Christopher Reynolds:

Wild West

COME LATE afternoon here at hiker heaven, the new bodies turn up like strays seeking scraps. They limp in, stinking, blinking and grateful. They lurch for the beckoning chairs on the shaded patio. They fling down their packs. And they mutter names that sound like roll call at San Quentin.

"Green Bean," says a lanky Georgian in a duct-taped cowboy hat, introducing himself. His wife, Woolly Mammoth, follows.

Some hikers are teens, some are retired. Some are chatty, some stoic. But most have this in common: Over the last three or four weeks, each has hiked here from the Mexican border, crossing desert, mountains and more than a little scorched earth, dodging bears, rattlesnakes and direct sun. Each has covered 455 miles, and each has 2,195 miles to go.

This is the Pacific Crest Trail class of 2004.

In minutes, Green Bean and Woolly Mammoth have beers open and shoes loosened amid all their uncharacteristically tidy trail mates. And so the chatter begins. "The Germanator got airlifted," somebody says. "Thermo doesn't get blisters," somebody else says. "Thermo changes his socks every hour."

Every summer, Jeff and Donna Saufley, the owners of this rural home, devote their yard and guest trailer to long-distance hikers in the know, offering showers, laundering clothes and orchestrating post office runs, all for nothing. It's an epic and ongoing act of good samaritanism, and their generosity makes this haven a prime spot for observation of that rare species known as the Pacific Crest Trail "thru-hiker."

In a typical year, about 250 such animals reach this patio, mostly in late May and early June, because they want to hit the Sierra just after the trails thaw.

This afternoon, the cast includes Cree-Mee and Ghost Dog, a pair of twentysomethings from Vermont, flopped on the patio with Sidewinder (Colorado), Road Rash (Oregon) and Red Bull (San Diego). Curses, a 25-year-old teacher-in-training who generally runs with Road Rash, has just stepped into the trailer. Scout is in the kitchen, baking cookies. Homeless and Unemployed (they're a pair of grandparents-to-be in their 50s who chucked jobs in Illinois three years ago to spend their days on the hoof) are running chores.

Men outnumber women about 3 to 1. But the demographics are far whiter than California's; in seven years, Donna has met just one African American hiker, who came through this year.

But you wouldn't want to call these people predictable. "I smoke a lot less out here," says Popsickle, a 37-year-old artist from Tahoe City, savoring a cigarette. "But I still smoke about half a pack a day." A couple of other smokers, some of whom covered 19 miles today before breaking out their cigars, nod and take their drags.

The prototypical thru-hiker, I figured, would be a lone wolf, coaxing iffy meals for one from a microscopic stove and hoping to obliterate some bad personal history. And that's certainly part of this scene.

But the trail names; the colorful garb; the brief, deep friendships and shifting alliances for eating and sleeping - this is a nomadic tribe, with membership cemented by compulsive contribution to www.trailjournals.com and passionate discussion of stove efficiency, water stops and blister status.

And many are serial nomads, having already completed the Appalachian Trail, a 2,160-mile challenge with thicker foot traffic, steeper hills and fewer views but easier logistics than the PCT.

I don't believe I've ever seen so many driven personalities with so few regular jobs. "I'd love to talk to a sociologist about this," Donna Saufley says. "In fact, I probably already have, and just didn't realize it."

If you can cover 20 miles a day, you can do the PCT in 4 1/2 months. But only about a quarter of the starters finish.

And every year brings quirks and catastrophes. From the beginning, this year's hikers knew they'd face more than a dozen miles blackened in last fall's Southern California wildfires and a 50-mile detour in Washington where flooding last fall obliterated seven bridges in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. But nobody counted on this year's fresh ashes. First, on May 7, fire blackened 75 acres near the White Water Fish Hatchery. Though no citations were issued, hikers and local officials say they suspect the blaze began with a hiker attempting to burn toilet paper. Then, five days later in the same area, a pair of thru-hikers lost control of a cooking fire, and this one charred more than 1,800 acres. One of those hikers, a woman from Ohio, was cited for the blaze and could be billed for part of the $3.2-million firefighting effort.

Among fellow hikers, I hear some sympathy, but more scorn. "We saw it on the next mountain. We knew something was wrong," says Unemployed, recalling the blaze. Barred from the trail by firefighters, she and Homeless hitched a ride, caught buses and picked up 50 miles later. "It's pretty hard. It's pretty tiring. It's pretty ugly down here," says Fugitive, an 18-year-old solo hiker from Visalia, thinking of the fire-scarred landscape. "But I'm enjoying the people. I'm just going on until I go broke."

Of those who drop out, "probably 90% drop out within the first 100 miles," says Greg Hummel, a perennial volunteer who hiked the trail in 1977. The dropouts, he says, "quickly come to the realization that they're not prepared, or they're not having fun, or they're having physical problems."

This Hiker Heaven, in other words, lies on the far side of something like hell. Yet trail volunteer Jerry Stone, who hiked the trail 13 years ago, says the class of 2004 faces far better odds than the class of 1991 did. "They're more sophisticated, they're better conditioned and they're better equipped," Stone says. And, thanks to dozens of trail-tenders like Stone and his boss, Pete Fish, they have an easier path to follow.

Now it's morning, not quite 7:30, and Popsickle and Scout have torn themselves from the patio. Advancing into the scrub hills of the Sierra Pelona, Scout takes the lead and Popsickle scratches the dirt with his hiking poles. One shouts the opening lyrics to "On the Road Again," and the other joins as they leave the power lines of Agua Dulce behind. The two round a ridge, then dip into a valley of chaparral, where the path narrows and all signs of humanity dwindle from view. They have 23 miles ahead today, and 2,195 miles to the Canadian border.

Hiker Heaven is nice, but as anyone in this tribe could tell you, it's a delicate, impermanent, incomplete state. Like blisterlessness.