It was around 8am by the time I returned to the trail. My pack felt lighter, the result of having finished most of my water from the day before, and eating most of my excess food, and I started out well, making good time for the first two miles. I knew that this day would bring me some more uphill climbs, but I felt well rested, and I was determined to push far enough that I’d be able to make Paradise Valley Café outside Idyllwild the next evening. There had been rumors the past few days that the roadside cafe offered the best burgers along the trail, and I was not about to miss the opportunity to test that claim.
Two miles into the trail I met a through hiking couple from Belgium, Andre and Lian, who had just been given the names Morningstar and Cookie Monster the day before, for their proclivity for being the first ones out of camp in the morning, and their love of snacks. They said hello as I walked by, and I stopped to chat, for a while, making cursory introductions before they offered to let me hike with them.
They proved to be lovely hiking companions, their conversation continuous and varied, their pace matching my own, their schedule regimented but easy to follow. Morningstar explained their hiking schedule when we first started. Every hour, they would stop for a 10-15 minute break, to eat snacks and rehydrate as needed, which as they put it, allowed them to recover before they got tired, thus keeping their energy consistently high. Each snack was defined, each hour kept track of diligently. Compared to my haphazard schedule of hiking until my hips or knees or feet couldn’t keep going then resting too long and getting stiff or too cool, their schedule seemed a revelation, and I gladly found myself adapting to it quickly.
We talked for a while, stopping once to try climbing a boulder which proved too sketchy for Cookie Monster and I, but not for Morningstar, and talking about such diverse topics as filmmaking (Morningstar had wanted to do a documentary on the trail himself, and had lifelong aspirations of being a filmmaker) to our personal histories and lives off the trail. We stopped for breakfast and discussed nature, and their love of the diverse ecosystems along the trail. We talked of native americans and our mutual fascination in native culture throughout the US. It was a thoroughly engaging walk, and with all their lovely conversation, I didn’t even notice that we had gone nearly 8 miles until we arrived at Mike’s Place, a house near the trail owned by a local trail angel, dedicated to providing through hikers with reliable water, shade, and a place to relax during the heat of the day.
There were nearly a dozen other hikers at Mike’s Place, though Mike himself was absent that day. It was there that I met Wall Street and Snow White, Dundee, Rain Man, Speedy, and Narwhal, hikers who had started the same day as the Belgians and had traveled together since Campo. We hydrated with the water Mike provided, ate lunch and washed socks, talked sports and weather, and generally relaxed for a few hours.
While there Joel, one of the hikers I’d hiked into Kitchen Creek with, arrived, and asked if I’d gotten my name yet. When I said no, he suggested the name Shutterbug, and since my camera is the first thing everybody seems to notice on the trail, I gladly accepted it. I had waited for a name eagerly since before starting the trail, debated giving myself one on several occasions, happily avoided several, including Porn Star. Now that I’d accepted Shutterbug, I somehow felt more a part of the trail, like I’d stepped across a line and joined the PCT community. I felt more complete, somehow.
Around 1:30, Morningstar and Cookie Monster were ready to leave, so we packed up and walked out. On the way out I said hi to the Warrior Hikers as they arrived at Mike’s Place, and then pushed on, up the trail for the final uphill of the day, a thousand foot elevation gain over the next two miles to a ridge that looked out north toward Mt. San Jacinto, and across the hills to the east toward the Salton Sea.
Fully loaded with water once more, I found myself struggling with the uphill, and Morning Star offered the following piece of wisdom, which oddly helped, and I’ve used ever since when facing a climb. “A mountain is only a mountain from the bottom, when you’re halfway up it’s just a hill, and then it’s not even that,” he said, and I laughed, and took mental notes.
We talked some more at the summit, I told them of my plans to hike Mt. San Jacinto in two days, despite the storm that was on its way in. We talked of the Salton Sea and I explained the disaster that created it, and that led to an in depth discussion of climate change, dykes in Holland and Belgium, and other environmental issues.
We headed downhill, and I finally was forced to say goodbye to the Belgians around mile 134, after they had overextended their normal schedule to pull off a 20 mile day. I continued on to 137, near Tule Spring, and made camp, the 17.5 mile day for me my longest to that point, and my feet felt the strain of it all. I went to bed early, and slept restlessly, my legs and feet sore, but happy with the day, and in perfect position to get a burger the following evening.