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Passing thru

Cam Honan arrived at Callahan's Lodge late after a long, wet day. Hungry and in need of a shower and sleep, he learned that all the rooms were booked for a wedding.

No problem, said the 42-year-old Australian. He'll just crash on the lawn.

And he did, as thousands of other endurance hikers traversing the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail have done over the years.

"I will sleep where the wedding reception will be held tomorrow," says Honan, after finishing a beer and a few plates of spaghetti on the lodge's veranda on June 29. "If they need an extra best man and there's a free meal, I'll do it."

Honan, whose trail name is "Swami," pointed to his backpack, an efficient, 7-pound toolbox that holds everything he needs to rip through 40 miles of trail a day for his months-long trip from Mexico to Canada. Right now, his pack is empty of dried beans and other lightweight food.

But also in front of him is a box of provisions he had shipped to Callahan's. Consuming 21/2 pounds of food a day, the lanky hiker will make it to Crater Lake in less than three days, about twice the speed of the average PCT hiker.

In the next several weeks, Ashland will see more "thru hikers," as they are called, arriving in town with scruffy hair, a spare backpack and trekking poles. They will be in need of a computer, washing machine and place to flop. And often a cold beer.

The number of PCT hikers has increased each year since the trail was completed in 1993, says Jack Haskel of the Pacific Crest Trail Association. But because of low snow levels this year, a record number of hikers left the Mexico-U.S. border in April and are heading this way.

"It's the busiest year ever on the trail," he says.

So far this year, his organization has issued 835 thru-hiker permits, an increase of 181 over last year. In addition, 578 permits have been granted to long-distance section hikers. Some of the permits cover couples or small groups of people.

Haskel keeps tabs on the progress of the hiking herd by talking to the trekkers, business owners along the route and trail angels, who give walkers lifts to town, shelter and a hot meal.

He says the hikers are fairly well spread out this year. Leaders like Honan are arriving now, and Haskel estimates that most of the group will pour into Ashland from July 20 through Aug. 10 or so.

Some hikers are taking their first trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, considered one of the Triple Crown of American routes along with the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail. They are college students on a gap year or retirees who finally have the time to cross the grueling trip off their bucket list.

A few women were inspired by Portland author Cheryl Strayed, whose best-selling memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," related how an unprepared 26-year-old escaped the pain of losing her mother by walking through California, Oregon and Washington.

Haskel, whose trail name is "Found," says that by the time hikers cross over the Greensprings Highway or near Callahan's Lodge off Highway 66, they are seasoned veterans who have endured the scorching Mojave desert and a 13,153-foot high snowy pass in the Sierra Nevada.

Greeting them on their entrance into Oregon is Ron Bergquist, who owns Callahan's. To help hikers navigate their way through the forest of conifers, he posted a directional sign that reads "First Beer Free."

"They can't be day hikers to get the free beer," he says. "They don't get it unless they smell bad."

Section hiker Dan Ahlvin, 24, didn't qualify for the free beer, either. The former finance worker from Corvallis hopped on the trail at the California-Oregon border on July 6 and is spending the next two months inching his way to Canada.

At the lodge, hikers can shower, do their laundry and sleep on the property for $25. For double that, they also get bottomless bowls of spaghetti at night and an endless stack of pancakes the next morning. Few pay for a room.

Most are watching their budget or the calendar. Staying off the trail, called a "zero day" in hiker lingo, is sometimes necessary but not liked.

Marilyn Northcross looks forward to the PCT hikers every year, and it's not because some stay at the Ashland Hostel, which she owns. "They tell the most fascinating stories," says Northcross, a self-described neat freak who has not hiked the PCT — "I'm not drawn to it as they are," she says — but was given an honorary trail name, "Den Mom."

For $28 a night, lodgers at the hostel get a bunk bed, linens and a place to stash food. But even at that price, they stick around for just a day or so, unless they're sick or injured, she says. Before they go, they organize their resupply boxes in the basement's communal living room, a sight she thinks captures the culture.

Few, however, who will reach Ashland have the hiking credentials of Cam Honan. The PCT is just one part of his 15,000-mile continuous walk across North America. He started July 2, 2011, and hopes to finish by December, "assuming I have any cartilage left in my knees," he jokes.

"Hiking is when I'm happiest," he says. "There are places you can only get to by walking. You experience an awesome fusion of geography, culture, cuisine, music, religion, society. You see places from the inside out."

He started seriously trekking 20 years ago and has gone around the globe, tramping across deserts, jungles and mountains. He says North America is his favorite continent to explore because it's so geographically diverse.

The two luxuries he carries are an iPod packed with audio renditions of 20 plays and 25 classic books and an iPhone he uses to post on his website www.thehikinglife.com.

He planned to stop only once a month to renew himself, but a weird reaction to a poisonous poodle-dog bush sent him to the hospital in Ridgecrest and he lost six hiking days.

Even though he only left the trail when his legs swelled so much that he couldn't put his shoes on, he laments the delay.

"I don't like those off-trail miles," he says. "I won't take another day off until I finish."

This is his second time hiking the entire PCT. He stopped here in 2007, when Callahan's was not rebuilt after the fire. Although he has walked thousands of miles since then, he still remembers the pancakes, omelet and cereal he consumed at the Morning Glory restaurant and seeing "The Tempest" at the Elizabethan stage.

On this second swing through, he left Callahan's early the next morning, after eating countless pancakes for breakfast. But he took the time to date and sign the lodge's thick PCT Hiker Journal: "6/30: Thanks for the wonderful hospitality. Cam 'Swami' Honan."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.

Section hiker Dan Ahlvin, 24, of Corvallis, walks an overgrown section of the Pacific Crest Trail on Mount Ashland. A record number of thru-hikers left the California-Mexico border in April and are beginning to pass through Southern Oregon. - Bob Pennell