When hikers have leftover food or gear, they don’t trash it. They drop it in a box for the next person who needs it, forming a beautiful network of anonymous interdependence.
Weeks earlier, a company that shall remain unnamed offered up a sample of its flashy new headlamp, a USB-powered beast with an impressive battery life and a few dozen fancy modes ostensibly meant to brighten the night like some laser-light show. But when I plucked the piece from my bag to show it off to my friends at our informal camp a mile north of the trail’s southern terminus, its buttons were stuck, rubber intractably wedged beneath the thin plastic frame. I found my tent that night via cell phone flashlight. I was dejected by the pitch-black portent: How could I make the 2,653-mile journey to Canada if my gear couldn’t even make it to the starting line?
A day and 20 miles later, however, another hiker came to my rescue. Standing beneath a gazebo at Lake Morena County Park, the first campsite for most northbound PCT thru-hikers, I rifled through a cardboard box overflowing with what would have looked like junk to most people—single Duracell batteries, spare Smartwater lids, smashed Pop-Tarts packets. And there, among the detritus, I found it: an ugly orange-and-gray headlamp that looked as if it had survived both Bush administrations to find its way into the PCT’s southernmost “hiker box” and into my waiting backpack. I howled with such delight at the relic that my fellow hikers must have wondered if I was also hiking with some antiquated external-frame Alpenlite pack.