I recently hitchhiked from Donner Pass to the town of Truckee (a distance a bit less than 10 miles / 15 km). The guy who gave me a ride has lived in Truckee most of his life. He commented that when he moved to Truckee as a kid it was still a small town of about 6000 people.
“You know how big the towns I’ve been in lately are?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“The last town I was in, Sierra City, has an official population of 221.”
“And before that, the last town I had been was Belden. Care to guess the population?”
“No. What’s the population of that town?”
“Officially, the population is 22, though I don’t think that includes the seasonal workers who only live there for a few months per year.”
“Since I left San Francisco, the biggest town I’ve been in was Etna, which has a whopping population of 800 people.”
“Okay, I take that back, compared to the towns you’ve been in lately, Truckee is huge. I think we now have about 15,000 people.”
Technically, between San Francisco and Etna, I did transfer in two towns – Dunsmuir and Yreka – which have a population of over a thousand people (I think Yreka has about 7000 people) but since I was just there for bus transfers I feel they don’t count. Some of the people in Etna tried to persuade me to leave San Francisco and move to Etna but they failed. Since I left Etna and started my hike, the towns I’ve stopped at have been Castella (population: 240), Cassel (population: 207), Old Station (population: 51), Belden (population: 22), and Sierra City (population: 221). Thus, Truckee is by far the most populated place I’ve been in for weeks.
Believe it or not, all of these towns have post offices. Post offices are part of the life blood of these tiny towns. They are also one of the most important stops for hikers (though I try to avoid using post offices on the PCT – I prefer to use UPS to deliver my packages to a local business instead). Even Belden has a post office.
It’s a bit of a shock. Truckee has supermarkets. Plural. Truckee has more restaurants than I can count on one hand. Truckee has gas stations, plural (Castella, Old Station, and Sierra City each have a single gas station; Cassel does not have a gas station; Belden does not have a gas station and it’s a 50 mile / 80 kilometer drive to the nearest gas station). Truckee has a post office with more than two employees. Heck, Truckee has post offices, plural (amazing). Truckee has public transportation (well, so does Etna, but Etna has a population over 500 people). Truckee is really sprawled out (well, so is Belden – even though Belden officially only has 22 people, it is miles long because it is in a canyon where the few patches of land flat enough for buildings are not all in the same place). Most of all, it is possible to be really anonymous in Truckee in a way it’s not possible in a town with less than 500 people. Even though I was just a visitor passing through these tiny towns, both the locals and other PCT hikers could instantly peg me as a PCT hiker, and that gave me some designated place in the town’s social system. Meanwhile, in Truckee, people hardly notice me at all unless I give them a reason to notice me.
I don’t just hike the Pacific Crest Trail for the trail itself – I also hike it because it allows me to experience these towns I would have never heard of otherwise, let alone visited. And it gives me a chance to get to know really tiny towns in rural California. I spent two nights in Belden – spending that much time in a town with so few people was a novel experience. I also spent two nights in Cassel.
But at the time I’m writing this post, I’m in Truckee, which is a gigantic town (yes, I know I grew up in San Francisco, which has way more people than Truckee, but still, it’s been weeks since I’ve been around so many people, so I feel that Truckee is HUGE).
Truckee has internet which is not slow.
I have yet to visit a trail town on the PCT which I did not like. I like Truckee too. Each town, tiny or not so tiny, has its own distinct atmosphere and its positives (as well as its negatives, but I tend to find more positives than negatives).
And I’m actually stopping my hike for a week so I can do something which is not hiking. And it’s going to involve going to towns which have a population even bigger than Truckee. I guess Truckee is helping me adjust to dealing with bigger towns again.