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Chico State

Trail Angels Bring Magic to Pacific Crest Trail

Photo of "Pacific Crest Trail north to Canada" sign tacked onto a tree.

Forty-plus miles from Chico, at 6,200 feet and the crest of a dusty dirt road, sits a busy intersection of lives from all over the world, as hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail cross Humboldt Summit, mere miles from the halfway point of a 2,650-mile journey from Canada to Mexico.

It’s a long haul. And after weeks or even months dining on dehydrated and lightweight foods, fresh fruit, a cold drink, and other perishable snacks can seem like an oasis for someone living out of a backpack.

Each summer, an intrepid group of campus community members come together to make that fantasy a reality. For years, forensic anthropology professor P. Willey has been hosting “PCT toasts” with other faculty, staff, students, alums, and friends. They bring watermelon, sandwiches, beverages, and other assorted sundries to share with hikers in exchange for trail tales.

“They always say that we are the ones being generous but in many ways, it’s them,” Willey said. “They have their minds on mileage—‘I have to get 23 miles today’—and yet they will just stop and tell us their stories and have a good time.”

A group of hikers sit around a table of refreshments.
A group of campus community members come together every summer to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail.

Despite this year’s deep Sierra snowpack and a rave happening in nearby Belden, hikers passed through Humboldt Summit in droves with nearly 60 hikers stopping by Willey’s oasis, a new record for the half-dozen volunteers who attended.

“It was the usual remarkable, inspiring, and rewarding experience,” Willey said, noting that his first experience providing “trail magic,” as the philanthropy is known, was on a whim with his wife seven years ago.

“One Sunday we went by the grocery store, drove up to the summit and sat down with our newspaper and watermelon and some beer,” the longtime outdoors enthusiast explained. “We didn’t even get through the funnies before the first hiker emerged from the woods.”

They had so much fun, the next year they invited others to join them and the trail toasts have continued to grow. Now an overnight, two-day adventure, Willey dreams of the event to one day encompass a whole week. He’s found other faculty, staff, and students who like to join along, with more than a half-dozen new and returning guests every year.

“Sitting there and talking to these people who have been hiking for such a long time, you realize what a culture there is out there on the PCT.”

When Janet Finlayson (MA, Anthropology, ’14) moved to Chico in 2011 from Michigan, Willey introduced her and other out-of-state students to California as he best saw fit: on the trails of the North State’s forests and national parks. They spent many a weekend completing hard and scenic hikes akin to what the PCT hikers were experiencing at length. 

“It felt like this egalitarian environment, even though you were a student and they were faculty, because they cared a lot more beyond your grades,” she said. “They wanted to make sure you were experiencing California as well.”

Among Finlayson’s favorite tastes of the Golden State, the PCT toast stands out.

“It was fun to see what little things bring joy to them. Sitting there and talking to these people who have been hiking for such a long time, you realize what a culture there is out there on the PCT,” she said.

This year’s visitor’s log is filled with trail names like “Daydream,” “Wild Turkey,” and “Naked Ninja” as the hikers express their appreciation, with scrawled entries such as “Amazing trail magic. You guys truly help keep our spirits high & the trail fun” and “The zucchini cake made our day.”

A group of hikers gather around refreshments and talk.

The toast team brings whatever food they think the hikers might enjoy, from coleslaw to cantaloupes, and fresh peaches to a plethora of cold drinks. Willey always encourages the hikers to take a beverage for the trail so they have something to toast with at the halfway mark.

“Many of us aspire to the long-distance hiking that the through-hikers are doing on the PCT. We dream about the idea of having that much time to spend a big part of the summer hiking for weeks on end in the Cascades and Sierras,” said agriculture professor Lee Altier, who has attended several times. “Being able to go up there and meet the people who are hiking through and hearing their stories is thrilling.”

He too is always awestruck by their gratitude.

“The fact that they get surprised by a bunch of people with refreshments and cold drinks and all kinds of guacamole and great food, it’s just delightful,” he said. “They love to sit down for a little while and take a break and share their stories—and there are some great stories.”

A few of this year’s highlights included a recently married German couple hiking the trail as their honeymoon, a hiker rescue by horse, and lots of international hikers, some of who didn’t speak English but were profuse in their expressions of thanks nonetheless.

Altier appreciates the cross-disciplinary intersection of life he sees among the kindred spirits who join in on the toasts. From anthropology to behavioral sciences to horticulture, they come from different disciplines but all share a passion for the diverse ecosystems and recreation that surround Chico. The same is true for the hikers themselves.

“There is a spirit of collegiality, developing a rapport with like-minded people who obviously have a huge appreciation for the wilderness. To go out and cheer them on for something we would like to be doing is just a lot of fun,” Altier said.