I woke with the sunrise, and climbed out of my tent to see the sun kissing the thick clouds that enveloped the peaks to the north. San Jacinto was obscured, but the other mountains along its southern edge toward over the surrounding hills, and I spent a good 45 minutes taking pictures when I should’ve been breaking camp.
It was 7:30 before I got back on the trail, shortly after being passed by Morningstar and Cookie Monster. They had made up the 3 miles I’d added to my day the day prior before I was even out of camp, but I didn’t let it deflate me. I was 15 miles from Paradise Valley Cafe, an average day’s hike, and with the promise of the burger at the end of it, there was no way I wasn’t going to make good time.
I walked down to Tule Spring half a mile down the trail and filled my water bottles for the coming day. Set in a verdant canyon and drawn from a large concrete fire tank, the water tasted clean and cool, after the requisite sterilization, that is, and I drank a full liter before hitting the trail, to start my day hydrated and ready.
On the way up I saw Mama Goose, of the Warrior Hikes group, airing out her tent fly. The dew from the previous day had apparently got the thing wet, and she was waiting for the rest of her group to catch up to her. We chatted for a while, and I shared my new name with her, which she latched onto immediately. I said goodbye, knowing she’d catch up to me shortly. A veteran of the Appalachian trail and a seasoned hiker, her pace was strong, and never failed to make me feel slow by comparison.
I continued on, along rolling hills and through fields of boulders. The storm which we had all grown to fear was due to hit around 1:00pm, so I pushed forward doggedly, taking small breaks each two miles, as per the Belgians’ schedule, and eating small snacks at each stop. I was eventually passed by the Warrior Hikers, and two Swiss brothers, Michael and Marcus, who moved like machines up the trail, their steps rhythmic and in sync, their outfits duplicates of each other.
At the top of the first uphill I was passed by Speedy, Wall Street and Snow White, and we chatted a bit about the storm. Everyone was racing for the opportunity to eat burgers and take shelter from the coming rain, and everyone was going far faster than me.
Dark clouds loomed all around me, but the sky above was clear, blue, and the sun beat down hotly on my shoulders. I felt lucky, that the storm had thus far encircled me but not come down on me, but I worried I would jinx myself if I exalted too much, so I kept walking.
I stopped for lunch, peanut butter, applesauce, and chia seeds shortly after a water cache which I had no need for, and ate quickly. I pushed on, ignoring the scenery, the promise of hot food and cold beer pushing me forward relentlessly.
I reached a fire road, and looked down, somewhat defeated, at a large canyon ahead. I could see the trail dip down into the canyon before climbing up the far edge, a deflating dip of over five hundred feet that I did not look forward to climbing out of. I’d grown to hate uphills in the past few days, but I took Morningstar’s words from the previous day to heart and pushed forward. By the time I was out of the canyon there was just a scant two miles to highway 73, and the long awaited burger at the cafe just down the road. I was so close.
I called my parents and texted my girlfriend, having reached cellular service for the first time in almost two days, and pushed forward, up one last uphill to a ridge overlooking the highway below. Ravens circled and played in the air above me, and thick grey clouds enveloped the mountains all around. The sun, partly obscured by the clouds to the west, cast golden light all around, but the beauty of it was of secondary importance to me. Only the burger mattered.
I raced downhill and walked a mile down the highway. When I hit Paradise Valley Cafe I dropped my pack outside with everyone else’s and walked in. Inside, Mama Goose and Tony sat at the counter, and Wall Street, Snow White, Rain Man, Dundee, Narwhal, and Speedy sat at the tables. They all greeted me as Shutterbug, and said they were worried I wouldn’t make it. I felt like Norm walking into Cheers, and took an offered seat next to Tony.
I ordered a Harley Davidson burger, a delicious choice, with roasted green chili and guacamole, and bacon, which I added as an extra. I drank a beer, and let the cold alcohol wash the weariness from my legs and shoulders. Tony and Mama Goose were more than happy to share the counter, and we chatted for several hours until the restaurant was ready to close down.
We were offered a place on the porch to sleep, and I took the offer gladly, not wanting to attempt a hitchhike into Idyllwild after dark. The air was cold, and damp with mist, but under the roof of the porch, it was dry and comfortable. I found a place between Rain Man and Speedy, and we spent an hour chatting and joking, listening to the cars race by in the night.
I went to sleep with a full belly and a full heart, and though the three beers I drank would wake me up at several points, it was still one of the better nights sleeps I’d had on the trail to that point.