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Welcome to Hiker’s Heaven, here on Earth

Agua Dulce couple hosts weary trekkers passing through on the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail

Posted: June 22, 2008 5:24 p.m.
Updated: August 23, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Hilkers help put up tents and cots at Hiker's Heaven, a stop in Agua Dulce on the Pacific Crest Trail between Mexico and Canada.

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They drag in by ones, twos, fives - hot, tired, footsore, dusty and thirsty. It's early June, and the daytime temperatures in the Southwest deserts and mountains they have crossed have reached into the 100s - well, that is, when it wasn't raining.

They've come precisely 454.4 miles since late April or early May, and all on foot. And now they only have about 2,500 more miles to go. But they won't think about that today. Today it's about relaxing, soaking blistered feet, maybe drinking a beer. Today it's about recharging their bodies and their souls. It's about reconnecting with civilization after a month spent on the Pacific Crest Trail. And it all happens quietly, thoughtfully, generously, at a modest ranch home in Agua Dulce.

Welcome to "Hiker's Heaven."

"There was a note, 18 miles back on the trail that says, ‘You are cordially invited...,' said Pauline Dargis. "They have a grill for us, and a loaner car."

"You really feel welcome," added Dave Bozarth.

"They wash our clothes. They won't take our money," Dargis said.

Dargis, Bozarth and Jima Reed were traveling together, just one small group among many other PCT hikers passing through the Agua Dulce area from late May into early June. And all were welcomed to the home of Jeff and Donna Saufley - welcomed to simple accommodations and amenities that seemed like a true slice of heaven after hiking and camping for a month.

Names and games
Reed, Dargis and Bozarth had set out on the Pacific Crest Trail together on May 10, in Campo. They touched the fence at the U.S.-Mexico border and started on their way. As what is called "through hikers," they intend to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,600 miles, all the way to Canada.

"We hope to arrive by Oct. 1 at Manning Park in Canada," Reed said.

The idea is to start early and get through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and then the northern Cascades, before snowfalls make passage impossible. With that in mind, a May 10 start isn't "late," but it isn't "early" either. The greatest surge of hikers had already passed through Agua Dulce ahead of them. "We're averaging about three miles per hour," said Reed. And he said the last day before arriving at the Saufley's, they had covered 18 miles (6 a.m. to 2 p.m.) from the North Fork Ranger Station on the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains - which was visible in the distance from the Saufley home.

Other through hikers taking respite with them at the Saufley's home on June 11 included Kimber Kirschner, Bill Powell, Beth Hanlon, Laura Goff and Erik Englke. Kirchner and Hanlon carried the "hiker" names of "Kermit" and "Detour," respectively. Such nicknames are bestowed by other hikers or self-given, but the ones that mean the most are "earned" along the trail and suit the hiker, or his or her deeds or misdeeds. The two didn't elaborate on their monikers, but one can guess at Detour.

Of these five, only Goff and Englke were traveling together on the trail. And they related a romantic tale of first meeting on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2005, losing touch and then re-meeting on the trail two years later. They've been together ever since.

"We owe a lot to the Pacific Crest Trail," Englke said.

The eight hikers staying at the Saufleys on June 11 were all through hikers. But many folks only hike sections of the PCT, though these are sometimes hundreds of miles at a time. Some section hikers eventually hike the whole distance in this way, over a number of years.

Heaven
Jeff and Donna Saufley have both hiked sections of the PCT over the last couple of years. She has about 800 miles under her belt and should have 1,000 by the end of this season. He will probably end up with about 150 miles less.

The Saufleys began hosting hikers on May 31, 1997, when Donna Saufley brought a few hikers home without warning Jeff. He came home late, found the house locked and went to the guest house - where he found the hikers. But things worked out so well, and the hikers were so grateful, that Donna Saufley knew this would be her calling. Over the years since they have hosted more than 2,700 hikers.

The couple lives on their "ranch" with a couple of horses and a collection of dogs. Jeff's company is Saufley Electric, in Agua Dulce, so he has to work during the day, but during the peak hiking season Donna is usually on the scene and caring for the hikers like a den mother. With little outside assistance, the Saufleys provide a host of amenities. Smaller numbers of hikers stay in a spacious mobile home and large tents accommodate guests when the numbers are higher.

"At the peak of the season we had six 10 by 20 cabin tents around the fire pit area," Donna Saufley said. She noted that the hikers assist in the setting up and taking down of these tents.

Other amenities include showers, barbecue grills, an information station and bins of assorted items the hikers can take as they need. There are always lots of used hiking shoes, and toys, food, toiletries, clothes and even stove parts. As mentioned, there is a loaner car, so hikers can get to REI or Sport Chalet, and there are bicycles available to get into nearby "downtown" Agua Dulce.

The Saufley home gets its water from a well, and with a few hundred hikers passing through, more than 65 sometimes, the well can't supply enough water. So, they have water trucked in.

"It's so well organized," Bozarth said.

The couple provides all this without requesting anything from the hikers. Naturally, the hikers are very appreciative and try to return the favors as much as possible. "Everyone comes through and cleans up (after their stay)," Reed said.

