Once again my 4:30 alarm set off my day, though this time I took the opportunity to take a shower behind the Warner Springs Community Center, and wash away the dirt and grime from the previous week of hiking. It was the thing I looked forward to most from this stop, that and the promise of a hot breakfast, and despite the cold outside, the warm water felt so good on my burnt and dirt-caked skin.
I went back to bed after my shower, and slept until 7 when the community center began to come to life. A heavy layer of dark grey clouds had swept over Warner Springs over night, and there was a layer of dew over everything, including my socks, which I’d hung outside my tent to dry, ironically. All around though, other hikers were stirring to life.
Some 30 or 40 hikers had assembled outside the Community Center, tents dotting the yards anywhere there was grass or soft dirt to be found. The Warrior Hikes group was there, as were several other hikers I’d shared the trail with during my first ten days, and all of us were eager for the doors to open, so that we could warm up and dry off after the cold night before, wash our clothes, charge our phones, and eat our first warm breakfast in days.
Before we could fully indulge in all the offerings of the Community Center, however, we had to wait for the monthly food bank to finish up. Every third Tuesday of the month, I was told, the Community Center opened its doors to those who couldn’t afford or needed assistance in getting food. It was a good cause, so none of us chafed at the delay in getting our own food.
As the food bank handed out its boxes of provisions, it became apparent to several of us that the older patrons would need help carrying their groceries to their cars, so we started lending a hand, chatting with the elderly citizens of Warner Springs and pushing carts or hefting large boxes full of tortillas, chicken, dog and cat food, and other supplies out to their waiting vehicles. One such gentleman, slow of foot, but quick of mind, apologized for his dirty truck, to which I assured him that I was nobody to judge dirt on a vehicle. It was Dirt of Honor, I explained, a term my father and I used to refer to dirt earned on back roads and through adventures far afield. The man laughed, liked the term, and said he was going to use it from then on.
I helped carry food out until there was no more to carry, some two hours later. When the fine people of the Community Center finally turned their attentions on us hikers, we enthusiastically ordered breakfast; simple plates of scrambled eggs, pancakes, and sausage links that we all inhaled as if the meal would be our last. Later in the day the Center would serve burgers, though I left before they started serving those, and had internet stations, laundry facilities, even a small store to buy basic resupply items.
I stayed for a few hours until it was time to go to the post office and get my resupply, drying socks and charging my batteries, phone and camera. One of the Community Center volunteers, a lovely white-haired lady, offered myself and Stacey a ride, and soon there were half a dozen hikers lined up to get a one-mile tour of little Warner Springs. We packed into her sedan like clowns into a clown car, and when there were too many to go, I volunteered to wait for the next ride and hopped out.
I returned inside, checking the weather report and resting my feet. A storm had been forecast for the days ahead, and the gray clouds above seemed the precursor to a much larger system on its way. The mountain town of Idyllwild sat some 70 miles ahead, though the trail took a detour around some old fire damage around mile 151. There, at Paradise Valley Café, on highway 74, there was rumored to be the best burgers on the PCT, a worthy goal if ever I’d encountered one, as well as an opportunity to hitchhike into Idyllwild and thereby bypass what promised to be the most stormy days on the trail that were to come. In addition, I’d planned on meeting my girl there on Saturday, to hike to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto. In order to beat the storm and get to Idyllwild on time, I’d have to push the 40 miles to get there on time.
Stacey returned, and had somehow talked her way into receiving my resupply packages. I thanked her profusely and after we’d both stuffed our packs full of food and water for the next three days, we set out together around 11:30, eager to make some mileage before the day was through.
Once more we passed through the golden fields surrounding Warner Springs, though this time the gray above muted the landscape. We passed through the remnants of picnic areas and parks, the vestiges of an old resort that had sprung up around the titular hot springs in the area. It was a pleasant walk, and we chatted and got to know each other. Neither of us hiked at great speed, nor did either of us care to push ourselves hard that day. With the head start we were likely to make the cafe by Thursday night at the latest, and the storm wasn’t due to set in until Friday. We felt good about life.
Some 3 miles into our hike, the straps of my pack started to gnaw at my shoulders, and I took the opportune passing of a picnic table as a chance to eat lunch and clear some weight from my pack, water and food. I ate uncooked ramen and trail bars, and called my dad to discuss the next resupply package I’d need to pick up in Idyllwild. Stacey continued on without me, though I promised to meet her further up the trail.
I threw on my pack again and pushed on, through some rolling chaparral hills to a small creek bed. The sun had come out during my brief lunch break, and already the heat was building. As the trail followed the creek, I was more than thankful for the abundant shade the oaks and cottonwoods had to offer, and the sound of the water mixed with the birdsong in the air to provide a calming soundtrack to the day’s walk.
I stopped for another small meal, mostly concerned with reducing the food weight in my pack, before the trail climbed out of the creek bed and up a series of switchbacks that had me struggling to push on. Over the next three miles the trail would climb some two thousand feet, but the switchbacks seemed endless, the sun’s heat blazing, the shade offered by the creek nonexistent. I was passed by a few other hikers, and generally lamented my decision to hike out that day instead of taking a rest day as so many others had done. By the time I reached the saddle I was aiming for, the highest part of the incline and the end of the switchbacks, It was nearly 6:30, and the sun hung low on the western horizon. I had only gone 8 miles from Warner Springs, and would never make it to Idyllwild with such poor mileage days.
I set my target at a bend in the trail some 2.5 miles ahead, and forced my aching legs to push me forward. I raced the sunset, making good time, though I of course stopped for several pictures along the way, and made it to the camp site an hour later, just as the sun dipped behind the mountain range to the west. The sky was aflame with gold and orange, and I set up my tent and cooked dinner, and went to bed determined that the next day would be better.
I had gotten up the hill, that was all I could ask for.