Just before the trail climbs into the San Jacinto Mountains there is a famous hiker stop only 1 mile northwest of the trail: The Paradise Valley Cafe. It is a hiker friendly restaurant meaning that as dirty as we are, hikers are welcome to stop in for a meal, gather fresh water, charge our phones and even camp out overnight on the restaurant patio.
Earlier in the day another hiker, Lucky, and I were talking about stopping in for a meal. Lucky was thinking of hitching a ride from the road crossing near the restaurant into Idyllwild for a day off (we call it taking a zero because you walk zero miles). I arrived at six p.m. just as the evening dinner crowd was beginning to trickle in.
A Paradise waitress greeted me with a glass of ice water and a friendly smile. She let me know where to wash up, charge my phone and invited me to sleep on the deck. I was glad to know that I could camp there overnight because by the time I ordered my meal, charged my phone and got back to the trail it would be close to nightfall and I’d be pitching my tent in the dark.
People are curious about the hiking life and the trail. Many people dream about doing a long hike, and on then on the other hand there are folks who think it is dangerous and somewhat insane to live without modern comforts. Often when people see my pack they are interested in my adventure and engage me in a conversation about trail life. I enjoy sharing. I try to be an ambassador for hiking and the trail family I love.
At the restaurant I found a table and ordered a soda. Next, I ordered a hamburger, fries and Corona. The couple next to me asked where I was hiking to and we began a conversation about the trail. They happened to be passing through on their was home to Phoenix. They traveled to Southern California to pick up a harp. The full-sized stand up musical instrument kind of harp. I could see the lovely wooden scroll standing up in the back of their van. She was a harpist. I was hoping Lucky would come in to meet them because he was from Phoenix.
The couple paid their bill and were on their way out when they returned to bring me a loaf of fresh baked whole wheat bread. They were happy to give it to me because they were both on a diet. The folks who sold them their new harp were bread bakers. The bread was wrapped in white paper and tied with a pink ribbon. It smelled sweet and yeasty. I was surrounded with food! There was no sign of Lucky and the kitchen was soon going to close for the night.
Another table engaged me in a conversation. I shared photographs of my camp sites, wild flowers and rattlesnakes. I showed all the tables near me the photographs not wanting to be rude or leave anyone out. One of the tables quietly invited me to stay with them overnight. They offered to take me home and to bring me back to the trailhead the following day! I happily accepted their kind offer.
Just as we were getting ready to leave Lucky rolled in. The kitchen stayed open to fill his dinner order and my new friends, Fred and Andrea, extended an offer of lodging to him. Andrea was a school teacher like me. After Lucky ate and paid his bill we set off to their home in the upper desert of Aguanga, only about 20 minutes from the trailhead and a drive up and around some winding mountain roads.
At their home, Fred set Lucky and I up with a shower, and he made the family washing machine available to us so we could clean our dirty clothes. Lucky slept in the boys room and I slept in their daughter’s comfy bed. I loved her room because it reminded me of my daughter, Emily. A room full of clothes, makeup,accessories, and a big Elvis poster. There was a sculptural fabric covered high heel chair….to die for! I slept deeply that night and rested well.
In the morning Fred made us coffee and we ate a thick slice of that fresh whole wheat bread slathered with butter. Fred dropped me off at the trailhead and Lucky off at the road crossing. Lucky was determined to take his zero. I haven’t seen him since.
Fred is a pilot and flies small aircraft all over the U.S.A. sometimes landing in the backcountry on dirt or grassy landing strips for the night, where he can make camp for the night. One thing he said that has stuck with me was how water abundant northern, and central California looks from the sky. And when you fly over southern California it is dry. Like the song, “Seems it never rains in southern California…..seems I’ve often heard that kind of talk before.”
That Lucky and I were invited home with Fred and Andrea was a generous and spontaneous action between complete strangers. That I was given a loaf of fresh baked bread by a couple, who recognized that a gift to themselves could be passed along. These acts of kindness are examples of Tail Magic.
Trail Magic is a random act of kindness shown to a hiker. Sometimes Trail Magic is planned out, like cooler of beer, soda or fresh fruit placed along the trail at a road crossing or mysteriously deep in the backcountry. Sometimes it is a spontaneous action, like a complete stranger offering to take a hiker in for the night. This sort of good will is common practice along the trail. People helping one another out of compassion.
If you ever feel pessimistic about people I would suggest a retreat outdoors with a bit of wilderness. Walk a trail, canoe a river, fish a stream or climb a mountain. There are people who bond in a healthily way over the simple practice of existing and experiencing the outdoors. It is a simple thing but rich in sensory experiences. The vistas, wildlife sightings, scents of flowers and meeting up with complete strangers who are akin to family can renew the spirit and bring calm to our sometimes hectic lives.