affinity for tunnels and manmade caverns. Now we wooped and whistled our way through the shady tube, reveling in the ghostly echoes the corrugated steel walls threw back at us.

We emerged on the other side in the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, where huge conglomerate outcroppings jut out of the ground at odd angles as a result of millions of years of tectonic faulting.

The sun beat down as we wandered our way through the park, craning our necks to admire the striated cliffs above us.

At the far end of the park, we followed the trail along a road into the town of Agua Dulce. T-Pain texted us from the Mexican restaurant, but on our way there, we saw a few of our other friends eating lunch on the patio of the local cafe.

“Do you want half a cheeseburger?” Fire Socks called.

Is the answer to such a question ever, “No.”?

Hot Hands and I stood with our packs on, just outside the patio’s cast iron railing, and ate the burger and salad Fire Socks handed us from her table. Revitalized by the fresh food, we headed across the street in search of T-Pain and burritos.

After lunch, we caught a ride with local trail angel Mike to Hiker Heaven, just one mile from the town center. Hiker Heaven is the home of Donna and Jeff Saufley, who have now hosted PCT hikers passing through Agua Dulce for 22 years. Their well-organized system for welcoming and caring for hikers reflected that experience.

I was greeted by a volunteer with a laminated sheet explaining the layout of the property, including where to pitch tents and where to find the portable toilets. After hanging my quilt on a trellis devoted to drying damp backpacking gear, I set up my tent in the shade and plugged my electronics in at the charging station, which I found inside a huge dome tent. In the same dome tent was an outgoing mailing station complete with boxes of all sizes, as well as stamps, envelopes, and a computer and printer for printing mailing labels. Also in the dome (it was enormous), I found shelves of loaner clothing and fresh towels. I picked out a t-shirt and some shorts and then availed myself of the outdoor shower, while a trail angel (either the Saufleys or one of their volunteers) did my laundry (anyone who will touch a hiker’s sweat-encrusted laundry is a special person indeed).

Clean, and clothed in cotton for the first time in weeks, I stepped across the driveway to the garage, where I scanned the shelves of alphabetically sorted packages until I found the box of maps and snacks my mom had sent from home. I then spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with other hikers, sifting through the row of hiker boxes*, and sharing a pizza ordered from town.

The amount of time and organizational energy devoted to running such an efficient and comfortable hiker resting place is mind-boggling. And each year, the effort required to maintain a clean, comfortable space increases. While I was dropping off my dirty laundry, I heard Donna Saufley say to another hiker that on many individual days this season, the number of hikers staying at Hiker Heaven (often well over 50) has exceeded the total number of hikers she and her husband welcomed in their entire first season as trail angels. Even more astounding is that the Saufleys are able to manage this intricate operation year after year without a formal funding source. In their own words: “Hiker Heaven is not a business, non-profit, or any type of formal organization, (we’re a family that is fortunate enough to have some truly amazing volunteers).” They rely on donations from hikers as well as their own finances to support the entire operation.

Some of the most inspiring encounters on the trail have nothing to do with wildlife or scenic landscapes, but rather stem from the goodwill and generosity of trail angels like the Saufleys.

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