It was a life-changing experience for Gabriel Albers, a 21-year old native from Hutchinson, to take on the task of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that goes from Mexico to Canada. It generally takes five months to walk the 2,663 miles through deserts, hills, parks and communities.
Albers started his hiking adventure earlier this year on May 29. He said most people started walking the trail two weeks to a month earlier, but he specifically started later to avoid the crowds. He started at the Mexican border by Campo, Calif. His uncle drove him from San Diego, which is about a 40 to 50-minute drive. He dropped Albers off, took his photo and said “good luck.”
“I was always a big hiker and an outdoor person,” Albers said. “When I was about a freshman or sophomore in high school, I was reading about the Appalachian Trail, and I wanted to do a West Coast version. Low and behold, I found the PCT and read about it. One day I realized this was something I really wanted to do. I finally had the opportunity to do it for fun and spiritually. I am really into backpacking so I’m trying to have it become a lifestyle.”
Albers has 566 miles done, which is the first of five sections of the trail. Three sections out of the five are just California. It goes from the desert section to the Sierras, to Northern California. The other two sections are Oregon and Washington.
“Going back to finish the trail is yet to be determined,” he said. “Depending where I am financially, and I want to upgrade my gear. I hope to do it soon or even next year. My original thought was to do all of this in one year but, after being out there for two months, it made more sense to come back another year. That way I would have a better experience rather than to spend all my savings and come out broke in the end. With a lighter backpack, I would be able to finish the trail in four to five months. By taking the trail in sections, I can take a little more time, meet more local people and really get to see the scenery. I would not have to meet a deadline and would be a little more flexible finishing the trail.”
Albers met some interesting people in southern California and had memorable events with the weather, scenery and wildlife. “The first guy I met was from a small town outside of Milwaukee. The second guy was actually from Glencoe, Minn. I met another guy from Maine who was into homesteading. He taught me how to make homemade yogurt and set up a root cellar. There was another guy from Texas, a girl from Switzerland, and two brothers from Spain. Hikers just like me.”
“I met this guy in Acton who was essentially as homeless as I was. He looked really scruffy, and I thought he was super homeless. We met as I was walking to a camp site in town, and he came up to me and he asked, ‘Hey brother, you got a hit of weed on you?’ My response was a joke so we both laughed and went on our way. The next day I saw him at the library. He came up to me and offered to buy lunch. So we went to a Mexican restaurant. He was telling me how his car broke down outside of town and he slept on the deck of the liquor store. We had a great conversation. I asked what made him want to help me. What inspired him to do this? He said when he saw me walking with a backpack it was obvious I was passing through so he thought, ‘That’s your queue or you’re up. Either let this guy blow through town or make it interesting for him.’ ”
Albers said, “The desert was a really harsh and unforgiving landscape where six out of 10 things are either going to kill or severely maim you by defending themselves. The spiders, the sun, the heat from the sand, rattlesnakes or lack of water are all examples of this.”
“The people you’d meet were what made it fun. Trail angels, for example, are people who specifically help hikers. I once went through a list of trail angels to call looking for a ride because hitchhiking wasn’t an option on this highway. A woman named Fran, who was super nice and had a cute little dog with her, showed me around the whole town. She gave me the low down of where to stay. Trail angels are very welcoming to hikers. It was mind blowing to see how kind people were. Here we have Minnesota nice, but there they take it to another level for the hikers.”
“This year, near Palm Springs, it was 122 degrees during the day breaking the previous 1957 record. It was so hot a person couldn’t hike during the day. I had to hide out in a sliver of shade and tried to sleep or rest then move at night. Even at night the temperature only cooled down to 110 while hiking from dusk till dawn. I was trying to get to higher elevation quick.”
“I would call home every week or two and let family know everything is fine. I carried an emergency SOS button, so if something did happen, just press a button, and it would send for help with my coordinates. I would then prep a helicopter landing site if needed or move to a similar evacuation site like a road,” he said.
