These Are The People You Want To Know When You're Hiking 2,653 Miles
As hundreds of backpackers head north on the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, self-appointed volunteers known as Trail Angels will be there to ease the journey.
Some offer a cold soda, or a free ride between trailhead and town. But some actually offer free lodging and other services at their own homes. One of the best-known of these Trail Angel outposts is Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce.
I'd read about such places in Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir "Wild," and saw the ones depicted in the 2014 movie of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon, but had never visited one.
Then, my friend and onetime newspaper reporter colleague Jazmín Ortega set off on her attempt at a thru-hike and I knew I had to go. Bonus: I cover infrastructure, the things we build together to make life better, and these places surely qualify.
TIP: SHOW UP WITH DONUTS
The Pacific Crest Trail runs along the main drag of Agua Dulce, a rural town off Highway 14 northeast of Santa Clarita. Grubby backpackers — an exhausting 454 miles into their epic walk — take a right turn detour at Darling Road and trudge a mile uphill to Hiker Heaven.
I'm a marathon runner, but I have precious cargo - a dozen Dunkin' Donuts - so I opt to drive up the hill. It's a cloudy, drizzly morning and I take care to park a little bit away from the main entrance so as not to contribute to any crowding. Walking up the hill to the gate, I can see inside the compound. There are a few horses, a hippie van with tie-dye curtains, and dozens of colorful tents.
In through the front gate, the first thing you see is a firepit surrounded by a circle of folding chairs, three big white igloo-style tents and the open garage to the home of Donna and Jeff Saufley, who first started hosting hikers more than 20 years ago.
First things first, I find Donna Saufley.
We're in her garage — aka hiker central — and volunteers are running loads of grimy backpackers' clothing in two washing machines. Tall racks hold hundreds of small supply boxes that hikers have mailed ahead to themselves. There's a small shelf with a laptop and printer where a hiker is looking up travel arrangements. One of the half-dozen volunteers who help run Hiker Heaven is trying to fix the printer.
Saufley is super busy — she and her husband run an electrical contracting business, so she doesn't have a lot of time to be interviewed right now — but she's friendly and sends me out back to find my friend.
"That single-wide over there is the hiker house, and you can go on in there and look on your way to see if you see anyone," Saufley says.
It's not hard to find your friends when you're walking around with a dozen donuts. The hikers are very nice, and I can see them eyeing the box, sending out "feed me" vibes and spreading the word to their buddies that goodies are on the premises.
Finally, my friend Jazmín Ortega finds me, accepts the box, and tours me around.
TENT CITY: SHOWERS, DIY HAIRCUTS
It's a tent city. At least 30 of them are spread out in the dirt between the Saufley house up top and a small horse stable down below. A rooster is strutting around and there are a few friendly dogs.
"You can come to this trailer and take a shower. They have a process for laundry where you put your laundry in a bag and put your name on it and they will do your laundry for you," she says.
Everything you can imagine a weary hiker might need is here: internet, gadget charging station, a hiker box of free supplies, a Do-it-yourself hair cutting station complete with scissors and mirrors. Extra boots left by past campers, and a box mounted on the wall labeled "Feet Aid and First Aid."
"So you can put your feet in Epsom salts and avail yourself of any medicine, or anything to treat blisters," Ortega says.
After about 10 minutes of chatting, she breaks down and eats a glazed donut, all while gripping the Dunkin' box and opening up her tent to show me her gear.
TRAIL MAGIC: SERENDIPITOUS FREEBIES
It's time to meet her fellow hikers, whom timing and circumstance have brought together. They call each other their "trail family," and they include Wolfie, Crazy Burrito and Pinwheel. Hikers take trail names, and Ortega's is Flamethrower.
Ortega shares the donuts and they disappear in a flash as soon as she calls out "Trail Magic!" That's hiker jargon for the serendipitous freebies.
"Hiker hunger is real," Ortega says. (Listen to an audio version of this visit here)
Back in the garage, volunteer Heather Anderson, trail name Anish, is leaning hard to steady a washing machine she just loaded. It's off balance and rocking badly.
"I've hiked the PCT three times and so I've stayed here all three times, and I just always wanted to come give back and help out," Anderson says.
She's no ordinary hiker. She holds the record — 60 days — for completing the trail fastest without outside support. She's written a book about it ("Thirst - 2600 Miles to Home" from Mountaineers Books) and is taking a few days off her publicity tour to volunteer at Hiker Heaven. She gets going at 8 a.m.
"You start up with the laundry, recycling, cleanup and then just throughout the day you're just around answering questions, mailing packages for hikers," she says.
Finally, Hiker Heaven co-owner Donna Saufley joins us in the garage. She says volunteers are key to keeping the place going.
"These people are treasures to us. They become dear and very close friends," she says.
Saufley left a career in marketing and moved to Agua Dulce in the mid '90s.
Left on her own one night while her husband was out of town, she encountered a group of grubby, weary hikers at a local pizza place and — on impulse — offered to let them shower and sleep in the single-wide mobile home that is her guest house. That was in 1997.
THEN CAME "WILD," AND HIKERS OVERCROWDED THE PLACE
That first year, they had a few dozen hikers, a few more the next year. It was a welcome respite on a trail that has few sheltering places to rest a bit and recover from trail injuries ("I have got a fellow with two broken feet right now," Saufley says).
As word circulated among the close-knit subculture of PCT hikers, the numbers grew. And with the Reese Witherspoon movie "Wild," in 2014 the numbers ballooned.
"Our record was 120 hikers here at one time. That was ridiculous. It was not a good thing," she says.
Now, they average about 55 hikers a day. Hiker Heaven satisfies both her hospitality gene and her organizational impulses.
"I have chosen the most messy, dirty, chaotic group of people that you could possibly find on the planet. And I try to instill order and organization," she says.
She keeps Hiker Heaven open March through June for northbound hikers and then after a summer break, she reopens September through November for the southbound wave coming from Canada. She needs the mid-summer break.
"I love it when it starts and I love it when it ends," she says.
ALL THIS MAY SOON END
Donations given online and in person by campers help support Hiker Heaven, and the Saufleys cover the rest themselves. She says she doesn't know how much.
"I really don't track it or do any kind of accounting for it. I don't want to," she says. "It just kind of happens in a way by magic. In my opinion there's a certain amount of magic to what happens here as well.
It's not all rainbows and free donuts.
Debate exists within the PCT backpacking world over whether such Trail Angel places like this cause hiker bottlenecks farther along the trail. Too many hikers camping in one place can stress the trail ecosystem.
Some caution that trail angel freebies — like caches of water or spontaneous hiker feeds — make hikers feel too entitled or less prepared for the hardships of thru-hiking. (Yes, spelling it "thru" is part of hiker culture, Saufley says.)
The debate all got to be too much, and in 2015, saying it was for the good of the trail and its hikers, the Saufleys shut the place down. They donated their supplies to other Trail Angels.
But they were back in 2016 after raising donations to expand the septic system. The place now has 10 porta-potties.
However, once again, Donna Saufley says she is ready to say good-bye: "We're gonna be closing, probably 2020 will be our last year. We've been doing this for a long time and we're ready to move."
The hikers will be fine, she says.
"People did the trail for many years before there were established Trail Angels along the way. I'm sure the current hikers could do the same if they were determined enough."
Rather than having one single place to serve hikers, she's got a different vision. She's encouraging other Agua Dulce residents to become Trail Angels, but more scattered and on a smaller scale.
"It's important to keep places like this alive," she says.
And it might just take a village to replace what Trail Angel Donna Saufley has been providing all these years.