HILLS NEWSPAPERS: July 23, 2010
It’s not easy being a trail angel. You’re at the service of others from early dawn until sundown — and beyond. It’s a calling, something John Muir would have deeply appreciated.
The sign outside Drakesbad Guest Ranch proudly proclaims its locale as 1,348 miles from Mexico and 1,410 miles from Canada. Smack in the middle of the Pacific Crest Trail, Drakesbad is truly an angel for adventurists making the arduous hike across one of America’s most challenging National Scenic Trails.
My daughter and I are exhausted as we pull in. Weary Bay Area travelers, we’ve run out of bottled water, and our trail mix is down to the last nut.
“Welcome to Drakesbad,” says ranch host Billie Fiebiger. “We’ve saved you some lunch.” Lunch, indeed: It’s a plate of gourmet salads and breads, homemade and every bit as delicious as the fare from my favorite cafe in the city. Yet we are a world away from the traffic and noise and daily routine that can sap a person’s soul. No cell service, no Internet, no electricity in our cabin. Just friendly folks, good eats and endless hiking trails through some of the most stunning scenery imaginable.
Drakesbad is in the southern section of Lassen Volcanic National Park. An hour east of Red Bluff, the ranch is a collection of rustic cabins, a lodge, dining hall and stables nestled in one of the most scenic mountain meadows in California. Its proximity to the Pacific Crest Trail means that hikers from all over the world stop at Drakesbad for a hot meal, a long shower and good conversation. Their stories are nothing short of incredible.
“I remember one man, Scott Williamson, used to hike it down and back,” says Ed Fiebiger, Billie’s husband and ranch co-host. “He had a 15-pound sack and no shelter — no nothing — just slept on the ground. He would hike 40 to 45 miles a day and come in here for a jug of water. He left in five minutes.”
Then there was the veterinarian and his wife who set out to tackle the trail on horseback. “The wife got thrown off the horse and broke her arm — she had to quit the trip but he continued with pack mules carrying food for his horses,” Ed recalled. When the man got to Drakesbad, he spent a sleepless night throwing rocks at the bears who were trying to get at his food.
Crossing through six out of seven ecozones in North America, the Pacific Crest Trail is a bear to hike. It winds along scorching deserts, through dripping rain forests and over several snowy mountain peaks — including treacherous Mt. Whitney, looming 14,495 feet above Death Valley. Every year, some 300 hikers attempt to complete the trail, but only half ever make it as far as Drakesbad.
On the night my daughter and I are there, the dining room is abuzz with activity. Ed and Billie are serving up salmon and rack of lamb to hungry guests. Many, like us, are day hikers. We pop in and out of the Pacific Crest Trail and make mini-hikes to boiling sulfur pools with names like Devil’s Kitchen. You can tell the serious hikers — the ones trekking from Mexico to Canada (and even back again). They are mostly men, grizzled and chiseled, almost wolfing down their food. Drakesbad is well-known as the best “angel camp” on the trail — with the best food, showers and laundry, even a hot-springs pool to soothe sore muscles.
At dinner, ranger Chris Cruz tells us he’s already made an early season rescue in the park, a hiker who had fallen through the crust and into a boiling geothermal pool. Despite the warnings, there are two to three rescues like this a year in Lassen. The burns are extremely painful, and some can even lose their leg to amputation if treatment isn’t readily available.
Yet it’s the raw forces of nature that make this park so special.
“It’s like a mini Yellowstone without all the visitors,” says Cruz. And that’s the real charm of the place. It’s why Drakesbad is such a step back in time. Generations of visitors come year after year, becoming like family to hosts Billie and Ed, who, themselves, have been running the ranch for two decades.
Dinner is finished, and families retire to the hot springs pool and the game room. Some buy a book or a T-shirt — writing their name on a ledger in the gift shop, where everything is purchased on the honor system. A crackling fire warms the lodge, and a thunderstorm is building outside — just in time to light the night sky with nature’s own brand of fireworks.
My daughter and I light the kerosene lamp in our cabin and get ready for bed. Tomorrow we’ll ride to Hell’s Kitchen on horseback, then take a canoe across nearby Dream Lake to see the beaver dam and a new family of baby ducks. And we’ll hike — in quiet solitude — on the Pacific Crest Trail for a time, remembering the words of the master outdoorsman John Muir: “Only by going alone in silence can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.”