“The first sign of trails angels was 15 miles in, after the Mexican border, where somebody had left a two-liter bottle of fresh water,” Albers said. “When I got there, the water bottle was dated the same day meaning someone had been there earlier that morning. According to all the thanks in the trail registry, he had been coming almost every day during hiker season to do this. You’d see things like that throughout the trail, and it is just really amazing. I wanted to give something back or offer them money but nine times out of 10 they wouldn’t take my money. I always offered. I offered to do work for them. They would say no, no, no.”
Albers said. “People would commonly have trail names. My trail crew in Yosemite would call me Angel Fire. They were at a card store and they found a magic card that read ‘Gabriel Angel Fire.’ They bought the card and gave it to me and hence I became Angel Fire.”
“One man I met was from Springfield, Illinois,’ he continued, “and his trail name was Paint. Paint was short for Paint Your Wagon from the Clint Eastwood musical. He was an interesting, fun guy who had been on the trail for years. He started hiking the PCT trail eight different times, but he kept getting distracted. I asked him how I could repay him for helping me. He said ‘The best thing is for you to do that for someone else and keep it going.’”
Albers said, “There is a general sense of integrity on the PCT. It is truly a unique thing to have all these nice things happen and people helping out. Instead of looking at me as homeless a lot of them looked at it as being a pilgrim on a spiritual journey. They see what you’re doing and want to be part of it.”
There was a time when Albers made a mistake and went a half mile in the wrong direction. “The world becomes the most beautiful when things are at the absolute worst,” he said. “I was going up a creek that was 200 to 300 feet down from the trail. The brush became so thick. I couldn’t go up the creek any more. I had to climb up the steep hillside and pray the brush on the flat quarter mile to the trail from there would thin out. That wasn’t the case. Getting to the top of the hill all you could see was massive shrubs mixed with cacti. It was so thick a small dog would have a terrible time getting through. So I put on my long sleeves and was getting cuts across my face and my legs. I still have scars. Then I decided, alright, I am going to charge through the brush.”
He said, “I looked at my map and had run a half mile in the wrong direction. The only thought that kept me going was quitting this trail, ending my journey, to never come back. I thought that was tough and one of the worst experiences in my life.”
“Later that day, I hit the Agua Caliente Creek and that was an oasis. It was extremely beautiful, with golden hills, a rich diversity of desert plants and wildflowers. Then I get to the top of this hill where I choose to camp for the night and the sun hits this green mountain. I was staring at it, and it turns to bright pink and gold. After the day I just went through, seeing that, it made me think ‘This is why I am here.’”
Everyone has their own reason and motive for going on the PCT. Albers stated that one thing he noticed was that it has made him a more easy-going person because he learned not to be stressed out about the small things.
Albers said he saw a lot of snakes, coyotes, road runners, quail, a huge variety of lizards, jack rabbits (one that was higher than his knees), tarantulas, camel spiders, three different scorpions, ants that sting, ants that bite (they’re really aggressive), translucent blue hornets, black hornets with orange wings, a bobcat, birds of prey, horses, donkeys, cattle, chipmunks, woodpeckers, kangaroo rats, praying mantis and more.
“One night I was almost stampeded,” he said. “It was so hot I couldn’t hike in the daytime so I decided to hike at night again. I was walking up this ridge coming up from the valley, and the next thing I know the ground starts shaking. I thought what the heck is that, a rockslide, an earthquake? I look in the direction it was coming from with my headlight shining out and approximately 30 seconds later a line of reflective eyes began appearing. My heart drops. Then, a row of heads just comes piercing through the darkness. Cows and bulls were coming directly at me. By this point I was booking it and ran over to the side of this cliff where I could go down if needed. I was sitting at the edge of the cliff with two big rocks in each hand in case I had to throw a rock at them and jump down. Part of me wanted to see what spooked them but nothing came.”
Albers said, “I have three pieces of advice I would give people who want to hike this part of the trail. First, be emotionally prepared because the desert is harsh and unforgiving. Second, pack as light as possible because of the heat. Third, don’t worry. As more and more people hike on the PCT more resources open up. There is a phenomenal amount of resources for anyone on the PCT.”
The cost to hike the PCT could be $3,000-$7,000 according to Albers. It is really how well you budget, what you are eating and how much time you spend in town.
Albers said he did this hiking trip because it brought him closer to nature, closer to where he came from and closer to real life.