Respite for 2,650-Mile Trekkers

Traveling from Mexico to Canada, weary and hungry hikers take a break in Snow Creek



PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM BREWSTER

Every year around Easter, Tracy Albrecht looks out her window to see lights flickering on the mountainside behind her Snow Creek home. She alerts her husband: “The hikers are coming.”

The lights are the headlamps of hikers winding down the Pacific Crest Trail. About 200 people attempt the entire 2,650-mile route from Mexico to Canada annually, usually arriving in the Coachella Valley in May. Some of them descend into the desert at night to avoid the heat. Most wind up in the Albrechts’ front yard, where Tracy, an interpretive specialist for the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, and her husband, Lance, have set up a hikers’ oasis.

By the time they get to Snow Creek, the travelers have only begun their months-long journey, but they’ve gone far enough to be wilted. Most start at Campo, near the Mexican border, pass through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, cross Highway 74 near Pinyon,
then travel 57 miles through the national monument, following Fuller Ridge along the granite backbone of the high San Jacintos, then rapidly descending 8,000 feet to Snow Creek, near where Interstate 10 and Highway 111 meet.

Deprived of shade for miles, feet blistered from tortuous switchbacks, they suddenly come upon a picnic table in the shade of an olive tree, a water fountain, heaps of oranges, and maybe even a watermelon. There’s a washtub for feet soaking and a friendly dog, Penny, to ease homesickness. It’s nirvana.

But even nirvana can get out of hand. Tracy has come home from a day of meetings to find 40 sunburned pilgrims at her picnic table.

“How about an orange?” Tracy might ask.

“Oh, yes.”

“A hamburger?”

“Oh, yes.”

”Want to come inside and watch the ball game?”

“Oh, yes.”

If the Albrechts aren’t careful, they’d have sleeping bags in the living room all spring.

They had to learn to set limits after one hiker left three llamas in their yard while he went into town for feed. They feel privileged, though, to witness the parade of human drama. It’s a parade most of us living here miss, as the hikers come and go quietly on the outskirts of town each spring.

The Pacific Crest Trail, which dates to the 1930s and was completed in 1993, is a classic test of character, endurance, and strength. Some make the trip to shed an addiction, recover from a loss, or find a new reason to live. They are all ages. As with any proper initiation rite, they shed their everyday identities and take on trail names — Lionheart, Postholer, Hasty. Those who make it the whole way are sometimes so changed that they find it hard to re-enter ordinary life. “Post-traumatic trail withdrawal syndrome,” they call it.

Once the well-hydrated hikers say goodbye to the Albrechts, they slog down a sandy trail and cross under the 1-10, where another so-called “trail angel” sometimes leaves an ice chest full of cold water. Then they face an epic climb up Mount San Gorgonio. There are 60 major mountain passes and entire states to cross through before they rest at Manning Park, British Columbia. 

When the pilgrims depart, the Albrechts’ picnic table is free of litter — not even a Band-Aid or scrap of orange peel. “These are the tidiest people you’d ever meet,” Tracy says. All they leave behind are words in a smudged logbook, snapshots of a moment on their longest journey.

After a long hot descent, your shade, citrus, and H2O almost make me cry.
— Bonanza Jellybean

I needed this. I really needed this.
— Brian, Seattle

After that brutal descent, how lovely to be here in this gorgeous shade. Had a great footbath. I love it, and so do my new blisters.
— Blackberry, BC Canada

Thanks so much guys. I came in late and ate five oranges in record time.
— Lucas, a.k.a. Raw, Portland, Ore.

Had a great time cleaning up, talking to Penny and drinking water. Oh how the simple things make me happy!
— Hellokitty

National Monument Trail Stewards

The Pacific Crest Trail is only one of a network of trails in the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. Because the monument staff is small, they need the public’s help in looking after the many miles of trails. Volunteers for the new Trail Steward Program — managed by Friends of the Desert Mountains — are trained to patrol trails, educate visitors, and help with invasive plant eradication, among other tasks.

People of all skill levels and fitness abilities are welcome to apply. If you want to acquire “dirt knowledge” — the kind that only comes from time spent in the backcountry — this is your chance. For more information on the program, call the national monument visitor center and ask for Arielle Maccio, director of volunteer services for Friends of the Desert Mountains, at 1-760-862-9984.

Landscape Conservation System

Pacific Crest Trail and the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument are administered by the National Landscape Conservation System, a dynamic land preservation program that few people know about — yet.

Its goal is to protect “the last of the Wild West,” says Danielle Murray, associate director for the Conservation Lands Foundation. It was created in 2000 “to conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes” within Bureau of Land Management holdings. The system is in its infancy, like the early days of the National Park System. The group operates locally through Friends of the Desert Mountains. To get involved, visit www.friendsofthedesertmountains.org.

Some 50 friends groups, representing conservation lands nationally, will meet in Palm Springs in November. “Love your local national monument, and realize it’s part of a larger system of protected places,” Murray advises. For more on the system, visit www.conservationlands.org.
 

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