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Thru-hikers find 'magic' on the Pacific Crest Trail

A hiker stands at a table full of various foods inside a covered shelter. The hiker is pulling a piece of bread out of a bag.
Roman Battaglia
/
Jefferson Public Radio
Thru-Hiker Jeromy Farkus grabs some food from the table set up by trail angel Sean Smithy.

Every year, some of the most committed backpackers brave over 2,600 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, on their way from Mexico to Canada. When they see a road for the first time in days, they’re occasionally lucky enough to run into helpful people waiting with fresh fruit or cold beer to greet them. On the PCT, this backpacking experience known as “trail magic” is alive and well.

By the time hikers reach the Oregon-California border on the PCT, they’ve made it almost two-thirds of the way to Canada, hiking more than 1,700 miles through dry deserts and snow-capped mountains.

Known as Thru-Hikers, these backpackers plan to spend months hiking the entire trail. Sometimes scraping by with just enough food to get them to the next town, hikers are always relieved to find a friendly face to greet them along the trail.

A hiker gets a trail name based on what they’re known for while on the trail. Canadian hiker Jeromy Farkas goes by Pathfinder.

"I got Pathfinder because I went through the Sierras with a good friend that I met on the trail," says Farkas. "And with the snow-pack it was pretty insane, we were always losing the trail. I had maps, GPS, all of that. Usually I could get us back to it, but just because you're called Pathfinder doesn't mean that you never lose the trail."

A small paper plate with the words "trail magic, July 12-14" is attached to another sign listing what methods of transport are allowed on the trail. There's an arrow on the paper plate pointing to the left.
Roman Battaglia
/
Jefferson Public Radio
Smithy's trail magic setup was a half-mile off the trail down a small gravel road. He put up some improvised signs up at the trail to make sure people knew he was there.

On this day, Farkas and several other hikers arrive at Wrangle Gap, a campground in a remote part of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

“Holy crap, what an amazing spread!” Farkas exclaims. Laid out on a folding table in the camp’s covered shelter is a collection of every comfort food imaginable. “You restore my faith in humanity.”

There are coolers of fresh fruit, soda, and fried chicken.

“There’s butter for the rolls,” Farkas cries out at the array of condiments before him. “Oh my god, I feel like crying.”

The banquet was provided by Sean Smithy, who goes by the trail name Skeeter. Smithy is known as a trail angel, one of a community of people who offer food, shuttles into town and even a place to stay for PCT hikers. Trail angels do it all without expecting a cent in return.

For these hikers who might go days or weeks without fresh food, it’s the small things that get them excited. Pathfinder asks his fellow hiker Guru if walking the half-mile down the road from the trail was worth it.

“I don’t demand things on trail,” Guru responds. “It could've been an old lady with cupcakes and I would’ve been happy.”

Smithy started as a trail angel when he lived near the PCT.

"I was by myself, saw the hikers walking by and I figured, why not bring up some drinks and pizza. They enjoyed it, and I enjoyed their company,” he says.

Trail magic isn’t just acts of kindness. The Pacific Crest Trail Association describes trail magic as “...a moment of extreme beauty, feelings of connectedness or a remarkable wildlife experience that becomes trail magic when a hiker really needs it to continue.”

A hiker sits in a covered shelter at a picnic table. He is taking toilet paper from a roll and rolling a section of it off to take with him.
Roman Battaglia
/
Jefferson Public Radio
Hiker Guru takes some of the two-ply toilet paper brought by Smithy and rolls off some for himself. Sometimes, essentials we take for granted become treasured on the trail.

The PCTA has a truism it relates to trail magic: “The trail provides.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of trail magic, but its history in America dates back at least as far as the start of the Appalachian Trail, another long-distance hiking trail in the Eastern United States. The AT was completed in 1937, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy claims the concept was born there.

Guru did his first major thru-hike along the AT, and says the frequent access to shelters and towns along the trail creates more opportunities for camaraderie and trail magic. The PCT is both longer and more remote in parts, lending itself to different kinds of trail magic.

Guru and the other hikers say Smithy’s setup is one of the biggest acts of trail magic they’ve seen on their hike so far.

Many trail angels are former PCT hikers themselves. Smithy has volunteered with the PCTA, helping to keep the trail clear of debris. Trail angels learn to anticipate the needs of hikers. Among the sugary iced coffee, Powerade and IPAs at Smithy's camp is a few gallons of water.

Sometimes the greatest acts of trail magic are the ones hikers share with each other. Guru tells a story about his hike, when he ended up running out of food before he could get to the next town. Guru sat down at the edge of a lake to figure out his next move before one of his hiker buddies appeared like magic.

"I've been astonished because I thought the trail was the dirt, I thought it was the trees, I thought it was the mountains. I was so mistaken because it's obviously the people."

“Water Baby — hadn’t seen him in days — just comes walking up on me,” Guru says. “I’m sitting at a lake just trying to figure out how I’m gonna make food to get to Sonora. And he was like ‘How many miles we got to Sonora?’ I said it was like 60-something? And he goes, ‘It’s only 60? I got too much food.’ And he gave me a whole day’s worth of food.”

While there might be less trail magic on the PCT than the AT, Farkas says the connections are still valuable.

"I've been astonished because I thought the trail was the dirt, I thought it was the trees, I thought it was the mountains," he says. "I was so mistaken because it's obviously the people."

But not all magic can last. These hikers will continue their journey north until they reach the Canadian border, almost another thousand miles to go. Pathfinder puts his floppy hat back on as he gets ready to walk up the road a half-mile back to the trail before he’s stopped by Smithy.

“You at least wanna ride back to trail?” Smithy asks.

“You would drive me back to trail?” Farkas says. “Oh my god, let’s do it. Thank you!”

Smithy offered rides to all the hikers heading back to the trail. On top of this once-a-year excursion he does, Smithy also helps shuttle hikers in and out of Ashland. He says he sometimes has to turn his phone off in the middle of the night because so many hikers were calling for his help.

Leaving the shelter, Farkas turns to the group, “See? The trail provides.”

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.