The First Three Months of Helping PCT Hikers

By: Dr. Morgan Brosnihan, PT, DPT

After leaving Maryland with some fresh van renovations Honey and I stopped at my brother’s house in WV to see my little nephews. After having an inaugural four wheeler ride around the neighborhood with my 8 year nephew, and walking around the woods I was hinting that it might be time for me to hit the road. Several rounds of “can we walk one more lap?” Iater it was apparent that I wasn’t leaving until the morning. 

My younger nephew had been inside sick with a stomach bug—over confident that it was a “kid flu” I sat next to him the rest of the night losing in Mario Cart wondering how anyone is good at that game. The next morning, I got a message from my nephew on the iPad asking if he could come to my “house”. It turned into a slow morning with help from the best big brother who repaired part of my van in the rain, in his PJs, having been up all night with the stomach bug that apparently was not kid exclusive. Eventually I was able to hit the road and for the first time with no real idea of what the next few months would hold.

Thoughts of the future were quickly interrupted by the immediate present of realizing I brought the stomach bug with me to Arkansas. Throwing up as an adult is always a bit daunting—and throwing up at a rest stop off the interstate during a thunderstorm is a whole different story.

I am always so thankful for Honey at times like this as she laid in the front seat content to have little attention or exercise while I suffered in the back for the next 15 hours. Eventually things improved and I was back on the road towards Campo.

2 days into the drive I started getting messages from early start PCT hikers wanting to do telehealth calls. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t even hit the trail yet, and word was starting to spread. I was beyond stoked to think that this was most likely going to work as intended. 

We stopped at White Sands National Park on the way through and Honey got to romp in the sand. We’ve been to plenty of sand dunes, but none so white and magical as these. A couple gave me their sled to do a little sand sledding before we left which was a fun/new experience. After getting a sufficient amount of sand all over my van we set off to Tucson.

Tucson was home for us for a year and a half, so it was a stop I very much looked forward to. We visited the senior living where Honey and I worked for 18 months and said hi to our favorite residents and coworkers. There is nothing quite like having the support of hundreds of patients turned surrogate grandparents before starting a big adventure. 

The next day we finally made it to Campo, tagged the border, and spent a few days at CLEEF, a campground just a half a mile into the trail. I was able to give some educational talks to the hikers staying at the hostel regarding common injuries, and let them know I was available should they need any help. I wasn’t expecting to help with many injuries at this point on the trail, but learned there was some value in my presence so early to help with pre existing injuries and give hikers peace of mind and a plan before they really got going with their hikes.

My second day out here I was advised to go to Cibbet’s Flat Campground for a trail magic event. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I saw a man in jeans and Altras and thought he’d be the best to ask. He pointed me to a campsite and said to look for someone named “Fruit Bowl”. 

This excursion turned out to be my favorite event of the trail so far. Not only did there end up being close to 100 hikers there for the weekend, many of which I was able to treat or advise, I was also able to create my own trail angel family with the people hosting the trail magic. Later I would come back to this campsite to do it again a month later, and a few weeks after that to Fruit Bowl’s birthday party with all of the same people. It was a community I didn’t know I would need, and I am so thankful to have found. Each year I do this the hikers will be new, but knowing these people will be in Southern California when I get there is so comforting. 

I would go on to follow the trail to Julian and Idyllwild, seeing many of the people I met at CLEEF multiple times by this point. As I got further down the trail I got progressively busier. Issues with tendons, knees, and footwear started popping up when I got to Idyllwild. I found the town to be perfect for what I was doing as I could park in the town center and hikers would see my van and stop by. At this point I had practiced therapy under a bridge, at campgrounds, on the side of the road, and now in town center on a bench. 

Something I am learning to get used to is the phenomenon of being recognized. Word has quickly spread on trail that I am available to help with injuries, and fortunately many of the hikers I have treated are doing well. At one point I witnessed the way these conversations go first hand. While sitting at a coffee shop in Idyllwild there was a hiker talking about her knee injury. Another hiker in the group suggested she reach out to “The Physio” to see if she could help. Only one person in that group seemed to know what I looked like, as I sat adjacent to them drinking my coffee and trying not to be awkward. They nodded in my direction, and the injured hiker didn’t seem to notice. After she continued about her injury I felt I had to say something. I introduced myself and we were able to discuss her injury and get a plan for her. 

It was my deepest hope that if I just did my best to truly help as many people as I could that the “marketing” aspect of this would take care of itself. Having only been about 4 weeks in and witness this encounter was pretty special. Now I rarely have to introduce myself and explain what I’m doing. I feel like I’ve taken space as a natural entity to the trail community, and I truly love moving to new towns to run into now old faces knowing some of these hikers have overcome injuries that they feared would be trail ending as much as 900 miles ago. 

Hikers telling me “you’ve really helped me, or my friend” or “you saved my hike” just fills me with so much joy I can’t imagine doing anything other than this. There have certainly been some challenges along the way—mostly related to vanlife, but nothing that wasn’t almost immediately remedied by the “trail providing”. I have been offered parking spaces, showers, laundry and to house sit by trail angels along the way. I had dealt with a power system failure in my van for only one day before ending up at trail angel “Handy Randy’s” house where I was able to use his resources to fix it. When I’ve gone grocery shopping, for runs, to the gym etc. Honey ends up hanging out with hikers rather than sitting in my van waiting for me. 

It seems every time I try to give more than I receive out here, something new happens that completely exceeds my expectations. I have entered the Sierra stretch of the trail now, and am enjoying being back in the mountains. I look forward to getting Honey out on some hikes, and swimming in some alpine lakes. I have lived in Oregon for months before so heading there feels a bit like coming home. As the season is about halfway over, I think about how proud I am of all the hikers I have met that have overcome so much. I’m watching them go from town to town getting stronger, more confident, and more seasoned. A process that is otherwise gradual in their eyes is so apparent in mine. I think about going to Rainy Pass in WA towards the end of the season and just doing trail magic and giving high fives to everyone inevitably about to finish the journey of a lifetime. It’s such a unique privilege to be a part of this community in a sustainable and helpful way. Although I never quite know how busy I will be, and what each town will hold, I have faith that the next few months will continue to exceed my expectations. 

About the Author

Dr. Morgan Brosnihan, PT, DPT is a licensed Physical Therapist and a thru hiker with a passion for helping others overcome physical and mental barriers to do the activities they love.

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  1. Shelly June 30, 2022 at 1:51 am - Reply

    OMG!!! Love you Morgan & Honey. You are living your best life!!. Keep up the amazing work. So proud of you!

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