Lloyd Gust fell in love with the Cascade Range the first time he saw it.
He was a teenager driving a beat-up truck full of tomatoes from Eugene to Bend in the 1930s. Gust got to McKenzie Pass and was so struck by the beauty of the mountains that he decided to explore and never made it all the way to Bend. “I really fell in love with The Sisters,” said Gust.
That passion for nature — and the Three Sisters in particular — has never wavered in Gust, now 89. He and his late wife, Barbara, hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border.
It's more than 2,600 miles of beautiful — and sometimes brutal — trail that winds through the Mojave Desert, the high Sierras and the Cascade Range, including the Three Sisters.
“I hiked it almost all my life,” said Gust, who settled in Bend.
When he could no longer backpack and hike, Gust started volunteering to help other hikers who were passing through the area along the PCT.
Gust helped about 300 hikers a year, driving some to get medical attention and helping others find a good local pub. He was what is known as a trail angel, one of the most well known on the PCT.
Being a trail angel is an unofficial position. The Pacific Crest Trail Association doesn't coordinate or organize trail angels in any way — each one operates independently. Many, like Gust, are former PCT hikers who want to help others on their journey.
Gust made being a trail angel his job. He made business cards, posted flyers on trail posts and made a plastic name tag that he wore, proclaiming himself as a trail angel.
“I loved it. I loved every bit of it,” said Gust. “(The hikers) were my total life.”
But now, Gust is giving it up. After a few scares on the road, Gust realized he needed to stop driving. The decision has been a painful one.
Now, the question is — can anyone take his place?
Gust was born in Wisconsin — a long way from mountains. His mother died when he was young and his father left the family. Gust says he made his way working at dairy farms.
At age 12, he boarded a bus for Oregon, where he planned to stay with an uncle. But when Gust got to town, the uncle wasn't there.
He lived in a rooming house, went to school and made a living cleaning the furnaces at sororities and working at a local grocery store.
Gust frequently took a bus from Eugene up to the mountains, where he would explore the trails on foot, then flag down the bus as it headed back at night.
Gust joined the Army in 1942. “It was the first time in my life I had three squares (meals) a day and a guaranteed place to sleep. Boy, that was a luxury,” said Gust.
When he came home from the war, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and went to the University of Oregon. After college he was recruited to work for Seagram, a large distillery. Gust jokes that he never used the product — and he still doesn't drink.
“No other reason than I just couldn't afford it,” he said.
Before traveling to Eugene as a teenager, he had never seen mountains. He didn't remember seeing any on that cross-country bus ride.
“I had heard about mountains all my life,” said Gust. “All it took was one little trip over McKenzie Pass.”
Gust married and had three children and the family explored nature together.
“My wife loved hiking and backpacking and mountain climbing,” said Gust. “We raised our family in The Sisters.”
His favorite part of the PCT is Forester Pass in California, which, at 13,000 feet elevation, is the highest point on the trail. He loves the views of jagged mountains and rocks.
Locally, his favorite spot is Obsidian Trail, which leads to the base of the Middle Sister. He describes meadows of wildflowers, waterfalls and beautiful rocks. His wife's ashes are there, and Gust says “I will be also when the time comes.”
Help for hikers
Gust started helping hikers more than 10 years ago. He would run into them as they hitchhiked on the Cascade Lakes Highway and would offer them a ride.
Slowly, this became a full-time passion. After his wife died, his interest and activity level picked up.
“This gave me something to live for,” he said.
Gust says the need has also increased as traffic on the trail has gone up. Where he used to help 40 to 50 hikers a year, in recent years the number soared to 300 or more. Most come through around August or September.
Gust asked the hikers to fill out a short form that included information about who they are, trail conditions and more. Most of the hikers used this space to write sweet thank-you notes to Gust.
Gust has small binders jam-packed with these notes — as well as postcards, Christmas cards and letters from hikers returned home.
Reading through the thank-you notes, it's hard not to be touched by Gust's efforts:
• “Your good, pure heart is amazing,” wrote one hiker.
• “In my life I have not met many such as you Lloyd,” said another.
• “You are a true angel.”
The gratitude is overwhelming. One hiker wrote, “Lloyd Gust is an amazing man who had made a magnanimous contribution to the well- being of countless hikers and deserves a special place in heaven.”
