I crossed Mackenzie Pass, Oregon at about 9:00am on Day 33 in the late summer of 2013. I had just completed solo hiking 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail and in 200 miles would reach my goal at the Columbia Gorge. But now I faced a grueling five miles across sharp, uneven lava beds and charred treeless devastation from an earlier fire on the Pacific crest Trail. Utter silence surrounded me and black clouds loomed, giving an ominous and foreboding feel to the morning.
Hoping I could reach Big Lake Christian Camp by mid-afternoon where I would retrieve my next supply box, I had just picked up my pace, when suddenly my thoughts were disrupted by a flash of lightning so bright it lit the entire area. The ensuing thunderclap was deafening.
With no trees in sight, I felt totally exposed. Seconds later came more thunder and lightning, the entire sky bursting open in torrential rain and hail driving with such force, I removed my glasses in fear they might shatter. It felt like a battlefield, and I ran as if, at seventy-two, I could outrun the weather.
And then it happened. As if dropped from the sky, a man ran up behind me, screaming as he approached, “Run like hell! We gotta get out of this mess. Don’t stop for noth’n.”
I swung around to see him, but as I did, he whisked by and yelled, “I’ll take the lead. You blow that whistle every few seconds to let me know you’re okay.” And for the first time since starting this trek in Northern California five weeks prior, I had a use for the whistle attached to the shoulder strap of my backpack.
As we ran, the storm grew increasingly fierce. The trail disappeared under the hail and rainwater pouring down the slope. There were no trees or landmarks that I could use as a guide, so I kept close behind him, my Trail Angel. I blew the whistle whenever he became less visible in the late afternoon darkness. Lightning crashed around us every few seconds, showing he was still there.
Should I ditch my trekking poles? They might act as lightning rods, but I needed them to keep steady as I ran. Still, I had no idea where I was. I just followed the ghostly figure in front of me. And every few minutes, I heard him yell, “Keep running, Partner. We can’t stop!”
I did keep running, stumbling through the muddy water, feet so numb I couldn’t feel them, whether they landed on solid ground, stubbed on unforgiving rocks, or crashed into holes hidden by the washout.
For an endless six miles, my Trail Angel led and yelled to keep up the pace. I blew my whistle mainly out of fear, hoping against hope I wouldn’t get hit by lightning, and thinking this would be a really crappy way to leave the world. I tried to remember when I last told my wife and kids I loved them, and I prayed a silent and desperate prayer: “Oh God, help us. Please, please, help us.”
We finally reached the shelter of trees. This stranger tore off my pack and pulled out dry, thermo clothes. I stood shivering violently, unable to unbutton my shirt. He ripped off my wet clothing, helped me dress, stuffed everything back into my pack, and lifted it onto my back. All this while rain poured, thunder crashed, and lightning snapped across the sky.
Two hours later, we stumbled into Big Lake Christian Camp, drenched, shivering, exhausted, and near hypothermia. A hot shower thawed and revived us, but revealed I had broken my right foot.
He was a couple shower stalls away so I yelled out, “So what do you do when you’re not rescuing hikers in distress?”
“Oh, I just retired from being a college linebacker coach for the past twenty five years!”
I will forever be grateful for whatever forces put us together at that place and moment in time. My gratitude for Trail Angels along the Pacific Crest Trail remains constant.
Glenn Jolley lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, Washington, with his wife and two cats. With a damaged foot and ample amounts of Aleve, he continues to backpack.