Donna Saufley offered her thoughts on such generous giving. "When nothing is asked for, everything is provided. There's a lot of wonderful magic or miracles that occur along the trail." Somehow, when they need something, it just turns up.

She added that there are really wonderful people in the trail community and that all the people in the Pacific Crest Trail Association are "absolutely wonderful. They care about things outside the material world."

Of course, even in heaven, there are limits. Hikers are limited in the time they may stay at the Saufley home - two nights and three days, unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as injury or illness. Donna Saufley added that next year they will have to limit the number of hiker that can stay to 50 at a time.

Trail Angels
While the Saufleys' service to the PCT hikers is notable, they are only two people in a very large network of volunteers in the Pacific Crest Trail Association who care for hikers and trails. There are other folks operating overnight stations, and people who hand carry jugs of water out into the desert to place at selected water stations for the hikers.

Such "Trail Angels" include Jim Streeter, of Adair Office Furniture in Santa Clarita, and his wife Sussie. After exchanging e-mails with the Saufleys for several years regarding the PCT, this past March the Streeters decided to step up. While his wife makes fudge for the hikers, Jim Streeter helps get people to train stations and back on the trail, and helps get the food and water to the Saufleys' home.

One day soon Jim Streeter intends to do the PCT himself, and advises everyone to visit the trail journal Web site at www.trailjournals.com. There they can read the myriad postings of those who have experienced the trail - and thereby get a real feeling of the trip and inspiration for it.


Hike and hikers
The reasons why someone would attempt to hike 2,600 miles are as varied as the people who attempt it. Bozarth and Reed had been talking about the trip for two years before motivation, schedules and funds allowed it. "Then Pauline jumped on," Reed said. He said they had planned for the trip to cost about $3,000 each. But the really hard part is having the time available to hike for five months.

"I guess you could define me (his career) right now as ‘outdoor enthusiast,'" Bozarth said.

Everyone agreed that the hike is very rewarding. Much of the trail is totally in the wilderness, away from anything man made. There are encounters with many wild animals, especially snakes.

"You are seeing the country," Bozarth said.

"All of it," Dargis emphasized.

"Our family and friends think it's awesome," Reed said. "There's nothing more special or magical."

But the hike is very demanding, and the focus of most plans and conversations along the way becomes very basic, about food, shoes, blisters, weather - and especially in this southern segment of the trail, about water.

With the heat, and up to 30 miles between water supplies, "You hope you've packed enough water," Dargis said.

But getting enough food is also a very important consideration. "You can't get enough calories," Reed said. "We're planning for about 3,500 calories per day." The food adds to the weight the hikers have to carry, so they can never carry enough.

"I've lost about 10 pounds," Dargis said.

Preventing blisters is another important issue. Especially with the sweat generated by the hot weather, the hikers often have to stop and air out their feet, or change socks, to prevent blisters. But still they all have blisters.

And the hiking shoes take a beating as well. "I'm on my second pair of shoes, after 450 miles," Reed said. "And my feet have gone up two shoe sizes (from the swelling)."

And thinking about all the miles left to go can be psychological drain. "You can't think about 2,600 miles," Reed said. "Looking at five months - it's painful." Instead, the hikers think about the day's distance, or at most the next few days. "It's a real head game," Bozarth said.

Everyone also agreed that Englke's feet had the worst blisters. In fact, during most of his interview, his feet were soaking in a vibrating foot massager.

Hanlon was having different, but worse issues. She'd developed shin splints four days before her arrival at the Saufleys', and was barely able to limp in. Hollering with pain at each step, she described herself as the "Martina Hingis of the trails." She noted that it was probably a good thing she was hiking alone because "I'd be a miserable wench." But she still had high hopes of completing the PCT.

Camaraderie and identity
All of the hikers agreed that one of the most positive aspects of hiking the PCT is the camaraderie among the hikers. Though each hiker or group of hikers moves at their own speed, they tend to be generally moving with the same people, and run into them regularly. They get to know each other and check up on each other. If someone hasn't been seen in awhile, or where they are supposed to be seen, the word goes out along the trail and on the Internet, and they are located.

Powell was hiking alone. "At first I felt pretty isolated. Then I came across these really neat instances where someone popped out of nowhere. We were all moving on the trail at the same speed together," he said.

Hanlon noted that, as a woman hiking alone, she was aware of possible problems, but not scared. She felt that the only "danger" was possibly at road crossings or when she got into towns. On the trail, things were fine. "If anything happens, you just sit where you are on the trail and someone will come along," she said.

Englke noted that the trail removes all traces of status or who you are in your everyday life. Age, career, race - none of it matters. "Maybe that's why people have trail identities (names). Their regular life is left behind," he said. Instead of talk about careers or life at home, "The basic aspects of the experience are the topics."

Moving on
Though the desert would soon be behind them, the hikers knew things would never be easy. In the mountains there would be the possibility of bad weather and snow and "Oregon will be mosquitoes and flies," Dargis said.

But they'd take those things as they came. For now there was rest, comfort, the sharing of experiences, the pleasure of accomplishment - and awe.

"There's a shared bond," Reed said.

"You end up making these friends. It's amazing, the connection," Dargis added.

"Knowing I've walked those miles is very rewarding," Bozarth said.

And Dargis summed it up. "What you see out there - nobody else will understand."

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