Trail Dust: Trail Angels & Purposeful Kindness

Updated: Jul 25


Pinnacle Point, 2022. Photo by Randy Aarestad.

Wow! What started out as a dry and nervous spring has turned into one wild and wooly early season to be remembered. I had given up on any river trips after deciding to get a few hikes in early and head to the high country for the summer season. My main miles so far this season were thanks mainly to other FOTO fanatics heading out every cold Wednesday morning with Owyhee Hiking Club.


The weather started getting rough... isn't there a song that goes something like that? Over and over, the fronts began to pile up, and the weatherman blame game began. I usually get pretty excited when we get late storms in the desert—it extends the beauty of the spring as we watch the green move down the slopes.


After the green, there’s more rain, and it’s the flowers’ turn to pop up. Sure, there are many that come every year, but when the landscape really gets drenched, a few more secretive ones start to pop: orange globe mallow (Sphaeralcea munroana), shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), brilliant paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), and tiny purple Phlox spp. all vie for our attention! It's amazing to watch everything just come to life.


Added to the spring hiking season, it's a win-win. While we watch and wander around our local public lands, there is another kind of hiker approaching: the “thru-hiker”, or a hiker that hikes long distances on trails like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. These are the folks who drop everything in their lives, grab a pack and some food, and hit the trail for months at a time. They might be hiking for a month or 8 months—it all depends. Trails like the PCT and the AT are pretty famous, but in this modern era of hiking, there is a multitude of amazing trails crossing national forests and other public lands. Now, there are endless opportunities for hikers to wander about and see more nooks and crannies of our incredible country!

Oregon Desert Trail, 2018. Photo by Cathy Freyburg.

We have just recently been fortunate enough to have the Oregon Desert Trail established, and it has gained popularity among hikers. I have had a few contacts with some of these travelers, and it has been a great experience. But how do these hikers do this? Pick up and just head out? What about their belongings? Their homes? How do they manage so much time outdoors with nothing but a backpack? And on a trail like the ODT, what about water? These questions—among many others—await, and I’m here to clue you in.


There is an enormous, tight-knit group of outdoor adventurers, who—without any asking or prompting—have taken it upon themselves to help these long-distance wanderers on their journeys. In the parlance of “hiker speak”, they are known as “trail angels”, and they supply “trail magic”. Picture this: you have just walked for a week straight, from dawn to dusk every day. Your feet are sore, clothes filthy, beard prickly, and body stinky. Hunger is a constant companion, no matter what or how much you eat. Today is special since you’re walking or hitching into town (or at least a checkpoint) where fresh food and supplies await. Along these hiking routes, people whisper about hiker names and towns, and cell numbers and texts start flying around as fingers punch numbers. And so it begins… This is where trail angels and trail magic come in.


What do you do when you’re receiving a call, and your caller ID indicates a city that you’ve barely even heard of, let alone been to or know someone from? You laugh and hit delete, right? Well, trail angels answer these calls—at all hours of the day and night—during the normal hiking season, knowing that they might be the light in the night for a lonely and cold hiker. It's an incredible undertaking. The stories of whole towns along some of America's most famous trails are all ready and waiting and certain distances along the trail. The route is set, and as hikers begin the season, families, businesses, and individuals all wait for the trails to bring these strangers to their front doors.


Hikers often burst into tears as they hobble back into civilization and are greeted by a trail angel with a hot meal and an even hotter shower. Pies are baked, barbecues run non-stop, and front yards host a different colored tent each night. Hot water heaters run out of hot water every day, and who knows how many bars of soap, bottles of shampoo, and leftover phone charger cords are used?


While that sounds like a lot to provide to complete strangers, trail angels do so much more than that, too. Most hikers are carrying about a week’s worth of food. Any more than that, and it’s too heavy and not efficient for travel. So, along a 2,500-mile trail, imagine how many restocking stops are needed and how many towns one will probably have to go through. Getting off and then back on the trail is one of the biggest logistics of any long trail, as it can add a significant distance to your hike. This is another place where trail angels come in: they often pick up and drive hikers from towns to trailheads. In the desert of California, the PCT tests hikers for almost a month before they reach the wonderfully cool, high mountains. Water is always in short supply, so trail angels take water out to the trail and cache it so hikers—to be quite frank—don't die from the heat!

Oregon Desert Trail, 2018. Photo by Randy Aarestad.

All of these hikers are walking their own adventures: some experienced, some not. I am so energized by their willingness to step out and leave it all behind. They take the statement “life is a journey” quite literally, and I admire that. That’s why I decided to become a trail angel myself. About 5 or 6 years ago, I put my name on a small document to give out to folks who are coming on the Oregon Desert Trail, telling them to call, and I’d be their trail angel. I can’t put into words how excited I was when my phone started to ring with all sorts of unknown numbers! Hikers with names like Caribou, One Gallon, aka the German Hiker, and Clutch were on the other end, asking for my help. I took a few extra drives out to Lake Owyhee, hosted a couple of folks overnight at my place, and had more excuses to barbecue and make big breakfasts for people who are really hungry! In exchange, I got to hear how beautiful our local desert and mountains are, and how amazing it is that I get to live here and have it so close. I was so grateful to receive such sincere gratitude from people who understand that they have nothing to give but themselves and are content with that.


This is the real community of lovers of the outdoors. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of trail angels are not thru-hikers themselves, but they resonate with the freedom and vulnerability of these travelers, just like I do. They share experiences with these hikers and love to connect with them genuinely when possible.


There is no doubt that the ODT is now on the radar of countless serious hikers. This season alone, I've had three hikers get in touch. For one hiker, I took charge of his bike and gear and helped him hitch a ride to Bend. Now, he’s on his way back—on foot, of course—to pick up his bike! Thanks to Friends of the Owyhee, I had another contact to give out to help this year when I was out of town. It’s always something, and I look forward to each and every one of these new phone numbers.


So, what do you think? Are you trail angel material? Would you like to spread some trail magic out in the Owyhee? I have a lot of ideas! I am excited to see the future hikers, and the expansion of the local outdoor community to support them.


Until next time, I hope you get sand in your shoes!

 

After starting technical climbing at age 12 and backpacking at 14, Steve Silva has been an avid outdoor adventurer his whole life. His constant chasing of bigger and bigger climbs has led him all over North America, from the gargantuan walls of his home in Yosemite to high-altitude volcanoes in Mexico to chilly peaks in Canada. Steve's love for backpacking adventures has taken him throughout most of Idaho, along the John Muir Trail, the High Sierra Route, and a large section of the Hayduke Trail. He's been a long-time fan of the Owyhee desert, having boated through most of the main canyons and tributaries of the Owyhee River. Steve's passion for this landscape inspired him to write a guidebook titled Get Lost!: Adventure Tours in the Owyhee Desert. Now an expert in off-trail hiking, planning, and logistics, he loves teaching more people how to hike easily and more comfortably than they've ever known.


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