They trickle through Donner Summit each summer thin, weathered and determined. Some reach where Old Highway 40’s ribbon of asphalt breaks the 2,650-mile trail momentarily, stride across the road and continue walking, their faces and feet pointed toward Canada.
Others drop into the cafe at Donner Ski Ranch and gorge themselves on hamburgers, ice cream or soda that cant be carried on their long hike. Still others venture to Poohs Corner to sample the legendary hospitality of a Donner Lake resident who has welcomed long distance hikers into his home for years.
And then, by August, the last of the pack is gone, following a dusty thread of trail up the spine of the Sierra Nevada, hoping that before the snow flies they’ll plant their feet in Canada and, for the first time in five months, walk away from a trail that has become their home.
Roughly 87 days and 1,156 miles since setting off from the Mexican border, Dominique Ghijselinck and Valerie De Clerck, collectively known as the Belgian Waffles, sat down for a break on Donner Summit Thursday.
“We like-long distance hiking, and we met a guy from Oregon who said ‘you might consider the Pacific Crest Trail,'” Ghijselinck said. “Somehow it got stuck in our heads.”
Ghijselinck and De Clerck are a married couple from Belgium – a factory worker and a grocery store clerk who dedicate their lives to travel.
“We are from Belgium and they say waffles are well known here,” Ghijselinck said, explaining their given trail name.
This year they’re taking on the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile long foot path that extends from the Mexican border to Canada, wandering through deserts and over mountains in California, Oregon and Washington.
But their goal, like that of so many other hopeful thru-hikers, may prove unattainable as the extensive fires of Northern California threaten a 100-mile stretch of trail, De Clerck said.
“It’s kind of annoying, we had our minds set on doing every inch,” Ghijselinck said.
The smoke started becoming prevalent on the western rim of Lake Tahoe, they recalled.
“[Wednesday] ash was falling on us, like black leaves,” De Clerck said. “This morning it started prickling our eyes and throat, we can’t do 20 miles in this smoke.”
So sometime after Sierra City, Ghijselinck and De Clerck, along with all other thru-hikers, will have to get off the trail and find rides up to Chester, Calif., where they can continue their northward march.
The smoke hadn’t yet dampened their spirits, however, and both Ghijselincks and De Clercks faces light up as they recounted sightings of bears and rattlesnakes, fields of wildflowers, their fellow hikers and something called trail magic.
“People cache water and fruit in the desert sometimes,” De Clerck said.
Thats trail magic. And trail magic, performed by those known as trail angels, extends beyond supplies.
“Hikers Heaven was amazing,” De Clerck said. “They don’t know you and they let you into their home, let you use their car and do laundry.”
Hikers Heaven is the home of the Saufley family in Agua Dulce, Calif., who take in Pacific Crest Trail hikers every year.
Carefully applying chocolate spread to crackers as they spoke, the couple explained what life is like on the trail: “We break camp at 5:30, walk a couple miles and have breakfast in the sun, mostly power bars, we save our best food for dinner,” De Clerck said.
“Then every two to two and a half hours we have a break, and in the evening we have dinner; mostly crackers or bread with peanut butter, chocolate or couscous,” Ghijselinck said. “It’s still not enough calories, I lost six kilos (about 14 pounds) by Agua Dulce 450 miles since setting off from Mexico.
On the trail, De Clerck said the duo craves fresh fruit, vegetables and the occasional soft drink.
Facing the challenges of trail life together as a married couple hasn’t been hard, according to Ghijselinck and De Clerck, who have been together for 13 years.
“It’s normal to be together 24 hours a day. For us it is weird being separated at work all day,” De Clerck said.
But the trail hasn’t been all easy going, and both have experienced injuries along the way. The couple stopped for five days in the Tehachapi Mountains of Southern California when De Clerck injured her ankle, and stopped another week in Mammoth when Ghijselinck strained his knee, he said as he adjusted the wrap still around his right leg.
While the couple didn’t have to deal with much snow a traditional challenge in the southern Sierra, the dry spring and early heat created other problems, Ghijselinck said.
“The hardest part was the Antelope Valley in the middle of a heat wave, it was probably not the smartest move to tackle it in the middle of the day in 118-degree heat,” he said.
Mosquitoes have also been heavy in the Sierra, De Clerck said, scanning the air around her head for buzzing insects.
For now, the couple is enjoying their natural surroundings and taking the trail one day at a time.
“We’re enjoying every day, it doesn’t matter how far we come,” De Clerck said.
“We would pass everything by if we only thought about the end, that’s secondary,” Ghijselinck said. “But it would be great to reach Canada.”
Gordon Smith, 67, is part of the Pacific Crest Trail community in his own way, not as a hiker, but as a trail angel. Living out of his beat-up white cargo van, Smith follows the thru-hikers north, meeting them at road crossings and offering food, drinks and rides into town.
Originally from Michigan, Smith said he hiked with his sister his whole life.
“In 1985 my sister, who was diabetic, went on dialysis so she couldn’t backpack anymore. She had a friend doing the PCT and we asked if we could tag along, meeting her at road crossings,” Smith said. “We did that for 15 years with different hikers on different trails. My sister passed away in November so this is my first year doing it by myself.”
Smith said he had surgery earlier in the year, and was put in a retirement home.
“People were there to die, 21 days was all I could take of that,” Smith said.
When asked what he does the rest of the year, Smith smiled and his eyes drifted off towards the horizon.
“There’s always hikers on the trail,” he said.
Blisters, strange tan lines and layers of trail grime are not the only thing Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers pick up while on the trail. Almost universally, hikers acquire a trail name, a moniker typically assigned by other hikers and bestowed based on some memorable experience or personality trait.
Paradox, a section hiker doing approximately 450 miles of the PCT this summer, is fairly unique amongst long-range hikers because she was able to choose her own trail name and make it stick.
“I had to fight for my name because supposedly you’re supposed to get named either the trail names you or something happens,” she said Thursday on Donner Summit. “I feel like a paradox. And life seems like a paradox, at least right now. So that’s where my name came from.”
Paradox started hiking this summer with a friend in Kennedy Meadows near the southern end of the High Sierra and went north to Kearsarge Pass in Kings Canyon National Park. She then got back on the trail by herself in South Lake Tahoe and is currently in the midst of hiking north to Sierra City.
Speaking of the ubiquitous trail names, Paradox continued: “They all have really cool names like Wildflower and Danger, that’s a couple, and my friends Dandy and Low Bridge, who I’m hoping will catch up soon. They’re all really cool people. Its an awesome community. I feel privileged to sneak in, even though I’m not a thru-hiker.”
Originally published in the Sierra Sun in 2008, Trail Names section written by Paul Raymore. Story awarded by the Nevada Press Association.
Video shot and edited by Paul Raymore: