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The Pacific Crest Trail’s shadow hikers

At the border, migrants and long-distance trekkers hike side by side but worlds apart.

 

Against the backdrop of a desert sunrise, two human silhouettes exchange double high-fives. By 8 a.m., a bouncing crowd of a couple dozen has gathered around a group of wooden columns emblazoned with the crest of the Pacific Crest Trail — the monument that marks the start of the 2,650-mile path.

These are “thru-hikers,” people who intend to hike from the fence on the California-Mexican border, all the way to Canada. They hug, take pictures and scrawl breathlessly in the logbook: “Wow!! Wow!! Wow!! Let’s do this!” “Dreams come true!” On this spring day, up to 50 would-be thru-hikers set out, focused on the hike’s first leg, 42 miles to the town of Mount Laguna, California.

On the other side of the monument, just across the border, other hikers are assembling, unseen by the recreationists. Every day, up to 50 people wait until the Border Patrol agent’s truck peels away from the border fence. Once the truck is out of sight, they’ll slip through and begin their own journey north. These are border crossers, and they are focused on simply getting to a road, where a driver will take them deeper into the U.S. Some dash 1,200 feet to where Highway 94 swings close to the border. Some hug the Pacific Crest Trail, making occasional short forays across it; others quietly join the hoopla at the monument and try to blend in with the thru-hikers. And some hike a route that echoes the trail’s first leg, heading toward a pick-up point near Mount Laguna.

Back in 2015, I hiked the first 266 miles of the PCT. As I stepped out on the trail, I felt the giddy joy of embarking on an epic journey through beautiful country. Desert birds serenaded. The feathery fronds of chamise, a low-growing shrub native to arid stretches of California, waved from the sidelines of the trail. The soft morning light illuminated a stampede of footprints, the impressions of strangers just ahead, some of whom would become my friends.

But long after I came home, it was the shadow-hikers, or rather the evidence of their passing, that lingered in my mind. At Mile 9, just off the trail, I saw a pair of jeans, a dress shirt and a food wrapper labeled in Spanish. Near Mile 15, I passed a caution-yellow road sign with an unmistakable warning: A striking rattlesnake, a bold sun, a cactus. “¡Cuidado!” it read. “No exponga su vida a los elementos. ¡No vale la pena!” (“Watch out! “Don’t expose your life to the elements. It is not worth it!”). Camped one dark night at a stream at Mile 15.5, I abruptly awoke to the percussive roar of a helicopter, its searchlight briefly flooding my tent. The Border Patrol.

These memories are why I returned to the trail in April 2017.

With the Mexican border wall as a backdrop, thru-hikers check in at the monument that marks the southern end of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Sandy Huffaker/ Getty Images

This time I have interpreters to help me understand the trail’s dual nature. Andrew LaWall and Tekae Michael, two fit young agents from the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector, seem as happy as any thru-hikers to be walking outdoors today. They describe how shadow-hikers navigate the first five miles, south of Interstate 8, the hot zone of law enforcement.

First comes the crossing. In some spots, barbed wire runs just north of the border fence, and the shadow-hikers dive through the barbed wire headfirst “like Superman,” LaWall says. Then comes a plunge into the chamise, whose foliage is as coarse as stubby pine needles and whose snapped-off branches can stab like sharp little spears. Between the stands of chamise are tempting empty spaces, flat and wide as the Pacific Crest Trail, but if you give in and make a dash, you will be exposed to the Border Patrol agents stationed around here. If one of them spots your footprint, he’ll call in your trajectory to other agents stationed north. You are hurtling into a trap. LaWall estimates the Border Patrol catches three-quarters of the crossers in this area.

Meanwhile, the thru-hikers have other concerns. After the euphoric first miles, they have to come to grips with the extraordinary mental and physical effort required to hike 12 hours a day. I learned to put myself in a bubble of comfort: a mylar umbrella to ward off direct sun, front-pocket candy rewards, Gatorade-on-demand via a hose over my shoulder, music and podcasts. Thru-hikers admire the scenery, play games, chat with new friends, sing, daydream, meditate and count their steps. 

But shadow-hikers cannot lose themselves in hiking; the terrain and the conditions are too stressful. After the high-adrenaline miles to Interstate 8, they wait for the cover of darkness to cross the freeway and then push on through the night.

I don’t anticipate seeing — let alone meeting — any shadow-hikers on the trail, but to better understand their experience I met a few months earlier with Jose Hernandez and his wife, Guadalupe Garcia, Mexicans in their 40s who say they crossed the border well west of the trail back in 1990. From a vantage point high in the Santa Cruz Mountains on California’s central coast, not far from where they now live, Hernandez waved toward a nearby ridge, a steep cross-country plunge and climb over from where we stood. That was his pick-up point, he explained. Then he pointed to a rat’s nest of poison oak branches: “Through that.” Bending over and moving his arms like a swimmer, he said, “Sometimes, we went like this.” “Or sometimes on your butt,” Garcia chimed in. At one point, near exhaustion, Hernandez ran for an hour across an open area. Garcia told me she crossed at night, with no lights.

How does it feel to try to cross the desert at night? At 4 a.m., on my own hike this April, I turned off my headlamp and broke west off the trail into a wall of chamise. The mass of interlaced branches pressed against my thighs, hard as a stuck turnstile. Twigs raked bloody stripes onto my forearm. I pushed my foot forward in the blackness and fell into the sudden unpleasant sensation you get when you miss a step. My heart raced, and I turned back. Much later, I told Hernandez how disconcerting I found my short foray in the dark. He looked at me and said, “But no one was chasing you.”

“Many are told Border Patrol is trying to kill them,” Francisco Cantú, a Border Patrol agent in Arizona from 2008-2012, told me over the phone. “They are terrified.” Every airplane overhead, every snapped twig, might mean the end. Garcia recalled how she involuntarily sprang up when Border Patrol jeeps raced past her hiding place in the brush, fearful of being run over. Her brother yanked her back down.

Then there are the challenges of desert travel itself. On my long 2015 hike, blisters formed relentlessly in the friction between my dusty feet and sweaty socks, despite my $18 Smartwool PhD socks, specially designed for “high output activities and warm temperatures.” Creeping dehydration outpaced my electrolyte-replacement drink, and my head pounded. I tried walking bow-legged to keep my chafed inner thighs from touching.   

Rest is the antidote to the desert’s aggressiveness. Every two hours, I collapsed in the shade of the most hospitable rock. I indulged in elaborate foot care: socks and shoes off; rinse grime; duct-tape blisters; put on fresh socks; elevate feet. I put diaper cream on chafing and swallowed ibuprofen. I adjusted my clothes, packing extra layers. I binge-drank water and refilled my bottles. I ate, despite mild nausea, and napped. At night, I climbed into my sleeping bag. After a solid night’s rest, I woke ready to hike again. 

Shadow-hikers try to keep moving. When they do rest, it’s hardly rejuvenating. “Two people here,” LaWall says, pointing to a depression under a splintery manzanita; “two there,” pointing to another. Foot guides, or coyotes, choose rest spots for concealment, not comfort, he says.

After you climb into your manzanita, you are free to tend your feet, but “taking off your shoes is not a good idea,” Hernandez told me, because the coyote could order you to move at any moment. In the seconds it takes to put on shoes, you might be left behind. The extra layers of clothes you wore won’t fit in your school-size backpack, so you shed them, leaving them along the trail.

You sip water sparingly, if you still have any. Eat, if you still have food. “Most people are out of food and water when we find them,” Cantú said. Sleep, if you can, wrapped in a trash bag that holds in a little heat, and pray no helicopter spots you.

A sign warns of dangers along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Dreamstime
 

The only definitive cure for desert hiking is to stop doing it. After three days of hiking in 2015, I approached the Sunrise Highway along a pleasant stretch of trail. From there, it was a short walk to Mount Laguna. I was greeted by thru-hikers toasting the first leg with morning soda and waiting for the Blue Jay Lodge to start serving mountain burgers with grilled onions. After lunch, I took a double shower and then sank onto a bed in my towel.

After eight days, shadow-hikers reach the Sunrise Highway, a few miles from the amenities of Mount Laguna. LaWall shows me a cleft in the mountains that shoot up from the desert floor. Shadow-hikers lie in there on their stomachs, he says, and wait for the signal that their ride has arrived. Ten seconds later, they may be taken to a so-called “stash house” and held for ransom. Armed men, perhaps drunk or high, will force them to sit in a dingy corner and eat McDonald’s hamburgers thrown on the floor, threatening to kill their families if the money doesn’t arrive soon.

Hernandez said his family paid the ransom, and he left. He stayed at his uncle’s while he searched for work, sleeping under the dining table. Garcia ended up in a bad part of LA, hidden under boxes in the foot space of an expensive car. Eventually they found each other and made a life together, working in the landscape industry around Santa Cruz.

But that seems a world away on this bright spring day. Today, a group of well-fed and resupplied thru-hikers are singing as they walk from Mount Laguna back to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Caroline Benner is a writer who lives in California. She has hiked 266 Pacific Crest Trail miles solo and another 290 with her husband. She’s looking forward to the next 2094.