LeRoy Jennings has never hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,650-mile route that connects the rugged peaks of California, Oregon, and Washington in one spectacular, unforgiving path.

But the retired firefighter from Los Angeles has met and befriended hundreds of "thru-hikers" who pass through Wrightwood, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Diane. Nearly 40 years ago, the couple signed up to be “trail angels," a network of good Samaritans who live near the PCT and provide food and shelter free of charge to weary hikers passing through town. LeRoy ferries them to and from town and the trailhead in a red-and-white Honda pickup truck with a vintage 1940s Coca-Cola cooler in the back.

Jennings' father-in-law gave him the truck decades ago. Its big open cargo area is ideal for carrying all the gear hikers bring with them, he says. “Their backpacks are so big," he chuckles. “They won't all fit in my [other car]."

Jennings recalls how his father-in-law used to load up the ice chest with cold drinks and food, and picnic with his family on the beaches of Orange County, Calif. Now, PCT hikers identify LeRoy and Diane as the trail angels with the Coca-Cola truck. Over the years, the Jennings have learned to stock up on items hikers crave most after long stretches on the trail, notably fresh salads to eat and moleskin padding for their calloused feet.

The experience has made their lives richer, Jennings says. “We've met people from all over the world," he says. "Usually, they just stay one night and get back on the trail, but we encourage them to stay longer if they're tired or need to let their blisters heal."



Pacific Crest Trail
Robin Grapa at the northern terminus of the PCT at the Canadian/Washington border after 163 days on the trail.

The Pacific Crest Trail has a history that dates back to the early 1930s, when hiking enthusiast Clinton C. Clarke proposed a border-to-border trail connecting the mountains of the Pacific Coast between the Mexican and Canadian borders. More recently, Cheryl Strayed's best-selling hiking memoir, Wild, and its 2014 movie adaptation introduced even more people to the historic north-south trail. The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) recorded a 300 percent increase in foot traffic along the trail between 2013 and 2014.

An estimated 3,434 hikers and equestrians have completed the entire length of the PCT since 1951. About 700 to 800 people start out each year intending to hike the entire trail, and perhaps 60 percent finish, according to the PCTA. Long waterless stretches, unpredictable snowstorms and temperatures that swing from triple digits to freezing are all challenges requiring plenty of preparation and physical stamina.

It was the PCT's varying terrain that inspired Robin Grapa to hike the entire trail in 2013. Grapa, 33, embraced long-distance hiking soon after undergoing treatment for a rare bone marrow disease called Aplastic Anemia. After learning she was in complete remission from the life-threatening disease, she gave some hard thought to her life's priorities and doing things that made her truly happy.

"What I kept coming back to was my love for the outdoors and nature," Grapa explains. So in 2006, she hiked the coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail (ADT) with her mother to raise money for bone-marrow research. They raised $100,000, and Grapa knew she'd found her calling. She started planning her next big hike and fixated on the PCT. A local hiking buddy from Wisconsin joined her, and her husband Adam agreed to meet them at pack stations and towns along the route with a car and provisions.



Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail
Grapa near Echo Lake Chalet during her thru-hike.


Grapa, who goes by "Toots Magoots" on the trail, maintained a blog throughout her expedition, conveying the ups and downs of the whole PCT experience with honesty and humor. She pecked out entries on her smartphone each night and uploaded them along with photos whenever she reached a place with WiFi. Sometimes she ran into hikers who were following her blog and delighted in meeting the actual person behind it.

“One girl even gave me a foot massage," she says with a laugh.

On the trail, the always-hungry Grapa ate granola bars, nuts, mashed potatoes, tortillas with meat and cheese, and oatmeal -- way too much oatmeal, as she recalls it. Off trail, her favorite eats were cottage cheese, salads with ranch dressing, and Coca-Cola.

“We talked about our food cravings all the time on the trail," Grapa recalled. “Getting an ice-cold Coke when we stopped at a town or pack station was always a major treat."

Grapa also recalls the day on the trail that she smuggled a Coke in her backpack to surprise her hiking partner on the trail. “We were on a four-day stretch of hiking and her birthday was the last day of that," she said. “I gave her cupcakes in the morning and later in the day, I pulled out the Coke. She even shared a little with me."

On Oct. 3, 163 days after she set off at the PCT's southern terminus near the Mexican border, Grapa reached the border of Canada and Washington State. Three feet of snow and a federal government shutdown stymied her group from taking the normal route, but the finish was just as sweet as she had anticipated.

"I felt happy. I felt sad. I felt satisfied. And I was so glad I hiked here," Grapa wrote in her blog on that last day.

Grapa, now a long-distance truck driver based in Wisconsin, dreams of hiking the PCT again, solo or with her Adam. In the meantime, she'll never forget all the diverse scenery she witnessed, the obstacles she overcame to finish, and the many friends she made on and off the trail. Just as it has with LeRoy and Diane Jennings, the Pacific Crest Trail left Grapa buoyed by a richer existence with memories that will last a lifetime.

"I loved everything about it, even the struggles," she says. "It was all part of one spectacular package. All of it."