Last week I had the great fortune to visit legendary Trail Angels Ziggy & the Bear at their home in Whitewater, California. This oasis on the border of Sections B & C near the I-10 in the San Gorgonio Pass has been a haven for NoBo hikers recovering from the hard descent down Fuller Ridge and SoBos steeling themselves for the relentless climb up it for the past few years since Z&B relocated here after angeling for several years in Anza.
In the past, this personable and seemingly tireless duo committed to the health, happiness, & welfare of PCT hikers has provided a multitude of services, including: food runs, showers, foot soaks, and ice cream extravaganzas, in addition to the space and shelter they provide for hikers needing a break from the relentless desert heat and sun. One night last season, they hosted 98 hikers. NINETY-EIGHT! In ONE night!
Unfortunately, due to the greater number of hikers expected this year, and a disturbing trend of hikers failing to support them with monetary or labor donations, Ziggy & the Bear are having to scale back their operations. This is actually a relief, because they had briefly considered shutting down completely after last season.
Of course, not all hikers pass through without leaving something behind; the large patio enclosure at Z&B’s was built entirely by hikers, and provides a welcome respite from the gale-force winds that blow through the area (it’s no coincidence that this area is dotted with wind farm turbines, which make some seriously spooky noises in the dark). Hikers have pitched in to make most of the improvements to the property, which was originally bought by a hiker specifically for the purpose of assisting us on the PCT.
Still, more and more hikers are choosing to avail themselves of the benefits and luxuries provided by trail angels without contributing to their operations. As a result, unsustainable systems are created, in which good people who truly want to support the efforts of PCT hikers possibly end up feeling used and abused. Ultimately, the oases will dry up, to the detriment of future hikers who may not get to experience, in this case, the joy of hearing one of the Bear’s many great stories, or sample some of Ziggy’s home-cooking.
This is not a situation faced solely by Ziggy & the Bear. Angels up and down the length of the PCT are feeling the strains and pains of greater numbers of hikers and less money and resources to provide services to them. I can only imagine the frustration they must feel when faced with the hard choice of continuing to selflessly give until they go broke, or close down because they can no longer reasonably assume the costs of providing the benefits to hikers that they have become known and loved for providing.
I think part of the issue is a lack of knowledge or understanding by hikers of what it actually costs angels to do what they do. For example, I learned that Ziggy & the Bears’ water bill TRIPLES during peak hiker season. It is primarily due to this hard economic fact that they will not be providing showers or foot soaks this season. They stock sodas, juices, and Gatorades for hikers; the Gatorades alone cost them $1 each.
While they would never be so rude as to ask people outright to donate funds to offset these not insignificant costs they personally assume, I have no problems whatsoever with doing so, because if we hikers don’t pitch in to help those who take pleasure in helping us, angeling will eventually cease to be rewarding for them, and they will choose to either scale back or shut down completely. Angels burn out too.
During my visit, this early in the season, I met seven other hikers. Some were passing through briefly, others were staying longer to help as work-stay guests. To me, this is the primary allure of an angel operation: the opportunity to commune with fellow hikers and PCT enthusiasts adds a great richness to the overall hiking experience that can’t be replicated elsewhere. It’s a shame that places like this may be forced to shut down due to what is essentially the selfishness of some of us who take the services that angels provide and give nothing in return. It is entirely preventable, and it is the responsibility of those of us who benefit from the angels to ensure that they are able to continue.
So… Hikers. If you choose to take anything from a trail angel, show your appreciation in the form of a donation, whether it be time or money. Whether you are a thru or a section hiker is irrelevant. If you can afford booze, townie meals, or weed on your hike, and you make a stop at a cache, an angel home, or whatever, you can surely afford to offer back a token of your appreciation with cash or some of your time. If you aren’t willing to do that, then it is entirely possible to complete a thru of the PCT unsupported by trail angels, and that’s the way you should go. Thru-hiking isn’t and shouldn’t be equated with free-loading. Don’t be the straw that broke the camel’s back and ruined it for the rest of us.