Trail angel

Anyone hiking the epic Pacific Crest Trail can use a few angels. ‘Fish’ is one.

“Trail angels” like Justin ‘Fish’ Amaro, left, can make hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a little less difficult.

“Trail angels” like Justin ‘Fish’ Amaro, left, can make hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a little less difficult.

The Sierra Nevada range is sometimes little more than a beautiful ornament in our everyday lives, but to a small, hardcore community known as through-hikers, the stretch that we see is merely another hurdle in a nearly 2,700-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The PCT stretches from the Mojave Desert just outside of San Diego, Calif., all the way to British Columbia, Canada. It’s one of the most difficult hikes of its kind, taking four to six months to traverse. It is considered a gem in the Triple Crown of American Trails, which includes the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast and the Continental Divide Trail along the Rocky Mountains.

For the through-hikers on the PCT who want a break from the wilderness as they reach Donner Lake or Boreal, they’ve probably met two-time PCT veteran, “Fish.”

Real-name Justin Amiro, Fish has been through-hiking for more than 16 years.

“I moved to Reno to be close to the mountains,” he says. “I had never seen snow until I was 23.”

Fish, now 32, looks like a mountaineer—long hair and beard. He’s well-spoken and friendly.

“The community of through-hikers is pretty small,” Fish says. “On the PCT, there are about 500 people that have hiked the trail more than once who I call ‘The Usual Suspects.’ There’s probably about one degree of separation between all of us. When you meet someone on the trail, you usually know them by name or reputation.”

Not only does the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail take Fish out of water, it also tests anyone’s will with its 700 miles of desert.

There are benefits to having such a small community. For one, you always hear if someone isn’t on the level. “It takes a lot to get the cold shoulder from a through-hiker … there’s not a lot of judgment as a rule,” says Fish. “You have to do something pretty fucked up. But once it’s known that you’re not good company, you won’t be able to hike with anyone.”

Groups are formed when through-hiking out of necessity. Most people start out solo or in couples, but it gets lonely fast. People meet in stopover towns along the way or on the trail.

“The longest I’ve gone without talking to anyone was 11 days.” Fish shudders at the memory. “Eleven days without seeing a single soul, how cool is that? But, I’ll tell ya, after about three days, I started talking to myself just to keep from going crazy.”

Next exit: Rocks, trees, Holiday Inn.
Fish is surprisingly unabashed at the idea of stopping in towns and staying in hotels on occasion while through-hiking a trail.

“You’ve got to shower,” he says with a laugh. “Plus, it’s nice to blow off steam after being in the wilderness for so long. To go and see a movie or whatever. Out of about 110 days hiking, you probably spend 20 in the towns along the way.”

Out of the thousands of people he’s met while traveling through small towns, Fish says he rarely has had bad experiences. “The human spirit is not as bankrupt as we think,” he says. “People are still inherently good.”

Necessity also plays a role in stopping in towns. Through-hikers need to re-supply often with as much food as they can carry. They can either pick up boxes of food sent to post offices from family back home or buy what is needed from local stores.

“You typically carry high-calorie food that is dense and light. Anything from rice and noodles to peanut butter and candy bars. You burn more calories than you can eat while hiking. I lost 60 pounds on my first through-hike,” he says.

Fish has tried to complete the Pacific Crest Trail twice. “The second time, I broke my ankle and had to hike for nine miles,” he says.

Photo By David Robert

Fish says he first started through-hiking after college. “I was a senior, and I only had a semester left to finish my degree in finance, but as I was on my way to class one morning I just couldn’t do it. I had lost several family members in quick succession, and I realized that I didn’t want to wake up one morning and feel like I was already dead. So I called my dad and told him that I quit. … He hung up on me.”

“I through-hiked the Appalachian Trail that summer, and I was addicted. In the last 10 years I’ve averaged about 1,000 miles on one trail or another. This is the first summer since that I haven’t been on the trail, so it was only natural that I decided to ‘trail angel’ this year since I’m stuck at work.”

Touched by a trail angel
A trail angel is someone a through-hiker can call for a lift out of the mountains to re-supply or anything else they might need. Fish has sheltered nearly 40 through-hikers this season, picking them up anywhere they might find a phone. Word is passed around on trail message boards.

“Everybody through-hikes for their own reasons,” Fish continued. “There are a lot of people who just have an escapist attitude. I’d say a good percent are retired or trust-fund types out for adventure. The majority are either just out of school or disillusioned about something. There are even those who think of it as a pilgrimage of sorts.

“I even met a kid who had robbed a bank; his trail name was Richie Rich. He was on the run from the FBI, who for some reason never found him while he was on trail. He got caught later trying to hold up another bank.”

Funding a through-hike can be a challenge. People will sublet their homes, save through the winter or budget their money to go on trail.

“There are three different styles of hiking,” says Fish. There are the purists, the white blazers, who stick to every mile the way it was designed and always follow the white guiding line of the trail that is painted on the trees. Blue blazers follow the blue painted trees on a trail, usually a little more scenic. Lastly, there are the yellow blazers. “Hitchhiking and following the yellow line on the road,” he says, laughing.

“The first 700 miles of the PCT are all high desert of small ridges and lagoons. It’s sandy and scrubby, there are snakes, scorpions, coyotes, and you have to carry water for up to 28 miles. Sleeping, a lot of times, is just unrolling your mat and lying down. Getting to see the sky at night without suburbia is awe-inspiring.

“The first town out of the desert and just before the Sierra is Kennedy Meadows,” says Fish. “You get there, and you’re ruined by the desert. You re-supply and head straight into the mountains. It’s not long until you’re surrounded by the conifer forests that you’ve been waiting for.”

The change in wildlife is drastic, as well, from the silent creatures of the desert to the rowdy denizens of the conifers. “As long as you’re cautious, you won’t be bothered by anything,” Fish says. “I’ve seen bears and the like, and they’ve never bothered me.”