After the hikers unload their backpacks from the van, sign the trail registry book at the Campo trailhead, and take pictures in front of the monument, Bob Riess gives them coffee and bagels and gathers them together for a few final words. “I say, ‘The true gravity of this situation will become apparent to you when my taillights disappear,’” Riess says. Then he leaves the hikers alone in the desert, with the border fence on their right and the first leg of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail stretching out ahead of them.
It’s a daunting moment for the hikers, but without Riess’s help, getting to the trailhead would itself have been a baffling journey. The southern terminus of the PCT is hard to find even for someone who knows where to look: it’s a mile outside the tiny town of Campo, California, down a dirt road through chaparral scrub, with no signs to point the way. In 1999, Riess started hosting hikers at his house in San Diego and shuttling them to the trailhead in Campo, more than an hour’s drive east. Since then, the effort has grown to include dozens of “trail angels” who every year help feed, house, and shuttle hundreds of hikers to the trailhead. By doing so, they spare hikers one of the crappiest, most confusing, and frustrating parts of the whole trail.
Riess, 68, a retired high school math teacher who lives in San Diego, says he first heard of the Pacific Crest Trail when he met thru-hikers headed north while he was headed south along Lake Tahoe in the late 90s. “My first reaction was that, these guys doing twenty-seven hundred miles, they had to be crazy or arrogant or some combination of the two,” he says. But he was intrigued, and later wound up poring over the Pacific Crest Trail listserv that’s used as a forum by thru-hikers. The only thing that the hikers unanimously agreed on, he says, was that day zero was the worst.
Before Riess came along, hikers who arrived at the San Diego airport had to get a bus to a trolley station, then take an hour-long trolley ride to the El Cajon transit station. Often they’d arrive too late in El Cajon to catch the bus. “They’d end up sleeping on the platform, getting rousted by the cops,” Riess says. The next day, they’d take a two-hour bus ride to the Campo bus stop—still more than a mile from the trailhead. Often they’d arrive too late in the day to start the trail. They’d pitch their tents in the parking lot behind a grocery store across from the bus stop, or sleep up the road in one of the bunkhouses at the Juvenile Ranch Facility, a detention center.
All the hassle got Riess thinking. “So I said, ‘I got a seven-passenger van, I got two bedrooms in my house, I got an RV,’” Riess says. “’We can do better than this.’” He wrote a post on the listserv offering a place to stay and a ride to the trail. “Seventeen brave souls took me up on it,” he says.
In late January, about 20 people—mostly hikers, mostly San Diegans, mostly retirees–gathered in San Diego for dinner at the suburban home of Barney and Sandy Mann, who now collaborate with Riess on the hosting and shuttling effort. Guests wore nametags; many included their trail names. Sandy (“Frodo”) ran through a volunteer signup sheet. Needed: people to drive to the airport, people to drive hikers to REI or to get SIM cards for their phones, people to cook, people to drive hikers to Campo. Aspiring thru-hikers hear about the San Diego trail angels from other hikers, from “Yogi’s PCT Handbook,” and from the Pacific Crest Trail Association website, says Barney, who goes by “Scout.” They get in touch with an email, he says, and once they have the trail permit, the Manns add them to a Google spreadsheet.
Although people hike parts of the Pacific Crest Trail year-round, the thru-hiking season begins in earnest toward the end of March and peaks in April, with people trickling in as much as a month before and after. On an average day during the season, Scout says 15 or 20 hikers camp out in their backyard. Someone donated three big wall tents last year, but before that campers pitched their own. “It’s been a regular tent slum,” Barney says. “Our neighbors are…bemused.”
The trail’s popularity has soared in recent years, due in part to the success of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild and the 2015 film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon. Last year, the Pacific Crest Trail Association issued more than 2,700 thru-hike permits, making 2015 the busiest year yet. (PCTA trail information specialist Jack Haskel said via email that the organization doesn’t know how many of permit-holders actually attempted the hike.) Scout says that 340 aspiring thru-hikers stayed with him and Sandy last year. Riess hosted 145 hikers, and about a hundred more stayed with a handful of other hosts.
Though the vast majority of Pacific Crest Trail hikers go south-to-north, a few start from the Canadian border and work their way south. Riess says he’s never gotten any requests for a pick-up at the Mexican border. He figures they can take care of themselves. “If they’ve hiked twenty-seven hundred miles backwards,” he says, “they won’t have any trouble finding their way home.”