The love goes both ways.
“They are great people who love to talk about plants and animals and things that go bump in the night,” said Gust, about his connection with the hikers.
Heather Tilert-Kavmark and her husband, Justin, came from Brooklyn, N.Y., to hike the PCT in 2010. When they got near Elk Lake, Tilert-Kavmark says her husband was feeling very ill. Worried he might have giardia, they decided to call Gust after seeing one of his flyers posted on the trail.
Tilert-Kavmark, 30, said Gust came immediately. He picked them up from the trailhead, brought them into town and recommended a motel to stay in while her husband recovered from what ended up being a one-day flu episode.
When they were ready, he took them back to the trail. They've never forgotten their encounter with Gust.
“He is such a generous, giving, witty, overwhelmingly supportive man,” said Tilert-Kavmark.
The couple met hundreds of people while hiking the PCT, but says Gust is one of a handful that really stand out. When they talk of the highlights of their trip, Gust is one of them.
“I'm sad that he's gone. I hope there's someone to take his place,” she said.
Some hikers Gust encountered needed help quickly. There was the young man who had giardia for days before he called Gust, who took him to the hospital after first getting him a clean change of clothes.The man ended up being hospitalized for several days.
There was another young man who ended up with e. coli. Gust ferried him from Big Lake youth camp to a doctor's office in Sisters every day for a week so he could get treatment. Another woman broke her hip and Gust drove her to town, saving her the ambulance fee. One hiker had shin splints so bad, Gust ended up taking him to the airport so he could fly home.
Gust estimates about half of the hikers he encountered needed some form of medical attention. Usually, it was something small — a blister that became infected, a cut that needed dressing.
“In addition to feeling sorry for them, I literally fell in love with them,” said Gust.
California residents Dustin “Duffy” Ballard and his wife encountered Gust during their PCT trip in 2010. Ballard says Gust gave them a ride about five or six times during their trek.
Ballard called it “just an amazing thing.”
“Those of us hikers really kind of marvel at people who do this and how much it helps the hiker and helps the experience. You get this warm sense of humanity from people who are willing to help out.”
While the PCT has numerous trail angels, Gust is unusual — not only because he is older than almost any of the other trail angels, but also because he has always been willing to go the extra miles for hikers, sometimes literally.
In addition to maintaining two caches of potable water along the trail, he has ferried hikers hundreds of miles. Many trail angels will help hikers, but first the hikers have to get to them.
Jack Haskel, the PCTA trail information specialist, knew Gust by his reputation for being exceptionally generous. “Lloyd was very special.”
Dana Hendricks, regional representative for the Columbia Cascades PCTA, thinks hikers will notice Gust's absence. “Lloyd has pretty much been the only person for a long stretch of trail.”
Well, not quite the only person. For the past two summers, Bend resident Robin Kaai has let PCT hikers camp in her backyard and use her place as a base while in Bend. She enjoys meeting new people and the camaraderie.
But few trail angels go to the lengths Gust did.
When hikers offered him money for gas or services, Gust declined. If they insisted, he would suggest they make a donation to the PCTA. For Gust, his reward was the experience and the people.
Gust hasn't been able to recover his strength since he had a heart attack during a shoulder surgery in 2011.
“I'm weak as a wet noodle and I can't build it back again.” Walking even short distances feels like too much and physical therapy wasn't helping.
It's a struggle for him, since he has been so active all his life.
“It was very, very difficult to give up the trail,” said Gust. “When I had to stop hiking, it nearly broke my heart.”
His work as a trail angel brought that connection back. Now, that too is something he has to give up.
“Here I sit, broken-hearted,” he said.
Gust hopes to find someone to replace him — someone who loves the outdoors and is familiar with the PCT. He wants someone who will have an almost spiritual connection with it. “The trail becomes their church after a while,” said Gust.
He did find a fellow willing to take over maintaining the water supply at Windigo Pass.
One thing that may be hard to replicate is Gust's love for the hikers.
“He seems to just really care about the people,” said Hendricks. If a hiker's pack is too heavy or shoes are too tight, Gust wants to help ease their burdens. “It's like he's almost responsible for their journey in a way.”
Becoming a trail angel
To inquire about the expectations of a trail angel for the local section of the PCT, contact Lloyd Gust at 541-604-4494.