On Memorial Day 2011, my folks, Peter and Nancy Hussmann, opened the doors of a brand new hiking and backpacking outfitter on Lake Tahoe’s south shore, a literal mom-and-pop shop called Lake of the Sky Outfitters. Situated at the gateway to South Lake Tahoe, my parents’ shop quickly became a summertime beacon for weary hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail who were almost 1,100 miles into their journey from Mexico to Canada.
Word has spread quickly of my parents’ hospitality toward through hikers. On any given day between mid-June and August, a row of ultralight packs lines the walls outside the doors, the pack owners relaxing inside the store’s hiker lounge, known as Base Camp. In fact, 2015 saw nearly 800 hikers enter the doors of Lake of the Sky Outfitters, up from just shy of 100 hikers in 2011.
After five years of casually hanging around the shop, I am still completely fascinated watching the scene of dozens of hikers filling the space with their packs—and with their distinct smell of sweat and pine. The shop dog, Bodhi, a six-year-old yellow lab, relishes the opportunity to lick the sweat off their calves as they relax in Base Camp.
As I’ve noticed over the years, a rest day in the life of a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker in South Lake Tahoe is all about either getting things done—and doing nothing at all. With the help of a welcoming community, hikers can push the reset button in Tahoe and continue their northbound trek to Canada. I’ve gotten to hear many of the hikers’ stories and had the chance to witness firsthand the culture of a hiker’s day off in South Lake Tahoe. Here’s a glimpse into what happens.
A freebie fest.
Inside Lake of the Sky’s Base Camp sits a large cardboard box with the words “Hiker Box” scrawled on the side in permanent marker. A time lapse camera trained on this box would certainly show an almost fluid motion of gear coming in and out of the box. “Hikers tend to abandon food that they’re sick of after 1,100 miles,” Peter explains. “One year, a hiker unloaded almost five pounds of banana chips in that hiker box.”
This also gives hikers a chance to try some new recipes, score some free fuel, or stock up on medical essentials like discarded packs of Advil or Aqua Mira tablets—all of which can make a huge difference on the trail.
Some serious feasting.
One of the first things store employees do when hikers come inside the shop is offer them a big plate of cookies, fresh fruit, and chips, along with cold soda. The cookies and soda are almost always demolished for their sheer caloric value, and the fresh fruit is another kind of culinary treat, since they usually don’t encounter for weeks at a time. It’s incredible to watch their eyes widen at the sight of it.
Cleanliness is essential.
With a laundromat located just across the street from the shop, hikers tend to make an immediate beeline for the promise of clean clothes. “We’ll often have 10-20 packs in and outside of the store,” Nancy says. “It gives them a good opportunity to run errands like laundry while knowing their pack and its contents are safe.” The hiker smell also tends to dissipate when hikers return to collect their packs after a shower and laundry.
Connecting with fellow hikers.
At the shop, each hiker is asked to sign a trail register and flash a big smile for the camera, and their photo will join those of hundreds of other hikers on a large wall of photos in the shop. The register and the photos let hikers keep tabs on their friends, comparing beard lengths and weight loss, and prompting a bit of competition to catch up to those who passed through only days earlier. “The wall of photos can help hikers feel part of a community after sometimes hiking solo for days at a time,” Peter notes.
Trail ailments, aka “trailments”, are a real thing.
In 2012, I encountered Eli Meerson, trail name “Horny Toad”, a thru hiker all the way from Israel. Eli and I didn’t meet under the most fortunate circumstances for him, as I gave him a ride from the trail to the emergency room to be treated for a stress fracture in his right foot. “Peter and Nancy gave me a second home away from home, and their generosity will always be remembered,” Eli told me. Years of witnessing hikers, many of them end up following similar fates as Eli, needing to visit the doctor to treat shin splints, fractures, sprains, and more, has given me a new appreciation for the dedication of so many adventurous souls.
The pull of Lake Tahoe can be strong.
Hiker Jesse Phillips was so blown away by the culture he discovered in South Lake Tahoe that he decided to call it home when he finished the entire hike in 2013, logging more than 2,600 miles. I think it speaks volumes that Jesse found his way back to Tahoe, where he has since helped as a trail angel for other PCT hikers.