Crack open a trail register hidden along a popular hiking spot and you'll see a dashed-off sentence or maybe a doodle that serves as a record of who passed by and when. But look closer and you'll see history.
Naturalist John Muir signed trail registers in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the late 1800s and the tradition stuck. For decades, hikers traversing newer sections of the Pacific Crest Trail have scrawled information about themselves in hardbound books and loose-sheet binders kept in the wild or at hiker-friendly businesses in trail towns.
Famed hiker Scott Williamson, who has trekked the entire 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail a dozen times, signed the Callahan's Mountain Lodge hiker book on one of his pass-throughs. On another page, George Woodard, who is known by his trail name, "Billy Goat," used a rubber stamp to imprint a silhouette of his namesake animal.
The Ashland Outdoor Store and Ashland Mountain Supply also have registers that date back for years.
Long before cellphones, these precious pages were an effective way of communicating to those on the path and those caring for it. Today, hikers use satellite technology to send signals of their whereabouts to friends and family.
But PCT hikers still ceremoniously sign registers, especially the one that marks the end of their long slog from Mexico through the heat and height of California and into the more merciful "green tunnel" of Oregon.
"The registers allow hikers to express their thoughts, feelings and experiences," says Chris Alexander, a web developer and photographer whose trail name is "Shutterbug."
Walking all the way from the Mexico-U.S. border since April, this "thru hiker" and his partner, environmental engineer Anna ("North Star") Sofranko, reached Ashland two weeks ago.
Soon after crossing into Oregon, they were met by hikers whose trail names are "Balls," "Sunshine" and "Butterfly." All were wearing party hats, waving balloons and cranking noisemakers to celebrate the end of the California leg.
"The register at the California-Oregon border was especially poignant," says Alexander, a former Berkeley resident who is chronicling his journey at http://mexicotocanada.com and plans to publish a photography book on his experience. "Reading our friends' comments made the experience more powerful and complete."
Modern technology has added other twists to old-fashioned trail registers. Hikers and passersby are scribbling Facebook-like comments under entries, giving a thumbs-up when warranted.
"It used to be that people would just read the comments," says David Rhoades of Cleveland, Miss., who was at the Ashland trailhead on Tuesday. "When I hiked the Appalachian Trail 10 years ago, no one had Facebook, cellphones or Internet, so the trail registers were critical. There was no other way to keep track of people who were hiking the trail in front and behind you."
He sees trail registers today as entertainment and he particularly looks out for drawings by a graphic designer whose trail name is "Washout." "He sees a blank sheet of paper and he can't help but express himself," says Rhoades.
Rhoades' wife, Rachel Cole, says hikers who want to write lengthy information or insightful musings now do so in personal blogs. This leaves space in the trail registers for more levity.
"At the midpoint — where the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges meet near Chester, Calif. — and at the Oregon border, there is an outpouring of excitement," she says. "People congratulate themselves and other hikers for making it that far."
Now on their way to Crater Lake, the couple — both educators who take time off to complete long-distance hikes — have yet to post about their progress on their Hobos in Love blog (http://hobosinlove.wordpress.com), and they don't know what they will write in the register when they reach Canada. But they have hundreds of miles to think about it.
Another modern twist to trail registers is that comments meant for hikers' eyes only may be viewable worldwide.
Recently, Walt Mayberry of Portland invited people on a PCT forum to "leave a note to share with others as you pass" in a trail register he placed in a box at Wapinitia Pass near Timberline Lodge. He then explained that he would "occasionally" post the comments on a public forum for others to see.
A flurry of comments followed. Some people worried about hikers' safety if strangers could track their locations. Others objected to information being made public at all. Jackie McDonnell, the hiker called "Yogi" who wrote the respected "Pacific Crest Trail Handbook," replied: "What happens on the trail stays on the trail."
Mayberry explained that there is a sign alerting hikers that the entries would be posted online, but only after they are farther along the trail and only their trail names would be used.
"Some hikers have noted it is useful to find old friends who are trailing behind them," says Mayberry, who started providing a register three years ago because there are so few in Oregon. This year, he put a similar book at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington and plans to share the information in it at the end of the hiking year.
To him, these books are a historical record that shouldn't be lost, which does happen.
The Sierra Club is trying to track down missing summit registers and Callahan's original hiker book was taken in 2002 and a second one burned in the fire in 2006, according to owner Donna Bergquist. The latest one has signatures since 2008 and a note asking that it stay in the lodge's lobby.
"Most of these registers get old, wet and just die," says Mayberry, whose son Ben Mayberry hiked the trail two years ago. "By posting this information, someone can see it in the years to come."
The Pacific Crest Trail Association, which is responsible for preserving and raising awareness of the trail's heritage, archives old registers. Some are from the 1970s and some thru hikers have requested that the pages be scanned and made available to the public.
Jack Haskel, the association's trail information specialist, says there is no system for placing, organizing or collecting the worn-out registers, and there are no plans to make them available online.
But he adds, "It has been talked about." And, of course, written about.
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.